The Number of New Testament Textual Variants Doesn’t Matter

by Ryan Leasure

“There are more variations among our manuscripts than words in the New Testament.”1

This common refrain by Bart Ehrman in Misquoting Jesus is meant to have a shock and awe effect on conservative Christians. It’s meant to relegate them to the fetal position — to cause them to question their faith. But what exactly is he referring to? He’s referring the fact that while there are only about 140,000 words in the New Testament, 400,000 textual variants exist in the manuscript tradition.

On the surface, this sounds like a massive problem doesn’t it? Way more differences in the manuscripts than words? But here’s the thing. The number of textual variants doesn’t matter. That’s right. There could be a million variants, and that, in and of itself, wouldn’t be a problem for Christians. You see, it’s not the number of variants that matters; it’s the type of variants that makes a difference.

Before I clarify what I mean, let me point out that the reason we have so many textual variants is because we have way more ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament than any other work of antiquity, and it’s not even close. That is, if we only had one manuscript, there would be zero textual variants. But because we have almost 6,000 manuscripts, thousands of variants exist…

The Number of New Testament Textual Variants Doesn’t Matter