Why the variety in Bibles, and is that a problem?

By Nate Wilson, 2012, for Christ the Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS


If you have read my sermon transcripts on the church website, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been footnoting differences among the ancient New Testament manuscripts. I was reminded of this issue when I got an article in the mail from a pastor friend today about the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts, so I thought I’d write about this.

The books of the New Testament, which were written by the apostles in the first century, were hand-copied for over a thousand years until the invention of the printing press which allowed for mass-production of standardized versions. Now, anything that gets hand-copied is likely to be a little different from the original, and scholars have found hundreds of these hand-copied Greek New Testament manuscripts dating all the way back to the second century, so the variants between these copies from one century to the next can be compared. If you plot the number of manuscripts per century, you find that the closer you get to the present day the more manuscripts were copied – which stands to reason, as the population of Christians grew over time. However, it is important to note that the variations between these manuscripts is vanishingly small. To put it into perspective, the differences between the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are far smaller and fewer than the differences between our different English translations of the Bible.

Now, in the present day, there are four basic Greek New Testament editions being printed: 1) the Majority text (which compiled the New Testament according to which wording has the most manuscripts supporting it, which is thereby weighted in favor of the midieval texts because that's when the most copying went on), 2) the Byzantine text (also known as the Patriarchial text, which is what the Greek Orthodox Church uses and which is almost exactly the same as the Majority text), 3) the Textus Receptus (which was compiled by a Roman Catholic scholar in Germany named Erasmus, who lived at the time of Luther), and 4) the Critical Text printed by the United Bible Societies today. Erasmus used only a few Byzantine-era manuscripts to compile the Textus Receptus, but he didn’t have a complete Greek manuscript of the book of Revelation, so he back-translated that from the Latin Vulgate. Thus the Textus Receptus is almost identical to the Majority and Byzantine texts except for the book of Revelation. Because it was printed in Europe during the time of the Reformation when reformers were interested in going back to the original text of the Bible, the Textus Receptus was very popular with most protestant reformers and is the Greek text from which the KJV was translated. In the 1800’s, however, some Greek manuscripts of the New Testament dating back to second, third, and fourth centuries (called the Alexandrian text) were discovered by European scholars who compared them with the other known manuscripts and compiled what is known as the Critical Text, which gave preference to these newly-discovered, older manuscripts in the few cases where they differed from the Byzantine Majority. This Critical Text is the basis of the NASB, NIV, ESV, and other more recent English translations.

Adherents to the traditional Textus Receptus criticize the Critical Text for a variety of reasons, some of which I think are invalid: The charge that modern versions omit words in the KJV (and its underlying Textus Receptus) is not reasonable because it could just as well be argued that scribes added these words in the Textus Receptus, and nobody is going to get anywhere with that argument. Next, the charge that the modern versions ignore the vast majority of Greek manuscripts also fails to be convincing because the majority of manuscripts are a thousand years removed from the original, and the smaller number of Greek Manuscripts only a hundred years or so from the original are of considerable interest. The argument that the Textus Receptus was received by the reformers and others doesn’t prove much in my opinion because it’s not like there were other editions of the Greek New Testament that they had access to. It has also been argued that since some of the scholars who discovered the oldest New Testament manuscripts in the 1800’s and 1900’s were non-Christians, their research should be dismissed out-of-hand, but I think that while we should be on guard against error being introduced by non-Christians, nevertheless, non-Christians are capable of honest research in the science of manuscript dating and textual analysis, and their work should be considered. I have also heard it argued that the more-recently-discovered manuscripts are different from the traditional majority because they were rejected by their copyiers because there were too many mistakes in them, so they were stored in a vault and never used in the churches, and that is the source of the Alexandrian manuscripts that were discovered. I think that’s not a likely explanation, but I don’t know enough of ancient scribal customs to comment further.

The most convincing argument, in my opinion, against the Critical Text used as the basis for modern English translations of the New Testament is the fact that the Byzantine text is all that the Eastern Christians had access to for over a thousand years, and the Textus Receptus is all that most Western Christians access to for hundreds of years. I believe that God would not have allowed an essentially corrupt edition of His word to exist unchallenged like that. God tells us that he will preserve His Word for us from generation to generation (Psalm 12:7, 119:89,152-160, Isaiah 40:8, Matthew 4:4, 24:35, John 10:352 Tim. 3:16-17) and that adding to or taking away from His word is forbidden (Deut. 4:12, 12:32, Prov. 30:6, Rev. 22:18-19).

I do not believe it is wise to fight against the traditional editions of the Greek New Testament; I think they are good enough. However, I still think that continuing study of the ancient manuscripts is worthy of scientific and academic inquiry and may provide further instruction to Christians as we attempt to emphasize what it clear and interpret the less-clear things by the more clear ones. The truth concerning the documents on which our Bible are based is nothing to be afraid of. God has spoken the truth, and science never has, nor ever will disprove it.

Now, any variation among Bible texts would be very troubling to me if it weren’t for one very important thing: the more I’ve investigated the variants among the different Greek manuscripts, the more I’ve been convinced that they can generally be characterized as synonymous wordings which do not change the meaning or doctrines of the Bible. (The only exceptions are the long, alternate ending to the gospel of Mark – found in the NASB, the story of the woman caught in adultery, and the trinity statement in 1 John 5:7, and even in those cases, there is no contradiction to the rest of the Bible, even if manuscript support is questionable.) When we see the way that Jesus and the apostles quote the Old Testament scriptures in the New Testament, we find that they are not always exactly the same as the source. I think this is because they had a full knowledge of the original wording and of what it meant and of their contemporary language and how God wanted it applied in their day, and they accordingly wrote out those Old Testament paraphrases in a way that was absolutely faithful to their meaning and to God’s will. Two thousand years later, I am not intimately-enough acquainted with Hebrew or Greek to feel comfortable playing with the words, and I think it is therefore the best part of wisdom for me not to change them, but rather to render them as absolutely word-for-word as I can unless I know for sure that I have latitude to go beyond a word-for-word translation – take, for instance the Greek word “Idou,” translated “behold” in the KJV, which I think can faithfully be translated, “Look” or even “Check this out!”

In my sermon preparation, it is absolutely astounding to have chased down variant after variant week after week, year after year, and in every single case find no basic change of meaning or contradiction to other Biblical teachings. It is truly amazing what God has done to preserve His word, despite slight variations in copies. I don’t care whether you translate the New Testament from the Byzantine, Textus Receptus, Majority, or Critical text (as long as the UBS committee doesn’t go off the deep end in a future edition), you have a well-preserved copy of what the apostles wrote, and if you have an English Bible that was translated from one of those by honest Greek scholars (which would rule out dishonest translations like the New World Translation or the work of the Jesus Seminar), then you have a Bible you can trust is truly the word of God.


Return to Nate & Paula Wilson's Homepage