Bible Scribe_Copyist_03

Edward D. Andrews

The first part of this chapter will cover the gist of what is most often discussed in New Testament textual criticism today. Thereafter, we will discuss what should be the primary focus of NTTC. It would seem that Dr. Bart D. Ehrman and other Bible critics of his ilk have sent many textual scholars on a quest. Textual scholars have become obsessed with discussing how many variants there are, how to count the textual variants, and whether they are significant or insignificant. Below, we will cover what is being said about variants, as well as, if some are more significant than others are, and then close the chapter with what actually is the absolute most important mission in NTTC.

Some Bible critics seem to start with the belief that if the originals were inspired of God and fully inerrant, it must remain that way, in order to remain inerrant. They seem to be asking, ‘if only the originals were inspired, and the copies were not inspired, and we do not have the originals, how are we to be certain of any passage in Scripture?’ In other words, God would never allow the inspired, inerrant Word to suffer copying errors. Why would he perform the miracle of inspiring the message to be fully inerrant, and not follow up with the miracle of inspiring the copyists throughout the centuries, to keep it inerrant? First, we must note that God has not given us the specifics of every decision he has made in reference to humans. If we start the, ‘why did God not do this or do that,’ where would it end? For example, why did God just not produce the books himself, and miraculously deliver them to persons such as Moses? Why did he not use angelic messengers to pen the message, or produce the message miraculously? God has chosen not to tell us why he did not move the copyists along with Holy Spirit, so as to have inspired copies, so it remains an unknown. However, it should be noted that if one can restore the text to its original wording through the science of textual criticism, to an exact representation thereof, you have, in essence, a reproduction of the originals.

In the end, what we do know is that the Jewish copyists and later Christian copyists were not infallible like the original writers. “Holy Spirit inspired the original writers” while the copyists were guided by “Holy Spirit.” However, do we not have a treasure-load of evidence from centuries of copies, unlike secular literature? Regardless of the recopying, do we not have the Bible in a reliable critical text and trustworthy translations, with both improving all the time? It was only inevitable that imperfect copyists, who were not under inspiration, would have errors creep into the text. However, the thousands of copies that we do have, these enable the textual scholars to trace these errors. How? Different copyists made different errors. Therefore, the textual scholar compares the work of different copyists. He is then able to identify their mistakes.

A Simple Example

What if 100 persons were asked or hired to make a handwritten copy of Matthew’s Gospel, with 18,346 words. These persons making our handwritten copy, fit in one of four categories as writers: (1) struggles to write, and has no experience as a document maker, (2) a skilled document maker [recorder of events, wills, business, certificates, etc.], (3) a trained copyist of literature, and (4) the professional copyist. There is little doubt that these copyists would make some copying errors, even the professional. However, it would be impossible that they would all make the same errors. If a trained textual scholar with many years of religious education, including textual studies, and decades of experience, were to compare these 100 documents carefully, he could determine which are erroneous, and restore the text to its original form, even if he had never seen that original.

The textual scholars of the last 250 years, especially the last 70 years have had over 5,800 Greek manuscripts at their disposal. A number of these dating to the second and third centuries C.E. Some of these textual scholars were/are very skilled in their field of expertise. Moreover, if we took the time to study the life of any of the hundreds that have lived throughout this era, it would impress on us that we have nothing short of a mirror reflection of the original in our current critical text, which is, in essence, an exact representation. However, even an exact representation is not 100 percent like the original. Yet, it is the next best thing. Moreover, more manuscripts are always becoming known; technology is ever advancing, and improvements are always being made.

Hundreds of scholars throughout the last three centuries have produced what we might call a master text, by way of lifetimes of hard work and careful study. Are there a few places where we are not 100 percent certain? Yes, of course. More on that below. However, we are considering merely a handful of locations in the text of the Greek NT that contains about 138,020 words, which would be considered difficult in arriving at what the original reading was. In addition, in these places, the alternative reading is in the footnote. Bible critics, who over exaggerate the errors within our extant copies is a bit misplaced, and certainly misleading indeed, because we have some manuscripts that were copied by professional copyists that are just the opposite, almost error free. The Bible critics are misleading us on two fronts. First, some copies are almost error free and negate the Bible critics, who claim, “We have only error-ridden copies.”[1] Second, the vast majority of the Greek New Testament has no scribal errors. Third, textual scholarship can easily identify and correct the majority of the scribal errors. In addition, of the remaining errors, we can say most of them are solved with certainty or almost certain. Of the tiny number of scribal errors remaining, we can say most of them are solved with some difficulty, and there are just a minuscule amount of errors that textual scholarship is uncertain about the original reading, at this time, which is still resolved with great difficulty. Again, more on this in a moment.

