Is the Bible the Word of God? – A Look at Textual Variants (Part 2)

Have you ever heard people say that the Bible is full of errors?  What do you think of this claim?  Are they right?

Last week we made the case that textual variants (or differences) should not be described as errors. The word “error” carries with it the idea of the wording being false, misleading, untrue, or corrupted.  Generally, most people would not take a spelling mishap as a justifiable reason to dismiss an entire work as inauthentic or corrupt especially given the fact that these copies were made by hand.  (See the illustration in Textual Variants Part 1). 

It is important to approach the text and multiple copies with an honest even-handed reasonable approach and let the evidence lead where it may.  If a copy proves to be corrupt, so be it.  If a copy confirms what is written, so be it.  It is important for people to understand that faith in the Bible does not rest on a shred of evidence, a thread of truth, a speculative hope or a mere wish that the text is true.  It would be most unreasonable to wish that the text is true and then go on to believe that it is true.  We must be able to differentiate fact from fiction.  Faith does not a rest on a preponderance of evidence.  That is, evidence that seems more likely than not.  Faith in the word of God isn’t a second guess or a wish based on unprovable assumptions. Rather, faith in the Bible rests on a mountain of evidence based upon millions of pages of data.

We must be clear that confidence in the Bible does not rest on a line of reasoning that assumes the word of God is true and then therefore believes it to be true.  This is circular and dishonest.   Creative writers abound and simply making a claim of Divine origin certainly does not establish Divine origin.  God allows his word to be tested.  The Bible says “Examine all things; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21, NET).  Examining the text itself is a worthwhile endeavor that increases faith for “every word of God proves true” (Prov. 30:5, ESV).

The study of variants is within a realm of larger study known as textual criticism.  Textual criticism is divided into higher criticism (also known as historical criticism) and lower criticism.  This higher and lower is not one of superior versus inferior methodology; rather it represents the angle with which the critic views the text.  Higher critics examine the text from a high birds-eye view where they examine the author and dating of a New Testament book.  Lower critics examine the text with a magnifying-glass-in-hand, looking at the precise wording of the text itself (Lightfoot 88).  A study of variants falls within the purview of a lower critic.

Bible translators are precise on types of variants that copyists or scribes make.  Sometimes a word might be copied twice, what is known as dittography. Sometimes if similarly spelled words were close in proximity in a line of text, the copyist might jump from one group of letters to the next omitting a portion of the text. This is known as homoeoarcton or homeoteleuton (Metzger xvii).   Hundreds of copies of each New Testament book give certainty that the Greek renderings and subsequent English wording are accurate and intact.

Consider the numbers for a moment.  Skeptics might be fond of pointing out that there are 400,000 variants while only 140,000 words in the New Testament.  That amounts to two or three variants for every word in the New Testament (Wallace 26).  People might wonder how the text could reasonably be trusted as authentic or credible when there are so many variants.  The answer to this rests in understanding these numbers in their context. 

First, understand there are so many variants because there are so many copies.  In fact the number of Greek manuscripts amounts to 5,600 and growing.  Second, understand that the New Testament is a document of history and has to be treated like one.  Consider the historicity of Homer’s Ilead  that dates from approximately 800 BC with 643 copies (McDowell 38).  Very few doubt the historicity of the Ilead, yet many dismiss the New Testament.  Comparatively speaking from a historical perspective, the New Testament has in excess of 20,000 handwritten manuscripts in languages such as Greek, Latic, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Gothic, Ethiopian and Armenian (Wallace 28).   Relatively, this equates to thousands of pages of data, thousands of pages that confirm the accuracy of the New Testament.  Third, understand that the New Testament rests on millions of pages of supporting data!   With 5,600 + Greek manuscripts (MSS), 20,000+ total MSS, with an average MSS with more than 450 pages, with hundreds of witnesses for every New Testament book, with 2.6 million pages of text and more than 1 million quotations of the New Testament by the church fathers, the New Testament among every work of human history stands on a mountain of historical evidence (Wallace 27-28).   

References:

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2005. Print.

Lightfood, Niel. How We Got the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003. Print.

McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999. Print.

Metzger, Bruce Manning, United Bible Societies. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.). London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994. Print.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001. Print.

Wallace, Daniel, ed. Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011. Print.