By Nick Brzozowski
No serious theologian doubts that the Bible has errors. There is no debate. No division. It may surprise you to hear that this is one of the rare cases where all of us agree.
But, I’m not just talking about two or three mistakes. I’m talking about hundreds of thousands!!
Now, before you ditch your faith or warn people that I am a heretic, let me explain. The errors I am talking about are called “textual variants.”
When I first learned about textual variants in seminary, I’ll be honest. It made me feel queasy. I knew that the Bible is a divine book (God’s Word) and a human book (written by people). But, my church had always emphasized the God-part over the human-part. This discovery felt like a dirty secret that had been kept from me.
Now, before I explain what textual variants are, let’s make sure we understand how we got the Bible. It took a whole lot more steps than you may think.
So, let’s reverse engineer this thing:
Step 9: You read: “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy” (James 1:2 in NLT).
Step 8: Since the original NLT version, NLT continues working on revisions.
Step 7: In 1996, a team of scholars worked together to translate an English version from the Greek, calling it the New Living Translation.
Step 6: In 1560, chapters and verses are used to break down parts of the Bible.
Step 5: English versions are the Bible are written, helping to inform future translations.
Step 4: Greek New Testament manuscripts are organized into a standard version.
Step 3: For hundreds of years, scribes meticulously copied from the original (and other copies of the original), giving us over 5800 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament.
Step 2: Around AD 200, a group of theologians used certain criteria to recognize the book of James as God’s Word.
Step 1: Sometime before he died in AD 69 (or 62) James, the brother of Jesus, wrote the book of James.
When I first learned about textual variants in seminary, I’ll be honest. It made me feel queasy.
Textual variants come from step 3. By textual variant, we mean any time one manuscript differs from another. For example, in James 1:12, we read “God blesses those who…” (NLT). Of the thousands of manuscripts of just this verse that we have access to, some say “Lord” with the direct article ο κυριος. Others say “Lord” without the article κυριος. Some say “God” ο θεος. Others omit it altogether. And there are hundreds of thousands of instances throughout the Old and New Testament that you can just google.
People like to use the game of Telephone to illustrate the process of scribes copying down manuscripts. This would imply that the message gets altered slightly with every new copy. So, does that mean that the book of James that you read today is nothing like the one that James wrote himself? How do we even know that James wrote the book of James?
In Telephone, what begins with “I want to eat a turkey sandwich” ends with “Why are there so many pigeons in New Jersey?” From that, people conclude that Christians are ludicrous for not only believing the words in our modern day English versions, but actually taking them to be divine.
Now, before you call your grandma to say that you are no longer a Christian, hear me out.
Here are 5 reasons why you can trust your translation of the Bible despite so many textual variants.
Reason #1: There are loads of manuscripts.
The Old and New Testament have an overwhelming number of manuscripts compared with other ancient documents - thousands and thousands and thousands of copies! And there are three things that more manuscripts means.
First, more manuscripts means more textual variants. With every additional copy, there is more room for errors.
Second, more manuscripts means importance throughout history. The Bible was not just taken seriously in the 1950s or even in the 1500s. This document has held significance for thousands of years.
Third, more manuscripts means more likelihood of accuracy. The more manuscripts to compare with one another means that we can be very confident that we have something very, very close to the original. In this way, Biblical translation is drasticially different the game of Telephone!
Reason #2: The meaning doesn’t change.
For the vast majority of textual variants, the difference is so small that the meaning goes unchanged.
Take our example earlier of James 1:12. We find four options for what the original could have been. And even though we can’t say without a doubt that we know what the original actually was, the meaning of the text is not changed. You could argue that there is a different connotation for saying “Lord” or “God.” Sure, that is true.
But, we are not talking about Thor or Odin here! In the case where the subject is not even there, a quick glance at the context tells you that “God” or “Lord” is implied.
Reason #3: The theology doesn’t change.
