Tuesday, May 10, 2016

How Many Variants Make It into Your Greek New Testament?

Greek students sometimes get the wrong impression that their Nestle-Aland apparatus records all the variants for the New Testament. I certainly thought this at one point. And it’s not just students. I once heard a story about one of Kurt Aland’s colleagues who called him up in a state of distress because he had found a variant in the Syriac that was not in the NA apparatus! Aland had to break the news to him that this poor variant was not alone. The Nestle apparatus, like most apparatuses is selective.

But just how selective is your Greek New Testament? Since we now have complete collations for several small parts of the NT, and since I’ve done the boring exciting work of counting the variants in them, we can now get a sense of just how selective our standard editions are in their apparatuses.

Drawing on the data available for John 18, Philemon, and Jude, we can see just how many of the total number of variants the UBS4, NA28, and ECM apparatuses include. It’s not a perfect comparison because these editions all include variants from versions and fathers which the exhaustive collations don’t. They also don’t necessarily share the same variant units either. But for giving a general sense of the data, I think these comparisons are helpful.


Here are the results of my comparison:

And in table form with percentages:

Section Number of Variants (% of total)
John 18 10 (0.3%) 183 (6.0%) 3,058
Philemon 16 (1.4%) 55 (4.6%) 1,185
Jude 47 (2.8%) 145 (8.6%) 789 (46.6%) 1,694

From these numbers we can see just how selective the UBS and NA apparatuses are. In the UBS, we only get 0.3 percent of the total variants in John 18 and it’s still only 2.8 percent in Jude. The NA does better, of course, but it is still just a drop in the bucket of the total number. Somewhat surprisingly, even the ECM with its extensive apparatus comes in below 50 percent.


I see at least two conclusions we can draw from these comparisons. The first is that unqualified claims that most of our variants were created early on are simply false. Given that the NA, UBS, and ECM apparatuses all lean heavily toward the earliest evidence, it follows that the bulk of our variants were created (or at least are first attested) later on. In Jude, for example, over 53 percent of variants don’t show up in an edition that represents the text’s first 1,000 years of development (i.e., the ECM). So we cannot blithely claim that most of our variants were created early. It may be true that most of our most interesting or most important variants were created early, but that would take us well beyond the time I have for this blog post.

Second, insofar as these editions succeed in presenting the most significant variants for exegesis and translation (I’m thinking now of the NA and UBS editions), we can conclude that most of our variants are pretty insignificant.

Now that phrase “insofar as” is a pretty important qualifier and I can already hear many astute blog readers protesting that the NA/UBS editions leave out too much of value. I hear your protest. But editors have to draw the line somewhere and I don’t envy them for that. Even knowing that editors leave out some readings we think should be there, my comparison here still give us at least one concrete way to answer the question “How many variants matter?” If we adjust the question to “How many variants mattered enough that the editors included them in my Greek New Testament?” the answer is less than ten percent.

HT: Greg Lanier for suggesting the idea.


  1. Thanks for this post, very interesting. I was just thinking through some appeals to harmonization in the Gospels and I wander how our knowledge/access to variants might effect how we use the criterion of harmonization (assuming of course a similar pattern in the Synoptics).

    For example, if we appeal to Mark being harmonized to Matthew, we assume that the scribe was familiar with Matthew as it stands in NA28/UBS5 or SQE. If however there is a variant, perhaps not in our hand editions that was in the copy the scribe had then he may have harmonized to a variant reading to which we have no access!

    That being the case would it not be true that harmonization is a potentially risky criterion?

  2. Benjamin, good question. The danger of circularity in appealing to harmonization is a real one. For a great article, see Mike Holmes on the divorce passages here: http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/jbl/1990-4_651.pdf

  3. I'm not sure about the logic of either point.
    First, it doesn't follow from the fact that ECM has only 47% f the total possible variants, and that it is supposed to illustrate the textual development up to AD1000 that the other 53% arose after AD1000. There really is no basis for a temporal conclusion from these figures.
    Secondly, there is no suggestion that the editors of John and Philemon knew all those variants and filtered them out with some expert judgement. And UBS is only derivative from NA editions, so they won't be investigating OTHER variants for posisble inclusion. So the only really significant figure is ECM cf. NA28 for Jude. And it is hard to conclude anything solid from one point of comparison.
    Otherwise, excellent.

