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Scribal variants are changes that have been made to the text of the New Testament over the centuries by scribes who have copied the text by hand. Many of these changes are minor, such as the misspelling of a word, or a small percentage are more significant, such as the omission or addition of a whole passage. There are even two cases where scribes added twelve verses that are not in the originals. (Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-811, more on this below)
- NTTC JOHN 7:53–8:11: Where Did Those Verses Go of Jesus and the Woman Caught In Adultery?
- NTTC Was the Woman Caught in Adultery John 7:53-8:11 In the Original and What Was Being Taught?
The impact of scribal variants can be significant. In some cases, they can change the meaning of a passage completely. For example, one of the most famous scribal variants is the “Western” text of Mark 16:9-20, which contains a number of additional verses that are not found in the other manuscripts. These verses include the story of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and the other women and his ascension into heaven.
- Mark 16:9-20: Enhanced Explanation of the Gospel of Mark’s Endings
- NTTC MARK 16:9-20: Were These Twelve Verses Written by Mark?
- CODEX SINAITICUS: End of Mark’s Gospel
- CODEX VATICANUS: End of Mark’s Gospel
In other cases, scribal variants may not change the meaning of a passage, but they can make it more difficult to understand. For example, the word “homoousios” (of the same substance) was added to the Nicene Creed in the fourth century. This word was not found in the original text of the creed, and it has been the subject of much debate among theologians ever since.
Scribal variants in the New Testament refer to differences between various copies of the texts that have emerged over the centuries. Since the original autographs (original manuscripts written by the authors) of the New Testament books do not survive, our understanding of the text comes from copies made by scribes. These scribes would painstakingly transcribe the text, but in the process, variations could and did occur. Here’s an explanation of how and why these variants have an impact:
Types of Variants:
- Intentional Variants: Sometimes scribes made intentional changes to clarify a passage or harmonize it with another part of Scripture. They might also add marginal notes that eventually made their way into the text.
- Unintentional Variants: More common are mistakes that were made simply because of human error. These could include misspellings, repeating words or lines (dittography), omitting words or lines (haplography), or confusing similar-looking letters.
Significance of Variants:
- Minor Variants: Most variants are minor and do not affect the meaning of the text. Examples include spelling differences or word order changes that do not impact translation or interpretation.
- Major Variants: Some variants are more significant and may involve the omission, addition, or alteration of whole passages, such as the longer ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) or the passage in Luke 22:43-44 as was mentioned above.
Impact on Transmission:
- Understanding the Original Text: Variants can complicate the task of reconstructing the original text, but they also provide insights into how the text was read and understood by different Christian communities.
- No Effect on Core Doctrine: It is crucial to note that no essential Christian belief is affected by these variants. The doctrines of the faith are supported by multiple texts, and no core teaching hinges on a disputed passage.
Modern Textual Criticism:
- Collating Evidence: Textual scholars collect and analyze the evidence from different manuscripts to determine the most likely original reading. This involves a careful comparison of the various texts and an understanding of the methods and motives of scribes.
- Documentary Approach: As noted earlier, the documentary approach gives precedence to the earliest manuscripts, assuming they are more likely to preserve the original text.
Scribal variants are an inevitable part of the transmission process of the New Testament. While they present challenges to modern scholars seeking to understand the original text, they do not undermine the reliability or integrity of the New Testament Scriptures. The effort to study these variants is a critical aspect of affirming and understanding the text as it has been handed down through the centuries.
There are a number of reasons why scribal variants have come about. Some of the most common reasons include:
- Human error: Scribes were not perfect, and they sometimes made mistakes when copying the text. This could be due to a number of factors, such as fatigue, poor eyesight, or simply not being familiar with the text.
- Intentional changes: In some cases, scribes may have intentionally changed the text for a variety of reasons. For example, they may have wanted to make the text more understandable to their audience, or they may have wanted to make it conform to their own theological beliefs.
- Conflation: In some cases, scribes may have conflated two different versions of the text into one. This could happen if they were copying from two different manuscripts that had slightly different readings.
The impact of scribal variants can be significant. In some cases, they can change the meaning of a passage completely. Another example of a scribal variant is Luke 22:43-44, which is contained in א* D Vg Syc,h,hi,p Arm, but they are not found in P75 אc A B W Sys. Luke 22:43-44 contains a passage that is often debated among scholars, and it pertains to the experience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The verses read: “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”
- NTTC LUKE 22:43-44: Another Case of Not Following the Evidence
- NTTC LUKE 22:43-44: Significant Textual Variant and Theological Bias
These verses describe a particularly intense moment of prayer for Jesus as He anticipates His impending arrest and crucifixion. The mention of an angel coming to strengthen Him, and the description of His sweat being like drops of blood, convey the extreme emotional and spiritual agony that He was enduring.
It should be noted that the authenticity of these verses has been debated among textual scholars. Some early manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke do not include these verses, leading some to argue that they may not have been part of the original text. Others, however, consider them to be an authentic part of the Gospel. The presence or absence of these verses in various manuscripts underscores the complexity of New Testament textual criticism and the ongoing efforts to understand the original text.
In another case, Acts 9:5-6 there is a portion of the passage in question, which is omitted from virtually all modern versions (including both Majority Text editions), frequently without even a footnote. The reason for its omission is quite persuasive. As Bruce M. Metzger puts it, “So far as is known, no Greek witness reads these words at this place; they have been taken from [Acts] 26:14 and 22:10, and are found here in codices of the Vulgate. … The spurious passage came into the Textus Receptus when Erasmus translated it from the Latin Vulgate and inserted it in his first edition of the Greek New Testament (Basel, 1516).”
The study of scribal variants is a complex and fascinating topic. By understanding scribal variants, we can better understand the history of the New Testament text and its interpretation.
Here are some additional details about the impact of scribal variants:
- Scribal variants can be classified into two main categories: accidental and deliberate. Accidental variants are those that are made unintentionally by the scribe, such as a misspelling or a skipped word. Deliberate variants are those that are made intentionally by the scribe, such as a change in the text to make it more understandable or to conform to the scribe’s own theological beliefs.
- Scribal variants can be identified using a variety of methods, including:
- Textual criticism: Textual criticism is the discipline of comparing different manuscripts of a text in order to reconstruct the original text. This can be a very complex process, but it is essential for understanding the impact of scribal variants.
- Computer-assisted textual criticism: Computer-assisted textual criticism uses computer software to compare different manuscripts and identify scribal variants. This can be a very efficient way to study scribal variants, and it can help to identify patterns of variation that might not be visible to the naked eye.
- Theological analysis: Theological analysis can be used to understand the impact of scribal variants on the meaning of the New Testament text. This involves considering the theological context of the passage in question, as well as the theological views of the scribes who may have made the changes.
I hope this brief overview has not disheartened any reader, as the critical texts that we have today, the Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament (1881) and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (2012) 28th edition, gives us 99.99% restoration of the New Testament.