The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation

In the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, by Norm Geisler (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; p. 532), there is a comment about the number of textual variants among New Testament manuscripts:

“Some have estimated there are about 200,000 of them. First of all, these are not ‘errors’ but variant readings, the vast majority of which are strictly grammatical. Second, these readings are spread throughout more than 5300 manuscripts, so that a variant spelling of one letter of one word in one verse in 2000 manuscripts is counted as 2000 ‘errors.'”

There are several problems with this paragraph, one of which is this: to say that variant readings are not errors is an odd way of putting things. If the primary goal of NT textual criticism is to recover the wording of the autographa (i.e., the texts as they left the apostles’ hands), then any deviation from that wording is, indeed, an error. It may well be a rather minor error (as the vast majority of them are)—in fact, something that cannot even translated it is so trivial—but it is an error nevertheless. The author, however, is most likely equating error with some reading that would render the Bible errant and fallible. It is quite true that (virtually) no viable variants are major threats to inerrancy; the major problems that the doctrine of inerrancy faces are essentially never found in textually disputed passages in which one reading creates the problem and another erases it.

The larger issue, however is how the number of variants was arrived at. Geisler got his information (directly or indirectly) from Neil R. Lightfoot’s How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963), a book now fifty years old. Lightfoot says (53-54):

“From one point of view it may be said that there are 200,000 scribal errors in the manuscripts, but it is wholly misleading and untrue to say that there are 200,000 errors in the text of the New Testament. This large number is gained by counting all the variations in all of the manuscripts (about 4,500). This means that if, for example, one word is misspelled in 4,000 different manuscripts, it amounts to 4,000 ‘errors.’ Actually in a case of this kind only one slight error has been made and it has been copied 4,000 times. But this is the procedure which is followed in arriving at the large number of 200,000 ‘errors.'”

In other words, Lightfoot was claiming that textual variants are counted by the number of manuscripts that support such variants, rather than by the wording of the variants. His method was to count the number of manuscripts times the wording error. This book has been widely influential in evangelical circles. I believe over a million copies of it have been sold. And this particular definition of textual variants has found its way into countless apologetic works.

The problem is, the definition is wrong. Terribly wrong. A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text. No textual critic defines a textual variant the way that Lightfoot and those who have followed him have done. Yet, the number of textual variants comes from textual critics. Shouldn’t they be the ones to define what this means since they’re the ones doing the counting?

Let me demonstrate how Lightfoot’s definition is way off. Today we know of more than 5600 Greek NT manuscripts. Among these, we know of about 2000–3000 Gospels manuscripts, 800 Pauline manuscripts, 700 manuscripts of Acts and the general letters, and about 325 manuscripts of Revelation. These numbers do not include the lectionaries, over 2000 of them, that are mostly of the Gospels. At the same time, not all the manuscripts are complete copies. The earlier manuscripts are fragmentary, sometimes covering only a few verses. The later manuscripts, however, generally include at least all four Gospels or Acts and the general letters or Paul’s letters or Revelation. But an average estimate is that for any given textual problem (more in the Gospels, less elsewhere), there are a thousand Greek manuscripts (this assumes that less than 20% of all the Greek manuscripts “read” in any given passage, probably a conservative estimate).

Putting all this together, we can assume an average of 1000 Greek manuscripts being involved in any textual problem. Now, assume that we start with the modern critical text of the Greek New Testament (the Nestle-Aland28). Most today would say that that text is based largely on a minority of manuscripts that constitute no more than 20% (a generous estimate) of all manuscripts. So, on average, if there are 1000 manuscripts that have a particular verse, the Nestle-Aland text is supported by 200 of them. This would mean that for every textual problem, the variant(s) is/are found in an average of 800 manuscripts. But, in reality, the wording of the Nestle-Aland text is often found in the majority of manuscripts. So, we need a more precise way to define things. That has been provided for us in The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text by Hodges and Farstad. They listed in the footnotes all the places where the majority of manuscripts disagreed with the Nestle-Aland text. The total came to 6577.

OK, so now we have enough data to make some general estimates. Even if we assumed that these 6577 places were the only textual problems in the New Testament (a demonstrably false assumption, by the way), the definition of Lightfoot could be shown to be palpably false. 6577 x 800 = 5,261,600. That’s more than five million, just in case you didn’t notice all the commas. Based on Lightfoot’s definition of textual variants, this is how many we would actually have, conservatively estimated. Obviously, that’s a far cry from 200,000!

Or, to put this another way: this errant definition requires that there be no more than about 250 textual problems in the whole New Testament (250 textual variants x 800 manuscripts that disagree with the printed text = 200,000). (It should be noted that, for simplicity’s sake, I am counting a textual problem as having only one variant from the base text, even though this is frequently not the case). If that is the case, how can the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament list over 1400 textual problems? And how can the Nestle-Aland text list over 10,000?

