The 400,000 Variants

The following is an excerpt from Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus.

Among Ehrman’s disclosures that alarmed readers was that there are somewhere between 200,000 and maybe 400,000 variants between New Testament manuscripts – in fact, more variants than the 138,162 words in the published Greek New Testament…

“Tell me about these variants – how are they counted, and how did they come about?” I asked Wallace.

“If there’s any manuscript or church father who has a different word in one place, that counts as a textual variant,” Wallace explained. “If you have a thousand manuscripts that have, for instance, ‘Lord’ in John 4:1, and all the rest of the manuscripts have ‘Jesus,’ that still counts as only one variant. If a single fourteenth-century manuscript misspells a word, that counts as a variant.”

“What are the most common variants?” I asked.

“Far and away, the most common are spelling variations, even when the misspelling in Greek makes absolutely no difference in the meaning of the word,” he said.

“For example, the most common textual variant involves what’s called a ‘movable nu.’ The Greek letter nu – or ‘n’ – is used at the end of a word when the next word starts with a vowel. It’s like in English, where you have an indefinite article – an apple or a book. It means the same thing. Whether a nu appears in these words or not has absolutely no effect on its meaning. Yet they still record all those as textual variants.

“Another example is that every time you see the name John, it’s either spelled with one or two n’s. They have to record that as a textual variant – but how it comes out in English is ‘John’ every time. It doesn’t make any difference. The point is, it’s not spelled Mary! Somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of all textual variants are spelling differences that can’t even be translated into English and have zero impact on meaning.”

I did some quick mental math: taking the high estimate of 400,000 New Testament variants, that would mean 280,000 to 320,000 of them would be inconsequential differences in spelling. [pg. 85-86]

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