400,000 to 500,000 Variants in the Manuscripts

With this abundance of evidence, what can we say about the total number of variants known today? Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.[2]

Ehrman has some favorite nonprofessional ways of expressing the problems, which he stresses without qualification, in every interview or debate that he has. Below are several of his favorites:

  • Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! (Misquoting Jesus, 89)
  • There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. (Misquoting Jesus, 89)
  • We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways. (Whose Word is It, 7)
  • We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. (Misquoting Jesus, 10)
  • In the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs and as such were more inclined to alter the texts they copied. (Misquoting Jesus, 98)
  • We could go on nearly forever talking about specific places in which the texts of the New Testament came to be changed, either accidentally or intentionally. (Misquoting Jesus, 98)
  • The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. (Misquoting Jesus, 11)

Each of the above favorite snippets by Ehrman left unexplained are an exaggeration, misinformation, misleading, and just a failure to be truthful. Many layperson-churchgoers have been spiritually shipwrecked in their faith by such unexplained hype. What the uninformed person hears is that we can never get back to the originals or even close, that there are hundreds of thousands of significant variants that have so scarred the text, we no longer have the Word of God, and it is merely the word of man. How such a knowledgeable man cannot know the impact his words is having is beyond this author.

Miscounting Textual Variants

In 1963, Neil R. Lightfoot penned a book that has served to help over a million readers, How We Got the Bible. It has been updated two times since 1963, once in 1988, and another in 2003. We are told that there is a “miscalculation” in the book, which has contributed to a misunderstanding in how textual variants are counted. In fact, there are several other books repeating it in their works. A leading textual scholar Daniel B. Wallace has brought this to our attention in an article entitled The Number of Textual Variants an Evangelical Miscalculation.[3] A world-renowned Bible apologist Norma L. Geisler repeated it as well.

Dr. Norman L. Geisler writes,

Some have estimated there are about 200,000 of them. First of all, these are not “errors” but variant readings, the vast majority of which are strictly grammatical. Second, these readings are spread throughout more than 5300 manuscripts, so that a variant spelling of one letter of one word in one verse in 2000 manuscripts is counted as 2000 “errors.”[4]

Dr. Neil R. Lightfoot writes,

From one point of view, it may be said that there are 200,000 scribal errors in the manuscripts. Indeed, the number may well considerably exceed this and obviously will grow, as more and more manuscripts become known. However, it is wholly misleading and untrue to say that there are 200,000 errors in the text of the New Testament. (Actually, textual critics consciously avoid the word “error;” they prefer to speak of “textual variants.”) This large number is gained by counting all the variations in all of the manuscripts (over 5,800). This means that if, for example, one word is misspelled in 4,000 different manuscripts, and it amounts to 4,000 “errors.” Actually, in a case of this kind, only one slight error has been made, and it has been copied 4,000 times. But this is the procedure which is followed in arriving at the large number of 200,000 “errors.”[5]

Dr. Daniel Wallace made this observation in his article,

In other words, Lightfoot was claiming that textual variants are counted by the number of manuscripts that support such variants, rather than by the wording of the variants. This book has been widely influential in evangelical circles. I believe over a million copies of it have been sold. And this particular definition of textual variants has found its way into countless apologetic works.” He goes on to clarify just what a textual variant is, “The problem is, the definition is wrong. Terribly wrong. A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text. No textual critic defines a textual variant the way that Lightfoot and those who have followed him have done.

It is true that Lightfoot erred in that he was counting the manuscripts, not the variants. Let me offer the reader a fictional, but true like example. In other words, it is a true textual problem, but I am adjusting it to suit our purposes. First, let us observe a few important points.

Important Point: We have so many variants because we have so many manuscripts.

Variant Rule: We do not count the manuscripts. We count the variants.

