In this thread I am discussing why it matters that there are so many variants in our surviving manuscripts of the New Testament.  It does not matter because there are any “fundamental Christian doctrines” at stake, per se, but for other reasons.  As I sketched in my previous post, it should matter for anyone who believes that God gave the very words of the Bible, since the facts that we don’t *have* the original words in some cases and that in many other cases the words themselves are in doubt, should call that belief into question.  (I should point out that with the Hebrew Bible we are in MUCH worse shape in knowing what anything like the “original”  — whatever that might be – was.  The textual situation there is really quite dire.)

The second group that the variants should interest would include just about anyone — whether scholar, student, or general reader – who is interested in knowing what the various authors of the Bible had to say about this, that, or the other subject.   I would assume that this group would include almost every member of this blog.

One of the fundamental insights of modern scholarship is that the different authors of the Bible all have different points of view, perspectives, theological investments, opinions, ways of looking at things.   The Bible is not ONE thing.  It is lots of different things.  Just sticking with the New Testament:  Matthew’s understanding of Jesus is very different from John’s; John’s is very different from Luke’s; Luke’s from Paul; and so on.  The understanding of the ongoing importance of the Jewish law and the relationship of Christians and Jews is different, depending on whether you are reading Matthew, John, or Paul.   The understanding of how one is put into a right relationship with God (be saved”) differs significantly between Matthew, Luke, Paul, and James.   And so on and on.

And so the differences of these books matter.   You can’t simply lump them all together and derive “the” teaching of the New Testament – on many, many issues.

But that means that it really matters what each individual author has to say.   If it WERE the case that the “lumped-together” view was all that mattered, then textual variants would be far less interesting and important.  If Mark can be shown to say one thing in a particular passage that is at odds with Luke and Matthew, then a “lumped-together” view would smooth over the differences.  But letting each author have his own perspective, point of view, and theology means that if textual variants are taken seriously, the *differences* among the authors actually become more profound and significant.

Here are just some examples of places that it matters.  For purposes of illustration, I’ll stick with the Gospels, where the majority of my own work has been.   I’m giving these more or less at random:

  • Surely it matters whether in Mark’s Gospel Jesus, after his resurrection, told his disciples that those who were baptized in his name would speak in foreign tongues, handle venomous snakes, and drink poison without being harmed.  But if he did or not (not historically, but in Mark) all depends on a textual variant
  • Even more, it matters whether, in Mark, Jesus even *appeared” to his disciples after his death.  Again, it depends on a variant.  (And you can’t say “it doesn’t matter – because he *does* appear to them in Matthew, Luke, and John – unless you really want to go for the “lumped-together approach)
  • It matters if in the Gospel of John Jesus forgave a woman for adultery simply by telling her not to do it again (no penance – let alone death by stoning!)
  • It matters if Matthew and Luke occasionally refer to Joseph as Jesus’ actual father (as in some variants).
  • It matters if in Luke Jesus was said to have become the Son of God when he was baptized (as in what is probably the oldest form of the text).
  • It matters if in Mark Jesus gets angry with a poor leper who somewhat pathetically asks him to heal him.
  • It matters if in the Gospel of Luke – this is a big one, for my money – Jesus does *not* understand his upcoming death as an atonement for sin.  In fact, it matters whether Luke even *has* a doctrine of the atonement, or if he understood the importance of Jesus’ death in a completely different way.
  • It matters, also in Luke, if Jesus was calm and in control the entire time going up to his death (in contrast to Mark), or whether he was in such deep agony that he began “sweating blood” (well, literally, sweating “great drops as if of blood.”)
  • It matters if in Luke Jesus was said to have ascended on the very day of his resurrection – since the same author, in the book of Acts, indicates that the ascension was in fact forty days later.
  • It matters if the Gospel of John ever called Jesus “the unique God” (ο μονογενης Θεος), a title that would seem to apply to God the Father but not to the Son of God Jesus, who, to be sure, is divine in John, but is decidedly NOT the “one and only, unique God” himself.

Well, these are some examples.  And I will be the first to say, they are some of the really significant and outstanding ones.    There are ten of them that I’ve given here.   These should be put in perspective: if there are hundreds of thousands of differences in the NT, here are ten that matter.  The vast majority carry nothing like this significance.   But the differences these ten make are huge.  They have to do (since we’re dealing with Gospels) with Jesus identity, his divinity, the point at which he became the son of God, his resurrection, his ascension, and the theological meaning of his death.   Pretty important stuff.   At least for anyone interested in knowing what the authors of the Bible had to say.