Aren’t the Number of Textual Variants Subjective?

“Textual critics define a variant as any deviation in wording from a standard text.  Wouldn’t that mean, then, that the precise number of variants cannot be determined until after the process of textual criticism is complete (since it is not until that moment that a standard text comes into being)?  If so, doesn’t that make the number of variants somewhat subjective?

Wouldn’t this also mean that the number of textual variants is always relative to (1) the text the text critic holds up as the standard text, and (2) the stability of that standard text?  Let me explain.

– Regarding (1), if text critic T1 considers the Nestle-Aland (27th edition) Greek text as the standard text, then he would conclude that there is X number of variants since the extant manuscripts differ from his standard text in X number of places.  If text critic T2, however, considers the Farstad-Hodges Greek text as the standard text, then he might conclude that there is Y number of variants since the extant manuscripts differ from his standard text in Y number of places.

– Regarding (2), if the number of variants relative to the Nestle-Aland 27th edition is determined to be X, wouldn’t the number of variants change to X+/-n when the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland text is published (assuming they make different textual decisions in the 28th edition)? If so, then the number of textual variants in the extant manuscripts is not only subjective, but relative as well. Do I have this right?”

You are astute to notice this subjectivity in text critical calculations. However your conclusions that the task of text criticism must be complete in order to begin counting variants, or that the number of variants is subjective, are not necessarily the case. There are a finite number of manuscripts, and therefore a finite number of variants. While comparing one manuscript A against two differing base texts B1 and B2 will result in a different number of discrepancies between A and B1 or B2, the total number of variants between those three texts would be a finite number. This number can be calculated by adding the number of unique differences between A and B1, between A and B2, and between B1 and B2.  This calculation is relative to the number of manuscripts compared, but it is not subjective since there is a finite and objectively quantifiable number of variants.

So in your example, T1 might say that the number of variants listed in NA27 is X, and T2 might say that the number of variants listed in Farstad-Hodges is Y, they could both agree that the number of variants between the base texts of NA27 and Farstad-Hodges are Z.

However the number of actual variants does not depend on the base text used. Your approach assumes that for any given textual problem, there exists the standard base text (B), and the number of deviations or variations from B (V1, V2, V3, and so on).  So in a hypothetical case, NA27 presents a certain text (B) in its body, with a footnote listing three other variants (V1, V2, and V3). According to your method of calculation, this would mean that there are 3 variants for that textual problem. However, NA27 also includes the evidence for the body text B in its footnote, so that there are not actually 3 variants, but 4: V1, V2, V3, and B. The editors of NA27 have made an editorial decision to include B based on numerous factors, but the facts of textual criticism are that a choice has been made there between 4 options, not 3. Furthermore, NA27 does not list every known variant for a given problem, but rather the most interesting and viable variants. The majority of variants are differences of spelling or nonsense readings which are inconsequential in determining the original text in a given problem. The total number of variants, including those which appear in the body text of a critical edition such as NA27 are greater than 400,000! A great example of an attempt to list every known variant in a book of the New Testament is Hoskier’s edition of Revelation, Legg’s edition of Mark, or vonSoden’s or Tischendorf’s editions of the New Testament. The use of a critical text such as NA27 or Farstad-Hodges are just attempts to organize and choose between variants based on certain principles of text criticism.

While numerous texts have been proposed as base texts from which do compare individual manuscripts, scholars do not agree on a standard base text. While this means that attempts to count variations from a base text will differ depending on the base text used, the actual number of variants, including the variant reflected in the base text [“T” in the example above] does not change, all other things being equal. There are a finite number of manuscripts, and therefore a finite number of variants.

The exciting thing about textual criticism is that new manuscripts are still being discovered, which increases our knowledge about the textual transmission of the New Testament. It is important to note however, that while new manuscript discoveries can reveal new information about the history of the transmission of the New Testament text, the sheer volume of manuscripts we have for the New Testament means that the New Testament textual record is overwhelmingly complete. While NA28 will reflect the manuscript discoveries since the publication of NA27, the body text will differ only slightly. The likelihood of a new manuscript being discovered which drastically alters our understanding of the original text is exceedingly unlikely.

Paul Wheatley, ThM
Dallas Theological Seminary