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The New Testament, being one of the most widely read and translated documents in human history, has been the subject of intense scrutiny for centuries. It is pivotal for both believers and scholars to understand the integrity and authenticity of its text. One area of focus in New Testament studies is the presence of textual variants. While some critics suggest these variants undermine the trustworthiness of the Scriptures, a closer look reveals that most of these differences are minor and do not alter fundamental Christian teachings.
Understanding Textual Variants
Before diving into specific variants, it’s essential to understand what they are. A textual variant arises when there’s a difference between two or more copies of a text. Given that the New Testament was hand-copied for over a millennium before the invention of the printing press, some degree of variation between manuscripts is to be expected. These differences can range from a single letter or word to an entire verse or more.
Common Causes for Variants
1. Accidental Mistakes: Many variants arose simply because scribes made errors. A scribe might mistakenly skip a word or line, misread a word, or inadvertently write a word twice.
2. Intentional Changes: At times, scribes might change the text intentionally. This could be to correct what they perceived as an error, to harmonize two passages, or to clarify a word or phrase for their local audience.
Major Textual Variants in the New Testament
1. The Ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20): Some of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts end the Gospel of Mark at 16:8. However, other manuscripts include an extended ending, verses 9-20, which offers post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.
2. The Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7-8): Found in the King James Version and some Latin manuscripts, this passage references the Trinity. However, it is absent from the earliest Greek manuscripts and most modern translations. See also.
3. The Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11): This passage, where Jesus encounters a woman caught in adultery, is absent from some of the earliest manuscripts, though it is present in many later ones. Its style and vocabulary also differ slightly from the rest of John’s Gospel.
4. Significant Textual Variant and Theological Bias (Luke 22:43-44): We certainly have a case of theological bias in our midst from all translations, except two.
5. The Longer Ending of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:13): Some manuscripts end the Lord’s Prayer with “deliver us from evil,” while others add, “for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.”
6. Acts 8:37: This verse, where the Ethiopian eunuch confesses faith in Jesus, is absent from some of the most reliable manuscripts.
7. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: These verses instruct women to remain silent in churches. Some early manuscripts position this passage after verse 40, while others don’t include it at all.
The Significance of Textual Variants
1. The Quantity: It’s estimated there are between 200,000 and 400,000 textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts. However, this number can be misleading. Considering the vast number of manuscripts (over 5,898 Greek New Testament manuscripts alone), many of these variants are repeated across multiple copies.
2. The Quality: Most textual variants are minor and don’t impact the meaning of the text. For instance, a significant portion consists of spelling errors. Only about 1% of variants have a meaningful impact on the text, and even fewer have both meaningful and viable differences (i.e., have support from reliable manuscripts).
3. Doctrinal Impact: No central Christian doctrine is based solely on a disputed passage. Even if we removed all the debated verses from the New Testament, the fundamental beliefs of Christianity would remain unchanged.
4. The Evolution of the New Testament Text: The early mosaic of Christianity witnessed the New Testament thrive in various local texts. Each geographical area, be it Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Carthage, or Rome, had its distinct version. These “local texts” evolved as congregations grew, each preserving their unique readings and renderings. Interestingly, by analyzing quotations in writings from Church Fathers linked to these primary ecclesiastical centers, we can identify the text type of certain New Testament manuscripts.
However, over time, mixing of texts happened. For instance, an Alexandrian manuscript of Mark taken to Rome might influence Rome’s previously dominant text form. Still, during the earliest centuries, distinctive text types generally held their ground against mixing.
5: Major Text Types of the New Testament:
1. Alexandrian Text: Often deemed the best and closest to the original, the Alexandrian text is known for its brevity and austerity. Main witnesses include codex Vaticanus and codex Sinaiticus from the fourth century, with 𝔓66 and 𝔓75 papyri tracing back to the second century.
2. Western Text: Tracing back to the second century, this text is prevalent across various regions, including North Africa and Italy. Characterized by its paraphrasing tendency, it often adds traditional or apocryphal elements. Major manuscripts include Codex Bezae and Codex Claromontanus.
3. Eastern Text: Once labeled the “Caesarean text,” this type mixes Western and Alexandrian readings. While the existence of a specific Caesarean text-type is debated, significant witnesses like manuscript Θ and the Armenian version stand out.
4. Byzantine Text: Emerging as a predominant text in the later centuries, this form, known for its clarity and thoroughness, aimed to iron out textual roughness and merge varying readings. Although prevalent in the Byzantine Empire, its association with the “Textus Receptus” made it the backbone of many modern translations until the 19th century.
6. From Manuscripts to Print: The Textus Receptus: Erasmus’s 1516 Greek Testament, the first printed edition, heavily depended on later Byzantine texts available to him, even resorting to the Latin Vulgate for the book of Revelation. This text, along with subsequent editions by Stephanus and Beza, popularized what became known as the “Textus Receptus” – the “received text.” Remarkably, the King James Bible translators extensively used Beza’s text.
The term “Textus Receptus” originates from the Elzevirs’ 1633 edition, implying this was the text accepted by all. While largely reflective of the Byzantine form, it carried centuries of scribal modifications. For nearly four centuries, this form underpinned most New Testament translations into modern languages.
7. Restoration of the New Testament Text: A Historical Overview: The restoration and understanding of the New Testament text have been driven by the tireless efforts of numerous scholars over the centuries. Their contributions have shed light on the diverse textual traditions, ultimately culminating in the critical texts that are widely accepted today.
