In Question 6, we saw that the vast majority of variants in the New Testament do not significantly affect the meaning. For example, although Luke 20:30 has seven variant readings, they all have the same basic meaning. But one must not confuse “the vast majority of variants” with “all variants.” Sometimes the variant readings do have different meanings, and sometimes the differences are theologically important. Sometimes the differences between the manuscripts matter greatly, but the differences impact the meaning of a verse or paragraph, rather than the meaning of an entire book or the entire New Testament.
Variants May Affect the Meaning of the Text at the Micro Level
Students sometimes say that they need not bother examining the variants in the apparatus at the bottom of the page in their Greek Testament because “the differences do not really matter.” When asked to clarify, they normally reply, “They don’t really affect the meaning of the text.” However, this all depends on what one means by “the text.” If the reference is to the New Testament text as a whole, then the statement is accurate. However, if the reference is to a specific text of the New Testament, the statement is clearly incorrect. Variants do not affect the meaning of the New Testament text at the macro level. No single variant unit will change the theology of the New Testament as a whole. But variants do sometimes significantly affect the meaning of the text at the micro level, so much so that deciding the original reading is a prerequisite to any serious exegetical work. Greenlee was correct when he wrote:
Textual criticism is the basic study for the accurate knowledge of any text. New Testament textual criticism, therefore, is the basic biblical study, a prerequisite to all other biblical and theological work. Interpretation, systematization, and application of the teachings of the New Testament cannot be done until textual criticism has done at least some of its work. It is therefore deserving of the acquaintance and attention of every serious student of the Bible.
To pretend that textual variants do not matter at all is intellectually dis- honest. Furthermore, it stifles the advancement of text-critical research by discouraging people from devoting themselves to this important area of study. By “micro level” we mean the level of the clause, sentence, and even para- graph. Many people study the New Testament at this level of detail. When a commentator explains a clause or an expositional preacher explains a verse, textual variants can significantly impact meaning.
After admitting that most of the variant readings in the New Testament are insignificant, Ehrman quickly added:
It would be wrong, however, to say—as people sometimes do—that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them. We have seen, in fact, that just the opposite is the case. In some instances, the very meaning of the text is at stake, depending on how one resolves a textual problem.
Ehrman is absolutely right. The different theological meanings between variants becomes obvious by taking a close look at two of his examples. He asks, “Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament? Is Jesus actually called the ‘unique God’ there?”
The first of these questions is related to a well-known textual issue in 1 John 5:7–8. A few late manuscripts add to these verses a reference to three heavenly witnesses: “and there are three who testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the holy Spirit, and these three are one.” Although this reference was included in the text of the King James Version, it is relegated to a foot- note in modern translations. Why? No Greek manuscript dating earlier than the fourteenth century has the trinitarian reference in the text. A few earlier Greek manuscripts have the reference as a variant reading in the margin added by a later scribe. However, none of the marginal readings appear to predate the fourteenth century. The variant appears to have emerged as a marginal reading in Latin manuscripts and was later accidentally incorporated into the text of 1 John itself. Although the reference is not a reasonable candidate for the reading of the original text, one certainly cannot dismiss the variant as doctrinally insignificant. If the reference to the three heavenly witnesses were original to the letter (and it is not), it would be the clearest expression of the doctrine of the Trinity in the entire New Testament.
But 1 John 5:7–8 is not the best text to illustrate the importance of textual variants since the variant there is significant but not viable. Other variants in the New Testament are both viable and theologically significant as well as hotly debated. Ehrman offers John 1:18 as his second example. Manuscripts of the gospel refer to Jesus as either “one and only God” (μονογενὴς θεός) or “one and only Son” (μονογενὴς υἱός). Since the earliest manuscripts used nomina sacra (q8s8 and u8s8), the two readings differ by only a single letter. The change from one reading to the other could easily have been the result of an error of sight. Ehrman argued that orthodox scribes intentionally changed “Son” to “God”: “It appears, though, that some scribes—probably located in Alexandria—were not content even with this exalted view of Christ, and so they made it even more exalted.” This explanation is unlikely. If the scribes intentionally made this perceived improvement, one would expect them to make the same change in other texts that originally referred to Jesus as the “one and only Son” (John 3:16, 18; and 1 John 4:9). But such a change does not appear in a single extant manuscript. Furthermore, the earliest Greek manuscripts support the description of Jesus as God, including P66 and P75 (early third century) and three of the four major majuscules. The earliest manuscript to have the “Son” reading is Alexandrinus (fifth century). Most likely scribes familiar with the more frequent expression “one and only Son” misread the unique expression “one and only God” and introduced an unintentional change into the text. But does the difference really matter? Yes! Although the description of Jesus as the “one and only Son” is compatible with an identification of Jesus as the one and only God, it is not equivalent to that identification. The description “one and only Son” could be misinterpreted as a reference to Jesus’s mere adoption by God so that the reader concludes Jesus is less than fully God. The descriptor “one and only God” is not subject to such misinterpretation. Against the background of Jewish monotheism, “one and only God” is about as clear a reference to Jesus’s true deity as one can possibly imagine. So Ehrman is right in this regard—some variants do matter and do affect the theology of a text.
