The end goal of textual criticism (that is, of looking at all the differences between the copies we have of a text) is to discover the reading of the original text. Granted, there's a new bunch of New Testament textual critics like Fee and Ehrman who say it's about charting the history and seeing how scribes corrupted the text (or, as some would have it, edit the text under divine inspiration) but that begs the question - how can you see where the scribes have changed the text to fit their interpretations if you don't know what the original was? I can argue until I'm blue that Shakespeare enlarged the roles of Beatrix and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing but until I have some sort of proof that they were originally smaller roles then there's something seriously lacking in my logic.
But then, having read Ehrman's work, I have a high view of his writing abilities and a very, very low view of both his ability to think logically and his integrity. He's still a fundamentalist at heart (of the sort that would make a staunch KJV-only-ist quell from his fervor) without a god to believe in besides liberalism. It's really quite sad.
But enough about Ehrman (who is, I believe, still a redeemable scholar and a poster boy for why Christians, especially Christians in leadership must be intellectually honest - he is what happens to those who are told not to question their faith - read his "testimony" sometime), this post is supposed to be about variants and how many there are and of what type.
So back to that.
As I said, the goal of textual critics is to rediscover the original wording of the text, whether they're looking at Shakespeare, Plato, or the Gospel of John. This is made difficult by the variants - no two texts are exactly the same. Each has some variant from another. Hearing this is, at first, enough to shake some people's faith. It was enough to break Ehrman's. So do we have a reliable NT? After all, as some have pointed out there are three times as many variants as there are words in the New Testament. Which is a rather disturbing number, right? At first blush, yes, it is. But let's look at that statistic. Out of all those variants a vast majority of them (exact numbers pending for me to get my notebook) are completely and totally inconsequential. They're either spelling variants (for example, John verses Jon) or very clear nonsense errors. For exampe, if your a ntive englich speeker u shuld hvae no problm reeding thiis senntence evan tho its fuul ov full ov mispellings nd noncents errs. Things like that show up a lot in our known Greek NTs - not surprising when you realize that the dictionary had yet to be invented and monks sometimes worked on these manuscripts long after they should have retired. Just think about how many times, when typing, you need to go back and change because you keyed something in wrong. Same with these scribes only the backspace key was far in the future for them. So there's something like 80% of variants in the NT - ones that don't cause us to question what the original text said, though it might cause us to wonder how it was spelled. On a side note, I am ever so grateful for spell checker.
So that's 80% of the variants. How about that other 20? Most of those are variants which do call the meaning of the text into question but aren't really viable. That is, they're changes that announce themselves with big red flags. A common one is changing the pronoun "he" to "Christ" or "Jesus," particularly at the beginning of a lectionary reading. After all, when you're reading the text for the day what works better, "He went into the town" (when the referent, "Jesus" is stuck back in the previous day's reading) or "Jesus went into the town." Yeah, thought so. There are some that wave red flags because the ONLY place you find the variant is in a 14th century manuscript. How likely is it that, of all the manuscripts we have, that's the ONLY one that got the reading right? Um hm. Possible ... but very, very unlikely. Kinda like my undergrad beating Ohio State in football. My undergrad doesn't have a football team. When it did it suffered one of the largest losses in collegiate history. Two hundred something to zero. Against a teacher's college. About that likely. Then there's the variants that are just crazy, like the one in "my" manuscript (mine in the sense that I'm working through it - I don't actually have any claim to it beyond that, unfortunately) that says that Jesus was given a road mixed with gall to drink. Somehow I don't think that's what Matthew originally wrote.
Anyway, that grouping of variants that change the meaning but aren't possible make up a good 18% of the whole.
And that remaining 1-2% which are both changes to the meaning and possible? Well, that's a post for another time!