Question: Are the Biblical textual variants theologically significant?

Table of Contents

Question: Are the Biblical textual variants theologically significant?

Non-LDS scholar Kenneth Clark addressed this notion

Non-LDS scholar Kenneth Clark addressed this notion.[1] Each citation has the specific page number in brackets following it.

  • “It is important to know what the original text and the original meaning were, but it is also important to recognize the subsequent revision of text and thought in the course of the church’s history. In the current edition of the Nestle NT, for example, we have more than a single text, for in the apparatus criticus we are confronted with thousands of textual variants that involve a difference of form and interpretation” (2).
  • “Although a variant which is a departure from the original text may be described as spurious, yet every intentional and sensible variant has a claim to authenticity in the history of Christian thought. It will be valuable to form a judgment, in the light of all modern textual discoveries and researches, of the extent to which the Greek text of our NT has been subject to revision and made to carry differences of thought” (2).
  • “About 250 years ago, John Mill of Oxford… [in which it was] reported that his manuscript sources revealed 30,000 variants” (2, citing Mill, Novum Testamentum… (Oxford 1707). “A hundred years ago F. H. A. Scrivener [A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament, I.3] estimated that the text of the Greek NT showed variance ‘at least fourfold that quantity,’ i.e., 120,000” (2).
  • “In 1886 Benjamin Warfield estimated between 180,000 and 200,000 ‘variant readings’ [Warfield, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, 13]” (2-3).
  • “And in 1937 Vaganay acknowledged a range of 150,000 to 250,000” (3).
  • “Now in our time, the International Greek New Testament Project can report on 300 manuscript collations of Luke, and the estimate for the entire NT perhaps 300,000 variants” (3). He quotes several scholars from 1700 to his own day, that not one variant affected the fundamentals of Christian faith: Richard Bentley, Daniel Whitby, Benjamin Warfield, FHA Scrivener, Vaganay, Frederic Kenyon, FC Grant, Harold Greenlee, Kee-Young-Froelich NT introduction (3-4).
  • “There has been, of course, a contrary opinion. Hort himself admitted that ‘it is true that dogmatic preferences to a great extent determined theologians, and probably scribes, in their choice between rival readings….’ [Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek., 2.283]” (4).
  • “Recently CSC Williams has expressed the judgment that textual alteration derives ‘no less frequently from dogmatic than from other motivation’ [Williams, Alterations to the Text of the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (1951): 7]” (4).
  • “In reality, the amount of textual variation is a considerable portion. Of course it is true that the great bulk of text shows little or no record of variation…. So in the NT text it is the doubtful portion that stands in need of refinement. Its importance far exceeds its fractional size” (4).
  • “How shall we measure the theological clarification derived from textual emendation where a single word altered affects the major concept in a passage? …. By calculating words it is impossible to appreciate the spiritual insights that depend upon the words. We would not contend that even the most theological of variants create a doctrine or cancel out a doctrine, but it is defensible to maintain that variants do ‘affect’ or ‘alter’ or ‘modify’ doctrine” (4-5).
  • “The only objective and justification of textual criticism is that its emended text should give access to a clearer insight and a deeper faith. Textual variation does not imperil belief in God but it can and does contribute to elucidation of the character of God and of his relation to man…. There is far more in Christian doctrine than a brief creedal summation, and the exegesis of variant texts contributes to the enrichment of doctrine” (5).
  • “We can agree with Hort that ‘perceptible fraud’ is not evident in textual alteration, that ‘accusations of willful tampering…prove to be groundless,’ and that dogma has not motivated ‘deliberate falsification’ [Hort, 282f]…. Willful and deliberate, yes. But not tampering, falsification, and fraud. Alteration, yes; but not corruption. Emendation, yes; but not in bad faith. These denials of evil or unethical intention can well be sustained, but such intention is not a proper allegation by the textual critic. He must analyze the text constructively to understand the theological value of any variation, and its place in historical theology” (5).
  • “It is also a false assurance, offered by many, that textual criticism can have no effect upon Christian doctrine” (5). “Let us no longer implant the belief that Christian doctrine is unaffected by textual emendation, whether for better or worse. The earliest intentional changes in the text of the Gospel of Mark are still to be seen recorded in the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, revising the sense” (6).
  • Marcion made revision of the text of Luke at many points, for the sake of reinterpretation…. At Luke 18.19 he adds pater…. Although Origen also adds this word, Epiphanius makes clear the deliberate motivation on the part of Marcion. It is Jerome who explains Marcion’s omission in Gal 1.1 of the phrase ‘and God the Father,’ so as to read: ‘…through Jesus Christ who raised himself from the dead.’ In Rom 1.16 Marcion excinded proton, thus repealing the priority of the Jews: ‘the gospel is the power of God for salvation…to Jew and Greek’—a reading followed even by Tertullian and later preserved in Vaticanus and in the Sahidic version” (6).
  • “So also Origen revised the primitive text at points, although with greater caution and restraint…. In John 11.25 Jesus speaks: ‘I am the resurrection and the life;’ but Origen dropped the latter term, recording rather: ‘I am the resurrection,’ and his revision is retained by Cyprian and in P45 and also in the Sinaitic Syriac codex” (6). “Tatian also made revision in the NT text…. Mark 1.41…. ‘Jesus was moved with pity [splagchnistheis]’ Tatian reports however that ‘Jesus was moved with anger [orgistheis],’…. Tatian introduced a different interpretation at Matt 17.26” (6-7).
  • “In the recently acquired gnostic Christian documents of the second century there are instances of textual alteration which revises the meaning in highly important aspects” [Gospel of Thomas 55 & Luke 14.26; GosTho 109 & Matt 13.44]…. It does illustrate the freedom with which the account in Matthew was treated from the beginning” (7).
  • “Thus far we have recalled only a few of the many examples of textual revision within a century after the recording of the gospel—revision made by fellow evangelists, in patristic interpretations of second-century fathers, and in a pseudonymous gospel of gnostic color. These revisions clearly were made with deliberate intent and, furthermore, they do alter the sense of the text and affect the interpretation” (7).

