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There are many textual variants in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. What are textual variants? And how well do our modern translations inform their readers about these variants? At Genesis 21:16, you have some manuscript evidence that says, “the child cried aloud and wept,” while others say, “she lifted up her voice and wept.” At Hosea 14:2 the Hebrew manuscripts say, “bulls,” while the Greek Septuagint (LXX) says “fruit.” In Matthew 22:30 some manuscripts read “they will be like angels in heaven,” while others say, “they will be like angels of God in heaven.” In Matthew 8:25, did Jesus cry “Lord, save!” or “Lord, save us!” Did Paul at 2 Thessalonians 2:3 write “man if sin” or “man of lawlessness”?
So, ‘Variant Reading(s) are different versions of a word or phrase found in two or more manuscripts within a variation unit (see below). Variant readings are also called alternate readings.’ (Don Wilkins) Before looking at what a variation unit, let’s discuss the significance level of the variants. Yes, the vast majority are insignificant and easily resolved. Also, one might be thinking or have heard that the variants have no real impact on theology. While this is true to a degree, let’s start by saying every inspired word in the original was important enough for the Holy Spirit to make certain that it was included. So, removing it or adding to it is an egregious sin. The apostle John tells us “if anyone adds to them [the Word of God], God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book … God will take away his part from the tree of life.” (Rev. 22:18-19) Now if a copyist intentionally or unintentionally adds to the text what was not in the originals and a textual scholar, translator, or publishers who retain that interpolation (add on), they will receive the same punishment. And there are highly significant variants. We have the importance of s single word (1 Tim. 3:16), to a phrase (Jude 25), to a sentence (1 John 5:7), to an entire verse (Mark 7:16; Luke 22:43-44), to twelve verses. (John 7:53-8:11; Mark 16:9-20).
Variation Unit: any portion of text that exhibits variations in its reading between two or more different manuscripts. It is important to distinguish variation units from variant readings. Variation units are the places in the text where manuscripts disagree, and each variation unit has at least two variant readings. Setting the limits and range of a variation unit is sometimes difficult or even controversial because some variant readings affect others nearby. Such variations may be considered individually, or as elements of a single reading. One should also note that the terms “manuscript” and “witness” may appear to be used interchangeably in this context. Strictly speaking “witness” (see below) will only refer to the content of a given manuscript or fragment, which it predates to a greater or lesser extent. However, the only way to reference the “witness” is by referring to the manuscript or fragment that contains it. In this book, we have sometimes used the terminology “witness of x or y manuscript” to distinguish the content in this way.
Textual Notes In Bible Translations
Aside from the NET Bible and the forthcoming Updated American Standard Version. almost all English translations handle textual footnotes very poorly.
Numbers 3:39 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
39 The total number of all the Levite males one month old or more that Moses and Aaron[a] registered by their clans at the Lord’s command was 22,000.
- 3:39 Some Hb mss, Sam, Syr omit and Aaron
Numbers 3:39 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
39 All who were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaronnumbered at the commandment of Jehovah, by their families, all the males from a month old and upward, were twenty-two thousand.
 MT LXX VG “and Aaron” In the MT these words are marked with extraordinary points by the Sopherim. In vs 14, Jehovah commanded Moses to number the sons of Levi by their fathers’ houses, by their families. However, Aaron also took part in the numbering with Moses. Therefore, some ancient copyists inserted “and Aaron” in the text. Later, scribes were reluctant to remove the words, so they put dots over them, suggesting interpolations (added material) in the original text. SP SYR and 11 Heb. MSS lack “and Aaron.”
Genesis 4:8 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”[a] And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
- 4:8 Sam, LXX, Syr, Vg; MT omits “Let’s go out to the field.”
Genesis 4:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
8 Cain said to Abel his brother. “Let us go out into the field.” And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
 Likely Genesis 4:8 originally included two consecutive clauses that end with the expression “in(to) the field” (bassadeh). It is most likely that the scribe’s eye skipped over the earlier expression ending with the expression “into the field” to the same word in the second instance; therefore, accidentally omitting the quotation. Clearly, the LXX, as well as the SP, SYR, and the VG have been useful in identifying this error in the Hebrew text. The odds are increased greatly that “let us go over into the field” was in the original because of it being found in such a wide number of versions, especially with the Septuagint being one of those versions.
Luke 23:17 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
- 23:16 Some mss include v. 17: For according to the festival he had to release someone to them.
Luke 23:17 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
 [[Now it was necessary for him to release one [prisoner] for them at the feast.]] Early witnesses such as P75 A B l T 070 892* 1241 itacopsa al, do not contain verse 17. Another indication of it being an interpolation is its appearing in different places and in different forms.
Acts 28:29 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
- 28:28 Some mss include v. 29: After he said these things, the Jews departed, while engaging in a vigorous debate among themselves.
Acts 28:29 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
 The earliest and best Greek manuscripts (P74 א A B E Ψ 048 33 1739 syrp cop) do not contain vs 29, while is later less trusted manuscripts (Maj it syrh**) that contain Acts 28:29, “When he had spoken these words, the Jews departed, having a great dispute among themselves.” This is another example of later scribes seeking to fill in the narrative where they perceive there is a gap in the account.
GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS
There is both good news and bad news. The good news is that all of the significant English translation gives the reader footnotes where there are major textual issues that will affect the translation. However, the bad news is, this footnote means very little in the grand scheme of things. Let’s consider Matthew 6:13.
