"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.
Please subscribe to have my weekly blog posts delivered directly to your inbox, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
(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.
2/28/2017 01:57:29 am
It's worth pointing out that the well-known Biblical historian Bill Cooper has recently demonstrated conclusively that two of the so-called earliest manuscripts, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, are forgeries. These two codices are responsible for many of the supposed "variant texts", so once they are disregarded the integrity of the Bible is seen to be much more reliable than many have supposed. Cooper's findings are published in The Forging of Codex Sinaiticus, 2016, ISBN 978-0-9931415-6-0.
2/28/2017 09:19:06 am
Hi Kevin, the vast majority of respected text-critical scholars disagree with this view. This is a convenient conclusion for the KJV-only camp, but it is roundly rejected by most authorities in the field. If anyone wants to know more about this, here is a debate between James White and Chris Pinto on Sinaiticus. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzRTuUJugSY
8/26/2020 05:30:23 pm
Please delete youtube lin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzRTuUJugSY which is not available.
1/1/2018 07:36:27 pm
Thank you Kevin Tuck for your comments. We will be purchasing this book to add to our library.
7/1/2022 08:39:27 pm
You realize there were Bibles before King James had his "Authorized" version translated?
8/26/2020 03:12:23 pm
The word 'forgery' is a derogatory term. We better find a better neutral term. BTW do they ever define the term the use if their writing is to be scholarly? What does it mean by 'forgery'?
1/15/2021 09:28:35 am
If you dont know what is meant when the term forgery is used, how can you say it is deragatory? A forgery is a fake. It is something that is created to look like an original but is not.
8/26/2020 03:30:00 pm
1 John 5:7-8
8/27/2020 05:38:49 am
2/28/2017 10:19:40 am
Thank you Alisa for this post and for pointing out that the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are both authentic and highly esteemed by all true Biblical scholars. I have studied the causes behind the differences between the KJV and the NIV on all three the Scriptures you mention and posted the results on my blog together with over 100 other differences that I have already studied.
2/28/2017 11:23:06 am
Hi Herman, thanks for your comments. Your website sounds interesting! In regard to "some translations leave them out altogether." My wording could have been a bit more precise there. I was mostly referring to the variant reading of 1 John 5:7-8, and other, more minor variations where a word or phrase will be left out of some translations (like Mark 9:29—some version leave out "and fasting"). Like you, I'm not aware of a translation that leaves out Mark 16:9-20 or John 8:1-11, although some translations mark them out very cleary—the NET Bible even uses the title "The Longer Ending of Mark" before it translates the portion in brackets, along with detailed notes explaining why they included it.
2/28/2017 11:25:43 pm
Thank you Alisa,
2/28/2017 04:25:42 pm
Great job Alisa. I'm teaching a NT survey class right now and I've covered these with the class. It has blown some of their minds, but I agree with you that Christians need to be aware of these issues. You are doing fantastic work with the blog.
3/1/2017 11:52:38 am
Thank you James!
3/2/2017 05:30:11 am
Several years ago I was leading our church through the book of Mark. When we got to the end I gave a brief intro to Textual Criticism with regards to the longer ending. I pointed out that the only place in the Bible that had any kind of connection between baptism and salvation was this passage when one of my members began crying. She said, "All my life, I have felt that baptism isn't required to be saved. For the first time I see that what I was told all my life isn't biblical."
3/19/2017 11:58:18 am
3/19/2017 02:53:30 pm
Hi James. The point of my post is to inform Christians that these passages are highly disputed and that the vast majority text critical scholars conclude that they are not original. I am not entrenched in anything—nothing would please me more than for these variants (especially the latter two) to be proven authentic to the original. But where it stands now, this isn't the case. Of these three, the one that is most debated is the long ending of Mark, and I would encourage my readers to research the views themselves. Here is a book that gives 4 perspectives from qualified sources: https://www.amazon.com/Perspectives-Ending-Mark-Daniel-Wallace-ebook/dp/B004OR17WK
11/2/2017 08:03:18 pm
6/25/2017 06:37:14 pm
Taken from Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus Interrupted”:
1/1/2018 09:52:06 pm
1/1/2018 10:13:47 pm
Hi Herman, It seems to me that this is certainly a meaningful variant that is doctrinal in nature, but I don't necessarily agree that it would affect an essential doctrine. There are several verses, if cherry-picked from the whole of Scripture would also seem to teach that we are saved by our own efforts. Matthew 5:20 and 12:37 are good examples. Even if the TR reading of Rev. 22:14 were authentic (which I don't think it is,) it wouldn't change the orthodox understanding of soteriology, or tip the scales toward a works-based salvation, in my opinion.
7/12/2021 04:37:04 pm
Matthew 19:16-17 King James Version (KJV)
1/1/2018 11:01:55 pm
Good day Alisa,
Bryan S Latchaw
1/6/2021 08:22:38 am
here is an article for us to consider: https://danielbwallace.com/tag/400000-textual-variants/
Bryan S Latchaw
1/6/2021 08:26:04 am
From the link posted previously: "In the opening section, the author takes on Bart Ehrman’s wildly popular book, Misquoting Jesus. In characteristic fashion, Blomberg critiques both what Ehrman does and doesn’t say, doing all with wisdom and wit. He points out, for example, that virtually nothing in Misquoting Jesus is new to biblical scholars—both liberal and evangelical, and all stripes in between. Non-scholars, especially atheists and Muslim apologists, latched onto the book and made preposterous claims that lay Christians were unprepared for. Ignorance, in this case, is not bliss. Earlier in the chapter when Blomberg mentioned that there are as many as 400,000 textual variants among the manuscripts, he bemoans: “It is depressing to see how many people, believers and unbelievers alike, discover a statistic like this number of variants and ask no further questions. The skeptics sit back with smug satisfaction, while believers are aghast and wonder if they should give up their faith. Is the level of education and analytic thinking in our world today genuinely this low?” (13).
This is just a reminder, not a point on point contribution. God Bless us with peace. Scholarship has its part in the critical study of manuscript transmissions. The Lord has used such disciplines in the preservation of His Word throughout the ages. Yet, it absolutely must be the Holy Spirit, much more so than our scholarship, that guides us into a more fruitful and accurate understanding of God's Word - historically, textually, theologically, practically, and spiritually. Unless the Holy Spirit is our guide and influence in all aspects of biblical consideration then our debates and disagreements can easily slide into academic rubbish filled with religious pride as to who is right. So as we bow our intellects before the Lord He will be our wonderful counselor and teacher in all research and presentation; scripture will truly be a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path; and all debates and differences swallowed up in His grace. I would say that is a rewarding fulfillment.
3/31/2021 09:13:25 am
Hi alisa, have you checked James E. Snapps work on the authenticy of the latter 2 variants you mentiond. I'm don't disagree with the conclusion you came to at the end of this post but it think James's arguements are worthy of consideration ,
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.