Recommended Reading: The Number of Variants in the Greek New Testament: A Proposed Estimate

We often hear about the number of variants in the New Testament manuscripts. This freely available article from Peter Gurry points out the problems with many of these estimates and offers an estimate with a clearer methodology. It is still an estimate, not a count. It is worth referencing if the subject comes up. What follows are my notes.

Gurry, Peter J. “The Number of Variants in the Greek New Testament: A Proposed Estimate.” New Testament Studies 62, no. 1 (2016): 97–121.

Abstract: Since the publication of John Mill’s Greek New Testament in 1707, scholars have shown repeated interest in the number of textual variants in our extant witnesses. Past estimates, however, have failed to tell who estimated, how the estimate was derived, or even what was being estimated. This study addresses all three problems and so offers an up-to-date estimate based on the most extensive collation data available. The result is a higher number than almost all previous estimates. Proper use of this number shows that it reflects the frequency with which scribes copied more than their infidelity in doing so.

1 Introduction

Despite the continuing appeal of such estimates, Eldon Epp is right that ‘there is, however, no reliable estimate of the total number of variants found in our extant witnesses.’ The present essay hopes to provide just such an estimate while offering a few brief comments on how such an estimate might be put to good use. Before turning to our own estimate, it will be useful to trace briefly the estimates that have been offered in the past and to demonstrate something of their inadequacy. (2)

2 Past Estimates & Their Problems

2.1 Survey of Estimates

  • John Mill (1707): 30,000
  • F. H. A. Scrivener (1861): 120,000
  • Philip Schaff (1883): 150,000
  • B. B. Warfield (1889): 180,000 – 200,000. “Warfield’s number is worth noting both because he is the first to offer an explanation of how the count was done but even more so because the explanation he gives is so strange. Rather than a count of the number of differences among manuscripts, Warfield actually offers us a count of the number of manuscripts that differ from an unstated standard of comparison. The count, he tells us, is conducted in such a way 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 would mean that if 100 manuscripts agreed against the standard, the result would be 100 variants.” (3)
  • Ezra Abbot (1891): 150,000
  • Eberhard Nestle (1897): 120,000 – 150,000
  • Marvin Vincent (1899): 150,000 – 200,000
  • Adolf Julicher (1904): 30,000 or 100,000
  • Charles Sitterly (1915): 200,000. He makes clear is not just thinking of Greek manuscripts.
  • Louis Pirot (1934): 250,000. The first to note we probably have more variants than words in the NT.
  • Leon Vaganay (1934): 250,000
  • Erwin Nestle (1951): 250,000 – 300,000. He is thinking of just Greek manuscripts.
  • Merrill Parvis (1962): 150,000 – 250,000
  • Kenneth Clark (1966): 300,000
  • Bart Ehrman (2005): 400,000
  • Eldon Epp (2014): 400,000 – 750,000

See appendix.

2.2 Problems

  • We often don’t know who produced the estimate.
  • We often aren’t told how the estimate was arrived at.
  • It is not clear what is being estimated. Some differences among some witnesses? Some differences among all witnesses? All differences among all witnesses?

Proposing a New Estimate

3.1 Method & Scope

Public data will be used.

3.1.1 Who

Peter Gurry.

3.1.2 What

The number of variants found in the Greek manuscripts only. The three main sources are Bruce Morrill’s dissertation on John 18, Matthew Solomon’s dissertation on Philemon, and Tommy Wasserman’s work on Jude. They each contain extensive collation data.

For the present purpose, I will restrict myself to the term ‘textual variant’ which I define as a word or concatenation of words in any manuscript that differs from any other manuscript within a comparable segment of text, excluding only spelling differences and different ways of abbreviating nomina sacra.

Before moving on, two important observations should be made about this definition. First, this definition is relative to the manuscripts themselves rather than to any particular editorial text. This means that at any point of comparison where there are at least two readings, all of them are counted as ‘variants,’ even those that the collator or editor believes to be the original source of the other(s). In this context, then, ‘original’ and ‘variant’ are not mutually exclusive descriptors.

