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Textual Variants and Isopsephy in the New Testament

The New Testament was originally written in the Koine Greek language at different times by different authors. The books were composed over approximately 55 years, from 45 to 100 AD, although there is no actual scholarly consensus on the exact date of composition for the latest New Testament texts. There are no original manuscripts (called autographs) by the original authors still existing. What we have now are copies of the original and copies of copies throughout the decades and centuries since the first century.

 

The New Testament, written in Greek, was translated into many different languages including Syriac, Latin, and Coptic  - all before the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. In the 4th century AD Jerome, a Christian scholar completed translating both the Old and New Testament into Latin, known as the Vulgate version. Since the original manuscripts were no longer available for translating purposes and for making copies, naturally errors would occur despite the best efforts of scholars and scribes.


“Textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts arise when a copyist makes deliberate or inadvertent alterations to the text that is being reproduced. Textual criticism of the New Testament has included the study of its textual variants.


Most of the variations are not significant and some common alterations include the deletion, rearrangement, repetition, or replacement of one or more words when the copyist's eye returns to a similar word in the wrong location of the original text. If their eye skips to an earlier word, they may create a repetition (error of dittography). If their eye skips to a later word, they may create an omission. They may resort to performing a rearranging of words to retain the overall meaning without compromising the context.


In other instances, the copyist may add text from memory from a similar or parallel text in another location. Otherwise, they may also replace some text of the original with an alternative reading. Synonyms may be substituted. A pronoun may be changed into a proper noun (such as "he said" becoming "Jesus said"). Most variants among the manuscripts are minor, such as alternative spelling, alternative word order, the presence or absence of an optional definite article ("the"), and so on. Occasionally, a major variant happens when a portion of a text was missing or for other reasons.” {1} Textual variants in the New Testament - Wikipedia

 

There are four major competing Greek sources to use for translating the New Testament: the Critical Text, the Majority Text, the Western Text, and the Textus Receptus. The science of assembling these manuscripts is called “Textual Criticism.” Dan Wallace, who is one of the most respected Textual Critics in the world today, defines textual criticism as “The study of the copies of a written document whose original (the autograph) is unknown or non-existent, for the primary purpose of determining the exact wording of the original.”

 

So, when copies of the copies of Scripture were made there were bound to be variants in the text. When two copies disagree with each other, you have a variant in the text between two documents: this is called a “Textual Variant.” Over 75 % of all textual variants are not meaningful, with most of them being spelling differences, often a single letter. Sometimes the order of a two-word name is reversed which doesn’t change the meaning, even if it changes the text slightly.

 

Textual variants that are meaningful but not viable (no chance of being original) typically are found only in a single manuscript, or in a small group of manuscripts from one small part of the world. Most often, they are simple scribal errors. These account for about 24% of all textual variants. 1% of all textual variants are those that have a good chance of being original (viable) and change the meaning of the text (meaningful).

 

Author’s Note: The following is taken from the following website,  Majority Text vs. Critical Text vs. Textus Receptus - Textual Criticism 101 - Berean Patriot. This article is rather lengthy but has good information regarding textual criticism and the different sources from which our New Testament was written.

 

Among the existing manuscripts of the New Testament, there are three major divisions based on their content. Each textual family (or “text type”) tends to contain similar readings to other manuscripts in its family, but the readings are different from the readings of other textual families. (Again, in that less than 1% where it matters). There are three major textual families/text types.

 

Alexandrian Text Type or Critical Text

 

The Alexandrian text type will need little introduction because nearly all modern Bibles are based on the Alexandrian text type.  If you pick up any popular Bible (except the KJV and NKJV) it’s almost certainly translated primarily from the Alexandrian text type.  Almost all of the oldest manuscripts we have are of the Alexandrian text type, probably due to the climate in the location where they are typically found (Alexandrian is in Egypt, and their dry climate is ideal for preservation.

 

The Alexandrian text type is slightly shorter than the Byzantine text type. The main sources for the Alexandrian text-type come from the older manuscripts of Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. Wescott and Hort (as well as Nestle-Aland) gave them tremendous weight, although they had many flaws. Please see the link above (Berean Patriot). Again, Codex Vaticanus is regarded as the single best New Testament manuscript by the adherents of the Reasoned Eclecticism/Critical Text theory.  There are only two reasons for this: (1) it’s nearly complete, (2) the “older is better” mantra.

