How Did We Get Our Bibles?

Can We Cound On The Bible?

The Transmission and Reliability of the Text
Variants to the Text

In our last lesson of this study, we began examining the documentation (manuscripts of various sorts) that has been used to construct the original message of the Word of God. Even though we do not have the “autographs”, the amount of resources at our disposal is incredible. The Old Testament was PROVEN more than 99% accurate to its message with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The New Testament, while verified differently is a result of the examination of more than 5300 Greek manuscripts from the 2nd-15th centuries, as well as 19,000+ translations from those centuries as well. Add to this, more than 36,000 quotes of New Testament passages from the “church fathers”, we can with absolute certainty know that what we have IS the word of God, true to the original inspired documents.

BUT, with this large number of documents, as copies were produced by uninspired men, variations were inevitable. This has been verified as doctrines are compared. In fact, it has been estimated and will be emphasized by the critic of the Bible that there are more than 200,000 variants between manuscripts. So how do we address this and does it affect the accuracy of the message of the word of God? In our lesson today we will address these points.

I. Textual Variations

a. What is a manuscript? It is a handwritten document, whether the original or a copy.
b. What is a variant? A variant is an alteration to the document from which a scribe is making a copy. It can be either intentional or unintentional. It is ANY difference(s) whatsoever when two or more documents are placed side by side.
c. Why are there variations?
i. The main reason: Because scribes were not inspired. They were human and made mistakes. Sometimes their mistakes were inadvertent but at other times they were intentional.
ii. While duplication of the text was treated as a serious task, it was not given the same criteria as the Hebrew text. Documents were not destroyed for a single mistake, etc.
iii. Sometimes a scribe would make a mistake:
1. Dividing words wrongly. Recall, that as manuscripts were made, there were no spaces between words and all letters were capitals (Uncials). Therefore, a scribe, perhaps after spaces were developed would not be sure where to divide a word. For example: HEISNOWHERE could mean HE IS NOW HERE or HE IS NOWHERE.
2. There were spelling errors (transposing letters, misunderstanding a word being spoken [i.e. here or hear], etc. NOTE: Sometimes copying was done by listening to someone read to one or several copyists at the same time.
3. Omission of letters or even words or lines.
4. Even with great effort, poor lighting, distractions, fatigue or other factors such as sloppy copying, could cause a scribe to alter his copy AND all future copies based on his. Perhaps he would miss a phrase or repeat something already said.
iv. Sometimes a scribe would intentionally make changes:
1. Add a note in the margin which in future documents was included.
2. “Correct” something he perceived to an error in the text – changing words.
3. Seek to harmonize different texts: For example - We have manuscripts that try to reconcile the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11:2-4 with Matthew 6:9-13.
4. Add something to clarify the perceived meaning of a text or to bolster some doctrine: 1 John 5:7 was almost certainly added later to bolster the doctrine of the trinity (using that language).
d. Considering the variants. While the number of variants is large, possibly even larger than 200,000, it is not as bad as that number seems. Consider the following:
i. The number represents how many differences are found TOTAL in ALL the documents combined.
For example: If the same word were misspelled in 3000 manuscripts, that would count as 3000 variants (not one variant). Some the large number becomes more manageable.
ii. This number includes both intentional and unintentional variants.
iii. Often we can trace these differences to a specific source or document, and we are upfront about this. These variants are factored into generating a text that will be used to produce a copy of the Bible.
iv. The overwhelming majority of variants are minor such as a spelling errors or the omission of a word or a few words.
One source that I consulted mentioned that there are about 10,000 variant readings (the number of DIFFERENT variants) in the New Testament (out of a little more than 180,000 words in the NT). While that sounds like a lot (and it is) consider the following: [1]
1. About 9600 of those variants are spelling errors or grammatical construction or word order.
2. There are about 400 variants that are considered significant, these are changes in wording in a text: For example – there are 7 variants of Acts 20:28 where Paul challenges the elders at Ephesus to “shepherd the church of _____ which He purchased with His own blood.” Variants that have been found include: God, The Lord; The Lord and God; God and the Lord; The Lord God; Christ; Jesus Christ. [2]
3. Of the 400, only about 50 of them are of any great significance and the cause for serious consideration.
4. MOST importantly - of these texts, NOT ONE changes the message of the Bible! There is nothing in these variants that cannot be verified in other passages.
5. Upon examination it has been shown that the text we have of scripture is more than 98% accurate to the autographs.
In his book, A General Introduction to the Bible, Norman Geisler, while comparing the integrity of Homer’s The Illiad (which with about 653 manuscripts is considered to be about 95% accurate), made the observed about the variants of the New Testament that of the about 20,000 lines that comprise the New Testament, only 40 lines (or about 400 words) of the New Testament are in doubt…” This amounts to one-half of 1 percent (or less) of similar emendations in the New Testament.[3]
v. All in all, there are only a few passages that really present some problems. And these were probably the result of DELIBERATE changes by scribes. These would be the texts that are addressed in the margins of your Bibles (such as “NU omits…”).
NOTE: These variations are at the foundation of the difference between the KJV (NKJV) and the ASV (RSV and NASU). Examples of this would include:
1. Mark 16:9-20. In some of the best early manuscripts, these verses are not there. Also, it is not found mentioned by many of the earliest of the “church fathers”. The earliest to mention them by Irenaues around 200 AD.
It is possible that because of the abrupt ending of Mark 16:8 that a scribe added these verses to more closely compliment the ending of the other gospels.
ASV, NASU, included these verses but with a note.
It is also possible that being at the end of the original document it was damaged through “wear and tear” and that what the early manuscripts record is what they had available.
There is SOME evidence for this ending though not many manuscripts. There are a few early manuscripts (Uncial C – 345 AD, D – 450-550, L & W).
There are also other supposed endings.
BUT, let’s assume for that someone dismisses this text as not in the original. Does that change the great commission? (Matt. 28:18-10) Does it change the plan of salvation? Jesus taught belief (John 8:24) and baptism (Matt. 28:19). Baptism to save us is taught in 1 Peter 3:20-21, Acts 2:38, 22:16, etc.
That the apostles would perform miracles recorded in Mark 16:17-18 are found throughout the book of Acts.
2. 1 John 5:7 – absent in all early translations. It was not present in any Greek manuscripts until 1520 AD and is believed to have been inserted by a scribe to bolster the doctrine of the trinity.
BUT, while not alluding to scripture specifically, there teaching is found in some earlier documents being mentioned by “church fathers” and in later copies of the Latin Vulgate. Furthermore, there are statements as early as the 2nd century verifying the doctrine of God in 3 persons.
BUT, let’s assume it is not in the original.
The doctrine of God in 3 persons is emphasized greatly in many other texts – Matt. 28:19, 2 Cor. 13:14, 1 Pet. 1:2, etc. Removing this text does not damage to the teachings of the Bible concerning God.
3. Acts 8:37 – the confession of the Eunuch is absent in early Greek manuscripts. It was not first recorded until the 6th century in the Codex Laudianus.
Actually, while not the earliest of manuscripts, it is certainly early and thus worthy of consideration. Also the text was included in the Latin Vulgate by Jerome of the 4th century.
BUT, let’s assume it was not in the original. Romans 10:9-10 emphasize the need to confess the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved.
4. John 7:53-8:11 – the adulterous woman forgiven by Jesus. This is another text that is missing in most of the early manuscripts. In fact, the first appearance of it is found Codex D (450-550AD). BUT, the text appears in other places by scribes.
There does not seem to be disagreement as to whether the event is actual to the life of Jesus, but the bigger question is where it should be recorded.
It is included in all major translations (though the NASU puts its in parentheses).
5. Others could be added to these, and in all cases similar answers can be found. The point is we can have confidence in the Bible we possess, even questionable verses.
6. BUT acknowledge the questions instead of trying to ignore them. It will NOT hurt the integrity of scripture nor your faith.

