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Textual Variants — How Important Are They?

The question of textual variants (or “variant readings”) cannot (or, at least, should not) be ignored. For an overview and explanation of the subject, I recommend consulting the three-part introductory article “Learning the Language” (see Parts 1, 2, and 3). But, just how important are these differences in the manuscripts? To give a simple answer, one might say that anything involving the text of Scripture is very important. If one hopes to understand properly, and to be guided by the Scriptures, it is vital to know what they actually say.

It is sometimes claimed that these textual differences do not affect Christian doctrine or theology. This may be intended to reassure believers, but the claim is, at best, misleading. To begin with, it is true that, of the many thousands of variant readings, most are negligible or insignificant—clear scribal errors or singular readings (I do not even count simple spelling differences as variants). Again, of the remaining substantive or significant variants, a large percentage do not fundamentally alter the sense of the passage. However, this rather depends on how much weight one places on individual words—their morphology and syntactical connections. If the basic sense is preserved, how much do the literal differences matter? Beyond this question, there still remain a fair number of substantive variants that are theologically or doctrinally significant.

Points of doctrine, of course, do not exist in a vacuum—from whence are they derived ultimately, if not from the text of Scripture? All of the standard tenets of orthodoxy (with the exception, perhaps, of Christ’s “descent” into Hell/Hades), are the result of centuries of theological reflection, and do not rest upon one or two individual verses. However, our understanding and insight may surely be altered or shaped, even slightly, by a careful analysis and understanding of the variant readings. One ought, I think, to recognize the following areas of emphasis:

  1. The nature of the variant. Especially to note are possible intentional or purposeful scribal changes—how or why were these made? In the New Testament, many of these are of Christological significance—which are certainly important indeed, and not to be ignored.
  2. The location of the variant. I would maintain that variant readings generally, when they occur in a passage of special doctrinal significance, become, by definition, significant. For more on this, see below.
  3. The application of the variant. Variant readings have been, and continue to be, a part of the living and ongoing formation of doctrine. This was perhaps more true in the early centuries of the Church—a careful perusal of the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, for example, reveals the citation and reference to a good number of variants (as we regard them today) in the context of their disputes with “gnostics” and “heretics” on theological (and Christological) points. Even today, variants play a role in theological discussion. See below for at least one key example.

Let us take a look at some of the variant readings which occur in the so-called Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18). It would be hard to find a more theologically significant (or influential) passage in the entire New Testament. Many thousands of pages have been written commenting and expounding upon these marvelous words. I will limit any points of wider interpretation to the variation-units being discussed. Unless otherwise indicated, the translations are my own.

John 1:3-4:

Here the variants themselves are not so important; but, rather, the variants reflect a particular difficulty in interpreting the passage. The problem involves the words o^ ge/gonen, “(that) which came to be”—how is one to parse this phrase? Does o^ ge/gonen belong properly to the previous or suceeding words? Below are the two ways vv. 3 and 4 may be divided; I translate with a period (full stop), but punctuation even in the Greek is not certain:

  1. kai xwri$ au)tou= e)ge/neto ou)de e%n o^ ge/gonen. e)n au)tw=| zwh h@n: “…and apart (from) him came to be not (even) one (thing) which has come to be. In him was life…”
  2. kai xwri$ au)tou= e)ge/neto ou)de e%n. o% ge/gonen e)n au)tw=| zwh h@n: “…and apart (from) him came to be not (even) one (thing). (That) which has come to be in him was life…”
    This second interpretation can again be understood several different ways:
    a) “That-which-has-come-to-be, in him, was life…”
    b) “That-which-has-come-to-be, was life in him…”
    c) “That-which-has-come-to-be-in-him was life…”

Each of these has had its proponents, from ancient through modern times. Arguments in favor of reading #1 are:

  • It seems to provide a clearer sense and structure: v.3—creation (“coming to be”), followed by v.4—life/light which “is” and shines in creation. What exactly does the alternate (“that which has come to be in him was life”) mean?
  • The simpler, more direct idea of “life in him” can be found elsewhere in the Gospel (e.g., John 5:26, 39; 6:53)
  • Johannine style: beginning a sentence (or clause) with the preposition e)n + a pronoun.
  • The alternate (o( gegonen as beginning v.4) may have arisen in the early centuries under “Gnostic” influence—i.e., a cosmogonic “coming to be” of the Ogdoad and the Aeons. Irenaeus cites this (Against Heresies I.8.5) as the Valentinian interpretation.

