Terrified of 400,000 errors in the New Testament?  


“Why should I care about what an old book says? It was corrupted by the Church to control people and it is full of contradictions! And there are hundreds of thousands of errors in the New Testament alone!” 

Perhaps you have heard some version of this accusation. I used to make this argument myself, and I meant it, sincerely. It was unfathomable that Christians could just throw their lives away for this old, outdated, corrupted, sloppy book.  

Christians are not the only ones who hold their old holy books in high esteem. And the thinking goes—from the confident devotee to the critical skeptic—that if your God is unchangeable, then so should be his/her/their/its word. But there has been more scrutiny placed on the holy books of Judaism and Christianity than any other books in antiquity. And, as a result, the anxiety grows, for the more we know, the more complex the picture becomes. 

Indeed, if you have heard a headline about the Bible in the past ten years, it probably has not been a positive one. You’ve no doubt seen it accused of racism and sexism. Or you’ve heard that they found the tomb of its key protagonist, Jesus. Or a “secret gospel” that alleges to show that Jesus scandalously had a wife. For shame!  

Or you’ve heard it’s riddled with errors. Intentional, malicious errors. And lots of them.  

The accusations are sensationalistic. But that doesn’t matter. Once it hits you, you can’t forget it.  

So, then, perhaps you have heard this one before: The New Testament is riddled with 400,000 errors. And maybe that shook your confidence in the New Testament. Or, if you’re not a Christian, perhaps it solidified your distrust in the New Testament.  

Is the claim about 400,000 errors true? Yes. And no. And it doesn’t mean what you think it means.  

What are the 400,000 errors?

The first thing to recognize is that the alleged “errors” are in the ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. The errors being analyzed here are not factual errors of historical context but rather differences, or “variants,” between one manuscript and another.   

Here is the problem precisely: Some estimates say there are 400,000 variants in Greek New Testament manuscripts. These are considered the most reliable manuscripts because they are the earliest and they are in the original language of the New Testament.  

There are only about 138,000 words in a complete Greek New Testament. This means that there is an average of 3 variants per word! As Bart Ehrman often points out to great rhetorical force, “There are more variant readings in the manuscripts of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament.”  

What is a variant?

Variants in New Testament criticism are instances where one manuscript differs from another. It is easy to see how this could happen: copying 138,000 words by hand is sure to have some errors! Today we have the benefits of superior lighting, keyboards, and word-processing machines to limit our errors, and yet we still make mistakes.  

Most New Testament variants appear to be unintentional misspellings, repeating a word or phrase from the preceding line (or a similar line elsewhere in the Bible), or accidentally omitting a word. These rarely impact the meaning of the text in question.  

The most common intentional variant is the variant of clarification. Clarification was not nefarious. Perhaps an example will help. Recall Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8. The eunuch was interested in a verse he had read from the prophet Isaiah (53:7-8) and wanted to know whom the prophecy was about. Philip, led to the eunuch by the Holy Spirit, explained it to him by preaching Christ (Acts 8:35). The eunuch immediately wanted to be baptized (8:36), and so Philip baptized him (8:38).  

However, at some point in time, a scribe appears to have added verse 37, which is not in the earliest manuscripts. In this verse, the conversation is expanded as Philip tells the eunuch that he can be baptized if he believes with all his heart, and the eunuch responds “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”  

Notice a few things. We are already aware from Acts itself (among other New Testament writings) that one must believe in Jesus to be baptized (Acts 8:12, 18:8). We also know that Jesus was known as “Christ” (Acts 2:38, 3:6, many more) and “Son of God” (Acts 9:20). So, this clarification does not add or attempt to hide disputed information. It is merely clarifying at a point where the scribe must have felt Luke left too much to our imaginations.  

The vast majority of manuscript variants are not meaningful, meaning they do not change the meaning of the text, and not viable, meaning they do not create uncertainty in the proper wording of the text. The smallest category of variants, less than 1%, are those that may change the meaning of the text and are viable alternatives to other readings. However, even these changes in meaning are not of major consequence (see John 18 example below). No meaningful variant impacts any key Christian doctrines, which are never built on only one text anyway

When the New Testament is accused of being riddled with errors, the implication is that these were all purposeful errors. In reality, they were mostly unintentional errors, and even those intentional errors are largely innocent, meaning to clarify by simply adding an idea that is affirmed elsewhere in the text. Even critical scholar Bart Ehrman admits, “the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of differences are immaterial, insignificant, and trivial.” 