II. Do variations affect our compliance with scripture?

a. That variations exist cannot be denied. Be honest and admit it! It will NOT affect the truth of the gospel or the inspiration of the Bible.
b. There is NOTHING within the variations that exist that affects one’s salvation.
c. Just because there are discrepancies between manuscripts does not affect the inspiration of the original autographs. And as we have seen, they do not affect the overall message or any doctrine taught in scripture – either about Jesus, His work or our work as believers (justification, obedience, etc.).
“Only the autographs were actually inspired, good copies are accurate.” In seeking to avoid the two extremes of either an unattainable original or a fallible one, it must be asserted that a good copy or translation of the autographs is for all practical purposes the inspired Word of God. It may not completely satisfy the scholar who, for technical purposes of theological precision, wants both the correct text and the exact term in the original language, but it certainly does suit the preacher and layman who desire to know “what says the Lord” in matters of faith and practice. Even when the accuracy of a reading in the original text cannot be known with 100 percent accuracy, it is possible to be 100 percent certain of the truth preserved in the texts that survive. It is only in minor details that any uncertainty about the textual rendering exists, and no major doctrine rests on any one minor detail. A good translation will not fail to capture the overall teaching of the original. In this sense, then, a good translation will have doctrinal authority, although actual inspiration is reserved for the autographs.”[4]
d. And we are aware of these variations and ought to be upfront about them. IN ALL instances, if someone questions the reliability of a certain passage, go to others that teach the truth of God’s word.
e. I will tell you – knowledge of these things is a benefit to each of us and equips us to give a defense for the hope that is in you. (1 Pet. 3:15).

And thus we can see that the manuscripts that we have are certainly reliable and we can count upon the Bible to reveal unto us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” and with it we can speak, “as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). Are there concerns? Certainly! But they do NOT present a problem in verifying the Gospel or the integrity of the text of the Bible. With great confidence, we CAN defend “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude) Think about it. All that remains now is an examination of our English Bible. We all address that in our final study.

NOTE: There are websites which list a substantial number of the variants and the significant variants in the New Testament.
For a list of more than 250 significant variants:
Another website that lists MAJOR variants is: This is a page on the website of Ohio Valley University.
For a large list of variants including many that are not considered significant see:

[2] Ray Madrigal, Reflections of Textual Criticism of the Greek NT, Lecture, Florida College, Feb 2011
[3] Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. (1996). A general introduction to the Bible (Rev. and expanded.) (475). Chicago: Moody Press.

[4] Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. (1996). A general introduction to the Bible (Rev. and expanded.) (44). Chicago: Moody Press.

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