When I first learned that there were about 200,000 errors in the early manuscripts of the New Testament or variants in the texts as they compared with other manuscripts of the Bible, I wondered how one could conclude we have an accurate Bible today. Then I read the fine print. Never overlook the fine print when making an important decision. It may contain the most important data one needs in order to make an informed decision about that very important matter at hand.
What I discovered was most of the “errors” are things like misspelled words. No doubt we are all familiar with reading books and essays that contain some misspelled words. When I am writing longhand, one of the most frequent misspellings is the word “the”! I don’t write as fast as I think, so I often automatically abbreviate unimportant words, so the may often appear as the single letter ‘t’! Usually, though, folks are able to understand what we are trying to say, despite this little handicap.
Another common error occurred when the copyist looked away from one manuscript to copy a word or phrase to the new manuscript, but when he returned to his exemplar, sometimes his eyes fell upon the same word or phrase a couple lines away or even in another paragraph without realizing his mistake. Consequently, the new manuscript may leave out several words or even a few sentences. We all know how easily this can occur, if one is not paying attention. However, while misspelled words and skipping words, sentences or even paragraphs in the text are legitimate errors, they don’t represent the kind of error that would keep us from recovering the original, because, after all, we are not playing the telephone game while copying the New Testament.
I’ve heard some try to explain errors in the New Testament manuscript as though each one was a link in a chain likened to the modern telephone game, where one person whispers something in the ear of another person. Then the second person would whisper the same message to a third, and so on until the final person of a dozen or more would repeat aloud what the first person in the chain was supposed to have said. The final product was so corrupt that the original usually could not be recognized in it, and that is the way the game was intended. While the game is a lot of fun, this is not how the New Testament was transmitted down to our age.
Paul gives us an example of how the New Testament was transmitted to other churches and finally to us. In Colossians 4:16 he told the church at Colossae to “cause” their epistle to be read in by the brethren at Laodicea and, likewise, read the one Paul had written to them. How was this done? It is understood that in the beginning each church did not have a copy of the New Testament. It wasn’t completed yet, and even after it was all complete, it took time for each manuscript to be copied enough that each manuscript made it to each church throughout the known world.
Each church made copies of what they had and traded or donated copies to other churches in nearby cities that may have a different epistle of Paul’s or even a Gospel narrative that another church didn’t possess. So, instead of each copy being a link in a long chain, they were much smaller chains. If, for example the church at Philippi made five copies of its letter, a mistake in one would not be repeated in the other four. However, the mistake might be repeated by the church who received the copy of the Philippian letter having an error if it made copies five or so other churches and so on.
A positive element coming out of these errors and variants is that it is possible by studying specific errors we may discover where and when the errors or variants originated. For example, if the same variant appears in 600 manuscripts, more than likely it originates from a single copyist and is accurately preserved 600 times by other copyists. Since the early church fathers often quoted the New Testament in their writings, if the variant appeared first in the writings of Augustine, one could reasonably conclude that the error is no later than the late 4th century or early 5th and originated in North Africa. On the other hand, if the variant first appears in the writings of John Crysostom, the error is no later than the same period as Augustine’s, but probably originates in the Byzantium region. Finally, if the variant appears first in the writings of Justin Martyr, then we may conclude that it began no later than the 2nd century and probably originates in the western empire in Rome or the regions of Italy.
Knowing this has led modern scholars to divide the early manuscripts into three major types—one coming from Rome or Western Christianity, another coming from Asia Minor, Greece and Palestine regions called the Byzantium type, and finally those coming from North Africa, which are also known as the Alexandrian type.
Okay, so we know there are errors in the texts, but how important are they and are we able to find the original apostolic writings in what we have today? Well whatever we conclude would invite debate from one group or another, but that is part of the fun of stating one’s beliefs publicly! According to David Allen Black, only about 400 words or the content of 40 verses in the New Testament remain clouded as far as what the autographs actually said. Nevertheless, the content of these verses have “…no basis for any essential doctrine of the Christian faith.” What this means is there is about a 97-99% agreement between the New Testament manuscripts—5,300 documents (in the Greek). Therefore, we can be certain that they accurately describe and record what Jesus did and said, and what the Apostles later conclude about what they had witnessed.