Tampering with the Text: Was the New Testament Text Changed Along the Way? (part 2)

Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger, Authors

Tampering with the Text: Was the New Testament Text Changed Along the Way? (part 2)

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is part 2 of an excerpt from The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger (Crossway).

Thesis 3: The Reliability of the Text Critical Method: of the small portion of variations that are significant, our text-critical methodology can determine, with a reasonable degree of certainty, which is the original text 

In part 1 of this article series, it was demonstrated that the vast majority of textual variations are insignificant and irrelevant to determining the original text of the New Testament. However, that leaves a small portion of textual variants that can be deemed "significant." The definition of this term has two aspects: (1) "significant" textual variants are simply those that are not included in the "insignificant" category discussed above; and (2) "significant" variants are those that in some sense affect the meaning of the passage (though the effect can range from fairly minimal to more substantial). 

Even though the quantity of these significant variants is quite small in comparison to insignificant variants, some of them can still make an impact on our understanding of New Testament passages (as we shall see below). Thus one might conclude that these sorts of changes present a real challenge to the textual integrity of the New Testament. However, such a conclusion would be built upon an assumption that we have no way to determine which of these significant variants were original and which were not. Put differently, significant variants would be a problem if we could assume that every one of them was as equally viable as every other. The problem with such an assumption, however, is that it stands in direct contradiction to the entire history of textual criticism—indeed, to the very existence of the field itself—which has consistently maintained that not all textual variants are equally viable and that our methodology can determine (with a reasonable degree of certainty) which is the original text.44 If that is the case, then these few "significant" textual variants do not materially affect the integrity of the New Testament because, put simply, we can usually spot them when they occur. 

Examples of Significant Variants 

It may be helpful for us to review some examples of significant variants, though we can only scratch the surface of the issue here. For instance, in Mark 1:14 we are told that Jesus came preaching the "gospel of God." However, some fifth-century (and later) manuscripts—such as Codex Alexandrinus (A) and Codex Bezae (D)—read the "gospel of the kingdom of God." The cause for this slight change is obvious: the phrase "kingdom of God" is quite common throughout Mark (and the other Synoptic Gospels) and the scribe was likely harmonizing 1:14 with these other passages (a very common cause of scribal variations). Is there a difference in meaning between "gospel of God" and "gospel of the kingdom of God"? Perhaps. But the difference is hardly a cause for concern. And even if the difference were substantial, it matters little because the textual evidence is clear that Mark originally wrote "gospel of God."45 Mark 1:14 is a very typical example of a "significant" variant. 

However, there are other "significant" variants that have a more substantial impact on the meaning of a text. Two examples will suffice. One of the most commonly mentioned variants is found in 1 John 5:7-8 and is known as the Comma Johanneum.46 The italicized portion of the following verses is found in only a handful of manuscripts: "For there are three that testify: in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree." Out of hundreds of Greek manuscripts, only eight contain this variant reading—and four of those have the variants added by the scribe into the margin—and the earliest of these is tenth century.47 Moreover, the variant is attested by none of the Greek fathers and is absent from almost all our early versions. In the end, despite the fact that this variant found its way into the Textus Receptus (and thereby the King James translation), the text-critical evidence is decidedly against it being original to John's epistle. What, then, do we make of this variant? No one can doubt that it is "significant" in that it affects the theological understanding of this verse. However, it simply has no claim to originality and therefore does not impact our ability to recover the original text of the New Testament.48 Nor is our understanding of the Trinity in the slightest dependent on this verse—indeed, the orthodox conception of the Trinity can be derived from many other New Testament verses and was well in place for centuries before this variation would have been widely known. 


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