Average Variance From Manuscript To Modern New Testament?

The following question occurred to me just now: on average, if you take a manuscript and compare it to a modern Greek New Testament, what will be the degree of difference? Will it be 1%? 5%? I am sure 10% is way too high.

This seems to me like it would be a useful statistic when talking to those who have not spent any time in the field of TC. Those of us who have done any collating know that the variance is actually quite low. Of course the variance will depend on what manuscript and what modern text you use as a baseline (on average, if you use a modern majority text you will get lower variance than you would with something like the NA27 for obvious reasons...).

For some of us this is a useless statistic, but it strikes me as a better statistic for the laity than the "how many variants are there?" question.

Of course this question isn’t completely knowable until all manuscripts have been collated, but you can get solid numbers from just a few manuscripts from various traditions and get a better idea of this than of the other question. Has anyone seen this statistic in print anywhere?


Tim Ricchuiti 2008-07-27 07:04:53

Dan Wallace consistently cites 2%, but (1) he’s speaking of the growth of the entire NT rather than from specific manuscripts to today’s NT and (2) I’m not actually sure where he’s getting the stat (i.e., I don’t remember seeing it in print either).

Brett 2008-07-27 03:07:41


Here are some stats I have in my notes, mostly from trying to interpret Dan and others.

Total word count:

Oldest CT: approx. 135,500

Current CT: 138,162

Therefore, GNT has been inflated, due to all variants, about 2% over the years (as Tim noted).


MT vs TR (1,838)

MT vs CT (6,577)

Total variants (MT vs CT) that are meaningful and significant (less than 1,400) [other scholars will give numbers much lower than this, depending on how you define "meaningful and significant."]

I was not clear on your exact questions, since the first part is concerned with (a manuscript) to "Of course this question isn’t completely knowable until all manuscripts have been collated."

Are you moving from one to all or am I misunderstanding you?

As you can see, I am still not able to make a line break.

Eric 2008-07-27 04:10:29

Tim: That number I have heard before, but thanks for bringing it up. Of course the divergence would have to be larger than that as some variants do not create growth. Though I have heard that number before, I do not know where it comes from either.

Brett: My question is this: On average, what is the maximum percentage of variation between manuscripts and modern Greek New Testaments?

Ultimately you could not know this until you have analyzed all manuscripts, but analyzing 100 manuscripts and asking this question would get you a more reliable percentage than analyzing the same manuscripts and trying to come up with a ballpark figure for the total number of variations. But maybe I’m wrong on that. My math skills are horrible and I will go ahead and admit that.

The reason why this is a better question about the quality of the NT manuscript tradition is that the number of total variants will always continue to rise with every manuscript found. "Significant" (however you want to define that) and viable new variations will become less and less common as the manuscript count goes up, but the total number of variants will continue to rise because of a host of accidental errors and itacistic changes.

That number is actually terribly deceptive, because it is only so high because we have so many manuscripts. And so the more manuscripts you find, even though you should be gaining confidence in figuring out the textual tradition, you increase a number that often sends shivers down nice evangelical spines.

That is not the case, however, with the other percentage. The more manuscripts that are added to the statistical mix the more difficult it will be for that number to move.

Of course I would not want this to turn into number games to fake people into thinking the tradition is stronger than it is. Though the question of the total number of variants tells you next to nothing about the quality of the manuscripts, the other percentage definitely does.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s make up a little data and see how the conversation would go. Let’s ballpark the average percentage change from a manuscript to the NA27 at 6%. So if someone asks "how different are these manuscripts?" you can say "Well, ma’am, they are on average 6%." And then you could say something like "and almost none of those changes are more significant than regional spelling differences, so if you count significant stuff the average manuscript only differs from the modern critical text by .05%." See, that is a completely different kind of conversation and actual explains the nature of the textual tradition better, whatever the actual numbers are. Because the real question is not the number of total variants, but the degree of variation. And the degree of significant variation is slight, and everyone knows it that knows anything about the textual tradition.

As for creating line breaks, view source with your browser and see how we are making line breaks. I’ll try to put up some explanation on the blog on how to do it. I used to have a little editor that would do it for you, but somebody was complaining that their browser was throwing an error, so I went this route :)