What Were the Scribal Tendencies or Habits of the Early Copyists?


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The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored 170+ books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

As noted elsewhere, the textual scholar looks at two forms of evidence: external (manuscripts) and internal (what the author or scribe wrote). Internal evidence concerns what might have led to scribal errors. Therefore, we will discuss scribal practices and tendencies to get an image of how the Word of God came down to us through the work of copyists. In another upcoming article, The Practice of Textual Criticism to Determine the Original Reading, we will deal with scribal tendencies as well.

The originals were completely accurate and without error of any kind. We know that the men who penned the twenty-seven New Testament books “were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet. 1:21) However, as has been made clear from the outset, we do not have the originals, so we are dependent on the work of the copyists from the first to the sixteenth centuries. Therefore, it is prudent on our part to analyze the practices of the scribes, the habits or tendencies of the scribes. Some of the scribal tendencies have led to certain kinds of variants within our copies of the text of the New Testament. If we are aware of the causes of errors as the text is being copied, we will be better equipped to ascertain which reading is the original. The New Testament textual scholar aims to ascertain what the original words were in the original text. If we can fully grasp how scribes went about their work in copying the text (scribal habits), again, we are in a better position at being able to restore the original words of the Greek text.


Types of Scribal Errors

The errors within our texts of the New Testament are of two kinds: those that were accidental and those that were intentional. We will cover a few of those that are encountered most often.

Accidental Errors

Word Divisions
Similar Endings (Homoeoteleuton): the scribe’s eyes skipped from a letter or word to the same letter(s) or word down the page, leaving out a line or two in the transcription.

John 16.11

Single Writing (Haplography): the scribe essentially wrote once what should have been written twice. Codex Vaticanus has an omission at John 17:15. The scribe working on the Vaticanus would have likely had an exemplar that looked similar to the following image, with the following arrangement of lines.

John 17.15
John 17:15

Double Writing (Dittography): in this case, the scribe wrote a letter or word twice instead of once. The phrase “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” appears twice in Codex Vaticanus, whereas it only appears once in other manuscripts.John 17:15: I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them out of the evil one.

Acts 19.34
Acts 19:34 Codex Vaticanus (http://images.csntm.org/)

Change of Place (Metathesis): the scribe changed the order of the letters or words.Acts 19:34: But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΡΚΟΝ 14:65 1881 Westcott-Hort New Testament (WHNU)

 65 … καὶand οἱthe ὑπηρέταιsubordinates ῥαπίσμασινto slaps on the face αὐτὸνhim ἔλαβον.took.

ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΡΚΟΝ 14:65 1550 Stephanus New Testament (TR1550)

 65 … καὶand οἱthe ὑπηρέταιsubordinates ῥαπίσμασινto slaps on the face αὐτὸνhim ἔβαλλον.struck.

An example of metathesis is found in Mark 14:65. Some manuscripts read “ελαβον” (WHNU) which is translated “received” while others have “εβαλλον” (Byz. Text) which is translated “struck”. We find the two readings as follow:

Mark 14:65 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

65 And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him with their fists, and to say to him “Prophesy!” And the court attendants received him with slaps in the face.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

Mark 14:65 King James Version (KJV)

65 And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him, and to say unto him, Prophesy: and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands.

Itacism (Similar Iota Sound): the scribe confused Greek vowels and diphthongs[1] because they sounded alike early on as they had a similar pronunciation to the letter iota. The Greek transliteration of the diphthongs would be ai as in aisle, ei as eight, oi as in oil, and ui as in suite. This often resulted in confusion of Greek pronouns. Though not cases of itacism per se, confusion also resulted from other vowels that tended to be pronounced alike. An especially interesting example is found in Romans 5:1.


Romans 5:1 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,


Westcott and Hort (WH) chose the variant reading εχωμεν, a subjunctive, i.e., a grammatical mood that expresses doubts, wishes, and possibilities because it has excellent textual support (א* A B* C D K L 33 81 itd, g vg syrp, pal copbo arm eth al). On the other hand, the Nestle-Aland and the United Bible Societies preferred the internal evidence of the indicative reading, εχομεν,[2] the basic mood of verbs in ordinary objective statements because the context has Paul stating a fact of what they now have since they have been justified by faith. In other words, Paul was not exhorting his listeners to have peace with God. In addition, it should be noted that there was a discovery of an earlier manuscript in the middle of the twentieth-century which had εχομεν, Uncial 0220vid, dating to about 300 C.E., and it is of the Alexandrian family, penned in a Reformed Documentary hand. The reader will notice the superscript “vid” beside the Gregory-Aland number. Vid is short for Latin videtur, meaning, “It seems so.” The scribal abbreviation (siglum) is an indication that a reading is uncertain for some reason; e.g. there may be a lacuna, i.e., a gap or place where something is missing in the manuscript.

Uncial 0220
Uncial 0220 (Romans 4:23-5:3; 5:8-13) c. 300 C.E.

