TheologyTwo Reasons There Are Variants in Our Copies of the Bible For historical and theological reasons, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible’s manuscripts have differences. Peter J. GurryIllustration by Peter Gurry. Image from 123rf.comNovember 6, 2021 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level To err is human; to forgive, divine” is surely the most famous line of the English poet Alexander Pope. Written when he was only 23, the first line presents a truism that explains why our English Bibles have notes about differences in our copies of the Bible. We can take an example from the venerable King James Bible. At James 2:18, the text says, “shew me thy faith without thy works” but the margin records that “some copies read, by thy works.”1Thanks to the discovery and study of older manuscripts than were available in 1611, most translations today print “without works” with enough confidence not to give a note. For more textual notes in the KJV, see here. These same types of textual notes were found before the King James and, of course, they have been used by all major translations since. But why do we have variants at all? There are essentially two answers to this question. The first answer is historical and tends to be one that Bible translators need to think the most about. The second is theological and tends to be one that regular Bible readers are most interested in. Historical The historical reason for variants goes back to Pope’s quote. Humans make mistakes. And, until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, all copies of the Bible had to be made by human hands. Copying by hand is hard. It takes not just hand-eye coordination but something more like hand-eye-mind-finger-pen-ink-and-parchment coordination. And the Bible is a BIG book. In the original languages, it consists of about 300,000 words in the Old Testament and 140,000 in the New Testament. New Testament scribes were sometimes paid by the line and one early copy of Paul’s letters required 1,000 lines just for Romans. With so much to copy, it’s no wonder scribes made mistakes. We might be tempted to think that the printing press eliminated human error in Bible production. But it didn’t. The “Wicked Bible,” for example, is a printing of the King James Bible from 1631 where a typesetter’s error changed the sixth commandment to “thou shalt commit adultery.” (The result did not go over well with the powers-that-be.) The arrival of the printing press did mean, however, that, for the first time, you could have hundreds of copies that all preserved the same mistakes at exactly the same place on the page. In this way, mistakes were easier to contain. Two things are important to know about the mistakes that scribes made. The first is that the majority were accidental—a slip of the pen, a confusion of letters, an accidental omission—things like that. Not all were, of course. Some differences show clear signs of deliberation. Certainly, in the case of larger differences like the longer ending of Mark or the additions to the book of Esther, we are dealing with something much different than a slip of the pen. But many mistakes are ordinary and easy enough to find and fix. The second thing to know is that the copying of the Bible was not a long process of introducing more and more errors so that by the end we couldn’t hope to get back to the original. In other words, it was not like the telephone game we played as kids. The reason is that scribes not only made mistakes, they also corrected them. They knew firsthand that copying was hard, and they could check their own work and even the work of their predecessors. This is why some of our most important Bible manuscripts—especially on the New Testament side of things—often have corrections. Near the start of Romans 4, the original scribe of Codex Vaticanus (4th c.) accidentally wrote verses 4b–5a twice because of the repetition of words. A later scribe caught the problem and fixed it by not re-inking the duplicated text. (Image: Vat.gr.1209, f. 1448) They didn’t always get it right, of course. Sometimes a scribe’s “fix” made the problem worse. One scribe using Codex Vaticanus certainly thought so. The exasperated note he left at Hebrews 1:3 reads, “You untrained and unskilled man—leave the old reading, don’t change it!”2ἀμαθέστατε καὶ κακέ, ἂφες τὸν παλαιόν, μὴ μεταποίει. The note is found on folio 1512. But, overall, scribes worked hard to do a faithful job with the task at hand—even if they didn’t always succeed. So, the first reason we have differences in our manuscripts is because copying by hand is hard. Theological This historical answer is simple enough. It’s also true of all works published before the printing press, not just the Bible. But Christians often wonder if the Bible shouldn’t be different. After all, if God violated Alexander Pope’s famous principle with the Bible’s authors (so they didn’t err) why didn’t he do it with the scribes who copied them (so that they too didn’t err)? Related The Day the Bible Became a BestsellerJeffrey KlohaThe Bible Jesus ReadJohn D. MeadeThe Bible and Slavery in Colonial AmericaMark A. Noll The answer can’t be because he wasn’t able to. Surely God could have if he had wanted to. (Although we should admit that