Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Manuscript Variants In The New Testament Text

Perhaps you have heard that there are 150,000 to 200,000 variant readings in the New Testament, so how can anyone trust anything it says? This is true but misleading, as the phrase variant reading is a technical term. Each time a manuscript of an ancient work is discovered, its text is compared with some standard printed edition. At each place it differs from the standard, a "variant reading" is recorded. If ten manuscripts differ at the same place from the standard,ten variant readings are recorded. Thus, the more readings which survive for a particular work, the more variant readings it will usually have. Thus our only real concern then is what fraction of the text is debatable.

Professor F.J.A. Hort of Cambridge, in his classic work on New Testament text, notes that seven-eights of the text is accepted by all as preserved just as penned by its original authors. The remaining one-eighth consists largely of matters of spelling and word order, both relatively trivial in ancient Greek. If scholars are correct in their consensus that the Alexandrian family of manuscripts preserves the best text, this area of doubt is reduced to about one-sixtieth of the text, from which Hort estimates that substantial variants make up only about one-one thousandth of the text.16 Other estimates have been made; for instance, Professor Abbot of Harvard suggests that only one-four hundredth of the text is doubtful.17

Detailed statistics on the classical texts are hard to come by. Remember that three of our ten secular histories have not even been preserved over substantial portions of their text. For Homer's Iliad, 750 to 1000 lines are in dispute out of a total of 15,600.18 This makes for about 6 percent disputed material. By contrast, Hort's estimate of "substantial variation" for the New Testament is one-tenth of 1 percent; Abbot's estimate is one-fourth of one percent; and even Hort's figure including trivial variation is less than 2 percent. Sir Frederick Kenyon well summarizes the situation:

"The number of manuscripts of the New so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world.

Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers whose works have come down to us, of Sophocles, of Thucydides, of Cicero, of Virgil; yet our knowledge depends on a mere handful of manuscripts, whereas the manuscripts of the New Testament are counted by hundreds or even thousands."19

Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question, contributor Robert C. Newman, p. 283-284

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