Has The New Testament Been Translated Correctly?

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Isaiah 40:8

Would you be alarmed to learn that there are 400,000 variations in the New Testament manuscripts? Would it alarm you that, technically speaking, there are more variations in the New Testament manuscripts than words in the New Testament?

I was.

When I first learned that, my heart sunk straight into my stomach. I had this huge “Oh no…” moment and I was terrified to keep digging, afraid that the Bible, this pillar of my faith, would be shred apart before my eyes.

“What if this is all a lie? What if this religion really is just a man-made, man-adjusted religion used to control people? How can I trust the Bible if I don’t even know what it says?”

These are all the thoughts that were running through my mind. Are they running through yours now?

Don’t freak out.

There are 400,000 variations in the biblical manuscripts we have. But…(and it’s a BIG but)…hold on. I know that sounds scary, so let’s look at what that means exactly before we throw in the towel on the Bible.

Translation vs Transmission

Translation is when we write or say something in one language and then write or say the same thing in another language.

The Bible is predominately written in two languages. The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, which was the language of Israel. The New Testament is almost all in koine Greek, which was the common language of the area, much the same way English is the general global language today. 

The first thing to know about Bible translation, or changing writing/speech into a different language, is that we don’t filter through tons of different languages to get to the English (or other language) that we read today. We do not translate from Greek to Arabic to Punjabi to Russian to Chinese to English. If that were the case, there would be a huge concern of things being lost in translation. Anyone who has heard the rendition of the song “One Day More” after it’s been filtered through Google Translate knows why that would be a problem.

When we translate the Bible, we predominantly use Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. These have been copied exactly (or 99% correctly as we’ll discuss below) from other Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. When you read a Bible today, it hasn’t been translated over and over. It’s been translated just once. It’s been translated one time directly from Greek and Hebrew manuscripts that have been passed down.

Transmission is when we copy or repeat something in the same language to another person or document. It does not change languages, but is an attempt to reproduce what was said/written, while staying in the same language. When we copy the words of the Declaration of Independence onto a new piece of paper, this is a form of transmission. When we teach our children how to sing Jingle Bells, this is a form of transmission.

The question that we must ask is if these Greek and Hebrew manuscripts that we have were transmitted correctly. Do we have a trustworthy copy or copies of what was originally written?

To answer this, we turn to textual criticism.

The Basics of Textual Criticism

Textual Criticism is the study of the biblical manuscripts in order to reproduce what was originally written. “The goal of lower textual criticism is to reproduce the original biblical text…”(White, 51) It’s not focused on translating into new languages like English at all, but on what was written in the original languages. In textual criticism, manuscripts are carefully studied to reproduce what was originally written.

Here is a simplified example of this in English, From the following sentences, could you tell me what the original said?

What Evidence Do We Have?

How much evidence do we have with which to test the reliability of the Bible?

A lot.

More than any other ancient document ever by a long shot.

Manuscripts, by definition, are handwritten documents. This creates more opportunities for non-uniform documents since they are not printed copies. It’s not like they xeroxed the Gospels and mailed them. The early Christians copied them by hand as carefully as possible.

Most early Christians used papyrus to write on because it was affordable. The downside to papyrus is that it is made from plants and was not very durable. Although it worked well for them at the time, they do not hold up well over two thousand years. In 313AD, there was a major transition to vellum as the writing material. Vellum is made from animal skins and is much more durable over time. It is therefore more likely for us to find. (White, 54)

Of the manuscripts that we’ve found, about 15% of them are from before 1000AD and 85% of them are from after 1000AD. (White, 196) This makes sense because 1.) the newer the manuscript, the more likely it is that it has survived and 2.) with the growth of Christianity, more and more copies were being made.

Today, we have over 5,820 Greek New Testament manuscripts. Some of these are very small, containing just a few verses, and some are very large. Even with the smaller fragments, the average length of a New Testament manuscripts we have found is 450 pages each.(WOW!) In total, we have nearly 2.6 million pages of text with just the Greek New Testament manuscripts. (Wallace, YouTube Lecture)

That’s a lot of pages.

(Side note: You can actually see scans of many of these online! http://www.csntm.org)

In addition, we have over 18,500 early translations. Those are not a part of the 400,000 variation count and not the primary source for translation, so we won’t consider those in number breakdowns here, but it’s interesting to note. We also have 42,000 scrolls and codices of the Old Testament.