Variant: “any portion of text that exhibits variations in its reading between two or more different manuscripts” – Don Wilkins

Variation Unit: any portion of text that exhibits variations in its reading between two or more different manuscripts. It is important to distinguish variation units from variant readings. Variation units are the places in the text where manuscripts disagree, and each variation unit has at least two variant readings. Setting the limits and range of a variation unit is sometimes difficult or even controversial because some variant readings affect others nearby. Such variations may be considered individually, or as elements of a single reading. One should also note that the terms “manuscript” and “witness” may appear to be used interchangeably in this context. Strictly speaking “witness” (see below) will only refer to the content of a given manuscript or fragment, which it predates to a greater or lesser extent. However, the only way to reference the “witness” is by referring to the manuscript or fragment that contains it. In this book, we have sometimes used the terminology “witness of x or y manuscript” to distinguish the content in this way.

Important Point: In addition, it should be noted that generally speaking, in most instances, there are usually hundreds of manuscripts for a single reading, with the rest split in various directions.

We begin by choosing our ‘standard text.’ We are using the standard text (critical or master text), Nestle-Aland (NA) Greek Text (28th edition) and the United Bible Society (UBS) Greek Text (5th edition). Those two critical texts are the same.

Note: When one uses the acronym NU, the N stands for the Nestle-Aland, the U for the United Bible Society, since the texts in both are the same. The apparatuses are different.


The critical text is as close as we can get to what the original would have been like[6] Therefore, we can use the reading in the critical text as the original reading, and anything outside of that in the manuscript history is a variant: ‘spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text.’ Any difference in two different manuscripts is a variant, technically speaking.

Before going to our example, let it be said that Bible critics, who grumble, dwell on, repeat over and over again how there are 400,000 variants in the text of the New Testament, have only one agenda. They wish to discredit the Word of God; using this misrepresented excuse for their having lost their faith, having shipwrecked their faith, or having had no faith from the start. These Bible critics are no different from those religious leaders Jesus dealt with in the first century. Jesus said of them, “Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, yet gulp down a camel!” (Matt. 23:24) These Bible critics thrust aside 99.95 percent because 0.05 of one per cent is in not absolutely certain! Now, our example comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

Example of a Textual Variant

Colossians 2:2 Updated American standard Version (UASV)

that their hearts may be comforted, having been knit together in love, and into all riches of the full assurance of understanding, and that they may have a complete knowledge[7] of the mystery of God, namely Christ, [τοῦ θεοῦ Χριστοῦ; tou theou Christou]

See the chart below.

Variants Variant MSS or Versions


of the God of Christ Standard Text


of the God

10 MSS[9]


of the Christ

01 MS


of the God who is Christ 04 MSS
04 of the God who is concerning Christ

02 MSS


Of the God in the Christ 02 MSS


of the God in the Christ Jesus

01 MS

07 of the God and Christ

01 MS


Of God the father Christ 04 MSS
09 Of God the father of Christ

05 MSS


Of God and Father of Christ 02 MSS
11 Of God father and of Christ

04 MSS


Of God father and of Christ Jesus 03 MSS
13 Of God father and of Lord of us Christ Jesus

02 MSS


Of God and father and of Christ

38 MSS

Total 14 14 Variants in 79 MSS

79 MSS

These variants are found in 79 MSS, Thus, we have 14 variants in 79 manuscripts, not 79 variants. We do not count manuscripts, as many textual scholars know. In trying to paint a picture about the trustworthiness of the text, this author does not think talking about variants is really helpful, and can confuse the layperson. It is important for the churchgoer to know what a variant is, the extent of the variants but in the long run, it is the places in the text that are affected by a variant, which is more conducive to getting at, what can we get back to, and what do we have in the end.

The United Bible Society’s “A” “B” “C” and “D” ratings are fine and the definitions by UBS, i.e., [A] certain, [B] almost certain, [C] difficulty in deciding, and [D] great difficulty in arriving at, are a great start but should be better qualified, with some numbers of what percentage of the text, places, fall under each area.

All Variant Units [Places]

What we need to talk about is how many places are there where we find variants. What percentage is this of the entire New Testament text?

We can then talk about

  • How much of a percentage of a text is untouched by variants
  • Of the percentage affected, how much can we say is an “A” Rating
  • Of the percentage affected, how much can we say is an “B” Rating
  • Of the percentage affected, how much can we say is an “C” Rating
  • Of the percentage affected, how much can we say is an “D” Rating

Bruce M.  Metzger’s general statement about “D” occurring “only rarely”[10] makes more sense to a reader if we have how many times sitting alongside how many verses and words we have. Then, when we consider the lifetime work of hundreds of textual scholars since Griesbach up unto the present, it does not bother the author that those learned men are making the choice of the reading for the “D” level, knowing too that the best alternative readings are in a footnote as well. [11] We will delve into these numbers in just a moment.

