Anyone who has read the Bible with serious intent to understand it will almost certainly have come across the occasional strange annotation, often in a footnote, that says something like “Many manuscripts…” or “the earliest manuscripts and many others…”, followed by a reading that differs a bit from what’s in the body of the text.

For instance, just today as I was studying Mark 1:41, which describes Jesus healing a leper, this is what I found:

41 Jesus was indignant.[a] He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”

Looking down the page to find out what that [a] was all about, I found this:

a – Mark 1:41 – Many manuscripts Jesus was filled with compassion

On one level, this is quite easy to understand.  The point is simply that some copies of Mark say “Jesus was indignant” and some copies say “Jesus was filled with compassion”.[1]  But on another level, this might seem very confusing.  Obviously “indignant” and “filled with compassion” are two substantially different things.  So why is there any uncertainty?

The answer to this question takes us to the heart of an academic discipline called text criticism.  It is the responsibility of text critics to assure translators that they are working with the original wording of a biblical text, free from either accidental or intentional changes. Since we do not have the autographs (original writings), we are forced to work with copies of those original texts.  It is the job of text critics to compare all of the extant manuscript copies we have of each verse of Scripture, side by side, in order to make determinations about what the autographs actually said.    

In most instances, the practice of determining the content of the original autographs is relatively straightforward, in part because we are blessed with so many copies of biblical texts and in part because it is often easy to determine why variations exist.  Here are several of the more obvious explanations for variations among biblical manuscripts/copies:

  • Copyist Error – Many, if not most, variations are obviously the result of simple careless mistakes made by the person producing the copy. For instance, this is often discernable when the order of two similar letters are reversed in a manuscript, such as when one copy has “abuot” and most other copies have “about”.  The same sort of thing sometimes happens with whole words.[2]  Sometimes words and even whole lines got left out when the copyist looked away from his/her original and then, returning to it, picked up again in the wrong place.  These kinds of variations are easy to understand and, more importantly, they do not usually cause much confusion about the original wording.  In the example I just gave, since “abuot” isn’t a real word, everyone can agree that the word in the original autograph was almost certainly “about”.
  • Modernizations – Many other variations among manuscripts involve obvious attempts by copyists to modernize the text so that it would not cause unnecessary confusion to their contemporary audiences. For example, in the United States, the city that we now call New York was originally called New Amsterdam, so a modern copyist, concerned that his contemporary audience might not know to what place an old document was referring, might change “and Horace travelled to New Amsterdam” to “and Horace travelled to New York”. The same is also true for the ways various words are spelled at different points in history; copyists often made slight variations to the original text to reflect contemporary spelling conventions (think “theatre”/“theater” or “Emiley”/”Emily”).  Scribes copying biblical manuscripts often engaged in this same kind of modernizing with respect to location names and spellings of other words.  As with copyist errors, most of these sort of changes are easy to discern and they rarely have any significant impact on our understanding of a biblical text.
  • Content Alterations – At times, copyists introduced content changes to a text as they were making copies. These changes were usually deliberate and typically involved adding material to the manuscript they were copying,[3]  removing material,[4] or changing the wording for some reason.  In our example above from Mark 1:41, since the two Greek words for “indignant” and “filled with compassion” are quite different, there is almost no chance that this was an accidental change.  Deliberate content alterations could have been undertaken for a wide variety of reasons, covering the gamut from innocent to diabolical motives.  It is also possible that some significant content alterations were accidental, though this was probably fairly rare.  One possible example of this would be if a copyist accidentally incorporated “margin notes” that had been added to a manuscript into the body (say by a preacher making notes for himself) of the text he/she was copying.

