It is our belief that Christian people can no longer afford to be ignorant of how we have come to inherit a Bible; and how it has been preserved for us by God. Generally speaking, this subject has been largely omitted from our churches and has unfortunately been reserved for the seminary student and academician. Consequently, many of the Lord’s people do not have the slightest clue of how they came to possess their Bible. They have been left defenseless against the barrage of questions that are currently bombarding them concerning the reliability of the Scripture.
Why are there so many different English translations?
If the Bible is inerrant, why are there variants among the manuscripts?
Do we have the original words?
Haven’t the scriptures been corrupted by men over time?
Unfortunately, these types of questions have been met with answers that, though well meaning, are simply not accurate. Some of this misinformation has been propounded from pulpits and Christian Universities for many decades. It can be difficult to face this misinformation because it seems like we are calling the Bible itself into question, or creating doubt. Some would shame this sort of careful examination as they say that it is a lack of faith in God’s promise to preserve His word. However, I would argue the exact opposite is true. Faith in God’s promise would drive us to chase down the truth, no matter where it leads.
Over the years, Stephen Boyce and I have struggled our way through this subject and given countless hours to studying the information carefully. Stephen, in particular, is currently finalizing a second doctorate by earning a Ph.D. that is concentrated in Textual Criticism and Canonicity, so I asked him to help me write this article. Stephen and I grew up in a church culture that subscribed to a form of King James Onlyism. We also finished our undergraduate degrees at a school that taught that the Textus Receptus (TR) compiled by Desiderius Erasmus began the process to give us the perfect preserved New Testament and that all other manuscripts were corrupt. Because of this, when we finished Bible college, we both were convinced that the TR was God’s perfect Greek text. Since the King James was translated from this text, we were firmly committed to using the KJV.
Through our years of study, we have discovered two main fallacies that commonly occur in discussing how we got our Bible and how God preserved His word. First, though there are many excellent translations, there is no perfect translation. Secondly, there is not one perfect family of Greek texts. Unfortunately, most of the arguments amongst God’s people on this subject will come down to these two fallacies. Whether you have a background like Stephen and I, or just have no opinion whatsoever on the subject, the facts about New Testament manuscripts are crucial to understand if we truly desire to know the truth on this matter. One big reason for this is the growing knowledge of textual issues in the secular world, popularized by men such as Bart Ehrman. Even Islamic apologists spend much time concentrating on New Testament textual criticism, in order to proselytize Christians to Islam. Honestly, it is a sad day when people who don’t hold to the Christian faith know more about how we got our Bible than most Christians do. We believe this needs to change. This article is designed merely to be an introduction to the bigger issues. We trust that it will create healthy conversations that drive us to seek the truth.
No Two Manuscripts Read Identically
I was recently emailed information from a blog, in which a KJV onlyist made the assertion that there are over 5300 Greek manuscripts, and 5000 of them matched without contradiction. This assertion is simply not true! First, let me clarify the number of manuscripts. There are over 5800 manuscript entries that are on the Liste (the standard tool that indicates the location, contents, date, and other pertinent information of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts). However, as documented by Jacob Peterson in Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, the number goes down to about 5300 or lower when one factors in problems with the Liste, that we know about, and then extrapolate for the groups we do not know about.1 So yes, he is correct with his number of 5300. However, his assertion of 5000 of them matching without contradiction is completely false. No two manuscripts that we have available read identically. This is just a reality that the Church has to deal with. Excluding a few late Byzantine manuscripts in Family 35,2 the two closest manuscripts that we have contain at least six to ten textual variances per chapter. There are 260 chapters in the New Testament. That means there are theoretically over 2000 variances between the two closest Greek manuscripts we have to date. I use the term “theoretically” because it’s nearly impossible to compare the two closest and determine the precise number of variants, because many of the manuscripts are incomplete or fragmented.
Now, it must be stated that many of these variances are insignificant. Most are spelling and word order. It has been estimated that less than two percent of all textual variances fall under the category of “viable and meaningful.”3 Viable variants are those that can make a good case for reflecting the wording of the original text. A meaningful variant changes the interpretation of the text. This is well documented by Dr. Daniel Wallace with CSNTM.4 Oddly enough, there are two very close manuscripts, P75 (175-200 CE) and Vaticanus (325-350 CE) which are Alexandrian in reading (we will explain this more in-depth later). This is significant in relation to the ongoing debates about Byzantine priority over against Alexandrian. It is difficult to argue that there’s a lesser value for two manuscripts that are within 250 years of the original autographs that remained close in reading within 150 years of each other. One of the earliest Byzantine manuscripts to date is fifth-century (Codex A), and this manuscript is only Byzantine in the Gospel accounts. Our position is not to pin “text-types” against one another. In fact, we believe that every manuscript is a testament of God’s faithfulness to preserve His word. Though none are perfect, they all accurately represent the message of God to the people of God passed down from generation to generation. Each of these manuscripts could be accurately called the Word of God.
