Lecture 03: The Number of Variants | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 03: The Number of Variants

Course: Textual Criticism

Lecture: The Number of Variants


A. The Number of Variants

One pillar of the Christian faith is the sure Word of God about Jesus Christ. We really can’t know him apart from what the New Testament says about him. But God didn’t just drop the Scriptures out of heaven; he didn’t just fax them to us, though we have exactly what he wanted us to hear. Instead, these
manuscripts were hand copies where you had the original texts which were copied by hand from various scribes. And those scribes had their manuscripts copied by others, etc. Our earliest manuscripts were probably not done by professional trained scribes. We will discuss this later when we look at the kinds of the mistakes in the New Testament manuscripts. That really has an impact on the quality of what had been written. They made mistakes, just like we made mistakes today. If you were to copy out the Gospel of Mark by hand, you couldn’t do it without making mistakes. These scribes were often fatigued, careless, and inattentive and sometimes they had poor hearing and at other times some may have had poor eyesight. They could have been looking at manuscripts where the words were smudged or part of the manuscript had flaked off. They could have had sloppy penmanship and sometimes these scribes deliberately changed the text. They would have added a word here or there or on very rare occasions even a whole verse. How and why did they do that will be considered later also. Not only that, but no two manuscripts are exactly alike, and so how do we know that we have the sure Word from God about Jesus Christ? We want to know that the Bible we hold in our hands is what the apostles and their associates wrote back then; prophets and holy men of the Old Testament wrote in their day. We want to know what we have in our hand today is all essential Word of God.

1. The Greek New Testament

The first thing in looking at the textual variances, we want to know how many there are. Let’s begin with the quantity of the variances that we actually have. The Greek New Testament has approximately one hundred and forty thousand words in it. In a sense it depends on which Greek New Testament you are using. Some who want to use the Textus Receptus which stands behind the King James Version has perhaps a hundred and forty-one thousand words while others used the majority text which has about the same number. Most people, most pastors and translators, missionaries, and professors use what is called the Nestle-Aland text of the United Bible Society Greek New Testament. They are identical in their text but a different apparatus. That has one hundred and thirty-eight thousand, one hundred and sixty-two words in it. Among those words in the Greek New Testament, we have approximately four hundred thousand textual variants.

2. Textual Variants

As Bart Ehrman is fond of saying; we have more textual variants than we have words in the New Testament. In fact, that is really an understatement. We have about two and half times as many words in variants as we have in the original of the New Testament. So, on average, it doesn’t really work out this way, for every word we have in the Greek New Testament, you have two and a half variants. The reason that it doesn’t work out that way, you can’t even quantify these by words, sometimes a variant is simply the transposition of three or four words in Greek where the word order is different for a slightly different emphasis, sometimes it is something we can hardly even detect. And so, you can’t relate it to words, but you can relate it to verses. That sounds like a lot of textual variances and this is what you get when you read things like Bart Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ or Muslim literature or atheist’s literature;
you get this idea of a massive amount of variances, but there is more to the story than just that.

3. We have a Lot of Variants because we have a lot of Manuscripts

The reason we have a lot of textual variants is because we have a lot of manuscripts. If we had only one manuscript, it wouldn’t disagree with itself, we would have no variants. But a manuscript that was produced a thousand years after it was written; how certain can I be that this goes back to the original But if I have two manuscripts and I compare the wording, now this wording looks like it came from this one over here. For example, if I see in one manuscript, ‘he told his disciples to do this,’ and in another manuscript it says, ‘the Lord Jesus told his disciples to do this.’ Which one of those is more likely to be the original wording? Well, the one that says ‘he’. Why? Because scribes tended to add material to the text to make it more pious, to make it clearer and if a scribe is looking at two manuscripts, one that says he and the one that says the Lord Jesus, no scribe would cross out the wording of the Lord Jesus and just put the word he there. That is just not likely. So the New Testament text actually grew over time. Over fourteen hundred years of handwritten copies before it got published on a printed press, it grew at a rate of about two percent. Not two percent a year, not a decade or century but two percent over fourteen hundred years. That is how much the text grew, so it didn’t grow a lot, but it did grow some, two percent; that’s remarkable to think about. The New Testament text is so much more conservatively treated than so many other pieces of literature. But once again, if I have two manuscripts and compare them, then I get a sense of understanding and say, okay, between these two variances, I can choose one over the other.

