Introduction

I recall years ago while reading my Bible and stumbling across a footnote that said, “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.” I Thought, “What does that mean?” They had the verses right there. The translated verses were right in front of me. “How could they say that?” I was very leery of this comment, and I quietly looked past it as though it were not there. I had never heard of such a thing before.

What about inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible?

These comments in the footnotes seem to attack the inspiration of the Bible, which is an important Christian doctrine. The Bible is the verbally inspired Word of God. So, there cannot be any errors in the Bible. I believed it. But for years I tip toed over this and other comments in my Bible’s footnotes about various verses. My friends did too. We mostly ignored them just because we did not know what to do with them. I never asked my pastors and none of them ever mentioned it.

You may wonder if I remain confident there are no errors in the Bible. Yes, I do believe the Bible is error free as written in the original manuscripts, its inerrant. I also think Christians should understand what is going on with the footnotes and the affected verses. It is a great injustice to Christians that no one explains it to them. This lack of information is how we get the “King James Only-ism” followers who argue for the “re-inspiration” of the Bible as the King James Authorized Version to bypass the ancient manuscript evidence.

Gaining an Understanding of the Issue

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Introductory Articles, Volume 1[1] has some good articles in it about the Bible and how we got it as well as other interesting topics. I read all 667 pages of the book. I highly recommend it. It has good and valuable foundational information to prepare for understanding works that focus on a specific area of Bible study. The article, “The Textual Criticism of the New Testament” by Gordon D. Fee helped with this topic. Also, there is a useful book by P. Comfort on textual criticism.[2]

Over the years I have gotten to personally know several Bible translators and discussed this issue with them. They write those footnotes in Bibles that I am writing about. This has helped me to understand why these notes are in the Bibles. It may not be long before new editions of the Bible begin to move these verses into footnotes instead of bracketing them in the text because the manuscript evidence is strongly against them being original to the text and people are beginning to understand it issue better.

Understanding the process of the Transmission of Scripture.

In the history of the Bible there was a time of writing the original manuscripts and a time of copying the manuscripts. Although the original autographed manuscripts were error free, every hand copied manuscript contains mistakes in it. Often the scribe or several scribes proofread a new copy of a manuscript and made corrections to improve the quality of the manuscript. Accuracy was important to them, and they took steps toward that end. The Church Fathers[3] also wrote about the Bible and quoted scripture, which adds to the ancient copies of some verses available to us. Then came the translations into different languages followed by verses quoted in ancient lectionaries.

We are missing some of the manuscripts made by copyist. People burned many manuscripts in attempts to destroy them all. Eventually, the Greek manuscripts seemed to have no value to those who could not read the language and they burned some of the manuscripts as fuel. Archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries discovered and collected many manuscripts. Tischendorf scoured Europe in search of manuscripts. He saved Codex Sinaiticus, one of our most complete manuscripts, from a burn basket full of manuscripts in a monastery.[4]

There are still thousands of manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts available for study, but the original manuscripts no longer exist. The useful lifespan of a manuscript was about 3 to 4 hundred years.

How errors crept into copies of manuscripts

With all the manuscripts surviving to this day, it is easy to look and see they are not identical to one another. Although the original manuscripts were inerrant, it is not reasonable to think the scribes never made a mistake when they copied the originals because we can see the mistakes in the copies that exist today.

Sometimes a scribe lost their place and skipped or recopied a few words or lines. Other times they replaced a word with a word of similar spelling or meaning. They frequently made spelling errors. They made simple mistakes that anyone could have made, but today we can tell they are mistakes by comparing manuscripts to each other.

Sometimes a scribe made deliberate changes to the text they copied. These changes often attempted to make it easier to understand the passage. On several occasions a scribe recalled something from a similar passage and inserted it into a passage where it did not belong. There are a few passages that seem to just show up a few centuries late. It is anyone’s guess how the passage came to be added to a later biblical manuscript. Thankfully, these changes can be identified today.

