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In some respects the story of the woman taken in Adultery found in John 7:53—8:11 may be the most significant textual problem in the New Testament. While this passage does not contain any doctrinal issues that should concern us, the message of forgiveness is significant

I want to avoid going into too much textual detail, recognizing that most of my readers do not have the background or probably the interest in pursuing that. At the same time, some details are necessary to understand the evidence.

Virtually all of the textual variants we will consider require examining first the most ancient Greek manuscripts to see how they read. Other versions (translations) may also be considered, but obviously Greek manuscripts are critical, because the New Testament books were originally written in Greek.

So what is the evidence for including this passage in John? The first manuscript to contain it is Codex D (5th century). After that, we do not find it in any other Greek manuscript until the 9th century, although it is included in a large number of later medieval manuscripts. It is also included in the Latin Vulgate (late 4th century).  The passage is also included in several Old Latin manuscripts which would take its origin back to at least the 2nd century.

Arguing against the authenticity of the passage, we find that it is not included in virtually any of the earliest manuscripts, including p66 and p75 (@ AD 200) or codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (4th century). At the same time, we should recognize that p66, p75, as well as Vaticanus and Sinaiticus all have what are referred to as diacritical marks at this location, which may well be an indication that the scribes were aware of this passage. Codices A and C (5th century) are missing at this point, but apparently scholars have measured the amount of space and determined that there would not have been enough room to have included the passage in these manuscripts.

This passage has another serious problem. While most manuscripts that include it place it in its traditional location after John 7, some manuscripts have it elsewhere. Different manuscripts place this passage after: Luke 21:38; Luke 24:53; John 7:36; or at the end of John. This indicates that while the passage was recognized, scribes were uncertain as to where it should go.

All of this makes it difficult to see this passage as original. At the same time, possible references to it in other writings tend to take the passage back at least to the second century.

It is not my place to tell you what to do with this story, but I would like to close with what amounts to nothing more than my opinion. While the story of the woman taken in adultery almost certainly was not originally part of the gospel of John, it does go back to ancient times. It also has the ring of truth to it. By that I mean that Jesus’ response is in keeping with how He is described throughout the gospels, especially taking up for the underdog in most situations. Is it possible that this passage reflects what was originally a part of oral tradition that was later written down? If so, it may well constitute an example of an authentic story of Jesus preserved outside of the New Testament. I certainly cannot say that this is what happened. At the same time, I see nothing in the story that contradicts what we know Jesus taught, and over the centuries millions have been inspired by its message of forgiveness. I will not say it was originally part of John’s gospel, but I agree with its message. This is where I leave it to my readers to judge for yourselves what to do with the passage.

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The ending of Mark is perhaps the most significant textual question in the New Testament. It is important for two reasons. First, there is real doubt as to how the gospel originally ended. Also, it is a significant message. This is the type of issue that troubles people. Let’s look at it.

Most modern translations raise some kind of question about Mark 16:9-20. They may also include what is referred to as the shorter ending, which reads in the NAS Revised Edition, “And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

So, there are four possibilities:

  1. Mark originally ended with the shorter ending.
  2. Mark originally ended with the longer ending (vv. 9-20).
  3. Mark originally contained another ending which was lost before it could be copied.
  4. Mark originally ended after verse 8.

Let’s eliminate the first possibility immediately. It isn’t natural. It even sounds like something tacked on, because a scribe did not find the ending satisfactory. Greek manuscripts that contain it date from the 7th to the 9th centuries or later, although an Old Latin and other less significant versions (translations) include it. But, overall, this shorter ending has very little to support it.

Could the gospel have ended as we have it with verses 9-20? Yes, that is a possibility, although I have to admit I don’t think it likely, even though there are a very large number of manuscripts and versions that support it.  Several 5th century manuscripts include it, along with virtually all the later manuscripts, as well as the earliest manuscript of the Old Latin, Latin Vulgate, one Old Syriac Version, the Syriac Peshitta, and a number of other versions. Irenaeus, one of the church Fathers, refers to the longer ending, which shows that it existed in the 2nd century and that Mark was believed to be the author. That sounds impressive, so what’s the problem?

