(Original article available here.)
I attended a professional society meeting recently and heard two or three speakers mention that when they had attended seminary they learned that the New Testament has quite a number of variant readings, and that this fact had seriously shaken their faith in an inerrant Bible. We affirm that the Scriptures are inerrant in the autographs, meaning the actual documents of the original writers. What we have are ancient copies, since none of the autographs have survived today. But this view is regarded by some critical authors today as a convenient dodge on our part. Since we don’t have the autographs, how can we trust that the Bibles we read today are without error? Indeed, some claim that they are filled with serious errors and contradictions, especially because there exist so many variant readings in the various ancient manuscripts.
Now before I address this objection and others to inerrancy based on textual criticism, let me define a few terms and describe the situation in general. I should also add that I will only be addressing the New Testament (NT) situation. Old Testament textual criticism is similar but involves a few specialized issues like the role of the old Greek translations which we will not cover.
First, a "variant reading," or simply "variant," refers to different readings in the ancient copies of any one NT passage where a word, phrase, or even larger units might be different or be missing in some manuscripts. For example, in Eph 1:7 most ancient and medieval Greek manuscripts read the phrase "according to the riches of his grace" but a small handful read "riches of his kindness." In this instance "grace" and "kindness" are spelled similarly in Greek, and the variant is thought to have arisen because of a similar phrase in Rom 2:4. Manuscripts were all tediously copied by hand back then, and the errors of a tired copyist like this are perfectly understandable and appear from time to time. Even still, there is certainly no heresy introduced into the Bible when certain copies of the letter to the Ephesians say that God has forgiven our transgressions out of kindness rather than by grace. God is both kind and gracious. The fact is that no NT variant reading introduces insoluble heresy.
Secondly, the "problem" of textual variants of the NT is caused by the wonderful wealth of extant ancient manuscripts. Let us imagine that only one ancient copy of Hebrews had survived into our time. There would obviously be no variants because we would have only the one manuscript. But the fact is, we have well over 5,000 ancient and Byzantine copies of the Greek NT, not to mention dozens of ancient translations into other languages like Latin, Syriac, Coptic, or Georgic which are used to deduce ancient readings. Furthermore, the writings of the early church fathers are often filled with verbatim quotations of NT passages which show us the early readings available to them. And early fathers like Clement or Ignatius were writing at around AD 95 and 115 respectively, so they represent very early testimony to the readings of the autographs.
The marvel of possessing such an incredible number of ancient copies of the NT is best appreciated when we compare this with the state of the ancient Greek, comic playwright, Menander (342–291 BC). Like Shakespeare, Menander became hugely popular only after his death. His plays enjoyed quite a long and widespread popularity well past the NT period as evidenced by a number of sources including the Menander House in Pompeii, a fresco from a scene in a Menander play found in a private villa at second century AD Ephesus, or a third century AD mosaic depicting Menander from a suburb of Antioch in Syria. Many of the pithy, moral sayings from his plays entered the popular culture and were often written up in collections of such things including one which Paul quotes in 1 Cor 15:33: "Bad company corrupts good morals."
Now we would expect to have a fair number of copies of the works of such a popular author, but the fact is that until the early 20th century, only fragments of his plays were known and even now we have only one complete play of Menander filled out from one papyrus manuscript copied roughly 500+ years after the playwright’s death, and that was not published until 1958. Granted, this may seem to be an extreme case, but the number of ancient copies of many other Greek authors may only be in the dozens at best. Clearly, the NT enjoys an embarrassment of riches in ancient Greek manuscripts and translations in comparison!
Along with such a high number of ancient manuscripts of the NT naturally come thousands of differences in these hand-written copies. Copyist errors account for a large number of these differences. Imagine if you were to sit down and copy the NT (over 405 single-column pages in one modern English version). How many errors do you think you would unwittingly make, especially writing hour after hour in a cold dark room? For example, one set of errors are known to occur as the copyist’s eye jumped from the exemplar to his copy and back hundreds of thousands of times. This is particularly exacerbated by the ancient practice of writing in letters of one size with no spacing between words and only minimal punctuation at best. Let us say you were to copy these opening lines from the Gospel of John:
One common copy error occurred when the scribe looked to his copy to write "and," but in putting his eye back to the exemplar he unwittingly jumped to a later occurrence of "and," skipping the material in between. These kinds of copy errors in the manuscripts are fairly easy to spot with a little imagination and experience.
Now when you hear about thousands of variants in the NT, it may seem plausible that more weighty variants would arise than these kind of copy errors, which is indeed the case. These more significant variants, however, never make our Bibles suspect of grave error. To show this, I would like to look fairly closely at a substantive sampling of variants rather than to discuss them in a general way. I’ve selected the variants in Eph 1:1—14, which typify the kind one finds in the NT manuscripts.
