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Beliefnet News

Scholars Chase Bible’s Changes, One Verse at a Time

c. 2011 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Working in a cluster of offices above a LifeWay Christian Bookstore, Bible scholars are buried in a 20-year project to codify the thousands of changes, verse by verse, word by word — even letter by letter — that crept into the early New Testament during
hundreds of years of laborious hand-copying.

Their goal: to log them into the world’s first searchable online database for serious Bible students and professional scholars who want to see how the document changed over time.

Their research is of particular interest to evangelical Christians who, because they regard the Bible as the sole authority on matters of faith, want to distinguish the earliest possible texts and carefully evaluate subsequent changes.


The first phase of the researchers’ work is done. They have documented thousands of creeping changes, down to an extraneous Greek letter, across hundreds of early manuscripts from the second through 15th centuries, said Bill Warren, the New Testament scholar who leads the project at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

After 10 years of work and the interruption of Hurricane Katrina, the seminary’s Center for New Testament Textual Studies has logged those changes, amounting to 17,000 pages of highly technical notes, all in Greek, into a searchable database.

Many of the early changes are well known, and have been for hundreds of years. Study Bibles mark scores of changes in italicized footnotes at the bottom of what often seems like every page.


But nowhere have so many changes been collated in a single place and made searchable for scholars and serious students, Warren said.

Nor is there an Internet tool like the one being constructed now in the second phase of the project: the history of substantive textual changes.

This fall, the New Testament center will publish an online catalogue of substantive textual changes in Philippians and 1 Peter. Warren estimates there’s 10 more years of work to do on the rest of the New Testament.

Those with more than a passing familiarity with the New Testament know its 27 books and letters, or epistles, were not first published exactly as they appear today.

The earliest works date to about the middle of the first century. They were written by hand, and successors were copied by hand. Mistakes occasionally crept in.


Moreover, with Christianity in its infancy and the earliest Christians still trying to clarify the full meaning of Jesus, his mission and his stories, the texts themselves sometimes changed from generation to generation, said Warren.

As archeologists and historians uncovered more manuscripts, each one hand-copied from some predecessor, they could see occasional additions or subtractions from a phrase, a verse or a story.

Most changes are inconsequential, the result of mere copying errors, or the replacement of a less common word for a more common word. But others are more important.

For example, the famous tale in John’s Gospel in which Jesus challenges a mob about to stone a woman accused of adultery: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” is a variant that copyists began inserting at least 300 years after that Gospel first appeared.


In the conclusion to Gospel of Mark, the description of Jesus appearing to various disciples after his Resurrection does not appear in the earliest manuscripts.

And in the Gospel of Luke, the crucified Jesus’ plea that his executioners be forgiven “for they know not what they are doing” also does not appear in the earliest versions of his Gospel.

Warren said that even after the fourth-century church definitively settled on the books it accepted as divinely inspired accounts, some of the texts within those books were still subject to slight changes.

Warren said the story of the adulterous woman in John’s Gospel, for example, seems to be an account of an actual event preserved and treasured by the Christian community.


“People know it, and they like it,” he said. “It’s about a forgiveness that many times is needed in the church. Can you be forgiven on major sins?”

John had not included it, but early Christians wanted to shoehorn it in somewhere, Warren said. Warren said the story wanders across several early John manuscripts, appearing in a variety of places.

It even shows up in two early copies of Luke.

“But probably it was never part of John’s Gospel, in the original form,” he said.

In effect, early copiers were taking what modern readers would recognize as study notes and slipping them into the texts, a process that began to tail off around the ninth century, Warren said.

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Grumpy Old Person

    OMFG!!! The Bible has “changed”??? Say not SO!

    Not a jot nor a tittle. It’s carved in stone for all eternity.

    Isn’t it?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    grump, I can see by your expression your focus. On another note this will be an interesting study.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    Their study so far shows mistakes occasionally crept in, we all know this I would think. It also states that they have found additions and subtractions from phrases, verses or stories. I suppose this will help somewhat, the religious scholars, and the serious Bible students. The additions, subtractions, etc. were caused by the people wanting to control peoples beliefs in the time they were living in, obviously. If a radical fundamentalist Christian recopied the Bible now they would spin it their way. They are doing a number right now in government, churches, companies, the military, etc. But as long as like the song says, “Love, makes the world go round”, we really shouldn’t worry too much about the recopying of the Bible.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Interesting—what does this do to the people that think that the Bible is not flawed—word for word it’s true, God said it etc. Will this put a dent in their beliefs? You mean mistakes were made that may have changed those words from God?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    pagan to answer your question for myself no the bible is still the best thing going and I believe it to be true, a lot more so than stuff people like you would try to get me to believe.
    H if “radical” liberal homosexual promoting people would re-write the bible “they would spin it their way”; but that’s not what the article said, “Most changes are inconsequential” I noticed changes when we (at my work) were asked to look at the Message Bible, it was so radically different but the message was the same.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    Well I would suppose “you” would say that. Except the families that have given birth to a homosexual baby that grew into a homosexual adult would not consider themselves “radical”, ck. Now where will you go? Oh, I just remembered, they catch it in the air and if they do then they have to stay single and never fall in love or want to bring unwanted children up to love and care for in a family of their own. That is only for hetero’s like the Shwarznegger’s who live together, have four children and then split because they have grown apart after 25 yrs., etc., etc. etc., or Catholic’s who pay the vatican for a dispensation so they can be divorced and remarry. I can’t remember the exact verses, but they are there in the Bible and divorce is a sin. So we are all sinners, and shouldn’t try to be better than any other sinner, unless of course we’re physically hurting another, and the righteous who believe as you do are doing that.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    H for someone so physically mature that was a mentally immature statement do you really think to suggest I would think that homosexuality is caught or contracted out of the air? Just admit you have no argument, it’s okay.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    cknuck, you mean that the “corrections” won’t take the “ver batum” truth out of THE book? After all, someone was supposed to have inspired all those folks, and of course there was no leanings one way or another by the “copiers” and translators to influence folks in a direction. :o)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    No, but it was as funny as some things you say about homosexuality, ck. PS they will probably check Leviticus last to see what was inserted and what was ommitted. Suppose they find that it wasn’t God at all that said what’s there? Suppose it was a political party much like the radical republicans of today?;)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    pagan there are other references to be considered also, at any rate to answer your comment yes I still believe in the bible’s inerrancy concerning all things and I also believe it is the “Living Word” of God it is able and powerful. H if we could see and understand the reasoning behind Leviticus I am confident that any reasonably mature person would understand the why of it. Some things have changed but the nature of God remains the same.

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