Variant Reading and Variation Unit

This section is based in large part on Eldon Jay Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), wherein Eldon J. Epp expands on the brief 1964 article of Ernest C. Colwell (1901–74) and Ernest W. Tune on “Variant Readings: Classification and Use.”

Again, what we need to talk about is how many variation units (places) there are where we find variations. Before doing so, let us define some terms.

READING: This is used as a broad term for any textual disagreement between two manuscripts or more. It can also be used when referring to two different hands in the same manuscript. In addition, it can also be used when identifying any segment of the critical texts such as the WH, NA28, UBS5. Therefore, any textual discrepancy or disagreement can be referred to as a “reading.” It can also be used to refer to any portion of the original. Notice how Comfort used the term “reading” in a variety of places. “Grenfell and Hunt said, ‘The text is a good one, and appears to have affinities with that of Codex Sinaiticus, with which the papyrus agrees in several readings not found elsewhere.’”[12] “Of the 450 corrections in P66, about 50 are of nonsense readings.”[13] “For Matthew, it appears that most of the early papyri support the readings of א over against B when the two differ.”[14] “These manuscripts probably came from Origen’s text, a text that he took with him from Alexandria to Caesarea, and that bears a mixture of so-called Western and Alexandrian readings.”[15] “A listing of variant readings, with accompanying manuscript support, printed in critical editions of the Greek New Testament.”[16] (Italics mine)

SIGNIFICANT AND INSIGNIFICANT READINGS AND OR VARIANTS: Again, below we have what is commonly spoken of concerning significant and insignificant variants. Significant would mean any reading that has an impact on any of the major facets of textual criticism. For example, it would apply to how we determine the relationship of the manuscripts to one another, where a particular manuscript would fall in the history and transmission of the manuscripts. It would also be impactful if the reading could help the textual scholar establish the original. Therefore, insignificant would mean just the opposite, referring to a reading that has very little to no impact at all in many aspects of textual criticism. The reason we stop at “many” aspects here is because all readings in a manuscript play a role in some aspects of textual criticism, such as the characteristics of the manuscript it is in and the scribal activity within that individual manuscript.

InsignificantNonsense Reading: As Epp points out the nonsense readings are “a reading that fails to make sense because it cannot be construed grammatically, either in terms of grammatical/lexical form or in terms of grammatical structure, or because in some other way it lacks a recognizable meaning. Since authors and scribes do not produce nonsense intentionally, it is to be assumed (1) that nonsense readings resulted from errors in transmission, (2) that they, therefore, cannot represent either the original text or the intended text of any MS or alert scribe, and (3) that they do not aid in the process of discerning the relationships among MSS.”[17] It should also be stated that the original would not have contained any nonsense readings, as they were lead along by Holy Spirit. The inspired author before publication would have corrected any error by a scribe such as Tertius or Silvanus.

InsignificantCertainty of Scribal Errors: While these errors “can be construed grammatically and make sense,” there is a certainty from textual scholars that these are scribal errors. These are not nonsense readings but rather readings that make sense, which are scribal errors beyond all reasonable doubt. This would “be certain instances of haplography and dittography, cases of harmonization with similar contexts, hearing errors producing a similar-sounding word, and the transposition of letters or words with a resultant change in meaning.”[18] The problem that we run into here is that what may be certainty of scribal error to one scholar, may only be an almost certainty to another, and even less so to another. The key element here in determining a reading that is understandable as insignificant is that it can be ‘demonstrated’ so by the scholar making such a claim.

InsignificantIncorrect Orthography: Orthography is Greek for “correct writing.” This term is used loosely to refer simply to the spelling of words, which (for Greek) can include breathing and accent marks. Thus, one can refer to variations in the orthography of a word, or even to incorrect orthography. When a variation in orthography is due merely to dialectical or historical changes in spelling for variant readings, the variations are often ignored in the decision process because the reading in question is identical to another reading, once the orthographical differences are factored in (mutatis mutandis). Epp writes, “Mere orthographic differences, particularly itacisms and nu-movables (as well as abbreviations) are ‘insignificant’ as here defined; they cannot be utilized in any decisive way for establishing manuscript relationships, and they are not substantive in the search for the original text. Again, the exception might be the work of a slavish scribe, whose scrupulousness might be considered useful in tracing manuscript descent, but the pervasive character of itacism, for example, over wide areas and time-spans precludes the ‘significance’ of orthographic differences for this important text-critical task.”[19]