 

Western Text Type

The Western text type is different from the other textual families mostly because of its “love of paraphrase”.  One scholar said of the Western text type: “Words and even clauses are changed, omitted, and inserted with surprising freedom, wherever it seemed that the meaning could be brought out with greater force and definiteness.”  Unsurprisingly, they aren’t given too much weight because of this freeness.  Further, we have relatively few Western text-type manuscripts.


Byzantine Text Type or Majority Text

The Byzantine text family, also known as the Majority Text, is the most numerous of all text types since it became the standard text of the Greek-speaking church after the 4th century AD. It’s named after Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul), the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.


We have more manuscripts of the Byzantine text type by far than the other two families combined. Robinson-Pierpont said in their introduction to their Greek New Testament “Of the over 5000 total continuous-text and lectionary manuscripts, 90% or more contain a basic Byzantine Text form“.  However, the majority of these manuscripts are later than Alexandrian manuscripts.  The Byzantine text type does have some very early witnesses, (in papyri from the 200s and 300s) but these often contain Byzantine readings mixed in with the other text types.  The Byzantine text type is noticeably longer than the Alexandrian text type.


The Byzantine text agrees far more closely with the Textus Receptus than with the critical text, as the Majority Text disagrees with the critical text 6,577 times in contrast to the 1800 times it disagrees with the Textus Receptus. (Note: the Byzantine Text type has several names, including the Majority Text, Traditional Text, Ecclesiastical Text, Constantinopolitan Text, Antiocheian Text, and Syrian Text.)


In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman forces led by Mohammad II The Byzantine Empire was no more. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450 and the first major book produced during the years 1453-1456 was the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, which was the Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts.

 

The Textus Receptus is similar to the Byzantine Text but is not considered part of this family. Although the Textus Receptus is classified by scholars as a late Byzantine text, it differs in nearly 2000 readings from the standard form of that text type, as represented by the “Majority Text” of Hodges and Farstad. The Textus Receptus is the textual basis behind the King James Version and the New King James Version.

 

The History Of The Textus Receptus

 

The primary Greek source for the King James Version was the 1598 version of Theodore Beza’s Greek New Testament. The main source for Beza’s New Testament was Robert Estienne’s 1550 Greek New Testament.  (Estienne was also known as Stephanus.)  Estienne’s New Testament is remarkably similar to Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, but Estienne claimed he didn’t use Erasmus’ work as a source. The first document to be called “Textus Receptus was the 1633 printing of the Elzevir Greek New Testament, which was substantially identical to the 1565 version of Beza’s Greek New Testament.

 

Erasmus adjusted the text in many places to correspond with readings found in the Vulgate or as quoted in the Church Fathers; consequently, although the Textus Receptus (and thus the King James Version) is classified by scholars as a late Byzantine text, it differs in nearly 2000 readings from the standard form of that text-type, as represented by the “Majority Text” of Hodges and Farstad (Wallace 1989).” {2} Majority Text vs. Critical Text vs. Textus Receptus - Textual Criticism 101 - Berean Patriot

 

“Erasmus’ first edition of the Greek New Testament was published in 1516. The Reformation began the following year, 1517, when Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Erasmus’ second edition in 1519 became the basis of Martin Luther’s German translation. Erasmus ‘ work challenged the Vulgate’s supremacy and was also used by William Tyndale to translate the New Testament into English in 1525.

 

Robert Stephanus (1503-1559) and his step-father, Simon Colinaeus, were the next editors of the Received Text. They were French printers in Paris. Colinaeus issued an edition of the TR in 1534. The editions of Robert Estienne (called Stephanus or Stephens) were issued in 1546, 1549, 1550, and 1551. His editions of the Received Text aroused the opposition of the Catholic Church so much that he had to flee Paris in 1550 and settle in Geneva, Switzerland. His last edition was from Geneva and was the first to be divided into chapters and verses.

 

Theodore Beza (1519–1605), of Geneva, started with the third edition of Stephanus (1550) and published four major folio editions (1565, 1582, 1588, 1598) and five more minor octavio editions (1565, 1567, 1580, 1590, and 1604). In his 1582 edition, Beza listed some additional materials he used. However, he rarely changed anything from the fourth edition of Stephanus.

