Archive for November, 2012

In an earlier post, we began a discussion of textual variations among the New Testament manuscripts. At that time we acknowledged that there might be as many as 400,000 variants. At the same time, I pointed out that this is the direct (and predictable) result of having more than 5,500 manuscripts of the New Testament or portions of it. And that is just in Greek. We have over 10,000 manuscripts in the Latin Vulgate, as well as old Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and other ancient translations. We also learned that the overwhelming majority of these differences are nothing more than spelling and grammatical variations that have nothing to do with how we read or translate the text.

At the same time honesty compels us to admit that there are some variant readings in manuscripts that do reflect real differences. These differences may include such issues as including or omitting a word or phrase, differences in word order (such as “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus). In some instances the question involves whether an entire verse should or should not be included. Perhaps the most significance variation is the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 7.53-8.11. At the appropriate time, we shall look at this passage as well as the other few passages that make a real difference. I do not wish to do that now, because I want to establish a background, so that we can understand the issues involved.

Today I only wish to answer one question. What standard should we use in deciding among variants? In other words, when there is a passage that is copied differently in the manuscripts, how should we determine which is likely the original? There have been three basic approaches to this question, and I want to deal with them very quickly.

We could simply take one manuscript and use the readings we find there. At least one group has done this with the Codex Vaticanus which was discussed in an earlier post. This is perhaps the earliest Greek manuscript that contains almost the entire Greek New Testament. There are, however, problems with this approach. Even this valuable manuscript has to be supplemented in several places, because it is not absolutely complete. Also, this approach requires that we ignore manuscripts that are in some cases 100-150 years older than the Vaticanus. And selecting any one manuscript as the standard is quite arbitrary. We would have no evidence that it was completely accurate in every reading.

Why not simply count the variants for a particular passage and go with what the majority of them read? Actually, this has been done, and you can buy what is referred to as “The Majority Text.” This reading is essentially based (with a few changes) on the Greek text published by Erasmus in 1516, and it has come to be referred to as the “Textus Receptus” or the “Received Text.” But the text of Erasmus was not a particularly good text. He did not use any manuscripts made earlier than the 12th century, and Erasmus did not have a single Greek manuscript containing the end of Revelation. Yet, the vast majority of later manuscripts read essentially the way the Textus Receptus reads. So the majority of manuscripts are based on a text that became somewhat standard, but which is not always reflected in the earlier manuscripts which have since become available. There are some Christians who resolve this problem by claiming that the Textus Receptus is itself inspired. We saw how similar claims were made for the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate. But on what authority can we make such a claim? While I do not wish to offend those who believe this, the burden should be on them to provide a reason for believing that a single text produced in 1516 is now completely accurate, especially since older manuscripts tend to have different readings.

Where then does this leave us? There is a third possibility, although it is admittedly more difficult. The vast majority of Biblical scholars (conservative as well as liberal) have elected to use the tools of what has come to be called “textual criticism.” That is, they examine the text, considering the age of the manuscripts, as well as other scientific principles to determine what the original likely was. While this is more difficult, it has shown itself to be a good tool for determining how the New Testament originally read. It will form the basis for future posts about textual variants. We shall begin that process with the next post.

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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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