And again, this five million is not even close to the actual number. I took a very conservative approach by only looking at the differences from the majority of manuscripts. But if one started as his base text Codex Bezae for the Gospels and Acts and Codex Claromontanus for the letters, the number of variants (counted Lightfoot’s way) from these two would be astronomical. My guess is that it would be well over 20 million. Or if one started with Codex Sinaiticus, the only complete New Testament written with capital (or uncial) letters, the numbers would probably exceed 30 million—largely because Sinaiticus spells words in some strange ways that are not shared by very many other manuscripts. You can see that the definition of a textual variant as a combination of wording differences times manuscripts is rather faulty. Counting this way results in tens of millions of textual variants, when the actual number is miniscule by comparison. And that’s because we only count differences in wording, regardless of how many manuscripts attest to it.

All this is to say: a variant is simply the difference in wording found in a single manuscript or a group of manuscripts (either way, it’s still only one variant) that disagrees with a base text. Further, there aren’t only 200,000. That may have been the best estimate in 1963, when we knew of  fewer manuscripts. But with the work done on Luke’s Gospel by the International Greek New Testament Project, Tommy Wasserman’s work on Jude, and Münster’s work on James and 1-2 Peter, the estimates today are closer to 400,000. Some even claim half a million. In short, as Bart Ehrman has so eloquently yet simply put it, there are more variants among the manuscripts than there are words in the NT.

Although this may leave some feeling uneasy, it is imperative that Christians and non-Christians be honest with the data. I would urge those who have used Lightfoot’s errant definition to abandon it. It’s demonstrably wrong, and citing it reveals a fundamental ignorance about textual criticism. And I would hope that the publishers of numerous apologetics books would get the data right. The last thing that Christians should be doing is to latch on to some spurious ‘fact’ in defense of the faith.

Postscript

I have recently been in correspondence with some apologists (including Geisler), and I am happy to report that they are revising their definition of what constitutes a textual variant. Two or three of them have appealed to their publishers to correct the data in later printings.

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87 thoughts on “The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation

  1. Joe

    I was wondering if there is a book that lists these variants (or at least the most significant) for the layman. I hear all the time how these variants don’t amount to a hill of beans to the meaning of the texts but I’d still like to see for myself.

    Though I don’t read Greek, I have Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament and Notes on the Translation of the New Testament by Field. I can glean some info from these but I am sometimes left scratching my head wondering which word or phrase they are talking about in a particular passage.

    Thanks.

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  2. Thank you once again Dr. Wallace for holding up a high standard of integrity. In your work we can see how the truth leads to corroboration of the Christian faith. We don’t need to be overly defensive of the textual variants–making uninformed arguments leaves us with a credibility problem, and credibility made God’s top 10 list (false witness). It takes a little reading (or watching) to understand how ‘accurate’ the biblical texts really are, but it is well worth the effort.

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  3. Thanks for the work you’re doing. And I’m glad to know that Norm G. is “fixing” his texts. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him over 40 years and I know he wants to get it right where Scripture is concerned. I also think your surmise about the 200K is correct, i.e., probably thinking of only those items which might affect inerrancy or credibility. I’m confident that Scripture will not be threatened by 200K or 5 million textual variants and openness and honesty in scholarship is always a good thing.

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  4. Great article, Mr. Wallace.

    A technical request concerning your blog, if I may. Please modify your RSS reed settings to include the full text in your RSS feed rather than just a snippet (see your current feed: https://danielbwallace.com/feed/). This will allow your readers to subscribe to your feed in readers like feedly.com, etc. rather than having to click through to the web site.

    Derek

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  6. Mark G

    I found this article to be somewhat misleading and unhelpful. Dr. Wallace starts out by presenting an erroneous way of counting variants (the one proposed by Lightfoot & cited by Geisler). He then says why this method is mistaken (b/c multiplying variants x number of MSS misses the point). So far so good.

    What should then follow logically is a presentation of simply the number of variants, apart from the number of MSS that perpetuate them, which will give the correct number of textual errors with which to work. But instead Dr. Wallace continues teasing out the implications of the Lightfoot method, multiplying variants x MSS (to arrive at 5 million, 30 million, etc).

    After the paragraph that begins “The problem is, this definition is wrong,” all I want to know is, what is the total number of variants, irrespective of how many times a single variant has been copied.

    By reading carefully, I *think* I can find the answer in the article – a conservative 6577. But even then Dr. Wallace continues to work with this number using the (discredited by him) Lightfoot method, multiplying it by 800, etc.

    Furthermore, the status of the 6577 number is not made clear to the non-specialist. Is this a straightforward count of variants, which ought (subject to correction) to be in the ballpark? Or is it based on extrapolation (and therefore may be more widely off the mark)? It’s not clear in the article.

    Again, it is clear what’s wrong with the Lightfoot method. What I want to know (and still am not sure I know) is how many variants there are compared to a base text of the NT, regardless of how many times they get copied.