Second, notice should be taken of the important qualification ‘comparable segment of text’ in our definition. This phrase simply designates what textual critics normally refer to as a ‘variant unit.’ Deciding exactly where to place the boundaries of comparable segments is a matter of human judgment and one that, significantly for our purposes, can affect the number of resulting variants. Exactly how much it may affect the overall results is hard to say with certainty, but my impression from working in multiple datasets is that the more complete the collation, the less effect such decisions have on the overall number of variants. In any case, it must be said that the following estimate is entirely dependent on the judgment of others when it comes to setting these boundaries. (7-8)

3.1.3 How

(Number of variants in the NT) = ((Number of variants in the sample) / (Number of words in the sample in NA27)) * (Number of words in NA27)

3.2 Data for the Estimate

Before proceeding to our estimate, a few observations are worth making. First, the percentage of singular variants is especially high, averaging just over half of all variants across the three collations and reaching nearly 60 percent in John 18. The percentage of nonsense variants is not as high but still significant, averaging over 30 percent across the three collations and reaching nearly 45 percent in John 18. Not surprisingly, these last two categories show substantial overlap so that 86.3 percent of all nonsense variants in John 18 are also singular variants. In Philemon the percentage is 64.2 and in Jude it reaches 84.7 percent. This confirms that obvious mistakes were the easiest kind for scribes to spot and then correct.

Second, we should consider the relationships between the number of variants and the number of manuscripts. It is true, as Bentley knew, that collating more manuscripts increases the number of variants. But we can also say that the increase is not linear or exponential but rather logarithmic. This is because the majority of manuscripts are Byzantine which means they are also the most uniform. As more Byzantine manuscripts are collated, they individually contribute fewer and fewer variants. We can see this first of all by noting that the rate of variation (or words-to-variants) is very close between the three collations despite the fact that John 18 has almost three times the number of manuscripts. The reason is that so many of these additional manuscripts are Byzantine. We can observe the same effect if we compare Wasserman’s collation of Jude to that of the Editio Critica Maior (ECM). Although Wasserman collated more than four times the number of witnesses, the result was less than double the number of total variants. The reason is the same: when it comes to Byzantine manuscripts and the number of textual variants, the law of diminishing returns sets in. (9)

We suggest that a reasonable estimate for the number of textual variants in the Greek New Testament (not including spelling differences) is about 500,000. This estimate—and we emphasize that it is still an estimate—is based on a sample size of about three percent of the entire Greek New Testament and includes minuscules, majuscules, and some lectionaries. Except for Revelation, it is based on data from portions of every book and therefore does not assume that all books were copied with the same frequency or the same accuracy. It does not include variants from patristic citations, versions, amulets, or inscriptions. (12-13)

The Value of the Estimate

Can we, then, say anything meaningful about textual transmission of the New Testament based on the number of estimated variants? We can if we compare the number of variants in our manuscripts, not with the number of manuscripts, pages, or words in the New Testament, but instead with the number of words in the manuscripts from which the variants derive. Unfortunately, no one knows the number of words in our extant manuscripts and probably no one will for some time still. Nevertheless, we can make such a comparison on a small scale with the data from our three main collation sources. If, for example, we assume that all 1,659 manuscripts collated for John 18 have somewhere between the NA27’s 791 words and Robinson-Pierpont’s 801 words, this would tell us that scribes contributed, on average, roughly one new variant for every 430 words they copied. This is only slightly lower than what David Parker calculates for two very close members of family 1 in Matthew: one variant for every 550 words. Turning to Philemon and Jude, the rate drops significantly to about one variant for every 150 words copied in both cases. As before, the difference is surely attributable to the smaller number of Byzantine manuscripts of Philemon and Jude. In all three cases, however, the data confirm that the large number of variants is a reflection of the frequency with which scribes copied more than a reflection of their failure to do so faithfully.

Another way our proposed estimate is helpful is that it is founded on qualitative and not merely quantitative data. We can say, for example, that almost 50 percent of our estimated variants are the kind that many textual critics would deem to be the least likely to be original, namely, singular readings. We can go further and note that in John 18, 44 percent of all variants are such that the editor could not make sense of either logically or grammatically (i.e., ‘nonsense’ variants). In Philemon and Jude, the rates are lower but still amount to 18 and 29 percent, respectively. This simply confirms what seasoned textual critics have always known and that is that a significant percentage of the variants in our manuscripts have little or no claim to being original. (13-14)


Most importantly, our estimate allows scholars to avoid passing the responsibility for their estimates to silent and invisible sources. The present estimate is based on a clear foundation in the available data and a clear method, both of which are open to public scrutiny. One hopes that these two qualities alone will be enough to discourage all of us from the continued rehashing of unverified and unverifiable information about the transmission of the Greek New Testament. (14)

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