Unfortunately, the Greek verb εχομεν has broken letters where there is a hole in the manuscript. Where this missing section is we find the “ε” of our verb, but the “χομεν” is no longer there. Textual scholar William Hatch examined the manuscript, observing,

The first three letters of the verb stood at the end of the line, and a small hole in the vellum has destroyed the χ and the letter which followed it. However, the letter after χ must have been an ο, because the above-mentioned hole does not occupy enough space to contain the letters χ and ω. On the other hand, the space would be completely filled by an χ and an ο. Moreover, a little ink can be seen at the top and right hand side of the hole, and this seems to be the remainder of a letter with a closed top. Hence, the letter must have been an ο and not an ω. [This] fragment is the earliest known witness for εχομεν in Romans 5:1, and thus the indicative in this verse is attested by a goof text which antedates the earliest testimony for the subjunctive. (Hatch 45, 83)


Intentional Errors

Unintentional errors are understandable, but we struggle to appreciate how and why a scribe would want to alter the text, especially if he is a Christian who is copying the New Testament. While the intentional errors are far less than the unintentional in number, there are still enough to be of concern, and they are the more important kind. Nevertheless, they are solvable, so we need not fret over their impact on the New Testament. In addition, these are not intentional errors by heretics, who were placing destructive variants within the text. In every case of which we are aware, the copyist did them with good intentions. In some cases, it was to fix what the copyist perceived to be grammatical errors or to harmonize one gospel with another. In other cases, it was combining two different readings because the scribe could not decide which was the original, or misunderstanding a marginal note and entering it into the text, and in very few cases making a change to strengthen a doctrinal belief. We are going to offer an example for each of these.

SPELLING AND GRAMMATICAL CHANGES: the scribe believed that he was correcting an ordinary error, and was under the impression that he was improving the text.


In Matthew 1:7–8 we have the name Asaph (ʾΑσάφ), which is found in more than a few older manuscripts (P1vid, א, B, f1 f13 700 1071 etc.), in Eastern versions (cop arm eth). However, later copyists believed that they were making a correction to the text by changing it to Asa (ʾΑσά), the king of Judah (1 Kings 15:9–24) (L, W, Δ, etc.). Textual scholarship is almost certain that the original reading was (ʾΑσάφ). Moreover, Asaph has the best documentary support. P1, an Alexandrian MS dating to about 250 C.E., is shown with a vid siglum because a small fragment which showed the second occurrence of the name Asaph went missing shortly after its discovery. However, the original photograph of the manuscript shows this portion.

Asa was the third king of Judah. He was the son of Abijam and the grandson of Rehoboam. (1 Ki 15:8-10) Here we have a problem, since the best documentary evidence supports the incorrect spelling (Asaph). Therefore, do we have an accidental corruption, or do we have intentional or unintentional confusion? Comfort writes, “Apparently Matthew wrote Ασάφ, following a spelling he copied from a genealogical record other than that found in most copies of the Septuagint (which read Ασά). Later scribes changed it to “Asa,” probably because they did not want readers to think this king was the Psalmist “’Asaph.’” (P. W. Comfort 2008, 3) In other words, Comfort is suggesting that the inspired Matthew, who was being moved by Holy Spirit, penned the incorrect spelling. Therefore, if Matthew used Asaph, it would mean he was either mistaken, or he did it for some unknown reason.

Bruce M. Metzger wrote, “Since, however, the evangelist may have derived material for the genealogy, not from the Old Testament directly, but from subsequent genealogical lists, in which the erroneous spelling occurred, the Committee saw no reason to adopt what appears to be a scribal emendation in the text of Matthew.” (TCGNT, 2) If Matthew did as Comfort and Metzger suggest, it would still mean that he erroneously chose the incorrect spelling. As Metzger mentions, Lagrange[3] objects and in his commentary prints Asa in the text of Matthew. He states, “Literary criticism is not able to admit that the author, who could not have drawn up this list without consulting the Old Testament, would have taken the name of a psalmist in place of a king of Judah. It is necessary, therefore, to suppose that Ἀσάφ is a very ancient [scribal] error.” (p. 5) Yes, there is no way that Matthew, under inspiration, chose the incorrect spelling of Asaph. He penned Asa. Early on, a scribal error of Asaph must have entered the text, and this is what later copyists were correcting. This verse receives scant attention but has great significance. If Asaph is the original reading, then Matthew 1:7 is in error.


In our pursuit of knowledge and understanding, we do not want to take the approach that many scholars have succumbed to, i.e., being so involved in analyzing the text that they see it as of human origin alone, and set aside the fact that these men were moved by Holy Spirit. We as conservative Christians are not ashamed or embarrassed and do not feel the need to apologize to others, because we see the Bible authors as inspired, producing fully inerrant manuscripts.

