400,000 variants in the New Testament – that is a big number. I think the 400,000 number is true. I would object to describing all of them as errors. There really are about 400,000 – give or take – variations among all the manuscripts of the New Testament. My objection is that that number does not communicate exactly what the critics want it to communicate. A little bit of information in regards to how we arrive at the number will go a long way in alleviating some of the panic that such a giant number like 400,000 creates. There are only about 135,000 words in the New Testament. So you are looking at that number, thinking 3 variants per word – which is astronomical. I know what kind of impact that has on students‟ psyche. They think “how do I even know what the New Testament said?” To get to that number, you have to know a little bit about textual criticism, and you have to know how to do some counting. What you end up with is about 5 different kinds of textual variations that have to be counted to get to that 400,000 number.
The first kind are what I call ‘blunders’. Before the invention of the printing press, scribes copied manuscripts by hand; and scribes make mistakes. They get tired. They misread. They mishear. They look down and write a word, then look back up and find a wrong word on a page, and they skip things. The ancient manuscripts of the New Testament are filled with mistakes. My college students write papers for me – with spell-check, grammar-check, cut-and-paste, and proofreaders – and they make blunders all the time too. The reason these are the least significant kind of textual variant in our New Testament manuscripts is because they are easy to spot. When a scribe makes a blunder in a manuscript, the reading is almost always nonsensical. Any reasonable person looks at it and knows this scribe made a mistake. Other scribes knew this too. Often you will find scribes skipping over blunders, or correcting them. To get to 400,000, you have to count all these blunders. To be honest, in no other area do textual critics really count these. They are generally not talked about except in a very narrow field trying to identity scribal habits.
The second category of variants – which is also very insignificant – is ‘unviable readings’. These are the kinds of readings that textual critics in no other area take seriously. They are the work of a single scribe. Or they only occur in a single manuscript. Or they only occur in a small number of manuscripts that are very late. For example, if we have a manuscript of Hebrews dated to the 13th century with four extra verses in it – no manuscript before or after it had those verses, meaning no scribe bothered to reproduce them – no textual critic would take those seriously. Those are nonviable. Although textual critics in every other field rarely do, you do have to count all of these to reach the 400,000 number.
The next category in terms of significance and size is called ‘orthographic variations’. These are variations in spelling. The vast majority of the 400,000 are variations in spelling. Sometimes those spelling variations are errors. Most of the time those spelling variations just reflect the fact that spelling was not a very fixed discipline in those days. They reflect that there was regional variation in spelling – the way vowel sounds were put together, and the spelling of names. These are not errors. Before I was a seminary professor, I was a middle school teacher. One of my students won a trip to England, and came back with a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – the British edition of the first Harry Potter novel. Flipping through the book, it was obvious there were major spelling variations. Color was spelled ‘colour’ for example. These are not errors though, and I would not even include those as variations among the editions. Is John’s name spelled with one n or two n’s? Is Matthew‟s name spelled ‘tae thaeda’ or ‘thaeda thaeda’? The answer depends on what part of the world you are in. The vast majority of the 400,000 are made up of those spelling variations. Most of the time, textual critics do not even pay any attention to them. They do not show up in apparatuses; they do not show up in the footnotes of Greek New Testaments; they are not mentioned in study Bibles; because they do not affect meaning. They do not even affect the nuance meaning for the most part.