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    1. Scott Youngman

      Mark, an answer is found in the next-to-last paragraph:
      “… the estimates today are closer to 400,000”
      And that number will grow as more manuscripts are discovered, and more research is done.

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      1. Mark G

        Ah, thanks Scott, I see it now. Still wish this conclusion was gotten to earlier in the post. It turns out, then, that although Lightfoot’s *definition* may be “wrong, terribly wrong,” his *number* is currently off by about a factor of 2, not the enormous difference suggested earlier.

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  7. Marvis

    Can I present an example? Suppose there was a book (original) that spelled the name as “Norman Geisler.” Another book was published that spelled the name as “Norm Geisler.” That’s one variant, from ‘Norman’ to ‘Norm’. That second book, with ‘Norm’, was published 500,000 times. Now, how many variants do we have, 1 or 500,001 (including the original second book)?

    The clearcut answer should be 1. There is only one variant, from “Norman” to “Norm”, and not from ‘Norman’ to ‘Norm’ to ‘Norm’ to … (499,998 more) … to ‘Norm’. I heard Bart Ehrman’s book was a bestseller, so one misspelling copied (published) a million times would result in million variants, making his book not credible. But most people, of course, are not interested with those errors, they want to know what Bart Ehrman had to say.

    The problem is the way modern man approaches the credibility of the manuscripts by way of comparing them altogether, and counting the misspells as base for incredibility. So far, as noted above, our collection holds to 5,600, but ancient scribes only copied what’s available to them (I think so, unless they got other older copies at hand), yet the misspells had no effect on the mainstream theology of the Christian faith. Yes, some manuscripts had Asaph and others Asa (Matthew 1:7) in order (perhaps) to help the readers not to confuse it with the psalmist Asaph.

    The way Bart Ehrman presented his ideas, saying there are more than 400,000 variants… and hundreds of copies of copies of copies which copied the mistakes (of their predecessors) … that we may never know what the autographs really said. I think that’s one of the major factors that seriously affected his faith, especially when we have no copies close to the autographs by 40 years (at least one generation). I don’t personally feel comfortable with what I think his ‘motive’ or ‘intention’ was when he said ‘there are more variants than the words in the NT.’ If the earlier scribes would be raised from the dead, given the copies they wrote, and with the technology we have now, I believe, like Norm Geisler would, they will edit the texts they wrote, as far as what they think were the original wordings in the autographs, with the available manuscripts we have today. If Bart Ehrman would recompute the number of variants not the Lightfoot way, I’m still not sure whether he would recant.

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  8. abdullah al libee

    Thank you Dr. Wallace for sharing this article. But the real debate today is about recovering the “original text” not just discussing the number of variant readings. As a Muslim, I’d like to see you debating Dr. Shabir Ally on the originality of the text of the Bible and I want to know your answer on the: Hunting For The Original Word Of God: The Quest For The Original Text Of The New Testament And The Qur’an In Light Of Textual And Historical Criticism.

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    1. Abdullah, I can say that Sami’s book on Hunting for the Word of God is so full of errors and misunderstandings that it’s not worth a response. Let me ask you a question: Can you name a Muslim scholar who admits that there are written variants in copies of the Qur’an manuscripts that still exist?

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  9. Lee Stroud

    Thank you Mr. Wallace for the info! I will save the email. I am glad that I attended the meeting in Colorado Springs and it was great meeting with you. I am excited to be a Friend of CSNTM and I am looking forward to a long relationship in that regard. Since I work heavily with the parsing, I am quite interested in the variant issue. I took notice of what you said in May and I am happy to say that I now possess an N/A 28! I am looking forward to some fantastic parsing with this version!!

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  10. Dr. Wallace,
    Thanks for the clarification. The definition Geisler and others used was simple, easy to understand and importantly, easy to explain. Could you please give me an example of how you would describe variants to those who are completely unfamiliar with them?

    I read where you stated, “A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text,” but I’m still not following you. Are you treating the standard text as an autograph and then contrasting variants to it? I’m just looking for an easy way to explain it, but I can’t do that unless I first understand it myself.

    Thanks!

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    1. Since we’re not sure exactly what the autographs say in every place, we can only theoretically compare variants to the autographs. But for all practical purposes, let’s assume that the standard critical text used today, the Nestle-Aland 28th edition, is the autograph. Any deviation from it counts as a variant. For example, “Amen” at the end of most NT books is not found in the NA28, which means that each time this occurs in such places it’s a variant.

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      1. Thank you for your response. If each time a variant is found that disagrees with the theoretical standard text, then how is this definition different from what Geisler and others have taught? If I am following you, then it seems like the same thing to me. If a variant is copied in 100 manuscripts, then is that not counted as 100 variants?

        Please clarify.

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      2. Keith,

        A simple definition is, “A different way to word it.”

