Textual variants.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 April
TEXTUAL VARIANT 'tɛks.tʃ(əw.)əl 'vɛr.i.ənt noun Form or version of a document which differs in some respect from other copies or editions of the same document.

Before the printing press was invented in the 1400s, books were copied by hand.

Sometimes this was done carefully and conscientiously. The Masoretes, fr’instance, were Jewish scholars who wanted to be certain they got exact copies of the scriptures, with super-duper anal-retentive precision. So they invented a very careful procedure, including a system of checksums, to be sure every copy of the bible was an exact replica. It’s why, when you compare the first-century Dead Sea Scrolls with 10th-century copies of the Old Testament, you find astonishingly few differences. Dudes knew what they were about.

Other times, not so much.

Even when they knew this was a very important book. (Heck, back then most books were considered important. Hand-copying meant publishing was crazy expensive.) Copyists had a bad habit of duplicating books in a rush. Popular books were occasionally copied in a group: You get a roomful of scribes, one of whom slowly dictated the “original,” and the rest of whom wrote it down en masse. Naturally mistakes would happen.

Which was no surprise to any literate ancient: People make mistakes. An ancient Christian would assume if this was a verse they’d never heard before, or one they’d learned differently, it must be some scribe’s mistake. Fr’instance the Egyptian commentator Origen (185–254), in his commentary on John (my translation):

203 “These things happened in Bethabara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” Jn 1.28 204 Yes, it’s indeed printed in all the copies, “These things happened in Bethany.” We’re not ignorant it’s like this, and got this way long ago: We’re well aware it’s “Bethany,” according to Irakléon. But we’ve come to the conclusion it shouldn’t be “Bethany” but “Bethabara”—we’ve been to these places, following the history of the footsteps of Jesus, his students, and the prophets. 205 This evangelist declares Bethany is the hometown of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, about 15 stadia [2.8 km] from Jerusalem. There isn’t any same-named Bethany in the area of the Jordan. They pointed out Bethabara, by the Jordan’s banks; our inquiries found that John baptized there. Origen, John 6.24

Yep, Origen went to Judea, and his tour guides told him there wasn’t any Bethany near the Jordan, then pointed him to Bethabara, convinced him this was the right place, and probably sold him a few souvenirs. I once had some folks in Israel try to similarly convince me about the location of Jesus’s sepulcher, among other “biblical” sites they built churches atop.

So was Origen right? Nah. Thanks to archeology, we know there was another same-named Bethany on the east bank of the Jordan. (Today it’s called al-Maghtas, Jordan.) Hence our current editions of the Greek NT stuck with the Βηθανία/Vithanía, “Bethany,” which Origen groused was in all his copies of John. Most of our current translations follow suit.

The few who don’t are going off the Textus Receptus, which has Βηθαβαρᾷ/Vithavará (KJV “Bethabara”). That’s because Origen managed to convince some folks he was correct—and the editor of the Textus, Desiderius Erasmus, was one of ’em. Since the King James Version used the Textus as its baseline, that’s what we find in the KJV and NKJV. Jn 1.28 NKJV

So there y’go: Two ways variants happen. Copyists, in their haste, slip up; and know-it-all interpreters rejigger the original to suit themselves.

Are variants anything to panic over?

When I mention textual variants to Christians, I often have to explain what they are. And the idea really, really bothers ’em. Especially when they believe in inerrancy, the idea the bible has no errors whatsoever. Variants sure sound like some errors might’ve slipped in there. And the idea of language scholars sorting through the variants, trying to figure out which ones should be in our Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament, downright alarms them. What if these scholars make a mistake?

Hence more than a few of them would much rather stick their heads in the sand: There are no such things as variants. The language scholars should quit their meddling and stick with one authoritative original-language copy of the Old and New Testaments. And even though they know maybe ten or eleven original-language words of the bible and that’s it, they’re pretty sure they know which copies are authoritative: Masoretic Text for the OT, and Textus Receptus for the NT. Use those; leave all the other copies of the bible alone. (Some of the conspiracy theorists among them even believe those other copies are devilish.) All this meddling is gonna undermine Christians’ faith in the holy inerrant bible, and ultimately their faith in Jesus and Christianity.

