Illustration of Bible text manuscript tree and variant readings

by Matt Slick

The following diagram illustrates manuscript corruptions in the biblical texts that are produced, for whatever reason, and copied down to later manuscripts.  The purpose of the illustration is to show how copy errors in the Bible are transmitted from one manuscript to another, how they are counted, and how we can determine which is the correct reading.

In this example, of the 26 existing manuscripts (represented by solid black and red sheets), nine of them have a textual problem where a phrase was incorrectly copied.  Therefore, in this illustration, we would have a total of nine variants in 26 manuscripts.

However, manuscripts can be categorized in family trees by analyzing their location of discovery, jars in which they are found, type of papyri on which they are written, type of ink used, style of writing, etc.  Therefore, daughter manuscripts can be matched very accurately to father manuscripts.

In this example we see that the word "only" was omitted from a 3rd-century document and copied in subsequent, daughter documents.  All we need to do is to take a look at the manuscripts--and even though we see nine variants here, we can tell that there is only one error which has been copied several times.  Also, we can determine accurately which is the correct reading by looking at the oldest document.  Generally, the oldest documents are the most accurate.

With this type of method the New Testament documents can be reconstructed with an incredible accuracy. Furthermore, the New Testament is approximately 99.5% textually pure.  This means that of all the manuscripts in existence, they agree completely 99.5% of the time.  Of the variants that occur, most are easily explainable and very few have any effect on the meaning of passages.  In all, no New Testament doctrine is affected by any variant reading.

So, the New Testament is extremely reliable and can be trusted without hesitation.


manuscript tree graphic




About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.