You will often hear the term, “textual variant,” by Bible critics, which means that the text of the New Testament varies in copies that have survived time and decay.
Have you read different versions of the New Testament; the New King James Version, The New Living Translation, or The New International Version?
Read the following verse of scripture from the Gospel of John from the NKJV, NLT, and NIV and you will see that all three communicate the same meaning, but use slightly different words and arrangement of words in their sentences:
- John 3:16 (NLT) For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
- John 3:16 (NKJV) For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
- John 3:16 (NIV) For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
When we compare these different modern translations of the New Testament, we find that they all tell the same story of Jesus, but use slightly different words or sentence structure. The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is still the same, regardless of which version you read.
Some versions of the Bible, like the King James Bible, stay closer to the literal meaning of words in the original languages. This does not, however, make the New King James a different story of Jesus.
When we examine the texts that are alleged as textual variants by critics, we find that the various copies of the New Testament that exist today from the historical record, have these same variations in words or sentence structure that we have just seen in today’s modern versions. This tell us that the earlier people did precisely the same thing that we have done today in order to make the New Testament easier to understand; they used different words and sentence structure, but this did not change the story of Jesus.
In truth, what is described by critics as textual variants, are nothing more than translations of the New Testament from these past generations that were written to make the text easier for those readers to understand.
These variants do not change the fundamental story of Jesus who came into the world as a baby, was born of a virgin, grew into a man who was sinless, lived a perfect life, performed miracles to validate His claim to be God, fulfilled over 400 Hebrew prophecies for Messiah, was crucified according to these prophecies, was raised from the dead on the third day according to these prophecies, and was seen by more than 500 eyewitnesses.
The following are examples from Matthew’s Gospel that are described as a “textual variants:” You will see that none of these variants changes the meaning of what is being said.
• Matthew 1:18
• Matthew 1:21
Then she will bring forth to you a son/
Then she will bring forth a son
• Matthew 1:23
you will call his name/
they will call his name
• Matthew 1:24
• Matthew 3:5
the children of Jerusalem/
all of Jerusalem
• Matthew 3:6
into the Jordan/
in the Jordan
• Matthew 4:6
throw yourself down from here/
throw yourself down
• Matthew 4:18
• Matthew 5:11
for the sake of my name/
for the sake of righteousness
• Matthew 6:1
• Matthew 6:8
open your mouth/
• Matthew 6:9
• Matthew 7:22
Lord, lord, did we not eat and drink in your name? And did we not prophesy in your name?/
Lord, lord, did we not prophesy in your name?
• Matthew 7:23
away from me, all of you/
away from me
• Matthew 8:5
But he was entering into Capernaum/
But when he was entering into Capernaum/
When Jesus was entering into Capernaum/
But after these things, then he [went] into Capernaum
• Matthew 8:15
she was serving him/
she was serving them
• Matthew 8:28
• Matthew 9:11
How come you are eating and your teacher is drinking with tax collectors and sinners?/
Why are you eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?/
Why is he eating with tax collectors and sinners?/
Why are you seated with tax collectors and sinners?/
Why is your teacher eating with tax collectors and sinners?
• Matthew 10:3
Thaddaeus who is surnamed Lebbaeus/
Lebbaeus who is surnamed Thaddaeus/
Judas the Zealot/
Judas who is also Lebbaeus who is surnamed Thaddaeus
• Matthew 10:4
• Matthew 11:8
Moreover, why did you go out? To see a man…/
Moreover, what did you go out to see? A man…
• Matthew 11:8
in delicate garments
• Matthew 12:2
Why do your disciples/
Look, your disciples
• Matthew 12:4
• Matthew 12:13
it was restored healthy/
it was restored, like the other/
his hand was restored, healthy like the other/
it was restored, healthy like the other
• Matthew 12:32
against the Holy Spirit, it will not in any way be forgiven to him./
against the Holy Spirit, may it not in any way be forgiven to him./
against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven to him.
