We often remember scribes as the people who copied manuscripts in the ancient world, but they actually did a lot more than that. Indeed, a big part of the reason they were chosen to copy manuscripts is because of everything else they were trained to do. It was their job to teach and interpret important literature. They worked in admin positions for priests and even for royalty. They were political advisors and diplomats. They worked with ancient sciences. They were leaders of important religious groups. And they wrote documents for kingdoms, businesses, and private households. In other words, scribes were the educated scholars of the ancient world.
That being said, when scribes were assigned the task of copying biblical manuscripts, they were trusted as scholars to make judgment calls. This is part of the reason we have variations between manuscripts. For example, a scribe might come across something they feared would be confusing for their readers, so they would change the wording or edit the text. They might try to simplify or explain a point by adding a statement here and there. Based on their knowledge, they might sense that a scribe before them made an error and so they would fix it on the fly (even if ended up not being an error after all). And, of course, some of their variations are due to the same copying errors we make today, like when we’re trying to type a quote from a book into our computer and we look back and forth and accidentally return to the same word we left off on, but on a different line.
With all of these thoughts in mind, sometimes it’s easy to pinpoint the reason why a scribe changed something. In Revelation 1:5, for example, older manuscripts say, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood,” while some later manuscripts say, “To him who loved us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” Obviously, a scribe somewhere couldn’t handle the grammatical inconsistency and felt the need to unify the words “love” and “free” in the past tense.
This is a classic example of how scholarly perfectionism can sometimes get in the way of spiritual truth. John has chosen to use the word “love” in the present tense because Jesus is still alive and still loves us—a message that his audience of martyrs desperately needed to be grounded in. John has chosen to use the word “free” in the past tense because his audience needs to remember that their sins are covered by Jesus’ sacrifice and behind them as they continue to walk into the fullness of what a Spirit-assisted, sinless life can look like. Lest they forget, they are already free and they are currently loved—and that’s a message we’d do well to receive today.