I have never, ever once heard any theological argument made using textual variants. This reason is similar, but different than the previous reason. In the previous point, the meaning has to do with the immediate sentence where the variant is located.
But, by theology, I mean that what we understand about ethics or the nature of God or the gospel or humanity never hinges on a textual variant. When we build theological frameworks, they are built from more than just one text.
Theologians talk about Scripture interpreting Scripture. And the most foundational doctrines are backed up by the most number of references in the Bible.
So, even if one textual variant has us questioning the meaning of one particular verse, we can rest assured that we are very certain about the overall themes and story of the Bible.
Reason #4: The process is strong for selection.
When the NLT team worked to make the 1996 edition, they did not physically go to the museums to compare every manuscript. Instead, they most likely drew on one or two Greek editions.
What they have in front of them would be the work of other scholars, who provide two things for the interpreters.
First, they are given the most likely variant.
Second, they are given notes that tell the interpreters why that particular word or phrase is the most likely. Basically, the scholars who organize all the manuscripts into one Greek or Hebrew text bring in exceptional, scholarly work.
By finding the patterns and using logic, they have certain criteria for determining the most likely word or phrase. One of the most significant factors has to do with the actual age of the manuscript. Earlier manuscripts, in general, are more accurate than later ones.
Another criteria is counterintuitive. Scholars prefer the rough and wordy and messy variants over the smoothed out ones. We have come to realize that one of the biggest causes of errors by the scribes was actually that they were over correcting. This means that the scribes took their job so seriously, in the rare times when they made a mistake, it was usually because they thought they were correcting a previous scribes’ mistake!
So, when the interpreters are producing an English translation, they have all those notes in front of them. They have the different variants available with a rank that tells the likelihood of any of them being correct, as well as why the scholars came to that conclusion.
Bottom line: very, very intelligent scholars have worked very, very diligently to provide the very, very most accurate version for us.
Reason #5: Over time, it gets more accurate.
While the game of Telephone implies that the more time removed from the original author means that the message is more likely to be inaccurate, that simply is not true. With every revision of a translation, scholars are building from the work that has been done in the past.
We are now able to use five hundred years of interpreting the Bible into English, and for five hundred years, we have gotten sharper and sharper at it.
In addition to that, we continue to make discoveries of more manuscripts.
In fact, some of our earliest manuscripts of the Old Testament were discovered in 1947. They are called the Dead Sea scrolls. Because of that, we know that versions of the Bible written after 1947 are going to be even more accurate than those written before (sorry - King James Version only people!).
Doubts surrounding the Bible are extensive.
So, that is textual variants. Whew! You did it. If you made it this far, pat yourself on the back. You worked through one of the most meticulous subject in theology. Congratulations! This shows that you have a genuine interest in discovering truth and are willing to do the hard work of grappling for it.
So, call it a day. But, just because you have discovered textual variants doesn't mean that you have searched all the challenges to the Bible’s authority.
In fact, textual variants aren’t the only way that people will even discuss errors alone in the Bible. What about when different gospel writers contradict one another? What do we make of Mark’s Gospel being full of grammatical errors? Or historical errors throughout the Old Testament?
Doubts surrounding the Bible are extensive.
What do we do with a God who creates the world only to wipe them all out in a massive flood or who tells Abraham to murder his son or orders Joshua to kill men, women and children?
What about all the differences in interpretations? Some Christians obey the book of Leviticus, but others don’t. In fact, there seems to be an endless number of disagreements between churches and Christians: women’s roles in ministry and at home, racism, sexual ethics, divorce, end times, free will, worship style, Communion/the Lord’s Supper/the Eucharist/the Table (we can’t even agree on what to call it!), baptism (babies or adults), and on and on it goes.
We will need to explore these and many other questions another time.
Until then, what question or doubt bothers you the most about the Bible? How do you read it? How high or low of a view do you have of it?
As you take these steps, we'd love to help you on your journey. If you have questions or are looking to connect with a community of people in your faith, you are more than welcome to join one of our Anchor Groups here.