The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation

By Daniel B. Wallace

ErrorIn the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, by Norm Geisler (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; p. 532), there is a comment about the number of textual variants among New Testament manuscripts:

Some have estimated there are about 200,000 of them. First of all, these are not “errors” but variant readings, the vast majority of which are strictly grammatical. Second, these readings are spread throughout more than 5300 manuscripts, so that a variant spelling of one letter of one word in one verse in 2000 manuscripts is counted as 2000 “errors.”

Geisler got his information (directly or indirectly) from Neil R. Lightfoot’s How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963). Lightfoot says (53-54):

From one point of view it may be said that there are 200,000 scribal errors in the manuscripts, but it is wholly misleading and untrue to say that there are 200,000 errors in the text of the New Testament. This large number is gained by counting all the variations in all of the manuscripts (about 4,500). This means that if, for example, one word is misspelled in 4,000 different manuscripts, it amounts to 4,000 “errors.” Actually in a case of this kind only one slight error has been made and it has been copied 4,000 times. But this is the procedure which is followed in arriving at the large number of 200,000 “errors.”

In other words, Lightfoot was claiming that textual variants are counted by the number of manuscripts that support such variants, rather than by the wording of the variants. This book has been widely influential in evangelical circles. I believe over a million copies of it have been sold. And this particular definition of textual variants has found its way into countless apologetic works.

The problem is, the definition is wrong. Terribly wrong

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Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s "Misquoting Jesus"

 

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