Lecture 04: Weighing the Discrepancies | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 04: Weighing the Discrepancies

Course: Textual Criticism

Lecture: Weighing the Discrepancies


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.

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