Three hundred years ago, Richard Bentley, a brilliant scholar, light years ahead of his time, wrote a book called, ‘Remarks on a Discourse of Free Thinking’ that dealt with textual variants as proposed by John Mill, who in 1707 spent the entirety of his adult life looking at the textual variants in manuscripts, Greek manuscripts, and early translations of the New Testaments and the writings of church fathers. He wrote a book, two volumes, New Testament listing all of the textual variants that he could find in one hundred Greek manuscripts and these other ancient texts. Two weeks later to the day, he died. So he didn’t have to deal with any of the reviews and criticisms. That is the way to go out, write a phenomenal book and then just leave the scene so you don’t have to deal with anything else. It was up to others to deal with it. So, here was John Mill dealing with textual variants and I mentioned before that Erasmus published the first Greek New Testament in 1516; it went to five editions and there were others. But almost every edition up until the time of Mill and beyond that was basically Erasmus’ text. So, Mill knew about textual variances and said that he was going to list them and see what we actually have. Now, Roman Catholics got a little upset at this and at the same time, somewhat delighted at these textual variants. They said that you reformers (this was when the Reformation had become really popular), you Protestants have a paper pope and he never speaks ex-Cathedral like our pope does. How do you know what he really is saying? You say that your authority is the New Testament, but which New Testament are you talking about? You have thirty thousand variants? That is a lot of variants; how do we know what the original text says? Their reaction was the kind of reaction that the Bart Ehrman’s, the Muslims and Atheists are making about the New Testament. How can we possible tell what the original text says with all these variants?

Keep in mind that these are all the variants that John Mill could find three hundred years ago. Now, it is up to about twelve times that number, four hundred thousand variants with a lot more manuscripts than a hundred. And then conservative Protestants were very upset at Mills as well. Some said that it was the work of the devil. Yeah….it is the work of the devil to do historical investigation to try to test your faith to see if it lines up with the best evidence. Instead, that was the work of a Godly man who was trying to make sure his faith had good grounds. And so Richard Bentley comes along and says, ‘let’s examine these variants and talk about whether this is an evil thing to do or whether it is a helpful thing. He said that if there had been one manuscript of the Greek New Testament then we would not have had any variant reading at all. Would the text have been in a better condition than now when we have thirty thousand variant readings? In other words, should we go back to the Textus Receptus that we had two hundred years ago. Is that the one we should follow?

This is very similar to what King James only people advocate today. When the King James Bible was originally published, it had eight thousand marginal notes. Many of these were saying how the Greek and Hebrew should be read and some of it was talking about textual variants. Now those notes just quietly got removed over the decades and centuries. So King James only advocates say, see, our Bible is perfect and it has no disparity; they knew exactly what the Hebrew and Greek meant. No, that wasn’t the case; these scholars knew that some of the decisions they had made were simply a guess at times. So, Bentley goes on and says that it is good to have more anchors than one with another manuscript along with the first would give more authority as well as security. The fundamental way in which textual critics try to do their job is that they compare the external evidence: the manuscripts, the versions, the quotations of the church fathers with the question in mind of choosing the reading that best explains, compared to the others. Which variant explains the other variants? Do these other variants come from that one? This is the way we can establish what the original texts almost surely says, especially when we go back to earlier manuscript versions. So this was what Bentley was saying; that means today with four hundred thousand variants we should be even closer to establishing the New Testament text. The vast majority of textual scholars today would say that we are; we are much closer to what the wording of the original text is.