Most variations between biblical manuscripts/copies fall into one of these three main categories.  The question is, though, how can we take all these copies with their variations and work our way back to the original inspired autographs?  Text critics have a set of basic principles that govern their work of comparing variations and determining what the autographs said.  While a bit oversimplified, here are some of the basic principles:

  1. Earlier copies are preferred to later copies. This is just plain common sense.  If you have a copy of Mark 1:41 that dates to 150 AD and another that dates to 750 AD, and there are variations between them, you’re going to tend to assume that the earliest copy is more accurate; it is natural to believe that the more intermediate copies there are between the original and the manuscript under consideration, the more likely it is that errors could have crept in.  So the earliest copies are assumed to be the ones less likely to have been altered.
  2. Majority readings are preferred to minority readings. Again, this is just plain common sense.  If you have 50 copies of Mark 1:41 and 49 of them say “filled with compassion” and 1 of them says “indignant”, you’re going to tend to assume that the majority  reading is the original reading.  What are the chances that 1 copyist got it right and 49 got it wrong?  If, as is often the case, the majority reading is also based on the earliest copies, then this determination is even easier to make.
  3. Easily explainable alterations are generally rejected. Once again, common sense.  If we can tell exactly why an alteration has been made (say in the interest of modernizing the text or to add/remove something to make a text more palatable in a particular phase of church history[5]), then we can be confident those alterations do not reproduce the original text.
  4. More difficult readings are preferred over easier readings. We might also say “inconvenient” readings are to be preferred over “convenient” ones.  This one may not seem like such common sense, but it is easily understood.  It is simply easier to see why a copyist might “smooth” over a difficult text, making it’s language more refined (linguistically) or easier to understand or maybe even accept, than to see why a copyist would make a text less refined, more difficult to understand or more difficult to accept.  In our ongoing example from Mark 1:41, it is easy to see why a copyist would change “indignant” to “filled with compassion”, since that’s what we might naturally expect to find here, but not so easy to see why they would make a change the other way round.  If Jesus was “indignant”, this is a bit surprising and raises questions about who and/or what he was upset with.  The text doesn’t say, so the “indignant” reading is significantly harder.  Why would a copyist have deliberately complicated the text in this way without putting in some additional information to clarify what he/she wanted to say Jesus was “indignant” with?

As I said, these are oversimplifications and there are additional, more subtle, principles that text critics employ as well, but these four apply to a great many of the determinations that text critics must make.  In the vast majority of instances, sifting through manuscript variations, with these principles in mind, results in great confidence that we know exactly what the original autographs said. 

But what about when it doesn’t?  What happens when it is more difficult to tell which variation accurately reflects the original?  While not common, there are instances where this happens.  But of course I’m not saying something you didn’t already know.  You’re already familiar with these relatively rare instances, because most modern Bibles will have a footnote (or other indication) alerting you to that fact!  That’s right, those funny footnotes you may have wondered about from time to time alert you to those places where text critics don’t feel they can be dogmatic about the original reading.  The good news is that there is no doctrine of theological truth that depends on one of these “debated” texts.     

However, any discussion of textual variants among the biblical manuscripts/copies must naturally give some attention to the question of what this all means for the doctrine of inerrancy.

The first thing to understand is that, when Christians affirm their belief in the inerrancy (lack of errors) of the Bible, what they really mean (or ought to really mean) is that the autographs, or original writings, of the Bible are free from errors.  So when we say, for example, that the Gospel of Mark is inerrant, what we really mean is that the original text that Mark himself penned was entirely free from errors.[6]  Of course, we do not have the original text of any biblical book (to the best of our knowledge).  What we have instead are copies or, more properly, copies of copies of copies, etc. and, unfortunately, comparison of those copies leads to an indisputable fact:  some of those copies have errors in them.  This is the only explanation for the fact that different copies of the same biblical text sometimes vary from one another.  If any two copies of the same original text are different from one another, either one of them is wrong or both of them are wrong.  Therefore, it is clear that we cannot claim inerrancy for all of the copies of biblical manuscripts. Inerrancy is a description that can only be fully applied to the original autographs, not to the later copies of those manuscripts.[7]

So does this mean that our current Bibles are not inerrant?  It’s not a simple either/or proposition. 

