Ancestry of the English Bible (IV):

Mike Willis
Mooresville, Indiana

Scribal Errors in Ancient Manuscripts

In reaching the restoration of the autograph and thereby attaining an inspired book, the errors made by scribes during the centuries of handing down the Bible must be weeded out. This lesson shall attempt to tell of some of the types of mistakes scribes have made.

Unintentional Errors

1. Errors arising from faulty eyesight. While transcribing the books, the scribe would occasionally confuse two letters (much like we sometimes make an i looks like an e). On a few occasions, when two lines in the exemplar from which the scribe was making a copy happened to end with the same word or words, his eye might wander from the first to the second, accidentally omitting the whole passage in between. Sometimes the very opposite would occur when the scribe picked up the same words or groups of words a second time and, as a result, copied twice what should have appeared only once.

2. Errors arising from faulty hearing. In order to produce more copies of the scriptures, one man would read from a manuscript while several scribes recorded his words. Through this procedure, sometimes the scribe would confuse vowel and consonant sounds (as we sometimes confuse the c and k sound). Another error common to this method of transcription was the insertion of words having the same pronunciation but different spellings (like "read" and "reed").

3. Errors of the mind. This category of errors includes those variations which seem to have arisen while the copyist was holding a clause or sequence of letters in his memory between the glance at the manuscript to be copied and the writing down of what he saw there. Among these would be the substitution of synonyms, variations in the sequence of words, transposition of letters, and assimilation of the wording of one passage to the slightly different wording in a parallel passage.

4. Errors of judgment. The most atrocious of all scribal errors is contained in the fourteenth century codex 109. This manuscript of the four gospels was evidently transcribed from a copy which had Luke's genealogy of Jesus in parallel columns. Rather than reading down the columns, the scribe read straight across the two columns resulting in a series of blatant errors. In that genealogy, God was said to be the son of Aram!

Intentional Errors

With all due honesty to the scribes, we must admit that most of these errors which may be classified as intentional were no doubt introduced in good faith by copyists who believed that they were correcting an error which had previously crept into the sacred text and needed rectified.

1. Errors of spelling and grammar. Scribes often corrected what they thought was bad grammar and often corrected previous scribal spelling errors.

2. Harmonistic corruptions. When transcribing the synoptic gospels, occasionally the scribe would try to make the two accounts of one event read exactly alike (for example, the Lord's prayer as recorded in Matt. 6:9-12 and Lk. 11:2-4).

3. Doctrinal alterations. Though this rarely occurred, in some manuscripts doctrinal alterations are evident. One manuscript changed Matt. 24:36 because the scribe could not believe that Jesus did not know when he would return. However, doctrinal alterations are more evident in translations than in transcriptions.


Though we have listed many classes of errors (and there are more which could be listed), the number of extant manuscripts serve as a check on the tendency of errors to creep into the text. Where one manuscript errs, many more are accurate making the task of eliminating scribal blunders much simpler.

To confirm the fact that we have a reasonably accurate copy of the autograph, read carefully the following quotation from Westcott and Hort, two world renowned textual critics:

"The proportion of words virtually accepted on all hands as raised above doubt is very great, not less, on a rough computation, than seven-eighths of the whole. The remaining eighth therefore, formed in great part by changes of order and other comparative trivialities, constitutes the whole area of criticism ... the amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation is but a small fraction of the whole residuary variation, and can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text. Since there is reason to suspect that an exaggerated impression prevails as to the extent of possible textual corruption in the New Testament ... we desire to make it clearly understood beforehand how much of the New Testament stands in no need of a textual critic's labours " (The New Testament in the Original Greek, p. 2, 3).

Therefore, we can rest assured that the word of God has been accurately passed down to us, for, the word of God does endure forever (I Pet. 1: 25).

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XV: 17, pp. 10-11
March 4, 1971