4. An Embarrassment of Riches

What we are facing when it comes to New Testament criticism is an embarrassment of Riches. For classical text they are facing dearth of evidence; they are embarrassed by how little they have to deal with. We have 5,824 Greek manuscripts that are known to exist today. We will compare this to some classical authors in a few minutes. We have over 10,000 Latin manuscripts; we don’t know the exact number. These are Latin hand written copies of the New Testament or portions of the New Testament. And the average size of these manuscripts is over four hundred and fifty pages. So it is quite a bit of text; these are not little fragments and scraps of paper. We also have other ancient versions and translations. Coptic is an ancient language used by Egyptian Orthodox Christian which the New Testament was translated into. Syriac, the language of Christians in Northern Syria, with both of these beginning in the 3rd century had hundreds and hundreds of copies of each language of the New Testament; we also have it in Georgian and Gothic, Arminian, and Arabic. We have manuscripts even in Hebrew and Aramaic and Old Church Slavonic language in a number of ancient versions. The best guess, we have at least a minimum of five thousand manuscripts in these other ancient versions and as many as ten thousand. When I say the best guess, we really haven’t done all the research on this that we need to do. I am saying that this is a conservative number. Virtually every place I go to photograph manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and I do go all over the world to do this; I find especially Coptic manuscripts of the New Testament. Some places they have far more Coptic New Testament manuscripts than they have Greek. And yet, our research on the Coptic text shows perhaps 1500 Coptic New Testament manuscripts. I think probably I have seen five hundred of them myself. I haven’t seen all fifty-eight hundred Greek New Testament manuscripts. I think there is a good three or four thousand copies, at least, of the Coptic New Testament. This is a conservative number that I have used in debates and nobody has disputed it. This is the same with Latin and the same with the Greek New Testament manuscripts. That gives us somewhere between twenty and twenty-five thousand copies of the New Testament in the various languages in handwritten manuscripts and this is a conservative figure.

Now, if you could delete all of these manuscripts, for example, we would still not be left without a witness. That is because we have quotations from the New Testament by the church fathers; the bishops and presbyters and elders and pastors and priests who wrote their commentaries or their homilies or did theological treatises that they put into writing. We have some from the 1st century; Clement and D’Arcy and all the way up to the 13th century. These writers did not have the gift of brevity, they would do a commentary and have one verse and go on for about two pages just commenting on that verse. So, they quoted from the text and then we have a very high degree of certainty that was the word that church father had in front of them when he wrote that. So, if we were to destroy all the manuscripts, we would still have the quotations of the New Testament in the writings of the church fathers. A place in Boron, Germany has a converted monastery where they have been spending decades trying to read the church fathers to see what parts of the New Testament they are quoting from. A few years back they came up with more than a million quotations from the New Testament. Now in our standard critical text of the Greek New Testament, there are 7,941 verses. So they have more than a million quotations; this could even be parts of a verse. However, usually it is about a verse and a lot of them are quoted many times over. I am quite sure that we could produce the New Testament from the writings of the church fathers alone. Perhaps we could produce it many times over, but I am not going to quantify this.

5. The New Testament Compared to the Average Classical Work

The average classical Greek writer have less the twenty copies of their works still in existence, but frequently there is only one or two copies so the idea of twenty copies is a very high number. Now when it comes to these classical Greek and Latin authors; let’s say we have half a dozen manuscripts and you will read a critical introduction to one of authors where the scholar will say, ‘well, we have these six manuscripts, we know that they all go back to these two manuscripts so we can ignore these other four. Or, they will say that they know where they come from but when it comes to the New Testament, there are about six manuscripts that we can actually say that. That is, these manuscripts we know are exact copies or immediate copies of these manuscripts. We can’t say that for others though. So what does that tell us? It tells us that there were so many copies the New Testament that we can’t even find any close links because most of them have disappeared, at least ninety percent of our New Testament manuscripts are gone because we have such an enormous amount. The numbers of these classical copies, if stacked up, would be about four feet high. For the New Testament manuscripts compared to the number of classical manuscripts would be over a mile high or 1.2 kilometers. When you talk to classical scholars and ask what manuscripts they are working with; almost always, they say there are at most nine hundred years removed from the original author.