If you’d like to have a reference for just how huge these numbers are, the next in line for volume of ancient manuscript evidence here’s a chart to visualize it.

Obviously, volume alone is not a good reason to trust a book, but what this volume of manuscripts offers us is the ability to test the manuscripts against the others and see if they are consistent or if they have been changed over time. It also gives more room for a higher number of variants.

If I only have one document, there won’t be any variations, but I also won’t have any reason to be confident that this was what was originally written, since the copyist of this single manuscript could have gone completely off the rails with their own additions and subtractions.

“If we only had one manuscript, we would have very little confidence that it accurately represents the original. A single manuscript could have been changed, and how would we know? We would have nothing with which to compare it.”

(White, pg 64)

Many manuscripts may mean more possibility for variations, but it’s a good trade for confidence in the veracity of the text.

Another way of looking at this is an example Greg Koukl gives. If you have a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, would you rather have 100 missing pieces or 100 extra pieces? I’d be willing to bet you’d want 100 extra pieces. You would be able, with a bit of extra work, to figure out what pieces fit where, to have a complete puzzle and know what pieces don’t belong.

The same is true for manuscripts. We have a huge collection of manuscripts, and there are some variations that will naturally arise with that much manual work. But because we have so many, we can sort through them and figure out what pieces don’t belong.

So let’s take that number of 400,000 variants in the Greek New Testament manuscripts and start to put it into the context of this huge volume of text in the 5,820 Greek manuscripts we have today.


First, what is a variation? According to Dr. Daniel Wallace,  A variant is “any place among the manuscripts in which there is a variation in wording, including word order, omission or addition of words, even spelling differences” (Wallace, YouTube Video, 12:27)  

Seems simple, right? Well, it takes a bit more unpacking than that. 

There are four categories of variants:

  1. Not Meaningful, Not Viable
  2. Viable, Not Meaningful
  3. Meaningful, Not Viable
  4. Meaning and Viable

If a variant is meaningful, it changes the meaning of the text. If a variant is viable, this means it was possibly a part of the original manuscripts and not a later alteration.

So let’s take a deeper look at each of these four categories.

Not Meaningful, Not Viable: Spelling Differences

These variations make up about 75% of all variants.

The most common one in this group is the “movable nu”. This is a Greek language device where a “n” would be added to the end of word when the next word began with a vowel. It’s very similar to the difference between “a horse” and “an elephant.” Having “a” or “an” doesn’t change the meaning at all. Most variants in this category are differences between two manuscripts as to whether they have a “moveable nu” in one spot or not. These kinds of variants don’t affect the meaning of the text in any way, and they account for roughly 300,000 of the 400,000 variants.

One other example is that the Greek name for “John” can be spelled with one “n” or two. Does this mean we don’t know who wrote this book? No. It’s simply a small variation in spelling that doesn’t affect the meaning in any way.

Viable, Not Meaningful: Word Order and Synonyms

These make up about 15% of all variants

These are variants that, while the words might be different on the page, the meaning is exactly the same. This would be predominantly variations of word order and synonyms. This might be a bit difficult for English speakers to understand, since English is very dependent on word order for our meaning. If I said “Benjamin broke his foot” that has a very different meaning from “His foot broke Benjamin.” This is because in English the subject comes before the verb and the object comes after.

Greek is very different from English in that the word order does not matter for meaning, but merely for emphasis. In Greek, we know the subject is the subject because of the ending the word has and not where it is in the sentence.

Ancient Greek also has a much larger vocabulary than English, and more synonyms that are not even translatable into English. For example, the word “move” in English could be said with 11 different Greek words. The word “make” could be said with 25 different Greek words. There are places where a Greek synonym is used in the Biblical manuscripts, but it does not alter the meaning in any way for translation.

These types of variations makes up about 60,000 of the 400,000 total.

Meaningful, Not Viable: Late Changes

These make about a little more than 9% of all variants.

These kinds of variants could change the meaning of the text, but we can clearly see that they are later alterations and are not original. These make up more than 9% of the variants.  

One example of this is Luke 6:22. In the earliest manuscripts, this verse says the following:

“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man.”

However, in one manuscript from the 11th century, this verse is written as follows:

“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil.”

What’s the difference?

