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The Number of Variants in the Greek New Testament: A Proposed Estimate

  • Peter J. Gurry (a1)

Since the publication of John Mill's Greek New Testament in 1707, scholars have shown repeated interest in the number of textual variants in our extant witnesses. Past estimates, however, have failed to tell who estimated, how the estimate was derived, or even what was being estimated. This study addresses all three problems and so offers an up-to-date estimate based on the most extensive collation data available. The result is a higher number than almost all previous estimates. Proper use shows that the number reflects the frequency with which scribes copied more than their infidelity in doing so.

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1 The story is recounted in A. Fox, John Mill and Richard Bentley: A Study of the Textual Criticism of the New Testament 1675–1729 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954) 105–15.

2 R. Bentley, ‘Remarks upon a Late Discourse of Free-Thinking’, The Works of Richard Bentley (ed. Alexander Dyce; 3 vols.; London: Robson, Levey, and Franklyn, 1838) iii.349, 350.

3 For a list of manuscripts available to Mill, see Fox, Mill and Bentley, 143–6. The list kept by INTF is available at At the time of writing, the numbers are 127 papyri, 286 majuscules, 2,841 minuscules and 2,384 lectionaries.

4 B. D. Ehrman, ‘Text and Interpretation: The Exegetical Significance of the “Original” Text’, Studies in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (NTTS 33; Leiden: Brill, 2006) 309; originally published as Ehrman, B. D., ‘Text and Interpretation: The Exegetical Significance of the “Original” Text’, TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism (2000), available at (accessed 22 September 2014). No estimate today ‘represents the sum total of all analyzed manuscripts’ as claimed by K. Martin Heide in ‘Assessing the Stability of the Transmitted Texts of the New Testament and the Shepherd of Hermas’, The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue (ed. R. B. Stewart; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011) 157.

5 G. Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles: A Disquisition upon the Corpus Paulinum (Schweich Lectures 1946; London: Oxford University Press, 1953) 58.

6 See especially B. D. Ehrman and D. B. Wallace, ‘The Textual Reliability of the New Testament: A Dialogue’, in Stewart, ed., The Reliability of the New Testament, 13–60, esp. 21–2, 32–4; D. B. Wallace, ‘Lost in Transmission: How Badly Did the Scribes Corrupt the New Testament Text?’, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (ed. D. B. Wallace; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011) 26–40.

7 S. E. Porter, How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013) 66; C. L. Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2014) 17.

8 Epp, E. J., ‘Why Does New Testament Textual Criticism Matter? Refined Definitions and Fresh Directions’, ExpT 125.9 (2014) 419.

9 It is sometimes not appreciated that this number was not offered by Mill himself and is itself an estimate made by Gerard von Maestricht in the prolegomena to his 1711 edition of the Greek New Testament (Fox, Mill and Bentley, 105).

10 F. H. A. Scrivener, A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament for the Use of Biblical Students (Cambridge: Deighton, 18611) 3.

11 P. Schaff, A Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883) 176.

12 Eldon Epp has recently written that ‘in 1882, Hort spoke of 300,000 variants in the known witnesses’, but I can find no evidence for this claim. See E. J. Epp, ‘Textual Criticism and New Testament Interpretation’, Method and Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold W. Attridge (ed. A. B. McGowan and K. H. Richards; Resources for Biblical Study 67; Atlanta: SBL, 2011) 87; cf. Epp, ‘Why Does New Testament Textual Criticism Matter?’, 419.

13 B. B. Warfield, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1889) 13.

14 Warfield, Introduction, 13 (emphasis added). The same way of counting is still found, for example, in N. R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 20033) 96: ‘If one slight variant were to occur in 4,000 different manuscripts, this would amount to 4,000 “errors”.’

15 E. Abbot, C. von Tischendorf, O. von Gebhardt, ‘Bible Text – New Testament’, A Religious Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology (ed. P. Schaff; 4 vols.; New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1891) i.278; Eberhard Nestle, Einführung in das Griechische Neue Testament (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 18971) 14; M. R. Vincent, A History of the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London: Macmillan, 1899) 6.

16 A. Jülicher, An Introduction to the New Testament (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1904) 589–90.

17 C. F. Sitterly, ‘Text and MSS (NT)’, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed. J. Orr; 5 vols.; Chicago: Howard-Severance, 1915) v.2, 955.

18 H. J. Vogels and L. Pirot, ‘Critique textuelle du Nouveau Testament’, Dictionnaire de la Bible: Supplément (ed. L. Pirot; 13 vols.; Paris: Librairie Letouzey, 1934) ii.226; L. Vaganay, Initiation à la critique textuelle néotestamentaire (BCSR 60; Paris: Bloud et Gay, 1934) 9.

19 Nestle, Erwin, ‘How to Use a Greek New Testament’, The Bible Translator 2.2 (1951) 54.

20 Clark, K. W., ‘The Theological Relevance of Textual Variation in Current Criticism of the Greek New Testament’, JBL 85.1 (1966) 12.

