Textual variants in the Bible

Articles about the Holy Bible

What evidence demonstrates that the Bible has been altered?

The current evidence of Biblical manuscripts demonstrates unequivocally that variation, corruption, or tampering with Biblical texts is the rule, not the exception

Old Testament

Emmanuel Tov[1], J. L. Magnes Professor of Bible at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, and editor-in-chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls publication project wrote:

  • "All of [the] textual witnesses [of the OT] differ from each other to a greater or lesser extent."
  • "There does not exist any one edition [of the OT] which agrees in all of its details with another."
  • "Most of the texts—ancient and modern—which have been transmitted from one generation to the next have been corrupted in one way or another." (emphasis in original)
  • "A second phenomenon pertains to corrections and changes inserted in the biblical text. . . . Such tampering with the text is evidenced in all textual witnesses."
  • "Therefore, paradoxically, the soferim [scribes] and Masoretes carefully preserved a text that was already corrupted."
  • "One of the postulates of biblical research is that the text preserved in the various representatives (manuscripts, editions) of what is commonly called the Masoretic Text, does not reflect the 'original text' of the biblical books in many details."
  • "These parallel sources [from Kings, Isaiah, Psalms, Samuel, etc.] are based on ancient texts which already differed from each other before they were incorporated into the biblical books, and which underwent changes after they were transmitted from one generation to the next as part of the biblical books."
  • "S[eptuagint] is a Jewish translation which was made mainly in Alexandria. Its Hebrew source differed greatly from the other textual witnesses (M[asoretic], T[argums], S[amaritan], V[ulgate, and many of the Qumran texts]). . . . Moreover, S[eptuagint] is important as a source for early exegesis, and this translation also forms the basis for many elements in the NT."
  • "The importance of S[eptuagint] is based on the fact that it reflects a greater variety of important variants than all the other translations put together."
  • "Textual recensions bear recognizable textual characteristics, such as an expansionistic, abbreviating, harmonizing, Judaizing, or Christianizing tendency."
  • "The theory of the division of the biblical witnesses into three recensions [Masoretic, Septuagint, and Samaritan] cannot be maintained . . . to such an extent that one can almost speak in terms of an unlimited number of texts."
  • "The question of the original text of the biblical books cannot be resolved unequivocally, since there is no solid evidence to help us to decide in either direction."
  • "We still have no knowledge of copies of biblical books that were written in the first stage of their textual transmission, nor even of texts which are close to that time. . . . Since the centuries preceding the extant evidence presumably were marked by great textual fluidity, everything that is said about the pristine state of the biblical text must necessarily remain hypothetical."
  • "M[asoretic] is but one witness of the biblical text, and its original form was far from identical with the original text of the Bible as a whole."
  • "As a rule they [concepts of the nature of the original biblical text] are formulated as 'beliefs,' that is, a scholar, as it were, believes, or does not believe, in a single original text, and such views are almost always dogmatic."
  • "During the textual transmission many complicated changes occurred, making it now almost impossible for us to reconstruct the original form of the text."
  • "many of the pervasive changes in the biblical text, pertaining to whole sentences, sections and books, should not . . . be ascribed to copyists, but to earlier generations of editors who allowed themselves such massive changes in the formative stage of the biblical literature."
  • "It is not that M[asoretic text] triumphed over the other texts, but rather, that those who fostered it probably constituted the only organized group which survived the destruction of the Second Temple [i.e., the rabbinic schools derived from the Pharisees]."

The Dead Sea Scrolls also indicate that the text differed, and this was not unique to Qumran, where they were discovered:

There is nothing in the biblical texts [found at Qumran] to suggest that they are specific to Qumran or to any particular group within Judaism. In fact, everything we know about the biblical text prior to the end of the first century C.E--for example, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, Philo, Josephus, the New Testament, Rabbinic quotations--indicates that the text was pluriform. The Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, and Josephus demonstrate bountifully that there were variant literary editions of the books of Scripture in the late Second Temple period (emphasis added).[2]

New Testament

A similar situations confronts us with the New Testament. Leon Vaganay and Christian-Bernard Amphoux[3] wrote in An Introduction to New Testament Criticism:

  • "They [ancient methods of rhetorical interpretation] are used to reveal a secret code, only accessible to the learned or initiated. If the 'Western' text is seen from this perspective, it becomes less of a product of a certain theology than of a certain system of meaning. . . . But this sophisticated kind of coded writing is not suitable for general circulation. For wider distribution, the text had to be adapted to the mentality of the people who were going to receive it, it had to be revised and changed so as to make it acceptable to an audience who were not expecting to have to look for hidden meaning."
  • "The wide stylistic gap between the two main New Testament text types, the 'Western' on the one hand and all the other types on the other hand, cannot have arisen by chance."
  • "In AD 178 the secular writer Celsus stated in polemic against the Christians: some of the believers . . . have changed the original text of the Gospels three or four times or even more, with the intention of thus being able to destroy the arguments of their critics.' (quoted in Origen, Contra Celsum, SC 132, 2, 27). Origen does not deny the existence of such changes." Indeed, Origen wrote, "It is an obvious fact today [third century A.D.] that there is much diversity among the manuscripts, due either to the carelessness of the scribes, or to the perverse audacity of some people in correcting the text, or again to the fact that there are those who add or delete as they please, setting themselves up as correctors."
  • "It is therefore not possible to reconstitute with certainty the earliest text, even though there is no doubt about its having existed in written form from a very early date, without a preparatory oral stage."
  • "In the period following AD 135, the recensions proliferated with a resultant textual diversity which reached a peak before the year 200."
  • "Thus between the years 150 and 250, the text of the first recensions acquired a host of new readings. They were a mixture of accidental carelessness, deliberate scribal corrections, involuntary mistakes, a translator's conscious departure from literalness, a reviser's more systematic alterations, and, not least, contamination caused by harmonizing to an extent which varied in strength from place to place. All these things contributed to diversification of the text, to giving it, if one may so put it, a little of the local colour of each country."

Who made the changes?

Christian writers often accused heretics (such as Marcion of the second century AD) of altering the Bible text. However, there is another more disturbing finding for those who insist on an inerrant Bible text:

...recent studies have shown that the evidence of our surviving manuscripts points the finger in the opposite direction. Scribes who were associated with the orthodox tradition not infrequently changed their texts, sometimes in order to eliminate the possibility of their "misuse" by Christians affirming heretical beliefs and sometimes to make them more amenable to the doctrines being espoused by Christians of their own persuasion.[4]

Thus, the present-day "orthodox" Christian tradition sometimes required the original texts to be reworked to support their views or oppose the views of those with whom they disagreed. It seems strange, then, to now accuse those who do not wholly accept the "orthodox" view of "violating scripture," since that very scripture was originally tampered with by those we now label 'orthodox,' which is merely another way of saying that they won the battle to define their view as the 'proper' one.

As Bruce Metzger observed:

Odd though it may seem, scribes who thought [for themselves] were more dangerous than those who wished merely to be faithful in copying what lay before them. Many of the alterations which may be classified as intentional were no doubt introduced in good faith by copyists who believed that they were correcting an error or infelicity of language which had previously crept into the sacred text and needed to be rectified. A later scribe might even reintroduce an erroneous reading that had been previously corrected. …The manuscripts of the New Testament preserve traces of two kinds of dogmatic alterations: those which involve the elimination or alteration of what was regarded as doctrinally unacceptable or inconvenient; and those which introduce into the Scriptures ‘proof’ for a favorite theological tenet or practice....[5]

Are the Biblical textual variants theologically significant?

Non-LDS scholar Kenneth Clark addressed this notion

Non-LDS scholar Kenneth Clark addressed this notion.[6] Each citation has the specific page number in brackets following it.