        (1) “John loves Mary” is one way. (2) “Mary is loved by John” is another. (3) “Jon loves Mary” is another. (4) “John lovs Mary” is another. (5) Leaving that sentence out entirely would be another way.

        No matter how many manuscripts use each way, there are five variants there.

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    2. Erin Corrigan

      base: a b c d e f g
      ms01: a c d e f g
      ms02: a q c d e f g
      ms03: a d e f g
      ms04: a c b d e f g

      We designate some text as the base, the standard against which all other texts are compared.
      ms01 has 1 variant (b is missing).
      ms02 has 1 variant (q in place of b).
      ms03 has 2 variants (b and c are missing).
      ms04 has 1 variant (the order of c and b differs).
      The total number of variants is not 1 + 1 + 2 + 1 = 5.
      It is 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 4.
      We do not count the missing b in both ms01 and ms03.
      It is only counted once.

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  11. Thanks, Dr. Wallace. You are a man of worldwide influence on Christianity and the comprehension of truth; that you interact with the likes of us is staggering. For 25 years I have had your textbook on my nightstand, and I regularly look in it to find if your fundamentals can be extended to their proper depths. Happily, I can say that you came to the grammatical truth before I even thought of learning, and I have benefited from everything you say. This article brings some sanity to the hysteria of an unreliable text. I have always hoped the number of variants was smaller, and you have reduced it exponentially. Thank you, because now I find peace again.

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  14. abdullah al libee

    Dr. Wallace, Sorry but I can’t take your words as a serious answer (smile). Saying “full of errors and misunderstandings” may be fits the comments you made in one of your “Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament” about the Qur’an. Ameri provided many details in answering you and Dr. Keith Small, even accusing both of you of total ignorance about the main academic resources of the Qur’anic studies. May be accusing Ameri of making such horrible mistakes should be pointed to his main sources such as Epp and Petersen, and I don’t expect you to dare disqualifying these scholars! As for the variants, the Hunting agrees that there are variants in some manuscripts and discussed the unique nature of the transmission of the Qur’anic text. More interestingly, I do not see you answer relevant to my comment. The Islamic challenge is still valid; the original text of the New Testament is out of reach!

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  15. Wayne Andressen

    Daniel Wallace wrote:

    “All this is to say: a variant is simply the difference in wording found in a single manuscript or a group of manuscripts (either way, it’s still only one variant) that disagrees with a base text. Further, there aren’t only 200,000. That may have been the best estimate in 1963, when we knew of fewer manuscripts. But with the work done on Luke’s Gospel by the International Greek New Testament Project, Tommy Wasserman’s work on Jude, and Münster’s work on James and 1-2 Peter, the estimates today are closer to 400,000.”

    I’m certainly no textual critic, but this strikes me as flawed methodology (understanding that Mr. Wallace is simply relating the way variants are counted). If, for example and for whatever reason, Scribe A adds “Amen” to the end of an epistle, how is Scribe B to know that? Scribe B can only copy what is already written, so he writes “Amen” at the end of the same epistle. As does Scribe C, and so on. It seems to me, therefore, that copies B and C are not true variants because they both faithfully reproduced (at least at this spot) what was written in copy A. This being the case, the “Amen” in copy A is the actual variant; the subsequent variants are simply faithful reproductions of the original variant. It would be more helpful if different terms and/or categories were used for original variants and those that are simply reproductions (so far as can be ascertained). Am I totally offbase here?

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    1. Wayne, I’m not sure whose logic you are thinking is flawed, but the basic issue is simply this: a variant is a wording difference found in at least one manuscript that differs from a base text. This is the terminology that has been used for about 300 years; I don’t think you’re going to change it any time soon. You are off-base in this respect: we don’t know exactly which scribes copied which exemplar MSS except in about a dozen cases of the more than 5800 Greek New Testament manuscripts. Hundreds of scribes could conceivably have generated the ‘amen’ independently from one another because it’s a predictable variant. But you don’t count variants by multiplying them by manuscripts that have them. It seems to me that that is what you are objecting to, and it is what I wrote against.

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      1. Brett Strong

        Hi Mr Dan Wallace; just wanted to know about that 1st century manuscript you spoke about in your debate with Bart Erhman, last year–do we really have a verified 1st century document from the NT?

        Thanks!

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    2. This may be of little help, but I thought some discussion concerning the implications of how we define a variant may add some clarity.

      The number of copies we have of each variant is important for certain aspects of textural criticism, but when used as a metric for determining the reliability of the manuscript evidence with respect to its reflection of the original autographs, the number of unique variants is what is important.

      For instance, say we have multiple copies of a given letter from a son to his mother which collectively contain a total of 2 unique variations in the reading of one of the sentences (e.g. “Mom, I love the shoes” vs. “Mom, I loved the shoes at first.”). There may be a question of which variant most likely reflects the original (which can then be decided upon through various heuristics), but the fact that there are only two variations tends to increase the odds of one’s ability to deduce the original.