The variant readings discussed below are reported in the Nestle-Aland 27th edition of the Greek NT (NA27). There are other variants in the manuscripts, but these are mostly trivial differences of spellings, of word order, and the like; the NA27 gives all the variants of any real interest.
There are 14 variant readings given in the NA27 for Eph 1:1–14, averaging one per verse. Here is the breakdown:
Four verses with no variant readings (vv. 2, 5, 8, 12)
Four verses with one variant reading (vv. 3, 4, 10, 14)
Four verses with two variant readings (vv. 6, 7, 11, 13)
Two verses with three variant readings (vv. 1 and 9)
Ten of the 14 variants are trivial, meaning that the meaning of the text is not impacted in any significant way. For example, v. 1 has the variation in word order "of Jesus Christ" or "of Christ Jesus" divided among the ancient manuscripts. A few early and later manuscripts insert "all" in the phrase "to (all) the saints who are" in v. 1. Twice (vv. 4 and 9) there is a variation in the spelling of "in him" to "in himself" (with the addition of one Greek letter), but this simply makes the pronoun more explicitly reflexive—a meaning the personal pronoun may already carry in Greek. In v. 6 the phrase "in the Beloved" is filled out with the words "in his beloved Son," which simply makes the identity of the Son here more explicit. This last example illustrates the tendency in later scribes to clarify what the text they were copying already implied. In some cases these later copies act like ancient commentaries on the text and can be quite helpful for understanding the grammar and meaning of the Greek. Obviously, the meaning of Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 1 is not changed in any way by these variant readings.
In some cases, the trivial variant readings involve the change of one character in a word. In v. 13, for example, "we" and "our" is found in later manuscripts for "you" and "your" respectively through the change of one character in each word (an eta for an upsilon), which were pronounced the same in some locales and thereby prone to confusion. This is actually a variation found in a number of places in the NT manuscripts, and while the difference of meaning may be interesting, it in no way moves the text into erroneous teaching.
Some of the other trivial variants are merely stylistic. For example, in v. 10 some scribes used a more common, synonymous preposition for "in" in the phrase "things in heaven" while a few manuscripts further added a nice untranslated conjunction in keeping with a more literary convention in the Greek of their day. Furthermore, there are some variants in Eph 1:1–14 that appear in only a few manuscripts. For example, "and Father" in the phrase "the God and Father of our Lord" in v. 3 is missing in one manuscript according to the NA27. It is obvious one scribe simply made a mistake for some reason. If others had used this copy as an exemplar, the "error" would have been passed on down through more and more copies. But again, this may simply be a copy error; it introduces no doctrinal error into the Scriptures. The difference between a copy error and a doctrinal error here should be underlined.
So far, 10 of the 14 textual variations found in Eph 1:1–14 have been trivial. However, there are four that are worthy of more careful consideration. What should be emphasized at this point is one key observation. The opponents of inerrancy speak about an error-ridden Bible because of the variations in the copies. But the vast majority of these variants—as we have seen—make no difference whatsoever in the meaning of the biblical text, and those that may (like the omission of "and Father" in v. 3) do not impact our understanding of biblical truth. The relation of God as the Father of the incarnate Lord Jesus does not depend on Eph 1:3. Because of the complete clarity and widespread redundancy in Scripture, no essential doctrine of our faith is based on any doubtful text. Indeed, notice the teaching contained in Eph 1:2–6, 8–10, and 12–13 where there are either no textual variants at all or only trivial ones given in the NA27—there is no reason to question the reading of these verses in any way, even in their most subtle nuances, because of textual variants. So even if there are four significant variants, the general flow of the discourse in Eph 1:1–14 is perfectly clear and without serious doubt. It is the nature of human communication that we can leave out or change individual words in statements without changing the essential meaning. One has only to read Lewis Carroll’s "Jabberwocky" to find a delightful example of this phenomenon!
Now let’s look at the four weighty variants from Eph 1:1–14 and see what they look like. The first is the change of the word "riches of grace" (charitos) to "riches of kindness" (chrêstotêtos) in v. 7 found in a handful of Greek manuscripts—including the important Alexandrinus—and at least one ancient translation. The word kindness here is probably not the original reading, and even if it were, the text would not say anything substantively different as already noted. I call it a weighty variant only because it seems not to be a mechanical scribal mistake and it does appear in the important early witness Alexandrinus.
In the second variant the Greek verb eklêrôthêmen at the beginning of v. 11 is changed. This verb is rendered as "we have obtained an inheritance" in the KJV, NASB (with "we were made a heritage" in the margin) and ESV, but as "we were chosen" in NIV. The different renderings represents the difficulty of understanding the verb here, since it usually refers to appointing or receiving something by casting lots. When ancient scribes encountered a difficult reading like this, they sometimes substituted a clearer word either intentionally or not. In this case, eklêrôthêmen was replaced by eklêthêmen "we were called" (deleting the two letters "rô" in the middle) in a minority of manuscripts, including important Alexandrinus again, according to NA27. This smooths out the reading. Since scribes tended to make things easier to understand, text critics point out that the more difficult reading (lectio difficilior) is probably the original as is probably the case here.
