As a teacher, I’ve discussed textual variants in adult Bible classes before and often feel that people’s eyes glaze over with boredom. But I had one come up in 1 Corinthians 3:5 recently, and I was in too much of hurry in class to properly handle it.
The variation in 1 Corinthians 3:5 is this: did Paul say, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?,” or “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos?” Translations divide in a predictable way. “What” is the reading of the NASB, ESV, NIV, and most other recent translations, and “who” is the reading of the KJV and NKJV. These readings represent two different approaches to evaluating variations in the Greek manuscripts.
The NKJV is choosing the reading found in the largest number of manuscripts. This is called the Majority Text Approach. This approach gives readings which are in line with the traditional readings of the KJV. Proponents have argued that the providence of God would make certain that the reading found in the majority of manuscripts would be the correct one. On the other hand, the majority of manuscripts are late. These manuscripts also seem to be smoother in style, have fewer differences between parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels, and have fewer difficult readings. These characteristics might suggest scribes have smoothed out and adjusted the text in small ways.
The other approach looks at the earliest manuscripts, the ones that are judged to be the best quality of manuscripts, and the ones that have the widest geographical distribution. This approach also seeks an explanation with the internal evidence for the kind of mistake a scribe is likely to make. This approach also compares early translations and quotations from early church authors. I think this is a common sense approach, and it is the one that I take. But I would hasten to add that questions of textual variants are in the area of opinion. They are not matters of faith, and good Christians may charitably disagree.
I do have a pet peeve. It is when the issues are presented in an unbalanced or uninformed way. I’ve typically seen this go something like this. Someone states, “The NIV leaves out verses.” Then we are pointed to the warning of Revelation 22:18-19 about adding or subtracting. But this is not a question of leaving out words in the sense of Revelation 22. The manuscripts being consulted by the NIV simply don’t have the verses or parts of verses under consideration, and it is a judgment call in evaluating this kind of evidence. And if we examine all translations including the KJV, we could find similar situations. Translators and editors of eclectic printed Greek New Testaments are wrestling with what is “thus says the Lord” versus “thus says the scribe.” We may disagree with our answers, but the issue is important. I just don’t like seeing the issue misrepresented.
When we look at this textual variant in the context of 1 Corinthians 3, I think we have to say that the variation may effect how you explain the text, but the variation doesn’t change the overall meaning. If Paul said “what,” he was emphasizing the function of Paul and Apollos, and the answer to the question is: they are servants. If Paul said “who,” he was emphasizing them as persons, but the answer to the question is still “they are servants.” This is often the case with variants. They may effect how you explain a particular passage, but they don’t change the overall teaching of scripture.
We are blessed with an abundance of Greek manuscripts. The number is over 5,800 complete and fragmented manuscripts. When we compare with other ancient writings, we see that the New Testament is well attested. The History by Herodotus has 109 manuscripts, The History of Rome by Livy has 150, and The History by Thucydides has 96. No one questions that we accurately have these ancient writings. This should give us confidence about our New Testament which has an overwhelming amount of evidence. Only about 1/1000 of the variants are significant, and none of these would change doctrine. God would have had to inspire each scribe or person who copies a Bible verse to prevent variations from occurring. Having copied Bible verses into lesson outlines before the days of copy and paste from Bible software, I can attest that copy mistakes can occur. But they are usually fairly easy to identify and understand.
We are also blessed with very good translations of the Bible into English. In reading them comparatively, you do not get the impression that you are reading different books. The differences are usually slight and understandable. For close study, I like the NASB, ESV, KJV, and NKJV. Although I read the Greek New Testament as a part of my regular Bible reading, and I’m reading 1 Corinthians in Greek as a part of class preparation, I do try to look at a number of Bible translations too. And I benefit from those comparisons.
The Bible is also a very resilient book. Even when a translation choice is not optimal, the teaching of scripture is contained in many passages, so there are always corrections to be found for a translator’s bad choice (compare for example the NIV in Psalm 51:5 with another translation and also Ezekiel 18). The bottom line is that English Bible readers should read with confidence.