What About Manuscript Differences?

If your Bible is a newer version, you may have noticed a few verses where a footnote says that some manuscripts omit or add a certain word or phrase in the text. (For example, some manuscripts omit “adultery” and “murders” from Paul’s list of works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21.) In a few cases an entire sentence or paragraph is noted as being absent from some manuscripts. Maybe that has you concerned. What does it all mean?

A manuscript is an ancient handwritten copy of a portion of Scripture in the original language. Because the originals of the books of Scripture are not available to us, these copies provide the basis for all Bible translations. There are more manuscripts of the Bible than of any other ancient work. For instance, more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts of New Testament books have been discovered so far. More are found every year. Some of these manuscripts are fragments containing only a few verses; others are in book form, with some containing virtually the entire New Testament. Some date to within a relatively short time after the original writing.

When manuscripts of the same portion of Scripture are compared, small variations may be found from one to the next. Two manuscripts may differ as to the spelling of a word, the order of words in a sentence, or even whether a word or phrase is included in a passage. These variations exist simply because the manuscripts were hand copied by uninspired, imperfect people.

Over the years, as more and more Bible manuscripts have been discovered, a field of study called textual criticism has developed. Textual criticism involves comparing and contrasting manuscripts in an effort to determine exactly what the original authors said. Scholars differ (often passionately) as to exactly how this should be done; so they have arrived at differing conclusions and published differing Greek texts. If two English translations are each based on a different Greek text, then there will be places where they don’t read exactly alike. (In our example in Galatians 5:19-21, the NKJV includes “adultery” and “murders” in the text, while the NASB omits them and places them in a footnote. The reason is that the two versions are based on different Greek texts.)

Now, let me explain why you shouldn’t be worried about all this. You see, the variations between manuscripts make up only a small percentage of the text they contain. In fact, the text of the existing New Testament manuscripts is about 87.5% identical. Only about 12.5% contains variations—and less than 2% contains variations other than spelling. This means that the differing versions of the Greek text upon which our English translations are based are all 98-99% identical. Of the variations which do exist, the vast majority have absolutely no effect on the sense of the text—most don’t even show up in English. And not one of them is sufficient to call any New Testament teaching into question. (Back to our example: Whether or not Paul originally included “adultery” and “murders” in Galatians 5, both are clearly condemned in numerous other New Testament passages.)

Incidentally, we’ve just been considering the New Testament here. When we take both Old and New Testaments together, the consistency of the manuscripts is even more remarkable. The substantial variations in Bible manuscripts make up barely 1/1000 of the total text (less than two pages in a typical Bible). And again, none of those variations casts doubt on any part of the teaching of Scripture.

God inspired the words of Scripture, and through His providence He has preserved them through the centuries. People in every generation can come to know Him through His word. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).


† For a more thorough discussion of textual criticism, consult a book such as Neil Lightfoot’s How We Got the Bible.