As far as we know, we do not have any of the original New Testament writings yet, either in whole or in part. But with the number of early manuscripts we have, we can still find our way to what is most likely the original wording. By comparing the variants and discerning how and why they were made, scholars can make informed decisions about the correct, original wording.  

Why are there so many errors?

The number of variants at first glance seems a very big number. And it is made worse once you realize that the New Testament has more variant readings than many other ancient texts. But the large number of variants is simply a by-product of the large number of manuscripts we have of the New Testament.  

We have more ancient manuscripts of the New Testament than any other ancient writing, the basic integrity of which we rarely question. We have about 5,000-6,000 manuscripts in the original Greek language of varying lengths, with many from the earliest centuries. Beyond that, we have many thousands of translations and quotations in the writings of the Church Fathers. The Greek manuscripts are considered the most important for establishing the original wording, but the other versions and citations can help as well.  

Christian apologists in the past have tended to use old figures for comparing New Testament texts to non-Christian texts and have unequally weighed the evidence. However, New Testament scholar James Prothro affirms in the indispensable Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (IVP Academic, 2019) that it is still “indisputable” that the New Testament has more and earlier manuscripts than any other ancient writing in existence. If you can’t trust the integrity of the New Testament, he says, “then you really can’t trust any ancient text.”  

It is important to point out the number of manuscripts we have because it is the only reason the New Testament has more variant readings. There is no sign in the manuscript evidence of any prolonged, systematic attempt to change the words of the Bible. The variants exist merely because so many copies were made. In other words, it is because of the embarrassment of manuscript riches we have.  

Think of it like this: let’s say you and a friend got in trouble during school and had to stay after to write sentences on the board. The teacher requests that you repeat the line “I am sorry for my behavior and promise to do better.” Your friend must write it 20 times, but you must write it 100 times because you were the main instigator. Now, let’s make it more interesting and assume you are more focused than your friend.  Because of that, you only make one mistake every 10 sentences, but your friend makes one mistake every 4 sentences. At the end of the day, your friend had made 5 mistakes. Even though you made less mistakes on average, you’ve made 10 mistakes because of the number of sentences you wrote.  

Based on the experiment above, who is more accurate? The one with more total mistakes! So, the number of errors does not always properly communicate which writings are more accurate.  

When variants “disappear”

Let’s try another quick experiment. Let’s say your friend goes back into the classroom after everyone has left and erases every sentence of theirs that contains a spelling error. Would that mean that they are more accurate since they have zero mistakes in their sentences, which makes their error rate zero percent? Of course not!  

What the student did in the latest example was create a standardized text that eliminated variants. Moving now back into the realm of textual criticism, this sort of standardization can eliminate not just meaningless variants like spelling mistakes, but also potentially meaningful variants.

There are no signs in New Testament manuscript history of a concerted effort to standardize the text in this way. Some attempts at harmonizing the Gospels did begin to appear in the second century, the most popular among them being Tatian’s Diatessaron (which literally means one from four), created between 160 and 180. This work was a popular study tool for a time, and was popular in Syriac Christianity for even longer, but the Church ultimately rejected it in favor of the four individual Gospels.

When Islamic apologists tout that the Qur’an is “perfect” and does not suffer from the same alleged defects as the “corrupted” New Testament, they do have somewhat of a point: manuscripts of the Qur’an have less variant readings. But they fail to mention the two reasons for this though. First, they have far fewer manuscripts. Second, there are signs of a concerted effort to standardize the text through the elimination of variant textual traditions and manuscripts. Qur’an scholar Keith Small wrote that the Quranic manuscript evidence provides “substantial evidence of the standardization and suppression of variant texts …”  

Rethinking the 400,000

Now that we have seen what an error, or variant, actually is, I hope that the charge of the New Testament being “changed” has been defanged. However, we are still left with the problem of all of those variants! A few variants seem likely and acceptable, reason says. But 400,000? That’s excessive! 

Actually, it isn’t excessive at all. Let’s dive deeper.  

While the exact number of Greek New Testament manuscripts is unknown, we can safely say we have about 5,300 cataloged Greek New Testament manuscripts. More are sure to be discovered as libraries continue to digitize their old manuscript collections. Most of these are only partial manuscripts. Partial manuscripts may include every New Testament book except for one, or it may be a mere scrap of paper with a few words from the Gospel of John on it.  