There are Various “Streams” of Manuscript Readings
We have established that there are no perfect manuscript copies. This immediately raises the question of whether or not we have a perfect Bible? To be clear, we believe in a perfect Bible without believing in a perfect manuscript, text-type, or translation. We believe and defend inerrancy(Matthew 5:18; Mt. 24:35), inspiration(2 Tim.3:15-16), and infallibility(2 Pt. 1:19-21; Prov. 30:5) of the New Testament Scriptures. As demonstrated above, no manuscript can rightly claim inerrancy, inspiration, and infallibility in every single place on its pages. Although, in many cases, large portions of it could be. So where is the standard? Which ones were the inerrant, inspired, and infallible texts? The answer is the original autographs that the Apostles wrote on. I know that this answer potentially frustrates the reader because they know that the original autographs did not survive antiquity.
This is the place where many believers get frustrated and conclude sarcastically by saying, “Well then, God failed to preserve His word!” It is easy to react in emotion and zeal for the Scripture because all of us desire to see God’s promise of preservation come to pass (Is. 40:8; Ps.119:160; Mk 13:31). Could it be that our view of preservation is altered by our presupposition of the teaching of preservation? Could it be that we are not exegeting these alleged passages of Scripture on preservation properly or misapplying them? Could it be that we’ve ignored the evidence in history of how God demonstrated His ability to preserve His word? I believe all of these questions should be re-examined on the subject of preservation.
The greatest method of preservation for the New Testament was the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20). By Jesus issuing a decree to go into all the world and make disciples, the documents that recorded the ministry, works, and doctrines of Christ and His Apostles were spread across the world. This method of transmission protected the message from being controlled, manipulated, or corrupted without detection by any one specific group or religion. After history has unveiled the documents that were spread across the world, we can demonstrate various “streams” of manuscript readings throughout the world: Alexandrian, Byzantine, Western, and potentially Caesarean. The Alexandrian are the oldest to survive due to the environment. Many of the papyri were found buried in the sands of Egypt, allowing the dry climate to protect the documents from decay and moisture damage. To those holding a Byzantine only position claiming corruption of these texts (which there is no evidence of), I would ask this question, “how could these texts be tampered with and corrupted when many of them were buried in the sand from the second-century until the twentieth-century without any knowledge of their whereabouts?” These papyri that were discovered should be seen as a gift from God to His Church. The date of many of these papyri take us back to the second and third-century. Making the New Testament one of the oldest works of antiquity.
The Byzantine manuscripts give us the greatest number of manuscripts. The majority of surviving texts come from this stream. For the most part, these witnesses covered the regions of modern day Turkey. The oldest Byzantine manuscript to date is fifth-century, known as Codex Alexandrinus (Codex A). The Gospel readings in these manuscripts are Byzantine, whereas the Epistles are more Alexandrian, as stated above. Many of the Byzantine manuscripts range between the seventh and tenth-centuries; while many more continue into the eleventh and twelfth-centuries. The Byzantine stream is a gift of God to the Church because it gives us the greatest wealth of manuscripts, passed down from antiquity, in comparison to any other Greco-Roman documentation. Many of the early Ethiopic copies carried Byzantine readings in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark; whereas the Gospel of John relied primarily on Alexandrian.5 What this demonstrates to us is that the early churches never saw these streams as “competition” of which was superior. This can also be argued from block-mixed texts as well, like Codex W and others. The terminology of Byzantine and Alexandrian was not even recognized until much later in history. Rather, they saw each reading as God’s preserved word and necessary to examine and translate the best available words.
The Western readings are unique. Modern scholarship hardly recognizes a “Western text-type” anymore. Rather, they would refer to the documents as “Western readings.” The manuscripts that once fit into the “Western text-type” includes manuscripts such as a Coptic manuscript (Codex Glazier) and a Syriac witness (the marginal readings in the Harklean Syriac), plus P127 seems to be similar to Codex Bezae (see below). Western readings are mostly found in the Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline Epistles. These readings have also been preserved in early translations of the Old Latin, Peshitta, and second to third-century Church Father quotes such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Irenaeus.