 

The Authorized Version (KJV): The King James Version translators used more than one source for their translation. In 1603, the Received text was still developing, so the translators were open to the possibility that the text may still need to be edited. According to Frederick Scrivener (1813-1891), it is reasonable to determine that their primary source text was Beza 1598, because (among other reasons) the KJV is almost an exact match for it

 

The Elzevir Editions were published after the publication of the King James Version. The Elzevirs were a Dutch family of printers. They published three editions in 1624, 1633, and 1641. There was a statement in the preface of the 1633 edition that declared this text was now the Greek text received by all. Hence, the name Received Text or, in Latin, Textus Receptus, is applied to the entire Greek text tradition starting in 1516 with Erasmus’ first edition up to the 1881 edition of Frederick Scrivener.

 

All of the foregoing can give background for a study of specific textual issues between the TR and the KJV. The first thing to realize is that a comparison of the 1550 Stephanus edition and the KJV is an erroneous comparison. The KJV was not primarily based on any of Stephanus’ editions. Any difference between them is irrelevant. The KJV was based primarily on Beza’s 1598 edition. This was corrected by Scrivener based on the work of the KJV translators. Therefore, any comparison should be made between the KJV and the Scrivener edition. The Scrivener edition is where the TR is NOW.

 

Frederick H. A. Scrivener: The Scrivener edition of the Received Text (1881) is usually ignored by liberal and liberal-leaning scholars. However, it is a valid edition of the TR and a further purification of the Greek text. It is entirely based on the Beza 1598 edition with the edits made by the King James translators. When it was published in 1881, it was said to be “According to the text followed in the Authorized Version.” Scrivener used a process to find and adjust the differences between Beza’s text and the KJV.” {3} understanding_the_development_of_the_textus_receptus.pdf (bpsglobal.org)

 

“There are definitely places in the Textus Receptus that are wrong (as with other text types), and we know this from manuscripts we’ve found that they didn’t have access to then, but overall it’s a very good document.  One could even make the case that the Textus Receptus is overall the best Greek New Testament out there. It certainly agrees with the Byzantine Majority Text quite well, and the differences are not typically very large (though certainly some are).  Personally, I would say the Textus Receptus is overall a very good document.  Not perfect by any stretch and it definitely has mistakes, but very good overall.

 

God certainly preserved the scriptures through the ages.  However, He never promised to preserve them perfectly and to assert that He did is to put words in God’s mouth.  That’s a bad idea. There’s no scriptural basis for the idea whatsoever, and so asserting it dogmatically is a very bad idea.

 

We know God preserved the scriptures because even in the New Testament, over 99% of the Textual Variants have no effect on anything.  The remainder don’t impact major doctrines, and certainly nothing concerned with salvation or the Gospel.  I believe God preserved it, I just don’t think the preservation was word-perfect. While the Confessional Position holds no water, the Textus Receptus itself is a very good document.   Not perfect by any stretch, but very good.” {4} Majority Text vs. Critical Text vs. Textus Receptus - Textual Criticism 101 - Berean Patriot


“It must not be supposed, however, that the text of the NT rests upon precarious grounds because of the multitude of copies through which it has passed or because of the great number of variants found in the MSS. There is, in fact, virtually no question concerning by far the greater part of the words of the NT. Indeed, the same is true of ancient lit. in general. It is only a relatively small portion of the words of the text that requires the attention of the textual critic.

 

Virtually all MSS of any given part of the NT say essentially the same thing. It has been stated that there is no question at all concerning seven-eighths of the words of the NT; if differences of no significance be disregarded, only about one-sixtieth of the words can be regarded as in doubt; and only about one word in a thousand involves both a substantial question of meaning and serious doubt of the correct text (Westcott and Hort, The NT in the Original Greek, “Introduction” and “Appendix 2). No Christian doctrine rests upon insecure textual evidence.” (5) Text and Manuscripts of the New Testament - Encyclopedia of The Bible - Bible Gateway.

 

Here are a couple of good websites for a comparison of major textual variants between the Majority Text, Textus Receptus, Critical Text, and extant MSS sources. List of Major Textual Variants In the Greek New Testament In English Translation - Christian Publishing House Blog. Textual variants in the New Testament - Wikipedia.

 

Some Bible versions that rely on the Critical Text include the American Standard Version (ASV), the New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV). The KJV is of the Textus Receptus family as is the NKJV. The NKJV is of the same family but it has footnotes with different variants or translations of certain words. Let’s look at some Scripture that has different variants amongst different versions of the New Testament.

