Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Number of possible variants

Mark D. Roberts is blogging here on Gospel reliability with particular reference to Misquoting Jesus. In the second section (here) he calculates the approximate number of possible variants in the Gospels and comes up with the figure 64 million. Allowing for the high estimate of 200,000 variants in Gospel manuscripts he comments that this is not very many.

Such use of numbers is something we have reflected on before (here). Statistics have long been in use in estimates by textual critics of the reliability of the NT transmission. Numbers of variants were important to Bentley and percentages to Westcott and Hort. More recently Ehrman has found the number of variants in the NT (200-400 thousand?) to be significant, but from a different perspective Norman Geisler would cite 99.5% accuracy for NT transmission.

One reaction could be to run from all use of numbers, but if we are not to be too dismissive we may at least ask what legitimate ways there are of using them.


  1. I see a possible problem with this kind of apologetic usage of statistics ("99,5% accuracy"), in that a minor lexical change can result in a major semantic change, i.e. the variation of just one word in a context can make a significant difference in the interpretation of that context.

  2. Frankly I find the whole numbers game pretty bogus. It is never clear what people are actually counting. It is never clear that anyone has actually counted anything. And it usually ends up in apologetics - 'this proves the NT is 99% accurate'; or 'this proves the NT is mostly inaccurate'.
    I say forget the whole thing.

  3. Why count a nonsensical omission? Why count a single reading that is obviously secondary?
    Moreover, a text that came to us with no (attested!) variants at all, may be completely corrupt, while another may come with a lot of variation in the witnesses, but relatively easy to restore.
    I agree with PMH: forget the whole thing.

  4. P.M.Head
    "Frankly I find the whole numbers game pretty bogus."

    I agree with both P.Head and T.Wasserman. Numbers games are particularly suspect when dealing with human behavior. "Social Science" has become increasingly preoccupied with numbers since I studied it eons ago and it doesn't take a Ph.D. in statistics to see how numbers really tell us very little about what humans do and why.

    The semantic impact of a single letter can be enormous or trivial.

  5. All of you give very good reasons for why numbers can be misleading. However, what about the use of numbers accompanied by a narrative explaining and qualifying their significance? This occurs in Westcott and Hort. My sense is that there could be much more helpful use of numbers than generally occurs. Numbers could be used in a way that allows us to distinguish different types of variants.

    Does anyone know of any really good uses of numbers?

  6. I am disappointed that the use of mathematics in textual criticism is not being appreciated here.

    Of course the use of numbers in textual criticism has great potential to be very useful. Any past misuses of numbers cannot ever diminish this potential.

    Every time text critics make claims about the affinity of one manuscript with another, they rely on countable variants and paterns of variants in common. Every assertion about such affinities is only testable by proper evaluation of these ennumerated variants using sound statistics.

    I saw a very good example of the use of statistics in TC by Steven Carlson at SBL in San Antonio, 2004. If he reads this, maybe he can share something about that so that I don't make some big blunder when I try to recall what he did. I then saw a very bad example of the use of statistics in TC by another presenter who failed to understand that her small sample size created a margin of error for her results on the order of somewhere around 50% I think, negating any value for her conclusions.

    The constant stream of misused statistics in all fields does not in any way diminish the value of statistics when the one using them is careful to make sure that he is asking the right question, that he is using the proper statistical methodology, and that he makes certain not to assert any conclusion beyond that which the math demands.

  7. Thanks for your kind comments, Eric. A link to by 2004 SBL paper is here.

  8. Thanks for the link and the discussion! I find this helpful.

    I'd be glad if we didn't have to bother with numbers and percentages and the like. But when Ehrman comes out with seemingly big numbers of variants (200,000 to 400,000 for the whole NT), and then says this is more than the number of words in the NT, these data can seem to suggest that we cannot have confidence in our knowledge of the NT text. If you know textual criticism, you're not bothered. But if you're unfamiliar with the disciplline, this looks pretty bad for the NT. So I'm not convinced that we can just forget about it. At least those of us who are trying to help ordinary folk understand the issues can't forget about it.

    You'll notice that I call what I'm doing a "thought experiment," and qualify what I'm saying with "suppose that." Of course my figures are estimates. But I think this is an effective way to make the point that Ehrman's apparently large numbers are proportonately insignificant.

    If those of you who are much better versed in textual criticism than I am can come up with a better way to help average folks deal with Ehrman, I'm all ears. (Yes, I'm aware of the new book by Dan Wallace, et al. It also uses numerical comparisons, at least with respect to classical manuscripts.)

  9. Surely a raw calculation of numbers of variants is merely a product of the number of extant manuscripts? By definition there will be none in a text extant in a single ms. with no marginalia! Yet that is a *bad* transmission, not a good one.

    The obvious riposte is to ask to see a graph of numbers of variants in a text against numbers of manuscripts. The curve that results should show a direct relation, distorted only by texts subject to carelessness or extra care.

    Without that information, the comments on 'variants' seem quite meaningless. Does the existence of variants of the Lord of the Rings (the 1st edition is different to modern ones in a few places) mean that we cannot read the LotR?

    A category confusion would seem to be involved in all this. A text can be transmitted with every single instance of 'atque' replaced by 'et'. Not to be transmitted means that there is no text; not that there is a text which contains typos.

  10. Mark Roberts said,

    But when Ehrman comes out with seemingly big numbers of variants (200,000 to 400,000 for the whole NT), and then says this is more than the number of words in the NT, these data can seem to suggest that we cannot have confidence in our knowledge of the NT text.

    I agree, but we have to admit that we are just as likely to misuse statistics as Ehrman has and so overstate our case. Still, I think Mark is right to say that numbers are vital in helping non-experts (like me!) to understand variants and their significance. Statistics can really help put things in perspective for someone just learning about them. Since they are both helpful and prone to misuse, it seems that this is an important discussion to have. Thanks for bringing it up.