21 M. M. Parvis, ‘Text, NT’, The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (ed. G. A. Buttrick; 5 vols.; New York: Abingdon, 1962) iv.595; Clark, ‘Theological Relevance’, 3.

22 J. K. Elliott and I. Moir, Manuscripts and the Text of the New Testament: An Introduction for English Readers (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995) 21; Epp, E. J., ‘The Multivalence of the Term “Original Text” in New Testament Textual Criticism’, HTR (1999) 52.3; Ehrman, ‘Text and Interpretation’, §8; E. Schnabel, ‘Textual Criticism: Recent Developments’, The Face of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research (ed. S. McKnight and G. R. Osborne; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004) 59.

23 Epp, E. J., ‘It's All about Variants: A Variant-Conscious Approach to New Testament Textual Criticism’, HTR 100.3 (2007) 275, 291; B. D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: Harper, 2005) 89.

24 J. H. Greenlee, The Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) 38; D. B. Wallace, ‘Textual Criticism of the New Testament’, Lexham Bible Dictionary (ed. J. D. Barry and L. Wentz; Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2012); L. M. McDonald, Formation of the Bible: The Story of the Church's Canon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012) 144.

25 Epp, ‘Textual Criticism and New Testament Interpretation’, 87; Epp, ‘Why Does New Testament Textual Criticism Matter?’, 419.

26 J. Best, Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) 124.

27 L. Vaganay and C.-B. Amphoux, An Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 19912) 2; Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 89.

28 Heide, ‘Assessing’, 157.

29 Elliott and Moir, Manuscripts, 21.

30 Warfield, Introduction, 13.

31 Ehrman, ‘Text and Interpretation’, §8; Wallace, ‘Lost in Transmission’, 20.

32 Eberhard Nestle, Einführung, 14.

33 J. E. Miller, The Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 20041) 200.

34 Parvis, ‘Text’, 595; Clark, ‘Theological Relevance’, 3, 12. For comparison, D. Parker estimates 11,000 variants in the nearly 2,000 Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of John. See D. C. Parker, Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament: The Lyell Lectures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 84.

35 E. J. Epp, ‘Textual Criticism (NT)’, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (ed. D. N. Freedman; 6 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1992) iv.413–14. For an extended discussion, see E. J. Epp, ‘Toward the Clarification of the Term “Textual Variant”’, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Studies and Documents 45; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 47–61.

36 Best, Stat-Spotting, 124.

37 This last criterion regrettably led to the exclusion of H. C. Hoskier's important work in Concerning the Text of the Apocalypse: Collations of All Existing Available Greek Documents with the Standard Text of Stephen's Third Edition, Together with the Testimony of Versions, Commentaries and Fathers. A Complete Conspectus of All Authorities (2 vols.; London: Bernard Quaritch, 1929).

38 M. B. Morrill, ‘A Complete Collation and Analysis of All Greek Manuscripts of John 18’ (PhD diss.; University of Birmingham, 2012); S. M. Solomon, ‘The Textual History of Philemon’ (PhD diss.; New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 2014); T. Wasserman, The Epistle of Jude: Its Text and Transmission (Coniectanea Biblica New Testament Series 43; Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2006).

39 K. Aland et al., eds., Text und Textwert der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments (16 vols.; ANTF; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1987–2005).

40 For details, see Morrill, ‘Complete Collation’, 63; Solomon, ‘Textual History’, 29–37; Wasserman, Jude, 129–30; K. Aland, B. Aland, K. Wachtel, eds., Text und Textwert der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments: v. Das Johannesevangelium: 1. Teststellenkollation der Kapitel 1–10: Band 1,1: Handschriftenliste und vergleichende Beschreibung (ANTF 35; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005) 7*–8*.

41 For representative discussions, see E. C. Colwell and E. W. Tune, ‘Method in Classifying and Evaluating Variant Readings’, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament (NTTS 9; Leiden: Brill, 1969) 96–105; Epp, ‘Clarification’; G. D. Fee, ‘On the Types, Classification, and Presentation of Textual Variation’, Studies in the Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Studies and Documents 45; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 62–79; D. C. Parker, An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and their Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 4–5; B. Aland et al., eds., Novum Testamentum Graecum: Editio Critica Maior iv: Catholic Letters (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 20132) 26*–27*.

42 It should be noted here that, unlike Morrill and Wasserman, Solomon places differences between pronouns such as ὑμῶν/ἡμῶν and αὐτοῦ/ἑαυτοῦ in the category of ‘spelling differences’ (Solomon, ‘Textual History’, 33). I counted eighteen of these and have included them in what follows because, in my opinion, they should not be categorised as spelling differences.

43 For this distinction, see especially Epp, ‘Clarification’, 50. Precisely because this definition is oriented to manuscripts rather than reconstructed texts, it avoids completely the debates about the identification of the ‘original’ text, on which see M. W. Holmes, ‘From “Original Text” to “Initial Text”: The Traditional Goal of New Testament Textual Criticism in Contemporary Discussion’, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis (ed. B. D. Ehrman and M. W. Holmes; NTTSD 42; Leiden: Brill, 20132) 637–88.