• Matthew 13:9
The one having ears must listen/
The one having ears to hear must listen
• Matthew 13:21
But he does not have root within/
But it does not have root in him/
But he does not have root in himself
• Matthew 14:3
into prison and put away/
and put in prison/
and put away into prison/
and put away in prison
• Matthew 15:31
speaking, the crippled healed/
speaking, and the crippled healed/
hearing, the crippled healed/
hearing and speaking, the crippled healed
• Matthew 16:12
leaven of bread/
leaven of bread of the Pharisees and Sadducees/
leaven of the Pharisees
• In Matthew 17-25, there are no significant variants regarding Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Parables about the kingdom, or the events of the last days
• Matthew 26:28
• Matthew 27:4
• Matthew 28:19
Go therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit./
Go make disciples of all the nations in my name.
These Variants Are Not Changes To Jesus’ Story
As you can see, these variants in words or sentence structure do not change the story. These variants only make the story of Jesus easier to understand, just as our modern translations do today.
Critics use the phrase, “Textual Variant,” because it makes the New Testament sound like it is unreliable, has been changed, or is a fabrication. From the examples above, you can see for yourself that those who state that the New Testament is not reliable because it has been changed, are not telling the truth. Despite these variations in the text, we have the same main character: Jesus. We have Jesus claiming to be God; we have Jesus performing miracle to prove He is God; we have Jesus crucified; we have Jesus risen from the dead; we have Jesus seen alive by many witnesses, some 500 all at the same time.
Examples Of Manuscripts With Alleged Variants
The New Testament contains 7,956 verses and 138,020 words. There are 24,593 surviving copies of the original New Testament Documents.
As previously illustrated, a variant in these copies of the New Testament can be something as simple as a missing letter, or misspelled word.
The following illustrates the types of variants that critics use to assert that the New Testament is not reliable.1
Manuscript 1: Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole worl.
Manuscript 2: Christ Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.
Manuscript 3: Jesus Christ s the Savior of the whole world.
Manuscript 4: Jesus Christ is th Savior of the whle world.
Manuscript 5: Jesus Christ is the Savor of the whole wrld.
Can you tell the differences between the samples above from these various manuscripts of the same text? Did you notice that the meaning of each of these manuscripts is not lost by the misspelling or omission of a letter or word?
Critics of the Bible often use the number, 200,000, in describing how many variants there are in the existing copies of the New Testament. In fact, these critics are quite disingenuous in their statements, as a single word that is misspelled in thousands of manuscripts may be counted as thousands of variants, although only one word has been misspelled.
In “A General Introduction to the Bible” by Dr. Norman Geisler and Dr. William Nix, these astute scholars make the following observations regarding any variations between the ancient copies of the New Testament we have today:
“There is an ambiguity in saying there are some 200,000 variants in the existing manuscripts of the New Testament, since these represent only 10,000 places in the New Testament. If one single word is misspelled in 3,000 different manuscripts, this is counted as 3,000 variants or readings.”2
Biblical Scholar Dr. Philip Schaff, in his book, “Greek Testament and the English Version,” noted that there are really only 400 variants out of the entire 25,000 copies of the New Testament that are in question. Not one of these variants are of any significance, nor do they affect any major doctrine of the Christian faith.
“Not one of these variations altered “an article of faith of a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other and undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching.”3
In other words, in the very limited variants of the text within the many thousands of copies of the New Testament that are in dispute, the issues are predominately a question of spelling or punctuation. In just 50 cases, even the text that is in doubt does not change the basic tenets of the gospels, which substantiate that Jesus Christ was crucified, risen, and observed by more than 500 eyewitnesses afterwards.
In the entire 138,000 words of the New Testament, there are only 400 words that are in question, and then, only for minor errors listed in the previous paragraph. Try to imagine the size of the 27 books of the New Testament, only two pages of text are in question.
Not one of these 400 words changes the original text that states that Jesus claimed to be God, then performed miracles which validated that He had the powers that we would expect from God. Not one of the 400 words brings into question whether Jesus was crucified, or resurrected from the dead.
We Can See How Important These First Written Records Of Jesus Were By How Many Copies Were Made
After the accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were written, people who read these narratives, wanted copies to be distributed so others could know what Jesus had done. Ten’s of thousands of these copes were made and sent all over the world. The evidence that this is true is observed today by 24,593 surviving manuscript copies.
If someone writes a letter and we find only a few copes, we would conclude that only a few people thought that this information was important enough to copy it a few times.
