(Fourth post in a series...)
So, textual critics seeking to reconstruct the original Greek of the New Testament have at their disposal a wealth of evidence, including more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts, some 8,000 early Latin copies, important copies in Syriac and Coptic, and voluminous quotations from the early church fathers.
The problem is that none of these represent exact copies. Rather, they contain variant readings, and though the majority of these are insignificant, about 2,000 are not.
How did these variants arise? Well, as I shared (with examples) in the first post in this series, some were accidental and some were intentional. But what's important to understand is that virtually all of these variants arose by the middle of the third century. Because from that time onward, the texts in question were recognized as Scripture--as the Word of God--and so great care was taken in subsequent copying. Prior to that, however, some scribes believed that they were merely copying letters, biographies, and such (albeit ones that were important to the church). That being the case, such scribes apparently took greater editorial license than did later scribes working after the canonization process had begun.
So, in any reconstruction of the Greek New Testament (and in any subsequent translation--as into English--of those Greek reconstructions), decisions have to be made as to which of any set of variants was likely to have been the original. Again, for most sets of variants, such a decision is easy, or the ramifications insignificant. For the significant variants, any good Greek New Testament and any good English Study Bible will make the existence of variants (at that particular spot) apparent to the reader. That is, the editorial team will make its own call as to what was likely the original (and represent this in the main body of the text) but will share (usually as a footnote or marginal note) the variant reading(s).
Now, while variants exist between any two copies (at least of any substantial length), textual critics have identified three different manuscript traditions or text types, each of which is associated with a different part of the ancient Christian world. These are the Byzantine type (originating in Greece and Asia Minor, the Western (from Italy, Spain, Gaul, and North Africa), and the Alexandrian (associated with Alexandria, Egypt). That is, the Byzantine manuscripts, though differing from one another slightly, tend to have the same set of variants as one another, whereas a different set of variants is common to the group of manuscripts originating from Alexandria, and yet a different set is held in common by early copies from the West.
Each of these manuscript traditions is supported by its own set of Greek manuscripts. Each is also supported by its own set of early translations (Byzantine by Syriac and Latin translations, Western by other early Latin manuscripts, and Alexandrian by Coptic and some Latin translations). Each tradition is also supported by its own set of writings by church fathers (e.g., Chrysostom's writings attest to the Byzantine type, Polycarp's and Tertullian's support the Western, and Origen's support the Alexandrian tradition).
I trust you're hanging with me here. Although you usually have to be in seminary to be given this stuff, it's pretty interesting and not all that difficult. My real point is to explain the main differences between the New King James Version and other modern English translations, and we're only a couple posts away now...