In my book The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, published in 1999, I included a discussion of the hundreds of thousands of “variations” in the various Bible manuscripts dating to the earliest presently in existence. This fact has been known since the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s good modern scholarship is finally catching up to this older scholarship and proving it again.
In my book, I quote older scholars, such as Joseph Wheless, in Forgery in Christianity (174):
The so-called “canonical” books of the New Testament, as of the Old, are a mass of contradictions and confusions of text, to the present estimate of 150,000 and more “variant readings,” as is well known and admitted.
I also quoted Charles Waite, author of Christian History to the Year Two Hundred (213):
Of the 150,000 variant readings which Griesbach found in the manuscripts of the New Testament, probably 149,500 were additions and interpolations.
In my follow-up book Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled (407-8), I wrote:
Besides the fact that they date to much later than is supposed, the gospels frequently contradict each other, and, based on the numerous manuscripts composed over the centuries, have been determined (by German theologian Johann Griesbach, for one) to be a mass of some 150,000 “variant readings.” In this regard, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, a Christian book, contains an article written by M.M. Parvis (vol. 4, 594-5), who states:
The New Testament is now known, in whole or in part, in nearly five thousand Greek manuscripts alone. Every one of these handwritten copies differ from the other one… It has been estimated that these manuscripts and quotations differ among themselves between 150,000 and 250,000 times. The actual figure is, perhaps, much higher. A study of 150 Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke has revealed more than 30,000 different readings… It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the New Testament in which the manuscripts’ tradition is wholly uniform.
Some sources place the figure for the “variant readings” even higher, including The Anchor Bible Dictionary On CD-ROM (“Textual Criticism, NT”), which says, “Perhaps 300,000 differing readings is a fair figure for the 20th century (K. W. Clark 1962: 669).” So much for “God’s infallible Word” and his “inspired scribes.”
In my book Who Was Jesus? I further demonstrate that the gospels contradict one another, do not show up in the historical/literary record until well into the second century and were not written by those in whose name they appear.
Many Christians believe that the words of the New Testament are set in stone. But scholars at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary are chronicling just how much those words have evolved over time.
For 11 years, they’ve combed through the earliest Greek manuscripts of each book in the New Testament and found more than 17,000 pages of variations. Their ultimate goal: the world’s first comprehensive, searchable online database showing how the New Testament has changed.
The database is already up. The first explanations go live this fall with two books of the New Testament — Philippians and First Peter.
Now, scholars have known about many of these variations for years, but some of the changes might surprise many Christians.
How Mark’s and John’s Stories Changed
Take the story of Christ’s resurrection. As the gospel of Mark tells it, on the third day after the crucifixion, Jesus rose from the tomb and appeared to various people, including his disciples.
But Bill Warren, the professor leading the project, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that in the original manuscripts for Mark, the story of Jesus visiting the disciples is nowhere to be found….
Change In The Name Of Clarification
Variations in the early Greek manuscripts may seem like a cause for alarm for many Bible literalists, but the majority of the discrepancies the project documents, Warren says, were caused by early transcribers doing their best to clarify the text.
“We actually have different qualities of copies among the manuscripts. Some are very careful not to change anything of what they’re copying, and some, probably more or less at the service of the church, are trying to clarify the text,” he explains. “And then, very early on, some of these scribes are just Christians who during the daytime have other jobs and they’re trying to make copies of the text. And so they don’t have the same sense of how to make a professional copy.”