Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.
—William Blake, The Everlasting Gospel
Of course, Blake’s sentiment in the quote above is nothing new. The New Testament contains enough inconsistencies to have spawned a dizzying variety of interpretations, beliefs and religions, all allegedly Bible-based. And so, we find one author offering the amusing observation:
You can and you can’t,
You shall and you shan’t,
You will and you won’t,
And you will be damned if you do,
And you will be damned if you don’t.
Why such variance in viewpoints? To begin with, different theological camps disagree on which books should be included in the Bible. One camp’s apocrypha is another’s scripture. Secondly, even among those books that have been canonized, the many variant source texts lack uniformity. This lack of uniformity is so ubiquitous that The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible states, “It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the NT in which the MS [manuscript] tradition is wholly uniform.”
Not one sentence? We can’t trust a single sentence of the Bible? Hard to believe.
The fact is that there are over 5700 Greek manuscripts of all or part of the New Testament. Furthermore, “no two of these manuscripts are exactly alike in all their particulars…. And some of these differences are significant.” Factor in roughly ten thousand manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, add the many other ancient variants (i.e., Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Nubian, Gothic, Slavonic), and what do we have?
A lot of manuscripts
A lot of manuscripts that fail to correspond in places and not infrequently contradict one another. Scholars estimate the number of manuscript variants in the hundreds of thousands, some estimating as high as 400,000. In Bart D. Ehrman’s now famous words, “Possibly it is easiest to put the matter in comparative terms: there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”
How did this happen?