I ran across a skeptic that has raised the old criticism of textual variants in the New Testament. The quote below is a representation of the typical criticism we see:
It has been estimated that these manuscripts and quotations differ among themselves between 150,000 and 250,000 times. The actual figure is, perhaps, much higher. A study of 150 Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke has revealed more than 30,000 different readings It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the New Testament in which the manuscripts’ tradition is wholly uniform.
Statements like these are typical in that they leave an extremely false impression of the truth, and people making such statements only undermine their own credibility. The field of evaluating the texts of the Bible is quite detailed, and those who study the Bible documents do so with an excrutiating degree of tediousness. Therefore scholars in the field of studying the documents can provide a very lengthy and detailed response to critics like the one quoted above. Here I will merely provide a brief summary. For more information, see the work of men such as Daniel Wallace, A. T. Robertson, Phillip Comfort, and Paul Wagner.
First, the claim of hundreds of thousands of variations needs to be explained. When the scholars say the manuscripts “differ” many times, these variations are usually known changes of grammer and wordings over the centuries. Scribes would sometimes update the language of the text to current language rules. So many of these changes are not mistakes, but known changes that enhance understanding, not detract from it.
Second, New Testament documents are grouped into ’families’ of documents, with similar documents being grouped together. The families of documents have known mispellings and character switchings. Subsquent scribes often continued to copy the spelling errors, so that entire groups of documents would have the same missed character. So if 1000 documents have a single letter misplaced, this is counted 1000 times. Thus there are, in total, hundreds of thousands of variations, but only if we count the same mistake over and over again. The actual number of miswordings is far, far less. In fact, no less of a Bible scholar than the great A. T. Robertson, who wrote the standard textbook on Greek grammar, claimed the New Testament documents are 99.5% accurate, having less than one half of one percent error.
Third, saying that the gospel of Luke has 30,000 different readings is rather laughable when one considers that the entire book only has 20,000 words, many of which are only one, two, or three characters each. To suggest that there are 50% more errors than words would leave rather unintelligible sentences. Again, even if the total were correct, the numbers are adding the same slips of the pen many times. Out of 150 documents, if 100 of them have ”John went to the store” and 50 have ”John went to the stor” Is there really any doubt about what the sentence means? Is it fair scholarship to claim that these “50 errors” make the meaning of the sentence in doubt? No. Is it fair to pick out 150 manuscripts out of the many thousands? Again, no. The only way the liberal critics can come to their conclusions is to misrepresent the truth. They either do so out of intentional bias or incompetence.
Fourth, ironically, the variances actually provide more confidence in the original. As Norman Geisler has pointed out, the few variants actually prove the accuracy of the original statements. For example, if the following were representative of several copies of an original:
John went to the store.
&ohn went to the store.
John &ent to the store.
John went &o the store.
John went to &he store.
John went to the &tore.
Each of the documents above vary from the other. None of these six are “wholly uniform” as the liberal critic above claimed. But since the variations occur in different places in the document, and each word of the document is correct five out of six times, we can be even more confident that the original said “John went to the store.” The critic would look at the above and say, ‘those documents are varying every time’ when in reality the copies give us a great deal of confidence that we know what the original said.
When fairly evaluated, all the evidence shows that the Bible we now possess is the accurate word of God.