"No—it can't be." I will never forget standing in my kitchen after finishing a New Testament class, reeling a bit from what I had just learned—that one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible was something called a textual variant.
I have always loved the Bible. I’ve studied it ever since I could read and write—but for most of my life, like many Christians, I didn't really know how we got the Bible. I didn't know about textual variants, how the New Testament was transmitted, or that we don't actually possess any of the original writings.
What is a textual variant? When scholars have many copies (manuscripts) and early copies of a particular work, they can compare them to find out what the originals actually said. The New Testament has more and earlier manuscripts than any other work of ancient literature. Because these manuscripts were copied by hand, naturally there are going to be some differences between them like spelling changes, grammar devices, and mixed up or missing words. Once in a while, a bit of text was even added or removed by a scribe after the original writing was sent out. All of these differences are called textual variants.
It is well known that the New Testament has been copied with 99.5% accuracy. Basically this means is that the vast majority of these textual variants are insignificant in that they don’t change the meaning at all. So what about the remaining .5%? Within this small percentage are variants that are significant in that they affect the meaning of the text—and in some cases, scholars can't be sure which reading is authentic. The good news is that none of these variants affect any core Christian doctrine, and most only impact one or two verses (with a couple of exceptions). Here are 3 significant textual variants that every Christian should know about:
1 John 5:7-8
"For there are three that testify: in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree."
Most modern English translations don't contain the italicized portion above, but the King James and New King James do. So which is it? Is it supposed to be in—or out?
The majority of the earliest manuscripts do not contain the questionable section, but it found its way into the King James translation in the 17th century, which didn't utilize the earliest manuscripts. Most scholars, even very conservative ones, conclude that this section was not in the original writing.
Theologically, this can be perceived as a problem because these words so clearly affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. However, a case for the Trinity can be easily made without them, so no core doctrine is impacted.
Sometimes referred to as the "long ending of Mark," this portion of Mark's Gospel is not considered by most authorities to be in the original. Most English translations mark this section with brackets and note that our earliest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain it. It speaks of drinking poison and picking up snakes (which is probably a bad idea!), but it also mentions the resurrection of Jesus. Considering that the resurrection of Jesus is affirmed elsewhere in Mark's Gospel and in the New Testament, this variant also does not impact any core doctrine.
This is a difficult variant for many Christians because it is the only place in the Bible where one of the most beloved stories about Jesus' life is recorded. (Remember me standing in my kitchen? Yep. This is the one.) Many of us are inspired by Jesus’ words to an angry mob when a woman was caught in the act of adultery: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." We are comforted by His words to her: "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more."
Most scholars, including conservatives, agree that this story was not originally in John's Gospel, yet many believe it has a good chance of being historical. (1) In other words, it most likely happened, but it wasn't John who wrote it down. Either way, this variant doesn’t challenge any core tenet of the faith.
Why do Christians need to know about these variants?
These variants are common knowledge among scholars, skeptics, and atheists, but are virtually unknown to many Christians outside the academic world. Often this information is used to blindside believers in an attempt to sabotage their faith or undermine their confidence in the Bible. If we are already familiar with these variants, we will be much less likely to be rattled by a clever skeptic on social media.
How should Christians respond?
It can be discouraging to find out that beloved portions of our Bibles may not, in fact, be part of the original writings. However, there are some things to keep in mind about these significant textual variants:
Christians need not be troubled by these variants—their impact is almost non-existent. The fact that we have so many manuscripts, such early manuscripts, and an accurate methodology to discover these variants should give us confidence in the reliability of our New Testament.
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(1) See Bruce M. Metzger & Bart D. Ehrmann, The Text of the New Testament: It's Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (Oxford University Press, 2005) p. 319-320; Michael Kruger, A Christmas Present from the Mainstream Media: Newsweek Takes a Desperate Swipe at the Integrity of the Bible (Part 1); Dan Wallace, "My Favorite Passage That's Not in the Bible," iTunes U June 26, 2011. Lecture.