Weizenfeld mit Sonnenuntergang

The Canon – Part 6: Discrepancies in the Manuscripts

Von Christian

Age and number of manuscripts

When we speak of manuscripts here, we are referring to the documents that contain the text of the Christian scriptures that we find in our Bibles today. The scope can range from a few words to the complete text. A very special ‘manuscript’ would be the one which the author himself wrote. In the technical literature this is called an autograph. This brings us to the first fact we want to note:

Today we do not have an autograph of any part of the Christian writings in the Bible.

All we have are copies. And copies of copies of copies … The number of manuscripts first of all seems impressively high: About 5,800 Greek manuscripts, about 10,000 Latin and 9,300 in other languages (Syriac, Slavonic, Ethiopic, … see Wikipedia) An overview of the Greek manuscripts of the Christian scriptures can be found, for example, in the English Wikipedia under “Categories of New Testament manuscripts”.

Number of manuscripts per century and category
Overview of manuscripts by century and category

To have an idea of what a manuscript can be in this sense, here is a picture of the oldest manuscript 𝔓52, a part of the Gospel of John:

𝔓52 is the oldest known manuscript fragment of the New Testament, which contains part of the Gospel of John

That is really all. Of the whole Gospel of John. Let’s summarize:

Even the oldest manuscript was created decades after the autograph (Gospel of John), around the middle of the 2nd century

The three oldest manuscripts are small fragments with only a few words.

The following chart illustrates when the vast majority of the 5,800 manuscripts were created:

Number of manuscripts by century and type (according to Aland) [Source]

So from the period up to about 450 AD we have only about 125 manuscripts, which is only about 2% of all manuscripts. Up to the year 300 AD, less than 1%. By the middle of the 2nd century – 100 years after Paul’s letters were written, for example – we have 3 tiny fragments like the 𝔓52 pictured above, which is only 0.5‰ of all manuscripts. The mass of manuscripts did not appear until around the 13th century. The first complete copies of individual books of the New Testament appeared around 200 CE, and the earliest complete copy of the New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus, dates from the 4th century (see Ehrman, Bart D. (2004). The New Testament: a Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York: Oxford. pp. 480f.).

We have the earliest complete copies of individual books only from around 200 AD – well over 100 years after the autographs.

The earliest complete copy of the New Testament (Codex Sinaiticus) dates from the 4th century – about 300 years after the autographs.

What happened to the text of the New Testament in the first 100 to 300 years we cannot directly verify.

As I said, we should not get the impression that the text of the Christian scriptures cannot be trusted at all. These figures alone do not say that at all. The point is to have a secure basis on the basis of the facts. So, for example, we have a lot of evidence that the Christian scriptures were not invented in the Middle Ages. And we can compare manuscripts from many centuries, which is good for judging the quality of the copies and the transmission. But if someone argues that the text of the Christian scriptures is absolutely certain because there are 5,800 Greek manuscripts alone, then this is misleading. For the vast majority of them were written only around the 13th century.

On the other hand, it is argued that for the classical Greek or Latin writings, there are even fewer and only more recent copies. This is true. But who of us would mind if even whole sections of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey were different and the story of Odysseus was different? Or Caesar’s De bello Gallico gives a rather colored view of his Gallic war – which we assume today. Hardly anyone bases his faith on these writings.

It is more interesting to look at the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, ‘Old Testament’) or the Koran. The faith of many is also based on this. And with both we have the same facts: In both cases we have also no autographs – with the Koran there is not such one at all according to the tradition. And in both cases we know only later copies. It is interesting that in all these three so-called ‘book-religions’, their holy books are preserved only in this way, despite their immense importance.

Perhaps someone has also wondered why the Greek manuscripts are always mentioned here. Why are they so important? The answer is simple: because for a long time it was assumed that the autographs were written in ancient Greek and the Greek manuscripts are direct copies of them. For sure they were not written in Latin. However, in the Church in Western Europe – centered in Rome – Latin was not only the language of the people but also of Christian literature; even before Jerome wrote the Latin translation of the so-called Vulgate, there were Latin translations. And then until the 15th century Latin was the language of the Bible and theology in the Church in Western Europe. As we saw in the last part of the series, it was not until the 15th century that there was renewed interest in translating the Christian Scriptures directly from the assumed original language, Greek, or in making the Greek text available. Why did this not happen earlier? Because the conviction had prevailed that with the text of the Vulgate one already had the text of the Christian scriptures intended by God, which completely agrees with the tradition of the church!

