Why do some people tend to approach the New Testament with skepticism? For some, issues surrounding the Bible can hinder them from even reading the text of Scripture and taking its claims seriously. For example, many who have seen Dr. Bart Ehrman on television or read his popular books often come away doubting that the message of the New Testament has been faithfully preserved.
While many of us have probably heard well-meaning believers suggest an evangelistic strategy which merely “gives people the Bible,” it is becoming increasingly evident that we need to engage people, especially when it comes to questions about the Bible’s credibility.
During a special event called “Jesus in Primetime,” Dr. Darrell Bock, Dr. Ben Witherington, and Dr. Dan Wallace discussed a variety of topics surrounding Jesus and the Bible in the public square. One of the topics they discussed was the issue of variant readings in the New Testament. Are there really hundreds of thousands of textual differences in our New Testament manuscripts? What does it all mean?
In this video clip, Dr. Dan Wallace identifies four categories of textual variants and explains why these differences don’t need to shake our faith in the New Testament
The first and largest category is made up of spelling differences in the text, accounting for over 75% of all textual variants. What about the other 25%?
The next largest category represents synonyms, word order differences or articles with proper nouns; issues which don’t affect the meaning of text at all. For example, Greek writers would use the definite article before people’s names (e.g. “The Jesus”). In this case, whether or not the definite article is there makes no difference in English translations.
The third largest category is made up of variants that actually make a difference in the meaning of the text. But the differences in this category are unlikely to represent any of the original words of the New Testament because the manuscripts where they appear are very late–far removed from the time of Jesus and his original followers.
Finally, the fourth category is made up of variants that both make a difference and may possibly represent the original readings of the text. But this is less than 1% of all variants in the New Testament. For example, most scholars discuss whether the story about the woman caught in adultery was not originally in In John’s text at this point. This is a genuine discussion that notes in a good study discuss. Many do question its presence. Others still argue the event does describe something that did happen in Jesus’ life. What is impacted by this?
Bock answers this question: “What is impacted is whether or not a particular passage teaches a particular point, but in the big scheme of things, there is no fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith that is impacted by this one percent.” Wallace agrees: “There is no cardinal doctrine that is impacted by the viable variants.”
Indeed, it seems a bit misleading for certain scholars to declare that there are between 300,000 and 400,000 textual variants amongst the existing manuscripts we have today and leave it at that. We have so many variants because we have so many New Testament manuscripts. If all we had was one codex with all the books of the New Testament in it, we wouldn’t have any variants!
But having over 5,800 Greek New Testament manuscripts is a good thing because it can help us have more confidence in the readings which best represent the text of the original autographs.
So the number of variants is only one part of the story. The great majority of these variants don’t change the meaning of the text. Indeed, the New Testament text gives Christians confidence that the message of the New Testament has been faithfully preserved. No other ancient text has manuscript evidence like the New Testament does. It is an embarrassment of riches.
Watch the rest of this session: Jesus, Canon, and Theology
About the Contributors
Mikel Del Rosario is a PhD student in New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, Project Manager for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center, and Adjunct Professor of Apologetics and World Religion at William Jessup University. Mikel co-authors The Table Briefing articles in Bibliotheca Sacra with Darrell Bock, manages the Table Podcast, and helps Christians defend the faith with courage and compassion through his apologetics speaking ministry. He holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from DTS and an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University.