There are some 5800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, all hand-written between the 2nd and 16th centuries. Fifty eight hundred… and no two are identical. Think about that. And the earliest copies — those which were fewest in number, transcribed by amateurs and most influential over the whole — were also the ones that were most subject to variation. As Professor Bart Ehrman (UNC Chapel Hill) has so memorably expressed the point: “There are more differences in our Manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” There is no original handwritten letter of Paul, no original copy of Mark or Luke to go back and fact-check, not even close. The oldest versions that survive today are fragments of copies written two centuries later, and if there was as much textural variation in those two centuries from which virtually nothing survives as there clearly was by the fourth century, well, maybe Jesus’ name was actually Joshua. (Hint: it was)
The standardization of text in books is something we take for granted today, but this was a revolution that only came about with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Even the works of Shakespeare were not immune from significant textural variations. Quite simply, the Hamlet we read or view today was not any Hamlet that existed in Shakespeare’s time. Our Hamlet is a bloated merging of the three different versions surviving from Shakespeare’s day — Q1 from 1603, Q2 from 1604 and F from 1623. Some had lines others did not, some had sequences others did not, but it’s very unlikely all three were ever performed (or intended) as one “Mega-Hamlet.”
So what was the secret to 17th century folks sitting through a four-hour play? They didn’t.