Variants Do Not Affect the Meaning of the Text at the Macro Level
If textual variants can make a significant difference in the meaning of a specific text, how can some scholars make the claim that textual variants do not undermine the essential teachings of the Christian faith? For example, Dan Wallace has claimed:
Our fundamental argument is that although the original New Testament has not been recovered in all its particulars, it has been recovered in all its essentials. That is, the core doctrinal statements of the New Testament are not in jeopardy because of any textual variations. That has been the view of the majority of textual critics for the past three hundred years, including Dr. Bruce Metzger.
The examples above in no way contradict Wallace’s claim. Neither variant unit is one in which one variant affirms the deity of Jesus and the other denies it. The reading that omits the reference to the three heavenly witnesses in 1 John 5:7–8 in no way disputes the doctrine of the Trinity. It simply fails to address it. The reading “one and only Son” in John 1:18 does not deny Jesus’s deity. In fact, it asserts it, just not as clearly as the alternative reading does.
But one must not forget that the doctrines of the Trinity and Jesus’s deity do not depend on these two texts. Jesus’s deity is very clearly affirmed in other New Testament passages such as Colossians 2:9: “The entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ.” The doctrine of the Trinity is seldom neatly packaged in the New Testament. The doctrine is a conclusion drawn from an assembly of many different passages that (1) assert that God is one; (2) affirm the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; and (3) teach that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct persons. But single texts like Matthew 28:19–20 certainly imply the doctrine of the Trinity. Jesus commanded disciples to baptize new disciples in the name (sing.) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The fact that the three persons in the baptismal formula all share the same name implies that they are one God, Yahweh. And all the extant manuscripts affirm Jesus’s deity in Colossians 2:9, and all the extant manuscripts affirm that Father, Son, and Spirit share a single name in Matthew 28:19–20. Any doctrinal ambiguity caused by variants in particular texts is cleared up by consulting other New Testament texts for which the original reading is well- established and clear. Even theologically significant variants do not change the theology of the New Testament as a whole.
To go even further, they do not normally change the theology of the individual New Testament book or even a single chapter. Consider John 1:18 again as an example. Even if this single verse did not clearly affirm the deity of Jesus by describing him as “the only God” (ESV) or “the one and only Son, who is himself God” (CSB), the gospel of John clearly affirms Jesus’s deity in numerous other texts. The Prologue itself describes Jesus as the Word who “is God” (John 1:1), who created all created things (1:3), who embodies God’s glory and is filled with the grace and truth that are the fundamental characteristics of Yahweh (1:14; Exod. 34:6). Thus, even if the reading “God” in John 1:18 were the result of a scribal error, the variant would not change the theology of the Prologue.
Textual variants do matter. They sometimes affect the meaning of the text at the level of clauses, sentences, and in rare cases even paragraphs. Scholarly study of the Bible certainly requires some knowledge of the different readings in the ancient manuscripts and of the reasons for selecting one variant as the probable original reading. Anyone studying the Bible in detail, especially those who preach and teach it, should pay attention to variant readings, how they affect the meaning of a particular passage, and why a particular translation chose a specific variant.
On the other hand, one must not exaggerate their importance. No essential doctrine of the Christian faith depends on a textual variant that remains in question. We can concur with Jongkind’s statement:
Clearly, many of the differences affect how we read a particular sentence and how the text says what it says. But the actual content of a paragraph or a chapter—let alone that of a whole book—stands firm regardless. The message that is communicated comes across clearly even though there is interfering noise.
 J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995), 7.
 Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 207–8.
 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 208.
 See, for example, minuscule 221
 See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 647–49.
 The adjective μονογενής is sometimes taken as substantival: “the one and only [Son], God . . .”. The CSB seems to take this option: “The one and only Son, who is Himself God.”
 For a more detailed discussion of this variant unit, see Question 17.
 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 162.
 Daniel B. Wallace, “Claim One: The Original New Testament Has Been Corrupted by Copyists So Badly That It Can’t Be Recovered,” in Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 72.
 Dirk Jongkind, An Introduction to the Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 21. The disagreement with my statement regarding the impact of variants is merely apparent. The rare cases in which variants affect the meaning of paragraphs would minimally include variants that encompass entire para- graphs such as John 7:53–8:11 and Mark 16:9–20. Jongkind later (p. 78) describes these “important variants” as those that “have a big impact” and adds that both “concern around 170 words.”
This post is adaptedfrom 40 Questions About the Text and Canon of the New Testament by Charles L. Quarles and L. Scott Kellum. This title was released on May 23rd, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
How did the New Testament come to be?
The writings that comprise the New Testament are critical for understanding the life, teachings, and impact of Jesus of Nazareth, all of which are central to Christianity. But how were these texts circulated, collected, and given their canonical status? Is the New Testament a trustworthy source for learning about Jesus and the early church?
New Testament scholars L. Scott Kellum and Charles L. Quarles address the most pressing questions regarding the study of New Testament texts, their transmission, and their collection into the canon, such as:
- What happened to the original manuscripts of the New Testament?
- With all the variants, can we still speak of inspiration and inerrancy?
- What are the competing views on canon?
- Did the apostles recognize contemporaneous books as Scripture?
- Did the early councils decide the canon?
40 Questions About the Text and Canon of the New Testament uses a question-and-answer format so readers can pursue the issues that interest them most with additional resources at 40questions.net.