As I have indicated in my recent posts, we have far more copies of the NT than of any other book from antiquity –and as a result, far more differences among our copies (i.e. more mistakes). In addition. we have ancient translations of the NT (the early “versions”) and quotations of the NT in the writings of church fathers. These also provide further pieces of evidence – as well as further variations in wording.
As a result, it is a very complicated business trying to establish what the authors of the NT originally wrote. Scholars continue to debate the precise wording of this that or the other verse. In some cases we simply will never know.
Two points are critically important when considering all these differences. The first is one that I always state, even though my evangelical debate opponents frequently pretend that I never say it at all. But, in fact, I always say it: the vast majority of these (hundreds of thousands!) of differences are insignificant, immaterial, and don’t matter for thing other than to show that ancient scribes could spell no better than most college students can today.
The second one is also one I always state: there are *some* changes that really do matter. They matter for understanding what a verse means; or what an entire chapter means. They matter for knowing what an author actually thought. What he thought about important issues. There are textual variants that affect such things as whether the Gospel of John ever explicitly calls Jesus “the unique God” or not; whether the Gospel of Luke understands the death of Jesus to be an atoning sacrifice or not; whether the New Testament ever explicitly mentions the doctrine of the Trinity or not. And on and on.
I’m *not* saying that the divinity of Christ, the idea the atonement, or the doctrine of the Trinity stand or fall on these particular variants. My argument is much, much more nuanced than that (as casual readers and conservative critics often fail to realize). In every case I’m talking about something very specific. Does the Gospel of John call Jesus the “unique God”? (That’s not the same thing as asking whether the Gospel of John considers Jesus to be God. Or whether other early authors consider Christ to be God. Or, even more of course, whether Jesus really was God). Does the Gospel of Luke have a doctrine of the atonement? (That’s not the same thing as asking if Luke thinks Jesus’ death has some relation to salvation; or if the atonement is taught elsewhere in the Bible). Does the NT explicitly mention the Trinity? (That’s not the same thing as asking whether one could *use* the NT to argue for the doctrine of the Trinity. Or whether there are passages that could be *interpreted* as referring to the Trinity. Or whether there *is* a Trinity)
So, there are hundreds of thousands of textual variants. The vast majority don’t matter for beans. But some matter a lot. If you want to know the theology of John, Luke, or the NT, the variants matter a lot. (If you don’t *care* what John’s theology was, then the variants matter a good deal less!)
Now then. If there is a verse that is worded in two or more ways in our various witnesses (by “witnesses” I mean: Greek manuscripts; versions; Patristic citations), how do we decide that one of those ways is more likely the way the author actually wrote the verse to begin with?
Later I will explain why putting the matter in that way has come to be seen as problematic by lots of textual scholars of the NT, who are nervous about talking about the “original” text. But for now, leave the question as it stands. Suppose there are two forms of the text. How do you decide that one form is more likely original than the other form?
The first step is to come to an understanding of the *kinds* of changes that scribes made in their manuscripts they were copying. Scholars have for a very long time divided scribal changes into two major categories: accidental and intentional. Accidental changes would be alterations of the text that a scribe made simply by mistake, not meaning to do so; intentional changes would be alterations that a scribe thought about ahead of time and made because he wanted to do so.
Those of you with a philosophical bent and/or any knowledge of the kinds of changes we find in our manuscripts will immediately detect a problem with this terminology. How in the world would we know if an accidental change was made by accident or that an intentional change was made with intention?
Take an obvious example. The most common alteration of manuscripts has to do with the spelling of words. Scribbes offen misspellled wordds. It happened all the time. Most of the time surely it was simply because they didn’t know how to spell a word. Or didn’t care how to spell a word. That is to say, it was almost always an accident. But not necessarily. What if a scribe was copying a word and thought that the manuscript he was copying from had misspelled it, and so tried to “correct” it, but corrected it incorrectly? Then he changed it intentionally. But it would typically be classified as an accidental mistake. Was it an accident? Or not? The reality is that there is no way to know. The scribe is not around for us to question. We don’t know who he was, where he lived, when he lived, what education he had, how he learned to spell, why he wanted to copy a manuscript, or … well, anything else of any relevance. All we have is his copy.
It is also possible that changes that *appear* to have been made intentionally were made accidentally. I’ll explain more about that as I pursue the matter of the kinds of changes in our manuscripts in my next post. As you will see, all of this matters, since in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, I wanted to argue that scribes sometimes changed their texts intentionally in order to make them say what they wanted them to say. But because of the problems of knowing a scribe’s “intentions” I had to come up with a theoretically satisfying way to discuss the matter. More to come!