The third variant is an interesting one theologically. In order to understand this variant you have to know that Greek nouns and pronouns have gender forms like some modern languages besides English. In Greek, the word for "spirit" (pneuma), used to refer to the Holy Spirit, is neuter in gender form. In v. 14, the opening relative pronoun "which" refers back to "the Holy Spirit of promise" in v. 13 and is properly neuter in gender form in the text of NA27. However, some early (and most later) manuscripts substitute the masculine gender form of the relative pronoun "who" here, acknowledging the personal character of the Holy Spirit. This is not the only place this occurs in the NT and it is even grammatically acceptable in Greek (and Latin) to substitute a natural gender form for a grammatical one. In either case, we hardly have to rely on this variant to prove the personal nature of the Holy Spirit. As an interesting study, look at what the Holy Spirit does in the NT: baptizes, leads, empowers, causes people to prophesy, bears witness, comforts, guides into truth, groans, intercedes, speaks, raises from the dead, etc.—these are not the actions of an impersonal force, so the gender form of the pronoun in Eph 1:14 is hardly needed to establish this.
The final variant in Eph 1:1–14 is the most interesting and the most difficult. In v. 1 the words "in Ephesus" are missing in several (though not all) early manuscripts. The implication of this is that the letter to the Ephesians may not have been sent originally to Ephesus after all but to some other unknown destination. Now the first thing to note is that this should come as no surprise to you if you read your Bible closely, since all major translations have a footnote mentioning this variant reading in the manuscripts. You don’t have to go to seminary to learn that there are variations in the manuscript tradition since our English versions report quite a few of them as well.
But what do we do with the missing reference to Ephesus in v. 1? In fact, this is one of the more difficult variants in Ephesians to untangle. The manuscripts that omit "in Ephesus" are among the earliest and best witnesses to the early reading of the text. This could mean that the omission occurred very early in the copying process, but it is usually taken to indicate the reading of the autograph manuscript. If "in Ephesus" is not original, the problem is twofold. First, Paul normally identifies the city of his recipients at this place in his epistles. Consider these three letter openings, for example:
Rom 1:7 "To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Phil 1:1–2 "To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
2 Cor 1:1–2 "To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Now compare Ephesians:
Eph 1:1–2 "To the saints who are [in Ephesus], and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
There is certainly an expectation that "in Ephesus" or some other location would be expressed in Eph 1:1.
Secondly, when "in Ephesus" is omitted it is possible to still make sense of the phrase to mean something like: "to the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus." However, this is very clumsy in Greek and seems to be unduly repetitious since the saints are faithful by definition. This is such a problem that many scholars including myself believe for these and other reasons that "in Ephesus" is the reading of the autograph and that it was omitted from early manuscripts for some unknown reason, though many plausible suggestions have been offered. We should also note that the traditional heading of the letter as "to the Ephesians" is found in the early manuscripts.
Let us say, though, that we are wrong here and "in Ephesus" is not the original reading. Then Paul would have written the unusual and awkward "to the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus." The result would be that we would know with no certainty who the original recipients were beyond members of an early Christian congregation. In this case we would have to regard Ephesians to be like Hebrews, 1 John, or Jude, which are epistles sent to unknown destinations. I fail to see how our interpretation of Ephesians is impacted by this beyond a nuance or two here and there. No doctrine of our faith rests on the destination of this epistle!
The case of this last textual variation in Eph 1:1 brings out something that we should emphasize in conclusion. Paul addressed his epistle either "to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus" or "to the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus." These are the two options witnessed in the manuscript tradition. What this means cannot be stressed enough: we know without any serious doubt that one of these two readings is what Paul wrote on the autograph document. Yes, it is true we do not have the papyrus (or parchment) scroll Paul wrote upon, but we do undoubtedly have the very inerrant words he wrote evidenced in the thousands of manuscript witnesses. All the autograph readings have indeed most assuredly survived, so that the task of text criticism is to discern through careful study what the original reading most likely may be. Generations of dedicated, immensely talented Christian scholars have devoted their lives to the study of textual variations in the NT at least since the days of Erasmus in the early 16th century, in order to discern the reading of the autographs. As fruit of their selfless labors, we undoubtedly do have the reading of the autographs either in the texts or the variants given in the footnotes of our Greek editions.
Yes, there are places where we have real doubts about what the original reading of the biblical text might be. Yet in no case can anyone responsibly assert that our Bible is full of errors which could undermine anyone’s faith in the inerrant Word of God. If they do have doubts, it is not because of the facts of the case, and so perhaps we should keep Menander’s Old Cantankerous in mind.
S. M. Baugh
Professor of New Testament
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