Presuppositions are what we think, what we feel, what others have said, and what we have read. Scholars see presuppositions as something we need to be cautious of because they can interject subjectivity into our analysis, whether we are trying to determine what the author meant, or what the original reading of the text was. It is virtually impossible to come to the Bible text without some pre-understanding or presuppositions, however. As Christian students of God’s Word, there are certain presuppositions that we are never to set aside, nor should we be ashamed or embarrassed about them, nor do we need to apologize to others. We do our investigations and analyses of the Bible with the presupposition that the Bible (1) is the inspired Word of God, (2) is fully inerrant in the originals, and (3) is made up of sixty-six books.

Grammar: the copyists attempt to correct a perceived grammatical or syntactical problem.


At Revelation 1:4, the rules of grammar are that the Greek preposition απο should be followed by the genitive case, but John has instead an article in the nominative case. Scribes over the years had tried to alleviate this perceived grammatical problem. The two most popular were to use God or Lord in the genitive case.

Removal of Perceived Discrepancies:

Mark 1:2-3 (ESV)

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way
, the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

Malachi 3:1 (ESV)

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.


Isaiah 40:3 (ESV)

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness
prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.



Mark says, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” However, the quotation in verses 2 and 3 of Mark chapter 1 is a made up of two different verses: Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Therefore, it is easy to see why the scribes chose to alter this verse to read, “As it is written in the prophets.” “Isaiah the prophet” is found in the earliest Alexandrian and Western witnesses while “the prophets” is found in the Byzantine text. The harder reading, “Isaiah the prophet,” is preferred because there is reason to change to “the prophets,” but no rational reason for changing from “the prophets” to “Isaiah the prophet.” This is also supported by the other translation principle, “The reading that the other reading(s) most likely came from is likely the original.”

4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

Harmonization (Parallel Passages): This is usually an intentional change. We most often find this taking place in what is known as the Synoptic Gospels because they are similar: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For example, we have Matthew 19:17 parallel to Mark 10:18. As we can see below, a scribe felt the need to harmonize Matthew 19:17 with Mark 10:18.

Matthew 19:17 (WHNU)

εις εστιν ο αγαθος

There is one who is good

א B (D) L Θ (f1) ita,d copbo


Matthew 19:17 (Byz)

ουδεις αγαθος ει μη εις ο θεος

No one is good, except one, God

C W f13 33 Maj syrh,p copsa


Mark 10:18 English Standard Version (ESV)

18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.

If the reading at Matthew 19:17 found in the Byzantine Text, “No one is good, except one, God,” were the original, there is no good reason for a scribe to alter it to the more ambiguous one. Why do we say ambiguous? We do so because the reading “there is one who is good” has been interpreted by some as Jesus speaking of himself. However, others, such as this author, view Jesus as speaking of the Father.

So if the Byzantine reading were original in Matthew, it is difficult to imagine why copyists would have altered it to a more obscure one, whereas scribal assimilation to Synoptic parallels frequently occurs.

Conflation: Here the scribe combines two or more variants into one reading. As an example, we have Luke 24:53, αἰνοῦντες [praising] καὶ εὐλογοῦντες [blessing].

Luke 24:53 (WHNU)

53 και ησαν δια παντος εν τω ιερω ευλογουντες τον θεον

Luke 24:53 (Byz)

53 και ησαν διαπαντος εν τω ιερω αινουντες και ευλογουντες τον θεον αμην

Luke 24:53 (ESV)

53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.

Luke 24:53 (KJV)

53 And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen.

The readings αἰνοῦντες καὶ εὐλογοῦντες (A C2 K W X Δ Θ Ψ 1 13 33) and εὐλογοῦντες καὶ αἰνοῦντες (eth) are certainly conflations, arising from combinations of εὐλογοῦντες (P75 א B C* L syrs, pal copsa, bo geo) and αἰνοῦντες (D ita, b, d. e. ff2, l, r1 Augustine). In trying to ascertain the original reading, we must first look at the external evidence. Clearly, the witnesses for εὐλογοῦντες are far superior to that of the conflations, as well as being diversified.

Second, we must consider the internal evidence, such as the context, what the author may or may not have done, in addition to what a copyist may or may not have done. Therefore, this analysis starts with questions e.g. what would Luke likely have written? Do we assume that since Luke used εὐλογεῖν twelve times, while he only used αἰνεῖν in three other passages, he likely chose to use εὐλογεῖν here? Alternatively, do we look at the fact that in the next century εὐλογεῖν became a select term for praising God among the Christians, and so assume that the copyists chose to replace αἰνεῖν with εὐλογεῖν, pointing go αἰνεῖν as the original? Then, looking at the context, because εὐλογεῖν was present in verses 50 and 51, does it not seem likely that Luke would use the same term here in verse 53? On the other hand, were the copyists moved to use the same verb, so that they replaced αἰνεῖν with εὐλογεῖν? Then again, were the copyists seeking to differentiate the disciples from Jesus, suggesting that they replaced εὐλογοῦντες with αἰνοῦντες?

