Textual Criticism - Lesson 4

Weighing the Discrepancies

The vast majority of NT Variants are minor, easily explained scribal errors that don’t affect the meaning of the text. Among 400,000 textual variants of the NT, over 99% make no difference to the meaning, and less than 1% are both meaningful and viable.

Daniel Wallace
Textual Criticism
Lesson 4
Watching Now
Weighing the Discrepancies


A. Four groupings

B. Over 99% of all variants fall into the first three categories


A. Differences in Spelling

1. Most common (over 70%)

2. Movable nu

3. Spelling of John’s name

B. Differences in Word Order

C. Differences in use of the Definite Article (“the”) with a proper name

D. Example of “John loves Mary” (384x)


A. Easy to detect, especially the unintentional mistakes made by early scribes

B. Examples

1. 1 Thessalonians 2:7

2. John 1:30


Skipped discussion


A. Smallest group of variants and less than 1% of all textual variants

B. Romans 8:2

C. Philippians 1:14


A. Among the 400,000 textual variants in NT MSS and over 99% make virtually no difference at all

B. Less than 1% are both meaningful and viable (about one-fourth of one percent)

C. How meaningful are they?

  • Since the original autographs of the Bible no longer exist, the primary goal of Biblical Textual Criticism is to determine the exact wording of the original inspired text dispatched from the author with as much accuracy as possible. As a secondary goal, we desire to trace changes to the text and get a window into ancient Christianity.

  • Contrary to popular textual critics, the wrong way to record textual variants is to count each unique variant and multiply by the number of existing manuscripts, rendering millions of variants. On the contrary, the correct method is to count the same variant that occurs across all manuscripts as one variant, rendering not millions but hundreds of thousands of predominantly minor variants.

  • Compared to other ancient literature, the field of Biblical textual criticism possesses “an embarrassment of riches.” New Testament TC absolutely dwarfs the resources of other ancient literature, not only in number of manuscripts and the recent time in which they were produced, but also confirming quotations by extra-biblical writings.

  • The vast majority of NT Variants are minor, easily explained scribal errors that don’t affect the meaning of the text. Among 400,000 textual variants of the NT, over 99% make no difference to the meaning, and less than 1% are both meaningful and viable.

  • Recent attempts to change the goals of NTTC such that critics no longer seek to obtain the original autographs in favor of understanding a writer’s historical contexts undermine the original goal of NTTC. However, faithful textual critics must not subscribe to the notion of a “multivalence” of the original text, but instead pursue the primary goal: to get as close as possible to the original autographs.

  • The vast majority of all copies of the New Testament were probably recorded on scrolls, but copied in codex format. This may lend to the theory that Christians used cutting-edge, easier-to-use media technologies to further the word-based faith.

  • Various materials were used in creating NT manuscripts. Wallace discusses papyrus, parchments, and paper, each with advantages and disadvantages for transmitting the text faithfully.

  • There are three fundamental issues that significantly affect the transmission of the NT Text: early copies and causes of corruption, the role of canon in shaping the text, and the emergence of localized text forms.

  • Because of the radical nature of Christianity, it took some time for OT-based Jews to accept the NT as canonical. But over time, coinciding with the progressive development of a certain “canon-consciousness,” scribes were compelled to modify texts in various ways, not for malicious reasons, but in efforts to clarify, preserve, and revere the sacred scriptures.

  • Although questioned by some critics, most TCs acknowledge four major localized forms of the NT text: Alexandrian, Western, Byzantine, and (questionably) Caesarian. These “cross-pollinated” text families have arisen from diverse historical, cultural and socio-political factors, but all serve to strengthen, and not weaken the integrity of the NT text.

  • While it is undeniable that NT scribes made mistakes of various types in copying the inspired text, understanding the often simple reason for these mistakes renders much reward in understanding the sacred text. The fundamental principle of textual criticism is this: select the reading that best explains the rise of the other readings.

