The Christian New Testament has, without question, exerted great influence upon Western life and culture. And yet the text of no other body of ancient literature exists in so many different versions. This is, in the main, the result of the almost embarrassing number of variant copies of the New Testament that have been unearthed from ancient times and from the Middle Ages.
The New Testament is now known, in whole or in part, in over three thousand Greek manuscripts. Each one of these hand-written copies differs from every other one. (The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon Press, 1962 edition in 4 volumes, under the heading 'Text, NT'. The work is a compilation of over 200 contributors, including Professors of Old Testament Literature, Biblical Language, Church History and New Testament Language and Literature.) In addition to these Greek manuscripts, the New Testament is found in more than ten thousand manuscripts of the early versions and in thousands of quotations of the Church Fathers. These manuscripts of the early versions and quotations of the Church Fathers differ from one another just as widely as do the Greek manuscripts. (ibid)
It has been estimated that New Testament manuscripts differ among themselves from between a staggering 150,000 to 250,000 times. (ibid) The actual figure is perhaps much higher. A study of 150 Greek manuscripts of the Gospel according to Luke has revealed more than 30,000 textual differences alone. (ibid) Each manuscript studied and unearthed inevitably adds substantially to the list of differences. So much so that The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible unavoidably concluded that: "It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the New Testament in which the manuscript tradition is wholly uniform." (ibid) Many of the differences arose at a very early stage. Prior to the invention of the printing press (15th century) all copies of Bibles show considerable textual variations. Such differences, so much a part of the history of the transmission of the New Testament, continue to live on in modern day copies.
Of the manuscripts to date, only about 50 contain the entire 27 books of the New Testament. Some contain additional books and gospels that were later expunged as fabrications. In these documents, there were originally no spaces between either letters or words, no punctuation, no accents or breathing marks on the Greek words (there was only a continuos flow of letters) and no chapter or verse divisions. In fact, the system of chapters in the New Testament now in use was invented by Cardinal Hugo de S. Caro in 1328. The Cardinal also divided each chapter into paragraphs marked by letters but this was superseded by the verse system introduced by Robert Stephanus in 1551. Subsequently, where each verse was printed as a separate paragraph it led to fragmentation of the original documents and to the interpretation of verses out of context. (ibid, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1983 edition in 30 volumes, under the heading 'Biblical Literature')
The original copies of the New Testament books have long since disappeared. (ibid) Even the true identity of their authors is to a large extent a matter of debate. The time gap between the original accounts of the events and today's surviving manuscripts is a period of over 200 to 300 years. (ibid) Before this time no written witnesses are available to establish the authenticity of Christian claims. With the exception, that is, of tiny papyrus fragments from the Gospel of John (three verses) and (so its is claimed) from the Gospel of Mark. Because of their fragmentary nature, they are of no great value in establishing the texts of even these two Gospels, let alone the New Testament as a whole.
Fragmentary papyrus of this nature have been unearthed dating from the second to eighth centuries, with more than half of them dating from the third and fourth centuries. No early papyrus, however, contains any complete book of Christian scripture. The papyrus New Testament manuscripts extant today were found in Egypt and undoubtedly were written there. They prove conclusively that in Egypt, particularly in the second, third and fourth centuries, no one type of New Testament text was dominant. In those early centuries many types of text flourished side by side. Two early papyri, which overlap across seventy verses of John's Gospel, differ at no less than seventy places (even after obvious scribal errors are accounted for); an average of one variation in each verse. If texts were being changed and edited to this degree, even a gap of a century between an original and its first survival on a papyrus fragment is a long and potentially disastrous time. We simply do not know what may have happened to the words at important places. (Paragraph adapted from Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version, 1992, pp.139-140)
In the preface to his Gospel, Luke tells us explicitly that "many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us." (Luke 1:1-2) His words make it evident that by the time he wrote there were numerous other 'gospels' in circulation and none of them enjoyed such an established position as to bar another writer from adding to their number. Neither for them nor for himself does Luke claim any special Divine inspiration. He writes simply as one to whom "it seemed good... to write an orderly account." (Luke 1:3) Moreover, the way in which both he and Matthew treat their source material (supposedly derived from Mark's work) shows clearly that neither regarded the earlier Gospel of Mark as inspired scripture. Both of them feel perfectly free, not only to add to Mark, but also to subtract, to alter words, to change the order in which events were supposed to have occurred, and even on occasion to give contradictory information. The author of the fourth Gospel, John, is bold enough to treat the whole tradition with infinitely greater freedom, not holding himself bound to follow the outline of events that underlies the other three, nor even to reproduce substantially the same teaching. It cannot be doubted that the many other gospels which were in circulation during the same period or later claimed for themselves at least an equal freedom and status.