The restoration and understanding of the New Testament text have been driven by the tireless efforts of numerous scholars over the centuries. Their contributions have shed light on the diverse textual traditions, ultimately culminating in the critical texts that are widely accepted today.
Brian Walton (1600-1661) Brian Walton was an English bishop and scholar. He is most renowned for the “Biblia Polyglotta,” a multilingual Bible that gathered several versions of the text in different languages, side by side. This work was groundbreaking as it laid a foundation for comparative textual analysis, helping scholars discern variations in the manuscript tradition.
John Mill (1645-1707) John Mill’s monumental work on the Greek New Testament in 1707 remains a seminal endeavor in New Testament textual criticism. He painstakingly collated textual variants from a vast number of manuscripts, early translations, and citations from the church fathers. Though Mill did not create a new Greek text, he highlighted around 30,000 textual differences, spotlighting the richness and complexity of the textual tradition.
Johann Jakob Wettstein (1693-1754) Wettstein’s noteworthy contribution was his methodical classification system for the Greek New Testament manuscripts. He expanded the horizon of textual criticism by incorporating more external evidence, especially from early Christian writers and translations.
Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752) Bengel is revered for being one of the pioneers of the modern textual criticism approach. He proposed the rule “The more difficult reading is to be preferred,” suggesting that scribes would most likely change a challenging reading to something simpler, rather than vice versa.
Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812) Griesbach further developed the methods of Bengel and Wettstein. He’s noted for proposing the concept of ‘recension,’ a process where he believed the New Testament text underwent revision. Griesbach’s editions of the Greek New Testament laid the foundation for future scholars.
Karl Lachmann (1793-1851) Breaking from the Textus Receptus, Lachmann was the first to produce a Greek New Testament based solely on ancient evidence, primarily manuscripts from before the 4th century. This move was revolutionary and marked a significant turn in textual criticism.
Konstantin Von Tischendorf (1815-1874) Tischendorf’s relentless search for ancient manuscripts led to the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the most ancient complete New Testaments. His editions of the Greek New Testament incorporated this and other old manuscripts, moving the field of textual criticism further away from the Textus Receptus.
B. F. Westcott (1825-1901) and F. J. A. Hort (1828-1892) The collaborative work of Westcott and Hort represents a significant milestone in New Testament textual criticism. They proposed that the New Testament text’s integrity was preserved in what they identified as the “Neutral Text,” primarily represented by the Codex Vaticanus. Their The New Testament in the Original Greek (1881) has had a lasting influence, setting a new standard for critical editions.
Kurt Aland (1915-1994) and Barbara Aland (b. 1937) Kurt and Barbara Aland continued the tradition of rigorous textual criticism into the 20th and 21st centuries. Their work on the Novum Testamentum Graece, or the Nestle-Aland edition, has been foundational. The Alands expanded the apparatus of the edition, including more manuscript evidence and refining the categorization of manuscripts.
Bruce Metzger (1914-2007) Metzger’s influence in New Testament textual criticism is profound. He collaborated closely with the Alands and played a pivotal role in producing the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, which became the standard for many modern translations. His book, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, co-authored with Bart D. Ehrman, remains a staple text for students of the discipline.
The 28th edition of the 2012 Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament This edition, largely built on the work of the scholars mentioned above, is a testament to the continuous evolution of the field of New Testament textual criticism. The 28th edition introduced changes in the Catholic Epistles, moving the text closer to the earlier 20th-century scholars’ findings, incorporating more recent scholarly consensus, and including papyri not previously listed.
The journey of New Testament textual criticism is a detailed chronicle filled with dedicated scholars, rigorous research, and significant discoveries. From the foundational work of scholars like Walton and Mill to the meticulous methodologies of Westcott, Hort, and the Alands, the field has consistently striven to get as close to the original text of the New Testament as possible.
8. Toward a Closer Original: Modern Textual Criticism: The 19th century witnessed a shift. Scholars, equipped with a wealth of manuscripts and equipped with critical tools, sought to move closer to the original New Testament text. Lachmann’s groundbreaking effort in 1831 set the pace. Notable editions by Tischendorf and, importantly, Westcott and Hort in 1881 further refined our understanding. With 20th-century discoveries of even older papyrus manuscripts, we’ve come closer to the New Testament’s original wording.
Why Confidence Remains
The sheer quantity of New Testament manuscripts is a significant advantage. With such an abundance of copies, we can compare and contrast to deduce the original readings. This wealth of manuscripts, spanning various times and regions, provides a robust framework for textual criticism, allowing scholars to reconstruct the original text with a high degree of confidence.
Additionally, the time gap between the original New Testament writings and our earliest copies is relatively short compared to other ancient documents. This reduces the window for significant alterations to the text before copies were widely circulated and preserved.
Textual variants in the New Testament, while numerous, are not a cause for alarm. Rigorous academic study and comparison of manuscripts have allowed scholars to understand these variants better, reassuring us of the New Testament’s trustworthiness. While some passages might remain debated, the core message and teachings of the New Testament are clear and consistent. As believers and scholars, it’s crucial to approach these variants with an understanding of their nature, causes, and significance, affirming our confidence in the Scriptures as God’s inspired Word. Facts that cannot be denied are that the 2012 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament is 99.5% the exact wording as the 1881 Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament. This is the case even though there were 144 Greek New Testament papyri discovered in the 20th century, a number of which date within decades of the originals. These papyri validated the tremendous job Wescott and Hort did. With the 1881 Westcott and Hort Greek text and the 28th edition of the 2012 Nestle Aland, we can now say that we have a 99.99% mirror-like reflection of the originals.