InsignificantSingular Readings: A singular reading is technically, a variant reading that occurs in only one Greek manuscript and is therefore immediately suspect. There is some quibbling over this because critics who reject the Westcott and Hort position on the combination of 01 (Sinaiticus) and 03 (Vaticanus) might call a reading “nearly singular” if it has only the support of these two manuscripts. Moreover, it is understood that not all manuscripts are comparable. Thus, for example, one would comfortably reject a reading found only in a single late manuscript, while many critics would not find it so easy to reject a reading supported uniquely by 03. Some also give more credit to singular readings that have additional support from versions. Singular readings that are insignificant would be nonsense readings, transcriptional errors, meaningless transpositions, and itacisms.

Significant Variants: A significant reading/variant that would mean any reading that has an impact on any major facets of textual criticism. After 30-years of a marriage of putting things in your attic, one day we decide it needs to be cleaned out. The easiest way to approach this is to clear out anything that we deem unimportant and then; only those things that remain are the important things. The same holds true of determining significant variants. The easiest way to do this is to remove the insignificant variants first: nonsense readings, determined (without doubt) scribal errors, incorrect orthography, and singular readings. Then, whatever is left; these are the significant readings, which do have an impact on textual criticism.

Variant Reading(s): differing versions of a word or phrase found in two or more manuscripts within a variation unit (see below). Variant readings are also called alternate readings.

Variation Unit: A “variation-unit” is any portion of text that exhibits variations in its reading between two or more different manuscripts. It is important to distinguish variation units from variant readings. Variation units are the places in the text where manuscripts disagree, and each variation unit has at least two variant readings. Setting the limits and range of a variation unit is sometimes difficult or even controversial because some variant readings affect others nearby. Such variations may be considered individually, or as elements of a single reading. One should also note that the terms “manuscript” and “witness” may appear to be used interchangeably in this context. Strictly speaking “witness” (see below) will only refer to the content of a given manuscript or fragment, which it predates to a greater or lesser extent. However, the only way to reference the “witness” is by referring to the manuscript or fragment that contains it. In this book, we have sometimes used the terminology “witness of x or y manuscript” to distinguish the content in this way.

For a deeper discussion of this, please see Chapter 3 Toward The Clarification Of The Term “Textual Variant” by Eldon Jay Epp in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 47-61.

Number of Variants and Significant and Insignificant Variants vs Level of Certainty

It would seem that scholars have lost sight of the most important part of textual criticism, namely, getting back to the original. There is little doubt that Agnostic Bible scholar Dr. Bart D, Ehrman has led the conversation on how many textual variants there are. The authors of this publication are focusing their attention on the initial goal of textual criticism, getting back to the original. We believe that almost all of the 138,020 words of the Greek New Testament are unassailable. In other words, they do not even come up on the radar as having any kind of textual issue whatsoever. We can say with absolute certainty that they are what the original author’s penned or had penned by their secretary. However, there are some 2,000 textual places within the New Testament that need to be dealt with because the witnesses and internal evidence is enough to the point of having to consider them.

Level of Certainty

The level of certainty charts below is generated from A TEXTUAL COMMENTARY ON THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT (Second Edition) A Companion Volume to the UNITED BIBLE SOCIETIES’ GREEK NEW TESTAMENT (Fourth Revised Edition) by Bruce M. Metzger.

The letter {A} signifies that the text is certain

The letter {B} indicates that the text is almost certain.

The letter {C} indicates that the Committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text.

The letter {D}, which occurs only rarely, indicates that the Committee had great difficulty in arriving at a decision. In fact, among the {D} decisions sometimes none of the variant readings commended itself as original, and therefore the only recourse was to print the least unsatisfactory reading.

