Textual Transmission & Variants: A Clear Look

One of the biggest scams that critics and skeptics of the New Testament proclaim in regards to the validity and purity of the N.T. text is the amount of textual variants that we have in the manuscript (MS) tradition. It is often said by critics, and rightfully so, that we have about 400,000 textual variants in the Manuscript tradition, up and against about 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament. Hence, we have about a 3:1 ration of variants/N.T. words. It is not my intent to challenge these facts because they are indeed accurate. However, when this is all that is being said about the MS tradition, it is only a half-truth.

Types of Variants:

There are four basic types of textual variants that exist in the MS tradition, which can be summarized as follows;

1)   Spelling differences or nonsense readings (e.g., a skipped line)

2)    Inconsequential word order (“Christ Jesus” vs. “Jesus Christ”) and synonyms

3)   Meaningful, though non-viable variants (e.g., the Comma Johanneum)

4)   Variants that are both meaningful and viable[i]

Of these four “types” of variants, it is only the fourth category that places any significant challenge on the New Testament text, and this category consists of less than one percent (1%) of all textual variants. Here is an illustration of the before and after when the first three categories of textual variants are eliminated:

Textual Variants Before Removal of First Three "Types"


Textual Variants AFTER Removal of First Three "Types"

Of the 400,000 variants, there are only about 1500-2000 meaningful and viable variants and Scholars believe that the majority of these are scribal errors of sight or hearing. This is 1% or less of the New Testament. Hence, we have a 99+ % assurance that the text of the NT is what was penned from the original author. Also, NOT ONE cardinal doctrine is affected by a textual variant. It is the same Christianity regardless of the type of textual variant that is being spoken of; a point that even Bart Ehrman readily agrees to. Next, Jesus and His followers used the Greek LXX which had variant readings from the Hebrew. The point being, if this method of textual transmission was good enough for the Eternal Logos, it should be good enough for us. Moreover, it only stands to reason that the more MSS you have, the more variation you have. When looked at from this perspective, the amount of variants is in actually, a good thing (and what would one expect from hand written documents to begin with). And most of these do not have any bearing on accurate translation. In short, we have a 99+% pure line of textual transmission with no key doctrine in doubt. I leave you with this helpful quotation from Dr. Wayne Grudem;

“For most practical purposes, then, the current published scholarly texts of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament are the same as the original manuscripts. Thus, when we say that the original manuscripts were inerrant, we are also implying that over 99 percent of the words in our present manuscripts are also inerrant, for they are exact copies of the original. Furthermore, we know where the uncertain readings are…Thus, our present manuscripts are for most purposes the same as the original manuscripts, and the doctrine of inerrancy therefore directly concerns our present manuscripts as well.”[ii]

[i] Koukl, Gregory (2010-08-23). “Misquoting” Jesus? Answering Bart Ehrman (Solid Ground) (Kindle Location 207). Stand to Reason. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Grudem, Wayne. “Systematic Theology,” Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan: page 96