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Small Differences that Make a Difference

Here is something different on the significance of textual variants for understanding the Greek New Testament.   Most of the hundreds of thousands of variations are completely insignificant in the big overall scheme of things (e.g., misspelled words and slips of the pen); others involve enormous differences that matter a lot (the story of the woman taken in adultery).  Lots of others are between the two, small differences that are interesting for how they might change the meaning of a passage slightly but possibly significantly.

This semester I’m teaching an intermediate Greek class for the Classics Department with some exceptionally bright undergraduates who are already proficient in the ancient language.  Yesterday we in class we translated the birth narrative of Luke 2, and I realized anew how a slight change can be important.

Among the changes attested in our manuscripts is one whose significance had never registered with me.  Luke 2:1-5 indicate that Caesar Augustus send out a decree for “the entire world” to be enrolled, and that Joseph needed to enroll in the town of Bethlehem because he was from the lineage of King David (who had been born in Bethlehem).  So he goes there, taking with him his betrothed Mary.

In Luke 2:6 we are told that (this is the literal translation): “And when they were there, the days of her giving birth were fulfilled, and she gave birth to her son….”

So that is fairly straightforward: they made a trip to Bethlehem and after they arrived Mary gave birth.   (It goes on to say that she laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.)

But there is a textual variant in one of our oldest manuscripts of Luke, called Codex Bezae (from around 400 CE).  This variation changes …

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  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 9, 2018

    Could the writers who had the birth take place “along the way” *not have known* there was a “prophecy” about a birth in Bethlehem? Being unaware of it, rather than choosing to ignore it? (Knowing, of course, that earlier writers – or traditions- had placed the birth in Bethlehem, but not realizing it was supposed to fulfill a prophecy.)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      Hard to know. But the author of the Proto-Gospel himself knew the earlier Gospels.

  2. Avatar
    Phil  February 10, 2018


    From your second to last paragraph, it seems you are convinced that the scribe of codex bezae changed the text. How do you know that the Bezae scribe didn’t make an accurate copy of his source and that it was this was other scribes who changed the text in the predecessors of our other manuscripts?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      One has to analyze all the evidence (internal and external) and reach a verdict. For one thing, there could be a stronger case if there were more manuscripts that had the reading.

  3. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  February 11, 2018

    If the Proto-Gospel dates from the 2nd century and Codex Bezae accurately preserves Luke’s birthday narrative, my guess would be that the Proto-Gospel author had access to Luke, with chs. 1 & 2. Would that fit with your best guess of when in the 2nd century those two documents were in circulation?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      Proto-Gospel is probalby mid second century or so; and yes, Luke was in circulation by then.

  4. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  February 13, 2018

    Professor, I always was fascinated by the possible origins of the differences between Bezae’s “Western” text and the presumably earlier “Alexandrian” texts. Isn’t it possible that the author of the Bezae autograph(s) had at his/ their disposal a number of works now lost, or different but now lost versions of extant works? If I recall, the origins of some sections of Bezae themselves go back to the Second Century CE. Might you devote a blog or two to this subject, please? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      It’s possible — but the changes are not so much additional stories and alterations of wording.

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