In favor of reading #2 would be:

  • The step or “staircase” parallelism of the passage seems to require it. (Assuming a hymnic/poetic structure for the prologue)
  • It is the interpretation accepted by perhaps the majority of Church Fathers, including a number of early Greek Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria (see Paidagogos II.9), Origen (Commentary on John, Against Celsus VI.6, and many other references), Eusebius, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, Cyril, etc.
  • Even though this reading may seem awkward or obscure, many of the early (Greek speaking) Fathers seem to have had no trouble understanding it—that which came to be was “living”, i.e., had life in him (cf. Acts 17:28).
  • As, perhaps, the more “difficult” reading, it is to be preferred.
  • When Arians and so-called Macedonians began using this interpretation in support of the idea that the Holy Spirit was a created being, reading #1 may have developed as a way to avoid this.

Commentators today are divided, though most modern translations opt for #1. So does Bruce Metzger, in his dissenting opinion to the UBS Committee’s decision (see his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, pp. 167-8). The UBS and Nestle-Aland critical texts use #2. I would, by a narrow margin, choose #1, though I find #2 most intriguing.

While here the original Greek text, as such, is more or less certain, the difficulty in interpreting the passage did give rise to at least one key variant:

  • Instead of “that which has come to be in him was (h@n) life”, assuming interpretation #2 above, a number of manuscripts instead read “…is (e)stin) life”, changing from an imperfect to a present form—i.e., “is living/alive”, instead of “was living/alive”.

No easy answers can be given to this rich and challenging passage.

John 1:9:

Here I mention in passing another question of pronunciation and interpretation in the prologue. This involves the phrase e)rxo/menon ei)$ ton ko/smon, “coming into the world”—does the phrase modify to fw=$ to a)lhqino/n (“the true/real light”) or pa/nta a&nqrwpon (“every man”)? In other words, is it the light or the (created) human being who is “coming into the world”? I think it almost certain that the reference is to the light.

John 1:13:

The original Greek text for this verse is all but certain, with some minor/insignificant variants. Here is the reading of virtually all Greek manuscripts (and most other textual witnesses as well)—for context, I include verse 12 as well:

12o%soi de e&labon au)to/n, e&dwken au)toi=$ e)cousi/an te/kna qeou= gene/sqai, toi=$ pisteu/ousin ei)$ to o&noma au)tou=, 13oi† ou)k e)c ai(ma/twn ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ sarko$ ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ a)ndro$ a)ll’ e)k qeou= e)gennh/qhsan.

12But as (many) as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God, 13the (ones) who, not out of blood, not (even) out of (the) will of flesh, not (even) out of (the) will of man, but out of God, have come to be (born).

There is, however, one major (singular or nearly-singular) variant which must be noted. In one Old Latin manuscript (b), and in several of the early Latin Church Fathers, the singular (instead of the plural) is read in verse 13—the underlying Greek would be o^$ ou)k…e)gennh/qh, instead of oi^ ou)k…e)gennh/qhsan—i.e., “the (one) who…has come to be (born)”. A few Syriac manuscripts also read the verb in the singular. Interestingly, this variant is attested already by the middle of the 2nd century (in the so-called Epistle of the Apostles, §3); a bit later it is cited by Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.16.2, 19.2; V.1.3) and Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ, §19, 24) as an important proof-text in support of the (real) Virgin Birth of Jesus. Tertullian, especially, claims that the heretics have tampered with the passage, changing the singular to the plural—in his view, the singular (natus est) is the correct reading, which he cites both against the Ebionites and the Valentinians. In the transmission of the New Testament, corruption usually occurs toward a “higher” or more distinct Christological emphasis (adding or modifying details), and rarely in the opposite direction. In addition to the usefulness of this particular variant in Christological disputes, there may also have been some unease with the plural construction. Tertullian seems to reflect this (§19) when he claims that the Valentinians have taken what properly should be said of Christ and appropriated it to themselves. The Latin West was never especially comfortable with the doctrine of theosis—the deification of the believer, in Christ, as the end result of salvation and sanctification; John 1:13 has been one of the clearest passages in relation to this teaching.