In the end, the internal evidence is not clear enough to make a decision, but combined with the external evidence, we can be almost certain that εὐλογοῦντες was the original reading, which some the copyists changed to αἰνοῦντες. Then later copyists, to avoid discarding the original verb, conflated the reading by combining the two, i.e., praising [αινουντες] and blessing [ευλογουντες] God.

Doctrinal Changes: in these cases, a scribe was trying to strengthen a doctrinal position by altering a passage to support the doctrine. Some examples would be Acts 20:28, Romans 9:5, and 1 Timothy 3:16.


Acts 20:28 A Worthy Critical Text is Faithful

What exactly do we mean by faithful, and faithful to what or whom? By faithful, we mean unwavering to the original, to the author himself. However, there are times when textual scholars or committees choose a reading that is unfaithful to the original text. Obviously, theological bias should not affect a scribe’s activity, nor that of the textual scholar, or the translation committee that brings us our English translation.

Acts 20:28 Revised Standard Version (RSV) Acts 20:28 New Living Translation (NLT)
28 Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 28 So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock, his church, purchased with his own blood, over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders.

Acts 20:28: The RSV reads that the church was purchased with “the blood of his [God’s] own Son.” On the other hand, the NLT reads that the church was purchased with “God’s . . . own blood.” Before we can begin determining which of these two renderings is correct, it should be noted that we have two textual problems within this verse.

Acts 20:28a

Acts 20:28 (WHNU) and (TR)

28 την εκκλησιαν του θεου

the church of God

א B syr

Variant 1: 28 την εκκλησιαν του κυριου

the church of the Lord

P74 A C* D E Ψ 33 17 39

Variant 2: 28 την εκκλησιαν του κυριου και  του θεου

the church of the Lord and God

C3 Mar

As we can see from the above Acts 22:28a has three different readings, two different variants, within the Greek New Testament manuscripts: Reading “the church of God”, variant (1) “the church of the Lord”, and variant (2) “the church of the Lord and God”. WHNU has the better manuscript support and is the choice of the Textus Receptus of 1551 as well. The expression “the church of the Lord” is found nowhere in the New Testament. “the church of God” is found eleven times, all by the Apostle Paul and Luke, the writer of Acts, who was Paul’s traveling companion.

The question of what reading led to the other in this case will be discussed in two parts. There is no doubt that variant (2) is simply a conflation (combination of the text reading and variant (1)). If “the church of the Lord” were the original reading, it could have been that a copyist familiar with Paul made the change to “the church of God.” On the other hand, if “the church of God” were the original reading, there is a slight chance that a copyist was influenced by the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), and changed it to “the church of the Lord.”

However, the important text-critical principle, ‘the more difficult reading is to be preferred’ (more difficult to understand (i.e., accept)), seems to be most helpful. This principle is also related to the dominant principle, “the reading that led to the others is the original,” as the copyist would have changed to an easier reading. Basically, it is common sense that scribes make difficult readings easier to understand, rather than do the reverse with easy readings. There is no doubt that “the church of God” is the more difficult reading. Why? The clause that follows (which will be dealt with shortly) could have been taken as “which he purchased with his own blood.” This would almost certainly cause pause for any copyist, asking himself, “Does God have blood?” Thus, the original was “the church of God”, which was changed to “the church of the Lord,” because the idea that God had blood would have been repugnant. All things considered (internal and external evidence), the reading most likely original is “the church of God.”

Acts 20:28b has two different readings within the Greek New Testament Manuscripts:

Acts 20:28 (WHNU)

28 ην περιεποιησατο δια του αιματος του ιδιου

which he purchased with the blood of his own

which he [God] purchased with the blood of his own [Son]

which he [God] purchased with his own blood

P74 A B C E 33 17 39 (P41vid D add εαυτω after περιεποιησατο)

Variant: Acts 20:28 (TR)

28 ην περιεποιησατο δια του ιδιου αιματος

which he purchased with the own blood

which he purchased with his own blood


The WHNU text reading has the best manuscript evidence by far, and judging from this we can be certain that it is the original reading. Therefore, we will not use space debating the two but will spend our time determining how it should be understood. In his Textual Commentary, Bruce Metzger has this to say:

This absolute use of ὁ ἴδιος [“his Own”] is found in Greek papyri as a term of endearment referring to near relatives.[4] It is possible, therefore, that “his Own” (ὁ ἴδιος) was a title that early Christians gave to Jesus, comparable to “the Beloved” (ὁ ἀγαπητός); compare Ro 8:32, where Paul refers to God “who did not spare τοῦ ἰδίου υἱοῦ” [“his own Son”] in a context that clearly alludes to Gn 22:16, where the Septuagint has ἀγαπητοῦ υἱοῦ [“beloved Son”].