  • Contrary to popular belief, intentional scribal changes were not malicious in nature, but rather displayed pious intentions and a high view of scripture. Scribal corruptions for the most part, did not reflect a desire to obfuscate, but to clarify the scripture.

  • This lecture introduces papyri, critically important as the earliest witnesses of New Testament text. Papyri are some of the most important documents of NT MSS.

  • Since papyri are the earliest records of NT text (containing 50% of NT) they are critical in revealing the original text shape of the NT text. Even Codex Sinaticus and Vaticanus, the two most important NT MSS in the world, are confirmed by Papyri.

  • This lecture describes the most important new Testament manuscripts: the Majuscules, formerly known as uncials. These documents contain the full text of the NT written many times over, on parchment, written in all caps.

  • This lecture continues the discussion about the most important New Testament manuscripts: the Majuscules, formerly known as uncials. This lecture describes Codex Alexandrinus - A, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus - C, Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph), and Codex Washingtonianus - W - 1906.

  • Since the field of TC is so small, obtaining resources are very expensive. However the internet is still a great place to conduct free TC research. In this lecture, major internet resources for studying NT manuscripts are compared and contrasted.

  • Founded 2002 by Daniel Wallace, the mission of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) is to be a premiere resource in the great and noble task of determining the wording of the autographa of the New Testament. This is facilitated through high-resolution digital photography of extant Greek New Testament manuscripts so that such images can be preserved, duplicated without deterioration, and accessed by scholars doing textual research.

  • The KJV has been rightfully called “the single greatest monument to the English language,” but this is more from a literary rather than a translation standpoint. This is because the Greek MSS behind the KJV text is far inferior to that of modern translations in terms of textual basis, late MSS dates, and a less than perfect process of creation.

  • The arguments used to position the Textus Receptus as the sole textual basis for the true word of God range from questionable to downright irrational. Proponents of this position rely on view of the so-called “doctrine of preservation,” which illegitimately uses certain Bible texts to argue its dubious claims.

  • This lecture describes the major problems of TR-only people, who subscribe to an unbiblical Doctrine of Preservation, which as defined, effectively emerges as a Marcionite view of the Bible. Wallace claims that while there is no biblical, exegetical, or empirical basis to argue for the doctrine of preservation, God has overwhelmingly preserved Scripture in a way that is not true of any other ancient literature.

  • In this lecture, Daniel Wallace describes the discovery of Sinaiaticus, and its importance to the field of textual criticism. He recounts fascinating details about his visits to St. Catherine’s, the oldest Christian monastery, at the base of Mount Sinai, Egypt.

  • This lecture summarizes the life of Constantine von Tischendorf [1815-1874], and his very important discovery of Codex Sinaiticus.

  • This lecture describes highlights of the history of NT TC since the TR. Describing the formation of the textus receptus, Wallace also characterizes major players in the process of arriving at the modern text.

  • This lecture describes Westcott and Hort, and how they dethroned the Textus Receptus by proving that the Textus Receptus was late, inferior, and secondary.

  • This lecture is 1 of 3 lectures on reasoned eclecticism. Eclecticism is the process of compiling a text from multiple sources, while reasoned eclecticism consists of rectifying the differences and evaluating variants based on both their attestation and intrinsic merit.

  • This lecture is 2 of 3 lectures on reasoned eclecticism.

  • This lecture illustrates the principles of reasoned eclecticism.

  • Was Jesus "moved with compassion" or "indignant" when he saw that his disciples could not heal the man with leprosy?

  • Why was the man waiting for so many years at the pool of Bethesda? Was there really an angel stirring up the waters and healing the first one in?

  • Do these two passages call Jesus “God”? Thankfully, the Bible affirms the divinity of Christ many other ways and in many other passages than these two.

  • This lecture presents some very technical arguments for why Daniel Wallace believes that the phrase “ουδεουιός” (nor the Son) is not an authentic part of Matthew 24:36.

  • This lesson teaches you to appreciate the rigorous historical research required in biblical studies and the importance of respecting dual authorship. It sharpens your understanding of external and internal textual evidence and their implications for a passage's authenticity.
  • The text of Mark 16:9-20 is most likely not part of the original inspired text of scripture, and v 8 is Mark's intended ending.

