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Navigating Textual Variants

How should we talk about differences in ancient Bible manuscripts?

Matthew Whidden on June 19, 2019

You’ve probably noticed a footnote in your Bible that says, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have … ,” followed by a range of verses. I recently taught a seminar on the Gospels for a group of church laypeople. A few of them had noticed this, and asked about the meaning of it.

What is going on with translations of the New Testament that warrants such an editorial note? The academic field of textual criticism explores the answer.

“Criticism” doesn’t mean these scholars are questioning the Bible’s inspiration. Textual criticism involves analyzing and comparing manuscripts to discern the Bible’s original text. There were no printing presses in ancient times. So, scribes copied manuscripts to produce new ones. Some of these scribes were paid professionals, while others were not.

Many scribes were incredibly faithful in their copying practices, and others were not as meticulous. Regardless, no scribe was perfect, and all manuscripts differ to some extent. These differences are called textual variants.

For centuries, Bible scholars have sorted through thousands of biblical manuscripts with thousands of variants to determine the original text of the New Testament authors.

The overwhelming majority of textual variants are so insignificant that they make little or no difference in reading or understanding the biblical text. These kinds of variations include spelling alterations (in proper names, for example), grammar and article usage, and obvious scribal errors of the eye or hand.

While we don’t know the exact number of New Testament variations, some estimates are in the hundreds of thousands. That may seem like an insurmountably large number, but some leading scholars estimate that less than 1 percent of all variations in New Testament biblical manuscripts amount to issues of substance.

Deeper engagement with Scripture should be a goal for every minister and layperson.

The evidence is clear that textual variants do not challenge any of our major doctrines. However, there are a handful of biblical passages that present an opportunity for deeper study to determine what is original to the biblical text.

Take John 7:53–8:11, for example. The story of the adulterous woman, also known as the pericope adulterae, represents a fascinating illustration for why a close examination of Scripture is essential for ministers and laypeople alike.

Unlike most other Gospel narratives, John 7:53–8:11 does not appear in some of the earliest and most reliable biblical manuscripts. What are students of the Bible supposed to do with that knowledge? How can one reconcile the partial omission of John’s Gospel by a significant portion of reliable manuscripts?

This is the task of the text critic. Utilizing a toolbox of both time-tested practices and new computer mapping technology, teams of textual scholars weigh and balance variants of every verse in the New Testament. The product is a critical edition of the Greek New Testament. Every reputable, modern translation of our New Testament at least develops from the critical editions produced by text critics.

In the case of the pericope adulterae, the manuscript evidence strongly indicates that John 7:53–8:11 was not present before the third century. In fact, the best evidence suggests this passage did not appear until the fifth century.

Based on current evidence, it appears someone inserted the pericope adulterae in the biblical text in the ensuing centuries after John wrote his Gospel. Because of this, critical editions of the New Testament omit it from their text. Bible translators then choose to insert footnotes, similar to the one my church laity noticed, based on the long historical precedent of accepting the passage in the Church. This is how textual criticism affects our copies of the New Testament.

Congregants and community members often see pastors and church leaders as experts on the Bible — whether it’s true or not! Thus, deeper engagement with Scripture, and awareness of the underlying text we find in our New Testament translations, should be a goal for every minister and layperson. Healthy, critical engagement with biblical texts can only strengthen our Fellowship.

If you are interested in further pursuing the topic of textual criticism, I suggest Textual Criticism of the Bible: Revised Edition, by Amy Anderson and Wendy Widder. Anderson is a professor of New Testament and Greek at North Central University in Minneapolis. This fantastic resource may prove helpful during those moments when someone calls upon you to be a Bible expert.

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