I was a nerd before being a nerd was cool, and nowhere is that more evident than in my fascination with textual variants of the Bible. Before the European invention of the printing press (Gutenberg, 1440), every copy of the Bible was made by hand. That meant, if you wanted a copy of Matthew, either you had to pay a scribe to make one or copy it yourself.
Sadly, none of the autographs (original manuscripts) of the Bible exist. All we have are copies of copies. The problem arose when people made mistakes when they were making copies. Sometimes skeptics will announce there are over 100,000 “mistakes” in the New Testament alone – and they are right. However, if we remove spelling and punctuation errors, only a relatively handful of textual variants are left. (I’ll share the important ones with you in a future article – if there are enough nerds interested. Meanwhile, compare the King James and any modern English translation of 1 John 5:7, 8 for an example.)
The field of “textual criticism” studies these textual variants. “Criticism” doesn’t mean skepticism. It means “to study carefully because understanding the Bible is critical.” Text critics compare all of the manuscripts and try to decide what the apostles initially penned.
These scholars use some very clever principles in their work. For example, we might suppose the reading with the greatest number of manuscripts is the correct one. That means examining all of the different manuscripts and using their readings as votes. The reading with the most manuscripts supporting it wins. On the surface, that sounds good, but that is wrong. Here is why.
In the ancient world, one of the most important tasks of a monastery was copying manuscripts. Sometimes a single monk would devote his entire life to carefully copying a Bible. He prayerfully worked alone, transcribing it one letter at a time. On the other hand, in the giant monasteries, there were rooms full of monks. The chief monk stood in front and slowly read the Bible. The others wrote down what he said. That introduced “errors of the ear.” Did he say “ad or add? Ball or bawl? Duel or dual? To, too, or two?” The challenge was even worse than that! How well did the monk know Greek or Hebrew or even Latin? Those monasteries produced hundreds of manuscripts, but are those copies more valuable than the single Bible the lone monk carefully copied? Manuscripts need to be weighed critically rather than simply counted.
Sadly, there are English translations such as the New King James Version based on the “Majority Text.” Does that mean you can’t discover God’s will by using one of those Bibles? No, but wouldn’t a serious Bible student want to use the best tools, or maybe just a nerd.