Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

There is a great deal of attention and concern given today to textual variation in the Holy Scriptures. There are even books written by people who have lost Christian faith because they held to anachronistic and ultimately unsustainable views about the Bible. So I wanted to devote a post to the manner in which ancient texts were transmitted and preserved, placing the development of what we call the Bible in its proper context.

First, it’s important to recognize that unlike some sacred texts (the Qur’an is one good example) our Holy Scriptures were not written by one person at one point in time. The development of what we call the Bible today is a complex topic, but it certainly has many authors and developed over a long period of time. All of it captures a significant part of a larger oral tradition. Basically, the text of the Holy Scriptures functions as an integral piece of that oral tradition. Some parts, especially from what we call the Old Testament, developed over time — sometimes centuries. The New Testament, by contrast, was largely written by specific individuals and did not particularly develop over time. However, it all fits within a larger tradition and loses its meaning if removed from that tradition.

Next, as we’ve discussed before, these texts were all written and copied by hand. We have a difficult time grasping the difficulty of that task. It was extremely labor-intensive. And the materials were fragile and degraded over time, especially if handled and read frequently. Nor was there any sense in the ancient world that absolute verbatim accuracy in the copy was required. It’s not just a case of scribal error — though that certainly occurred. For instance, it’s possible that John did not originally include the story of the adulterous woman in John 8. It’s possible that a scribe a century later or so, living within a community immersed in the Johannine oral tradition decided that story also needed to be preserved. If so, by accepting the revised Gospel, the Church accepted that story as well. It’s not somehow of lesser importance or reliability. In fact, we would owe a debt to that scribe for preserving that piece of the tradition for us in the text.

However, variations in the text were simply not seen as a problem by anyone in the ancient world. We have homilies preserved by, for example, St. John Chrysostom where he encounters variations in a text. He simply notes that he has also seen it rendered this other way. Sometimes he’ll draw a spiritual point from both variant readings. But it doesn’t bother him when it happens. Now, there is a great deal of fidelity in the Christian manuscripts of the New Testament. Obviously care was lavished on their preservation. But they are a synergy between man and God both in their production and in their preservation. Like the Incarnation itself, the Holy Scriptures and the Church that provides the context for them are as fully human as they are divine — with all which that implies.

I’ll close with one more observation on textual variation. If you read the notes in a modern Bible, you’ll see comments that say things like “the oldest manuscripts do not include this.” Sometimes implied in that is the idea that the older a manuscript is the more accurate it is. But the truth is that we simply don’t know. As I’ve mentioned, the more a text was handled, the more it deteriorated. So it’s equally reasonable to assume that an old, variant manuscript survived because it was recognized as a poor copy and thus wasn’t used. We just don’t know. The only real guide we have lies in the reading or readings that the Church has accepted as valid or useful for edification.

If you ask the wrong questions, you’re unlikely to find the right answers. And a lot of the modern discussion on textual variation in parts of Christianity seems to flow from the wrong questions.

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