2. The differences between the manuscripts are real
Is it true, then, that the biblical manuscripts differ from one another?
Of course they do!
The copyists were human beings, and being human means making mistakes. God did not choose to override the copyists’ humanity as they copied the New Testament; as a result, these human beings were every bit as prone to short attention spans, poor eyesight and fatigue as you or me. What’s more, they had no prescription glasses or contact lenses to sharpen their vision, and they relied on the flickering light of lamps to see. Since God did not “re-inspire” the text each time it was reproduced, the copyists occasionally miscopied their sources. Once in a while, they even tried to fix things that weren’t broken by changing words that they thought might be misconstrued. The result is hundreds of thousands of copying variants scattered among the New Testament manuscripts—but these variations in the manuscripts are only one part of the story.
3. The New Testament text is highly reliable, and none of the variants affects any essential truth that Christians believe
One popular skeptic’s much-repeated soundbite is that “there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament”; this statement is technically true but—unless his listeners are aware of the vast number of New Testament manuscripts that survive today—it’s also a bit misleading. There are around 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament, and around a half-million variants can be found scattered among the Greek manuscripts—but that number of variants comes from estimating every difference, not including spelling variations, in every surviving manuscript from the Greek New Testament. Well over 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts have been preserved as a whole or in part—more than any other text from the ancient world! With millions of words in these fragments and manuscripts, it doesn’t take long for the number of variants to exceed the number of words in the Greek New Testament.
If only one manuscript of the New Testament had survived, there would have been zero variants (and this single manuscript would probably have become some sort of idol!). But early Christians believed that all of God’s Word should be accessible to all of God’s people. And so, each congregation of Christians seemed to have possessed its own codexes of apostolic texts—and that’s why more than 5,000 whole or partial manuscripts survive today.
Spread across millions of words in more than 5,000 manuscripts, the variations represent a minute percentage of the total text. According to scholars’ best estimates and analyses, the New Testament text is more than 92 percent stable. In other words, all the variants affect less than 8 percent of the New Testament text!
But there’s another fact that’s even more significant than the number of manuscripts or the overall stability of the text: No variant in these many manuscripts changes any essential belief that Christians hold about God or about his work in the world. The overwhelming majority of the differences have to do with words that are misspelled or rearranged—differences that have no impact on the translation or meaning of the text. The remainder are noticeable in translations, but they do not alter any tenet of the Christian faith. What this means practically is that the text of the New Testament has been sufficiently preserved for us to be confident that we can recover the meaning that God intended and inspired in the original text.
The skeptics are correct that the copies of the New Testament documents differ from one another in hundreds of thousands of instances. Where they err is in their assumption that these manuscript differences somehow demonstrate that the New Testament does not represent God’s inspired truth. The problem with this line of reasoning is that neither the inspiration nor the inerrancy of Scripture does not depend on word-for-word agreement between every biblical manuscript or between every parallel account of the same event.