Do any textual variants in the New Testament have the potential to make a significant doctrinal impact?
In the past, major champions of the traditional text answered that question with a simple “No.” Robert L. Dabney wrote in 1871, that the received text – the Textus Receptus, the base-text of the KJV, while “not asserted to be above emendation,” “contains undoubtedly all the essential facts and doctrines intended to be set down by the inspired writers,” and “If it were corrected with the severest hand, by the light of the most divergent various readings found in any ancient MS or version, not a single doctrine of Christianity, nor a single cardinal fact, would be thereby expunged.”
More recent writers have expressed similar sentiments. D.A. Carson, for example, has written that the Westminster Confession’s affirmation that the Biblical text has been kept pure in all ages ought to be understood to mean that “nothing we believe to be doctrinally true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.” (from p. 56 of The KJV-Only Controversy – A Plea for Realism.)
The view of Dan Wallace, however, is better-informed and more nuanced. It amounts to this: no viable and meaningful variant jeopardizes any cardinal doctrine. The adjectives in that sentence are important, so let’s look into what they mean. A viable variant is one which textual critics regard as potentially original; it is favored by weighty (though not necessarily decisive) evidence. A meaningful variant is one which affects the meaning of the passage in which it occurs. And a cardinal doctrine is one that expresses a fundamental point of the Christian faith.
Using this nuanced approach, a question immediately arises: which doctrines are cardinal? Is inerrancy a cardinal doctrine? Looking at the website of Dallas Theological Seminary (where Dr. Wallace has taught), a statement can be seen that requires students to agree with seven beliefs; the seventh is “the authority and inerrancy of Scripture.” And looking at the requisite Statement of Faith – “requisite” in the sense that faculty members at DTS are required to affirm it annually – one sees a statement that “We believe that the whole Bible in the originals is therefore without error.”
Michael Kruger argued at the Ligonier website (in 2015) that the doctrine of inerrancy is essential, and that it supplies “the foundation for why we can trust and obey God’s Word.” Don Stewart has also proposed that “inerrancy is an essential, foundational concept and its importance should not be minimized.” Dan Wallace, meanwhile, has downplayed the centrality of inerrancy, stating in 2006 (in a post that is still online) that “inerrancy and verbal inspiration are more peripheral than core doctrines.” In other words – if I understand him correctly – Dr. Wallace does not, and has not, for some time, regarded inerrancy as a cardinal doctrine – and so his statement to the effect that no viable and meaningful variant significantly affects cardinal doctrines should not be interpreted to mean that no viable and meaningful variants affect the doctrine of inerrancy.
Some apologists have followed the example of Wallace’s nuanced approach very closely; for example, in an article at Stand To Reason’s website, Tim Barnett wrote in 2016 that “No major doctrines depend on any meaningful and viable variants.”
However, I can think of at least two variants that jeopardize the doctrine of inerrancy, both of which occur in the first book of the New Testament: in Matthew 13:35 and Matthew 27:49. Only the one in Matthew 13:35 is acknowledged by a footnote in the NLT, NASB, and ESV. (At least, this is the case in the copies that I have. So many editions of modern versions are in circulation that it would be burdensome to keep track of them all – which might make one wonder how seriously the “Standard” part of their names should be taken.) Neither of these variants is given a footnote in the CSB, nor in the NKJV, nor in the hyper-paraphrase known as The Message. And the Tyndale House Greek New Testament does not have a footnote at Matthew 13:35 or at Matthew 27:49.
Most of the English versions I have named so far are currently ranked among the ten most-popular versions of the Bible in America. So much for the idea that no one is hiding these variants.
Let’s see what those variants in Matthew 13:35 and 27:49 say.
In Matthew 13:35, the scribe of Codex Sinaiticus, rather than writing that a prophecy was spoken by “the prophet,” wrote that it was spoken by “Isaiah the prophet.” This reading collides with reality: the referred-to prophecy is from Psalm 78:2 – a composition by Asaph, and not from Isaiah. In addition to the scribe of Codex Sinaiticus, witnesses that support “Isaiah the prophet” in Mt. 13:35 include (according to the textual apparatus of UBS4) Q, f1, f13, 33, and the reading was known to Jerome; Jerome wrote (in Homily 11 on Psalm 77) that “in all the ancient copies,” the prophecy is explicitly attributed to Asaph, and Jerome offers the theory that scribes who were unfamiliar with Asaph replaced his name with Isaiah’s name. The editors of UBS4 assigned this reading a ranking of “C,” which, as they explain in their Introduction, “indicates that the Committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text.”