  • This lecture evaluates popular translations of the Bible in terms of their textual basis. The bottom line is that while all translations are interpretations, The Spirit of God has ensured that the truth of the scriptures can be found in any one of them, and reading widely among different versions is good to promote understanding about different concerns of TC.

  • As time progresses in the field of Textual Criticism, we continue to get razor-thin closer to the original manuscripts. The good news is that with all the known variants, no essential doctrine of the Christian faith is jeopardized by any viable variant, so we can have great confidence in the text of our Bibles to provide us all we need for life and godliness.

Dr. Daniel Wallace is one of the world's leading textual critics. His ministry, the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM.org) is currently the most prolific organization for discovering, photographing, and cataloging ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. In this class, he discusses the issues of textual variants, how ancient manuscripts were made, the types of errors that we can see in the manuscripts, the issue of the Textus Receptus and its role in the King James translation of the Bible, the historic work of Westcott and Hort, and ends with discussions of the most famous textual problems.

Dr. Wallace gives a three hour summary of this class in our Academy program. The first of the lectures is here.

Please visit Dr. Wallace's ministry, Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and support them financially. 

Thank you to our friends at Credo House for sharing this class with us. You can purchase their workbook or the DVDs for the class from them.



A. The Nature of Variants (Weighing Discrepancies)

1. Groups of Textual Variants

It is not just the number of textual variants that count; it is also the nature of the variants. In fact, this is a far more important issue. So, we are going to look at the nature of textual variants. There are four groups of textual variants and all of them can be grouped in a number of different ways. They can be grouped as to whether they are intentional or unintentional. We will look at this later on. For this lecture, we will group them in terms of meaningfulness and viability. If a textual variant is meaningful, it changes the meaning of the text to some degree, but it is subjective all in regards to how much it changes the meaning. I have already used an illustration in a text from John in regards to whether it was ‘he’ or ‘the Lord’. You may think that doesn’t change the meaning of the text; actually it does. If it is ‘the Lord’, it would be the only place where John calls Jesus, ‘the Lord’, before his resurrection or after the resurrection, so did he write ‘Jesus’ or did he write ‘the Lord’? What it affects is how we expound on that passage. It doesn’t affect who Jesus is. So, the meaningful and viable has the sufficient pedigree to potentially represent the wording of the original. In other words, it can be found in one very ancient
manuscript which is important or can be found in a group of manuscripts that have a good possibility of going back to the original or the church fathers. But if you were reading one textual variant that was found in one 14th century Greek manuscript and nobody has that wording of anything close to, generally speaking you would say that there is no way that this scribe got it right and everybody else got it wrong.

2. The Four Groupings of Textual Variants

There are variants that are viable but not meaningful; there are variants that are neither meaningful nor viable, plus variants that are meaningful but not viable and finally variants that are meaningful and viable. When I say viable but not meaningful, we are dealing with spelling differences, transpositions, word order and whether it affects the meaning or not? We would say those are viable but not meaningful. The first three groups: not meaningful, not viable, or both. More than 99% of all textual variants fit this category.