The evidence found in the manuscript witnesses supports the fact of many variances in the copies of manuscripts. Not all manuscripts are “exactly” the same. Actually, none of the manuscripts are “exactly” the same. “Some of the Ancient Near Eastern texts that have been unearthed are nothing but a schoolboy’s exercises or student copies of manuscripts.”[5] Of course those manuscripts contain mistakes in them. But any handwritten document of any length will have a mistake it. People just are not perfect copyist. It is also clear from examining the existing manuscripts that God did not provide the scribes with a supernatural ability to make perfect copies but rather chose to provide us with many manuscripts that we can compare to find the mistakes and changes.

How can a person really know what the original text said?

There are ways to decipher the correct reading that work in most cases when examining the manuscripts. A lady once asked me, “But how do you know?” Unfortunately, she quit listening as soon as the words left her mouth. But there are answers for those who want to know. Among other things, you just kind of know there is an added passage when the whole passage has multiple versions and appears in various places within the book like verses without a home. This is an easy case to solve.

My library includes a database[6] that compares 5688 text and identifies hundreds of thousands of variances between manuscripts. But the beauty of it all is that we have so many manuscripts and thousands of fragments of manuscripts to compare the readings to each other that we can be 99.75 sure the Critical text is correct. Furthermore, the minute uncertainty that still exists does not affect portions of scriptures concerning any major doctrine of Christianity. That is not to say there are no variances that affect major doctrines, we can just identify the correct reading. 99.9% of the New Testament text is of no real concern.[7] There are a few variances that may involve major doctrines but there is no uncertainty there about how the variant should read. Investigate 1 John 5:7-8. This variant is called the “Comma Johanneum” and is the most documented variant because people tricked a scholar into including it in his critical text[8]. The Comma Johanneum first appeared in Greek in the year 1215.[9]

The process of Textual Criticism

Textual Criticism[10] is the process of comparing all these manuscripts and fragments to identify the variances to see what the original manuscripts said. Textual criticism has resulted in the development of a corrected text called a “critical text.” Textual Criticism is more than a numbers game. A person does not just count how many manuscripts have a certain reading like taking a count. It is more like investigating why the differences exist. There are thousands of spelling errors and those are typically easy to correct unless it were to actually spell a word that fits the context.

It is assumed the readings of the original manuscripts are contained within the existing manuscripts available to us today. Each surviving manuscript is a “witness” to the original text. A “reading” is what one reads in a particular manuscript witness. Each difference between any two manuscripts is called a “variance.”

Therefore, any reading suggested for the original manuscripts must have support in the known manuscripts available. One can only consider readings of known witnesses as options for the correct reading of the original text.

When one manuscript has a passage, phrase, or word and another group does not, a person must ask a series of questions about a passage or phrase to investigate. The first two questions to consider are:

  1. Why would someone remove it if it were in the original manuscript?
  2. Why would someone add it if it were not in the original manuscript?

Common explanations include the scribes eye jumping forward or backwards to a word that looks similar and skipping or repeating a section. Sometimes a scribe recalled something from another account of the same story in another book and inserted it into the other place also.

There are similar questions for investigating any differences between manuscripts.

  1. Why would someone change A to B?
  2. Why would someone change B to A?

Sometimes it is more difficult to choose between the different manuscripts readings and one must consider another question.

  • Which reading is the most difficult of the two.

This question works because a scribe would tend to try to make the text easier to read if they made a change on purpose. The easier reading was probably the result of a change by a scribe while the more difficult reading is likely the original reading.

There is much more involved in the process of Textual Criticism and knowing the original languages is required. There are whole books on the subject. But this covers the most common issues and gives us some idea about those notes we find in our Bibles.

How People Deal with Differences Between Bibles

When people used hand copied manuscripts it was common to find differences between one’s copy and a friend’s copy. It was just a fact of life. So, they did not FREAK-OUT over it. Today, with the use of the printing press, all copies of any book are exactly alike. We are accustomed to our Bibles saying exactly the same thing as our friends’ Bibles. Of course, unless they have different translations. But we understand that.

It is after people became used to everyone using the translation, the King James Bible, and became use to everyone’s Bible reading “exactly” the same. That when people started using new translations that they started noticing differences again. And they FREAKED-OUT.

Some people are still weird about translations other than the King James. Consider the discovery of thousands of manuscripts since the King James Bible was translated in 1611. We have learned a lot. We have learned more about the text of the Bible, the Greek, and Hebrew languages. Today we have better translations because of the quantity and quality of ancient manuscripts available and the critical[11] texts resulting from decades of study.