The reading ἰδίου αἵματος is supported by many of the Byzantine witnesses that read the conflation κυρίου καὶ θεοῦ in the preceding variant. It may well be, as Lake and Cadbury point out, that after the special meaning of ὁ ἴδιος [“his Own”] (discussed in the previous comment) had dropped out of Christian usage, τοῦ ἰδίου [“of his own”] of this passage was misunderstood as a qualification of αἵματος (“his own blood”). “This misunderstanding led to two changes in the text: τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ ἰδίου [“the blood of his own”] was changed to τοῦ ἰδίου αἵματος [“his own blood”] (influenced by Heb. ix. 12?), which is neater but perverts the sense, and θεοῦ was changed to κυρίου by the Western revisers, who doubtless shrank from the implied phrase ‘the blood of God.’ ”[5] (TCGNT, 427)

  1. H. Moulton in A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Vol. 1 (Prolegomena), 1930 ed., p. 90, says, “Before leaving ἴδιος [idios] something should be said about the use of ὁ ἴδιος [ho idios] without a noun expressed. This occurs in Jn 111 131, Ac 423 2423. In the papyri, we find the singular used thus as a term of endearment to near relations . . . . In Expos. VI. iii. 277 I ventured to cite this as a possible encouragement to those (including B. Weiss) who would translate Acts 20:28 ‘the blood of one who was his own.’”

The different renderings are as follows:

  • “care for the church of God”
  • “which he [God] purchased with the blood of his own Son”
  • “which he [God] purchased with his own blood”

In the end, we must draw the conclusion from all of the evidence; the Revised Standard Version has followed the evidence with its rendering: “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son.” On the other hand, it seems that the New Living Translation publisher or committee has allowed theological bias to affect their translation choices: “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock, his church, purchased with his own blood, over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders.” Robert H. Stein said in a lecture at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, ‘God does not need our help [in translation]. Simply render it as it should be, whether it supports your position or not.’

The Epistle to the Hebrews Paul PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

In 1 Timothy 3:16 three readings occur at the beginning of what appears to be a creed:

1 Tim. 3:16 (WHNU)

16 ὅς εφανερωθη εν σαρκι

Who was manifested in the flesh

א* A* C* F G 33 Ggr 33

1 Tim. 3:16 (Variant 1)

16 ὅ εφανερωθη εν σαρκι

Which was manifested in the flesh

D* itd, g, 61, 86 vg

1 Tim. 3:16 (Variant 2)

16 θεός εφανερωθη εν σαρκι

God was manifested in the flesh

אc Ac C2 D2 Ψ 1739 Maj

The reading from which the other variants arose is ὅς (“who”). This reading has the best early manuscript support. Variant 1, a neuter relative pronoun ὅ (“which”) is the result of a scribal correction of ὅς (“who”). Variant number 2, θεός (“God”), dates no earlier than the eighth century in any of the uncial manuscripts. The corrector of Sinaiticus for variant 2 is from the twelfth century. Metzger writes of the versions and patristic writers, “all ancient versions presuppose ὅς or ὅ; and no patristic writer prior to the last third of the fourth century testifies to the reading θeός.” (TCGNT, 574)

The word translated God was originally abbreviated ΘC (the nomen sacrum for θeός), which originally looked like the Greek word OC (i.e., ὅς), the latter meaning “who.” Metzger makes the following observation: “The reading θeός arose either (a) accidentally, through the misreading of OC as ΘC, or (b) deliberately, either to supply a substantive for the following six verbs or, with less probability, to provide greater dogmatic precision.” (p. 574) Point (a) that it was an accidental misreading of OC as ΘC and that it was unlikely to be intentional, for doctrinal purposes, seems a little dismissive. Nevertheless, this has long been the position of many scholars.


In fact, Johann Jakob Wettstein (1693-1754) noted that ΘC originally looked like OC, but felt that a horizontal stroke had faintly shown through the other side of the uncial manuscript page, indicating a later hand adding a horizontal line to OC and giving us the contraction ΘC (“God”). However, this author believes that Comfort makes a valid point when he writes, “It is difficult to imagine how several fourth- and fifth-century scribes, who had seen thousands of nomina sacra, would have made this mistake. It is more likely that the changes were motivated by a desire to make the text say that it was “God” who was manifested in the flesh.” (P. W. Comfort 2008, 663) If we believe that doctrinal considerations were not behind the scribal changes, all we have to do is investigate what took place when it was understood that the actual reading was “He who was manifested in the flesh,” as opposed to “God was manifested in the flesh.” The battle in the nineteenth century was as though the loss of the reading in the Textus Receptus (θeός KJV) would undermine the doctrine of the Trinity. Doctrinal motivations have always played a role in the copying of the Bible, but the truth is that these are actually few in number. Considering the number of manuscripts that were copied, if these kinds of changes were a major problem, we should see more of them.

1 John 5:7-8 (WHNU)

οτι τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες

το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν


1 John 5:7-8 (TR)

οτι τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τω ουρανω ο πατηρ ο λογος και το αγιον πνευμα και ουτοι οι τρεις εν εισιν

και τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τη γη το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν

1 John 5:7-8 (ESV)

For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.



