Aren’t there 400,000 Variants or Errors in the New Testament? (II)

The fourth category is generally considered to be “minor textual variants‟. They are significant. They are the kind of things that textual critics pay attention to. But they are of such a nature that they do not even show up in translation. The Greek language has a definite article like English – “the book”, “the house”. Although in Greek it was common practice to include the definite article with a proper name – “the Jesus”, “the Peter”. We do not translate them that way into English because it would be incorrect grammar. When you have two manuscripts – one including the definite article with a name, and the other omitting the definite article with that name – it is a textual variant. Another example of a minor textual variant exists because Greek is an inflected language, so the endings of the words encode things like parts of speech. When writing in Greek you could put the words in a sentence in a variety of different orders. In English we use word order to communicate parts of speech – the subject comes before the verb, the direct object follows, etc. If there are two manuscripts that have identical wording, but have a different order of the words, then that is a textual variant. Textual critics will pay attention to it. But it is not going to affect meaning for the most part. It is not even going to show up in a translation. A huge portion of the 400,000 fall in this category.

In this two-part response, we have covered four categories so far: ‘blunders’, ‘unviable readings’, ‘orthographic variations’, and ‘minor textual variants’. In these four categories, we have covered about 99% of the 400,000 variants. As a textual critic, these are the kinds of things that I try to convince my students are important. Needless to say, I have a hard time persuading them to pay attention to these four types of variants. My students will look at the field and the kind of textual variant, and consider them to be insignificant.

Lastly, we are left with the major textual variants. These are viable, show up in translation, and affect meaning. There are probably about 3,500 to 4,000 of them depending on what apparatus you look at. Yet even these are generally not the kinds of things that will make you wonder what Paul’s theology was, or what Matthew wrote about Jesus saying, etc. They will not cause people to question whether they understand the Biblical text. Last semester my class was studying Romans. Coming to Romans 5:1, I forewarned my students that there was a major textual variant, and I asked them to find it in their Greek New Testament or their study Bibles in preparation. The next day they came into class puzzled having no idea what I was referring to. In Romans 5:1 you have two text traditions. In one, Paul writes “we have peace with God.” In the other, it is written “let us have peace with God.” This is a major textual variant. One is an indicative statement and the other is a hortatory imperatival. I thought this was a big deal, but the students read the verse in the context of Romans 4-5 and still knew what Paul meant despite not knowing which tradition was correct. The vast majority of the 1% left in the 400,000 is made up of similar instances. Did Paul write “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” or “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ?” Did Paul write “the Lord Jesus Christ” or “the Lord Jesus?” To a textual critic, these are major variants. Unfortunately, this is not what is thought of when the 400,000 number is asserted.

There are a number of major textual critics where big things may be at stake – the story of the woman caught in adultery, the long ending of Mark. But because we do theology systematically, no issue of theology rests on any one of these things. We do still need to do textual criticism. Students still need to read and pay attention to these things, but they do not need to lose confidence that they do not know what the Bible says.