Well the verse from the later manuscript is missing “on account of the Son of Man.” Could that change the meaning of the text? Yes. Without this section, the verse is saying that you are blessed when people are cruel to you for any reason. With the section included, it says that you are blessed when people are cruel to you because of your allegiance to Christ. So that matters. Or it would if we couldn’t easily see that this second reading without the “on account of the Son of Man” is not what was originally written. It is not in the early manuscripts and is in only one later manuscript. It’s an easy variant to make a solid conclusion about.

These types of variants, ones we know were not a part of the original, make up about 36,000 of the 400,000 total.

Meaningful and Viable Variants

So far we’ve accounted for 396,000 variations of the estimated 400,000.

This last category represents less than 1% of all variants. See that little tiny sliver of yellow in the chart above? That’s this category. Seems a little less frightening, doesn’t it?

These are variables that do affect the meaning of the text and are possibly from the original. When you see a footnote in your bible that says “some manuscripts say ____”, this is because the variant is both meaningful and viable.

Of the 400,000 number of variations that skeptics like to throw out, less than 1% of these are both meaningful and viable.

Less than 1%

That’s less than 4,000 places of variation, and it is actually a generous estimate.  Dr. Dan Wallace estimates that number is closer to 1,000.

If that number still seems like a lot to you, here’s two quick facts about them:

  1. The presence of variants are not a secret. Every Christian who reads their Bible should already be aware of this fact. If you open your Bible, you’ll see on the bottom of the page a little section for footnotes. This is where the meaningful, viable variants are recorded in the Bible. Is it valuable to look more into variants that stand out to you? Yes! But they are not a secret that Christians are hiding from.
  2. No essential doctrines of the Christian faith, not one, are changed in any way by these variants. Essential beliefs of the faith are not in any jeopardy because of these variants. We’ll talk more about this at the end, but it’s worth mentioning here briefly.

Let’s take a closer look at these variants. They range in size and importance. Here are a few examples:

Mark 2:16

Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?

Why is He eating with tax collectors and sinners?

Was Jesus eating with these groups or eating and drinking? Does either reading change any doctrines about Jesus?  No.

Luke 2:14

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests

Does the announcement of Jesus’ coming show goodwill toward men or peace to men on whom God has favor? Does the second mean peace to some men that have God’s favor, or does it mean God has favor on all men and offers peace to all? If this was the only verse we had that spoke of how God feels about mankind, this verse might be more significant, but we have plenty, John 3:16 being one example.

John 8:59

Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.

Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.

Did Jesus hide himself and sneak through the crowd as a possibly invisible person, or does the Bible say he hid and sneaked out? Does the possibility of Jesus being able to make himself invisible change any essentials we already believe about Jesus?

Romans 16:24

“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen”


Is this the only instance of Paul wishing the grace of Christ be with people? Without this verse, do we think he did not pray for grace for the church in Rome or others he ministered to?

Mark 1:40-41

Then a leper came to Jesus, begging on his knees: “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out His hand and touched them man. “I am willing,” He said, “Be clean.”

Then a leper came to Jesus, begging on his knees: “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Moved with anger, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” He said, “Be clean.

Was Jesus moved with anger or with compassion? It’s possible he might have been angry because the public healing and public declarations of the leper would mean he would have to be in the wilderness for 7 days. We do see that he was forced to leave the town and return later, hindering his ministry. If the leper had waited and asked him privately, there would have been no interruption, and this would explain why Jesus was angry. We also have other examples of times when Jesus was angry and many other examples of Jesus being compassionate, so this would not add or alter any doctrines about Jesus.

The Big Ones

There are three more major variations that every Christian should know and be familiar with. These come up almost every time I discuss biblical reliability with a skeptic, and Christians should be prepared to discuss them.

1 John 5:7-8

“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”

This verse very clearly lays out the doctrine of the Trinity, however it is very clear from the study of early manuscripts that the underlined part was a later addition that was brought over from the Latin translation of the New Testament.

Does this mean that we don’t have scriptural evidence of the Trinity? Not by a long shot. We can comfortably say that this section is not a part of the original manuscripts and still maintain that the Trinity is a biblical doctrine.

(Note: For more resources on the scriptural evidence of the Trinity, check out this great video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0cLKtR5kfE&t=953s )

John 7:53-8:11

“They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

This one is a hard one for some people because of the emotional connection many feel with this story. This is the story of the adulterous woman who is about to be stoned, and Jesus says the famous line “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The textual evidence does show that it wasn’t originally recorded in John’s Gospel, which may shock some Christians who have never read the footnotes about this passage.