In an earlier post, we talked about the three most significant manuscripts we have of the New Testament. Two of these, the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus date from AD 325-350). Whenever these manuscripts agree scholars consider that to be significant. And neither of these manuscripts includes verses 9-20. These verses are also absent from the earliest Old Latin manuscripts, about 100 Armenian manuscripts, the two oldest Georgian manuscripts, as well as other versions.

Among the church fathers, Clement of Alexandria and Origen show no knowledge of the existence of these verses. Eusebius and Jerome acknowledge that it was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them. Finally, many of the manuscripts that do contain verses 9-20 are marked with notations indicating that it was questionable as to whether the passage should be included.

Finally, we must consider the possibility that the original ending of Mark was lost before it could be copied. While that is a real possibility, it is somewhat unlikely. The original was probably written on a scroll, rather than a codex. While the last leaf of a codex could be torn off, the ending of a scroll is harder to lose.

One quick message of reassurance. If we eliminate verses 9-20, we have not lost what is commonly referred to as “the Great Commission.” It is contained in virtually the same words in Matthew 28, and there are no textual issues relating to Matthew’s version at all.

I tend toward believing that Mark ended his gospel with verse 8. While that may seem to be an unusual ending, it has literary value. The rest of the story would likely have been known by most of Mark’s readers, but by ending it abruptly at verse 8, Mark forces us to ask ourselves the question, “How will I write the ending for myself? How will I respond to the events as described? Will I respond with faith or with doubt and confusion? I can’t say whether Mark deliberately set out to pose these questions, but they are there, nonetheless, and I must admit that I am intrigued by the literary value of this ending. Mark leaves us with an empty tomb, but with the disciples afraid and not sure what to do. I can identify with that. Can’t you?

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Whenever textual problems in the New Testament come up, 1 John 5:7—8 seems to be the one that is discussed first, as if it is the most serious textual problem we have. I am going to discuss it first, although it does not seem to me to be that serious a problem. You be the judge.

Here is the issue. 1 John 5:7—8 reads as follows, first in the King James Version, then in the New American Standard Version, Revised Edition. I have highlighted the phrase in question.

King James — “7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”

New American Standard — “7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood: and the three are in agreement.”

Obviously, the verse divisions are arbitrary, since they were added much later, so that’s not the real concern. Virtually all modern translations follow the New American Standard in omitting the reference to the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and that is the real issue. If the King James Version is correct, we have a clear reference to the Trinity (although the word is not used here or anywhere else in the New Testament). If the modern translations are right, this reference is lacking.

Here is a summary of the textual evidence.

The passage may have derived from the Latin in the 4th century, in a homily which symbolically made the original text refer to the Trinity. It then became incorporated into the Latin Vulgate.

The oldest Greek manuscript that actually contains this phrase within the text dates from the 14th century, and it has slightly different wording from the others. There is a manuscript from the 10th century that includes the passage as a marginal note. Actually, this passage is found in only nine very late manuscripts, and four of them have the passage as a marginal note, not actually part of the text. Also, the passage is not found in any of the writings of the Church Fathers. The earliest such reference comes from 1215 in a Greek translation of the Acts of the Lateran Council, which was originally written in Latin.

Also, we can see how the phrase might have been added later to refer to the Trinity. There would have been no reason to delete it if it were originally in the text, since a clear reference to the Trinity would have been received favorably, but we can understand why a scribe might add it to clarify what he believed the passage was teaching.

The question remains, does omitting this passage destroy traditional church teaching about the Trinity? The simple answer is, “No.” There are other passages in the New Testament that clearly teach the divinity of Jesus and the eternal nature of the Holy Spirit, and there are no textual problems with these passages. Here are a few from the ESV.

Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

John 20:28 “Thomas answered him, ‘My lord and my God!’”

