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Bible Babylon (part 4)

What about variant texts in biblical manuscripts?

I was first introduced to the concept of biblical textual criticism in a biblical interpretation class sponsored by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary at the Center for Urban Ministries in Boston. The professor teaching the course was a conservative who nevertheless upset many of the evangelical pastors in attendance by leading a discussion on how variants in newly discovered New Testament manuscripts have altered newer translations of the Bible such as the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version.

The thought that even small portions of the Bible are in dispute rankles evangelicals because it is thought that the original autographs of the Bible were inspired of God and therefore inerrant and infallible. There is no quick and easy answer to this question, but any editor can tell you that the text of a manuscript is often adjusted as it is prepared for publication in different editions. This occurs for many reasons.

These reasons may include:

1. Corrections and mistakes that have crept into the text due to careless copying;
2. Adjusting spelling and grammar to reflect modern changes to the language;
3. Smoothing of the text for style and consistency;
4. Edits for emphasis or to make the meaning of certain words and phrases more clear.

The long and short end of the discussion was that none of these minor variants affect the meaning of any text in the New Testament.

Skeptics and atheists who criticize the Bible’s integrity like to point out that among the 25,000 manuscripts and portions of the Bible there are supposedly hundreds of thousands of variants.

My answer to this is that the number of “variants” depends on what you use as your denominator.

If variant means simply the total number of places where the text varies in each manuscript, then the number is high simply because each variant text is counted each time it occurs in any text. For instance, let’s say that an original manuscript had the Greek word for “him” in the text, but a scribe decided that the word is better understood in the reflexive tense as “himself.”

The new manuscript is then copied 2027 times. This would equal 2028 in this way of numbering “variants.” The numerator here is each instance of a variant in all manuscripts over a denominator of 1.

2028/1 then equals 2028 variants.

But if we count each example of the variant only once, whether the same variant occurs once or over 2000 times in different manuscripts, the number shrinks dramatically because the same variant copied over and again are counted only as one variant.

2027/2027 + 1 equals one variant and the original. So there are only two variants.

We also need to distinguish between “significant” and “insignificant.”

If a word is spelled differently or contains a different case or tense, but means the same thing, then it is thought to be an insignificant variant. For instance, if meaning of the original “him” was reflexive and a scribe simply wished to emphasize this, then practically speaking these 2027 instances of the “himself” variant are insignificant because it doesn’t change the meaning of the text at all.

It is only when the actual meaning of a sentence changes even slightly that the variant is termed “significant.”

How to number the total amount of variants that would significant change the meaning of a text is highly subjective. Just to give an idea of how insignificant even the most “significant” of these variations can be, the following example is often used. In some early manuscripts, the word “yet” does not appear in John 7:8. Some manuscripts read, “I am not going up to this feast,” while others read, “I am not yet going up to the feast.” Then John 7:10 says, “However, after his brothers had left for the feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret.” Some critics say that a copyist probably added the word “yet” to verse 8 to bring it in harmony with verse 10 and prevent the appearance that Jesus lied even though the original text would not have included “yet.”

However, editors of the most recent modern translations of the Bible agree that the total number of significant variants in the New Testament is somewhere between 300 to 1500. The modern translations mentioned above include these variants in the form of footnotes. Usually these are small words or different spellings of place names and people’s names.

If you are like me, such differences seem trite. In fact, the professor of the biblical interpretation class I was attending challenged us that if one’s faith was shaken by such variants, then it was not really a true “faith” in God. In fact, no text – even including modern printed texts that also contain errors – could withstand such a scrutiny of details if this would be our definition of “inerrancy.”

This does not affect the concept of inerrancy because the general meaning is not changed at all. Inerrancy does not mean that there is no variation is the 25,000 manuscripts of the Bible available to us. It simply means that none of the variations in the most reliable texts are so significant that the meaning of the text varies from copy to copy. The transmission of divine inspiration isn’t dependant of an exact wording nor on how the meaning of the text is rendered; but solely on a facet of divine intent that is communicated by the text. If this were not true then books could not be translated into various languages without losing the sense or meaning of the texts.

The loudest detractors to the Bible’s accuracy and reliability are the atheists and skeptics who use the “hundreds of thousands of errors” argument as a weak propaganda ploy. However, the objection that supposedly “the Bible is full of errors” is based on such variants as those found in John 7:8. The vast majority of variants are not “significant” and even those variants that are significant do not change the meaning of the text so greatly that the original intent of the larger passage is lost. Christians who have examined the evidence first hand are often surprised at how trivial these differences really are.

Although some of the earliest New Testament manuscripts are corrupted and contain many copyist errors, these manuscripts are easy to discern as bad manuscripts. There are a number of early manuscripts that match the received text almost exactly, while worst of the New Testament manuscripts are still over 90 percent similar to the received text.

Many ancient works of literature have only one existing manuscript written hundreds of years after the originals. The Bible has literally thousands of manuscripts – and over a hundred of these still existing manuscripts were copied very early – from about 120 A.D. to 400 A.D. – more manuscript evidence than any other ancient writing.

Your comments are welcome!

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