Thought I'd give the quick outline of the paper I'm giving Tuesday night at 7pm in Atlanta. Tickets are free but necessary through the box office at (770) 804-9427. While they may tell you it's sold out, I hear they often have about 100 at the door.
The event is at the "Passages" lecture hall at the Green exhibit, 1201 Hammond Dr. on the northeast side of Atlanta. The exhibit has more than 30,000 biblical antiquities, and this is the initiative that has in its possession several new New Testament newly discovered manuscripts from the second century (not on display yet ;-).
1. The NT manuscript situation
It is true that we do not have any of the original manuscripts of the Bible. It is true that of the 5500+ Greek NT manuscripts no two are exactly alike. It's true that there are between 300,000 and 400,000 individual variations among the manuscripts. With regard to the OT, we are separated from the time of writing by many centuries. Individuals like Bart Ehrman suggest that it is pointless even to talk about the "original manuscripts" because we don't have them.
The situation with regard to the New Testament is, however, far superior to any other ancient text. If we are not troubled by the situation with regard to Homer or Plato, then we certainly can't be troubled about the NT. The vast majority of differences are simple spelling variations. There are only a handful of really significant NT passages and none of them change any Christian doctrine or practice.
Is there a place for "conjectural emendations," places where we might suggest that the original text read differently from any text we now have? It is quite possible but methodologically problematic. Moffatt once suggested that Romans 7:25b was originally at 7:24b. It would sure read a lot more smoothly if that were the case, but there is no manuscript evidence. Best not to go there.
One good possibility for such a conjectural emendation, however, is 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. This passage does not fit the train of thought of that section of 2 Corinthians and the passage reads more smoothly if it is removed. 2 Corinthians in general is often suggested to be more than one letter of Paul that has been joined together. More on this passage later.
2. The OT manuscript situation
With regard to the OT, the situation is much more difficult. The Masoretic text is something like the Byzantine text of the NT (think KJV). It is a standardized text that represents the end of a long process of editing. The Septuagint translation into Greek (LXX) also underwent significant changes over time and exists in multiple forms. The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) help where they exist and are substantial.
Basically, the situation is varied. Different sources seem more reliable for different parts (e.g., the LXX of the Pentateuch is helpful, the DSS are helpful for Isaiah, the Old Greek for Samuel, etc...). These sources probably get us to a century or two before Christ. There are still some gaps (e.g., how old was Saul when he began to reign, 1 Sam. 13:1).
3. Problems with the idea of an "original text"
Recent times have seen increasing reflection on the very idea of what an "original text" might be. For example, you often hear scholars talk about the prophets growing as documents over time. Is Isaiah in its current form the result of several centuries of addition, with chapters 40-55 coming from around the time of the exile and 56-66 from just after, when the whole document reached something like its current form? Is the Gospel of John something like the final form of a community document that was composed in stages with, for example, John 21 representing a later stage than John 20?
As troubling as such hypotheses can be to the uninitiated, there is still something like a "final form" that might be considered to be something like an "original text." If so, it would still be possible that some variations would continue forward from different stages of composition. One thinks of Matthew and Mark. Most think that Matthew used Mark as a primary source, but did Matthew use Mark in something like a "final form"?
For example, what are we to make of Matthew's omission of Mark 7:19 that Jesus declared all foods clean? Is this an indication of Matthew's theology, that he did not consider all foods clean, at least not for Jewish Christians? Or was this a clarifying remark that was added to Mark in a later version than Matthew used as a source?
If we return to 2 Corinthians, it is possible that we can speak of a time when different components of this text were independent letters or parts of independent letters (e.g., chaps. 10-13; 6:14-7:1). But at some point, 2 Corinthians took on its current form, which we would then consider to be the "original text" or the "final form." Whether previous versions then influenced the textual history of the later composite document would then be a fascinating question.
Similarly, if when New Testament letters were produced, a copy was made both to send and to keep at the point of origin, is it possible that there could be minor differences between the two copies from the very beginning? Was one copy of Ephesians created for Ephesus with the words "at Ephesus" on it while other copies for the rest of Asia Minor created without those words?
And what of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, the famous "let women be silent" verses, which appears in more than one place in the manuscripts? Was this in one original copy of 1 Corinthians but then not in the other? I personally suspect it is a late first century/early second century addition to the margin of some central copy of 1 Corinthians.
4. The focus of Faith
So, it does get a little more complicated when you dig into it more. Are differences in manuscripts a problem for Christian faith? Not in the slightest. For one thing, we are really only talking about a certain uncertainty and fuzziness around the edges. We are not talking about any fundamental confusion about what the "original" or final forms of these texts basically said.
Take 1 Samuel 11:1. The DSS add a good deal of information here about Nahash the Ammonite. The NRSV has included it in its translation. The ESV, NIV, and other translations have not. What does it change? It neither adds nor takes anything away from faith. Practically all variations are of this sort.
In fact, in regard to the Hebrew Bible, many Christians would argue that it is not the Hebrew text by itself but the Christian reading of the OT that is important for Christian faith. Hebrews 10:5-7 provides us with an interesting case study. Here the form of the OT text that Hebrews uses is different from the likely original Hebrew form of Psalm 40:6-8. (By the way, this is a real conundrum for a KJV only person, since both forms of the text cannot be original, implying that one of the readings in the KJV text is not the original text... it is an incontrovertible validation of the science of textual criticism).
So which is more central to Christian faith, the original form of Psalm 40 in Hebrew or Hebrews' Christian version of the text? Surely the latter is more central to Christian faith (this does not mean that the Hebrew wording cannot play a role as well).
In the end, any version of faith that is so strongly connected to individual verses is an out of focus faith. This is true not only because God the Father and Christ must be at the center of our faith (rather than the "little books" [biblia] or Bible that gives witness to them, the books through which they have spoken and continue to speak). It is true because the Bible must be read as a whole, as a fullness of revelation, where all the parts are read together (e.g., we don't apply Leviticus as Christians without having also read Hebrews).
It is even more crucially true because no verse comes to us without interpretation. When one looks at the tens of thousands of Christian denominations and groups, it is quite clear that the question of what interpretation of Scripture is appropriate has a far greater impact on us as believers than the question of the precise wording of the original text. The wording is the question of what the text says.
But that is just the beginning of the process. Most variations on what the text said do not significantly impact the question of what the text meant. Then the individual teachings of individual texts have to be integrated into a biblical theology that we appropriate for today, finding points of continuity and discontinuity between their time and our time, bringing the insights the Spirit has unfolded about Scripture throughout the ages.
By the time we reach this stage of hermeneutics, there are no textual variations of the original biblical texts that are significant in the slightest for faith.