Coffee is especially good this morning. After my first sip of dark roast the phrase “textual variant” popped into my mind – not sure why. Anyway, scholars of the Bible often talk about textual variants but I never paid much attention to it until I noticed a footnote in my Bible. The footnote said something like, “…this word or verse is not found in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts…” What the heck does that mean? I was taught that every word in the Bible was “God-breathed” and that it was completely inerrant and infallible. Isn’t there a MASTER or an original copy of the Bible that we can refer to?
As it turns out, there are NO master or original copies of the Bible. There were no printing presses back then so people had to copy everything by hand. It was a good thing, though, because the material they used to write on have all disintegrated. So, what we have are copies of copies of copies and so on. Scholars have found thousands of copies of manuscripts over the years and guess what? There are variations among all the manuscripts. People are human and they are bound to make spelling errors or repeat words or phrases. Some even changed the text to suit their theological preferences. As one scholar put it, “There are more variations than there are words in the New Testament.” Scholars will also point out that most of these variations are minor and don’t affect the doctrines of Christianity – but some do make a difference.
Because the Bible has so many textual variations how can we know what the Bible really says? What are the original words of God? Do we have reliable copies of the Bible? If you look at how many different versions of the Bible that are in existence today, you would start to wonder. Anyway, let’s look at an example of a textual variant.
In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark starting at verse 40 (in my own paraphrasing) a man with a skin disease came to Jesus, fell to his knees and begged Jesus to heal him. Verse 41 continues with, Having “pity” on the man, Jesus touches him and heals him. A very nice, compassionate story as it appears in most Bibles today. However, the variant comes in verse 41. Instead of having “pity” on the man, Jesus gets “angry” at him. And guess what the footnote says? Ha! There has been much debate as to which word is actually the original. Today’s Christian would expect it to say “pity” but what were the real intentions of the author? I could give you gobs of scholarly debate, but I won’t. I love a good mystery!
Now… time for another cup! Make it a habit to read your Bibles! And don’t forget to read the footnotes.