Are there a lot of differences and variations in the text between the manuscripts, and do these pose problems as to the reliability of the NT?
The massive number of manuscripts inevitably produces a massive number of variants. These include omissions, additions and spelling mistakes. The majority of these textual variants [technical term for the differences] are inconsequential or nonsense errors made by inattentive scribes.
The most common variant is what is called the movable nu, the letter ‘n’ at the end of a word when the next one begins with a vowel. Sometimes the movable nu is present, sometimes it is omitted [I, Nelima, think a contemporary example would be the difference between people who say “an historic moment” and those who say “a historic moment”]. Another common variant is the spelling of the name John in Greek: sometimes it has two n’s, sometimes one. Dr Wallace believes that 75-80% of the textual variants are of this sort—they don’t change anything.
The next largest category are those variants that make no translational difference. These include word-order changes and synonyms. For example, you can say “Jesus loves John” in 16 different ways in Greek and still have it translate the same way in English. As for synonyms, you may find ‘Lord’ and ‘Jesus’ used interchangeably: both terms refer to the same person.
The third largest category is made up of meaningful variants that aren’t viable. This means that they impact the meaning of the text in some way, but they don’t have a pedigree to show that the variance goes back to the original text. If one manuscript has a variance seen in no other manuscripts, then it is placed in this category.
The fourth category is of those variants that are both meaningful and viable. Not more than 1% of all variants fit into this category. At least 99% of the NT is beyond reasonable doubt as to the original wording of the text.
One way of looking at it is that we have 110% of the word of God, and we just need to burn off the dross. We don’t have any missing pieces that have been lost in the centuries.
What is the most glaring problem, the worst case situation, we have regarding the NT text?
There are two 12-verse passages which are worst-case in terms of emotional baggage, and not in terms of doctrine. These are Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11.
In this video, Wallace explains the ending of Mark (among other things):
Though the long ending of Mark is mentioned by a patristic writer of the 2nd century, it doesn’t appear in the oldest and best manuscripts. Most scholars would say it’s not authentic. Ending Mark’s gospel at 16:8, you still have a risen Saviour who performs miracles. What you’re missing is some commentary on what happens in the book of Acts.
The story of the woman caught in adultery is one most Christians like having in the Bible. There is significant evidence that this story is a conflation of two separate accounts that were joined in around the 3rd century or later. It may well be that one of the stories is authentic historically, but it’s a different matter as to whether John actually wrote it. This passage shows up in a number of different places in the John manuscripts and even at the end of Luke 21. A floating text is almost a sure sign that it isn’t authentic, because the scribes were trying to fit it in somewhere.
If we were to accept one of the two passages on the basis of evidence, we’d have to go with the long ending of Mark. However, no cardinal belief is affected by the viable variants.
|Posts in this series|
|Part 1||Can we be sure of what the New Testament says?|
|Part 2||What kinds of textual variants are there?|
|Part 3||What is the manuscript evidence for the New Testament?|
|Part 4||What is at stake with the variants?|