You may be thinking it sounds like I think there are errors in the Bible. Your thinking of that 0.25% uncertainty. That is less than 350 affected words in the New Testament out of 138,162 Greek words. I believe the original God-inspired manuscripts were inerrant. Through the time between then and now, almost 2000 years, a lot has happened. It is amazing the text is still as good as it is. We live in a blessed time when all the manuscripts available to study and compare can benefit us all. During no other time in history has anyone known of as many manuscripts as we have today. Scholars still have discovered many more manuscripts no one has had a chance to study yet. Some of these may also include scripture.

With the high degree of accuracy of the critical texts available today exceeding that of the manuscripts used by the King James translation, we now have some of the best Bibles available since ancient times. None of the ancient manuscripts contained all the books of the Bible. The ancient manuscripts were not readily available to most people because hand copying was very time consuming and expensive. There were few manuscripts available compared to the number of Christians. Their manuscripts had copyist errors too. We have proof that copyist errors existed in ancient manuscripts because many manuscripts were preserved to modern times and are available to scholars today.

The information is Available to Us

The footnotes in the Bible that once concerned me are now something can I understand and appreciate. I know why they are there. I know how we know which text is correct or extremely close to the original manuscripts. It is not just someone’s random idea that there are issues with these verses. The critical text is supported by a lot of research and arduous work that has gone into its development. One can read about how the decisions came about and the factors for and against a reading in textual commentaries.[12] There are no secrets. The information is available for those who want it. You do not have to be a scholar to use the tools to double check the notes in your Bible. Knowing for yourself is much better than wondering about it without knowing why the changes are occurring.

A brief note about the differences found between Bible translations.

There are several reasons modern translations may differ with each other.

  • They may have disagreed on the correct reading of a variant.
  • They may have accepted different definitions of an original language word.
  • Their philosophies of translation may differ.
  • Lastly, someone may have a theological agenda.[13]

Bibliography

[1] Gaebelein, F. E. (1979). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Introductory Articles (Vol. 1, pp. 419–420). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. (This volume is only in the first set, not the revised edition.)

[2] Comfort, P. (2005). Encountering the manuscripts: an introduction to New Testament paleography & textual criticism. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman.

[3] The Church Fathers are people who lived after the Apostles. Some of their writings still exist and are useful to us in several ways such as their quotations of scripture and understanding of the early church environment.

[4] Andrews, E., & Wilkins, D. (n.d.). THE TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism.

[5] Comfort, P. (2005). Encountering the manuscripts: an introduction to New Testament paleography & textual criticism (p. 18). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman.

[6] The Center for New Testament Textual Studies NT Critical Apparatus

H. Milton Haggard Center for New Testament Textual Studies. (2010). The Center for New Testament Textual Studies: NT Critical Apparatus. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

[7] Geisler, Norman L., A Note on the Percent of Accuracy of the New Testament Text; normangeisler.com/a-note-on-the-percent-of-accuracy-of-the-new-testament-text/

[8] A critical text is the resultant text of comparing the variants -line by line, by word, and letter - and choosing the most likely text to be the original by use of the established rules of textual criticism.

[9] Elliott, J. K. (2009). The Text of. In A. J. Hauser, D. F. Watson, & S. Kaufman (Eds.), A History of Biblical Interpretation: The Medieval through the Reformation Periods (Vol. 2, p. 238). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[10] Textual Criticism strives to give us the most accurate Bible possible. This is a good thing. It is Higher Criticism one must be concerned about because it removes the supernatural from the Bible and humanizes it through philosophy

[11] The 2 common New Testament critical text readily available is “Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, 28th Edition”, (NA28) and “The Greek New Testament, Fifth Revised Edition with Morphology”, (UBS-5)

[12] Metzger, B. M., United Bible Societies. (1994). A textual commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition a companion volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th rev. ed.) (p. 639). London; New York: United Bible Societies.

Or

Brannan, R., & Loken, I. (2014). The Lexham Textual Notes on the Bible (1 Jn 1:4). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[13] Here I am thinking of New World Translation produced by the Jehovah Witnesses.