It should be mentioned here only briefly for the sake of completeness that it is quite possible that some books of the Christian scriptures were originally written not in Greek but Aramaic – the language spoken in first century Palestine. Irenaeus, for example, speaks of the Gospel of Matthew being written in a dialect of Hebrew. And that was Aramaic there. It may surprise you, but Hebrew was only reconstructed in modern times because it had hardly been spoken for centuries! (Wikipedia Hebrew Language) There are other arguments, for example, concerning word choice and grammar, or that Aramaic words occur in the text and are explained in Greek, but not vice versa. Thus, early Aramaic texts might not be translations at all but copies of the autographs. But let us stay with the manuscripts in Greek for now.

Discrepancies between the manuscripts

As we saw in the previous part of this series, Erasmus of Rotterdam published the first edition of his Greek New Testament in 1516. Essentially, he was able to draw on only a handful of medieval manuscripts. [This and the following are from Bart D. Ehrman Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why] The later editions of this text were then used by the translators of the King James Bible. Thus, if someone reads the unchanged King James Bible today, they will indirectly be reading the state of the Greek text at that time. In 1551, Stephanus (Robert Estienne) published his fourth edition of 1551 of the Greek New Testament, which was the first to contain verse divisions in the Greek New Testament. Even more important for us was his third edition of 1550, because it was the first to document in notes the variations in the manuscripts.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the various editions of the Greek New Testament were so much alike that in 1633 Abraham and Bonaventure Elzevir printed in one edition the famous quotation: “We have now the text which is accepted by all, in which we have nothing altered or falsified.” The first part gave rise to the term Textus Receptus (T.R.) used by textual critics to refer to the text originally published by Erasmus, but not based on the oldest and best manuscripts.

So the work on the Greek text seemed to be finished. This changed only with a pioneering work by John Mill of Queens College, Oxford, in 1707, which he published after 30 years of hard work. John Mill had access to several hundred Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. In this work he documented the discrepancies in the textual witnesses that had survived over the centuries. Variations between the various Greek manuscripts and also quotations of the text in the ‘church fathers’ from the patristic period. How many discrepancies do you think he found? If you interpret the statement from the first part of this series very generally, there should be no deviations at all, thanks to the Holy Spirit and the will of God. But already when the editions were written in the 16th century, it had become apparent that there were deviations. And as we have seen in the second part, the Bible itself does not say that no one would ever make even a small spelling mistake when copying the text. The text of the Greek New Testament has about 138,607 Greek words. How many discrepancies would you expect? A few tens or a few hundred? Take your time, think about it a bit. At what number would you get nervous?

John Mill documented over 30,000 deviations! And these were not even all that he had found! This large number may astonish or even shock you. And rightly so. This work hit like a bomb at the time! The scholars were shocked. How could there be so many differences, when they had been convinced that they already had an unchanged and unadulterated text? Wouldn’t this immense number of discrepancies shake faith in the Bible? Could one ever determine an unchanged and unadulterated text of the Bible?

As a reaction to this, by the way, there was later again and again the suggestion to simply leave this endeavor alone. Since one could never determine the unchanged and unadulterated text of the autographs anyway, it would be better to take the most recognized text, which agrees with the tradition and tradition of the church, thus that of the Vulgate. We can already see from which direction this proposal came.

Where do we stand today, since we have many more textual witnesses and can analyze them more precisely with computers. As I mentioned earlier, we have something like 5,800 Greek textual witnesses today. What are you guessing? If you have 10 times more textual witnesses today? And older ones? Counting is not easy and scholars’ figures differ. Estimates are 200,000 to 400,000 and more variations! This is the background of the notorious statements of Bart D. Ehrmann that there are far more deviations between the textual witnesses of the Greek New Testament than words in it.

Most people are shocked at first by this incredible amount of deviations. Then you might ask yourself of what kind these deviations are at all. It can’t be that bad, otherwise there would have to be a whole new gospel or completely different Pauline letters. Let’s take a look at the largest class of deviations.

Examples of discrepancies in the textual witnesses

Many differences in the textual witnesses are due to small errors in copying the text. But even small errors can make significant differences in the Greek. [Examples from Bart D. Ehrman Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, chapter 3; more examples can be found in Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, chapter 7]

Therefore let us keep the feast, not with the old bread, leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and of truth.

