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More Words Than Differences among the New Testament Manuscripts. Part 1.

Prof Bart Ehrman is famous for his rhetorically powerful statement that there are more differences among the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament than there are words. It is true that there are about 400,000 differences among the 5,500 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, but the real question is one of significance. How many differences could be authentic, and how many do impact the meaning of the verse?

I am going to break this topic down into four sections in order to give even a basic overview. If you want to see the fuller answer now, please check out my new book, Why I Trust the Bible, and the ongoing discussion at

For those not familiar with the field of textual criticism, I’ll start in this blog with a brief overview of the key terms and an overview of the basic principles of textual criticism.


  1. We use the term “autograph” to refer to the original document written by the author. We have none of the autographs; parchment tends to wear out.
  2. Copies of the autographs are called “manuscripts.” These were made manually by scribes, and it is true that in so doing they did make unintentional mistakes, and they did make intentional changes.
  3. These differences between the texts are called “variants” or different “readings.” These include differences in wording (additions, omissions, changes), differences in word order, and even spelling. And it doesn’t matter whether a variant occurs in one manuscript or a thousand, it doesn’t matter if a variant occurs in a second-century or a tenth-century manuscript, it’s still counted as a variant. It is true that are about 400,000 variants in the approximately 5,500 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.

Principles of Textual Criticism

Textual criticism was created to look at the variants and decide which reading most likely reflects the original text. Textual critics look at two basic things.

(1) They look at external information, such as how old a manuscript is. The older manuscripts — generally 2nd to 4th century — are preferred to manuscripts from the later centuries since they are closer to the time of the autographs, and there has been less time, theoretically, for the text to have been changed.

(2) Textual critics also look at internal information. The basic rule is that the reading that best explains the others is more likely to be original. (I’ll give you an example in a second.) A similar principle is called the “shorter” reading. This means the variant with less words is generally preferred to the variant with more words. The shorter reading tends to better explain how the longer reading came about, and not vice-versa.

For example, when Jesus was explaining why the disciples couldn’t exorcise the demon, he says, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” Other manuscripts say, “prayer and fasting.” Is it more likely that the scribes added “and fasting,” or dropped “and fasting”? Since we know the scribal tendencies, in general, were to clarify, there is no reason why a scribe would have dropped “and fasting.” So the shorter reading, “except by prayer,” is viewed as the original, and explains the longer, “except by prayer and fasting.”

So textual critics look at both external and internal evidence.

Incidentally, I should mention how variants are counted. In one verse, if 10 manuscripts say “Paul,” three manuscripts say “Peter,” and a 12th-century manuscript says “Martha,” these are considered three variants. This is how there can be more variants than words. But note that in this example, only one word is in question, with three possible answers.

In my blog next week, we will look at variants that are viable (they could be authentic) but are not meaningful (they don’t change the meaning of the text). This helpful distinction of “meaningful” and “viable” comes from Dr. Daniel Wallace. Over 70% of the 400,000 variants fit into this category.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Unsplash.

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