The word count below is taken from the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece using Logos Bible Software.[20]

While this author has bought out the time of counting the number of level of certainty in Metzger’s Textual Commentary, he has not gone to the point of counting the letters or words at each variant place. We will just offer the reader a general statement that almost all textual variants in the commentary were based on a letter to a few letters in a Greek word to two-three words. Seldom was it an entire sentence, verse, or even less still several verses like the long ending of Mark. Therefore, we will just choose three words as the average to multiply the total number of variants so the reader can see the truly small number of variants that are even worthy of being considered at to certainty, as opposed to the total number of words in the New Testament. For example, Matthew has 18,346 words with a mere 153 places where we find variants, affecting about 459 words. Of those 459 words, we are certain about 32 of them, almost certain about 70, a little difficulty deciding on 50 and great difficulty deciding on only 1 variant place. When we say that we have difficulty deciding, this does not mean that we cannot decide, as we can. Moreover, a good translation will list the alternative reading in a footnote. In the entirety of the Gospel of Matthew, there is but 1 variant place (Matt 23:26) of about three words out of 18,346 words, where there was a great difficult time in deciding the original. Some translations have incorporated the variant (ESV, NASB, NIV, TNIV, NJB, and the NLT); seeing it as the original, while other translations (NRSV, NEB, REB, NAB, CSB, and the UASV) see the variant as an addition taken from the previous verse.

Matthew 23:26 26 Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup,[21] so that the outside of it may also become clean. (UASV)

NU has καθάρισον πρῶτον τὸ ἐντὸς τοῦ ποτηρίου, ἵνα γένηται καὶ τὸ ἐκτὸς αὐτοῦ καθαρόν “first cleanse the inside of the cup, that the outside of it may also become clean,” which is support by D Θ f1 ita,e syrs. (bold mine)

Variant/TR WH καθαρισον πρωτον το εντος του ποτηριου και της παροψιδος ινα γενηται και το εκτος αυτων καθαρον have “first cleanse the inside of the cup [and the dish], that the outside of them may also become clean,” which is supported by א (B2) C L W 0102 0281 Maj.

 Looking at the above support alone, it would seem that the witnesses for the longer reading (“and the dish”) is weighter, making the longer reading the likely original. Then, when we consider the presence of a few manuscripts (B* f13 28 al) that are not listed for the shorter reading because they have the longer reading (“and the dish”), the weight shifts over to the shorter reading being the original. Why? Because these few manuscripts have the singular αυτου instead of αὐτῶν, even though they have the longer reading. This tells us that the archetype text was the shorter reading. Clearly, the copyist added (“and the dish”) from the previous verse, Matthew 23:25, which reads, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of greediness and self-indulgence.”

Below, we will look at all of the numbers, the total words in the Greek New Testament, the number of A, B, C, and D variants in each book, followed by the total number of variants listed in Metzger’s textual commentary.

The Entire New Testament (138,020 Words)

{A-D} New Testament
{A} 505
{B} 523
{C} 354
{D} 10
Total Var. 1,392
Words 138,020

The Gospels (64,767 Words)

{A-D} Matt Mark Luke John
{A} 32 45 44 44
{B} 70 49 73 62
{C} 50 45 44 41
{D} 1 1 0 2
Total Var. 153 140 161 149
Words 18,346 11,304 19,482 15,635

The Acts of the Apostles (18,450 Words)

{A-D} Acts
{A} 74
{B} 82
{C} 40
{D} 1
Total Var. 197
Words 18,450

Paul’s Fourteen Epistles (37,361 Words)

{A-D} Rom 1 Cor 2 Cor Gal. Eph. Php Col.
{A} 39 21 12 16 16 10 8
{B} 19 22 17 3 11 7 12
{C} 20 15 10 8 7 3 8
{D} 1 1 0 0 0 0 0
Total Var. 79 59 39 27 34 20 28
WORDS 7,111 6,830 4,477 2,230 2,422 1,629 1,582

{A-D} 1 Th 2 Th 1 Tim 2 Tim Tit Phm. Heb.
{A} 9 3 15 2 2 2 20
{B} 2 3 2 6 1 3 11
{C} 3 2 2 1 1 0 12
{D} 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Total Var. 14 8 19 9 4 5 43
WORDS 1,481 823 1,591 1,238 659 335 4,953

The General Epistles (7,591 Words)

{A-D} Jam 1 Pet 2 Pet 1 Jn 2 Jn 3 Jn Jude
{A} 7 21 8 18 4 1 9
{B} 12 9 7 7 1 1 0
{C} 4 7 6 4 0 0 3
{D} 0 0 1 0 0 0 1
Total Var. 23 37 22 29 5 2 13
WORDS 1,742 1,684 1,099 2,141 245 219 461

The Book of Revelation (9,851 Words)

