Sola Scriptura?: Biblical manuscripts contain thousands of variations

-Hipster, The Teacher???

-by Joel Peters

“It has just been noted that there are thousands of Biblical manuscripts in existence; these manuscripts contain thousands of variations in the text; one writer estimates that there are over 200,000 variations. (25) Whereas the majority of these deal with minor concerns – such as spelling, word order and the like – there are also variations of a more important nature: a) the manuscript evidence shows that scribes sometimes modified the Biblical texts to harmonize passages, to accommodate them to historical fact, and to establish a doctrinal correctness; (26) and b) there are portions of verses (i.e., more than just a single word in question) for which there are several different manuscript readings, such as John 7:39, Acts 6:8, Colossians 2:2 and 1 Thessalonians 3:2. (27) These facts leave the Protestant in the position of not knowing if he possesses what the Biblical authors originally wrote. And if this is the case, then how can a Protestant profess to base his beliefs solely on the Bible when he cannot determine with certainty the textual authenticity of the Bible? (28)

More importantly, there are several more major textual variations among New Testament manuscripts. The following two examples will illustrate the point:

First, according to the manuscripts that we have, there are four possible endings for Mark’s Gospel: the short ending, which includes verses 1-8 of chapter 16; the longer ending, which includes verses 1-8 plus verses 9-20; the intermediate ending, which includes 2 to 3 lines of text between verse 8 and the longer ending; and the longer ending in expanded form, which includes several verses after verse 14 of the longer ending. (29) The best that can be said about these different endings is that we simply do not know for certain, from the Bible itself, where St. Mark’s Gospel concluded, and, depending on which ending(s) is/are included in a Protestant’s Bible, the publisher runs the risk of either adding verses to or omitting verses from the original text – thus violating the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which requires “the Bible alone and in its entirety” as the basis of faith. Even if a Protestant’s Bible includes all four endings with explanatory comments and/or footnotes, he still cannot be certain which of the four endings is genuine.

Second, there is manuscript evidence for alternate readings in some pivotal verses of the Bible, such as John 1:18, where there are two possible wordings. (30) Some (such as the King James Version) read along the lines of the Douay-Rheims: “No man hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son Who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Either wording is substantiated by manuscript evidence, and you will therefore find Biblical scholars relying on their best educated judgment as to which one is “correct.” A similar situation occurs at Acts 20:28, where the manuscript evidence shows that Saint Paul could be referring to either the “church of the Lord” (Greek kuriou) or the “church of God” (Greek theou). (31)

Now this point may seem trivial at first, but suppose you are trying to evangelize a cult member who denies the divinity of Jesus Christ. While John 1:18 and Acts 20:28 are clearly not the only passages to use in defense of Our Lord’s divinity, you still may be unable to utilize these verses with that person, depending on which manuscript tradition your Bible follows. That would leave you marginally less able to defend a major Biblical doctrine, and the very nature of this fact become quite problematic from the perspective of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.”


(25) Raymond F. Collins, Introduction to the New Testament (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1983), p. 77.

(26) Ibid., pp. 100-102.

(27) Bruce M. Metzger (Protestant author), The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 221-225, 234-242.

(28) It has been maintained by Protestants that in all the variations in Biblical manuscripts, not one touches upon a major doctrine. Even though this assertion is untrue, it does not alter the fact that the Protestant is here admitting, at least obliquely, that it is permissible to accept something which is less than or different from the “real” Bible. And if this is true, then the Protestant himself has begun to undermine Sola Scriptura.

(29) Metzger, op. cit., pp. 226-228.

(30) Collins, op. cit., p. 102.

(31) Metzger, op. cit., p. 234.

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