1 Corinthians 12:4—6 “4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.”

2 Corinthians 13:14 “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Philippians 2:6 (referring to Christ in verse 5) “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,”

Other passages could be added.

There are two principles here. One is that the passage was almost certainly not in the original, and modern translations have not removed it out of any attempt to water down traditional Christian theology.

Also, removing this phrase from the text does not destroy the basis on which the doctrine of the Trinity came.

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Actually, I am not aware of a book called Textual Criticism for Dummies, but I think it would be good for someone to write such a book. As we begin to look at some of the more significant textual variants in the New Testament, there is one aspect that you may notice if you take time to compare different translations. Virtually all of these passages are included in the King James Version, but are either in footnotes in modern translations or have a footnote, indicating that the most ancient manuscripts do not contain them. And that’s the real issue. In earlier posts I mentioned just a few of the oldest manuscripts we have. Please understand there are more that I could have listed.

Most of these older manuscripts were not available to the King James translators, who basically used only a handful of relatively late manuscripts. Since that time, both the number of manuscripts, as well as the discipline of textual criticism, have allowed scholars to evaluate textual variations with much more precision. The downside is that it has called into question some of the passages that we grew up with and which are meaningful to us. I wish to repeat that no fundamental doctrinal or theological beliefs are threatened by these issues. At the same time, honesty requires that we look at them.

Recognizing that probably no one reading this post will be a textual scholar, I wish to mention one book that might help you if you are curious and want to know more. The book is Essential Guide to Bible Versions by Dr. Philip W. Comfort. After discussing some of the same issues that have been presented in this blog, Dr. Comfort then goes on to concentrate on the history of English translations of the Bible. Most significant for our subject today is the last chapter, entitled “Extra Verses in the New Testament.” If you read through the book, by the time you get to this chapter, you will have the background to understand what he presents there. And what Dr. Comfort does may be helpful to some. He takes every passage that is found in the King James, but which is normally not included in modern versions and explains why they are not included. While most people may not be interested in this much detail, I would offer it to those who feel uneasy and wish to be reassured.

This is especially important, because there have been accusations that textual criticism is an assault on the integrity of the Bible or is an attempt to take out essential passages. If you have heard this or are disturbed by some of the passages we shall look at, you might wish to pick up Essential Guide to Bible Versions.

I have put off the subject long enough. My next post will begin looking at specific passages in the Bible about which there are significant textual problems. I look forward to that, and I hope you do too.

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Before beginning a series of posts dealing with some of the more significant textual variations, I felt it would be profitable to step back and indulge in a little humor. Yes, the subject of textual variations can be serious, but I believe we should be able to have a little fun at our own expense. I have seen the story below in a variety of forms, and I have no idea where it originated. But for those who have been following my posts about the text of the Bible, I hope this will provide a good laugh. It is all intended in good fun, and I hope no one is offended, because that is certainly not my intention. The story takes place in the Middle Ages.

A new monk arrived at the monastery. He was assigned to help the other monks in copying the old texts by hand. He noticed, however, that they were copying copies, not the original books. The new monk went to the head monk to ask him about this. He pointed out that if there were an error in the first copy, that error would be continued in all of the other copies.

The head monk said, “We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.” The head monk went down into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original.

Hours later, nobody had seen him, so one of the monks went downstairs to look for him. He heard a sobbing coming from the back of the cellar and found the old monk leaning over one of the original books, crying.

He asked what was wrong.

“The word is ‘celebrate,’ not ‘celibate’!” sobbed the head monk.

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In a previous post, I discussed some of the “intentional” changes that we find in our bibles. If you want to review that post, you can find it here.

https://garycottrell.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/did-ancient-scribes-deliberately-change-the-text-of-the-bible/

Today I want to focus on variants that make up the vast majority of discrepancies in the bible, what we might refer to as unintentional errors. These are errors that crept into the manuscripts simply because they were copied by hand. The reality is that, based on the number of manuscripts we possess, the number of variants is about what we should expect for books copied by hand. Most of these variants can be divided into a few categories.