      Now, consider that, rather than having only two variant readings of the sentence, there were 10,000. Without an ability to apply some of the “no-brainer” heuristics (e.g. there are 500 copies produced within a year of the original letter that all say the same thing and all the other variations exist in copies made at least 900 years later), you’d be hard pressed to confidently argue for one particular reading being the original.

      So, having one document that has 1 reading and 10,000 that all read a second way is a completely different problem than having 10,000 different readings.

      Of course, this example doesn’t argue for a particular definition of the word “variant” so much as it points out the importance of drawing a distinction between what we’re talking about when we use the term, but I thought it might add some clarity to the discussion nonetheless.

      Concerning Dr. Wallace’s objection, the very meaning of the word argues that the number of variants be based upon unique instances of a reading, not on the number of copies of a reading. If we were discussing biology and someone said there were only 2 variants for species X, most would understand the person to be referring to there being 2 breeds within a species, not the number of animals within the species.

      Variant means type, not instance, so when applying this word to the world of textual criticism, it only makes sense to understand a variant to mean a unique rendering of a given portion of a text within the context of the larger discussion (i.e. we care about spellings, word choices, etc., not ink type, parchment type, penmanship).

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    3. Wayne,

      > “It seems to me, therefore, that copies B and C are not true variants because they both faithfully reproduced (at least at this spot) what was written in copy A.”

      The word you’re looking for there is “mistake”. You’re correct: Scribes B and C didn’t make mistakes. They made faithful copies of what they had.

      “The number of variants” doesn’t mean “number of times that people made mistakes”. It means, “The number of different ways to word a passage”.

      Illustration: Suppose Scribe D came along to copy C, and accidentally dropped the word “Amen”. Then Scribe E accidentally adds it, and F accidentally drops it, and G adds it, etc., and it keeps flipping back and forth. All those scribes are making mistakes, just like A did. But we only have two variants: (1) Ending the epistle without “Amen”, and (2) ending the epistle with “Amen”.

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  18. Aries

    Amazing! Can’t believe that Dr Wallace is still brilliant after suffering from encephalitis about 16 years ago. Thanks for making this clarification, professor!

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  19. lqiyun7

    Hey Dr Wallace,

    (Please don’t publish my comment unless you really want to. I was just hoping to be able to ask this question privately, because I tried looking for your email address on this site but could find none.)

    I would like to ask, does this much-higher-number of textual variants affect the credibility of the Biblical manuscripts and the Bibles that we have in our hands today? Moreover, does Geisler’s error in this area have an impact on his credibility and trustworthiness, or is this only just a small minor mistake?

    I’m a Christian (baptised from birth) but have recently been facing with a shaken faith after coming across much of the objections to Christianity (I’ve dwelt into the apologetic works produced, but much study in this area wearies the soul, and apologetics is heavy on the brain), and hence, the urgency of my question. Dr Geisler’s works are widely quoted and cited in many other apologetic works, and hence, I would like to know if his works and figures are indeed still trustworthy.

    Please reply soon, thanks!

    Cheers,
    QiYun

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  20. Sam Kastensmidt

    I have a question about textual variants in the NT manuscripts. Dr. Wallace, you have stated elsewhere that the average Greek New Testament manuscript is roughly 450 pages, and we know that there are roughly 5,850 manuscripts in existence. By multiplication, that renders 2,632,500 total pages. If there are 400,000 variants (as many have claimed), this would mean that there is only one variant for every 6.5 pages of written text. That would be absolutely stellar in my judgment! Could you please tell me if the assumptions behind my math are correct? Thanks a bunch for all your work!

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    1. No, that’s not correct. There are too many variables that have not been taken into account. I never gave the numbers for differences among individual MSS because that depends on the baseline that one is calibrating against. For example, if one were to compare the printed texts of the UBS4/NA27 with the Hodges-Farstad Majority Text, he/she would find 6577 differences. That comes to an average of 25 variants per chapter. Even the closest two early MSS have 6-10 variants per chapter. You also can’t count by pages, since although the average NT MS has 459 pages, this doesn’t tell how much of the NT is found in that MS. Only about 60 of all 5839 Greek NT MSS are complete NTs. The largest group has the Gospels, then Paul, then the general letters, and finally Revelation. Quite a few MSS have a combination of more than one genre. So there are too many variables that are either not yet known (though the data are available; it would be easy to figure it out, though quite time-consuming) or known but not part of the calculations I gave.

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      1. Sam Kastensmidt

        Thank you so much for the quick response. I will be making a presentation to young adults in Fort Lauderdale, doing my level best to offer a summary of both sides. I have watched your online debates with Dr. Ehrman, and I really appreciate your work in defending the faith. I particularly appreciate your willingness to engage the dialogue with integrity and humor. As a pastor and seminary graduate, I have always despised conversations about textual criticism, because they force me to confront my own ignorance. But after watching these debates, I am — for the first time — interested in engaging this discussion. Thanks for all you do. You are a real blessing to the church!

