15. 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 utilized 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 Barrabas before Pilate, with the Court Writer standing at the table) 

An interesting correction of the written text is found at the end of the gospel according to John, in the codex Sinaiticus. The source manuscript used by the scribe must have ended at vs.24, which is quite a logic ending: “This is the disciple who testifies of these things and wrote these things. And we know that his testimony is true.

The scribe ended his copy there. Then he added a small decoration including the words: “Gospel according to John.” as was his custom at the end of every book, before starting the following book.

The copy with which he compared his work corresponded with most manuscripts with the ending we have in our Bibles: “And there are also many things, whatever Jesus did, which, if they should be written singly, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.”

The scribe then cleaned his manuscript of the little decoration he added, and cleared away the words “Gospel according to John.“ In his own handwriting he then added the last verse and his decoration with the ending words: “Gospel according to John.”

Under ultra violet light both endings can still be seen. (Click in picture to enlarge)

Left as at present, Centre under Ultra Voilet light, Right artificially some letters “cleared” for both endings to be seen.

The note written after these customary decorations, written by the scribe, is not part of the gospel. In some of the older printed Bibles, like the Geneva of 1587 and the 1611 King James version, it had often been printed. “Amen. The second Epistle to the Corinthians, was written from Philippos a citie of Macedonia, by Titus and Lucas.“ (2Cor.13:14, King James Version.)

Not withstanding all these efforts for excellence in accuracy, human error still occurred and slipped by. This caused variations, “corrections” and even glaring errors. Variations do occur in all handmade copies of any manuscript.

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 takiln 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 occured 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 escapedGreek, ‘really escaped’ But the oldest manuscripts and 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 bibledifferencesfacts

I am a retired preacher of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. Since my studies at the University of Pretoria I had a keen interest in the reasons for the differences between the translations of the Bible, especially the New Testament. Since 1973 I am married to my dear wife and greatest friend, Leah Page. We are blessed with two daughters and two sons, two grand sons and one grand daughter. God is alive and omnipotent! Glory to His Name! Herman
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