The paper then discusses the differences between the RSV and the comparable Catholic edition, both agreed upon by the Catholic Church and the National Council of Churches:

  • “This English translation as originally produced by Protestant American scholarship is basically acceptable to Catholic scholarship as well. The extent of revision in the CE is minimal, amounting to only forty-five changes in the entire NT: thirty-three occurring in the gospels and twelve in the Pauline epistles. Eighteen instances are accounted for by the single change to ‘brethren’ instead of ‘brothers,’ all instances intended in the original RSV to refer to blood brothers of Jesus [CE changes occur in Matt 13.55; Mark 12.31 ff., par; J 2.12; 7.3f; Acts 1.14; I Cor 9.5]” (8).
  • “Besides the alterations in the English text, the CE introduces nineteen new footnotes. Eleven of these refer to the value of money…. Another footnote is found six times in I Corinthians, to the effect that parthenos means ‘virgin.’” (9).
  • “It is of greater importance, however, to comment on those alterations in the CE which involve change in the critical Greek text itself. There are only sixteen such places, all of them in the gospels. Eight of these readings are in Luke, of which six are found in the account of the resurrection. All sixteen variants represent the same textual attitude; that is, they are restorations of passages which were present in the King James and Rheims-Douai versions but have been omitted from the RSV. They are all present in the Textus Receptus but rejected by Westcott-Hort and Nestle…. The formula used in both the RSV and the CE is similar, but the textual judgment is reversed. The RSV omits the passage from the text and in the footnote reports its presence in ‘some ancient authorities;’ whereas the CE returns each passage to the text (as does Knox), and a footnote reports that ‘other ancient authorities omit. Notably these sixteen restorations include the traditional ending of Mark and the Johannine pericope adulterae; and both these textual phenomena are fully and accurately explained in footnotes. To restore the pericope adulterae to its traditional position within the Gospel of John would appear to be erroneous, especially against the fresh testimony for omission by both P66 and P75. The CE note on p. 239 acknowledges that the passage ‘is not by St. John’ but is held to be inspired and canonical” (9).

Regarding the Long ending to Mark:

  • “Before the middle of the second century, Justin in his ‘first’ Apology [1.45] writes a short passage notably verbatim with Mark 16.20 which looks like a direct quotation. Similarly, Irenaeus quotes from Mark 16.19 [AH 3.10.6]. Tatian’s text had the long ending. The earliest translations—Latin, Syriac, and Coptic—all possess it” (9-10).
  • “What theological relevance is to be recognized in the textual alteration of the CE? First, it may be said that few Catholic-vs.-Protestant issues are apparent. Rather, the difference is one of scholarly judgment. Further, there is no consistent theological tendency in the textual revision” (10-11).
  • “There are two other restorations in the CE which, on the other hand, probably were interpolations into the original text [Mark 10.24: ‘for those who trust in riches.’ And Luke 8.43: woman who spent her money on physicians]” (10-11).
  • “The most impressive alteration in the CE which involves the Greek critical text is the series of six readings in the account of the resurrection in Luke 24.6, 12, 36, 40, 51, 52. These are all valid scholarly alterations, in which no theological tendency is to be found” (11). Another major undertaking currently in progress is the International Greek New Testament Project, whose objective is the publication of a new apparatus criticus…. In the preparation of the initial volume, on the Gospel of Luke, the texts of approximately 300 MSS have been collated completely, and this is the most massive attack ever made upon the problem of textual variation…. The master file for the Gospel of Luke contains, it is estimated, about 25,000 variants of all sorts…. Variants of substantial alteration [yields] about 2 per cent, much higher than the earlier estimates of Hort, Ezra Abbot, and others” (11-12). “But the effect upon exegesis is hardly to be measured by such statistics, when we consider the theological implication of a single letter as in eudokias of Luke 2.14; or the addition of theon in 2.12, where Gregory Thaumaturgus speaks of the ‘swaddled God;’ or the omission of a full verse at Luke 23.34, thus losing the prayer of Jesus: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’” (12).
  • “…about 500 variants of more substantial character…. It would seem to be more meaningful to consider longer passages which contain clusters of textual alterations” (12).
  • Luke 1.26-35. “…city of Galilee” although Sinaiticus et al state that this city was in Judea, and Bezae e al omit to name Nazareth in particular” (12) others mentioned.
  • “Such freedom of treatment is quite incongruous with a traditional conception of Scripture. With many of the variant forms, it is easy to recognize primary and secondary text, and yet all the variant forms become part of the narrative in the history of the church” (12). Luke 2.1-7: ‘in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus. “An Old Latin MS of the fifth century omits the explanation ‘that all the world should be enrolled.’ The Protevangelion reports instead that the residents of Bethlehem must register, whereas Bezae reports the residents of Jerusalem, and Codex Boreel the residents of Judea” some mss say they went to enroll, each to his own polis; some to a man’s patris; others to his chora; an Old Latin ms of his regionem. The manger becomes a cave (13).
  • Luke 2.16-22: the shepherds ‘went hurrying,’ becomes in one ‘went believing.’ (13).
  • Luke 2.33-35: his father and his mother marveled at what was said.’ ”Origen protests that Joseph is not properly called father, and accordingly a second-century variant would remove the earthly father and refers instead to ‘Joseph and his mother.’ On the other hand, some Byzantine scribes simply wrote ‘his parents.’…. Some manuscripts omit the prediction: ‘this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (13).
  • Luke 9.18-23: ‘it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him.’ Bezae says nothing of praying, Vaticanus reports that the disciples rather came up to join him. ‘Who do the people identify as the Son of man?’, at least, that is the record in Justin’s Dialogue. …Peter’s response is variously reported: ‘the messiah’; ‘God’s Messiah;’ ‘Messiah God;’ ‘Messiah, Son of God’; ‘Messiah, Son of man;’ ‘Son of the living God; or simply ‘Son of God’. A patristic omission is the clause’ ‘rejected by elders, chief priests, and scribes.”” (133-4).
  • “So our inquiry could be greatly extended, passage by passage, to demonstrate the freedom of alteration and interpretation, the substantial portion of the text involved in variation, and the theological quality of many textual alterations…. Extended analysis could demonstrate the theological quality of each individual witness and distinguish the threads woven into the larger pattern” (14).
  • “If we should now concentrate upon one Ms, Papyrus 75, we find further evidence that variation in the text and alteration in the sense appeared early…More than a thousand differences between the two manuscript copies [P75 and P66], and about a hundred of these are of greater importance” (14). John 4.14; 6.5; 6.69; 8.57 “the Jews do not query, ‘Have you seen Abraham?’ but rather, ‘Has Abraham seen you?’; 9.17; 12.8;. Such alterations are early, and many, and are neither errors nor heresy. Many of them are mild changes, but they all form a cumulative exegetical mood” (14-5).
  • “The Gospel of Luke in P75 we have selected about 125 substantial variants out of about 1500 differences from the TR” (15). “In Luke 11.11 there appears a unique reading heretofore unreported: ‘if a son should ask his father for bodily strength, the father will not give him a serpent in place of a fish.’ 15.24: “’my son was dead and has come alive, he was lost and then was found; and the father became joyous’” (15).
  • 17.14; 22.62-23.23: ‘Judas went out and wept bitterly,’ and also that his captors ‘beat Jesus.’” (15). 24.26: ‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his kingdom?’ The last word is the unique term, and it was later altered by a corrector to the term now usual to us: his ‘glory.’” (15). “The papyrus vividly portrays a fluid state of the text at about AD 200. Such scribal freedom suggests that the gospel text was little more stable than an oral tradition, and that we may be pursuing the retreating mirage of the ‘original text.’” (15).
  • “The amount of textual change that involves theological alteration is a small proportion but it is a nugget of essential importance for interpretation…. In the course of transmission thousands of textual alterations have appeared in the legitimate lineage of theological interpretation, and all of these must be taken into account in exegesis and doctrinal exposition” (15).
  • We may well begin to ask if there really was a stable text at the beginning. We talk of recovering the original text, and of course every document had such a text. But the earliest witnesses to NT text even from the first century already show such variety and freedom that we may well wonder if the text remained stable long enough to hold a priority.” (16, (emphasis added)).
  • “The NT text and the theology of each church father, of each regional text such as fam. 13, or of each major recension such as the Caesarean text—especially where departures from the common text are notable” (16).

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. Kenneth W. Clark, “The Theological Relevance of Textual Variation in current criticism of the Greek New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966): 1-16.