Various Readings

The different manner in which some passages are expressed in different manuscripts, together with the omission or insertion of a word, or of a clause, constitute what are called various readings. This was occasioned by the oversights or mistakes of transcribers, who deviated from the copy before them, these persons not being, as some have supposed, supernaturally guarded against the possibility of error; and a mistake in one copy would, of course, be propagated through all that were taken from it, each of which copies might likewise have peculiar faults of its own, so that various readings would thus be increased in proportion to the number of transcripts that were made. Besides actual oversights, transcribers might have occasioned various readings by substituting, through ignorance, one word, or even letter, in place of another; they might have mistaken the line on which the copy before them was written, for part of a letter, or they might have mistaken the lower stroke of a letter for the line, and thus have altered the reading; at the same time they were unwilling to correct such mistakes as they detected, lest their pages should appear blotted or defaced; and thus they sacrificed the correctness of their copy to its fair appearance. Copiers seem not infrequently, to have added letters to the last word in their lines, in order to preserve them even, and marginal notes have been sometimes introduced into the text. These different circumstances, as well as others with which we may not be acquainted, did no doubt contribute very much to produce and multiply mistakes and variations in the manuscripts of the Hebrew scriptures. This language is more susceptible of corruption, and any alteration would be more detrimental in it than in others. In English, if a letter be omitted, or altered, the mistake can be easily corrected, because the word thus corrupted may have no meaning; but in Hebrew, almost every combination of the letters forms a new word, so that an alteration of even one letter of any description is likely to produce a new word and a new meaning. Thus putting all alterations made knowingly--for the purpose of corrupting the text, out of the question--we must allow that from these circumstances connected with the transcribing, some errata may have found their way into it, and that the sacred Scriptures have in this case suffered the fate of other productions of antiquity.

When we have collected all the differences that are found in manuscripts of the original text, and have selected from them what are really various readings, we are able to determine, from the number and authority of the manuscripts, with tolerable correctness, what is the genuine reading. Beside the authority of the manuscript, we must also be guided in determining the true reading by the scope of the passage, by the interpretations and quotations of ancient writers, by the old versions, and not infrequently by Scripture itself; for similar or parallel passages will often be found useful for this purpose. When all these things are considered, it will seldom happen that the true reading of a passage will be doubtful; yet should it continue so, either reading may contain a truth, though certainly both can not be authentic, and in a theological point of view, either of them may be followed without involving a doctrinal error; and in such a case, the common reading should not be relinquished.

To a person who has not considered the subject closely, it may appear sufficient to overthrow the authority of the text, that no less than thirty thousand various readings of the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments have been discovered. But when these are examined closely, and all that are not properly various readings are rejected, the number will be considerably diminished; from these again let all be deducted which make no alteration in the several passages to which they refer, and the reduction will be much greater; and out of the remainder there are none found that can invalidate the authority of those doctrines that have been esteemed fundamental, or that can shake a single portion of that internal evidence whereby the divine origin of the Scriptures is supported; so that the friends of revelation had no grounds for the alarm they felt at the time when the subject of various readings began to be discussed. These observations apply strongly to the New Testament, which, as it has been transcribed more frequently, and probably by less skilful transcribers than the Old, has, in proportion, many more various readings. Respecting these, however, it has been said, that “all the omissions of the ancient manuscripts put together, would not  countenance the omission of any essential doctrine of the gospel, relative to faith of morals; and all the additions countenanced by the whole mass of manuscripts already collated, do not introduce a single point essential either to faith or morals, beyond what may be found in the Complutensian or Elzevir editions.[4] Vide Dr. Adam Clarke's Tract on the Editions of the New Testament, and also the Critical Editions of the New Testament, by Tichendorf, Dr. Henry Alford, and Dr. S. P. Tregelles--Ed.