3. Viable but not Meaningful Variants

Here are some illustrations of viable but not meaningful variants to begin with. There are differences in spelling; this is the most common textual variant we have among our manuscripts. Over 70% of our textual variants are simply differences in spelling. But I want to stress that for purposes of historical research and evangelicals who believe in verbal inspiration; it is important for us to get back to the original wording as much as possible. But does this affect our theology or our exergies, does it affect our faith, if we can’t get back to it on the basic spellings. No, it doesn’t! The most common kind of textual variant that we have is what is call the ‘movable nu.’ That is when you have ‘n’ at the end of a word. Greek does this similarly to how English does it. We will use the indefinite article ‘a’ or ‘an’, so a book or an apple. Greek does this on certain kinds of words that can end in a ‘nu’ if the next word starts with a vowel. So it is a ‘movable nu.’ Another illustration is the name for John in Greek, Ioanes or Ioannes, two ‘n’s’ or one ‘n’. Every time we see the name ‘John’ in the Greek New Testament, some manuscripts spell it with one ‘n’ and some spell it with two ‘n’s’. There are also word order differences. Greek is a highly inflected language where word order is irrelevant. Because of this, you can put ‘Jesus loves Paul’ in any order you want: Jesus Paul loves, Paul Jesus loves or Paul loves Jesus or even loves Paul Jesus and a Greek would read it only one way: Jesus loves Paul. That is because of the ending on the words that tells whether it is a subject or object where the verb will be the same each time, 3rd person singular. But the word order differences in Greek; it is because of it being highly inflected; there are literally hundreds of forms for each verb in the Greek New Testament. Because of its highly inflected nature, you can put words in a number of different ways without affecting the essential meaning. It affects the emphasis to some degree but even there, we are not exactly sure of. There are still questions about what the emphasis in Greek is.

Proper names also have an issue in Greek. In Greek, we use the article with the proper name at times, like in Luke 3, it will say, ‘the Josephus and the Mary went looking for the Jesus.’ It will never be translated like that and we are not exactly sure why the article is used like this; sometimes it is and at other times it’s not. I did my Master’s thesis, spending over twelve hundred hours of research on it; on when the article doesn’t occur in Greek. I did my doctoral dissertation on when it does occur in Greek. The article ‘the’ occurs twenty thousand times in the Greek New Testament. One out of seven words is the word ‘the’. It is the most common word by a factor of two compared to the most common. I still don’t know why it is used with proper names and there are some theories as to why. But we are not sure even what it is saying when it is used that way. But you could say, ‘the Joseph and the Mary were looking for the Jesus, Joseph and Mary were looking for the Jesus, Joseph and the Mary were looking for Jesus; so it can go in any direction. So, we have word order and spelling and where the article appears. This is a hypothetical example, so how many ways could one say that John loves Mary in Greek? If you were a Greek student and you had enough Greek to make yourself very dangerous, you could write all these words out. You can write it out these eight different ways but you could say this in another eight ways and then we could spell the word John differently. These are word order differences along with the article. There are even different spellings for Mary in the New Testament. There are sixty-four ways in which we could say that John loves Mary in Greek and there are absolutely very little differences between those ways. But there is more; if we add conjunctions that are often untranslated, like the conjunction ‘min’ which can mean on the one hand, indeed or don’t translate this because of it being such a weak value. So ‘min’ is one conjunction and another is ‘de’, neither of which gets translated. There is another conjunction ‘te ’which often means ‘and’ and it is weakened so much that it isn’t translated at all. These three words, de, min, and te are considered post positives, if they can’t stand first in the sentence, I would put them second in the sentence. But they could stand in the third, fourth or fifth in the sentence. So, you can actually say ‘John loves Greek’ in well over a thousand different ways.

Now, there are four hundred thousand textual variants among our manuscripts; one hundred and forty thousand words in the original Greek New testament; an average of two and half variants for every word. In light of what I have just shown you, does that sound like a lot? Bart Ehrman says in his book Misquoting Jesus, one of the most flabbergasting statements of the whole book, ‘we could go on forever taking about specific places where the text of the New Testament came to be changed. The examples are not merely in the hundreds but in the thousands. He is quite right but it would be boring because we would be talking about the kind of variants I just showed you. The vast majority of these, over 99% affect nothing. We could go on nearly forever; it is a true statement but it is irrelevant and implicitly deceptive. Because the reader gets the sense that there are thousands of variants that are significant; that are meaning and viable. And yet, not even the most anal textual critic wants to talk about all these variants. So, if we can say, ‘John loves Mary over a thousand ways in Greek without substantially changing the meaning. In fact, the change would be so minimal, it can’t be translated. It may be a slight difference in emphasis. So the number of textual variants for the New Testament is meaningless. I don’t care if we got four hundred thousand or four hundred million textual variants. What counts is the nature of those variants. And Bart Ehrman refuses to make that link. When he talks about the number of variants, that is the bombshell he likes to drop; there are hundreds of thousands of textual variants and then you get this cheap response of Bart Ehrman. Tens of thousands of kids that have come from Christian homes, going off to college have been influenced by writings like this; not just by Bart Ehrman but by Muslims and atheists and others who have used his writings. Many just abandon the faith because of this in order not to appear irrational and stupid. Never be afraid to look at the evidence.