44 On the importance of the distinction between ‘variant’ and ‘variant unit’, see Colwell and Tune, ‘Method in Classifying’, 99–100; Epp, ‘Clarification’, 49–50, 60–1.

45 An excellent discussion of the problem is given in Morrill, ‘Complete Collation’, 55–65. For a good illustration, see Parker, Introduction, 4–5. For an explanation of how software can segment texts in the process of collation, see P. Robinson, ‘Rationale and Implementation of the Collation System Used on This CD-ROM’, The Miller's Tale on CD-ROM (Leicester: Scholarly Digital Editions, 2004), now available at (accessed 2 October 2014).

46 This count was done electronically in Logos Bible Software. For comparison, the electronic text of Westcott and Hort has 137,655 words and the Robinson–Pierpont Byzantine text has 140,155. Using the more recent Nestle–Aland 28th edition would make little difference since it is shorter than the NA27 by only seven words (see B. Aland et al., eds., Novum Testamentum Graece (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012) 50*–1*).

47 My thanks to Klaus Wachtel for providing the electronic datasets behind the ECM 2.

48 Wasserman: 560 manuscripts and 1,694 variants; ECM 2: 138 manuscripts and 789 variants.

49 As medievalist Paolo Trovato observes, ‘The number of variants seems to be directly proportional to the number of surviving witnesses, but their increase tends to stabilize, following a saturation curve, once most of the witnesses have been collated’ (P. Trovato, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lachmann's Method: A Non-Standard Handbook of Genealogical Textual Criticism in the Age of Post-Structuralism, Cladistics, and Copy-Text (Storie e Linguaggi; Padova:, 2014) 62).

50 The exception is the final volume on John 1–10, which records both nonsense and orthographic variants. With the exception of Table 6, we leave these variants out for consistency.

51 The estimates for each book are Matt: 84,759; Mark: 54,259; Luke: 100,527; John: 54,097; Acts: 74,907; Rom: 26,808; 1 Cor: 22,402; 2 Cor: 16,252; Gal: 10,927; Eph: 9,518; Phil: 5,946; Col: 8,369; 1 Thess: 7,849; 2 Thess: 3,185; 1 Tim: 8,416; 2 Tim: 5,918; Titus: 4,903; Phlm: 1,554; Heb: 20,555; Jas: 4,965; 1 Pet: 9,700; 2 Pet: 3,517; 1 John: 5,417; 2 John: 1,416; 3 John: 688; Jude: 1,535; Rev: 42,655. Because no data are yet available for Revelation in Text und Textwert, we have averaged the rate of variation in the other twenty-six books (= 4.33).

52 K. Aland and B. Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19892) 318. This would also explain the much higher rate of variants per variation unit.

53 Clark, ‘Theological Relevance’, 5. In a similar vein, Bart Ehrman says of his ‘Orthodox corruptions’ that ‘it is pointless … to calculate the numbers of words of the New Testament affected by such variations’ (B. D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) 276). For a response, see Heide, ‘Assessing’, 125–59, esp. 155.

54 Porter, How We Got the New Testament, 66; Blomberg, Can We Still Believe?, 17.

55 See (accessed 5 February 2015).

56 Examples are found in Eberhard Nestle, Einführung, 14; Vogels and Pirot, ‘Critique textuelle’, ii.262; Erwin Nestle, ‘How to Use’, 54; O. Stegmüller, ‘Überlieferungsgeschichte der Bibel’, Die Textüberlieferung der antiken Literatur und der Bibel (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch, 19751) 195; Ehrman and Wallace, ‘Textual Reliability’, 21, 32–3; Baldwin, C. S., ‘Factor Analysis: A New Method for Classifying New Testament Greek Manuscripts’, Andrews University Seminary Studies 48.1 (2010) 29.

57 For another approach to answering this question, see Spencer, M. and Howe, C. J., ‘How Accurate Were Scribes? A Mathematical Model’, Literary and Linguistic Computing 17.3 (2002) 311–22.

58 The manuscripts are the minuscules 1 and 1582. See Parker, Introduction, 137.

59 As David Parker puts it, ‘The extent of variation is related to the frequency of copying, so that comparatively rare change could, across many manuscripts, amount to the degree of variation that exists’ (D. Parker, ‘Variants and Variance’, Texts and Traditions: Essays in Honour of J. Keith Elliott (ed. P. Doble and J. Kloha; NTTSD 47; Leiden: Brill, 2014) 34). Samuel Tregelles likewise explained the large number of variants as being ‘partly from the frequency with which the New Testament was transcribed, and partly from the great number of copies which have come down to us’ (T. H. Horne, J. Ayre, S. P. Tregelles, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (4 vols.; London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1869) iv.48).

60 See J. R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri (NTTSD 36; Leiden: Brill, 2008) 48, 749–50.

61 Of those who read drafts of this paper, Peter M. Head, Dirk Jongkind, Peter D. Myers and Daniel B. Wallace deserve special mention for their feedback.

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