Archive for September, 2011

I will not be doing any posts for a couple of weeks. I am preparing to publish a novel for the Kindle. I have started my final editing, and I am anxious to get it finished. I hope everyone understands. I will let you know when it is ready.

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If you read the post last week, what did you think when I made the statement that there may be as many as 400,000 textual variants among the manuscripts of the New Testament? That certainly sounds as if it were an astounding number. Why should that be, and how can I wrap my head around that and still retain any confidence in the text of the New Testament as we have it? Today I want to address those questions.

Let me take a moment to make sure we understand some terminology. When we use the word “manuscript” in New Testament studies we are speaking of a portion of the New Testament copied by hand in Greek. When we speak of hand copied portions of the New Testament in other languages (such as Latin, Coptic, or even English), we use the word “version.” It is during the period of hand copies that variations occur. With the advent of the printing press, the text (in whatever language) becomes standardized, because once it is set in type, there are no variations.

With that background, let’s get back to the issue at hand. The reason we have so many textual variations among the manuscripts is very simple; we have so many manuscripts available to us. The latest figures I have been able to obtain are that we have approximately 5,700 manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek. No other writing from the ancient world even comes close to this number. Comparisons to other ancient writings have been done, and I will provide that if anyone is interested, but the reality is that we are inundated with manuscripts of the books of the New Testament.

If we wanted to use a mathematical perspective, we could look at the situation this way. If there are 400,000 variants among 5,700 manuscripts, that gives an average of 70 variants per manuscript. Now, we need to understand that this is not a realistic number, because not all of the manuscripts are of the complete New Testament. This is especially true of the oldest manuscripts. For instance, p52, which we looked at in an earlier post, consisted of only a few verses. Even some of the more complete earlier manuscripts never included the entire New Testament; instead they might be collections of the gospels, the letters of Paul, etc. They might even be only one book of the New Testament. It is only when we get to the fourth century that we find complete New Testaments. Obviously, there are a great many more variants in a manuscript of the complete New Testament than we would find in a manuscript of the gospels, or the book of Acts. We need to keep things in perspective.

As I mentioned last week, the vast majority of variants are insignificant, having to do with spelling variations, word order, etc. Part of this has to do with the nature of the Greek language. Compared to English, Geek is a highly inflected language, which means that it can say more with fewer words. The New Testament in English (depending on the translation) contains an average of 250,000 words; whereas the Greek New Testament has approximately 140,000 words. Just one example of the reason for that can be seen in the title of this blog, “It is Written.” That is three words in English; in Greek, it would be one word. Greek also has different ways of saying exactly the same thing. Daniel Wallace, Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, has pointed out that in Greek there are at least sixteen different ways to write the sentence which would in English always be translated as, “Jesus loves Paul.” This characteristic is true throughout the Greek language and can be seen numerous times in the New Testament, so that what appear to be huge numbers of variations wind up not really being variations in any meaningful sense, simply a different way of writing exactly the same thing in Greek.

We also need to understand that having so many manuscripts actually helps us be more certain of the text of the New Testament. If we only had three or four fairly late manuscripts of the New Testament, even if those manuscripts agreed for the most part, how confident could we be of the accuracy of the text? Instead we have thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament, some of them going back to within a few decades of the original writings.

The bottom line is this. Don’t get caught up in the 400,000 errors scare tactic. Properly understood, what we find in the New Testament manuscripts is precisely what we should expect to find in terms of variants, and the large number should give us more confidence that the text we have is an accurate copy of what was originally written.

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Have you ever heard a statement like the one above? What would you think if I were to tell you that statement is probably true? Does that disturb you? Does it shake your faith in the integrity of the Bible?

When people make statements such as the one above, they are usually talking about what are called “textual variants.” This is an extremely complicated issue, and it will require a number of posts to come close to dealing with it adequately. For today, I just want to set the stage so to speak.

If you are old enough, you may remember an old parlor game. Everyone would sit in a circle, and one person would be given a phrase, which they would whisper to the person next to them. That person would then whisper it to the next person and so on. At the end, the last person was to repeat the phrase. Invariably, it became so garbled, that the final phrase would be almost unrecognizable from the phrase with which the game began.

Something similar happens when you attempt to copy something by hand. If what you are copying is more than a paragraph or two, your copy is likely to contain errors. We should not be surprised to discover that this happened to the New Testament as it was copied over the centuries. Obviously, if someone made an error when copying a portion of the New Testament, anyone who used that manuscript to make another copy would repeat the errors in that manuscript and probably make some more. And so it would go for all future copies made from that manuscript or from copies derived from it.

Actually, the term “error” is misleading, because a large number of the variants probably contain the correct reading; not all the variants are errors. But you may hear that there are 400,000 errors in the New Testament. First of all, no one really knows how many textual variants there are. No one to my knowledge has ever counted them. It may well be that there are 400,000 variants in all the manuscripts of the New Testament; that is just a number. The real question is this. Do the large number of textual variants among the manuscripts make it impossible to determine what the original text was?

Even that question can be separated into subsets. To a degree I must leave us hanging this morning, because the issue is far too complex to deal with in a single post. Let me leave you with what I believe will be appropriate conclusions after we have looked at all the evidence. There are two positions that I feel comfortable in defending. Whether you agree or whether these positions satisfy you, I cannot say. But here is where I want to lead us to in the following weeks.

1. We will never be able to be absolutely certain of the original wording of every book of the New Testament. Variants do exist, and the evidence for some of them makes it difficult to be certain in every instance how the original text read.

2. This does not mean that we cannot have confidence in the New Testament as we have it. There are so many reasons for this, that it is difficult to summarize. Let me leave you with three (and we will discuss these more fully).

A. We have so many manuscripts available to us that the large number of variants actually can help us to determine the correct reading.
B. The variants apply to a very small portion of the New Testament. There is no significant question about 95% of the text.
C. The overwhelming majority of the areas in question deal with insignificant matters (spelling, word order, etc.) that do not affect the meaning of the text in any substantive way.

I must admit as we begin this whole discussion that there are a few areas in which the text is uncertain and which also affect the meaning to some degree; but they are few indeed. As we progress through this whole discussion, I plan to deal with them as honestly as I can. We will not shy away from the problem areas. There is no reason we should.

Considering the variants we find in the manuscripts of the canonical books of the New Testament, we need to understand that these variants do not affect theology or doctrine in any meaningful way. For instance, there are no manuscripts of the New Testament books that state that Jesus did not rise from the dead or that He was not the son of God.

You may have heard of what are commonly referred to as the Gnostic gospels, which do paint a different picture of Jesus, but I am speaking now of the canonical books we recognize in our New Testament today. Later on, I would love to discuss those other books, but that is not our topic right now.

I hope you will stay with me for what is going to be a long process. I will try to make it as entertaining as possible, and we will probably take some breaks to consider other matters. The reality remains that if you wish to understand how our New Testament has come down to us in the form we have it today, we must deal with the subject of textual variants and what to do with them. I enjoy that study. I will try my best to help you to enjoy it too.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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