15. Causes for variations.

Causes for variations.

The causes for variations.

With great care and hard work every copy was made. The scribe strived to produce am copy without any faults or deviations from the original. Because scribes realized that variations do exist in the copies of the New Testament, they tried to utilize more than one manuscript to compare their work. Usually their copy was also checked by an overseer and corrections made before the copy was released from the scriptorium. In this way every thing possible was done to ensure that the copy was without deviation from the original. (Picture taken from Codex Rossanensis, (VI), Christ and Barabbas before Pilate, with the Court Writer standing at the table) 


The following are some of the more common errors causing variations.

Unintentional alterations.

These are alterations the scribe most probably had not been aware of himself but crept in unnoticed.

1. Errors due to faulty eyesight.

(a) Some uncial Greek letters do look alike and can be confused. This happens easily in handwritten material, especially if the scribe suffers from astigmatism, or the previous writer didn’t form his letters with care. The source manuscript could also be in bad shape. Do take into account that some scribes did not even have knowledge of the language they were working in.

Letters that could easily be confused in the Uncial letter type, used until the ninth century, are the following:

Alpha, Delta and Lambda. (A-D-Λ);

Sigma, Epsilon, Theta and Omicron;    (=ς-Є-θ-O);

Gamma, Pi and Tau;    (=Γ-Γ-Π-Τ);

Two Lambda’s seen as a Mu;     (=Λ-Λ-M);

Lambda and Iota seen as a Nu;    (=Λ-Ι-N).

I made copies of the letters from the Codex Sinaiticus:


When the scribe did make a mistake of this kind, and it had not been discovered before the copy left the scriptorium, the mistake would then be carried over to every further copy made from this new manuscript. This explains why many late manuscripts as a group have the same peculiarities differing from older manuscripts. It is therefore extremely important to examine differences taking into account the possibility of human error of this kind, and not just counting how many manuscripts represent a certain reading.

If you are interested in an example of this kind of mistake causing a difference between the KJV and NIV, I give you an example from 2Peter:

An example of a difference between the versions of the King James group of Bibles and the New International Version, caused by faulty eyesight: 2Peter2:18.

In this verse confusion probably occurred between a Nun and Tau (N T) and a Lambda, Iota and Gamma (Λ I Γ) in some manuscripts. (Do use a little imagination and visualize carelessly made handwritten letters and the possibility can clearly be seen.)

The two words confused with one another are:

(ontōs)  (ONTως) =”Really, certainly, indeed, verily”.

and (oligōs) (OΛIΓως) =”Scarcely, somewhat, almost, briefly, a while”.

In perfect ligible Sinaiticus-letters it would look like this:

This caused the different versions to have different meanings:

KJV: “For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped (ontōs) from them who live in error.“

(Here the King James translates with “ontōs” with the meaning of something that is a done fact.)

MKJV: “For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they lure through the lusts of the flesh, by unbridled lust, the ones who were escaping from those who live in error;

(The MKJV goes for a compromise and translates in such a way that both possibilities are accommodated, not clearly choosing only one.)

ALT: “…the ones actually having escape (ontōs) from the ones conducting themselves in deception.”

(The ALT clearly chooses “ontōs” making it a done situation)

NIV: “they entice people who are just escaping (oligōs) from those who live in error.”

(The NIV chooses “oligōs”, indicating new converts, actually still in the process of finding their feet in the Christian religion.)

What makes a choice even more difficult, is the fact that both possibilities have good textual evidence.

The following manuscripts (Century written in brackets), favor “ontōs”. (Really, certainly, indeed) Sinaiticus (IV), Ephraemi (V), Cyprius (IX) and Porphyrianus (IX), and several other manuscripts. The only ancient translation that render this interpretation, is the Armenian.

The textual evidence for “oligōs” (Scarcely, somewhat, almost, briefly) have more of the older manuscripts: p72 (III), Vaticanus (IV), Alexandrinus (V) and Atous Laurae (VIII) as well as several later manuscripts. Most of the ancient translations favor this possibility: Old Latin, the Vulgate, the Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian translations. It is important also to take into account that these translations are geographically wide spread. This is an important fact since that means that these translations could not have been made from the same ancestral source manuscript.

It is interesting to look at some of the commentaries given on e-sword:

Barnes: “Most of the later editions of the Greek Testament coincide with the reading … (ολίγως oligōs,) meaning “little, but a little, scarcely.” This accords better with the scope of the passage; and, according to this, it means that they had “almost escaped” from the snares and influences of those who live in error and sin. They had begun to think of their ways; they had broken off many of their evil habits; and there was hope that they would be entirely reformed, and would become decided Christians, but they were allured again to the sins …”

Gill; “…from those who lived in the error of Heathenism or Judaism, from whom, and which, they were clean escaped; or truly, really, and entirely delivered, being fully convinced of the falsity thereof, and of the truth of the Christian religion …”

JFB; “…clean escaped — Greek, ‘really escaped’ But the oldest manuscripts and the Vulgate read, ‘scarcely,’ or ‘for but a little time’; scarcely have they escaped from them who live in error (the ungodly world), when they are allured by these seducers into sin again.

When translators have to make a choice like this, they take as much information into account as is possible. In this case there is the evidence of manuscripts and ancient translations. Then they look at the possibility of a mistake caused by the misreading by a scribe. Lastly they take into account what would be the most probable according to the context of the paragraph.

Bear in mind that we try to establish what would have been the exact word God intended Peter to write down. Had God been concerned about people only recently coming to faith and being led astray, or was His concern about Christians standing firm in their faith, and yet still being led astray?

If you had to translate this specific verse, what would be your choice?

The responsibility of translators of the Bible is tremendous. Do keep them in your prayers always!

God bless!


About Herman of bibledifferences.net

The reasons for the differences between older Bibles like the King James Version and newer Bibles like the New International Version have fascinated me ever since my studies in Theology at the University of Pretoria in the seventies. I have great respect for scribes through the ages as well as Bible translators, so there must be good reasons for the differences. With more than 5600 Greek manuscripts and more than 19000 manuscripts of ancient translations to our disposal, the original autographs of the New Testament can be established without doubt. I investigate the reasons behind the differences and publish the facts in a post on my blogs www.bibledifferences.net (Afrikaans: www.bybelverskille.wordpress.com) to enable my readers to judge for themselves. Personally I love to make an informed decision based of facts. That is why I endeavor to provide that same privilege to the readers of my blogs. Since 1973 I am married to my dear wife and greatest friend, Leah Page, founder director of Act-Up Support (www.actup.co.za) a prayer ministry for families struggling with drug-, occult- and other dependencies. We are blessed with two daughters and two sons, four grand sons and two grand daughters. God is alive and omnipotent! Glory to His Name! Herman Grobler.
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1 Response to 15. Causes for variations.

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