A couple of weeks ago I wrote an introductory article about the so-called “missing” or “added” verses at the end of the Gospel of Mark. In that article I said that when we speak of the inerrancy of the New Testament writings, we are not talking about our English translations or even my printed Greek Bible that is sitting on my desk; rather, we are talking about the original, hand-written manuscripts of the New Testament writers. These are called “autographs.”
I also wrote that we don’t actually possess any of the autographs of the New Testament documents (or for any other ancient writing for that matter). What we do possess are thousands of handwritten copies of the New Testament. In fact, we have far more manuscripts for the New Testament than for any other ancient writing. Of course, in making these hand-written copies, the scribes were bound to make a few mistakes here and there. Given the length of the New Testament and the number of copies we have, the number of mistakes is actually quite large. For many people, this fact alone can shake their confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible. However, in this and the next few articles I am going to try to demonstrate why the presence of these differences in the manuscripts shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of differences between the manuscripts have either no impact upon the meaning of the text itself or no impact upon any important Christian doctrine. In fact, most of the differences amount to nothing more than variations in spelling. Considering the fact that there were no dictionaries and no standardized spellings for words in the ancient world, this shouldn’t surprise us at all!
Many times, words have been added, deleted, or altered without changing the meaning of the text at all. For instance, those reading the King James Version of Mark 11:14 will notice that it begins with the words, “And Jesus answered…,” whereas the English Standard Version reads, “And he said…” The difference between “answered” and “said” is simply a matter of translation. However, the KJV has the name “Jesus” while the ESV does not because of a difference in the manuscripts. Many of the later manuscripts, which are foundation of the Greek behind the KJV, have the word “Jesus,” while the earliest manuscripts do not. Most likely, a later scribe added Jesus’ name to the text.
Whether one believes that the name “Jesus” was added or removed by a scribe at some point in history is beside the point, however. The meaning of the passage does not change at all, regardless of which reading one prefers. It is clear from the context that Jesus is the one speaking. Again, there is no difference in meaning.
The point that I am making is that most of the textual variants, that is, the differences of wording in manuscripts for the New Testament do not affect the meaning of the Scriptures in any significant way. So, when you hear someone try to discredit the trustworthiness of the New Testament by pointing out these differences between the New Testament manuscripts, remember that most of the time the differences are minor and often so insignificant that you cannot even see them in your English translations.