Of those manuscripts, we have 60 full Greek New Testaments. This helps us greatly. If we have 60 full Greek New Testament manuscripts, and if each Greek New Testament is about 138,000 words, then that means there is a total combined word count of 8,280,000 words. Now, let’s take the 400,000 variants and pretend that instead of those variants occurring in the 5,000+ Greek manuscripts, they all occur only in the 60 complete manuscripts. If we did that, we would only have an issue with 4.8% of the words in the whole Greek New Testament, meaning we could have confidence 95.2% of the time. Suddenly, that “400,000” number is sounding less catastrophic.  

Rethinking Variants: John 18

As already mentioned, most of the variants aren’t viable or meaningful. So, even the percentage I gave above, which is already skewed because I did not include all of the evidence at our disposal, is not clear because it does not weigh the type of variant. Let’s look at a more precise example that illustrates not only the numbers but also the type of variant. For, as Tim Barnett rightly points out, it is the nature, not the number, of variants that matters.  

New Testament scholar Peter Gurry looks at John 18 in Greek continuous-text manuscripts. Of these types, there are 1,659 manuscripts of John 18. In those manuscripts, there are 3,058 variants. On average, John 18 is 800 words in length, which means there are about 4 variants per word!  

But look at it again: 1,659 manuscripts of a text that is 800 words in length means that there are about 1,300,000 total words copied. So then, given that 3,058 variants take place across those 1.3 million words, this means that there is just one distinct variant per 434 words copied. So that is a raw variant rate of 0.2%.  

Gurry looks at the types of variants as well. He points out that if we cut out the 1,360 of these variants that are nonsensical, then we have just 1,698 meaningful (but not threatening to core doctrines) textual variants. This means the meaningful variant rate is just 0.1%. Being meaningful does not mean they are viable, however. It also does not mean they are substantively meaningful, i.e. a variant that should change the actual meaning of a text. The Nestle-Aland Critical text, which is for academic studies, includes only 154 of these variants for consideration, leading to a 0.01% rate for academically meaningful variants. The United Bible Society’s critical text, which is created for Bible translators and may slightly impact translations, includes only 10 variants. This means that the rate for translation-meaningful texts is only 0.0008%.  

Changed meanings in John 18?

Let’s take a look at a couple of these meaningful variants in John 18. In Philip Comfort’s helpful New Testament Text and Translation Commentary (Tyndale, 2008), he seeks “to provide scholars, pastors, students, and serious Bible readers with a commentary on the variant readings in the New Testament that have significance for Bible interpretation and Bible translation.”  

In John 18:5, when Jesus is asked if he is Jesus of Nazareth, he replies “I am.” Many other manuscripts have Jesus saying “I am Jesus.” The original reading is most likely “I am,” and scribes may have added “Jesus” for clarity (as a general rule of textual criticism, the shorter reading is to be preferred since a scribe was more likely to add clarifying text to a verse). However, in doing so, the scribe flattened what was previously meant as a divine statement: Jesus identifying as the “I AM”. Even if “I am” is not the original reading, though, it would be affirmed without question in many other verses from the Gospel of John (8:58 and 13:19 to name just a few). So, this variant could potentially change the significance of Jesus’s statement, but that significance is maintained elsewhere in the Gospel of John.  

Another variant is in John 18:11 where one manuscript adds “for all who take the sword will die by the sword” to the end of Jesus’s command to Peter to put his sword in its sheath. Here one scribe either purposefully tried to harmonize John 18:11 with Matthew 26:52 or great familiarity with the Matthew passage led to accidentally adding Matthew’s ending to John’s verse.  

One final variant is John 18:37. Critical texts and most translations read Pilate’s words as a question: “You are a king, then?” However, the NIV reads it as “You are a king, then!” which may be supported by one manuscript. The reason is that most manuscripts read literally, “Then a king are you,” whereas the one variant swaps the word order to read, “Then a king you are.” The issue is one simple word transposition in one manuscript that turns Pilate’s statement from a question into a declarative, meant genuinely or not. The impact of this variant on the overall meaning of the text is minor.  

The Heart of the Matter

Critical scholar Bart Ehrman thinks that these variants are meaningful in certain ways but readily admits that “none of the variants” impact what are considered “major” Christian doctrines. We will be covering more of these variants, and “contradictions,” in future posts.  

But as you can see, the New Testament text is trustworthy, and it has been kept that way by faithful Christians under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for two millennia. It is not only the most trustworthy of all holy texts, but it is the most beautiful. For it is this Bible that tells us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). And through his sacrifice, he gave us the right to become sons and daughters of God (John 1:12).   

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bart ehrman,Bible contradictions,Bible errors,Bible mistakes,bible trustworthy,biblical criticism,errors in the New Testament