  • "It is important to know what the original text and the original meaning were, but it is also important to recognize the subsequent revision of text and thought in the course of the church’s history. In the current edition of the Nestle NT, for example, we have more than a single text, for in the apparatus criticus we are confronted with thousands of textual variants that involve a difference of form and interpretation" (2).
  • "Although a variant which is a departure from the original text may be described as spurious, yet every intentional and sensible variant has a claim to authenticity in the history of Christian thought. It will be valuable to form a judgment, in the light of all modern textual discoveries and researches, of the extent to which the Greek text of our NT has been subject to revision and made to carry differences of thought" (2).
  • "About 250 years ago, John Mill of Oxford… [in which it was] reported that his manuscript sources revealed 30,000 variants" (2, citing Mill, Novum Testamentum… (Oxford 1707). "A hundred years ago F. H. A. Scrivener [A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament, I.3] estimated that the text of the Greek NT showed variance ‘at least fourfold that quantity,’ i.e., 120,000" (2).
  • "In 1886 Benjamin Warfield estimated between 180,000 and 200,000 ‘variant readings’ [Warfield, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, 13]" (2-3).
  • "And in 1937 Vaganay acknowledged a range of 150,000 to 250,000" (3).
  • "Now in our time, the International Greek New Testament Project can report on 300 manuscript collations of Luke, and the estimate for the entire NT perhaps 300,000 variants" (3). He quotes several scholars from 1700 to his own day, that not one variant affected the fundamentals of Christian faith: Richard Bentley, Daniel Whitby, Benjamin Warfield, FHA Scrivener, Vaganay, Frederic Kenyon, FC Grant, Harold Greenlee, Kee-Young-Froelich NT introduction (3-4).
  • "There has been, of course, a contrary opinion. Hort himself admitted that ‘it is true that dogmatic preferences to a great extent determined theologians, and probably scribes, in their choice between rival readings….’ [Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek., 2.283]" (4).
  • "Recently CSC Williams has expressed the judgment that textual alteration derives ‘no less frequently from dogmatic than from other motivation’ [Williams, Alterations to the Text of the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (1951): 7]" (4).
  • "In reality, the amount of textual variation is a considerable portion. Of course it is true that the great bulk of text shows little or no record of variation…. So in the NT text it is the doubtful portion that stands in need of refinement. Its importance far exceeds its fractional size" (4).
  • "How shall we measure the theological clarification derived from textual emendation where a single word altered affects the major concept in a passage? …. By calculating words it is impossible to appreciate the spiritual insights that depend upon the words. We would not contend that even the most theological of variants create a doctrine or cancel out a doctrine, but it is defensible to maintain that variants do ‘affect’ or ‘alter’ or ‘modify’ doctrine" (4-5).
  • "The only objective and justification of textual criticism is that its emended text should give access to a clearer insight and a deeper faith. Textual variation does not imperil belief in God but it can and does contribute to elucidation of the character of God and of his relation to man…. There is far more in Christian doctrine than a brief creedal summation, and the exegesis of variant texts contributes to the enrichment of doctrine" (5).
  • "We can agree with Hort that ‘perceptible fraud’ is not evident in textual alteration, that ‘accusations of willful tampering…prove to be groundless,’ and that dogma has not motivated ‘deliberate falsification’ [Hort, 282f]…. Willful and deliberate, yes. But not tampering, falsification, and fraud. Alteration, yes; but not corruption. Emendation, yes; but not in bad faith. These denials of evil or unethical intention can well be sustained, but such intention is not a proper allegation by the textual critic. He must analyze the text constructively to understand the theological value of any variation, and its place in historical theology" (5).
  • "It is also a false assurance, offered by many, that textual criticism can have no effect upon Christian doctrine" (5). "Let us no longer implant the belief that Christian doctrine is unaffected by textual emendation, whether for better or worse. The earliest intentional changes in the text of the Gospel of Mark are still to be seen recorded in the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, revising the sense" (6).
  • Marcion made revision of the text of Luke at many points, for the sake of reinterpretation…. At Luke 18.19 he adds pater…. Although Origen also adds this word, Epiphanius makes clear the deliberate motivation on the part of Marcion. It is Jerome who explains Marcion’s omission in Gal 1.1 of the phrase ‘and God the Father,’ so as to read: ‘…through Jesus Christ who raised himself from the dead.’ In Rom 1.16 Marcion excinded proton, thus repealing the priority of the Jews: ‘the gospel is the power of God for salvation…to Jew and Greek’—a reading followed even by Tertullian and later preserved in Vaticanus and in the Sahidic version" (6).
  • "So also Origen revised the primitive text at points, although with greater caution and restraint…. In John 11.25 Jesus speaks: ‘I am the resurrection and the life;’ but Origen dropped the latter term, recording rather: ‘I am the resurrection,’ and his revision is retained by Cyprian and in P45 and also in the Sinaitic Syriac codex" (6). "Tatian also made revision in the NT text…. Mark 1.41…. ‘Jesus was moved with pity [splagchnistheis]’ Tatian reports however that ‘Jesus was moved with anger [orgistheis],’…. Tatian introduced a different interpretation at Matt 17.26" (6-7).
  • "In the recently acquired gnostic Christian documents of the second century there are instances of textual alteration which revises the meaning in highly important aspects" [Gospel of Thomas 55 & Luke 14.26; GosTho 109 & Matt 13.44]…. It does illustrate the freedom with which the account in Matthew was treated from the beginning" (7).
  • "Thus far we have recalled only a few of the many examples of textual revision within a century after the recording of the gospel—revision made by fellow evangelists, in patristic interpretations of second-century fathers, and in a pseudonymous gospel of gnostic color. These revisions clearly were made with deliberate intent and, furthermore, they do alter the sense of the text and affect the interpretation" (7).