    1. PMH: Good points.

      On the first, I think I can defend my claim. The ECM says that its selection of MSS “guarantees reliably that the critical apparatus contains all the known readings which have appeared in the history of the text from its earliest beginnings through the formation and final establishment of the Byzantine text” (p. 22*). We might take that claim with a grain of salt, but even still, it’s probably not wildly off. If that’s the case, then it follows that readings not in the ECM are later. That said, I realize late attestation doesn’t mean late origin hence: “it follows that the bulk of our variants were created (or at least are first attested).” In any case, I think it is more than safe to say that the unqualified claim that most of our variants were created early is simply false. A large percentage of our variants are nonsense readings found in the Byzantine MSS. Those weren’t created early.

      On the second point, you make a good point which I should have noted. The editors of the NA28 did not have Matt Solomon’s Philemon dissertation to work from. I don’t know if they had Morrill’s work on John 18 or not since it was published in 2012. So I shouldn’t have suggested that the editors scrutinized all the total variants for Jn 18 and Philm. That said, since the NA28 is based on the Text und Textwert volumes and since those volumes consider all available manuscripts, it would be fair to say that they knew something about all MSS and “filtered out” the MSS (and their variants with them) with some expert judgment. But yes, that is a different procedure than filtering out all the variants of all the MSS on a case-by-case basis.

      Also, are you sure that all the variants in UBS are taken straight from NA?

      I suppose I should compare ECM and NA28 throughout the whole Catholic Epistles.

    2. RE: Also, are you sure that all the variants in UBS are taken straight from NA?

      No, I made that up. But it seems plausible.

    3. P.Head: "I made that up" -- nothing strikes a responsive chord like eclectic honesty. :-)

      On the other hand, assuming that Kent Clarke is correct, then indeed all readings found in the UBS apparatus are present also in the NA apparatus, albeit with differing levels of witness citation.

    4. The situation seems to be improving. I checked James in the NA28 and of the 61 Byz readings rejected as the initial text, all but 3 are in the apparatus (ελεον at 2.13; θεον at 3.9; αδελφοι μου at 5.10)

  4. "Insofar" as a great deal of copying of Greek texts continued by the Byzantines long after it had died out in the West, is it likely that the vast majority of variants exist in the Byzantine texts, and that they therefore occur later in time?

  5. It would be nice if the Nestle-Aland apparatus would have at least included all the variants in the Byzantine Text. But, alas; this is not the case, and one must consult the notes in RP-2005 (or in the SBLGNT) to be sure than one has been informed of all those cases where the NA-text and Byz disagree.

    To restate: not only is the N-A apparatus far from exhaustive, but it sometimes does not even bother to tell readers about the reading of the vast majority of manuscripts when a different reading has been adopted.

    Something to think about when one hears apologists' assurances that readers of NTG have the original text, either in the text or in the apparatus.

    1. I agree. It would be better to have all the Byz readings in NA.

    2. Hear! Hear! (and let this constitute a shameless plug for a forthcoming article on that issue by yours truly).

    3. Let us know when it appears Maurice.

  6. P. Gurry: "In any case, I think it is more than safe to say that the unqualified claim that most of our variants were created early is simply false. A large percentage of our variants are nonsense readings found in the Byzantine MSS. Those weren’t created early."

    Even excluding nonsense readings, a large bulk of sensible but slimly supported readings likely exists within the later MS base, thus calling into question Colwell's assertion that "the overwhelming majority of readings were created before the year 200" (Studies in Methodology, 55).

    I would prefer to say something like, "the overwhelming majority of readings that are reflective of the primary variants characteristic of and found among the leading witnesses of the various texttypes" were created by that date, even while agreeing with Colwell that such does not necessarily imply that all texttypes then existed in their fully developed forms.

    1. MAR, that statement by Colwell is exactly the kind I'm thinking of that is wrong.

    2. But given reasonable qualifications such as I stated...?

      Without getting too Wilde, should there be compelling reason otherwise to reject the importance of being Ernest? (Ouch).

