Textual Variations

Previous Blog in the series:  Scriptures: The Written Word of God

As we consider the relationship between Jesus, the Word of God, and the Holy Scriptures, we recognize that Jesus is said to be both perfect God and perfect human.  The written Scriptures are also said to be inerrant, and yet it is well known that in the long history of the transmission of the Scriptures scribal errors and variations did enter into the text.  Modern scholars often point out these variations, but they were also well known in the ancient Patristic world.

Modern scholars sometimes try to recreate what they think might be the best or oldest version of the manuscripts making up the books of the Bible.  However, to be real, we can never recreate some perfect biblical manuscript, because no such one manuscript containing all the biblical texts ever existed.  There were always a number of manuscripts and variations in the texts existed from the earliest days of the transmission of texts.   Some non-believers use these variations to show that a literal reading of the Bible can’t be done.  This especially worries those who hold to a completely literalist reading of the text.  Atheists often take advantage of this to try to lead people to lose faith since the texts aren’t perfect.   But in Christian traditions which are not slaves to a literal reading of the text, the variations in the texts can create new insights into the reading of Scripture as well as help us appreciate the depths of God’s written revelation.  Since it is God’s revelation which is true and inerrant, errors in the written text used to communicate the revelation are not seen as invalidating the unchanging truth of God.  Even though the ancients valued and interpreted every tiny dot and letter in the manuscripts, they were amazingly calm about variations they knew existed.  They had a greater faith in God than in the inerrancy of the manuscripts.

We can look at 3 instances of early church Fathers considering variations in the Scriptural texts which were well known in their day.  First, St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD),  writing in the 2nd Century notes that there is a known variation in text of Revelation 13:18 in which some report the number 666 but other texts say the number is 616.  St Irenaeus says:

Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it]; while reason also leads us to conclude that the number of the name of the beast, [if reckoned] according to the Greek mode of calculation by the [value of] the letters contained in it, will amount to six hundred and sixty and six; that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds, and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units (for that number which [expresses] the digit six being adhered to throughout, indicates the recapitulations of that apostasy, taken in its full extent, which occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and which shall take place at the end),–I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one. [I am inclined to think that this occurred through the fault of the copyists, as is wont to happen, since numbers also are expressed by letters; so that the Greek letter which expresses the number sixty was easily expanded into the letter Iota of the Greeks.] Others then received this reading without examination; some in their simplicity, and upon their own responsibility, making use of this number expressing one decad; while some, in their inexperience, have ventured to seek out a name which should contain the erroneous and spurious number. Now, as regards those who have done this in simplicity, and without evil intent, we are at liberty to assume that pardon will be granted them by God.     (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 8557-69)

Irenaeus believes the number 666 is the correct reading and he assumes the number 616 occurs in some manuscripts due to a scribal error which he notes frequently happens.  Amazingly he doesn’t panic over the variation and even thinks God will pardon those who did this accidentally.  For Irenaeus the text does not become meaningless by this error, nor does it mean the text is no longer Scripture.  He understands the letters, numbers, words and sentences of the Scriptures are the human element through which God’s truth and revelation are preserved and brought through the generations (Tradition!).  The letters are subject to human error, but the meaning and purpose of God’s revelation is not altered by these human mistakes.

The second instance is found in the writings of St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) who is commenting on Matthew 5:22.   Cassian shows an awareness that there are variations in manuscripts, and like any modern biblical scholar he also thinks some manuscripts are “better”, more reliable in preserving the original message,  than others.  Cassian believes that the less reliable manuscripts have added “without cause” to the original text, so the changed manuscript reads “who is angry without cause.”  Cassian thinks this addition was made to soften Christ’s teachings.  Cassian believes we are not to be angry with our Christian brothers and sisters.   He thinks some found this so difficult to live by, that they changed the manuscripts to say only if the anger is without cause is it wrong, but if we are provoked by the other than the anger is justified.  Cassian thinks Christ taught the much harder truth that anger is sin no matter what the cause of the anger.  Anger against a fellow Christian can’t be justified in this thinking.  So Cassian writes:

The Lord Himself teaches us to put aside all anger when He says: ‘Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgment’ (Matt. 5:22). This is the text of the best manuscripts; for it is clear from the purpose of Scripture in this context that the words ‘without a cause’ were added later. The Lord’s intention is that we should remove the root of anger, its spark, so to speak, in whatever way we can, and not keep even a single pretext for anger in our hearts. Otherwise we will be stirred to anger initially for what appears to be a good reason and then find that our incensive power is totally out of control. The final cure for this sickness is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust. When the demon of anger has darkened our mind, we are left with neither the light of discrimination, nor the assurance of true judgment, nor the guidance of righteousness, and our soul cannot become the temple of the Holy Spirit.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle  Loc. 2171-86)

Cassian thinks the original teaching of Christ is really shocking and intentionally so.  Can humans living in community really exist without getting angry with one another?  Can we really learn to live so at peace with other Christians, that we ignore their faults, foibles and sins?  Cassian thinks some tried to make the teaching of Christ more manageable and doable by softening it and making it less demanding.  He thinks we need to stick with Christ’s words and intentions rather than with our ideas about what is possible.

The 3rd instance of textual variation comes up on the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430AD) who was a contemporary of St. John Cassian.  Augustine is well aware that the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures sometimes differed significantly from the known Hebrew and Aramaic texts.  Yet both were considered inspired, sacred Scriptures.   He considers what sense we are to make of these variations and how we might know which is the correct reading of the Scriptures.  Augustine offers this explanation:

“The Septuagint translators, being themselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their translation, seem to have altered some passages [in the Hebrew text] with the view of directing the reader’s attention more particularly to the investigation of the spiritual sense. ”  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 55780-82)

Augustine believes the Jewish Septuagint translators in rendering the Hebrew texts into Greek were in fact as inspired as the original authors of the texts.  He believes the same Holy Spirit was at work in the authors as in the translators.  This same inspiration led the translators to try to draw out of the texts the more spiritual rather than literal meaning of the words.  So they were not merely translating, they were interpreting/clarifying the texts under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  God was continuing to act in and through the Scriptures which are His living Word, not dead letters carved in stone (2 Corinthians 3:6-7).  Augustine continues:

“Since we find nothing else in the Scriptures than what the Spirit of God has spoken through men, if anything is in the Hebrew copies [of the Old Testament] and is not in the version of the Seventy [the Septuagint], the Spirit of God did not choose to say it through them [the seventy translators], but only through the prophets. But whatever is in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew copies, the same Spirit chose rather to say through the latter, thus showing that both were prophets. . . . As the one Spirit of peace was in the former when they spoke true and concordant words, so the selfsame one Spirit has appeared in the latter, when, without mutual conference, they still interpreted everything as if they had only one mouth.”  (St. Augustine,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5886-91)

Augustine argues that the Jewish translators were in fact inspired prophets of God.   God chose to render some things only in and through the Hebrew texts and this is what the original prophets proclaimed.  But God who continues to act through history also inspired those charged with preserving and translating the texts.  So God added or changed the message when the Septuagint translators were at work because both the times had changed and so had the people who needed to hear the message anew.  Thus even though God’s eternal Word is rendered in print, the written word does not limit or fix the possible meanings of the text nor its power in new generations of believers.


This idea will be the same truth that is understood in the incarnation of Word of God in Christ.  Though Jesus is fully human, this does not in any way limit or contradict that He is fully God as well.  The incarnate Jesus does not change or limit the eternal Word of God.  God Himself chooses to place the limits of space and time on His divine powers in the incarnation.  But this does not shackle divinity.  It is a great mystery which is made obvious when the inspired and sacred Scriptures are translated into a new language.  God continues to direct His revelation to the world in the living and active Word, which is not limited by the physical means used to convey the spiritual message.   The power of God’s living Word was never limited to or by the stones on which it was carved.

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”   (Hebrews 4:12)

“You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.” That word is the good news which was preached to you.”    (1 Peter 1:23-25)

Next:  Hidden Meanings in the Text


4 thoughts on “Textual Variations

  1. Pingback: Scriptures: The Written Word of God – Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: Hidden Meanings – Fr. Ted's Blog

  3. Pingback: Interpreting the Scripture (I) – Fr. Ted's Blog

  4. Pingback: Father Ted on the Holy Scriptures | Impelled by the Scriptures into the Orthodox Church

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