The paper then discusses the differences between the RSV and the comparable Catholic edition, both agreed upon by the Catholic Church and the National Council of Churches:

  • "This English translation as originally produced by Protestant American scholarship is basically acceptable to Catholic scholarship as well. The extent of revision in the CE is minimal, amounting to only forty-five changes in the entire NT: thirty-three occurring in the gospels and twelve in the Pauline epistles. Eighteen instances are accounted for by the single change to ‘brethren’ instead of ‘brothers,’ all instances intended in the original RSV to refer to blood brothers of Jesus [CE changes occur in Matt 13.55; Mark 12.31 ff., par; J 2.12; 7.3f; Acts 1.14; I Cor 9.5]" (8).
  • "Besides the alterations in the English text, the CE introduces nineteen new footnotes. Eleven of these refer to the value of money…. Another footnote is found six times in I Corinthians, to the effect that parthenos means ‘virgin.’" (9).
  • "It is of greater importance, however, to comment on those alterations in the CE which involve change in the critical Greek text itself. There are only sixteen such places, all of them in the gospels. Eight of these readings are in Luke, of which six are found in the account of the resurrection. All sixteen variants represent the same textual attitude; that is, they are restorations of passages which were present in the King James and Rheims-Douai versions but have been omitted from the RSV. They are all present in the Textus Receptus but rejected by Westcott-Hort and Nestle…. The formula used in both the RSV and the CE is similar, but the textual judgment is reversed. The RSV omits the passage from the text and in the footnote reports its presence in ‘some ancient authorities;’ whereas the CE returns each passage to the text (as does Knox), and a footnote reports that ‘other ancient authorities omit. Notably these sixteen restorations include the traditional ending of Mark and the Johannine pericope adulterae; and both these textual phenomena are fully and accurately explained in footnotes. To restore the pericope adulterae to its traditional position within the Gospel of John would appear to be erroneous, especially against the fresh testimony for omission by both P66 and P75. The CE note on p. 239 acknowledges that the passage ‘is not by St. John’ but is held to be inspired and canonical" (9).

Regarding the Long ending to Mark:

  • "Before the middle of the second century, Justin in his ‘first’ Apology [1.45] writes a short passage notably verbatim with Mark 16.20 which looks like a direct quotation. Similarly, Irenaeus quotes from Mark 16.19 [AH 3.10.6]. Tatian’s text had the long ending. The earliest translations—Latin, Syriac, and Coptic—all possess it" (9-10).
  • "What theological relevance is to be recognized in the textual alteration of the CE? First, it may be said that few Catholic-vs.-Protestant issues are apparent. Rather, the difference is one of scholarly judgment. Further, there is no consistent theological tendency in the textual revision" (10-11).
  • "There are two other restorations in the CE which, on the other hand, probably were interpolations into the original text [Mark 10.24: ‘for those who trust in riches.’ And Luke 8.43: woman who spent her money on physicians]" (10-11).
  • "The most impressive alteration in the CE which involves the Greek critical text is the series of six readings in the account of the resurrection in Luke 24.6, 12, 36, 40, 51, 52. These are all valid scholarly alterations, in which no theological tendency is to be found" (11). Another major undertaking currently in progress is the International Greek New Testament Project, whose objective is the publication of a new apparatus criticus…. In the preparation of the initial volume, on the Gospel of Luke, the texts of approximately 300 MSS have been collated completely, and this is the most massive attack ever made upon the problem of textual variation…. The master file for the Gospel of Luke contains, it is estimated, about 25,000 variants of all sorts…. Variants of substantial alteration [yields] about 2 per cent, much higher than the earlier estimates of Hort, Ezra Abbot, and others" (11-12). "But the effect upon exegesis is hardly to be measured by such statistics, when we consider the theological implication of a single letter as in eudokias of Luke 2.14; or the addition of theon in 2.12, where Gregory Thaumaturgus speaks of the ‘swaddled God;’ or the omission of a full verse at Luke 23.34, thus losing the prayer of Jesus: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’" (12).
  • "…about 500 variants of more substantial character…. It would seem to be more meaningful to consider longer passages which contain clusters of textual alterations" (12).
  • Luke 1.26-35. "…city of Galilee" although Sinaiticus et al state that this city was in Judea, and Bezae e al omit to name Nazareth in particular" (12) others mentioned.
  • "Such freedom of treatment is quite incongruous with a traditional conception of Scripture. With many of the variant forms, it is easy to recognize primary and secondary text, and yet all the variant forms become part of the narrative in the history of the church" (12). Luke 2.1-7: ‘in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus. "An Old Latin MS of the fifth century omits the explanation ‘that all the world should be enrolled.’ The Protevangelion reports instead that the residents of Bethlehem must register, whereas Bezae reports the residents of Jerusalem, and Codex Boreel the residents of Judea" some mss say they went to enroll, each to his own polis; some to a man’s patris; others to his chora; an Old Latin ms of his regionem. The manger becomes a cave (13).
  • Luke 2.16-22: the shepherds ‘went hurrying,’ becomes in one ‘went believing.’ (13).
  • Luke 2.33-35: his father and his mother marveled at what was said.’ "Origen protests that Joseph is not properly called father, and accordingly a second-century variant would remove the earthly father and refers instead to ‘Joseph and his mother.’ On the other hand, some Byzantine scribes simply wrote ‘his parents.’…. Some manuscripts omit the prediction: ‘this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel" (13).
  • Luke 9.18-23: ‘it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him.’ Bezae says nothing of praying, Vaticanus reports that the disciples rather came up to join him. ‘Who do the people identify as the Son of man?’, at least, that is the record in Justin’s Dialogue. …Peter’s response is variously reported: ‘the messiah’; ‘God’s Messiah;’ ‘Messiah God;’ ‘Messiah, Son of God’; ‘Messiah, Son of man;’ ‘Son of the living God; or simply ‘Son of God’. A patristic omission is the clause’ ‘rejected by elders, chief priests, and scribes."" (133-4).
  • "So our inquiry could be greatly extended, passage by passage, to demonstrate the freedom of alteration and interpretation, the substantial portion of the text involved in variation, and the theological quality of many textual alterations…. Extended analysis could demonstrate the theological quality of each individual witness and distinguish the threads woven into the larger pattern" (14).
  • "If we should now concentrate upon one Ms, Papyrus 75, we find further evidence that variation in the text and alteration in the sense appeared early…More than a thousand differences between the two manuscript copies [P75 and P66], and about a hundred of these are of greater importance" (14). John 4.14; 6.5; 6.69; 8.57 "the Jews do not query, ‘Have you seen Abraham?’ but rather, ‘Has Abraham seen you?’; 9.17; 12.8;. Such alterations are early, and many, and are neither errors nor heresy. Many of them are mild changes, but they all form a cumulative exegetical mood" (14-5).
  • "The Gospel of Luke in P75 we have selected about 125 substantial variants out of about 1500 differences from the TR" (15). "In Luke 11.11 there appears a unique reading heretofore unreported: ‘if a son should ask his father for bodily strength, the father will not give him a serpent in place of a fish.’ 15.24: "’my son was dead and has come alive, he was lost and then was found; and the father became joyous’" (15).
  • 17.14; 22.62-23.23: ‘Judas went out and wept bitterly,’ and also that his captors ‘beat Jesus.’" (15). 24.26: ‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his kingdom?’ The last word is the unique term, and it was later altered by a corrector to the term now usual to us: his ‘glory.’" (15). "The papyrus vividly portrays a fluid state of the text at about AD 200. Such scribal freedom suggests that the gospel text was little more stable than an oral tradition, and that we may be pursuing the retreating mirage of the ‘original text.’" (15).
  • "The amount of textual change that involves theological alteration is a small proportion but it is a nugget of essential importance for interpretation…. In the course of transmission thousands of textual alterations have appeared in the legitimate lineage of theological interpretation, and all of these must be taken into account in exegesis and doctrinal exposition" (15).
  • "We may well begin to ask if there really was a stable text at the beginning. We talk of recovering the original text, and of course every document had such a text. But the earliest witnesses to NT text even from the first century already show such variety and freedom that we may well wonder if the text remained stable long enough to hold a priority." (16, (emphasis added)).
  • "The NT text and the theology of each church father, of each regional text such as fam. 13, or of each major recension such as the Caesarean text—especially where departures from the common text are notable" (16).


  1. These examples are taken from William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson, "The Evangelical Is Our Brother (Review of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation)," FARMS Review of Books 11/2 (1999): 178–209. off-site. References to Tov's original work may be found in footnotes 26–49.
  2. Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible (Eerdmans, and Leiden 1999) 9–10
  3. These examples are taken from William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson, "The Evangelical Is Our Brother (Review of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation)," FARMS Review of Books 11/2 (1999): 178–209. off-site. References to Vaganay and Amphoux's original work may be found in footnotes 52–58.
  4. Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperSanFrancisco, [2005] 2007), 53. ISBN 0060859512. ISBN 0060738170.
  5. Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (second edition 1979; first edition 1964), 195, 201.
  6. Kenneth W. Clark, "The Theological Relevance of Textual Variation in current criticism of the Greek New Testament," Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966): 1-16.