“But the Bible is so full of copying errors, we can’t know what it really says.”
Satan is doing a full court press against the Bible these days. A biblical worldview is considered quaint at best, backwards and malicious at worst. The attack is multi-faceted. History tells us that the combined efforts of all the enemies of the Gospel who have ever lived have not succeeded in silencing God's Truth.
As multi-faceted as the attack may be, one curious but popular approach is to make it seem that we can’t even know what words were originally written down in the Bible in the first place.
Many months ago, in an article in The Journal the topic of variants was discussed. Yes, there are variants from one ancient Greek New Testament to another. This is caused by the realities of hand copying large sections of text. Mistakes were in fact made. An additional wrinkle is that sometimes a scribe, knowing of the possibility of mistakes, sometimes attempted to "correct" a text, only to introduce an error.
That can be unsettling for a Bible-believing Christian. As with anything, there's more to know.
The first thing we should know is that more than 5,000 whole or partial manuscripts (MSS) of the Greek New Testament are in libraries and personal collections around the world. These are diligently compared, by people who practice what is called Textual Criticism. It's a fascinating field of study, and the truth is that given recent discoveries, and the advancements in the field, we now have the most reliable NT the Church has ever had.
Rather than relying on that cheery thought, it makes sense to look at some of the variants, so that the reader can get the idea of what we're dealing with.
Just as a sample, I've decided to look at the variants of John 20:1-18. This passage contains the beginning of the Easter Narrative according to St. John. If any doctrine is important, it's surely the resurrection of Jesus. So let's take a peak.
One notable critic of the Bible, Dr. Bart Ehrman says, “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” Is he right? Well, in the 18 verses we've selected (and these were selected not because they're any better or worse for biblical accuracy than any other passage, but because of the significance of what's written there). In these 18 verses there are 33 places where differences occur between the ancient Greek NT's. That seems a lot. But what do they say? Without covering all 33, here are some examples.
1) In v. 1 some MSS, the woman coming to the tomb is called "Mary Magdalene." In others she is called "Miriam Magdalene." In the ancient world these names are nearly interchangeable; much as it would be ridiculous to argue about whether my eldest son is named James or Jim. So this variant doesn’t change much. Know this, too: nearly all MSS say "Mary Magdalene." Only four say "Miriam Magdalene."
2) In v. 2 there are the words "Simon Peter," while in other MSS the text is: "the Simon Peter." In ancient Greek a person's name could be preceded by the word "the," or not. This is a common variant among the MSS, and happens elsewhere in John 20. Again, it's hard to see this as changing much.
3) In v. 10, some MSS read "back to their homes," while others read "back to their own homes." There are many MSS on both sides of this split, so it's hard to tell which is the "better" reading. Once again, it seems to be a rather small difference.
4) In v. 11, there's a difference between "Mary stood by the tomb," vs. "Mary stood in the tomb." This is now a question of where, exactly, was she standing? We'd like to know. Perhaps one way to answer is to know that the reading "in the tomb" appears in only one MS of all the MSS.
5) In v. 12 a similar thing happens: a variant with one outlier. Nearly every MS of the Greek NT reads "and she saw two angels." One MS has "and she saw angels." The variant introduces the question of how many angels there were, but the one text standing all by itself helps us know what the original reading certainly was.
How many more should we look at? I always enjoy pointing out actual variants, because most people hear about the variants and suddenly fear that the entire Bible is shifting sand. After looking at a few of them they realize how trivial most are.
That raises the question: Are there any more significant than the ones selected above? Well, sure:
1) In vv. 5-6, there's an omission of all the words, "…but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there…" That's a significant difference. But this omission happens in only one MS. This leads us to believe that the copyist simply (and accidently) left one big gap in his work.
2) In v. 16, some MSS have "rabbouni (which means teacher)" while several others have "rabbouni, (which means teacher), and she ran to touch Him." The majority of MSS have the shorter reading, but a not small number have the longer reading. This leaves it unclear to us whether she touched Jesus right then or not. We just don’t know; but could ask ourselves: How significant do you think that to be?
This article has grown long. That's how looking at the variants goes. There are a few interesting things to notice. But it's never quite as earth-shattering as the critics would like us to think.
Take all the variants, go with one reading or the other, and what do we have? In John 20:1-18 there are a few little "wiggles" here and there. But at no point does the Truth of the matter change. No matter which way you go with any of these readings, you will still have Christ risen from the dead, Mary (or Miriam) Magdalene going to the tomb, being met by angels, and being told to share the Good News with the disciples.
As always, our adversary the devil would love us to lose God's Word. He'd love to burn every Bible on planet earth. Some governments have tried it. Failing that, he'd love us not to trust what we read there. But like so many things in a certain type of false "scholarship," the more you look at the attack the less you see. Shining through is the glad message that Christ remains risen from the dead.