Lecture 27: Why do we have so many variants?

Course: Why We Trust Our Bible

Lecture: Why do we have so many variants?


I. How many variants are there?

Let me start with the ‘why we have these variants’ first and then I will talk about the how many. So why do we have so many variants? Richard Bentley in 1713 wrote a book called, ‘Remarks About a Discourse on Free Thinking.’ I have already mentioned John Mills Greek New Testament where he produced thirty thousand textual variances. And Bentley was really the first to defend this and what he said, ‘if there had been but one manuscript to the Greek New Testament about two centuries back. He is talking about when Erasmus did his Greek New Testament based on eight manuscripts, then we would have had no variant readings at all. And would the text be in a better condition than it is now where we have thirty thousand variants? It is therefore better, to have more anchors than just one and another manuscript to join the first would give more authority as well as security. What Bentley was saying, was that the more variants we have, the more it helps us to establish the original text. And if you had only one manuscript, there would be no variants at all. It doesn’t disagree with itself, but as soon as you have two, they have differences and with three manuscripts, you have more and more differences. And consequently, we have so many manuscripts of the New Testaments that it strips out anything else of the Greco-Ancient world and that is why we have so many variants.

For the Greek manuscripts, we have approximately five thousand, eight hundred of them. And they average in size of four hundred and fifty pages plus. That is the average Greek New Testament manuscript. That is an embarrassment of riches. We have over ten thousand manuscripts in Latin, which was the first language the New Testament was translated into. We have languages like Coptic and Syriac and Entoptic and Georgian and Gothic and Old Church Servonic, Armenian, Arabic and Hebrew. The New Testament was translated into so many languages; it spread like wildfire throughout the ancient world. Conservatively, we have between five and ten thousand manuscripts in those various languages, not counting Latin. So when you look at Greek and the number of witnesses, there are about twenty to twenty-five thousand manuscripts, conservatively speaking. If you could destroy all of those at one time, we would still not be left without a witness; and that is because of the quotations from the New Testament by the Church Fathers. From the late 1st century through the 13th, they have been cataloged and we still have a long way to go in those later centuries, but we have well over a million quotations from the New Testament of the Church Fathers that have been found in both Latin and Greek. You could virtually reconstruct the entire New Testament many times over just from the quotations of the Church Fathers. So, with all of these manuscripts and versions and quotations, we have a lot of variants.

The latest estimates, just on the basis of the Greek manuscripts alone, show over half a million textual variants and that is not even counting the nonsense readings that we have. You count a variant, not by how many manuscripts agree with the wording but just the differences in wording. So, for example, if I
have five hundred manuscripts on one side that say ‘Lord’ and then five hundred manuscripts that say ‘Jesus’, that is one variant from a base text. So five hundred thousand sounds like a lot, but in most places, it is going to be a single manuscript that gets discounted or a few late manuscripts or spelling differences. It is just incredible to know how many variants you can have without affecting anything. The real question is the significance of these numbers.

II. How significant is the bulk of the variants?

My estimates, among the Greek manuscripts, less than one-tenth of one percent of all textual variants are both meaningful and viable; that is, they change the meaning of the text to some degree that could possibly go back to the original. But how meaningful are they? There is not a single essential doctrine of the Christian faith that is jeopardized by any textual variance. Let me tell you who said that; Bart Ehrman. In his book, ‘Misquoting Jesus,’ the paperback version, page 252 that came out in the summer of 2006, Bart Ehrman wrote this. The publishers ask him the question, why do you disagree with your mentor, Bruce Metsker on how cardinal doctrines were changed. No, they are not, but on radio shows, on TV and in Newspapers, the whole thrust of his book is about how the Orthodox scribes changed the theology of the New Testament. But when it came down to that specific question, he had to say that doctrines really weren’t changed. Bart Ehrman said at one point that if he and Bruce Metsker were locked in a room and could not come out of that room until they decided what the Greek New Testament originally said, it really wouldn’t take that long for them to get done because they disagree in no more than about two dozen places. What Ehrman has done, he has put an interpretative spin on these variants, but where he and I would disagree would perhaps be about fifty places or more. So the text of the New Testament, most textual critics would say that they are confident on well over ninety-nine percent of it in counting all of the variants. But there are places that we are not sure about; for example, I don’t know whether the number of the beast is 666 or 616, as I have already explained. There are a number of other places where I am not sure, but there is no essential doctrine that is affected.