1 John 5:7-8 (KJV)

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

In verse 7 of 1 John 5, after μαρτυροῦντες (“testify”), the Textus Receptus adds, ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ Πατήρ, ὁ Λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα· καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἔν εἰσι (“in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one”). In verse 8, the Textus Receptus has καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῇ γῇ (“And there are three that bear witness in earth”). There is no doubt that these words are an interpolation in the text, which textual scholarship has long known.

These additional words are found in only Greek manuscripts, the earliest being from the tenth century. Metzger comments:

After μαρτυροῦντες, the Textus Receptus adds the following: ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ Πατήρ, ὁ Λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα· καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἔν εἰσι. (8) καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῇ γῇ. That these words are spurious and have no right to stand in the New Testament is certain in the light of the following considerations…. The passage is absent from every known Greek manuscript except eight, and these contain the passage in what appears to be a translation from a late recension of the Latin Vulgate. Four of the eight manuscripts contain the passage as a variant reading written in the margin as a later addition to the manuscript.” (TCGNT, 649)

In addition, the interpolation was not quoted by any of the Greek Fathers. Certainly, had they been aware of the passage, there is little doubt that they would have referenced it repeatedly in the fourth-century Trinitarian debates. Metzger tells us that “Its first appearance in Greek is in a Greek version of the (Latin) Acts of the Lateran Council in 1215.” (TCGNT, 649)

The interpolation is also missing from all the manuscripts of the ancient versions (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Slavonic), with the exception of the Latin. However, it is not found in the Old Latin in its earliest form (Tertullian Cyprian Augustine). Moreover, it is not present in “the Vulgate (b) as issued by Jerome (codex Fuldensis [copied a.d.541–46] and codex Amiatinus [copied before a.d. 716]) or (c) as revised by Alcuin (first hand of codex Vallicellianus [ninth century]).” (TCGNT, 649)

This interpolation had its beginning in Latin, in the treatise Liber Apologetics, which was written by the Spanish heretic Priscillian (d. c. 385), bishop of Ávila, or his follower, Bishop Instantius. Metzger writes, “Apparently the gloss arose when the original passage was understood to symbolize the Trinity (through the mention of three witnesses: the Spirit, the water, and the blood), an interpretation that may have been written first as a marginal note that afterward found its way into the text. In the fifth century, the gloss was quoted by Latin Fathers in North Africa and Italy as part of the text of the Epistle, and from the sixth century onwards it is found more and more frequently in manuscripts of the Old Latin and of the Vulgate.” (TCGNT, 649)

Consider this: if these interpolations were original, there would be no reason to remove them, and they would be found in our earliest and best manuscripts, as well as hundreds of years of later copies. Moreover, there would be no reason for their being missing from the versions, either.


Both a Science and an Art

We said at the outset that New Testament textual criticism is both a science and an art. Throughout almost all of this book, we have addressed the science aspect, in that we have spoken of and applied many of the rules and principles. However, we will offer one verse here where the art aspect comes into play; we must not be rigid in our application of the rules and principles. It is important that we must be balanced.

Mark 1:41 (WHNU)

σπλαγχνισθεις εκτεινας την χειρα αυτου ηψατο

(א A B C L W f1,13 33 565 700 syr cop Diatessaron)

Mark 1:41 (LEB NEB REB)

οργισθεις εκτεινας την χειρα αυτου ηψατο

(D a, d, ff2)

Mark 1:41 (NASB)

41 Moved with compassion [splanchnon], Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him

Mark 1:41 (LEB)

41 And becoming angry [orgistheis], he stretched out his hand and touched him

The reason that this text is considered difficult is that one is compelled think contrary to the leading internal textual principle: Which reading is it that the other reading(s) most likely came from? It is easy to see how “moved with anger” would have been changed to “moved with pity.” In that case, the scribe would have been softening the reading. It is very difficult to understand why a scribe would be tempted to change “moved with pity” to “moved with anger.” On the other hand, the external textual evidence for “moved with pity” is very weighty, while the evidence for “moved with anger” has no real weight at all. What people mean who define textual criticism as both a science and an art is that as a science it has rules and principles, while as an art, balance is required in the application of those rules and principles. The rule of which reading is it that the others came from is not to be rigidly applied; there are times when it can possibly be overruled, as in this case.

First, the Western text D, which displays the reading, “moved with anger,” is notorious for having “significant” changes to the text. Comfort and Metzger, as well as others,  offer a very plausible reason as to why the scribe may have chosen to do so. “He may have decided to make Jesus angry with the leper for wanting a miracle–in keeping with the tone of voice Jesus used in 1:43 when he sternly warned the leper.” (P. W. Comfort 2008, 98) However, as Comfort goes on to point out, this would have been a misunderstanding on the part of the scribe, because Jesus was not warning him about seeking a miracle; it was rather “a warning about keeping the miracle a secret.” Another possible motive for the scribe to alter the text to the harder reading is that he may have felt the man was slow to believe that Jesus was serious about healing him (v. 40) Moreover, why would scribes soften the text here from “moved with anger” to “moved with pity,” but not do the same at Mark 3:12 and 10:14?


