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 15th Century. The King James Version of the Bible was assembled between 1604 and 1611, but the sources used to compile it were relatively later codices, which is to say, upwards of the 12th Century. When during the 19th Century Biblical scholars began seeking out and finding older codices from the 4th and 5th Centuries they began discovering New Testament books that varied vastly from what exists in the King James Version today. Quotes, passages and entire chapters found within the King James were significantly different or entirely absent in earlier versions. No Resurrection in Mark. No Ascension in Luke. No “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The entire sequence in John featuring the Woman Caught in Adultery wasn’t there. Even in comparing the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus, two of the oldest surviving codices from the 4th Century: “According to Herman Hoskier, there are, without counting errors of iotacism, 3,036 textual variations between Sinaiticus and Vaticanus in the text of the Gospels alone.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_codices_Sinaiticus_and_Vaticanus)
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.