In an earlier generation, F. J. A. Hort – who edited, with Westcott, the primary ancestor of the base-text of the New Testament used for the NIV, ESV, NLT, CSB, NASB and NRSV – argued for including “in Isaiah the prophet” in the text. His argument ran as follows: “It is difficult not to think Ἠσαίου genuine. There was a strong tendency to omit it (cf. xxvii 9; Mc 1 2); and, though its insertion might be accounted for by an impulse to supply the name of the best known prophet, the evidence of the actual operation of such an impulse is much more trifling than might have been anticipated. Out of the 5 (6) other places where the true text has simply τοῦ προφήτου, in two (Mt ii 15 [Hosea]; Acts vii 48 [Isaiah]) , besides the early interpolation in Mt xxvii 35 [Psalms], no name is inserted; in two a name is inserted on trivial evidence (Mt ii 5, Micah rightly, and Isaiah [by a] wrongly ; xxi 4, Isaiah and Zechariah both rightly [Zech by lat.vt]) ; and once (Mt i 22) Isaiah is rightly inserted on various Western evidence. Also for the perplexing Ἰερεμίου of xxvii 9, omitted by many documents, rhe has Ἠσαίου. Thus the erroneous introduction of Isaiah’s name is limited to two passages, and in each case to a single Latin MS. On the other hand the authority of rushw and aeth is lessened by the (right) insertion of Ἠσαίου by one in Mt i 22, and by both in xxi 4. The adverse testimony of B is not decisive, as it has a few widely spread wrong readings in this Gospel.”
Constantine von Tischendorf included Ἠσαίου in Matthew 13:35 in the 8th edition of his compilation of the Greek New Testament. And in 1901, Eberhard Nestle wrote (on p. 251 of his Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament) that διὰ Ἠσαίου τοῦ προφήτου “is certainly, therefore, original.” Anyone using a Greek New Testament compiled by Tischendorf or Nestle today would be rather challenged if he were to attempt to maintain the doctrine of inerrancy, inasmuch as if Matthew attributed Psalm 78:2 to Isaiah, then Matthew erred.
|Mt. 27:49 in Codex L.|
The adoption of this reading into the text would be fatal to the doctrine of inerrancy, because the Gospel of John candidly states (in 19:34) that Jesus was pierced in His side with a spear, resulting in a flow of blood and water, after He died, and this contradicts the text of Matthew if this reading – supported by the two early manuscripts (À and B) that are the primary basis for the heading and footnote that draw into question Mark 16:9-20 in the ESV, CSB, NRSV, etc. – is adopted.
In 2018, in a post at Evangelical Textual Criticism, Tyndale House GNT editor Dirk Jongkind acknowledged that this variant probably should have been mentioned in the apparatus of the Tyndale House GNT. He also acknowledged that “On external evidence, the addition has definitely a very good shout” – which – I think – is tantamount to granting that the reading is viable. But Jongkind rejects the reading, admitting that “The ‘best and earliest manuscripts’ do not always present us with the ‘best and earliest readings.’” Perhaps this statement should be printed in large letters alongside the ESV’s bracketed heading between Mark 16:8 and 16:9 (which reads, “Some of the earliest manuscripts do no include 16:9-20.”).
But this reading in the most significant manuscripts representative of the Alexandrian Text certainly was treated as viable by Westcott and Hort, who included the variant, within double brackets, in their compilation. In Westcott & Hort’s Notes on Select Readings, after analyzing the evidence pertaining to this variant, they concluded as follows: “Two suppositions alone are compatible with the whole evidence. First, the words ἄλλος δὲ κ.τ.λ. [“κ.τ.λ.” meaning “etc.”] may belong to the genuine text of the extant form of Mt, and have been early omitted (originally by the Western text) on account of the obvious difficulty. Or, secondly, they may be a very early interpolation, absent in the first instance from the Western text only, and thus resembling the Non-Western interpolations in Luke xxii xxiv except in its failure to obtain admission into the prevalent texts of the third and fourth centuries. The prima facie difficulty of the second supposition is lightened by the absence of the words from all the earlier versions, though the defectiveness of African Latin, Old Syriac, and Thebaic evidence somewhat weakens the force of this consideration. We have thought it on the whole right to give expression to this view by including the words within double brackets, though we did not feel justified in removing them from the text, and are not prepared to reject altogether the alternative supposition.”
Competent textual critics – including some who laid the foundation for the compilations of the ESV, CSB, NLT, and NRSV – have treated one or two readings that convey erroneous statements as if they are viable and meaningful. Therefore, the notion that there are no viable and meaningful textual variants in the New Testament that jeopardize any cardinal doctrine can only be maintained by those who do not consider the doctrine of inerrancy to be a “cardinal doctrine.”
So: do any textual variants in the New Testament have the potential to make a significant doctrinal impact? If you consider the doctrine of inerrancy a significant doctrine (which most evangelical Christians do), the answer is yes.