4. Meaningful but not Viable

They have a poor chance of being authentic. I am going to give you one that would be meaningful in one way. Bart Ehrman says that are early manuscripts in a second debate I had with him at Southern Methodist University in 2011. He said our earliest manuscripts are ones that were done by unprofessional scribes that were not professionally trained. They made all sorts of mistakes. Those scribes made far more mistakes than in the later manuscripts which were done by Professionals. So what he is really trying to say is, therefore we can’t get back to the original text. But when you actually look at those early manuscripts, what kinds of mistakes do you normally see? It is like spelling the word ‘union’ in the Constitution of the United States, to spell it onion instead, for example. Simply, the mistake in such a variant would be union and anyone would know that. These mistakes are unintentionally made by scribes and even if it ends up with a meaning with an actual word, those are the ones that are the easiest to detect. And what Ehrman doesn’t tell you, is that the early scribes for the most part and vastly greater made these changes that are easy to detect.

Another illustration is in 1st Thessalonians 2:7 where Paul says, ‘although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ; instead we became little children/gentle among you…,’ Now, little children is the word nepioi vs epioi. These two words in Greek have a single letter that is different. In fact, the word that Paul uses before this ends in a ‘nu’. We became and so he is reading this text to his secretary and he says the word and the secretary wonders what he said exactly. Paul would have corrected it before it went out because he signs his name at the end of the document. But both of them are viable reading, but there is one late manuscript that it’s meaningful in one sense but it is actually a fairly funny reading. It is a real word that the scribe comes up with, but it isn’t going to work in this context; it read hippoi instead of nepioi or epioi or translated: horses. So, it reads, ‘we became horses among you.’ An illustration just for Greek students in in John 1:30 where it reads, ‘after me comes a man’ is what John the Baptist says. The Greek for man is aner. Then in Codex L, an 8th-century manuscript where it read ‘aer’ instead of ‘aner’ which is translated, ‘after me comes air.’ Codex L makes the mistakes like this.

5. Meaningful and viable (good chance of being authentic)

This represents the smallest group of variants with less than one percent. They have a good chance of being authentic and they affect the meaning of the text. In fact, it is approximately one-fourth of one percent in my estimates. The number of these kinds of variants looks like a dot compared to anything else. Two other examples include Romans 8:2 and Philippians 1:14. Romans 8:2 reads ‘for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.’ Most manuscripts read ‘me’ instead of ‘you’ and some have ‘us’ instead of ‘you’. So this is a meaningful and viable variant. Did Paul say ‘you’ or ‘me’ or ‘us’? The pronoun ‘us’ is surely not authentic but otherwise scholars really struggle with this one. So, we are not exactly sure what Paul says here. I think it is ‘you’ but others think it to be ‘me’. The difference between the two is a single letter, ‘me’ or ‘se’. We have another in Philippians 1:14 where it reads, ‘and most of the brothers and sisters….now more than ever dare to speak the word fearlessly.’ Several manuscripts add ‘of God’ after ‘the word’ while others add, ‘of the Lord’ after ‘the word.’ Interestingly, those that have ‘of God’ are considered to be the best manuscripts. These are the Alexandrian manuscripts. Those that add ‘of the Lord’ are western manuscripts which are earlier than the ones that don’t have either one. We will talk about the most important textual variant later on.

6. To Sum Up

Among the four hundred thousand textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts, over 99% make virtually no difference at all. Less than one percent is both meaningful and viable. How meaningful are these will be dealt with later. The vast majority of the variants cannot even be translated.