How Accurate is the New Testament Text? A Simple Test for a Complicated Problem

People sometimes get up-tight when they first learn of the existence of variations in manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, but their concerns are baseless. The text of the New Testament is far-and-away the most attested and stable text of any ancient document. In fact, if you question the stability of the text of the New Testament, you probably ought to disregard just about everything you think you know about ancient history, since almost all the important historical manuscripts from which such history is derived are from copies that are far later and of far poorer quality than are our New Testament manuscripts.

I recently discovered a convenient way to demonstrate this!

About eight years ago for my birthday, my wife gave me the then-recently-published: The UBS Greek New Testament: Reader’s Edition with Textual Notes. I was delighted to finally own a Greek Bible that included definitions of infrequently used Greek words alongside of textual notes (notes that display variations among Greek manuscripts and that list some of the important manuscripts that form the basis for the text we use for translating). But when I opened the book for the first time, I was surprised (and, I’ll be honest, rather disappointed) to find only a few textual notes—far fewer than I expected. It turns out that the editors made a conscious decision to only include variants that they deemed important for the meaning of a text. I’ll let them describe what they did in their own words: 

“Compared to the NA27 and the UBS4, the edition at hand focuses on places where variants from the reading of the USB4 signifantly impact the meaning of the text” (p. 11*).”

Before I make my big point in this post, please allow the sentence I just cited to teach you something about textual criticism (the process of determining what was originally written by comparing manuscripts). Some of you think that I just made two scribal mistakes while typing in that quote.  (Did you catch them?) No, those two mistakes are actually in the printed text of the volume—a volume about text criticism!  (Ouch…) The two printed mistakes are “USB4” (instead of “UBS4”) and the spelling of the word “signifantly” (instead of “significantly”).

But to read that sentence, you yourself had to do a bit of impromptu textual criticism! So at this point let me ask you a question: How much did those two variants impact your understanding of the meaning of the sentence? You probably understood the sentence without difficulty (and may not have even noticed the UBS4/USB4 difference). The types of changes found in this English sentence provide an excellent analogy to the vast majority of textual variants found among New Testament manuscripts. 

Now to the main point of this post… The editors of the Greek New Testament my wife bought me for my birthday (and there are no better editors than this group!) claim that the only variants that they included are the ones that significantly impact the meaning of the text. In other words, they don’t think that other variants significantly impact the meaning of the text. So they have gathered together in this volume the ones they consider the important ones.

And what do you discover when you actually look at the “significant” differences? You discover how stable our text really is!  Following is a list of every variant found in 1 Corinthians that the editors of this volume deemed important for determining the meaning of the text.  (I have translated them into English for you.)

1:14  “I give thanks to God that…” / “I give thanks to my God that…” / “I give thanks that…”

2:1  “while proclaiming to you the mystery of God” / “while proclaiming to you the testimony of God” (“mystery” and “testimony” look very similar in Greek)

5:5  “in the day of the Lord” / “in the day of the Lord Jesus” / “in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” / “in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”

7:15  “God has called you in peace” / “God has called us in peace” (“you” and “us” are extremely close in Greek)

10:9  “Nor let us test Christ” / “Nor let us test the Lord” / “Nor let us test God”

11:24  “This is my body that is for you” / “This is my body that is broken for you” / “This is my body that is broken [different word] for you”

13:3  “And if I give my body that I might boast” / “And if I give my body that I will be burned” / “And if I give my body that I might be burned” (The difference between these three variants is a single letter.)

14:34-35  These two verses are sometimes included after verse 40 instead of in the position found in most manuscripts but there is no significant change to the wording.

14:38  “But if anyone disregards, he is disregarded” / “But if anyone disregards, let him be disregarded” (same word, different tense)

15:49  “we will bear the image of the heavenly one” / “let us bear the image of the heavenly one” (one letter difference, and they sound almost identical)

That’s it!  That’s every “significant” variant in 1 Corinthians. I remember my father coining the word “underwhelmed” when I was a child. Are you feeling underwhelmed at this moment? You should be.  That’s the point. 

If you exclude from the wider discussion the two longer passages that seem to create the most discussion among my students (John 8 and the ending of Mark), and a handful of other passages in the New Testament that are a bit more important, you have just gotten for yourself a glimpse into the kind and quality of the so-called “significant” New Testament variants.

So when maverick scholars attempt to convince you that the Greek text underlying the New Testament that you read, love, and strive to obey is unstable, you really shouldn’t take them very seriously. God has marvelously preserved His Word. The UBS Greek New Testament: Readers Edition with Textual Notes offers us a convenient way to demonstrate that such a claim is true.

Are you wondering which is the best “reader’s” Greek New Testament (that is, the kind that has definitions on the bottom of the page of the Greek text)? HERE is a comparative book review that will help you decide which one to get.

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