Has the Bible Been Changed Since It Was Written?
“There are more variations among our manuscripts than words in the New Testament.”
Now, there’s a shock-and-awe statement for you, if you’re a Bible-believer. It’s one of Bart Ehrman’s most common refrains. Ehrman, a popular skeptic and professor at University of North Carolina, wants us to think the Bible we have is so messed up, we’ll never know what it’s really supposed to say
In his book Misquoting Jesus he says there are hundreds of thousands of different “textual variants” among all our manuscripts — 400,000, actually. That’s compared to a total of only about 140,000 words in the New Testament. Sounds like a massive problem doesn’t it? Time for Christians to curl up in the fetal position, and just give up?
No, not really; for here’s the thing. When it comes to these textual variants, it’s not how many, it’s what kind. There could be a million variants, and that in itself wouldn’t be a problem for Christians.
When it comes to these textual variants, it’s not how many, it’s what kind.
In fact, the main reason we have so many textual variants is because we have way more ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament than any other work of antiquity. It’s not even close. Now, if we only had one manuscript, there would be zero textual variants. At the same time, though, if we only had one manuscript, with nothing to compare it against, we’d have little idea how accurate it was.
Because we have almost 6,000 manuscripts, though, we have lots to compare. And yes, thousands of variants exist. But let’s take a closer look at them.
Types of Textual Variants
A textual variant arises when a scribe makes an alteration — whether intentionally or inadvertently — to the text he is copying. This was long before Gutenberg. To obtain a copy of a document, someone had to copy it by hand. It’s not hard to imagine how copyists made mistakes — or variants — along the way. As textual critics dissect these variants, they determine whether the variants are meaningful and/or viable. Let me define these terms for you:
- Meaningful – changes the meaning of the text
- Viable – Potentially represents the original wording of the text
With those definitions in place, the textual variants can be subdivided into four different groups:2
- Neither meaningful nor viable
- Viable but not meaningful
- Meaningful but not viable
- Meaningful and viable
I’ll explain each group in turn:
Neither Meaningful Nor Viable
This group includes variants that don’t change the meaning of the text and obviously don’t reflect the intended reading. For example, spelling errors are easy to detect and aren’t original to the text. This group represents about 75 percent (about 300,000) of all textual variants. Bart Ehrman concedes:
To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.
Viable But Not Meaningful
This group includes all the spelling differences, word order changes, and synonyms.
For example, some Greek manuscripts spell John with two “n’s” and others spell it with one “n.” But it’s John either way. Another common spelling difference in the Greek texts is the movable nu, a difference equivalent to the article “a” or “an” in English. Again, it doesn’t affect our English reading.
Word order changes don’t change the meaning of the text either, since Greek is a highly inflected language. What that means is that word endings, not word order, tells you whether a word serves (for example) as subject or an object in a sentence. Leading textual expert Dan Wallace has argued that you can write John loves Mary over 1,000 different ways in Greek. One thousand different ways! But if you were to translate each of those 1,000 sentences from Greek to English, you would translate them the exact same way.
Synonyms have no affect on the reading of the text, either. For example, two different words in Greek are translated as the conjunction “but” in English. There are several examples like this.
In the end, none of these variants change the reading of the text one bit.
Meaningful But Not Viable
These are variants that would change the meaning of the text, except there is no chance they represent the original text. These types of variants are especially common among the earliest manuscripts. Bart Ehrman likes to remind everyone that amateurs copied our earliest manuscripts and made a lot of mistakes in their copying. This much is true. What he typically fails to mention, though, is that their changes are generally easy to spot.
For example, John 1:30 reads, “after me comes a man.” One manuscript, however, reads, “after me comes air.” Now, unless John the Baptist was referring to some bad locusts he just ate, this is a nonsense reading. It’s especially clear when you look at the context that “man” is the correct translation because he was referring to Jesus coming after him.
Again, Ehrman admits as much:
Most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the results of mistakes, pure and simple — slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.5
When you total up these three categories of textual variants that don’t change the meaning of the text, they represent over 99 percent of all textual variants. In fact, Dan Wallace argues that it’s more like 99.75 percent of all variants.6
Meaningful and Viable
The last remaining category of variants, representing one-quarter of 1 percent, change the meaning of the text, and there is a chance they represent the original reading. That is to say, scholars are confident that we know over 99 percent of the original text of the New Testament by examining all the manuscripts. With that being said, the small remaining percentage is still important, so we shouldn’t dismiss the variants glibly.
Romans 8:2 is one example where scholars aren’t certain on the original reading. Paul writes, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set “you” free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” Some manuscripts, however, read “me” instead of “you.”
Romans 5:1 is another significant variant. Paul writes, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Some manuscripts however read “let us have peace with God” instead of “we have peace with God.” The difference is in one Greek letter.
No one is hiding these meaningful-viable variants; they’re well marked in the margins of most Bibles.
In the end, while these textual variants are meaningful and viable, none of them affect any core doctrine of the Christian faith. That is to say, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, justification, the return of Christ — none of these hang in the balance on any textual variants.
The Bible We Have Today Hasn’t Been Changed
In sum, 99.75 percent of all textual variants have no affect our reading of the text. These include spelling errors, word order changes, synonyms and nonsense readings. This means when you read your New Testament today, you can be confident that the text has been preserved for your reading and not radically altered, as some skeptics say.
One wonders why Bart Ehrman titled his book Misquoting Jesus. With all the concessions he makes, Quoting Jesus would have been more accurate.
Ryan Leasure serves as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Moore, SC. He has graduate degrees from Furman University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Prior to becoming a pastor, he taught in the public school system and became a certified school administrator. Ryan blogs frequently at jesusisnotfakenews.com. He and his wife have two children.