{A-D} Revelation
{A} 23
{B} 31
{C} 18
{D} 1
Total Var. 73
Words 9,851

The authors of this publication would argue that all variation units or places where variations occur is significant because we are dealing with the Word of God and getting back to the original wording is of the utmost importance. Let us return to Lightfoot once more. “What about the significance of these variations? Are these variations immaterial or are they important? What bearing do they have on the New Testament message and on faith? To respond to these questions, it will be helpful to introduce three types of textual variations, classified in relation to their significance for our present New Testament text. 1. Trivial variations which are of no consequence to the text. 2. Substantial variations which are of no consequence to the text. 3. Substantial variations that have bearing on the text.”[22]

Whether we are talking about the addition or omission such words as “for,” “and,” and “the,” or different forms of the similar Greek words, differences in spelling, or even the addition of a whole verse or even several verses, the importance lies not with the significance of impact on the meaning of the text but rather the certainty of the wording in the original. What we want to focus on is the certainty level of getting back to every single word that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude penned.

We will use Lightfoot’s example of Matthew 11:10-23, that is, fourteen verses of 231 words; we have eleven variants in verse 10, 15, 16, 17, 18, 192, 20, 21, and 232. This may seem worrisome to the churchgoer or someone new to textual criticism. However, while all of the variants are found in the NA28 critical apparatus (2012), pp. 31–32,[23] the following sources below only covered seven of them because four of them are not even an issue. Why are they not an issue? We know what the original reading is with absolute certainty. Those seven that have some validity are mentioned in the textual commentaries below.

  • Comfort New Testament Text and Translation covers verses 15 and 19
  • Comfort Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament covers verses 12 and 19
  • Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament covers 15, 17, 19, and 23.

Immediately, we need to note that verse 12 is absolutely certain as to the original words as well. Verse 19a is mentioned in Comfort’s textual commentary because he is drawing attention to the “Son of Man” being written as a nomen sacrum (sacred name that is abbreviated) in two early manuscripts (א W), as well as L. Therefore, verse 19a is absolutely certain as well. We are now down to five variants. The original reading for verse 15, 17, 19a, and the 2 in verse 23 where variants occur are almost certain. The textual scholars on the committees for six leading semi-literal and literal translations (ASV, ESV, LEB, CSB, NASB, and the UASV) agree with ten of the eleven variants. There is disagreement on Matthew 11:15. Even so, the reader has access to the original and alternative in the footnote.

Matthew 11:15 reads, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (ASV, ESV, NASB, UASV)

The variant/TR has ο εχων ωτα ακουειν ακουετω “the one having ears to hear let him hear,” which is supported by א C L W Z Θ f1,13 33 Maj syrc,h,p cop

Matthew 11:15 reads, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (LEB, CSB)

The WH NU has ὁ ἔχων ὦτα ἀκουέτω “the one having ears let him hear,” which is supported by B D 700 itk syrs

Now, let us return to the charts above. There are 138,020 words in the New Testament. A mere 1,392 textual variants have enough of an issue to even be considered in a textual commentary. This means about a meager 1.0086 percent of the 138,020. We can also remove the 505 {A} ratings because they are certain (0.366%). Then, we really have no worries about the {B} ratings because they are almost certain as well. This means that out of 138,020 words in the Greek New Testament, we only have 354 variants that we have difficulty and 10 variants where we have great difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text. These last 364 variants (0.264%) are no problem because the reader has access to the variants in the footnotes.

It is true that some variations affect textual scholars more than others because the scholar must exhaust more effort, which is spent on establishing the certainty of what variant in a particular reading is the original. (Matt. 23:26; Mark 7:9; John 10:26; Ac 16:12; Rom. 14:19) Lightfoot writes, “These variations of a substantial character do not affect our present text. They do not affect our text today because they are not supported by the most authoritative textual witnesses.”[24] (Bold and underline mine) Now, one might think that Lightfoot is specifically talking about a variation unit, i.e., a place in the text where there are variations that have very little or no support by either internal or external evidence, so they are easily dismissed, establishing the original reading with little effort. Why might we think this? Lightfoot was talking about variants that have no weighty textual witnesses to support them. However, the first part of his statement, he talks about “variations of special character,” which means impactful to the meaning of the text.

