New Testament scholar Dirk Jongkind gives a striking rebuttal to Bart Ehrman’s arguments against the reliability of the text of the New Testament. Ehrman frequently appeals to the fact that there are more variant readings for the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament. This is true, as there are between 300,000 and 400,000 manuscript variants for the New Testament, and approximately 134,000 words in the New Testament. To the uneducated, these stats give the impression that not one single word of the New Testament (or at best very few of them) can be considered authentic. This, however, is complete nonsense.
First, we must understand what constitutes a variant. A textual variant is any word or reading of a verse or passage which is different from another one in any way. So, for example, if the name of King David is spelled differently in one hand-written Greek manuscript from how it is spelled in another one, that’s a variant. One feature of writing before the modern period (and not just in Greek) is that there were no standardized spellings for proper names. Jongkind points out that William Shakespeare spelled his own name 13 different ways! There are at least four different ways that “David” is spelled in New Testament manuscripts. Each of these is a variant; moreover, each of them is a variant each time it occurs. The name David appears 59 times in the New Testament. That is potentially 236 variants just on that one name alone. You can multiply that by all of the other proper names in the New Testament – not just names of people, but also of places. These kinds of inconsequential variants account for about 99% of all variants in the New Testament. This fact is well known by anyone who has studied criticism of the New Testament text – including Bart Ehrman. His use of this statistic can only be described as disingenuous and misleading.
But there is another fact which sheds a very different light on the number of NT variants. The total number of manuscript pages of handwritten Greek texts of the NT is estimated to be about 2,600,000 pages. This is the reason why we have so many variants – because we have so many texts. But this means that on average there is about 1 variant for every 8 pages of handwritten Greek text. Try copying the New Testament by hand and see if you can do that well! But keep in mind that 99% of these variants have nothing to do with the meaning of the text and are merely a question of the spelling of proper names, word order (which in Greek is flexible and can be changed without affecting the meaning). This is far from Ehrman’s only problem, but it is quite a notorious one given the frequency with which he publicly uses this highly misleading stat without explaining what it really means.