After the ink dried on the last page of the last book of the New Testament, there was a period of fourteen centuries in which book-making technologies changed relatively little. The codex—the standard paper book—replaced the scroll fairly early on in that period, due in no small part to the influence of Christianity. But every book in Europe was still produced by the dip-scratch, dip-scratch of scribes hunched over writing desks with pens and inkwells.
Until Gutenberg introduced movable type printing to Europeans, the idea that scribes could make identical copies of any lengthy book was simply ludicrous. It could not be done. Printing made perfect textual accuracy possible, but it didn’t make it probable (the famous “Wicked Bible” of 1631 left out a key word in the seventh commandment, reading, “Thou shalt commit adultery”). Minor errors creep into any work done by the human hand—God promised in the garden after the fall that Adam would find frustration in his work, and it has ever been so—even in book production.
The simple fact is this: ancient manuscripts of the Bible differ. And all the “textual variants” between manuscripts (spelling changes, word order changes, missing or added words) can be traced to either finitude or fallenness: either people made mistakes or they made changes. You need no more evidence than you already have to believe that humans can make mistakes—you try copying a long document by hand and see how you do. But you’d need a great deal of evidence to believe that ancient scribes made purposeful changes—especially if you view those changes as somehow malevolent or self-serving. Without that evidence you’d be adopting something like a conspiracy theory.
The science of establishing which variant is original is called “textual criticism,” and it’s something of an advanced-level topic, something you’ll want to do your own reading on. (David Alan Black has written one good introduction to the topic.) But a few points may be helpful here:
- Think of what it would take for someone to “change the Bible.” He or she would have to foist that change successfully on a whole world full of Bibles in a day before car travel, let alone air travel.
- The fact that we have so many biblical manuscripts, particularly of the New Testament, is comforting: they come from places all over Western Europe and the Middle East, and from many different time periods, and there are excessively few substantial differences.
- Many, many of the textual variants are tiny differences of spelling or word order that do not even show up in translation. The three differences which are more substantial in the New Testament are John 7:53–8:11; 1 John 5:7; Mark 16:9–20. You can read about those in more detail in Black’s book.
The rest of the textual variants in the Bible are somewhere on a continuum in the middle—though they’re weighted toward the minor and insubstantial end. And one of them is in Matthew 4, the passage we studied for the 10-Day Bible Study Challenge. It provides an excellent example of the type of textual variant that often occurs in the Gospels. It’s something that doesn’t affect the doctrinal teaching of the Bible in the least, but it’s the perfect case study for demonstrating how a basic understanding of textual criticism can enrich your Bible study.
Matthew 4: a textual variant case study
The variant shows up in Matthew 4:10. The majority of manuscripts in existence have Jesus telling the devil, “Get behind me, Satan!”
But the oldest manuscripts say, “Be gone, Satan!”
What did Matthew originally write? It’s theoretically possible that he wrote something entirely different, of course—but that’s excessively unlikely. There is no evidence anywhere ever discovered that he did. These are the two possibilities: “Be gone” or “Get behind me.”
You can use the “Textual Variants” section in Logos’ Exegetical Guide to explore this textual-critical issue. Just call up the Exegetical Guide and type Matthew 4 in the reference box. If you don’t have Logos, you can do much of what I’ll show you below using Metzger’s Textual Commentary—it will just require a good deal more page-flipping.
The Textual Variants Section alerts you when a passage you are studying is mentioned in textual commentaries available in your library. If you’re using paper books, you’ll have to look up the Scripture you’re studying by hand. In Logos, I can quickly see that Matthew 4:10 includes the only significant variant in the chapter.
But why is it here? If the words “Get behind me” aren’t original, where did they come from?
The answer is simple; it provides an example of something that happens repeatedly in textual criticism of the Gospels, and nobody could put it more expertly than Bruce Metzger in his useful Textual Commentary (a single click in the Exegetical Guide sends me right to Matthew 4:10 in Metzger’s resource). Note what he says about the words ὀπίσω μου (“behind me”):
In other words, what obviously happened here was that a scribe who knew his New Testament got confused and—lacking Logos Bible Software to help him find out where the words “Get behind me” were supposed to be, namely Matthew 16:23—he figured someone else had made a mistake. It’s quite possible that more than one scribe across the ancient world made the same understandable mistake, and it got passed down to us.
Another important element of textual criticism is something you can do easily in Logos: you can take a look at what ancient translations such as the Latin Vulgate (and in the case of Old Testament texts, the Septuagint) did with a given passage. The Exegetical Guide also provides direct links to photographs of relevant ancient manuscripts. When you open the 036 Tischendorianus IV manuscript, for example, you see a picture of a manuscript with the actual textual addition. Capture a screenshot of this manuscript to add it to your notes or presentation:
Another tool you might want to use is the New Testament Manuscript Explorer, accessible through your list of interactive resources. Here you can search for specific manuscripts by date, contents, text family, and more.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.
Logos provides textual-critical tools for beginners and experts. To dig deep into Matthew 4—and learn to use Logos at the same time—take our free, 10-day course! Learn more about this free training, or sign up below right now.