6. Greco-Roman Authors and their earliest known Manuscript

The authors were historians and biographers of the Greco-Roman era. The first being Pliny the Elder, a very important historian, contemporary with the New Testament. We have two hundred copies of Pliny’s writings which is an enormous amount for a classical author. But seven hundred years separate Pliny and the first manuscript copy that we have. The next is Plutarch which was eight hundred years between him and the first manuscript of his writings. And of course there is Josephus with his Antiquities of the Jews, a really crucial volume of work where we actually read about Jesus and also John the Baptist and James, the brother of Jesus. We have twenty manuscripts of the Antiquities of the Jews. Why so many? Christians liked what he said so they copied it, but none of them are earlier than the 9th century. Then there is Polybius where the earliest copy of his writings is separated by twelve hundred years. We have Pausanias. He wrote a geography of Greece. This contains massive gaps in his writing where our earliest manuscripts are fourteen hundred years after he wrote them. Now, what would happen if the earliest copy of the New Testament came at the time Columbus sailed to the Americas? So, for the classical texts, this is the kind of reality we are dealing with. We have no idea with any of these classical scholars whether these manuscripts go back to the original or not. Interestingly, people are not as radically skeptical about these classical manuscripts as they are about the New Testament and these people have never done this kind of comparison. Herodotus was considered to be one of the two ancient authorities on historiography. He is a father of history in terms of the method of how to write history. We have twenty-six copies of his history volumes but the first substantial one comes only fifteen hundred years after he wrote it. And finally there is Xenophon’s Hellenica where the first substantial copies come eighteen hundred years after the time that he wrote. This is around the time the Wright brothers flew their airplane in America. The reality is we have on average, more than a thousand times as many manuscripts for the New Testament as the classical scholar has for the average classical author.

7. Compared to the Date of the New Testament Manuscripts

If our earliest New Testament manuscripts come from a thousand years later, then we will have the same trouble as the classical writers. So look at the discovery of manuscript P52, for example, a fragment found in 1934. This manuscript is considered to be the oldest manuscript of the New Testament. It is a small fragment with parts of John 18 with about half a dozen verses. This manuscript is dated to the first half of the 2nd century, AD 100-150. So it is written within decades of when John wrote the Gospel. Most scholars date John in the 90’s. I think it is earlier than that, but if it is in the 90’s, it might be within just a few years. Some scholars have actually dated this manuscript in the 90’s and his closest parallel to this in terms of the dating would be AD 94. That is very early. We have a number of these early manuscripts. We have these massive manuscripts along with fragments within a hundred and twenty-five years of the completion of the New Testament. In the papyri that we now have, there are more than forty-three percent of all the verses that are found in these papyri, not necessarily whole verses but parts of those verses.

8. New Testament verses Classical Literature

More than forty-three percent of all New Testament verses are found in papyri within a hundred and twenty-five years of the completion of the New Testament. Within a hundred and twenty-five years of all classical literature, there are no documents available. There are three times more New Testament manuscripts within the first two hundred years of its copying than the average Greco-Roman author has in two thousand years. From one hundred to nine hundred, we have by the time we get to AD 900 or CE, we have over five hundred manuscripts of the New Testament in existence. Within AD 100 to 200, we have as many as a dozen within a century of the completion of the New Testament. Within two hundred and fifty years, we have a complete New Testament within a single manuscript, plus the whole New Testament multiplied a few times over.

9. New Testament Manuscripts then and now

New Testaments Manuscripts of the year 1611 compared to 2013 represents seven manuscripts from the 11th century compared to five thousand eight hundred manuscripts going all the way back to the 2nd century. As a matter of fact, we have almost a thousand times as many manuscripts as the King James translators used and the earliest of them go back almost a thousand years.

10. The Bottom Line, to Summarize

As time goes on, we are getting closer and closer to the original text.

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