Posts Tagged ‘gospels’

I have said that there are no textual variants that affect doctrine or theology. Actually, the one I wish to discuss today does have doctrinal implications, but primarily in the religious tradition of which I am a part. My heritage practices adult baptism by immersion and almost exclusively asks the person being baptized, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Most people today would be hard pressed to state where that confession comes from. The reality is that it comes from Acts 8:37 which is routinely footnoted in most translations except the King James. The question today is why do most modern translations not include verse 37 in the body of the text?

The simplest answer to that question is that the most ancient Greek manuscripts do not include it. The manuscripts that do not have verse 37 include—p45 (3rd century), and the big three codices, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (4th century),and  Alexandrinus (5th century), along with other manuscripts.

Verse 37 is included in Codex E which dates from the 6th century and in many of the later cursive manuscripts. It is also included in the Old Latin. Irenaeus quotes part of it, which shows that the passage was in existence at least in the latter part of the second century, perhaps earlier. Bruce Metzger provides an interesting perspective when he writes in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, “Although the passage does not appear in the late medieval manuscript on which Erasmus chiefly depended for his edition (ms. 2), it stands in the margin of another (ms. 4), from which he inserted it into his text because he ‘judged that it had been omitted by the carelessness of scribes.’”

All of this is probably more detail than most of my readers care about. The bottom line is that we should be able to see that the passage is certainly questionable. Possibly it was inserted as a possible answer to the Eunuch’s question in verse 36, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (ESV). Certainly the passage retains perhaps the most ancient baptismal confessional handed down to us. I like it because of its simplicity and its emphasis on the primacy of faith in Jesus as the Christ. I can think of nothing with which I would want to replace it.

At the same time, it probably was not originally part of the text of Acts. As I said earlier, this may disturb some people within my religious heritage, but I am first of all interested in truth, not in preserving what I was taught to believe. This is the lesson I would like for my readers to get from this post. We should not come to the Bible seeking to validate what we already believe. Nor should we bring our preconceptions to it. I have always attempted simply to accept what I find there, and I feel comfortable doing so.

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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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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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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.


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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You can hardly escape watching programs or seeing in books (such as The DaVinci Code) which imply that certain books were banned from being included in the New Testament. The whole question of the formation of the canon of the New Testament is very complex and needs to be addressed carefully and methodically. With that warning I am sharing a link below to an article that discusses this question.


Actually, I found the main value in the article not in what it said about the canon, but in how it described what books churches from the second century on might have had available to them. This is found in the first half of the article, and I would encourage you to read it. It provides some good information about what early Christians may have read at a time when the canon was still being decided upon. Christians today often have difficulty understanding how different churches were in the first three centuries before Christianity became a legal religion. This article paints a word picture that simplifies that understanding.

At some point, I wish to add my own thoughts on the canon of both the Old and New Testaments, but for now I would encourage you to read this article. It has some good information.

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Actually, there is good evidence that sometimes scribes making copies of the Bible did deliberately change some words or passages when they were making copies from an older manuscript. This sounds like a dark conspiracy in the DaVinci Code tradition, and you may see some television documentaries suggesting just that. The truth is far less exciting, and we can fairly easily detect textual variants that are the result of deliberate alteration.

The most frequent instances of such deliberate changes are found in the gospels, and they are the result of what textual scholars refer to as “harmonization.” This involves attempts by scribes to make Jesus’s words recorded in one gospel identical to how they are recorded in another gospel.

Let’s look at just one example of how this happens. In the NIV the last part of Matthew 11:19 reads, “But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” Compare that reading with Luke 7:35 which the NIV translates as “But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

First, let’s notice that the meaning is not changed with either reading. Both “deeds” and “children” are metaphors to say that wisdom can be tested by the results that it produces. That is the real message no matter which way the passages read (deeds or children).

There are manuscripts of both Matthew and Luke which support both “deeds” and “children.” But when we look at the weight of the manuscripts supporting either reading, we find that the manuscript evidence is better for translating Matthew as “deeds,” and Luke as “children.” Most of the modern translations will show that difference.

So, why do some of the manuscript differ? We cannot say with certainty, but most scholars feel it is likely that Matthew originally wrote the Greek word for “deeds,” and Luke originally wrote the word for “children.” At some point in the copying process, one or more pious scribes may have assumed that both Matthew and Luke should have recorded Jesus’s words identically. Since the manuscript from which he was copying used a word that was different, one of them must have made an error in quoting Jesus. In all good conscience, he may have changed the word in the copy he was making, believing that he was correcting an error in the older manuscript. Then any copies made from his altered copy would perpetuate that change. Over hundreds of years, both manuscripts may have continued to be used to make more copies, so the process continued.

Fortunately, the science of textual criticism described in my last post allows scholars to evaluate each reading on its own. Also, there is the recognition that preserving the two separate readings is more likely to be correct. We can see the logic a copyist may have used to change Jesus’s words in one gospel to agree with His words in another gospel. But there would be no good reason for someone to change a verse to have a different reading for another gospel.

We have looked at just two verses today, but I hope you can see how the process works. And this explains a number of the variants we have in the manuscripts. There is no evidence of a conspiracy to change the message of the gospel; just the normal kinds of changes that we would expect to find in an age when every copy had to be made by hand.

Did the ancient copyists deliberately change some verses? Yes.

Does that indicate some kind of conspiracy to change the original message of the New Testament? No.

Do these variant readings change what Jesus taught? Absolutely not.

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Undoubtedly everyone has heard of the manuscript which has been interpreted to say that Jesus was married. I dealt with that at some length in my previous post. Without going into a long list of sources, let me simply relate that a growing number of experts are questioning the manuscript’s authenticity. Even this situation has become dependent on rumors. One is that the Harvard Theological Review has refused to publish the paper relating to the manuscript. Is that true? I have not yet been able to confirm or refute that rumor. At least one other expert has determined that while the papyrus itself is likely ancient, the writing is probably a modern forgery. Is all this true? At this point, it is anybody’s guess.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that scholarship should not be pursued like the six o-clock news, in which the goal is to “scoop” the other broadcasters. Another example of this rush to judgment might be the announcement by Daniel Wallace of the discovery of what appear to be six second century manuscripts and one first century fragment of the Gospel of Mark. While Dr. Wallace has wisely not published anything relating to these finds pending authentication, it might have been wiser had he not even mentioned their existence, until that authentication process was complete.

Our technological world has made it too easy and too convenient to obtain information. I fear we have not sufficiently developed the critical and analytical skills to absorb and evaluate that information profitably. In this instance those who would wish the manuscript to be a forgery and those who would wish it to be genuine have both indicated their willingness to make judgments before all the evidence is in. To the extent that my post may have contributed to that, I express my regrets.

The lesson to be learned is simple. Whatever our biases or preconceptions, we must allow the experts to do their work without pressure or expecting certain results. After the experts have expressed their conclusions, there will be plenty of opportunity for all of us to weigh in. That is appropriate, but only when we have a solid basis for doing so.

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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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