To conclude, hereunder are just a few examples highlighting the differences in the text of the New Testament found in some of its most famous modern day versions:
I John 5:7 of the King James Version (KJV) reads: 'For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.' This passage, however, has been deleted from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) as a fabrication. In a commentary on the Authorised Version it states: "No comment is made on this verse, as the best authorities do not consider it to be part of the original text." (Commentary on the Authorised Version, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1871, Vol.2)
Acts 8:37 of the KJV reads: 'And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is Son of God.' Both the New International Version (NIV) and the RSV omit this passage completely as being inauthentic.
John chapter 8 of the RSV and the NIV begins at verse 12, completely omitting verses 1 through to 11. The KJV, however, includes all of these verses without comment.
The RSV omits verses 44 and 46 of Mark chapter 9. The KJV includes both verses without comment. The NIV relegates these verses to a footnote without any certainty as to their authenticity. Concerning such footnotes, the NIV explains: "Footnotes call attention to places where there was uncertainty about what the original text was."
Mark chapter 16 in the KJV ends at verse 20. Whereas the RSV and the NIV end the chapter at verse 8, omitting a complete 12 verses describing the ascension.
Luke 9:56 of the KJV states: 'For the Son of Man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them.' This statement is deleted from the main text of the RSV and NIV and relegated to a footnote without any certainty as to its authenticity.
Acts 23:9 of the KJV ends: 'let us not fight against God.' The RSV and NIV both choose to omit these words.
The KJV and NIV read at Matthew 12:47: 'Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee.' This verse is deleted from the main text of the RSV and relegated to a footnote.
The KJV, RSV and NIV all contain Matthew 16 verses 2 and 3, yet these are not found in many ancient manuscripts. The RSV comments: "Many ancient authorities omit the following words to the end of verse 3" and the NIV says: "Some early manuscripts do not have the rest of verse 2 and all of verse 3."
Matthew 17:21 of the KJV reads: 'Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.' The RSV and NIV go from verse 20 straight to verse 22, completely omitting this verse 21.
Matthew 18:11 of the KJV reads: 'For the Son of Man is come to save that which was lost.' This verse is deleted from the main text of the RSV and NIV and relegated to a footnote.
Both the KJV and NIV at Matthew 21:44 read: 'And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken...' This verse is deleted in the RSV.
Mark 15:28 of the KJV reads: 'And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.' Both the RSV and NIV delete this verse from the main text, relegating it to a footnote.
John 3:16 of the KJV states: 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son...' The word 'begotten' is omitted from the main text of the RSV and NIV.
John 9:35 of the KJV reads: 'Dost thou believe on the Son of God?' Yet the RSV and NIV read this as: 'Dost thou believe on the Son of Man?'
The Lord's prayer in Matthew 6:13 of the KJV reads: 'And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.' The RSV and NIV read only 'And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil' omitting the ending 'For thine is the kingdom...'
Luke 10:1 of the NIV reads: 'After this the Lord appointed seventy-two.' But the KJV and the RSV say that it was seventy as opposed to seventy-two. This discrepancy is also noticeable at Luke 10:17.
Mark 2:17 of the KJV reads: 'I came not to call the righteous, but sinners unto repentance.' The RSV and NIV have deleted the words 'unto repentance' as being an addition to the text. The same discrepancy is also found at Matthew 9:13.
Revelation 4:8 reads: 'Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.' The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge commentary explains: "Holy, holy, holy - the thrice repeated attribute has ever been understood by the Church to refer to the Blessed Trinity." It is then interesting to note that the manuscript Codex Vaticanus repeats this word no fewer than nine times, whilst the manuscript MS.2000 gives it thirteen repetitions. Other manuscripts range from between four to eight times.
In respect of the popular Revised Standard Version, 1946 edition, one should also be aware that certain passages which had initially been deleted and relegated to footnotes following doubts about their authenticity were subsequently reinstated to the main text in the later New Revised Standard Version. It is thereby easy to see how the text of Christian scripture has been manipulated over time and passages which for centuries have been revered as the inspired words of God are all too easily erased and amended in the name of correction. It is also impossible to say with certainty how long this trend will continue, and at which point Christianity will (after almost 2000 years) finally agree and be satisfied that no further changes are needed to the New Testament!