Monday, January 20, 2014

How We Got the Bible: Significance of Textual Variations

In chapter 9 of the book, Lightfoot examines the significance of textual variations. He begins the chapter by making the “shocking” revelation that there may be well over 200,000 scribal errors (“textual variants” in textual criticism circles) in the manuscripts of the New Testament and that this number will undoubtedly grow as more manuscripts are uncovered.  However he writes:

A person is either unlearned or of a skeptical mind who tries to take this large number of variations and use it in such a way as to undermine one’s faith in the Word of God.

He goes on with emphasis:

If the large number of manuscripts increases the total of variations, at the same time it supplies the means of checking them.

For the remainder of the chapter, he presents three classifications of textual variations in relationship to their significance for the New Testament text.

1. Trivial variations which are of no consequence to the text. Example variants include:  the omission or addition of such words as “for,” “and,” and “the”; different forms of the same or similar Greek words; spelling, grammar, and vocabulary differences due the development of the Greek language; and change in word order. However, with the great amount of manuscripts available it is easy to determine the original reading of the text.

2. Substantial variations which are of no consequence to the text. These variations involve not only the addition, omission, or shifted order of a word or two but of an entire verse or several verses. Some examples are Luke 6:4-10, John 7:53-8:11, Acts 8:37, and 1 John 5:7. Variations of this sort are not supported by early manuscripts.

3. Substantial variations that have bearing on the text. Mark 16:9-20 is an example. Many early manuscripts (including the Vatican and Sinaitic from the fourth century) do not include this passage and yet there are many that do. And a statement from Irenaeus shows the existence of this passage in the second century. So there are weighty authorities in the positive and the negative for this being part of the original text. In this case however, the events recorded in this passage are not in doubt as they are recorded elsewhere. These types of variants are few and can be solved. If they could not, there are so few of them that they should not cast doubt upon the Christian faith.

Lightfoot ends the chapter by stating the following:

The variant readings in the manuscripts are not of such a nature that they threaten to overthrow our faith. Except for a few instances, we have an unquestioned text; and even then not one principle of faith or command of the Lord is involved.

Stand firm in Christ,

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