The most frequent example of variants in manuscripts involves what is called the “moveable nu.” “Nu” is a Greek letter that has a sound like the English “N.” We have a similar function in English with the indefinite article “a.” In English, if “a” comes before a consonant, there is no change; however, before a word beginning with a vowel, the “a” becomes “an.” So we write “a potato,” but “an apple.” Greek did the same thing, but applied it to most instances in which a word ending in a vowel came just before a word beginning with a vowel. Before a word beginning with a vowel, Greek would often insert a “nu” at the end of the word before the vowel to make it easier to pronounce. This was not always done, however, and different writers might or might not insert the “nu,” and this single practice is the most common cause of variant readings. In fact, over 70% of the variants in the New Testament are the result of differences in spelling; that’s right, differences in spelling.  We see the same thing today. In English is there any real difference between the American spelling of “honor” and the British spelling of “honour”?

Just to emphasize the point, in case you didn’t notice, 70% of the variant readings among the New Testament manuscripts have been shown to be about essentially nothing.

Other mistakes can often be accounted for by simply having so many manuscripts that we already have an idea of how the text should read. For instance, if a scribe is copying a manuscript and becomes distracted, his eye may skip from (for example) the word “Jesus” in one line down to the word “Jesus” several lines below it, leaving out the text between. Usually these kinds of errors are easy to spot and explain.

We usually visualize a scribe copying a book with a manuscript at his desk from which he makes his copy. It was not always done that way. In order to produce more copies at once, sometimes one scribe would read from a manuscript, while several scribes would copy from his dictation.  Romans 5:1 contains an example of how this might have happened. The NIV reads, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Depending on your English translation, you may have a footnote that tells you that some manuscripts read “let us have peace” instead of “we have peace.” In Greek this is represented by a single word, and the issue is whether the word is in the indicative or subjunctive mood. This difference is represented by a single Greek letter, either omicron (short O) or omega (long O). And in the ancient world these two letters were pronounced virtually identically. Although modern Greek textbooks, tell the student to pronounce omicron with a short “O” sound and omega with a long “O” sound, I didn’t learn it that way. When I took Greek, the textbook I used gave both Greek letters a long “O” sound, and there is evidence that they were pronounced that way. If five scribes heard a presenter read from Romans 5:1, three of them might have written it with the short “O” and two with a long “O.” So now we have another way that variants can arise in the manuscripts.

There are so many other examples that could be given, but I think this is enough to make the point. Like it or not, the New Testament arose and was transmitted when books were copied by hand. Yes, there are variants among the manuscripts just as we find in all ancient books (assuming we have more than one manuscript of those books).  What we find is very much in line with the kind and number of variants we should expect, considering the large number of manuscripts we possess. The vast majority are spelling differences or errors that are quite easily caught and explained. These kinds of errors do not affect our text in any meaningful way.

This does not mean there are no textual problems that are significant. There are, and in the next posts I want to examine some of them. And I have no intention of looking at some obscure meaningless differences. Rather, I intend to look at the most serious textual problems in the New Testament. Make no mistake, this will be challenging. If you do not want to be challenged, you might consider not reading my next posts.  But I do not believe we have anything to fear from these passages. Yes, we may have to admit that some passages in the New Testament were not in the original autographs, but we need not fear that any central point of theology is endangered. I invite you to come with me on that journey as we seek out the truth about textual variants that do make a difference in our New Testament.

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I suspect most of you have seen pictures of beautifully illuminated manuscripts. Certainly that added to the cost of producing ancient books, including the Bible; however, that is only part of the story. Sometimes the illustrations were added, because the cost of just the book itself was so great that anyone who could afford that cost could also afford the extra cost of illuminations.

Below is a link to a video showing how parchment is made and how that was used to create a book in the ancient world. We take so much for granted in our technological world. Take a few minutes and appreciate how much we owe to scribes in ancient times who spent their lives preserving the Bible, as well as other books, for us to enjoy today.

Here is the link.

http://biblemanuscripts.org/how-manuscripts-were-made.html

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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