Dan Wallace has started a series (actually he did so last week), on textual variants in the New Testament. His first article The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation deals with the definition of a textual variant and then with an estimate of the total number of textual variants in the New Testament text. The second deals with the nature of these variants.
Information about textual variants is abused constantly in discussions both within and about Christianity. Dr. Wallace is setting about providing a basis for correcting some of these abuses. The number of variants is cited raw as evidence that one cannot trust the Bible. The number of manuscripts is cited as evidence of the historical reliability of the New Testament. Yet both of these uses miss the mark. The first fails to take into account the nature of the variants, which Dr. Wallace begins to do in his second article. (I will link to the next part when it appears). The second, is based on the false premise that one can demonstrate the veracity of a document based on the number of times it is copied.
At the same time, the number of manuscripts and the number of variants can be used to demonstrate the likelihood that we do, in fact, have something close to the original text of the New Testament. Wallace contends that meaningful, viable variants constitute less than 1% of the total variants, and he may be generous in that estimate. The vast majority of the New Testament text is not even disputed.
Note, of course, that neither the number of variants, nor the number of manuscripts, actually impacts the historicity of the autograph. These statistics form the basis for our best measure of how accurate our current copies are, information that we need in studying the now absent autographs.
I use the fact that there are some substantial variants in my book When People Speak for God in discussing inerrancy. Modern proponents of inerrancy assert inerrancy of the autographs, and believe that inerrancy is a necessary characteristic if one is to assert any authority for scripture. I challenge this on the basis that we do not have the autographs, yet many of us do, in fact, accept the authority of the scripture as we have it.
This relates to Wallace’s third category, which he describes thus:
The third category are those variants that can affect the meaning in a significant way but have a very poor pedigree. A classic example is 1 John 5.7 in the King James Bible (For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one). This reading is not found in any manuscripts prior to the 12th century, and even then it is found as a marginal reading written by a scribe several centuries later than the original scribe wrote. . . .
The paragraph continues with the sparse representation of this reading. Certainly no modern textual critic would be likely to argue that 1 John 5:7-8 as read in the KJV is an original reading. Yet many people have used Bibles that contain that disputed passage, and seen them as authoritative. In other words, inerrancy is not needed for authority, and in fact, very, very few people have had an inerrant Bible, even if inerrancy of the autographs is essential.
I believe the Bible is adequately preserved for it’s intended purpose, and that we do not need to possess an inerrant Bible for that purpose.
Having digressed into my side interest, the value of Dr. Wallace’s work is that he is so thorough in his basic scholarship that you can often evaluate opponents’ work by reading his summary of their view. Thus while I will disagree with some conclusions, the basic work is exceptional. He is doing a great service in going over this basic information. Many church members are quite confused on the subject of textual criticism, and what it means or does not mean, for the reliability of the Bibles they hold in their hands.