Scribal Tendencies or Habits

When we discuss scribal tendencies or habits, it should always be qualified as “speaking generally.” That is, these are tendencies that we can attribute in a general way. Generally, if a reading seems to be more difficult or awkward, the easier reading would not be preferred because the scribe likely changed the reading to make it easier to understand. Generally, the shorter reading is preferred if it is determined that it was intentional because a scribe tended to add to the text to clarify it, as opposed to adding to it by mistake. Generally, the longer reading is preferred if it is determined that the change came about unintentionally. In this case, a scribe would tend to omit a word or phrase by accident as opposed to intentionally adding. The same is true if a scribe intentionally omitted a word or phrase due to perceived contradictions or awkwardness. For example, a scribe may have willfully removed or altered a verse that is repeating one of the previous verses. However, this analysis of scribal tendencies is in no way set in stone. Each scribe likely had their own tendencies, so they must be evaluated on their work, with the above tendencies as foundational knowledge. Colwell’s conclusions on scribal tendencies in select papyri are revealing:

  • P45 gives the impression of a scribe who writes without any intention of exactly reproducing his source. He writes with great freedom – harmonizing, smoothing out, substituting almost whimsically. Here again, there is no evidence whatever of control by a second party (fewer than three singular readings per hundred are corrected), nor in fact of external controls of any kind.
  • P66 seems to reflect a scribe working with the intention of making a good copy, falling into careless errors, particularly the error of dropping a letter, syllable, a word, or even a phrase where it is doubled, but also under the control of some other person, or second standard, so that the corrections which are made are usually corrections to a reading read by a number of other witnesses. Nine out of ten of the nonsense readings are corrected, and two out of three of all his singular readings. In short, P66gives the impression of being the product of a scriptorium, i.e., a publishing house. It shows the supervision of a foreman, or of a scribe turned proofreader.
  • In P75 the text that is produced can be explained in all its variants as the result of a single force, namely the disciplined scribe who writes with the intention of being careful and accurate. There is no evidence of revision of his work by anyone else, or in fact of any real revision, or check. Only one out of five of his singular readings (including nonsense readings) is corrected. The control had been drilled into the scribe before he started writing.
  • In summary, P75 and P66 represent a controlled tradition; P45 represents an uncontrolled tradition. P75 and P45 are, according to their own standards, careful workmen. P66 is careless and ineffective – although he is the only calligrapher of the three. He uses up his care, his concern, in the production of beautiful letters.    (E. C. Colwell 1969, p. 117-118)

We also find many comments in the TCGNT as to what a scribe might have done or might have not done, with reasons as to why or why not. For example:

  • In the present passage not only do the earlier representatives of several text-types support γένεσις, but the tendency of copyists would have been to substitute a word of more specialized meaning for one that had been used in a different sense in ver. 1. (TCGNT, Matt 1:18)
  • It is difficult to decide which is the original reading. On the one hand, the prevailing tendency of scribes was to expand either Ἰησοῦςor Χριστός by the addition of the other word. (TCGNT, Matt 1:18)
  • Copyists who remembered the parallel account in Mk 2:18 transformed the statement into a question. (TCGNT, Matt 1:18)
  • The distinctively Lukan clause assigning the reason for the permanence of the house (“because it had been well built”), which corresponds to the earlier statement concerning the builder’s industry (“dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock”), was supplanted by copyists who preferred the reason given by Matthew (“for it was founded upon the rock,” Mt 7:25). (TCGNT, Luke 6:48)
  • it is also possible that copyists omitted[6] the clause in order to draw attention to what was taken as the primary element in Jesus’ reply. (TCGNT, John 21:23)

Canons of Criticism

There have been Canons of Criticism or Canons of Textual Criticism for centuries, being refined with each new generation of textual scholars, adding to them and determining how they are to be applied. “Canon” in this context means a general rule, principle, or standard applied by the critic to ascertain the original reading. One of the earliest of these canons came from Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687–1752), who in 1734 published an edition of the Greek New Testament. In his commentary, Bengel introduced the rule where preferring the harder reading, which would become very influential in the centuries to come. He wrote, proclivi scriptioni praestat ardua, “Before the easy reading, stands the difficult.”[7] Bengel himself had twenty-seven canons that he observed in his work as a textual scholar.

One of the most influential textual scholars of all time was Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745–1812), who published several editions of the Greek New Testament. He would establish fifteen rules of textual criticism, refining and improving upon his predecessors. Among them were,[8]

  • The shorter reading, if not wholly lacking the support of old and weighty witnesses, is to be preferred over the more verbose; for scribes were much more prone to add than to omit. They hardly ever leave out anything on purpose, but they added much.
  • The more difficult and more obscure reading is preferable to that in which everything is so plain and free of problems that every scribe is easily able to understand it. Because of their obscurity and difficulty, chiefly unlearned scribes were vexed by those readings.
  • The harsher reading is preferable to that which instead flows pleasantly and smoothly in style.
  • The more unusual reading is preferable to that which constitutes nothing unusual.

