In this post I’m going to try to do something I’ve never done before: actually explain by way of example the extent and kind of variations you find in our surviving Greek manuscripts.  In doing so I hope to show: (a) there are lots of variations and (b) most of them involve nuances of meaning but rarely anything of huge significance (and lots of them don’t affect the meaning at all).

By way of introduction: I have previously indicated that virtually all translators use the Greek text established by an international committee of scholars for the United Bible Societies.  I have also mentioned that this form of the text comes in two published versions.  One is for translators around the world who are translating the NT into various languages into which it has not yet appeared.  This is the kind of “student” edition that many first year Greek students use.  That one is called the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament, and it is now in its fifth edition.  That’s the one I’ve been describing.

The other is for scholars.  It is called the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (Nestle and Aland are the names of two textual scholars who were largely responsible for producing the edition; the title is given in Latin to show that it is serious business for scholars, not for the faint of heart).   This edition gives far more textual variants than the other, because it wants scholars to see all the relatively significant variations in our surviving witnesses.  But I need to stress, it is nowhere near being exhaustive in its presentation of the textual evidence.  There are hundreds of thousands of variations it does not note, but virtually all of those hundreds of thousands are completely insignificant and immaterial and really don’t affect a solitary thing.

To give you a sense of the difference between these editions, and to show what kinds of variation we’re talking about, I have chosen a random passage….

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Completely random, in fact.  I opened my Greek New Testament and it fell to this page.

The passage is Mark 14:27-31, just five verses in length.  Here is what it says in the NRSV translation:

27 And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”  29 Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.”  30 And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”  31 But he said vehemently, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.”  And they all said the same thing.

The UBS text (that is, the fifth edition of the United Bible Societies version) indicates one textual variant for these five verses, in v. 30.   In several of our oldest manuscripts and in a number of Latin manuscripts and in the Armenian and Ethiopic versions, instead of saying “before the cock crows twice” it says “before the cock crows.”   In other words for those witnesses, Peter will deny Jesus before the cock crows at all, not before the cock crows the second time.

Who cares?  Well, maybe not a lot of people.  But what is interesting is that this variant reading (“crows” instead of “crows twice”) is exactly what is found in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John).  And why does that matter?  Because it could be conceived of as a contradiction: if in Mark Peter denies Jesus once or more after the cock crows the first time, then that would be at odds with what the other Gospels say.

It is precisely the fact that “crows twice” seems to stand at odds with what the other Gospels say that makes textual scholars pretty sure that this is what Mark originally wrote.  The logic is that scribes who knew the other Gospels would be inclined to make them consistent with one another, and so would make a simple change of Mark (eliminating the word “twice”) to harmonize the passages.  It would be much harder to explain why a scribe committed to the truth of Scripture would create a problem where there wasn’t one to begin with.  And so “twice” is probably the original reading (there are other reasons for thinking so, but I’m just giving a brief analysis).

Now, just to illustrate the difference between the two most widely used editions of the Greek text I can compare this one variation with what is found in the Nestle-Aland (scholarly) edition.  There you will find eight variations noted in these five verses.  Eight times as many.  But, at the same time, most are not as interesting or significant:

  1. v. 27: After “fall away” some mss (= manuscripts) add the words “because of me”; others add the words “because of me on this night.” That latter reading is what is found in the other Gospels (note: I’m counting this as one variant but you could see it as two variants since there are three different options for what the text originally said).
  2. v. 27: the words “the sheep will be scattered” are changed in terms of their word order (literally: scattered will be the sheep; it means the same thing) in some mss; and in some of these mss a different form of the Greek word “scattered” is used, which means almost precisely the same thing. So again you could count these as two different variants.
  3. v. 30: When Jesus says “I say to you, this very night…” some mss say “I say to you today, on this night…” (the word “very” – which in the Greek is actually “today” – is missing)
  4. v. 30: The same words “on this night” are changed in various ways in terms of their word order in the Greek; all of the variant ways of arranging the words, though, mean almost exactly the same thing. (The mss present three different ways of arranging the words)
  5. v. 30: “Before the cock crows twice”: as noted for the UBS text, “twice” is omitted in some mss; and the words get rearranged in various ways, all of which basically mean the same thing.
  6. v. 31: The words “if I must die” are rearranged (“if die I must”) in a way that doesn’t affect their meaning
  7. v. 31: the verb deny is changed from a future indicative (I will not die) to an aorist subjunctive (I shall not die). It means the same thing either way.
  8. v. 31: “And” is missing in some mss, including our single oldest and best manuscript for the passage.


So, that is the kind of thing you will find on every page of the Nestle-Aland text.  Lots and lots of variations (even though many more variants found in the mss are not given) and most of them not terrifically important for the meaning of the passage (the ones not given are even less so).  But some are kind of interesting, and one of them actually matters because it may involve a contradiction between Mark and the other Gospels.[/mepr-show]