New Testament - Textual Variation

Textual Variation

Textual criticism deals with the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts. Ancient scribes made errors or alterations (such as including non-authentic additions). The New Testament has been preserved in more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Ethiopic and Armenian. Even if the original Greek versions were lost, the entire New Testament could still be assembled from the translations. In addition, there are so many quotes from the New Testament in early church documents and commentaries that the entire New Testament could also be assembled from these alone. Not all biblical manuscripts come from orthodox Christian writers. For example, the Gnostic writings of Valentinus come from the 2nd century AD, and these Christians were regarded as heretics by the mainstream church. The sheer number of witnesses presents unique difficulties, but it also gives scholars a better idea of how close modern Bibles are to the original versions. On noting the large number of surviving ancient manuscripts, Bruce Metzger sums up the view on the issue by saying "The more often you have copies that agree with each other, especially if they emerge from different geographical areas, the more you can cross-check them to figure out what the original document was like. The only way they'd agree would be where they went back genealogically in a family tree that represents the descent of the manuscripts.

A similar type of textual criticism is applied to other ancient texts. There are far fewer witnesses to classical texts than to the Bible, and unlike the New Testament where the earliest witnesses are often within a couple decades of the original, the earliest existing manuscripts of most classical texts were written about a millennium after their composition. For example, the earliest surviving copies of parts of the Roman historian Tacitus' main work, the Annals of Imperial Rome (written in 116 AD), come from a single manuscript written in 850 AD, although for other parts of his work, the earliest copies come from the 11th century, while other parts of his work have been lost. The earliest copies of The Jewish War by Josephus (originally composed in the 1st century AD), in contrast, come from nine manuscripts written in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. After the Bible, the next best preserved ancient work is Homer's Iliad, with 650 copies originating about 1,000 years after the original copy. Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War (written in the 50s BC) survives in nine copies written in the 8th century. Thucydides' history of the Peloponesian War and Herodotus' history of the Persian War (both written in the 5th century BC) survives in about eight early copies, the oldest ones dating from the 10th century AD. Biblical scholar F. F. Bruce has said "the evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning...It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians."

In attempting to determine the original text of the New Testament books, some modern textual critics have identified sections as additions of material, centuries after the gospel was written. These are called interpolations. In modern translations of the Bible, the results of textual criticism have led to certain verses, words and phrases being left out or marked as not original. According to Bart D. Ehrman, "These scribal additions are often found in late medieval manuscripts of the New Testament, but not in the manuscripts of the earlier centuries." Most modern Bibles have footnotes to indicate passages that have disputed source documents. Bible Commentaries also discuss these, sometimes in great detail. While many variations have been discovered between early copies of biblical texts, almost all have no importance, as they are variations in spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Also, many of these variants are so particular to the Greek language that they would not appear in translations into other languages. For example, order of words (i.e. "man bites dog" versus "dog bites man") often does not matter in Greek, so textual variants that flip the order of words often have no consequences. Outside of these unimportant variants, there are a couple variants of some importance, although even these are minor and can be left out of modern Bibles without affecting any matter of theology or interpretation. The two most commonly cited examples are the last verses of the Gospel of Mark and the story of the adulterous woman in the Gospel of John. Some critics also believe the explicit reference to the Trinity in 1 John to have been a later addition. According to Norman Geisler and William Nix, "The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book—a form that is 99.5% pure"

The often referred to Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, a book written to prove the validity of the New Testament, says: ” A study of 150 Greek of the Gospel of Luke has revealed more than 30,000 different readings... It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the New Testament in which the is wholly uniform.” Most of the variation took place within the first three Christian centuries. By the 4th century, textual "families" or types of text become discernable among New Testament manuscripts. A "text-type" is the name given to a family of texts with similar readings due to common ancestors and mutual correction. Many early manuscripts, however, contain individual readings from several different earlier forms of text. Modern texual critics have identified the following text-types among textual witnesses to the New Testament: The Alexandrian text-type is usually considered to generally preserve many early readings. It is represented, e.g., by Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus and the Bodmer Papyri. The Western text-type is generally longer and can be paraphrastic, but can also preserve early readings. The Western version of the Acts of the Apostles is, notably, 8.5% longer than the Alexandrian form of the text. Examples of the Western text are found in Codex Bezae, Codex Claromontanus, Codex Washingtonianus, the Old Latin (i.e., Latin translations made prior to the Vulgate), as well as in quotations by Marcion, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Cyprian. A text-type referred to as the "Caesarean text-type" and thought to have included witnesses such as Codex Koridethi and minuscule 565, can today be described neither as "Caesarean" nor as a text-type as was previously thought. However, the Gospel of Mark in Papyrus 45, Codex Washingtonianus and in Family 13 does indeed reflect a distinct type of text. Increasing standardization of distinct (and once local) text-types eventually gave rise to the Byzantine text-type. Since most manuscripts of the New Testament do not derive from the first several centuries, that is, they were copied after the rise of the Byzantine text-type, this form of text is found the majority of extant manuscripts and is therefore often called the "Majority Text." As with all of the other (earlier) text-types, the Byzantine can also occasionally preserve early readings.

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