I have been talking about different kinds of changes made in our surviving New Testament manuscripts, some of them accidental slips of the pen (that’s probably the vast majority of our textual variants) and others of them intentional alterations. One of the points that I’ve been trying to stress is that at the end of the day it is, technically speaking, impossible to know what a scribe’s “intentions” were (or if he had any, other than the intention of copying a text). None of the scribes is around to be interviewed, and so – as with a lot of history – there is a good bit of scholarly guess-work that has to be done.
This guess work is not simply shooting in the dark, however. And it is dead easy for a highly trained expert to tell the difference between informed guesswork and just plain guesswork. But at the end of the day we are always talking about historical probabilities, not historical certainties, when it comes to figuring out why a scribed decided to change a text.
And in some places it is very hard indeed to tell whether a change was made intentionally or not.
Let me give a prime example, again drawn from the Gospel of Mark. This one occurs right off the bat. In fact, it is in verse 1.
There is a significant variant in the opening line of Mark’s Gospel. It may not seem significant at first, but in fact the more you study Mark’s Gospel, the more significant you realize it is. The way Mark is said to begin in most manuscripts is this (these are the opening words):
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