What is a textual variant?

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

There are well over 5,000 handwritten manuscripts of the New Testament in the original Greek. Some of these are complete New Testaments or even complete Bibles. Others contain collections of New Testament books (the four gospels, the letters of Paul, the writings of John, etc.) or copies of individual books. Still others are damaged fragments, containing only a few pages or even a small portion of a single page. Most of our manuscripts contain quite substantive portions of the New Testament, and all of these copies represent a wealth of evidence for the reliable preservation of the New Testament.

As hand-written copies produced by human scribes, however, these manuscripts do contain differences from one another. Mistakes like spelling a word differently, accidentally skipping a word or a line, copying the same line twice, and other normal mistakes in handwriting can be found throughout the manuscript tradition. Early on, Christians rarely had the money or the freedom to hire the best professionals to copy the New Testament, so some early scribes had poor handwriting, This, too, could lead later scribes to mistake one word for another similar looking word. For these reasons and more, a natural symptom of having such an abundance of New Testament manuscripts is that we also have hundreds of thousands of these minor differences between each copy. Such differences between manuscripts are known as "textual variants," for they are places where the text "varies" between some manuscripts and others.

Textual Variants and New Testament Reliability

As we have noted, far from being a weakness of the New Testament, the large number of textual variants is a side effect of one of the New Testament's great strengths: the large and diverse body of ancient and medieval copies that survive and testify to its contents. We do not have the original copy of any New Testament book, but we do have so many (and such early) copies of each book that there is little doubt as to what the originals contained. Critics will point out the large number of variants as if they represent an argument against the trustworthiness of the New Testament, but this is not so! When you have so many handwritten copies of so much text, there are bound to be quite a few differences between them due to normal scribal mistakes. The textual variants are, thus, the natural result of the New Testament books being by far the best-attested works of all ancient literature. Yet, because the manuscripts do not all contain the same mistakes, we can ascertain the original by comparing the copies. When considering all of this, there are several facts to keep in mind:

  • The majority of textual variants are of such an insignificant nature that it is impossible to translate them.
  • Even of the variants that can be translated, the vast majority have literally no effect on the meaning of the text. They are things like word order (Christ Jesus vs. Jesus Christ) the presence or absence of things like personal titles (Lord Jesus Christ vs. Jesus Christ vs. Christ our Lord) and the like.
  • Among the small minority of variants that have any impact on meaning, in the majority of cases, it is extremely obvious which option is original and which was a later scribal mistake.
  • Even among those very few meaningful variants where there is some reasonable question as to which option is the original, not a single one impacts any central Christian doctrine.
  • In even the hardest cases, the evidence is sufficiently early and numerous that we can be sure that one of the options we have before us in the variants is the correct one. Nothing has been lost.

Thus, while discussions of textual variants should be very important to Christians, we must not exaggerate their significance. They matter because every word of inspired Scripture matters, but nothing in the reality of textual variants should in any way undermine our confidence in the reliable preservation of the New Testament or the truth of Christian doctrine. At most, the question of variants will, in a few cases, impact whether or not a particular verse is an appropriate proof text for a particular doctrine or not. The doctrine itself will stand whichever variant proves to be original.

Types of Variants

To further grasp all of this, it can be helpful to know what are some of the more significant types of variants found in the manuscripts:

  • Spelling conventions: Manuscripts may have the exact same word, only spelled differently. The most common textual variant relates to the "moveable nu" where the Greek letter "nu" could be added to or taken away from the ending of many words, similar to "a" versus "an" or "who" versus "whom" in English. The meaning is completely unaffected by these kinds of variants.
  • Similar looking words: Some variants happen because a scribe mistook one word for another that looks very similar. A famous example of this is in 1 Timothy 3:16, where some manuscripts read "He was revealed in the flesh" while others read "God was revealed in the flesh." The difference is rather simple. Christian scribes used to abbreviate sacred names and titles into shorter forms called "Nomina Sacra." The abbreviated form of "Θεὸς" (God) was "Θς". The word for "he" is "ὃς". It's not hard to imagine a scribe mistaking Θς for ὃς or vice versa. And again, this variant does not affect any key doctrine. Jesus is directly called God elsewhere in scripture, and even the word "he" seems to refer back to God. At any rate, in most instances of this kind of variant, it is fairly easy to tell which of the two readings was original.
  • Similar sounding words: Sometimes scribes would work in teams, with one scribe reading aloud while one or more others wrote what the first scribe said. In some cases, a scribe would mishear and write a wrong but similar sounding word. In English, it would be like writing "rode" instead of "road" or "there" instead of "their." Again, it is normally easy to identify this kind of mistake and to tell which reading is original,
  • Transposed words: It was not uncommon for a scribe to accidentally transpose words. For example, there are places where some manuscripts read "Christ Jesus" while others read "Jesus Christ." Word order matters far less in Greek than it does in English, as Greek words take different forms which determine what role they play in the sentence, so in most cases transposing words has no effect on the meaning at all.
  • Homoeoteleuton: The term means "similar endings" and refers to places where the scribe accidentally skips or repeats some words because his eyes returned to the wrong place on the page he is copying due to words nearby one another that have similar endings. Let's say I was copying the sentence "His devotion inspired much emotion in us." I might write the words "His devotion," then glance back and accidentally start at the end of "emotion" rather than "devotion." I would thus write the sentence as "His devotion in us." In this case, the shorter form wouldn't make much sense, and it would be easy to conclude that the longer form was the original and that the shorter form was an honest scribal mistake based on similar endings of words.
  • Synonyms: A scribe who is reading whole clauses and then writing them down rather than copying word by word may have a slight lapse in memory and write a different word or phrase that means exactly or close to the same thing as the word or phrase in the clause he was copying. In my own research, when I am transcribing things into handwritten notes for later reference, I have caught myself making exactly this kind of honest mistake. One might read the sentence "he was delighted when he noticed them approaching," and, due to little more than a short-term memory glitch between the moment of looking at one page and the moment of writing on the other, write this sentence as "he was delighted when he saw them coming," or "he was happy when he noticed them approaching." Ancient scribes did this sort of thing, too. Being basically synonymous expressions, these variants usually have no meaningful impact on what the text is saying, and indeed they often translate the exact same way into English. Also, because we have so many and such early manuscripts, we can recognize these mistakes when they occur.
  • Parallel Influence - There are many verses, phrases, and passages in Scripture that are similar, though not identical, in different books. Paul, for example, often says similar things in his various letters. Likewise, the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell many of the same stories, but tell them in slightly different words and details. This can sometimes lead to scribal mistakes, where the familiar wording in one passage is accidentally copied into a similar passage elsewhere. A Christian scribe who has studied some of the New Testament, heard sermons preached from it, copied multiple New Testament books, and perhaps even memorized large portions, may get to a passage in Colossians and accidentally add in a phrase Paul used in a similar passage in Ephesians or Galatians. Familiarity and common usage breed this kind of mistake. Such mistakes alter no Christian doctrine and, again, are generally identifiable amidst so many and such early manuscripts.
  • Marginal Notes - If a scribe accidentally skipped a line or phrase, he or a corrector looking over his manuscript afterword would often catch the mistake and write the missing words in the margin with some symbol noting where they belong. This way, the next time the manuscript was copied, the words could be copied back into the text and thus there would be no impact of the mistake on future manuscripts. This system worked well enough, but occasionally led to problems. Sometimes scribes or later owners of the manuscripts would write other things in the margins such as brief study notes or explanatory glosses. Occasionally, a later scribe would mistake these notes for actual words of scripture that needed to be added back into the text, and thus would accidentally add something to his copy that was not part of the original document. There are relatively few examples of this type of error, and again, with so many and such early manuscripts, we have the means to identify them when they do occur. Even if the mistake were to become a popular reading later on, all the earlier manuscripts would lack it, demonstrating that it is not original.
  • Mistaken Corrections - Sometimes, a scribe would come across a difficult wording in the text and assume that it was a mistake by the previous scribe. The scribe occasionally attempted to "correct" the mistake. If it was not, however, actually a mistake (i.e., if the hard or seemingly "awkward" reading is actually what the Apostles originally wrote), then the scribe would be inadvertently introducing an error rather than correcting one. Even if the scribe was right and they were looking at a mistake from a previous scribe, they may "correct" it incorrectly and thus introduce a new mistake to replace the first one. This kind of variant is often the result of later scribes assuming that the Apostles would have written in the high, lofty style of classical Greek literature instead of the everyday, street-level Greek of their day. Such scribes assumed that God must have revealed the New Testament in beautiful, poetic, or intellectual Greek befitting of so sacred a text rather than the colloquial vernacular of the masses. This assumption was, of course, incorrect, and thus led to scribal mistakes which are, again, often quite easy to identify.

There are also less significant types of variants. One late medieval manuscript, for example, is garbled in places where the scribe was copying from a page written in two columns but didn't notice and so copied straight across rather than down one whole column and then the other. Some scribes clearly copied Greek texts without actually knowing Greek. They simply drew what they saw, not knowing what the letters or words even meant. The mistakes made by these kinds of scribes were typically incomprehensible, writing letters or words incorrectly in a way that no longer means anything. And, as anyone knows who has done any significant work copying or transcribing by hand, some copying errors simply defy explanation. While the list above is not exhaustive, it covers the vast majority and the most significant of the manuscript variants. From this, there are two things to note. The first is that, in almost every instance, the variant has no impact even on the meaning of the immediate text and certainly none of them change the meaning of the New Testament as a whole. Secondly, because we have not only such a large number of manuscripts but, even more importantly, such early manuscripts, we can reasonably compare the texts, identify the variants, and recognize the original. It is sometimes difficult work, but the task is not impossible. Nothing in the original has been lost. Where our manuscripts disagree, one of the readings is the original. The variants are a symptom of the remarkable way in which God has masterfully preserved his word.