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      2. Sam, you might be interested in looking at some of the images of manuscripts that the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts has taken over the years, too. High resolution images, over 250,000 of them and counting! csntm.org

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      3. I am surprised to learn that between 9.9.2013 (the date of your post above) and 3,9.14 (the date of your reply to Sam) that the amount of extant NT MSS has increased from 5,600 (“Today we know of more than 5600 Greek NT manuscripts.”) to 5,839.
        Was the 5,600 a typo? You have responded to Wayne on 9.17 that there are ” more than 5800 Greek New Testament manuscripts.”.

        This may sound like a “gnat swallowing (straining out – critical) a camel” but your point about Geisler is valid, surely the amount of known extant MSS is worth getting correct… do you agree?

        Jeff

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      4. Jeff, there are two ways to count the MSS. It’s much easier to go with the official numbers by adding the number of papyri, majuscules, minuscules, and lectionaries together. Doing so that way results in 5839 MSS. The more difficult way is to look at each group, determine which MSS are part of others (and thus even though they have a separate number they should simply be listed as part of another MS), which MSS have been destroyed, and which MSS we cannot verify are at their previous location any more. For example, there are about twenty MSS listed as having been in Syria, but they haven’t been seen in years. Should we list those? The 5600 number does not, but the 5839 number does. There were also 17 MSS in Albania that had been listed as non-verifiable until CSNTM shot them in 2007-08. Another MS at Princeton University was listed as having been destroyed by fire, yet I held it in my hands two years ago. In sum, both numbers are correct.

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  21. Sam Kastensmidt

    What a great project! It makes me really excited for new discoveries. I’ve already “looted” several images from your website for my presentation. For example, I will be using the images of P66 and P52 and stealing your rebuttal to Dan Brown’s claim that Nicaea decreed that Jesus was God in 325 AD. Also, if you have time, I’d be curious to know the degree to which you think Diocletian’s edicts (namely to burn the Scriptures) had upon the amount of ancient manuscripts. Major or minor? I’ve read Eusebius’ accounts of that period, and I am aware of the subsequent Donatist controversy. It seems more than a coincidence (to me at least) that our earliest complete manuscripts appear around 325 AD — within a generation after Diocletian and the subsequent Edict of Milan.
    Thanks a bunch for your help.
    Sam

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    1. Sam, no one really knows how many MSS were destroyed, but apparently more in the east and south. This would include Constantinople and Alexandria, among other places. As a possible illustration of the extent Diocletian’s extent, consider the curious text of Codex Washingtonianus. This is a patchwork Gospels MS, dated late fourth/early fifth century. The editor of the editio princeps, Henry Sanders, thought that its make-up was due to the scribe locating only portions of the Gospels rather than a complete manuscript, which he (or she) then patched together and copied so that he/she would have a complete Gospels MS. It’s now housed in the Smithsonian Institution and the images are available at csntm.org.

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  22. Ray Gurunian

    I’m still left unclear on the variants. I wish some examples could be given of how it really works out in a manuscript. Example: Tell us about a specific manuscript and how many different variants there are in that specific manuscript and what types of variants they are. Is it fair for a person to conclude from the data “200,000 variants” and “5,600” MSS, “There’s 35 scribal errors per manuscript'”? Knowing that most are not complete NT copies, then those errors aren’t spread out as far as we wish. Is there any idea how many errors per page that means?

    Thanks for the excellent help.

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  24. Mr. Lynn

    Many times have I heard that no major doctrine is affected by textual variants,what I would like to know is, what doctrines are affected so we can be more careful in forging our Theology.Is there a 1 stop shop for this info?

    Like

    1. In some ways, it depends on what you mean by doctrine. But many scholars would argue the case more strongly and say that not one doctrine or command that we are responsible to believe/obey today is affected by any textual variants.

      Like

      1. Mr. lynn

        Thanks for your reply.Let me rephrase my question.Is there a resource that lists all known significant variants.Thanks again, mercy,grace,and peace

        Like

    2. One thing you can do: If you’re reading a verse (or set of verses) that a particular doctrine depends on, check for footnotes in your Bible that read, “Some manuscripts say…”. Your Bible won’t mention all the variants you might want to know about, but it does help.

      For more info, you could use the “TC” (textual criticism) footnotes in the NET Bible.

      Dr. Wallace, do you know of any additional online resources that list meaningful & viable variants?

      Like

      1. The two basic Greek New Testaments probably do the best job at listing significant variants: the UBS 4 and Nestle-Aland 28. The first also comes with two companion volumes that explain the issues in some detail–Metzger’s Textual Commentary and Omanson’s Textual Guide. The NET tc notes are also helpful.