The point of the authors in this book is simple, we do not want to be motivated by the idea of how a variant is affecting a long held meaning of a text or not. It is not up to the textual scholar, nor the translator to concern themselves with what God meant by what he said through his human authors. Rather, the textual scholar’s goal is to get back to what the human author penned under inspiration. The translator is then tasked with finding the best English equivalent that represents what God said in English. The textual scholar gives us what the author penned under inspiration and the translator gives us what God had penned in English. If it supports a long held doctrinal position, fine. If it does not support a long held doctrinal position, fine. No doctrine should ever be grounded in one verse anyway. After the textual scholar and translator have done their jobs, it is up to the reader to determine what the author meant by the words that he used.

We need not be sidetracked by these worries of just how many variants there are, or if they are significant or insignificant. We need to deal with the certainty of each variation unit, endeavoring to get back to the original reading. We are to be concerned with the role textual criticism plays in apologetics. There is no apologetics if we do not have an authoritative and true Word of God. J. Harold Greenlee was correct when he wrote, “textual criticism is the basic study for the accurate knowledge of any text. New Testament textual criticism, therefore, is the basic biblical study, a prerequisite to all other biblical and theological work. Interpretation, systemization, and application of the teachings of the NT cannot be done until textual criticism has done at least some of its work.”[25] We would add apologetics to that list. How does one defend the Word of God as inspired, inerrant, true and authoritative, if they do not know if they have the Word of God? Therefore, when Bible critics try to muddy the waters of truth with misinformation, it is up to the textual scholar to correct the Bible critic’s misinformation.

Again, it is true that Lightfoot erred in that he was counting the manuscripts, not the variants. However, we need not count variants either but rather variation units, namely, the places where there are variations. The above Colossians 2:2 example of variations that are found in 79 manuscripts was stated as having 14 variants in 79 manuscripts, not 79 variants. While this is true, it is also true that this is simply one variation unit (one place), where a variation occurs. This may sound like one is trying to rationalize a major problem of hundreds of thousands of variants. However, it is actually the other way around. The Bible critic is misrepresenting the facts, trying to talk about an issue without giving the reader all of the facts. We need to consider Benjamin Disraeli’s words on statistics, “There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

[1] (Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why 2005, 7)

[2] IBID., 89-90


[4] Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, by Norm Geisler (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; p. 532)

[5] How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003; p). Lightfoot says (53-54)

[6] While it is true that some scholars, like Philip Comfort, argue that, the NU could be improved upon, because in many cases it is too dependent on internal evidence, when the documentary evidence should be more of a consideration as to the weightiness of the matter. It should be pointed out, this is in only a handful of places, when one considers 138,020 words in the Greek New Testament, and it is hardly consequential. I would also mention that this writer would agree with Comfort in the matter of giving more weight to the documentary evidence.

[7] Epignosis is a strengthened or intensified form of gnosis (epi, meaning “additional”), meaning, “true,” “real,” “full,” “complete” or “accurate,” depending upon the context. Paul and Peter alone use epignosis.

[8] NU is an acronym for two critical manuscripts: (1) Nestle-Aland Greek Text (28th ed.) and (2) United Bible Societies Greek Text (5th ed.)

[9] This is only a partial list of the manuscripts, as we are just offering an example, to see how we count the variants. In addition, it should be noted that, generally speaking, most places there are usually hundreds of MSS for a single reading, with the rest split in various directions.

[10] Bruce Manning Metzger and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), XXIX.

[11] Dr. Danial Wallace’s insight have added to the above discussion:

The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation, (accessed September 10, 2015).

[12] Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 60.

[13] IBID. 312.

[14] IBID, 312–313.

[15] IBID 313.

[16] IBID 382.

[17] Eldon Jay Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 58.

[18] IBID. 58.

[19] IBID. 58.

[20] Word Counts for Every Book of the Bible .., (accessed April 20, 2017).

[21] The NU (D Θ f1 ita,e syrs) has the above reading. A variant, WH and the TR (א (B2) C L W 0102 0281 Maj) adds “and of the dish.” The variant is an addition taken from the previous verse.

[22] How We Got the Bibles, by Neil R. Lightfoot (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; p. 95-103)

[23] Eberhard Nestle and Erwin Nestle, Nestle-Aland: NTG Apparatus Criticus, ed. Barbara Aland et al., 28. revidierte Auflage. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), 31–32.

[24] How We Got the Bibles, by Neil R. Lightfoot (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; pp. 95-103)

[25] Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, by J. Harold Greenlee (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995; p. 7)