Some of the Western manuscripts can be seen as Diglots. This consisted of Greek writing on one side of the page, and Latin or another language on the other (for example: Codex Claromontanus). Only one Greek Uncial manuscript transmitted a Western text for all four Gospels and Acts, the fifth-century Codex Bezae (Codex D). This manuscript is not considered very reliable by most scholars. Daniel Wallace has often referred to this document as the “Living Bible” amongst manuscripts because of it’s “free” readings in various places.
However, the Western readings are not inferior by any stretch of the imagination. Nor are they limited to the readings that were found in Europe alone. For example, P37 is a late third-century fragment of Matthew 26. Its reading aligns itself with the Western readings, though found near Egypt. The same is also true of P38, P48, and P69. Even the first eight chapters of the Gospel of John in Codex Sinaiticus are considered “Western” in their readings. Once again, this demonstrates that streams are not in competition with one another. Rather, the true message of Jesus made it into various regions of the world swiftly. Also, this demonstrates that scribal insertions and traditions made it into the manuscripts over time as well.
The Caesarean readings are the most debated. The reason for the debate is because of the lack of evidence pointing to the exact location and Larry Hurtado’s argument against it in his revised and augmented dissertation.6 There are readings that do not align with the other three streams that can only be traced back to a couple of factors. First, Origen began to quote unique readings from the Gospels in the third-century not long after he moved to Caesarea. Second, some of the minuscule manuscripts from Family 1 and Family 13 resemble these types of readings. In fact, some of the early translations of Armenian and Georgian quote Caesarean readings in the Gospels. These readings appear to only cover the Gospels. Many scholars debate as to whether or not this stream actually existed or not. Regardless of one’s position on this stream, it is clear that there are unique readings outside of the three streams listed above that should be categorized separately.
It is clear, from the data within the manuscripts that as time progressed, the manuscript tradition grew in size, rather than shortening when it came to the amount of words. This is an important factor to consider. If the manuscripts lessened over history, that would mean we have lost information over time. Let me illustrate it this way. Imagine the Bible is like a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Over the duration of history, we have obtained 10,100 pieces. This is a much better dilemma than obtaining 9,900 pieces. Textual criticism comes along and determines through in-depth factors, which would best resemble the original, and which were the added 100 pieces. Yes, we believe God has preserved His word. Where you may ask? In the body of manuscripts found throughout the world. It’s not one specific stream, manuscript, or compiled text. That is why it is important to follow a Greek New Testament that documents the viable and meaningful variances from the differing manuscripts. You need to know the data and differences. To proclaim that the inerrant, inspired, and infallible word is found in a compiled Greek text that only acknowledges the one stream with a few nuances is actually rejecting potential authentic readings that were preserved by God from the original writers.
The Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Centuries were not Given Special Privileges
– Stephen Boyce
There is an audience today advocating that the purest Scripture did not come until 1516, when Desiderius Erasmus, a Roman Catholic, compiled the first-ever published Greek New Testament. This text became the foundation for the modern day Textus Receptus which would later be given its name in 1633. This work in 1516 began the process to obtaining “the pure word of God.” What made the work of Erasmus so special compared to all the other works before him? Was it because it was the first published Greek New Testament? Was it because he was an excellent Greek and Latin scholar? Perhaps these play a part in the reason. However, I do not believe these are the fundamental reasons. I believe the true reason is found almost 100 years later in the translation of the KJV. The translators relied heavily upon the work of Beza, Stephanus, and Erasmus. Erasmus began a tradition that Stephanus would later continue in the mid-sixteenth century; and Beza would “complete” by the end of the sixteenth-century.