 

In Acts 12:4, “So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Easter” (or Passover). The KJV is practically the only translation that uses the word “Easter” instead of “Passover.” Even the NKJV uses the word “Passover.” The Greek word for Passover is Pascha. This word is used 28 other times in the N.T. and always means Passover. By Jesus’ time, the actual day of Passover (Nisan 14) was called Preparation Day, and Nisan 15-21 were called the Passover. Obviously, the KJV mistranslates this one word in this instance.

 

In the famous verse of Revelation 13:18, about half the translations read, “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666”(NKJV). The other half read, “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.” (KJV). I believe the ones that contain the number 666 (χξς) instead of spelling the number six hundred sixty six (ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ) can’t be correct as the ligature for six (ϛ) is not used anywhere else in the New Testament as it was obsolete by the time of the writings of the New Testament. ἕξ is used for the number 6 and not ϛ in all other instances where “six” is used in the New Testament.

 

In Revelation 22:14, the KJV and the NKJV which represent the Textus Receptus text (TR), say, Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.” The Majority Text (MT) also agrees with this translation. However, the versions that use the Critical Text (CT), such as ASV, NIV, ESV, and NASB, say “Blessed are they that wash their robes, that they may have the right to come to the tree of life, and may enter in by the gates into the city.”

 

Naturally, these variants (different words in the Greek MSS documents) cause the isopsephy to be different as well. The TR/MT text has an isopsephy of 13,638 whereas the CT text has an isopsephy of 14,163. This is where you have to be very careful about saying a verse (or verses) has a certain isopsephy value when there are variants involved amongst different text types.

 

In Revelation 22:19, the TR text says, “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” The CT and MT text says, “and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life, and out of the holy city, which is written in this book. Evidently, a scribe made an error in one of these translations when making a copy of a document that was available to him at the time. The English word tree is translated from the Greek word ξύλου (transliteration is xylou). The English word book is translated from the Greek word βίβλου (transliteration is biblou).

 

The isopsephy of the TR text is 19,838, whereas the MT and CT text’s isopsephy is 22,543. Regarding the isopsephy of this verse, 22,543 is a prime number. 19,838 has 16 divisors, including 91 (or 7 x 13) x 218 (or 2 x 109) and 14 (or 2 x 7) x 1417 (or 13 x 109). It appears the TR version’s gematria is more significant, but is non-conclusive regarding which translation is best.

 

So, which one is correct or closer to the original writings of John? Scholars and Christians have been asking that question (regarding this verse and many others) for tens of hundreds of years now. I usually like the KJV (TR text) but this time I prefer the CT version. As I wrote about in Millennium or Eternity (rev310.net), I believe Chapter 22 is referring to the Millennium and not the Eternal Order. The punishment for taking away from the words of the Book of Revelation will be the taking away from eating out of ‘a’ tree of life as described by Ezekiel 47:12 and entering the holy city.

 

The only reason a person would be blotted out of the Book of Life is for not accepting Jesus/God as LORD. The sin of revising the Book of Revelation is not an issue of salvation, however, there will be consequences (as sinning always does). This verse appears to be a second reference to verse 14 in which the tree of life and being able to enter through the gates into the city are mentioned (as confirmed by all the text types).

 

Let’s examine one more passage of scripture and its variants, Mark 13:32. Some Christians believe this is a Rapture passage (as is Matthew 24:36), while others believe it is a Second Coming passage. First let’s look at the TR text (KJV), which reads in English But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” This verse has 23 Greek words. περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ τῆς ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι οἱ ἐν οὐρανῷ οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός εἰ μὴ ὁ πατήρ. The isopsephy is 7920.

 

Now the MT text (RP Byzantine Majority Text 2005), reads, But of that day or hour knows no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” This verse also has 23 Greek words. Περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης  ὥρας οὐδεὶς ο ἴδεν, οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι οἱ ἐν οὐρανῷ, οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός, εἰ μὴ ὁ πατήρ. The MT text uses the word ‘or’ instead of ‘and’ (like the TR text does) and doesn’t include the word ‘that’ before the word hour. The variants are in bold. The isopsephy is 7389.

