As is acknowledged by biblical scholars across the board, there have been copying errors during the transmission of the New Testament. These errors resulted in many variants between the manuscripts.
So the question is this: don’t some Bible scholars such as Dr. Bart Ehrman point out that the Bible contains hundreds of thousands of variant readings and that this means we have error-filled copies and nothing close to the originals?
Dr. Bart Ehrman in his book Misquoting Jesus does indeed say the Bible has up to 400,000 variants and therefore we have more variants than there are words in the New Testament. Ehrman states: “How does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes─sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error–ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.”
Because Ehrman is an authority on textual criticism, many who have read his writings have had doubt cast on their faith in the Bible. For example, author Lee Strobel shared an e-mail sent to him by a twenty–six–year–old writer who had read Ehrman’s book and, as a result, was very bewildered and wondering if he should start questioning the things he had been taught about the Bible since childhood. He wanted an answer no matter what it meant to his faith. This is just an example of how one scholar’s pronouncements can have a huge effect on someone’s life, and therefore these claims need careful examination.
What we need to see here is that not all scholars who have equal credentials agree on the same evidence.For example, highly credentialed scholar Dr. Daniel Wallace comments on Dr. Ehrman’s conclusions: “Ehrman is part of a very small minority of textual critics in what he’s saying. . .he tries to create strong doubt as to what the original text said, using more innuendo than substance. Readers end up having far more doubts about what the Bible says than any textual critic today would ever have. I think Ehrman has simply overstated his case.”
So what about these 400,000 variants? How are they counted, and what are they exactly? Taking a look at these two things reveals just how overstated the case against the Bible really is:
Spelling errors: When one word, the same word, is misspelled in, say, 4,000 manuscripts, that is not counted as 1 variant, even though it is the same mistake, but instead is counted as 4,000 variants! Furthermore, these spelling errors are the most common type of variant, and many of these misspellings in the Greek make no difference in the meaning of the word or sentence, such as saying “a apple” versus “an apple.” According to Wallace, these types of spelling errors that have no impact on meaning, account for up to seventy to eighty percent of the total variants, amounting to about 280,000 to 320,000 of the 400,000 variants!
Nonsense errors and other unintentional errors: Nonsense errors are things where words are included that obviously don’t fit the context, such as putting in the word “and” when the scribe meant to write “Lord.” Synonym errors would be variants such as “When Jesus knew” versus “When the Lord knew.” Also, in the Greek there can be several different sentences, each with a different word order, that would be translated exactly the same in English, and each of these is counted as a variant.
Intentional changes: These came about because the scribes wanted to make the text clearer. An example would be in a lectionary manuscript used in daily readings of Scripture by the early church. Wallace gives such an example: “In the Gospel of Mark, there are eighty-nine verses in a row where the name of Jesus isn’t mentioned once. Just pronouns are used, with ‘he’ referring to Jesus. Well, if you excerpt a passage for a daily lectionary reading, you can’t start with: ‘When he was going someplace. . . .’ The reader wouldn’t know whom you were referring to. So it was logical for the scribe to replace ‘he’ with ‘Jesus’ in order to be more specific in the lectionary. But it’s counted as a variant every single time.”
When you tabulate all these additional variants, you are left with only one percent of the variants that really make a difference in meaning, and even most of these are not significant, such as the difference between variants of Romans 5:1 of “We have peace” or “Let us have peace.” As for the very few significant variants such as the last twelve verses of Mark 16, or the account of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11, missing from two of the oldest manuscripts), these will be discussed later in the book, but for now we can say that even if it turned out that they should be left out (which is not by any means finally resolved), the content of the Christian faith would be unaltered. Dr. Daniel Wallace comments: “No cardinal or essential doctrine is altered by any textual variant that has plausibility of going back to the original.”
So of these one percent of variants that make a difference in the meaning of the text, not one affects any important doctrine of Christianity. Wallace comments: “Ehrman is making the best case he can in Misquoting Jesus. The remarkable thing is you go through his whole book, and you say, ‘Where did he actually prove anything?’ Ehrman didn’t prove that any doctrine is jeopardized. Let me repeat the basic thesis that has been argued since 1707: No cardinal or essential doctrine is altered by any textual variant that has plausibility of going back to the original. The evidence for that has not changed to this day” (emphasis his).
So when you hear someone say that we have error-filled copies and so can’t trust the New Testament, they are not giving you the complete story. The fact is, the variants not only are insignificant, they actually help textual critics determine what likely was the original text.
 Dr. Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, Harper SanFrancisco, San Fransisco, CA, 2005, 89-90.