Archive for May, 2013

In 1998 I wrote my memoirs, describing my experiences with the U. S. Army in Vietnam during 1969-1970. The title of the book is In the Shadow of  Dragon Mountain. This book is available for download free of charge in a pdf format which has been sized appropriately for the IPad or a similar size tablet. Go to the “My Books” tab at the top of this blog to see the description and instructions for downloading.

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In a previous post, I discussed some of the “intentional” changes that we find in our bibles. If you want to review that post, you can find it here.


Today I want to focus on variants that make up the vast majority of discrepancies in the bible, what we might refer to as unintentional errors. These are errors that crept into the manuscripts simply because they were copied by hand. The reality is that, based on the number of manuscripts we possess, the number of variants is about what we should expect for books copied by hand. Most of these variants can be divided into a few categories.

The most frequent example of variants in manuscripts involves what is called the “moveable nu.” “Nu” is a Greek letter that has a sound like the English “N.” We have a similar function in English with the indefinite article “a.” In English, if “a” comes before a consonant, there is no change; however, before a word beginning with a vowel, the “a” becomes “an.” So we write “a potato,” but “an apple.” Greek did the same thing, but applied it to most instances in which a word ending in a vowel came just before a word beginning with a vowel. Before a word beginning with a vowel, Greek would often insert a “nu” at the end of the word before the vowel to make it easier to pronounce. This was not always done, however, and different writers might or might not insert the “nu,” and this single practice is the most common cause of variant readings. In fact, over 70% of the variants in the New Testament are the result of differences in spelling; that’s right, differences in spelling.  We see the same thing today. In English is there any real difference between the American spelling of “honor” and the British spelling of “honour”?

Just to emphasize the point, in case you didn’t notice, 70% of the variant readings among the New Testament manuscripts have been shown to be about essentially nothing.

Other mistakes can often be accounted for by simply having so many manuscripts that we already have an idea of how the text should read. For instance, if a scribe is copying a manuscript and becomes distracted, his eye may skip from (for example) the word “Jesus” in one line down to the word “Jesus” several lines below it, leaving out the text between. Usually these kinds of errors are easy to spot and explain.

We usually visualize a scribe copying a book with a manuscript at his desk from which he makes his copy. It was not always done that way. In order to produce more copies at once, sometimes one scribe would read from a manuscript, while several scribes would copy from his dictation.  Romans 5:1 contains an example of how this might have happened. The NIV reads, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Depending on your English translation, you may have a footnote that tells you that some manuscripts read “let us have peace” instead of “we have peace.” In Greek this is represented by a single word, and the issue is whether the word is in the indicative or subjunctive mood. This difference is represented by a single Greek letter, either omicron (short O) or omega (long O). And in the ancient world these two letters were pronounced virtually identically. Although modern Greek textbooks, tell the student to pronounce omicron with a short “O” sound and omega with a long “O” sound, I didn’t learn it that way. When I took Greek, the textbook I used gave both Greek letters a long “O” sound, and there is evidence that they were pronounced that way. If five scribes heard a presenter read from Romans 5:1, three of them might have written it with the short “O” and two with a long “O.” So now we have another way that variants can arise in the manuscripts.

There are so many other examples that could be given, but I think this is enough to make the point. Like it or not, the New Testament arose and was transmitted when books were copied by hand. Yes, there are variants among the manuscripts just as we find in all ancient books (assuming we have more than one manuscript of those books).  What we find is very much in line with the kind and number of variants we should expect, considering the large number of manuscripts we possess. The vast majority are spelling differences or errors that are quite easily caught and explained. These kinds of errors do not affect our text in any meaningful way.

This does not mean there are no textual problems that are significant. There are, and in the next posts I want to examine some of them. And I have no intention of looking at some obscure meaningless differences. Rather, I intend to look at the most serious textual problems in the New Testament. Make no mistake, this will be challenging. If you do not want to be challenged, you might consider not reading my next posts.  But I do not believe we have anything to fear from these passages. Yes, we may have to admit that some passages in the New Testament were not in the original autographs, but we need not fear that any central point of theology is endangered. I invite you to come with me on that journey as we seek out the truth about textual variants that do make a difference in our New Testament.

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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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