Bible verse variants

For any given Bible verse how can it be known if it is as originally written by author or a later variant (whether due to editing, copying error or whatever)?

The exact words are not certain, but the truths are. It is an oral tradition that is written down and copied multiple times. There are thousands of differences.


Slight variations in the texts aren’t really problematic if they don’t change the meaning


Thousands of differences make it difficult to determine “truth” when whole doctrinal differences hang on a single word sometimes.

Not really. The Catholic translations we use tend to go back to the earliest available texts, and scholars analyze the language so much that there’s unlikely to be a major departure from the meaning of words in those.

Also, Church teaching generally doesn’t stand or fall on the translation or understanding of one word or phrase in text, especially since we arent sola scriptura and sacred tradition also provides support.

The problem you mention is more of an issue for Protestant churches that rely on the Bible alone. If you have 100 Protestant ministers interpreting the Bible, they might all be coming up with 100 different interpretations. Catholics don’t have that problem.


Fortunately the Holy Spirit protects the Catholic Church from errors in faith and morals.


This is also correct, although a non-Catholic is likely not going to believe it.

Thankfully, doctrine is not formulated in the confines of Sacred Scripture, but by the living Magisterium.

It depends what you mean by “know”. In some cases we may have certain, unchallengeable knowledge, but where that is not possible, it’s a question of weighing the evidence and assessing the balance of probabilities.

For the New Testament, there’s a relatively new online resource that enables you to check at a glance all the main manuscript traditions, the Center for New Testament Restoration.

for the various texts, scholars look at “internal evidence” and “external evidence.”

“Internal Evidence” would look at things like:

  • Did the author name himself, or give evidence to his identity?
  • Did the author give insight to historical events that can be corroborated?
  • Are the idioms / figures of speech used consistent with the time of the events described

“External Evidence” would be things like:

  • Do other people alive at the time, or soon after, attest to the authorship?
  • Are the insights consistent with other accounts considered authentic?

the same rules that would apply to other pieces of literature apply here.

This is done through the process of textual criticism, which is the study of comparing copies of manuscripts to determine the most likely reading of the original manuscript. So essentially, textual critics will compare different manuscripts for variants. They will look at the nature of the variants, compare the ages of the documents, among other things, and try to determine the probably that one of the variants is the original reading. So let’s say for example, we are comparing a 2nd century manuscript that has variant reading X on a certain word or verse, and a 14th century manuscript that has variant reading Y on the same word or verse. Of the two variants, the older manuscript is more likely to be closer to the original reading on that point than the newer manuscript because of its antiquity. Let’s look at another example. Manuscript 1 and 2 are of relatively equal dating or antiquity and have variant readings X and Y on a specific verse. However, when looking at the specific variant, it appears that the variation in Y can be explained by common scribal mistakes such as allowing your eye to skip to the next line in the text and pick up a word with a similar ending, thus deleting some of the material in between the two words. Since it makes more sense that material would be deleted in this manner than it would for material to be added out of thin air, variation X is determined to be more likely the original reading. These are just a few examples of how textual criticism works. Ultimately, it is a game to determine the probability that one variant is more likely to be the original version of the text. In most cases we can be very certain of the original text. In a few cases either reading could be the original version. If this happens to be the case, your Bible publisher will normally include footnotes so that you can see the two variants of the passage so that it is transparent. To clarify though, I can think of no doctrine that relies upon a single variant reading. In the vast majority of the time, variants are so minor or insignificant they not only do not impact the meaning of the text, they can’t even be translated into English (things like misspelled words, or missing endings used between one word that ends with a vowel sound and the next one that ends with a vowel to make them more pronounceable - think of the difference between the article a and an).

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