1881 is the best-known year in all textual criticism. It is the year that Brooke Foss Westcott (1825–1901) and Fenton J. A. Hort (1828–1892) published the most significant critical Greek New Testament text. There were nine critical rules of Westcott and Hort. We will discuss them more fully in the chapter, The Arrival of the Critical Text. Three of those rules are (1) The reading is less likely to be original that shows a disposition to smooth away difficulties. (2) Readings are approved or rejected by reason of the quality, and not the number, of their supporting witnesses. (3) The reading is to be preferred that most fitly explains the existence of the others.

External: The Canons of Criticism are subjective in that each textual scholar chooses to what degree they are obeyed, at least in practice if not formally. If taken rigidly, without being qualified, the canons may even seem to contradict each other sometimes. In addition, some textual scholars may give more weight to certain manuscript families, while others feel that they are all equal. Any two scholars who prefer the Alexandrian family may not give it the same weight or may prefer different manuscripts when there is a split within the family. We have already dealt with how doctrinal positions affected the scribes, and sometimes this is the case with the textual scholar or the Bible translator as well.

Internal: At the same time, there are differences in how internal evidence is viewed because internal canons are even more affected by subjectivity. Any two textual scholars looking at a text, both having a full and accurate knowledge of the principles, may very well disagree. For example, they may be grappling with the principle of consideration of the author’s style and vocabulary. The first scholar may argue that the variant is original because it accords with the author’s style. The second scholar may argue that the variant is not original because the copyist was trying to imitate the author when he interjected the variant.


External versus Internal: Then, there is the issue of internal evidence in opposition to external. For example, Reasoned Eclecticism is supposed to give balanced consideration to internal and external evidence. However, in practice preference usually goes to internal evidence. The Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament 28th Edition is the standard text today. In this author’s opinion, its readings are based too much on internal evidence, and it is inconsistent with the use of documentary evidence.[9]

Certainly, there will never be 100 percent agreement on every textual issue, but we must ask, what can be taken away from the above? It seems that our focus needs to be on individual scribal tendencies, while appreciating general scribal tendencies as well, such as those mentioned above. Nevertheless, when we have a document that just does not have enough of the scribe’s work to formulate sound insights into his tendencies, we must lean on what we know of the scribes of that era, in general, and our documentary evidence. While individual scribes will have their own tendencies, they will also have others that are shared by those who work in the scribal community. It is like any other field of specialty (lawn care workers, dentists, mental health workers, teachers, and the like). If we were to look across many different cultures around the world, there would be certain tendencies that all share as they carry out their work. Nevertheless, each person within these specialized fields would have their own way of carrying out the work unique to them as individuals.

We have A Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament by Bruce Metzger, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary by Philip W. Comfort, and even The New Testament in the Original Greek, by Westcott and Hort, vol. 2, among others. In these textual commentaries, we discover many reasons why a copyist has done this or that or failed to do this or that. However, in my view, the reader is not given evidence that supports the textual scholar’s suggested reasons as to why a copyist did or did not do something. When we think of the principle of external evidence, we know that witnesses must be “weighed not counted.” This approach needs to be adopted as well with internal evidence: we must weigh the errors in each manuscript, and each copyist of a manuscript needs to be profiled, producing a brief description that summarizes the copyist’s patterns of errors. If textual scholars had access to profiles of the copyists who produced manuscripts, by which they were making decisions, it would offer them greater insight for determining the original reading.



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[1] A diphthong is a complex vowel sound in which the first vowel gradually moves toward a second vowel so that both vowels form one syllable, e.g., “a” and “I” in “rail”

[2]a B3 Ggr P Ψ 0220vid 88 326 330 629 1241 1739 Byz Lect it61vid? syrh copsa al)

[3] Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855 – 1938) was a Catholic priest in the Dominican Order, who penned an influential handbook of textual theory and method as related to the textual criticism of the New Testament.

[4] James Hope Moulton, Prolegomena, p. 90; and Moulton and Milligan, Vocabularys. v.

[5] The Beginnings of Christianity, vol. iv, p. 261.

[6] Bold in this section is mine.

[7] “Critical Rules of Johann Albrecht Bengel.” Bible-researcher.com. Retrieved 08-03-2014.

[8] We will offer his entire first canon in the chapter, The Arrival of the Critical Text, which deals with the history of the critical text.

[9] See Matthew 3:16; 4:24; 5:28; 8:21; 9:14, 26; 12:47; Mark 3:32; 6:51; 7:4; Luke 8:43; 14:17; 22:43-44; John 1:34; 3:31; Acts 16:12; Romans 11:17; 1 Corinthians 4:2; 2 Corinthians 5:3, 12; Galatians 1:3, 6; 2 Tim 3:5; James 5:4, to mention just a few.

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