First, most of us today are reading a translation of the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic text and translation is tricky business.  While I personally believe that no major translation of the Bible intentionally alters the original meaning, the fact remains that some translations are better than others, or at least more precise than others. Also, because all translation is at least partially a matter of interpretation, there will at times be some significant variation among translations. So as soon as we have variations of interpretation that are codified into translation, we simply can’t say that all translations are inerrant.  If that seems a bit abstract, consider this:  in 1631, a printer in London accidentally left out the word “not” from Exodus 20:14 in their edition of the KJV, so it read “thou shalt commit adultery”! Would you want to say that this translation/edition was inerrant?  I don’t think so!  Second, as we have already seen, today’s translations all depend on copies rather than the original autographs and there are a few places where text critics cannot be absolutely certain of the original wording.  

So perhaps the best way to say it is like this:  our present Bibles are inerrant to the extent that they accurately reproduce the intention of original-language text and to the extent that this original-language text is identical to the original autographs.

That might seem overly complex, but there’s a reason for it:  it would be a significant mistake to simply say that our modern Bible translations are not inerrant because this would not give any weight to the fact that we can be very confident – in the vast, vast majority of instances – that our modern Bibles both faithfully communicate the intent of the original languages and that the text on which they are based accurately reproduces the precise wording of the original autographs.  The fact that there are a few places where some small uncertainty exists should not, and does not, justify abandoning the critical doctrine of inerrancy even with respect to the various modern Bible translations.  While it is true that no modern translation of the Bible can be said to be 100% inerrant, it is also true that modern translations of the Bible should be treated as being inerrant (though nuanced as we have described above) by virtue of the transitive property (i.e., if A = I and A = M, then M = I; if the autographs are inerrant and text criticism has functionally reproduced the autographs, then our present texts are functionally inerrant[8]).  Full development of this concept is beyond the scope of this resource, but suffice it to say that admission of a few uncertainties by text critics does not negate the doctrine of inerrancy even with respect to modern translations.

So there you have it, a quick overview of biblical text criticism.  Questions?  Let us know in the comments below and we’ll do our best to get you good answers!

[1] There are also a few early copies that omit both words and jump immediately to “Jesus stretched out his hand…”

[2] In English, where word order affects meaning, this would result in substantial differences.  “You are going to clean your room” and “are you going to clean your room” are two very different phrases.  In Greek or Hebrew, however, word order rarely if ever changes meaning (though it does affect emphasis), so accidentally transposing two words won’t really have much of an impact.

[3] A possible example of this would be John 8:1-11 or Mark 16:9-20.  Note that even if these passages were added to the original text, this does not necessarily mean that they are historically or theologically inaccurate.  It is entirely possible that a copyist added in true material.  All we are saying is that, if these were in fact later additions, they were not part of the original autographs.

[4] This seems to me to have been very rare.

[5] Mat 17:21 (this kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting) may be a good example of this.  The earliest texts do not have v.21 at all whereas the later texts do.  This is likely an addition from a phase of church history when disciplines of prayer and fasting were held to be important preparations for spiritual activities such as exorcism. The earliest manuscripts which include this sentence date to the 5th century.

[6] A full discussion of inerrancy is far beyond the scope of this article.  Suffice it to say for our purposes here that the inerrancy of the biblical autographs is a result of inspiration (2Ti 3:16).

[7] A natural corollary to this realization is the idea that we cannot dogmatically claim inerrancy for any particular translation.  There are some Christians who claim that a particular translation, usually the King James Version, is based upon a collection of manuscript copies that perfectly reproduces the original autographs, but this cannot be proven and is therefore a faith-claim.

[8] I am aware that the notion of “functional inerrancy” may seem illogical since the term “inerrancy” is essentially an all-or-nothing concept.  However, in practice, accepted applications of the transitive property often allow for slightly less than 100% correspondence without rendering the comparisons meaningless.