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  26. Dr. Wallace,

    I have often heard that Byzantine manuscripts constitute about 80 percent of the textual witness to the New Testament. Are there any statistics on what percentages belong to the Alexandrian and Western text-types?

    Thanks!

    Like

      1. Thanks, Dr. Wallace. But as of today, as we survey all extant manuscripts, does anyone have an idea of what percentage are Alexandrian and Western? For example, do Alexandrian manuscripts constitute 15 percent of the remaining 20 percent, and Western manuscripts 5 percent?

        Like

  27. Not all MSS can be put in those categories. Quite a few belong to no category at all. A good place to start would be Aland and Aland’s Text of the NT. They list hundreds of MSS by categories 1-5, which is similar to the text-type system used by others. But nowadays scholars are speaking more of textual clusters than text-types.

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  28. Kirsten Brogan

    The thing that I find really intriguing is how many versions of the Bible we have today. The meaningful and viable variants that people point out in past manuscripts are purposely done today with all these different versions. How will this bare out in the future? Despite our technology, we are still giving people the ability to question the viability of the scriptures. Why would we do that?

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  34. J Martin (Joe) Thomas

    I’ve been listening to all the Dan B Wallace I can find lately thanks to YouTube. And now I am beginning to search your blog. Loving this. Thanks for correcting my error (well, you were correcting others and I had made the same mistake) of counting variants incorrectly. My next weekend teaching apologetics to the Columbia School of Ministry is in April and I will fix that slide in my presentation!

    Here’s my question.

    I want a list of the ~4000 “viable AND significant” variants, but don’t know how to get it. I have Greek apparatuses (apparati?) in Bible Works, but compiling my own list, well, I’m 57 years old.

    is there someplace that the list of the 1% (or better yet, the 100 most significant) exists?

    Obviously we all know about John 8 & Mark 16, and the trinity passage, but it would be great to have a list.

    thanks.
    Joe Thomas

    Like

    1. J Martin (Joe) Thomas

      by the way, Wikipedia has a list, but I have no idea if it is remotely trustworthy. Just a quick glance tells me that it does not include 666 versus 616 (which is an interesting variant for some folks) It looks like maybe 100 or so.

      Like

    2. Joe, I think the most accessible list is going to be the apparatus of the UBS Greek NT. It lists about 1500 textual problems. Some of these are rather trivial, but most do affect translation. Not all are viable, but they may have historical significance.

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  35. Dr. Wallace

    Thank you for the work you’ve done in this area (and Greek grammar) and your responsiveness to questions on here..

    I am still a little unclear about how the number of variants are counted. You said the NA28 lists over 10,000. When I look at the apparatus in my NA28, most variants only seem to have 1-2 alternate readings. How do you get 400,000 from the 10,000? The way I’m understanding you is that the 10,000 variants listed in the NA28 are different places where there is a variant. If this is a correct understanding, then there would be an average of 40 alternate readings for each place there is a variant! That can’t be correct, right? The only other way that 400,000 seems to make sense to me is if each manuscript that differs from the NA28 would count as another variant, but you already seemed to say that’s not the correct way to count variants..

    A couple other questions just to clarify, if you don’t mind.
    Is the NA28 the only text considered to be a base text?
    Does the NA28 apparatus list all the variants? If not, where can I find the ones not listed?
    If someone asked you how many variants there are in the NT, what would you tell them?

    Thank you again.

    Like

  36. Isaiah 40:8

    King James Bible
    The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

    How do Christians interpret this verse in light of the above article?

    Like

    1. The Word is still standing, even though there are textual variants. In fact, the textual variants allow us to critique the text so that we can have increased certainty about what was originally written. Moreover, textual variants do not affect the overall meaning and purpose of the Word, only small details.

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      1. Thank you for your comment.

        You mentioned that ” textual variants do not affect the overall meaning and purpose of the Word, only small details.”.

        What about the doctrine of the Trinity? Without 1 John 5:7, you really cant come to this doctrine; your left interpreting or rather ‘misinterpreting’ other verses to your ‘whims and fancies’.

        In fact Bart Ehrman mentions in his book , “Jesus interrupted”, the following:

        In response to the assertion, made by conservative evangelicals, that not a single important Christian doctrine is affected by any textual variant, I point out:

        a. It simply isn’t true that important doctrines are not involved. As a key example: the only place in the entire New Testament where the doctrine of the Trinity is explicitly taught is in a passage that made it into the King James translation (1 John 5:7–8) but is not found in the vast majority of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. I would suggest that the Trinity is a rather important Christian doctrine. A typical response to this rebuttal is that the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in Scripture without appealing to 1 John 5:7–8. My reply is that this is true of every single Christian doctrine. In my experience, theologians do not hold to a doctrine because it is found in just one verse; you can take away just about any verse and still find just about any Christian doctrine somewhere else if you look hard enough.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Samuel Kastensmidt