One must recognize that these published Greek New Testaments began on less than twelve manuscripts, that dated no earlier than the eleventh century, and ended with using no more than 20 late manuscripts. Today’s modern critical texts are based on over 5000 manuscripts dating back to the second century, with the acknowledgment of numerous ancient translation manuscripts into other languages, and numerous quotations from the Church Fathers. Four hundred years has exposed an abundance of documentation that far surpasses anything Erasmus, Stephanus, Beza, or the KJV translators had possession of. These men would have loved and utilized the wealth of information that we have today, at the touch of a button. They were students of documentation as much as we are today. None of them had ever claimed to finalize the original readings in every passage of the original autographs. They did their best with the information they had. I would conclude that these men did a phenomenal job with the material that they had access to. They should be commended for their research, scholarship, and study. However, their work was not the end of the story. Rather, it was the beginning. They never claimed that their work was the final product of the New Testament. That is why all of their work went through numerous revisions and changes as time progressed. Erasmus said this about his own work,
“Accordingly, not even I claim to have removed all errors, but certainly I will dare to claim that I have removed very many and that I have brought it to pass that it will be possible in the future to use codices with very few errors, if someone wishes to follow my thread and make emendations with the authority of the Roman pontiff. For I do not publish this edition as if I intended it to be completely free of errors. For I translated whatever I found most frequently and most uniformly in the Greek, pointing out where our [Vulgate] version agrees or disagrees with it and indicating what seems to me to be the most correct.”7
Therefore, to label one or all of their work to be something special beyond their own words is nothing less than idolizing the honorable work of men to be more than what they recognized their own work to be or their apprentices.
-Jonathan Beazley – Stephen Boyce
In summary, we believe that God has perfectly preserved His word because He promised to. However, we disagree with the notion that God has preserved His word through one perfect family, Greek text, or translation. As stated above, even among the closest of manuscripts, there are none that read identically. We need to allow this fact to influence our understanding of preservation. Did God preserve His word? Yes. Did He do it through a perfect stream of Greek text? No, He preserved His word within the body of Greek manuscripts. This is where textual criticism comes in. It understands that each variant has a unique story. And it weighs the evidence to see which reading would best represent the original writing. The truth is, it is not always easy to tell which is the correct reading. But here is the bottom line: All of the manuscripts, regardless of the text type, teach the same gospel. There are no cardinal doctrines that hang on a textual variant. Stephen Neill said it this way, “The very worst Greek manuscript now in existence… contains enough of the Gospel in unadulterated form to lead the reader in the way of salvation.”8
It is easy to get heated about this topic because it is about the Bible we love and trust. Perhaps when considering this topic, it would be good to reflect on the quote from the undistinguished German Lutheran theologian, Rupertus Meldenius (Often attributed to Augustine):
“In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity.”9
This is a bit of a brusque introduction, but our hope is that this cursory glance will allow you to get a basic understanding of the topic and the misinformation that surrounds it. If you have any questions or thoughts, please do not hesitate to contact myself or Stephen. Both of our emails will be placed at the bottom of the page.
Grace and Peace,
- Jonathan Beazley Lead Pastor of CityLight (email@example.com)
- Dr. Stephen Boyce Th.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A special thank you to those who helped compile data and edit this article. Dr. Elijah Hixson (Writer and junior research associate in NT Text and Languages at Tyndale House) for helping with fact checking the data, Timothy Berg (Specializing in the study of the TR and KJV translation) for providing an essential quote from Erasmus, Caroline Moore (Writer, debater, and blogger in theological studies and apologetics) for the grammatical editing and theological perspective, and Josh Teis (Lead Pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Las Vegas, Nevada) for feedback and Pastoral perspective. **These names listed do not represent every conclusion that Citylight Ministries comes to in this article. These servants of Christ share their own views on certain aspects of this subject, yet were willing to help fellow laborers in the gospel.
- Jacob W. Peterson, “Math Myths: How Many Manuscripts We Have and Why More Isn’t Always Better,” in Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, ed. Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 52, 68.
- Zuurmond, Rochus; Niccum, Curt (2013). “The Ethiopic Version of the New Testament” in Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes eds “The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research” 2nd edn. Brill. pp. 231–252.
- Sider, Robert D., editor. “THE CHIEF POINTS IN THE ARGUMENTS ANSWERING SOME CRABBY AND IGNORANT CRITICS.” The New Testament Scholarship of Erasmus: An Introduction with Erasmus’ Preface and Ancillary Writings, by CLARENCE MILLER et al., vol. 41, University of Toronto Press, Toronto; Buffalo; London, 2019, pp. 823. **Thank you to Timothy Berg for providing this quotation.
- Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961, The Firth Lectures, 1962, (London:Oxford University Press, 1964), 63-64.
- Schaff, Phillip, ‘History of the Christian Church’ Vol. 7, Grand Rapids: W.M. Eerdmans, 1910, pp 650-653