If we find 24,593 copies from places all over the world, in different languages, that have survived throughout the past 2,000 years; guarded and protected by Christians because of their great value, this is empirical evidence that the originals once existed and they were regarded as extremely valuable.
The people of that period of history had sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. We see historical evidence of this fact in that over 5 million Christians were killed by 10 Roman Emperors, over a 250 year period of time, because they refused to deny that Jesus was a risen Lord and their Savior.4
These early believers had read the narratives of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and were certain that actual eyewitnesses had seen Jesus alive after He was killed. This is the only reason that so many were willing to die rather than recant their belief that Jesus was alive.
Yes, some people in history have died for things that were not true, but there is no period of history in which so many were willing to die because there existed such a formidable and well documented record, as is true in the testimony of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Early Christians had empirical evidence and this is why they were willing to die.
A Second Century Copy, Proves A First Century Original
Critics state that the New Testament was written too late to be considered reliable. They do this because the earliest copies we have of the New Testament are said to come from the second century.
A reasonable person understands that if we find copies dated from the second century, the originals must have been written in the first century. Today we have nearly complete manuscript copies of the New Testament, dated from 175-225 A.D. If we have copies of the New Testament in manuscript form from as early as 175, certainly the original autographs were written at least 143 years before.
Complete Manuscript Copies From 175-225 A.D.
When many critics of the New Testament discuss the surviving manuscript copies for these texts, they will often state that we only have fragments of the earliest New Testament writings. The truth is, we have nearly complete copies of the entire New Testament, including the four Gospels, dated from 175-225 A.D.
P46 is the earliest New Testament Codex Manuscript in existence, dated at 175-225 A.D. It contains the following letters written by Paul:
- Romans 1:1–5:17
- Romans 5:17–6:14
- Romans 6:14–8:15
- Romans 8:15–11:35
- Romans 11:35–14:8
- Romans 14:9–15:11
- Romans 15:11–Hebrews 8:8
- Hebrews 8:9–9:10
- Hebrew 9:10–26
- Hebrews 9:26–1 Corinthians 2:3
- 1 Corinthians 2:3–3:5
- 1 Corinthian 3:6–2 Corinthians 9:7
- 2 Corinthian 9:7–end, Ephesians, Galatians 1:1–6:10
- Galatians 6:10–end, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians 1:1–2:3
- 1 Thessalonians 2:3–5:5
- 1 Thessalonians 5:5, 23–28
- 1 Thessalonians 5:28–2 Thessalonians, Philemon; 1–2 Timothy, and Titus
P45 contain surviving manuscript copies from all four gospels, and Acts with 30 references to Jesus’ death and resurrection, from 1 Cor 15.6, 1 Cor 15.7, 1 Cor 15.8, 1 Cor 15.9, 1 Cor 15.10, 1 Cor 15.11, 1 Cor 15.12, 1 Cor 15.13, 1 Cor 15.14, 1 Cor 15.1.
1 Corinthians 15:6 Confirming Jesus’ Resurrection See By 500 Eyewitnesses
Jesus Was Raised From The Dead, He Will Raise Us
P45: 1 Corinthians 15:6 Confirming Jesus’ Resurrection, Seen By Over 500 Eyewitnesses
P45, Jesus Risen, Seen By Over 500 People
1 Corinthians 15:6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. (NKJV)
P46: Contains Roman 6:5-14, Confirming Jesus’ Crucifixion And Resurrection
Romans 6:5-14 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. (NKJV)
P46, Jesus Raised From The Dead
If we have complete manuscript copies of the entire New Testament that are verified as written before 225 A.D., It is certain that the original autographs were written early in the first century. Under the conditions that these original autographs were subjected to during the first century, very few papyrus documents survived more that two hundred years.
Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, estimated that about 99 percent of the original papyri that are dated from 3000 B.C. through the 400 B.C., have been lost to time and decay.1
In the Greco-Roman world, Roman soldiers were traditionally paid three times a year. These payments were documented by pay receipts that were written on papyrus. Of the estimated 225 million pay receipts that were given to Roman soldiers during the reigns of Augustus and Diocletian, from 27 B.C., to 305 A.D., only two fragments have survived.2
Only about 10 percent of ancient manuscript copies can survive 2,000 years of time and decay. The New Testament exists today in the form of 24,593 surviving manuscript copies. Based on the work of Kenneth Kitchen, one of the world’s greatest Biblical scholars, this would number the total copies for the New Testament as near 250,000 that were likely to exist originally, if only 25,000 have survived to the present day,.
The fact that we have nearly 25,000 surviving New Testament manuscripts today, is great empirical evidence that a massive effort was in place to copy and distribute the narratives of the New Testament to the known world.
What Does This Mean?
Obviously, when people have see the dead raised, and a Carpenter from Nazareth, crucified and then alive three days later, this is the type of events that would cause such an enormous distribution of the eyewitness accounts of these narratives.
Today there are no original autographs for any hand written literature that is 2,000 years old.
This includes all secular autographs that were written as originals. All that we have today to prove any ancient event, are manuscript copies. Critics make it sound as though the New Testament should be treated differently from all other ancient literature because it is religious in nature. This is a common bias that critics use regarding the New Testament, although this is not valid criteria in evaluating any work of literature from history.
In one important fact, this is true: The New Testament manuscript copies we have today were written closer to the events they describe, and exist with more copies than any other event of antiquity.
If we are going to disqualify the New Testament for the date of its writing and number of surviving copies, we would also have to disqualify every other work of literature, secular or religious.
We have complete copies of entire books from the New Testament from before the second century. These extant manuscript copies are identical to our current New Testament.
The Personal Letters Of The New Testament
In the historical record, we find that personal letters are the best representations of genuine events. This is due to their nature as communications, not as documentaries or tales.
We see the personal nature of Paul’s communication is his second letter to Timothy:
Timothy, please come as soon as you can. Demas has deserted me because he loves the things of this life and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus has gone to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, be sure to bring the coat I left with Carpus at Troas. Also bring my books, and especially my papers. ~2 Timothy 4:9-13
Any person who reads through Paul’s 13 letters in the New Testament, is immediately struck by their sincerity and lack of contrivance. According to the prescribed requirements for valid historical events of antiquity, the New Testament meets and exceeds every standard set.
Within these letters, we find a substantial record of statements which describe Jesus as performing miracles in fulfillment of the Hebrew prophets who predicted that the coming Messiah would retain the ability to perform miracles to validate His identity as the true Messiah.
We find 296 references in the New Testament letters that describe Jesus as Crucified according to the prediction of the Old Testament prophets, and risen from the dead on the third day afterwards, also according to the prophecies for Messiah from the Old Testament.
From the evidence presented in this article, you can see that allegations of errors and textual variants in the New Testament, are unfounded. We have every reason to trust these texts because the evidence that comes to us down through the historical record, proves these narratives are unchanged and reliable. What we read today in our modern New Testament, is the same text that the original eyewitnesses penned for us 2,000 years ago.
The following are the resources available at this site which contain evidence to prove each of these important issues:
- When Were The Gospels Written?
- Were The Gospels Written By Eyewitnesses?
- Did The Gospel Writers Borrow From Each Other?
- Has The Text Of The New Testament Been Changed?
- Is The New Testament Filled With Errors?
- Were The Four Gospels Written Anonymously?
- The Body Of New Testament Evidence
- Are There Sources For Jesus Outside The New Testament?
- Is The New Testament A Valid Historical Narrative?
- Did Jesus Really Claim To Be God?
1 Ron Rhodes Ph.d: “Manuscript Evidence for the Bible’s Reliability.”
2 Norman Geisler and William Nix, “A General Introduction to the Bible,” Moody Press, New Addition, 1986, ISBN: 0802429165, Page 361
3 Philip Schaff, “Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version”. Revised edition, New York: Harper Brothers,1883, Page 177
4 Suetonius, Claudius 25: Secretary to the Roman Emperor Hadrian. First Century.
1) The reason for the disturbances in Rome was due to Jews who objected to those who believed in Jesus Christ.
2) The beliefs of Christians were seen as dangerous superstitions.
3) The entire reason that 5 million Christians were crucified over a 250-year period of time was due to their unwavering faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
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