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Do Textual Variants Actually *Matter* For Much??

In light of my previous post, I thought I should address a question I get asked a lot. Or rather, a rhetorical question that I hear posed a lot — especially by evangelical apologists who want to insist that even though there are hundreds of thousands of differences in our manuscripts, none of them really matters for anything that’s important. (This was a perennial objection to my book Misquoting Jesus.)  Is that true?   I dealt with it many years ago on the blog, and it’s time to address it again.



I got the impression (I can’t remember where or if you said this… or if Bruce Metzger said it) that no significant Christian doctrine is threatened by text critical issues… and so, if that is the case, who cares if, in Mark 4: 18, Jesus spoke of the “illusion” of wealth or the “love” of wealth. I mean, who cares other than textual critics and Bible translators?



The first thing to emphasize is a point that I repeatedly make and that many people seem never to notice that I make (especially my fundamentalist friends who very much object to my views about textual criticism):  of the many hundreds of thousands of textual variants that we have among our manuscripts, most of them are completely unimportant and insignificant and don’t matter for twit.   Why should any of us care that much if a scribe spells a word one way or another way, if it’s the same word?   Many of *them* didn’t seem to care!  But each different spelling counts as a textual variant!

There are many (many!) textual variants that are (virtually) impossible to replicate in English.   That is to say, if a verse is worded in two different ways, they mean exactly the same thing, even though in Greek they appear different.  So variants like *that* don’t matter much.   And that’s most variants.

But there are other variants that matter a *lot* — variants that…..

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Setting Dates for the Gospels
Introduction to the Manuscripts of the New Testament



  1. Avatar
    joemccarron  February 7, 2020

    I love history as well. But I have asked myself why does it matter. I think it is very significant to learn of the Molotov Ribbontrop pact. But why? It won’t change how I live. Which is how I normally decide if something is significant. I haven’t entirely resolved this issue.

    But if we talk about beliefs concerning how I am going to live everyday and raise my children? Those beliefs take on an entirely different level of significance. They are significant because they will materially change how I live my life. And as a Catholic parts of these books can have a huge impact on how I live my life and raise my kids. Some atheists try to make it sound like becoming atheist is not significant because it is just one belief. I disagree. That change of belief undermines our entire moral system which guides our daily actions.

    You say what if certain books disappeared. That reminded me of the dispute between Catholics and Protestants on the canon. Seven books are out of their canon. Now it is true they didn’t just disappear but honestly they might as well have for most protestants. The doctrine of Purgatory is somewhat effected by this and I think that is a pretty big deal. But overall I don’t really see the loss of those books as that big of a deal.

    Was Jesus a man who spoke for God or God himself? I am not sure how this would change how I live. I mean if he was speaking for God, as proven by his miracles, then I would still listen. The Orthodox and Catholic church split in part over the filioque. So yes that is significant. But *should* it have been significant? I think too many divisions are caused by insignificant differences of opinion. I think the biggest error (often with catastrophic consequences) the Catholic Church made was making mountains out of molehills over relatively insignificant differences of opinion. Develop an understanding what makes a belief significant then apply that principle to determine if a belief is significant. Don’t decide beliefs or books are important before you establish why something should be significant.

  2. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  February 24, 2020

    How do you respond to Brant Pitre’s book “The Case for Jesus”?

    Your name pops up in his book a lot, but I wanted to know how do you respond to his argument that the titles of the Gospels are indeed the writers of them. He says the the name titles on the Gospels are found on the earliest manuscripts. There is no evidence that can be found that the original Gospels were anonymous and that the titles were added on later. He also says that the early church fathers say the names of who wrote the Gospels from the 2nd century. Also, I stress these are his words not mine.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2020

      I’ve never been very impressed by the book, frankly. But yes, that’s right, the Gospels do have titles n our earliest mansucripts. But that is about 130 years after the books were originally published. What were they called before that? It’s worth realizing that his point is not “new evidence” — the Gospels are identified as Matthew, mark, luke and john by Irenaeus in 185 CE. But that’s the point. They are NOT identified that way by earlier writers who quote them. I talk about it at lenght on the blog: you may want to search “authorshiop of the Gospels” where I deal with the arguments. (Including hte fact that NO ONE would call their own book “According to Matthew”)

      • stevedemarco
        stevedemarco  February 24, 2020

        Thank You, I will defiantly look at “authorship of the Gospels”.

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