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Are the Greek Texts of the Bible Corrupt? An Example (1 John 1:4) - Mondays with Mounce

Categories Biblical Studies Greek

People often say the Greek manuscripts behind the New Testament are so corrupt that we can’t trust them. Ehrman is famous for his line that there are more errors than words. The problem is that these numbers are irrelevant if you do not, at the same time, discuss significance.

I discuss this issue in depth in my book, Why I Trust the Bible (see Well over 70% of the variants have no significance whatsoever, either because they can’t be original or because there is no change in meaning. There are, however, some variations among Greek texts that do change the meaning and we sometimes can’t tell what was the original reading to the text. I came across one today in my reading.

John writes, “These things we (ἡμεῖς) are writing that our (ἡμῶν) joy may be complete.” Instead of the first person, some manuscripts have second person (ὑμῖν, ὑμῶν). This is a common scribal change, and notice that while the meaning is changed, it is not a significant change in terms of meaning.

If this were not such a common change, you might suspect it was accidental, changing eta to upsilon. But it is common, and it happens twice in this verse, so it most likely was intentional. Having said that, it does not greatly change the meaning. Who’s joy is John concerned with, his or the church’s?

However, the manuscript tradition favors first person. The Byzantine tradition is split between the two readings, but the Textus Receptus (and hence the KJV) has second person. It is possible that the second person is due to assimilation to the identical phrase in John 16:24 where Jesus says, “Up till now you have asked for nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be complete (ἵνα ἡ χαρὰ ὑμῶν ᾖ πεπληρωμένη).”

But my point is not to solve this textual issue but to use it to illustrate that even when there is a variant that does change the meaning of the text, it doesn’t mean that the difference is significant nor that it makes the text unreliable. John is writing with the goal of increasing joy, whether that be his or the church’s. My guess is that both are true. John’s joy and the church’s joy are certainly intertwined.

Learn more in Why I Trust the Bible. You can order the book here.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash.

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