|(Not this many)|
That edition was said to have 30,000 variants (that number too is an estimate, by the way). In 1848, J. Scott Porter suggested 100,000 in his Principles of Textual Criticism (p. 11) and the number has been rising ever since. Most recently, Eldon Epp has given a “wild guess” as high as 750,000.
What no one has done—so far as I’m aware—is give a reliable justification for their suggested number of variants. This despite the fact that the number continues to be a matter of genuine apologetic interest—not only to those wanting to defend the NT’s textual reliability but just as much to those wanting to oppose it.
Since a number of major collations have been published in recent years, I thought something could probably be done to set the question on firmer ground. In the latest issue of NTS (online here) you’ll find my best attempt at doing that. I won’t spoil it except to say that my results are larger than most other estimates (including Ehrman’s) but still lower than Epp’s “wild guess.”
In order to produce a good estimate, you need three things: a good data source from which to estimate, a method of extrapolating, and a clear definition of what you’re estimating. In the last case, I decided to exclude spelling differences. This was partly because two of my data sources didn’t include very many of them and partly because I just don’t find the number of spelling differences to be all that significant.
Arguably the most important question, however, is how to define “variant.” I don’t think it is always appreciated in our discipline that the term “variant” is necessarily relative. Something can only vary from something else. If you only have one of something, you have no variation. So the question was whether I should define “variant” in relation to the manuscripts or in relation to some fixed, printed text of the New Testament. I decided to go with the former. My estimate is thus an estimate about the number of cases where the manuscripts vary from one another. It is not an estimate of the number of cases where the manuscripts vary from any particular reconstruction of the original text.
What this means, is that my estimate assumes nothing about whether any of the estimated variants are are also original or authorial. But undoubtedly a great many of them are. Naturally, one question I’ve been asked about my estimate is “How many of your estimated variants are original?” The question is actually not hard to answer. If we assume that the original reading has survived in the manuscript tradition at each point of variation, then it’s simply a matter of counting the number of variation units and extrapolating from there. Thankfully, I did count the number of points of variation in my data.
Based on my sources, the number of “original variants” ranges from 17%–25% of the total number of extant variants. The percentage is much lower in the Text und Textwert volumes (only 9%) because the average number of variants per variant unit is much higher there. I suspect this has to do with the way the variant units were chosen in those volumes. But that’s a post for another day.
Besides variants and variant units, I also kept track of the number of singulars and nonsense readings in my data sources. If we add those in, we can graph the results in a way that gives us some perspective on the kind of variation an editor of a large collation must deal with. Obviously, most of these variants don’t (and probably shouldn’t) make their way in to our hand editions. But it’s still helpful to know what these percentages are.
The hard numbers for these charts are all in the article which is now online here. I’ve also put up the pre-pub version (which is basically the same) on my Academia page for those without access to NTS. There is more that can be done with these data and hopefully I and others will explore some of those in the future.