When Manuscripts Disagree

When Manuscripts Disagree

Often, we hear critics claims the bible is unreliable of the Bible. They point to contradictions and textual variations between manuscripts. Such disparaging the word of God is anathema. However, honesty demands Christians be aware the claims, and be ready to give answer. We don’t have to be textual critics, but we cannot be ignorant. In this article, I want to look at the textual variant claim and examine an example.

What is a textual variant? There are thousands of Greek New Testament manuscripts dating from the 2 nd century to the 15th century when Gutenberg introduced moveable type press. When these manuscripts disagree with one another, a variant is created. Since all of these are hand copied, they are subject to the frailties of human error. For example, a copyist (scribe) could misspell a word or skip from one word on one line to the same word on another line omitting all the words in between (homoeoteleuton). He could incorporate a teacher’s marginal note into the text. Sometimes, scribes would attempt to eliminate seeming contradictions with other passages. These are some common ways variants occur. Thankfully, the number of witnesses allows us to compare them and determine the most probable reading.

How do we identify and deal with variants? For the most part, variants become apparent during study. Most variants are insignificant and can be rectified through comparisons. Other variants, however, are not so easily rectified. These are usually identified in the text apparatus of a Greek New Testament. For example, John 14:13-14 contains a variant, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Some versions omit the word “me” in the middle of verse 14, following many manuscripts from the 9 th to 15 th centuries. Additionally, two 5 th century codices, Alexandrinus and Bezae, also omit “me.”

On the other hand, the earliest manuscripts include “me.” While earliest is not always the best, it carries a lot of weight. The 4th century codices Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and Freerianus, and the early 3rd century papyrus P66 all include “me.” (Nestle-Aland: NTG Apparatus Criticus; The Center for New Testament Textual Studies NT Critical Apparatus).

In dealing with this variant, Bruce Metzger suggests a scribe likely tried to avoid a contradiction with John 16:23, “In that day you will ask nothing of me” (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 208). It is more likely that a scribe would remove “me” to avoid contradiction, than another scribe added “me” to create a contradiction. A few manuscripts add “the Father” in the place of “me.” This suggests an intentional change, rather than an accidental omission. A few manuscripts omit “me” because of homoeoteleuton. The difficulty of the “me” reading, the two attempts to remove the difficulty, the antiquity of the “me” reading, and the weight of its witnesses suggest the original reading of John 14:14 was “me.”

What do we do with the contradiction? Reading John 16 in context, Jesus had said he would leave in a little while, then reappear in a little while. The disciples were confused, so Jesus said they would sorrow and then rejoice, obviously referring to his death and resurrection. After his resurrection, they would understand and not need to ask him the meaning of “a little while.” Jesus does not mean they cannot ask him anything, only that they will not need to ask him about the meaning of “a little while.”

With this understanding of John 16:23, there is no contradiction when Jesus told them earlier in his speech, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). Jesus fully expected his followers to ask blessings from him through prayer, just as they asked in prayer to the Father.

This is a reasonable explanation of the variant in John 14:14. It is true, there are many variants in the New Testament, but it is also true each of these can be examined thoughtfully and thoroughly and an understanding achieved. We do not have to be ignorant or dismissive about variants. We need only to be rational when thinking through any question about textual variants and humble in our conclusions.


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