Matthew 6:13 (ESV)
13 And lead us not into temptation,
[a] some manuscripts add For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen
Matthew 6:13 (CSB)
13 And do not bring us into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.[b]
[b] Or from evil; some later mss add For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Matthew 6:13 (NASB)
13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from [a]evil. [b][For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]
[b] This clause not found in early mss
Matthew 6:13 (NIV)
13 And lead us not into temptation,[a]
but deliver us from the evil one.[b]’
[b] some late manuscripts one, / for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Matthew 6:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
13 And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the wicked one.
 Matthew 6:13 ends with “but deliver us from the wicked one.” This is supported by the earliest and best manuscripts (א B D Z 0170 f1). Within the other extant manuscripts, there are six different additions to the end of Matthew 6:13, which is evidence against any addition at all. Within this footnote, we will deal with just one, which is found in the Textus Receptus and the King James Version, “for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen.” (L W Δ Θ 0233 f13 33 Maj syr) These later manuscripts do not outweigh the earlier Alexandrian manuscripts (א B), the Western (D), and most Old Latin, as well as other (f1) text types, and the early commentaries on the Lord’s prayer (Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian). It seems that the scribes were looking to conclude the Lord’s Prayer with an uplifting message, or in the case of a couple of additional support for the Trinity doctrine. “because yours is the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit forever. Amen.” (157 1253)
What do these textual footnotes in the ESV, CSB, NASB, and the NIV tell you about this interpolation? Basically, ‘some late manuscripts added this doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer.’ The NKJV is just the opposite by saying, “NU omits the rest of v. 13.” The NASB is basically with the NKJV in that it has the textual interpolations in the main text of the Bible itself and a footnote that reads, “This clause not found in early MSS.” The reader has no way of knowing if it is true, they have no way of defending it when they talk with the KJVOist on social media. All they can say in response is, ‘it is what my Bible says in a footnote.’ The Updated American Standard Version footnote offers the reader far more.
The ESV, CSB, NASB, and the NIV, as well as most other major translations, including the dynamic equivalent, do not provide the readers with what they need to be able to make an informed decision about these significant textual variants. These footnotes do not allow the reader a non-textual scholar to truly evaluate the different variants (textual errors) of a variant unit (place in the manuscript where there are multiple differences) because they do not know what internal and external evidence supports each variant, or how to evaluate the weight of these manuscripts behind the variants. If the reading in the main text has (א B P75 and P66) and the variant has (L W Δ Θ 0233 f13 33 Maj syr), most churchgoers are going to think, wait, the variant has far more manuscript support than the reading in the main text, not knowing manuscripts are weighed not counted.
All the reader knows in the ESV, CSB, NASB, and the NIV, as well as most other major translations, is that the Bible translation has made the decision for them, for they (1) do not have enough information in the footnote for them to evaluate the variants, and (2) if they were given external manuscript evidence, this would still prove to be unhelpful without knowing how to weigh the manuscript support. Moreover, how many churchgoers out of 2 billion can evaluate the variant readings for themselves by considering the internal evidence, such as context, style, and theological inferences. Thus, the reader is at the mercy of the translation’s textual committee choosing for them. Think this through for a moment. The reader who has chosen a literal translation has done so because he did not want translators making interpretive choices for him. Now, we have the translation doing just that with the textual decision. If the reader had enough information by way of appendices Basics of Old Testament Textual Criticism and Basics of New Testament Textual Criticism, as well as a footnote that gave them the external manuscripts.
Romans 16:24 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
- 16:23 Some mss include v. 24: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
Romans 16:24 Updated American Standard Version
 P46 P61 א A B C 1739 Itb cop omit; DItVgc, [The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.], which is the same as the end of vs 20. The earliest MSS support the omission of this verse. All modern translation does not include this verse because of superior testimony.
Thus, what is the benefit of knowing ‘later manuscripts add this …’ or ‘early manuscripts do not contain this …’? Or, what is the benefit if the translation even listed the manuscript support if the reader cannot weigh the evidence himself for or against to determine for himself, which is the original reading?
The answer to our problem is quite simple for both internal and external evidence. There needs to be an appendix that makes the reader aware of how to weigh the manuscript evidence (Basics of Old Testament Textual Criticism and Basics of New Testament Textual Criticism) and a chart at the outset of the translation that lists the major Manuscripts and Ancient Versions.
Textual Choices In the Old Testament
The primary weight of external evidence generally goes to the original language manuscripts. The Codex Leningrad B 19A and the Aleppo Codex are almost always preferred. In Old Testament Textual Criticism, the Masoretic text is our starting point and should only be abandoned as a last resort. While it is true that the Masoretic Text is not perfect, there needs to be a heavy burden of proof in we are to go with an alternative reading. All of the evidence needs to be examined before we conclude that a reading in the Masoretic Text is a corruption. The Septuagint continues to be very much important today and is used by textual scholars to help uncover copyists’ errors that might have crept into the Hebrew manuscripts either intentionally or unintentionally. However, it cannot do it alone without the support of other sources. Genesis 38:25 would be one of those times to abandon the Hebrew text. You have the internal evidence of 38:18 and the weighty eternal evidence of Targums, the Greek Septuagint, the Syriac, and the Vulgate all supporting the rendering “cord” with the Masoretic Text alone reading “cords.”
The Septuagint continues to be very much important today and is used by textual scholars to help uncover copyists’ errors that might have crept into the Hebrew manuscripts either intentionally or unintentionally. However, it cannot do it alone without the support of other sources. While the Septuagint is the second most important tool after the original language texts for ascertaining the original words of the original Hebrew text, it is also true that the LXX translators took liberties at times, embellishing the text, deliberate changes, harmonizations, and completing of details. Even so, it should be noted that the Septuagint manuscript of Aquila (Codex X), Symmachus (also Codex X), and Theodotion also read “according to the number of the sons of Israel.”