        The doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely affirmed throughout the Scripture. 1 John 5 is not necessary. There are an abundance of supporting texts. Take Isaiah 9:6 for example. In that one verse, we find the prophet recording: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us… And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” This “son” is to be called the “eternal father” and the “mighty God.” Apart from a trinitarian understanding of God, how could this be possible. Likewise, in the New Testament, we find plenty mentioned about the Spirit’s relationship to the Son. Even in Jesus’ last words in the Gospel of Matthew, he commissions his church to baptize “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Why would He include the son and the spirit here? If Jesus did not intend to affirm the Triune God (by including the Son and the Spirit), it would have been blasphemous to instruct people to baptize in their names. There’s no question that the Bible affirms the trinity.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. archiveislam – What Ehrman says is certainly important to discuss. I was skeptical of the Trinity myself before becoming a Christian and as a young Christian., but as Samuel said, the Trinity is taught throughout Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments. Isaiah 7:14 prophecies that He will be called (not named, but called) Immanuel, which means “God with us” (see also Matthew 1:23). The Trinity is also taught in Colossians 2:9, 1 Tim 3:16, Romans 10:13 (which is a quote of Joel 2:32 which Jews would have only known to refer to YHWH, so Jesus is referred to as God), Titus 2:13, and many many more. On top of that, there are verses where Jesus receives worship and does not stop the people from worshiping Him (Matthew 2:11,14:33, 28:9, 28:17, Luke 24:52, and John 9:38). Worship was reserved only for God so Jesus should not have been worshiped if He was not God. The apostles Peter and Paul stop people from worshiping them, so why wouldn’t Jesus if He was not God?

        If you’re really interested in finding out the truth, you could buy a NA28 New Testament and look at the variants for yourself. It even has a rating system for each variant to tell us how sure the committee was that they know the original text.
        https://smile.amazon.com/Greek-Testament-FL-German-Bible-Society/dp/1619701391/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1501616015&sr=8-1&keywords=greek+new+testament

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      4. Hey Jay,

        Like i mentioned before, before we get into supposed verses of divinity we should agree that there is no trinity. ‘Machine gunning’ bible verses is not a fruitful approach.
        As for Jesus being worshiped, I have written an article about it on my blog. Suffice it to say. the Greek word ‘Proskenu’ does not mean worship, but bowing down. You can check out my full argument, if ur interested:
        https://islamicarchives.wordpress.com/2016/09/11/does-worship-actually-mean-worship-in-the-new-testament/

        Like

      5. Samuel Kastensmidt

        When the greatest heroes and prophets of the Old Testament performed miracles or offered new teachings that carried divine authority, they always made sure to clarify that their authority had come from God. Their miracles and teachings were almost always accompanied by a familiar disclaimer — “Thus says the Lord.” In the Old Testament, this expression is repeated 419 times. However, Jesus never once uttered these words. Instead, Jesus intentionally declared: “I say to you,” yet He clearly intended those statements to carry divine authority. In the four Gospels, Jesus utters this expression 148 times. Jesus never had to attribute his sayings to the Lord, because Jesus was speaking AS the Lord.

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      6. We can play this game all day of you bringing up instances where you think of so-called divinity, and i rebutting them, and then you bringing up counter rebuttals, and then i bring up counter-counter rebuttals…..to infinitum.

        Let me ask: where is the God of the Old Testament who is so bold in Deut 6:4 ” Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one”?

        The same statement echoed in Mark 12:28-29 ““Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

        Now you would have me believe, that this same God has to be secretive about his triune nature and has to rely on us piecing it all together .

        Lets make this a productive session and have an agreement on some points:

        (1) There is no Trinity explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament.

        (2) There is no Trinity mentioned explicitly on the lips of Jesus.

        Agree or Disagree? If so, please show me. (preferably without ‘machine gunning’ bible verses)

        —–
        On a Side note, related to miracles you may find this interesting:

        https://islamicarchives.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/both-jesus-and-moses-are-the-finger-of-god/

        Like

  37. On the other hand, compare the Bible to the Quran, which does not have textual variants, but is also known to have been edited before the current version was finalized and all other versions were ordered to be destroyed. We now have no idea what the original actually said. This is recorded in Sahih Bukhari 6.61.510.

    Like

    1. I would really like to discuss the preservation of the Qur’an both as a manuscript and an oral tradition.

      However, I do not want to detract from the article and in general, the whole blog. From what I find, this isn’t a blog meant for comparative religion but for textual criticism in the Bible and Christianity in general.

      But if given permission, I would gladly engage in such a conversation or discourse regarding the Qur’an.

      Liked by 1 person

  38. I just noticed we may be violating a rule of the comment policy, and perhaps avoid delving too much into this topic:

    “3. Keep on topic. A little wandering is OK, but debates between two people who are getting way off topic are not helpful to others.”

    Liked by 1 person

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