For every single word in the Bible, there are on average three variances in the thousands of manuscripts we currently possess.
That’s a lot of words and that’s a whole lot more variances.
If this is the case, how can anyone place any amount of confidence in the Bible? How can we be sure that there is any truth at all in the Bible when there are so many variances?
That’s a very good question, and this seems like a huge problem for Christians.
But sometimes the numbers don’t quite tell the whole story.
First off, the reason why there are so many variances is because, unlike any other book from the ancient world, the Bible has so many manuscripts that are still in existence. The numbers of manuscripts in existence for the Bible versus works of Plato, Socrates, Homer’s Iliad, etc. are incomparable. While there are thousands of manuscripts for the Bible, there are only dozens for these other historical documents.
The sheer number of manuscripts of the Bible lead to the number of variances. If there were only 50 manuscripts and there were three variances for every word that would be a huge problem. However, if there are thousands and tens of thousands of manuscripts, and there are hundreds of thousands of words in those manuscripts, the sheer number of hand copied manuscripts would naturally lead to human error variances.
Second, just because there are variances, it does not mean one cannot know what the original text meant. For instance, if there are 19,000 manuscripts that say one thing and then there is a 20 manuscripts that say something different, clearly, the overwhelming numbers of 19,000 manuscripts would outweigh the differences in the 20 manuscripts.
As Biblical scholars have examined the Bible, there are four categories of textual differences:
- Spelling and Nonsense Errors
- Minor Changes that Do Not Affect Translation
- Meaningful Changes that are Not Viable
- Changes that are Both Meaningful and Viable
Let’s take a look at each of these in a little more depth.
Spelling and Nonsense Errors
- This is the single most common textual variant
- The most common of these involves the removable “nu”
- This is an “n” that is placed at the end of certain words when the next word begins with a vowel
- We have the same phenomenon in the English. For instance, we say “a book” and “an apple”
- Nonsense Errors occur when a scribes wrote a word that makes no sense in its context
- For instance, in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, one manuscript reads, “we were like horses among you”
- In the Greek:
- hippoi – horses
- eppioi – gentle
- nepioi – children
- Clearly, the manuscript that reads, “we were horses among you” is in error. Particularly when there is overwhelming manuscript evidence to “we were like children among you.” Both the number of manuscript evidence and logic tells you that the reading of horse is in error
Minor Changes That Do Not Affect Translation
- This is the second most common textual variant
- An example of this is in the use of the definite article with proper names. Greek manuscripts vary in having the definite articile
- The Barnabas – Greek
- Barnabas – English
- Another example of this is in word order. In Greek, the word order does not affect the meaning of the sentence because the text itself identifies who the subject is, who/what the object of the sentence is, which word the verb, adverb, adjective is modifying, etc.
- For instance, “Jesus loves John.” In the English the word order absolutely makes a difference in the meaning of the sentence. However in the Greek, that sentence can be written at least in 16 ways without changing the meaning
Meaningful Changes That Are Not Viable
- An example of such a variation can be found in 1 Thessalonians 2:9. Most manuscripts read, “The gospel of God.” A late medieval copy has “The Gospel of Christ.”
- This is a meaningful change but not viable. When all other manuscripts have the original reading while a late medieval copy has the variant reading, it is hardly plausible that the late manuscript would be the correct reading while all previous readings would be the incorrect reading
Changes That are Both Meaningful and Viable
- This is, by far, the smallest category of textual variations. Less than 1% of all variations are of this kind
- “Meaningful” means that the variations affects one’s understanding of the passage
- An example of this can be found in Romans 5:1, Most manuscripts have “We have peace with God”. Others have “Let us have peace with God”. The difference in the Greek is one letter: echomen vs echomen. One has the short “o” omicron while the other reading has the long “o” omicron.
- “We have peace” – describe the believer’s status with God
- “Let us have peace” – urges Christians to enjoy the experience of peace with God and others
- Although the meaning is different, neither contradicts teachings of scripture elsewhere, and both readings are theologically sound.
Even when we take into consideration all the different variances, there is no cardinal doctrine, no essential truth that is challenged because of textual variance. When it comes to things like the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the empty tomb, justification by faith, the doctrine of the trinity, etc. no variant reading challenges these readings.
In conclusion, the Bible is an incredibly reliable book. There is no other book that has been as much scrutinized and challenged as the Bible. Christians can place great confidence that the Bible is trustworthy, that it is indeed God’s word for us.
Can we trust the Bible? Absolutely!!!