All these fears are based on nothing. Every legitimate bible scholar knows textual variants exist. We learn about ’em in seminary. And you’ll notice we all stayed Christian. (Okay, most of us. From time to time you get somebody whose faith crumbles to dust, ’cause it was based on unrealistic assumptions which the Holy Spirit had to shake out of ’em, and they don’t trust him enough to stick with him and ride it out.)

See, in seminary we also learn the reason why these variants exist: Earnest Christians were trying to make sure the gospel was correctly, accurately handed down. Sometimes in their zeal, they got sloppy and made mistakes. And sometimes they insisted, “That’s not right,” and tried to fix it, and introduced errors. But with a little basic investigation, we can easily see where the mistakes were, and deal with them.

Go ahead and look at the New Testament variants. Nobody’s hiding them. (Here’s a Wikipedia page full of them.) You’ll notice nearly all of them make no significant changes to the bible. Most of them are extremely minor. Fr’instance Matthew 1.25, which I translated thisaway:

Matthew 1.25 KWL
but didn’t “know” her
till she birthed a son, and Joseph declared his name Jesus.

The more significant variants of that verse go like so:

  • Just like I rendered it.
  • Drops the “…but didn’t ‘know’ her till” so that it’s just “She birthed a son.”
  • “…she birthed him a son.” (Which likely only means Mary gave Joseph a son to adopt, but some folks might interpret it to mean Mary gave Joseph his biological son. But they, not the text, are the problem.)
  • “…she birthed the son.” (Or “the Son,” if you wanna emphasize Jesus’s place in the trinity.)
  • “…she birthed her son.”
  • “…she birthed her firstborn son.”
  • “…she birthed the firstborn son.”

Any of these variants create major difference and serious theological problems? Not really. And that’s true of most of the variants.

You gotta remember who it was that unintentionally made the variants in the first place: Christians. Usually good Christians. Well, knowledgeable orthodox Christians anyway. These were really unlikely people to introduce serious doctrinal, theological errors to the New Testament text: In these cases they actually did know better. And we can give them, and the Holy Spirit, credit for immediately weeding out any serious problems which did get mixed in. Same with the Jews who copied the Old Testament.

Two variants which are slightly bigger deals.

Two variants really get Christians’ knickers in a twist. Mainly because they’re popular passages. So let’s deal with them briefly.

First the Adulteress Story (Latin pericope adulterae), the story of Jesus and a woman caught in adultery:

John 7.53-8.11 KWL
53 [Each of them went to their own house, 1 and Jesus went to Mount Olivet.
2 Early in the morning, Jesus went to temple again.
The people were all coming to him, and he was teaching them as he sat.
3 Scribes and Pharisees brought Jesus a woman who’d been caught in adultery.
They stood her in the middle 4and told Jesus, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultering.
5 In our Law, Moses commanded us to stone such people. So what do you say?”
6 They said this to test Jesus, so they could have an accusation on him.
Stooping, Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger 7 as they continued to question him.
Then Jesus stood and told them, Whoever’s not sinned among you: Throw the first stone at her.”
8 Again Jesus bent down to write on the ground.
9 One by one Jesus’s listeners, convicted by their consciences, left, beginning with the elders.
Only Jesus and the woman in the middle were left.
10 Standing, seeing no one but the woman, Jesus told her, “Woman, where are they? No one condemned you?”
11 She said, “No one, master.” Jesus told her, “I don’t condemn you either. Go home. From now on, don’t sin.”]

It’s a popular story, especially ’cause Jesus forgives the woman, and makes the statement, “Let he that is without sin cast the first stone!” (No, I don’t know which translation phrases it that way. ’Tain’t the KJV.) People love this story. But it’s quite likely John never wrote it, nor included it in his gospel. It doesn’t exist in our earliest copies of John.