Does this mean that this event didn’t happen? Not necessarily. Many scholars actually believe that this was an event that happened and circulated orally in the early church before it was written down between the 2nd and 4th century. Should it be included as a Biblical event on the same level as other Scripture? Probably not.

Although it is a memorable teaching, it also does not to add or alter any Christian doctrine that is not clearly laid out elsewhere in Scripture. We have plenty of Scripture about the guidelines of Christian judgement, particularly that it not be done hypocritically. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Mark 16:9-20

Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs

This is the section at the end of Mark and most scholars are very confident that this was not a part of what Mark originally wrote. Mark very likely ended abruptly at verse 8. It is believed that a scribe, thinking it was an odd ending, took parts of the other gospels and created a new ending based on those with some additions like believers being able to drink poison and handle poisonous snakes. While there are practices that would be affected by this section like the poison and the snakes, there is no doctrinal issue that is in this section that we do not have evidence for elsewhere.

We do not lose any doctrines when we omit this section of verses.

How Does This .1% Affect the Christian Faith?

It’s an important question to ask! We’ve seen that 99.9% of the variations do not affect the meaning or are clearly not a part of the original texts, but what about the .1%. How do those roughly 4000 variations affect how I read the Bible and what I, as a Christian, believe.

The short answer is…it doesn’t change a thing.

If two Christians have two Bibles that are as different as possible in regards to these meaningful and viable variants, they will still have the exact same essential doctrines. I’m talking about the deity of Jesus, the humanity of Jesus, the Trinity, the death of Jesus, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the virgin birth…etc.  

There are a few things that might be different in practice, for example do you need to pray and fast to cast out a certain type of demon or just pray, or if Christians can handle poisonous snakes and not be killed, but the essential doctrines of the faith, those needed for salvation, will be the same.

The main reason for this is that no Christian doctrine hinges on just one verse. If there is a variation on one verse that pertains to a doctrine, there are other verses without variations that also underscore this doctrine.

Bart Ehrman, a popular atheistic scholar, admits this himself in the appendix of Misquoting Jesus saying that he generally agrees that “essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” (Ehrman, p252)

Inerrancy and Variations

I remember discussing if the Bible was inerrant with someone. As an objection to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, they brought up an example where translators accidentally translated the word for “he” into “she” in one location. This person seemed to believe this was reason to not believe that the Bible is inerrant.

At the time, I wasn’t as well informed about the definition of inerrancy and did not know how to respond, but I now see that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means when someone says the Bible is inerrant.

Variations and translation mistakes do not play a role in the inerrancy of the Bible. Inerrancy is based on the original manuscripts, not on the copies.

Paul Feinburg, one of the signers of the 1979 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, defined it as such: “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical or life sciences.” (Bloomburg, 123)

We’ll talk more about the doctrine of inerrancy another time, but for now, it’s important to note that variations in the transmission (copying or sharing a source in the same language) and translation (copying from one language to another language) of the biblical manuscripts have no impact on if the Bible is inerrant or not. As you can see in the definition above, inerrancy focuses on what was written in the original manuscripts, not on mistakes that have been made since the originals were written. When we speak about the variations in the text, we are not approaching the subject of inerrancy.

What Now?

We have to be able to trust that the Bible is historically reliable if we are going to be able to use it as a historical document and analyze what it says about the life of Jesus and the events after his death. In previous articles, I’ve established that we have multiple attestation, that the dating of the Gospels is early, that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Here, I hope you’ll agree, I’ve shown that the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are reliable in that we have what was originally written by these eyewitnesses. There exist a tiny percentage of variants (.1%) where we are not sure which is correct, but we know the options and we know that one of them is original.

Now, armed with this information, don’t be taken aback when a skeptical friend brings up this 400,000 number that seems so alarming at first glance. Don’t be shocked when someone brings up in a discussion that Mark’s ending is actually a lot shorter. As shown in the research and data above, these are not reasons to lose faith in the reliability of the Bible.

Instead, use it as an opportunity to speak with them about the amazing amount of textual reliability we have in the biblical New Testament manuscripts. It really is incredible. We have 99.9% surety that we know what the originals said, and for the .1% that we are unsure of, these are areas that do not affect any essential Christian doctrine. I don’t know about you, but for a document that is thousands of years old…

I think that’s a miracle.