1 Corinthians 5:8 BSB

The word translated as wickedness is πονηρίας ponērias. In some manuscripts, however, porneias is found, which looks quite similar. In these, therefore, it is said, “nor with leaven of sexual immorality and wickedness.” A small spelling mistake results here in a clearly different statement.

Another source of variation is the use of abbreviations by some copyists. Nomina sacra (Holy Names) such as God, Christ, Lord, Jesus, and Spirit were abbreviated, typically with the consonants and a dash above them. But this could cause confusion for later copyists if they read a different word instead of the abbreviation. For example, Paul says in Romans 12:11

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.

Romans 12:11 NIV

In Greek, kuriw (pronounced: kyrio) is written here for Lord, abbreviated kw (with a line above it). Some early copyists misread this abbreviation as kairw (pronounced: kairo) and thus changed the sense to “serves the time”.

Something similar happened in 1 Corinthians 12:13:

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:13 NASB

The word for spirit pneuma is abbreviated as pma, which some transcribers have misread as poma drink: “and were all made to drink with one drink.”

Another type of error results in an entire line of text being lost when the transcriber, looking back at the original, found the same words reflected in the next line. Example:

Λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν
πᾶς ὃς ἂν ὁμολογήσῃ ἐν ἐμοὶ ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων
καὶ ὁ Υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ὁμολογήσει ἐν αὐτῷ ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀγγέλων τοῦ Θεοῦ
ὁ δὲ ἀρνησάμενός με ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀνθρώπων
ἀπαρνηθήσεται ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀγγέλων τοῦ Θεοῦ

Luke 12:8-9

Since the end of verse 9 (underlined) looks exactly like the end of verse 8, the earliest papyrus manuscript of this passage is missing the complete verse 9. The copyist simply slipped two lines when looking back and continued writing after verse 9. Thus the thought “but whoever will have denied me before men will be denied before the angels of God” was lost.

In John 17:5, this kind of error had a worse consequence:

Οὐκ ἐρωτῶ ἵνα ἄρῃς αὐτοὺς ἐκ τοῦ
κόσμου ἀλλ ἵνα τηρήσῃς αὐτοὺς ἐκ τοῦ

John 17:5

Thus became from:

I do not ask that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from evil.

John 17:15 BLB

in one of the best manuscripts:

I do not ask that You should keep them from evil.

John 17:15 Codex Vaticanus, 4th century, one of the best manuscripts

Thus, due to this change in the text, the meaning in a prayer of Jesus is a completely different one – and unfortunately an unfavorable one for us.

The deviation described so far was based on the similarity of the appearance of the text. However, when dictating, similar pronunciation could also be a problem. This seems to be the case in Revelation 1:5.

To the One loving us and releasing us from our sins through His blood,

 To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood,

Revelation 1:5 BLB and NKJV

The word for redeemed lusanti sounds exactly like the word for washed lousanti.

Another example is found in Romans 5:1

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Romans 5:1 NIV

The Greek word for „we have peace” sounds the same as the word for “let us have peace”. And in this case the scholars have so their difficulties to determine which variant is the correct one.

However, there are also variations where the errors have produced nonsense. At least one recognizes these mistakes then better, even if one cannot perhaps so simply infer the correct text.

In one case the result of the transcription error was rather bizarre. In a 14th century manuscript, a two-column list of Jesus’ ancestry in Luke 3 was probably misread: Instead of copying the columns one after the other, alternate copies were made. This led to the fact that almost all father-son relationships are wrong and God is finally the son of Aram.


In summary, we state:

The Greek New Testament contains approximately 138,607 Greek words. The textual witnesses contain over 400,000 variations. Due to unintentional copying errors, words and sentences are missing or words are changed.

Thus, we have to delete another part in the statement from the first part of this series:

„The Bible is God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, fully inspired by God and thus containing exactly what God wanted. It has been preserved for us to this day exactly as the Bible itself says so, every book, paragraph, sentence, word, comma and period.

With the unintentional errors during copying, however, we have not yet considered all deviations. As we already had to recognize in the previous part by the example of the Comma Johanneum, also deliberate changes were carried out at the text. We will deal with this in the next part of this series.

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