So where’d it come from? Likely another apostle told it. It got passed round the churches for many years, and some scribe wound up squeezing it into a copy of John. It certainly sounds like Jesus—like something he’d do, consistent with his character. (Though to be fair, we might figure it sounds like Jesus because we’ve heard this story all our lives.)

Jesus acts just as forgiving in other parts of the bible, and even if this story isn’t wholly true, it reflects his usual sentiment. Although, just to be on the safe side, we need to remember that it might be fiction. It is, after all, a variant.

The other big-deal variant is John’s Clause (Latin, comma Johanneum):

1 John 5.7-8 KWL
7 Thus three are witnesses [in heaven: The Father, Word, and Holy Spirit. These three are one.
8 And three are witnesses on earth:] the Spirit, water, and blood. The three are one in this.

This, in comparison to the much shorter way the original text of 1 John has it:

1 John 5.7-8 KWL
7 Thus three are witnesses: 8 The Spirit, water, and blood. The three are one in this.

Wait, where’d our pro-trinitarian statement go? It was never actually there. John didn’t write it. Didn’t show up in any bibles, and no Christians quoted it as scripture, till the 500s. Then suddenly there it was, and everyone’s quoted it since.

But it’s in the KJV. Hence it shows up all the time in evangelism tracts, when old-school evangelists wanna prove God’s a trinity. They’d just better hope nobody who reads their tracts double-checks the verse with anything but the KJV. (And in fact many of ’em make it mighty clear: “Only read the KJV!”)

King James Version fans hate how this clause has been moved to the footnotes of the bible. They love having a single verse which confirms how God’s a trinity. Frankly, such a verse would be kinda useful. It’s no wonder some overzealous copier added it. But the KJV fans like to use this verse as “proof” today’s bibles are anti-trinitarian spawns of Satan. This, despite the fact we can easily deduce the trinity from other parts of the bible.

Okay, so despite these two big-deal variants, are they really anything to panic about? We can still teach these ideas without these specific verses. And putting these verses back into the text in brackets, or inserting ’em into the footnotes, doesn’t teach anything anti-Jesus, anti-Christianity, or anything against what we Christians have historically taught. The variants aren’t heresy. They’re just not what the original writers of the bible wrote.

So they don’t lead us astray… well, except we might think the writer of a particular book of the bible said something he didn’t. And we can survive without ’em being confirmed as absolutely reliable. Folks who insist about John’s clause, “We need that verse in the bible! Leave it in!”… well, they’re wrong. I’ve taught about the trinity just fine without it.

Read your footnotes.

Just about every translation has footnotes. (The KJV doesn’t, for political reasons.) Translators have been kind enough to put the bigger textual variants in the footnotes, so any time something’s been found in a whole lot of ancient copies of the bible (or hasn’t, but sounds like it ought to fit there) the translators refer to it. Read your footnotes.

When you study these bible passages, study the variants too. Bear in mind the translators rendered the verses as they did because they’re pretty sure that’s correct. But they included the variants because they know they’re not infallible, and because the variants could be right. So use your best judgment. The translators trust you enough to let you use your noggin.

I know; many preachers don’t trust you enough to let you use your commonsense in studying the bible. That’s partly why they demand we stick with the tried-and-often-true KJV. Although you notice some of ’em often reserve the right for themselves to say, “Here it says… but lemme tell you what that means,” and then redefine all the words to suit their interpretation. Yeah, it’s inconsistent of ’em. Watch out for such preachers.

Anyway, you’ll notice about 80 percent of the New Testament is variant-free. It’s about the same for the Old Testament. Shouldn’t worry you at all.

And ultimately our trust is supposed to be in Jesus. Ask the Holy Spirit for help, and to correct you when you go off track. Bounce your ideas and conclusions off other Christians whom the Spirit put in your life: They’ll keep you from getting all weird and deviant. That done, you’ll find textual variants an easy problem to live with.