keeping thousands of copyists from error over thousands of years would be an even more impressive miracle than keeping the authors from them.) The simple answer is that we have errors in our manuscripts because God never promised to keep them out. The Bible teaches that its authors were inspired (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21); it nowhere teaches that scribes who copied them were. This is actually right in line with God’s normal way of working. He usually seems to follow up his extraordinary acts (what we call miracles) with his ordinary ones (what we call providence). Take the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus miraculously feeds thousands of people from just five loaves and a few fish. That’s extraordinary. But we can be confident that the way that this miraculous food was ingested and then digested was anything but miraculous. Likewise, Mary’s conception of Jesus was certainly extraordinary; her actual pregnancy and delivery of the baby were presumably ordinary. In the same way, we shouldn’t be surprised that God’s extraordinary work of inspiring the Scriptures was followed by the ordinary process of copying it—variants and all.3This point comes from C.S. Lewis who writes, “Miraculous wine will intoxicate, miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy, inspired books will suffer all the ordinary processes of textual corruption, miraculous bread will be digested. The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.” Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 95; emphasis added. What about when Jesus says, in Matthew 5:18, that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished”? Isn’t that a promise that the text would be perfectly preserved even down to the letterstroke? From the context, the answer is clearly no. We know the metaphor is about Scripture’s full authority and not about copying because the next thing he says is a rebuke, not to scribes, but to anyone who “relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same” (Matt. 5:19; cf. Luke 16:17). The authority of Scripture is certainly one reason why Christians care about differences in the manuscripts, but that doesn’t mean the differences invalidate Scripture’s authority. The authority of Scripture is certainly one reason why Christians care about differences in the manuscripts, but that doesn’t mean the differences invalidate Scripture’s authority. One reason they don’t is because, despite our use of the term “error” when talking about scribes, we should not confuse scribal error with theological error. It is rare that scribal error results in something approaching a theological error. In James 2:18, for example, the difference in the KJV text and the KJV margin affects how James makes his point about faith and works but it doesn’t change his point that faith without works is dead. As Christians, we certainly care about Scripture even in the details, but we would be wrong to conclude that because there are variants in some details, the Scriptures have no authority as a result. In fact, because scribes did such a faithful job overall; because they left us so many manuscripts; and because we have careful principles for identifying scribal mistakes, our confidence in the text as we have it is remarkably high. That’s why the differences in modern English translations are far more often due to differences in translation philosophy than they are to textual differences. Many important variants can be found in the notes of our Bibles—just like they were in the King James Bible. Conclusion In the end, we have two reasons why there are differences in the manuscripts of the Bible, one historical and one theological. The historical reason is the same as for all other ancient literature: copying by hand is hard and scribes made mistakes. The theological reason is because God never promised to keep scribes completely free from error. We should not commit God to promises he never made. In the end, we can be extremely thankful for the countless unnamed scribes who did their work—not always perfectly—but, overall, faithfully. We can also be thankful for God’s ordinary providence at work in their copying so that we can have confidence in God’s enduring word. Peter J. Gurry Peter (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Associate Professor of New Testament and Codirector of the Text & Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible (with John Meade) and A New Approach to Textual Criticism (with Tommy Wasserman). He blogs regularly for Evangelical Textual Criticism. View all posts Notes1Thanks to the discovery and study of older manuscripts than were available in 1611, most translations today print “without works” with enough confidence not to give a note. For more textual notes in the KJV, see here.2ἀμαθέστατε καὶ κακέ, ἂφες τὸν παλαιόν, μὴ μεταποίει. The note is found on folio 1512.3This point comes from C.S. Lewis who writes, “Miraculous wine will intoxicate, miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy, inspired books will suffer all the ordinary processes of textual corruption, miraculous bread will be digested. The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.” Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 95; emphasis added.