Our Credible Bible (Lesson 3)

Inerrancy and Textual Variants

Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

Throughout church history, believers have considered the Scriptures to be accurate and reliable, both historically and theologically. Many words have been used to try to express this belief in concise, precise form. The two most common terms of late have been “infallible” and “inerrant”.

Infallible refers to the unfailing nature of Scripture. It will not let us down. If we are sad, it comforts us. When tempted, it strengthens us. When lost, it saves us. If doubting, it assures us. When we stray, it rebukes us. When discouraged, it encourages us. When worried, it brings us peace.

The Bible is a reliable, sufficient, trustworthy guide for us in our daily lives. It will never misdirect us. It will accomplish the purposes God meant for it to achieve; it won’t return to Him void (Isaiah 55:11).

“Inerrant” means without error, wholly true. The Bible verses being considered are deemed to be true, not false. We will never be led into error by anything it teaches. Baptist confessions have often conveyed this concept by saying the Bible has “truth for its matter, with no mixture of error.”

The word inerrant refers only to the original documents, never to copies. Since we do not, as best we know, have originals, some people do not like the term inerrant, but belief in inerrancy of the autographs is what fuels our drive to find ever-older manuscripts. As more manuscripts are found, we feel confident we are getting ever closer to what the originals said.

We want to know what the originals said, for we believe they contain the very words of God. Our embracing inerrancy means we believe the authors gave a true and accurate statement regarding what God wanted said.

Some people are very uncomfortable with inerrancy. When they see in their versions of the Bible footnotes that point out variants, discrepancies, and seeming contradictions, they cannot understand how there can be any inerrant originals if there are so many differing interpretation-alternatives. I personally think much of this discomfort today stems from the fact the KJV had no footnotes. I think this may have left the impression with most readers that there were no issues regarding the actual wording of any texts.

The variants should not crush our faith. The Bible is a God-book; it is also a man-book. God condescended to use human beings to write, preserve, and transmit Scripture. Thus we should expect to see human touches in it.

Also, is there any other Christian doctrine that we require all difficulties to be resolved before we believe it? What about the Trinity, the Incarnation, Predestination, Creation, etc.? Do we feel we must have 100% understanding of these doctrines in order to believe them? Questions about Bible doctrines often perplex us, but we usually let this drive us to adoration, not skepticism. To resolve all difficulties, we would have to be living by sight, rather than by faith. Do not be surprised if belief in inerrancy leaves us with unresolved questions. We are not going to understand it totally.

All Bible doctrines have to end in some measure of mystery because they are dealing with God, whose innermost being and unfathomable ways are beyond our full comprehension. In this life, we see in a mirror dimly, and know in part (1 C 13:12). Therefore, we will never have all the answers regarding any Bible doctrine, including the inerrancy of Scripture.

When we come to textual variations, what we cannot fully explain, we leave unresolved, believing the problem is our limited knowledge, not the Bible. If there are seeming discrepancies we cannot solve, we leave it with the Lord. He knows all. Fortunately, we do not have to know everything.

Having said this, we still have to face the pesky question, what about all those textual variants? Skeptics smugly use this to ridicule our claim the Bible is the Word of God, and believers are sometimes aghast at their own inability to answer these cynicisms. Fortunately, the issue becomes less disheartening when we are willing to ask the pertinent questions, and to take time to delve into what the variants actually entail.

We have 25,000 partial and/or complete New Testament manuscripts from Greek and other languages, containing about 400,000 or so textual variants. This means we have an average of only 16 variants per manuscript. The United Bible Society fourth edition of the Greek New Testament contains 1,438 of the most significant variations in its footnotes and presents manuscript info for them. Less than one percent of variants are significant enough to make it into the footnotes of our English translations.

The evidence for a trustworthy transmission of what the Bible originally said is overwhelming. Our manuscript evidence holds up well against other writings of antiquity (See Blomberg, p. 35). In addition to the manuscripts, we have over 30,000 scriptural quotations in sermons and commentaries of early church fathers. Even with no manuscripts, the latter would reconstruct the vast majority of the New Testament.

Our earliest manuscripts offer convincing help for us. We have 12 manuscripts from the 100s, 64 from the 200s, 48 from the 300s. By the way, each of these early manuscripts is written with the careful handwriting of an experienced scribe. None of them is “scrawled”.

Most of these early manuscripts are fragmentary, but taken together, the entire New Testament is found in them multiple times. Later manuscripts add less than 2% more material to the text–that’s 2% over 1600 years. This indicates a very stable transmission history. We have so many manuscripts that few new variants will ever be found. We can safely assume the first writing of any given text is in one of the variations.

Studies of ancient libraries of antiquity have shown that manuscripts were used anywhere from 150 to 500 years before being discarded. For instance, the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus was read and used for at least 600 years after it was produced. Facts like this show there may not have been various time-gapped generations of texts between the originals and the earliest manuscripts we now have.

Greek is not the only language we draw confidence from. In the 100s the New Testament was translated into several languages, including Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Gothic, Ethiopic, and Armenian.

Having many manuscripts with variations actually helps textual analysts. Varying streams of thought from different languages can provide confirming evidence of what the original said. For instance, 20 manuscripts would be more helpful than one in trying to find precise original wording. Thus, thousands of manuscripts is better than having few. A preponderance of similar texts helps confirm what the original said, and in the New Testament manuscripts there is almost always overwhelming agreement.

For one thing, a proliferation of manuscripts proves no one tried to manipulate the text. No hierarchy was trying to promote their own agenda.

The variant problem diminishes substantially if we look at it closely. For starters, 70% of all variations are spelling variants. Ancient scribes had no standardized spelling guidelines. Thus, in the 25,000 manuscripts with 400,000 variants, 280,000 of the latter are spelling variations. This means we have 120,000 other types of variations spread across 25,000 manuscripts, which reduces the number of variants per manuscript from 16 down to 5.

Other variants involved confusing similar letters, substituting similar sounding letters or words, omitting a letter or word, writing a letter or word twice, reversing order of two letters or words, incorrect word division, changes in spelling due to archaic language or grammar, and replacing rare words. Today’s textual critic has to work as a private detective in trying to find original words (For types of errors, see Cowan and Wilder, pp.127ff).

Of these variants, only two disputed passages in the United Bible Society Greek text are longer than two verses: the end of Mark (16:9-20), and the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). In over 25,000 manuscripts, no other passages are anywhere nearly as long as these two.

When considering the variations, our chief concern should be, do they affect any major Bible doctrines? The answer is no. Let’s consider a few samples (For more cases, see Blomberg, pp. 21ff, or footnotes in a Bible).

Should Matthew 5:22 contain “without a cause”? Does the Doxology belong at the end of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:13? Does Mark 1:41 say compassionate or indignant? Many manuscripts omit Luke 22:43-44 and Acts 8:37. Does Romans 5:1 say we have peace, or let us have peace? Is 1 Corinthians 13:3 saying burn or boast? In Philippians 1:14 is the message “of God”? The three testifying in 1 John 5:7-8 is hard to unravel.

An interesting footnote: The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (www.csntm.org) seeks to preserve Scripture by taking digital photos of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts. 5800 documents are known to exist (about 5000 after AD 1000; about 800 before). Some are fragments, especially older ones, but the average Greek NT manuscript is over 450 pages long. There are a total of 2.6 million pages of text.