The Bible has been copied and translated so many times that no one can know what Jesus really said.
You can’t possibly believe the Bible is a reliable source of God’s truth! You don’t have the original documents, and no two copies of any manuscript are the same.
If statements like these worry you, infuriate you, or befuddle you, maybe this brief post will help. None of these reactions are necessary, and Christians can be comfortably secure in the tenacious reliability of the Bible. There are many ways one might argue for the reliability of the Bible, but the angle I am going to take here will address something called textual variants.
A textual variant is any difference in spelling, wording, or word order when comparing one manuscript to another (see Dr. Wallace’s article HERE). When we compare each manuscript of the New Testament with the others, we notice textual variants. Copyists differed from one another… often.
The number of textual variants among the New Testament manuscripts currently total about 400,000. This may be staggering (especially if you are new to the idea of textual variants and manuscript comparison), but you can take a deep breath. I’d like to argue that the Bible is tenaciously reliable, and I’ll try to do that through a closer look at textual variants.
First, textual variants are additions, not subtractions. I do not mean that no manuscript copy leaves anything out. I do mean to say that no textual variant removes any information from our treasury of data.
Quite simply, the textual variants in the New Testament manuscript tradition provide 1,074 pieces (not a technically precise number) to a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. We do not have to wonder if we have all the words of the original authors; we are merely left with the task of fitting the pieces together appropriately and leaving the extras on the side.
Second, textual variants are numerous because we have so many manuscript copies of the New Testament. 400,000 is a lot! Yes, that is true, and it is also to be expected. We currently have nearly 6,000 Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament. That is about 10 times as many as copies Homer’s Iliad and 600 times as many as copies as Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars.
In addition to the Greek manuscript copies, we also have Latin, Slavic, Syriac, Armenian, and others, totaling nearly 20,000. That’s over 25,000 manuscript copies! And, while most copies are not complete New Testament manuscripts, the average length of the content for each one is about 450 pages of written text. The sheer volume of text makes the number of variants (even 400,000 of them) much less surprising for any honest observer.
More manuscript copies (not less) is a very good thing, and these numerous manuscripts are going to contain variants. However, variants do not have to mean uncertainty or confusion. Allow me to illustrate with a very simplistic exercise.
Consider the following copies of an original sentence, and see if you can deduce the original text from the copies I have provided below.
Tha dog ran.
The dag ran.
The dag run.
Tho dod ran.
What is the original sentence? Do you know it? If so, how can you be sure? Not one of these copies is without error, and there are five textual variants in all. That’s five textual variants compared to only three words! How could you possibly know the original statement?
Well, the original is “The dog ran,” of course. You knew that already because the textual variants were understandable errors which did nothing to meaningfully change the text. You also benefit from having more than one or two copies of the original. In fact, more copies would only give you greater certainty as to the original statement – even if every one of those copies added more variants.
This crude and simple illustration helps us to begin to understand the treasure we have in the numerous New Testament manuscript copies. Yes, there are many more variants than we would like; but these variants do not have to obscure the original text, and the greater amount of information only benefits the inquirer.
Third, less than 0.5% of the total number of textual variants in the New Testament manuscript copies are viable. The viability of a variant is measured by the reasonable possibility that the variant could be the original. In other words, the textual critical scholars are not particularly sure if the standard word is original or if the variant word is actually the original (and, therefore, should be the standard). It could be either one, but there is usually a greater possibility of one rendering over another.
Furthermore, only a small number of the viable variants are also meaningful. If a viable variant is meaningful it would change the meaning of the passage or verse, depending on which rendering is original. For example, if my copies listed above would have included “runs” and “ran” an equal number of times and each variation had come from a broad spectrum of sources (date and location), then the variant would be both viable and meaningful. One transmission would be present-tense, singular, indicative and the other would be past-tense, singular, indicative. This would, at least slightly, change the meaning of the text.
Consequently, we can be highly confident that 99.5% of the words in our New Testament are exactly what the original authors wrote. This is incredible accuracy and confidence!
Fourth, all viable textual variants are documented. It is bothersome that there are any viable textual variants, much more frustrating is the idea that some of those are meaningful. However, most modern translations include their textual critical notes as footnotes on each page of Scripture. This means that the reader can know the possible renderings and interpret the passage accordingly.
As was mentioned above, we have too many pieces of the puzzle, not too few. We have 100% of the original New Testament text, plus a handful of potentially authentic alternate renderings in the footnotes. This is a treasury beyond compare!
Fifth, no doctrine or historical fact of Christianity is at risk in any of the viable and meaningful variants. Even today’s best-known textual critical scholar in opposition to biblical Christianity cannot find any significant evidence of doctrine at risk. Dr. Bart Ehrman is certainly not the first textual critical scholar to express antipathy towards orthodox and historic Christianity, but he has proven himself uniquely capable of popularizing such antagonism.
In a brilliantly-worded article (see it HERE), Dr. Ehrman argues that there are significant and meaningful variants. However, the evidence he provides is utterly laughable, especially when it comes from someone of such a sharp intellect. Dr. Ehrman is quite capable of spinning a tale, but he is not able to demonstrate that anything faithful Christians have learned from diligent Bible study is untrue or even at slight risk.
In conclusion, the manuscript copies we have are an “embarrassment of riches” not a problematic heap of chaotic errors (see Dr. Wallace’s argument HERE). Christians can celebrate manuscript discoveries and the clarity we continue to gain from them. Christians can also trust that the Bible they have in their hands is an accurate and faithful transmission of the God-breathed original text of the prophets and Apostles.
Of course, there are good, bad, and better translations, but that is a topic deserving its own treatment…