    3. I'm fine with qualifications.

  7. In John 18, 40 verses, 1500+ mss are adding 2,875 variants to the count. An average of about 70 new variants in each verse. If a study took one sample verse and looked at those 70 variants, you could see how many of them have any interest at all outside of non-viable and often singular scribal faux pas.

    Thus, beyond the non-copied faux pas, we find out how many of those variants are exceedingly minor, with under 50 mss among the late copies, compared to 1500 with the Majority reading. Are there ANY in our 70 that have any importance to textual (as opposed to scribal habits) studies.

    Aren't all the Majority Greek readings represented in the earlier uncial mss as well? (Here, we may find some that *should* be in the apparatus and are not, one point of Professor Robinson.)

    Looking at the micro-level will give the numbers more meaning.

    And we could determine if 70 variants in a verse from 1500+ mss is an indication of extremely good copying or sloppy copying.

    In some of the above discussion, the number of variants produced by 100 or so mss is being compared to the number of variants produced by 1500 mss. This, to me, seems like the type of comparison that can produce geek interest, yet has no substantive point.

    Steven Avery

    1. Steven,
      Your comment that"aren't all Majority readings represented in the earlier miss as well", is dependent on how you describe earlier. Clearly not all majority readings are in the earliest manuscripts as defined by W-H. On the other hand, we can acknowledge that even in the W-H text the majority of all readings are found in the oldest manuscripts.


    2. Good point, Tim.

      Essentially I meant that the well-attested minuscule variants, most of which are relegated to the "Byz" apparatus notation, would not simply arise late. They would have support in uncials and often solid support Early Church Writers.

      (This support is often masked in the apparatus by the tomfoolery of the apparatus assuming that many uncial mss are Byz and only reporting the opposite).

      So I was not thinking that 700-800 AD uncial Byz would necessarily have support from the small number of earlier uncials. A lot depends on the book, lightly attested epistles may only have a few early mss. So in such epistles, due to the paucity of early mss, you could have an occasional apparent newly arising Byz variant. These are exceptional. One textual gentleman, David Robert Palmer, has tried to find late, new Byzantine readings that became majority, with minimal or sub-minimal success.

      So in saying:

      "aren’t all Majority readings represented in the earlier mss as well”

      The idea is that there are zero, or close to zero, variants that arise late, contra the many claims that the Byzantine text developed and morphed over time. Often an unsettled text split-line normalized to one variant, but new variants would not arise and take over.

      I hope that adds some clarification

      Steven Avery


    3. Steven,
      See below, somehow did not reply to you!

      Thanks for your insights.

  8. Steven,
    Thanks, that does help clarify. I am not convinced that your perspective is correct. It appears to me that while even our earliest mss have variants that the vast majority of variants can in fact be tied to the fourth century and later. I would contend that this is a result of the greater number of copies being made post-Constantine and not a result of a vast theological conspiracy. Certainly, a few early papyri exhibit a free text but the majority are normal to strict. A result of my perspective is that I find W-H text much more appealing.

  9. We see from the John 18 study that the vast majority of total variants are later than 4th or even 7th century, simply because 1500 Bible mss will have more variants than 100 Bible mss. (Many early mss are small fragments.)

    If you talk about significant and viable variants, rather than simply the big numbers, you can find everything you want in the early centuries. I've rarely seen a significant variant that did not have its split line in the Ante-Nicene period followed by Alexandrinus, Washingtonianus or Bezae or other early mss. Since the ECW have to be included in the equation of early evidences, as well as the formation of the Old Latin (and some other versions). The W-H theory plays fast and loose here.

    The papyri in general are in fact all over the text-map and many are poor scribal jobs, they are all but one from one gnostic locale as pointed out and warned by Kurt Aland so they have little to do with our overall picture. Despite their Alexandrian locale they often give support to Byzantine and Western readings against an "Alexandrian" (Vaticanus) variant. They are the type of evidence that can be read half full or half empty, depending on your glasses.

    And I have no idea why any of this would make the W-H much more appealing.

    Why do lightly supported variants become appealing simply because one of the supports is Codex Vaticanus?

    Where is the new theory to replace all the fallen pillars of hortianism?