Today it is common to speak of four hundred thousand variants to the Greek New Testament. Agnostic scholars like Bart Ehrman, like to stoke the fires of public mistrust in the Bible by pointing out the “textual corruption” of the New Testament. Closer to home, “King James Version-Only” advocates like to emphasize the differences between the Greek text behind the King James and that behind modern versions.
What are we to say to this? How shall we respond to the valid claim that there are thousands of textual variants? Indeed there are hundreds of thousands!
A.T. Robertson, a Greek scholar extraordinaire and author of a classic 1450 page advanced Greek grammar, can help us in this regard. In the introduction to his book An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1925), he clearly explains what textual criticism is and why it is needed. He then goes on to discuss the condition of the New Testament with regard to its textual purity. I offer an extended quote below, that I trust will prove useful. He is writing in 1925, so many more variants are known today, but the general principles he explains and the viability of all such variants hold true. You can read his entire book online at archive.org.
…the current New Testament text must be adjudged, in comparison with a well printed modern book, extremely corrupt.
On the other hand, if we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must render the opposite verdict, and declare it to be marvelously correct. Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied,–a care which has doubtless grown out of a true reverence for its holy words,– such has been the providence of God in preserving for His Church in each and every age a competently exact text of the Scriptures, that not only is the New Testament unrivaled among ancient writings in the purity of its text as actually transmitted and kept in use, but also in the abundance of testimony which has come down to us for castigating its comparatively infrequent blemishes. The divergence of its current text from the autograph may shock a modern printer of modern books; its wonderful approximation to its autograph is the undisguised envy of every modern reader of ancient books.
When we attempt to state the amount of corruption which the New Testament has suffered in its transmission through two millenniums, absolutely instead of thus relatively, we reach scarcely more intelligible results. Roughly speaking, there have been counted in it some hundred and eighty or two hundred thousand “various readings”–that is, actual variations of reading in existing documents. These are, of course, the result of corruption, and hence the measure of corruption. But we must guard against being misled by this very misleading statement. It is not meant that there are nearly two hundred thousand places in the New Testament where various readings occur; but only that there are nearly two hundred thousand various readings all told; and in many cases the documents so differ among themselves that many are counted on a single word. For each document is compared in turn with the one standard, and the number of its divergences ascertained; then these sums are themselves added together, and the result given as the number of actually observed variations. It is obvious that each place where a variation occurs is counted as many times over, not only as distinct variations occur upon it, but also as the same variation occurs in different manuscripts. This sum includes, moreover, all variations of all kinds and in all sources, even those that are singular to a single document of infinitesimal weight as a witness, and even those that affect such very minor matters as the spelling of a word. Dr. Ezra Abbot was accustomed to say that about nineteen-twentieths of them have so little support that, although they are various readings, no one would think of them as rival readings; and nineteen-twentieths of the remainder are of so little importance that their adoption or rejection would cause no appreciable difference in the sense of the passages where they occur. Dr. Hort’s way of stating it is that upon about one word in every eight various readings exist supported by sufficient evidence to bid us pause and look at it; that about one word in sixty has various readings upon it supported by such evidence as to render our decision nice and difficult; but that so many of these variations are trivial that only about one word in every thousand has upon it substantial variation supported by such evidence as to call out the efforts of the critic in deciding between the readings.
The great mass of the New Testament, in other words, has been transmitted to us with no, or next to no, variation; and even in the most corrupt form in which it has ever appeared, to use the oft-quoted words of Richard Bentley, “the real text of the sacred writers is competently exact; … nor is one article of faith or moral precept either perverted or lost… choose as awkwardly as you will, choose the worst by design, cut of the whole lump of readings.” If, then, we undertake the textual criticism of the New Testament under a sense of duty, we may bring it to a conclusion under the inspiration of hope. The autographic text of the New Testament is distinctly within the reach of criticism in so immensely the greater part of the volume, that we cannot despair of restoring to ourselves and the Church of God, His Book, word for word, as He gave it by inspiration to men. [pg. 12-15, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament] (emphasis mine)
— cross posted from my team KJV Only blog