John 1:18:

Here we have one of the most significant, disputed textual variants in the entire New Testament. The principal variant is as follows:

18Qeon ou)dei$ e(w/raken pw/pote:
No one has seen God (at) any time;”
[o(] monogenh$ qeo$            o( monogenh$ ui(o$
“[the] only God,”              “the only Son,”
o( w*n ei)$ ton ko/lpon tou= patro$ e)kei=no$ e)chgh/sato.
“the (one) being in(to) the bosom of the Father, that one has brought (him) out”

Note: The word monogenh$ is difficult to translate literally in English; typically it has been rendered “only-born/begotten”; however, in common Greek parlance, it is much like saying “one of a kind”, “unique”; perhaps a fair literal rendering would be “only one (of its) kind”. Also, while e)chge/omai is translated literally as “lead/bring out”, it would more commonly be rendered “declare, report, expound, narrate, reveal”—i.e., “has declared (him)”, or “has revealed (him)”.

I cited the textual evidence briefly in an earlier article. I include the diagram again here below:

MS_diagram1Clearly, o( monogenh$ ui(o$ is the majority reading, supported by an impressive range of early and diverse witnesses; this normally would be sufficient to confirm it as the original text. On the other hand, the “earliest and best” (Alexandrian) Greek MSS, along with other strong/diverse witnesses, read monogenh$ qeo$ (with or without the definite article). A few manuscripts also read simply o( monogenh$.

The reading with qeo$ (“God”) would seem to be the more difficult, and, on the principle of difficilior lectio potior, perhaps is to be preferred. Scribes may have altered it to the more familiar ui(o$ (“Son”). On the other hand, there was a marked tendency for scribes, consciously or unconsciously, to modify the text in favor of a stronger Christological emphasis. There can be no doubt that the reading [o(] monogenh$ qeo$ became a key text in support of the Deity of Christ. Even today, many theological and apologetic writings cite John 1:18 for this purpose—however, to do so, without any indication of the divided textual evidence, is really quite irresponsible.

What exactly is the meaning of [o(] monogenh$ qeo$? One ought to be cautious about reading later credal formulations (whether Nicene, Chalcedonian, or from the Westminster standards) back into the first-century text. Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, Christ is identified (or identifies himself) with the Father, but perhaps never so explicitly as this variant would indicate (especially if the definite article is original). The wording of John 1:1 (kai qeo$ h@n o( lo/go$, “and the Logos was God”) is most precise (and, one might almostg say, cautious)—note the anarthrous form (without the definite article), and the specific word order.

In terms of transcriptional probability, the evidence is likewise uncertain, though, I think, slightly in favor of ui(o$ as the original reading. In the early (Alexandrian) scribal tradition, both readings would be represented by nomina sacra (“sacred names”)—a convention of using marked abbreviations to represent various names and titles of God (and Christ). In these MSS, it is easy to see how ui(o$ (+u+s) and qeo$ (+q+s) might be confused. +u+s would have been much less common as a sacred name, and more likely to have been (accidentally?) modified to +q+s.

But was the change, in whichever direction it occurred, accidental or was it intentional? We may never know for sure. Likewise, we may never be absolutely certain which is the original reading—although this must always be a fundamental goal of Biblical Criticism: to determine, as far as possible, the original text. However, in this instance, I would recommend that believers study and meditate on this wondrous passage with both variant readings in mind.

 

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