 

The CT text (Novum Testamentum Graece 28th edition) reads, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (NASB version). This verse in the CT text has 22 Greek words, Περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης τῆς ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν, οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι ἐν οὐρανῷ οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός, εἰ μὴ ὁ πατήρ. The CT text uses the word ‘or’ instead of ‘and’ and does not use the word ‘which’ (are in heaven) as does the TR text. The isopsephy is 7817.

 

These are minor variants that don’t affect the meaning of the verse. This is the majority of cases regarding variants in the New Testament. Most of them are not meaningful (however some are) but they do affect the isopsephy. The isopsephy value of the CT text is 7817. This is a prime number (#988). The value for the MT text is 7389. Its divisors are 1, 3, 9, 821, 2463, and 7389.

 

The isopsephy value for the TR text for Mark 13:32 is 7920. This number has 60 divisors, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 30, 33, 36, 40, 44, 45, 48, 55, 60, 66, 72, 80, 88, 90, 99, 110, 120, 132, 144, 165, 176, 180, 198, 220, 240, 264, 330, 360, 396, 440, 528, 660, 720, 792, 880, 990, 1320, 1584, 1980, 2640, 3960, 7920. Some of the more significant divisors are listed below.


Jesus represents the number 33 as I have written about numerous times.


5 x 1584 (or 12 x 132). 132 = 4 x 33

18 x 440 (or 5 x 88).  88 = 8 x 11

20 x 396 (or 12 x 33).  33 = 3 x 11

24 x 330 (or 10 x 33)

30 x 264 (or 8 x 33)

33 x 240 (or 12 x 16) 

 

It appears that the TR text has the most significant isopsephy out of the three texts for this particular verse. However, I don’t think this is absolute proof that the TR text is closest to the original autograph for this verse in the Book of Mark. The nearly identical verse to Mark 13:32 is Matthew 24:36. Interestingly, all three text types agree on the word “and”(καὶ) for “the day and hour.” However, the words “nor the Son” are only in the Critical text. It reads like Mark 13:32 (except for the ‘and’), “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (NASB1995). The TR and MT read, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” The Son is not mentioned in these text types.

 

Ivan Panin claimed that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek critical text (CT), established by himself, approached the autographs nearer than any extant copy of the New Testament. He believed numerics (gematria or isopsephy of the critical text) could prove his translation was the superior translation of the New Testament. However, like Westcott and Hort, Panin dismissed out of hand the MT and TR texts because he thought the older MSS documents (mostly Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) were the superior ones (closer to the original autographs) that should be used for translating Greek into English. I think this might have been a mistake. I believe that all types should be examined and then one can determine which translation fits into the context of the preceding or succeeding verses or chapters. The NKJV is good for listing most of the variants (in the footnotes).

 

CONCLUSION

 

“The intricacies of textual variants in the New Testament are indeed a complex field of study. These variants, the result of a multitude of factors over centuries of text transmission, offer rich insights into the historical and cultural contexts of the New Testament era. While they present challenges, they do not detract from the essential truths of the Christian faith. The task of the diligent scholar and the faithful believer, aided by the Holy Spirit, is to navigate these intricacies in the quest to better understand and live out the teachings of the New Testament.” {6} The Intricacies of Textual Variants in the New Testament - Updated American Standard Version (uasvbible.org)

 

Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman who doesn’t need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15). 

 

Randy Nettles

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Randy, you have a remarkable gift!


One of the hardest things I had to overcome was the gut-punch I felt regarding textual criticism on areas such as...

- John 7:53-8:11, Pericope Adulterae

- the ending of Mark, 16:9-20

- 1John 5:7 ..and these three are one

etc

..and it forced me to do my own homework on the topics.

I won't share my opinions, but I will say that studying these topics has strengthened my faith and knowledge.


Folks might also enjoy viewing some scans available at 'the center for the study of new testament manuscripts".

csntm.org

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Thank you Randy! This is a very important topic in today's church where so many want to discredit the Bible due to errors caused by so many copies of copies. I have told those I've had conversations with that we need to trust God that what we have is what He wants us to have. I have a couple of questions - and to be honest I haven't read it word for word yet but... Why is it just the New Testament that is focused on? I have read other authors who also just talk about the New Testament in the context of errors in transcription but I haven't seen the same scrutiny applied to the Old Testament. My …

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Thank you Randy! May the Lord bless and keep you until we meet Him in the air❤️

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