III. How good of a job has textual criticism done?

Do we rest our assured faith on the results of textual criticism? No, we rest our Christian faith on the Bible’s witness to Christ, no matter what manuscripts you have; they all affirm his death, his bodily resurrection, his deity, his miracles and his atonement for our sins. That is where our faith is and even if these manuscripts were not considered Scripture; they would still have a great deal of historical authenticity. Even B.B.Warfield argued that, even if the New Testament wasn’t considered Scripture, anybody could get saved by reading it. Whether textual critics have got it right or wrong, say, if they are wrong about everything and the King James Bible had it right. The West Minister Confession was written about that time and it hasn’t changed since then. It was based on the King James Bible, essentially. The Presbyterian Church believes today, even though they are following modern translations, that no cardinal doctrine, not even any of the minor doctrines is affected. D.A. Carson says that there is no doctrine of any sort or as a matter of practice for the Christian, jeopardized by any textual variance. I think that is a bit of an overstatement but it is in the right tract. The Center of the Study of New Testament Manuscripts of CSNTM, an institute that I founded in 2002; you can remember those letters by CS as in C. S. Lewis. We originally started as a non-profit institute that has an initial goal to digitalize every single Greek New Testament manuscript and then post the images online, if we were permitted to do so. We have been to more than forty sites throughout the world. We have photographed almost half a million pages of manuscripts. We use state of the art equipment. And we are making accessible manuscripts that for many whom prior had to go to Germany to look at poor quality microfilms. Even the institute in Minster, Germany has been publishing the standard Greek New Testament for fifty years, now relies on our images for their future work.

IV. How would you summarize the results of textual criticism?

So that is our initial goal, to get these manuscripts published. We just finished a two-year project at the National Library of Greek in Athens where we signed a contract with them at their request to digitalize their three hundred Greek New Testament manuscripts. There were more than one hundred and fifty thousand pages of manuscripts with one image taking more than three hundred megabytes in a Tif image. These are just incredible photographs and they are at least a hundred times better than microfilms. You can read the details of anything on these manuscripts. Seeing those details helps you in dating those manuscripts, in what century it was written in. Our ultimate goal is to use these digital images in cooperation with other institutes to arrive at a more certain understanding of what the original text of the New Testament said. And that is what we are driving toward and we are developing software that will eventually help us to mechanically read the text. If one person could read all the manuscripts and transcript what they said, it would take four hundred years. Our new software decreases that down to one person in ten years. That would give us a one hundred percent database for all the Greek New Testament manuscripts of what every one of them says in every single place where you could start cross-referencing them and see the family relationships are of which we have been able to detect as well before.

V. Share with us your work at CSNTM.org

It is an exciting project; ultimately CSNTM is starting to stand at the head of all future translations of the New Testament because we can feed these images to minister to anybody else, such as Tyndale House, Cambridge and others that are producing their own Greek New Testaments, and they rely on our images to find out what those manuscripts have to say. This is very exciting for us at CSNTM. We are a tiny institute but have an international work where Bibles will essential be based on these images. We continue to go to sites all over the world; the manuscripts have more than two hundred and fifty sites in the world. We have the people and training, but we need to raise money to go to these sites. We have the technology. We have discovered more than ninety Greek New Testaments manuscripts since our foundation begin in 2002. That is more than all the institutes in the world combined have discovered in the same period of time. It is not only exciting but very helpful for the church.

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