How Critical is Being Critical?

Open up your bible and turn to John 5. Make sure you use a translation that is not the King James or the New American Standard Bible. Read the first paragraph and count the verse numbers: Verse 1? Check. Verse 2? Check. Verse 3? Check. Verse 4? Uh-oh. Verse 4 is missing. Huh? What’s up with that?

This happens in several occasions in the Bible. There are even verse references “missing” in the KJV. What is going on? Well, either someone left the verse out, or somewhere along the line someone added a verse in. But who ever assigned the verse references in the 1560 Geneva Bible (the first Bible in English to have verse numbers), he had v 4.

This is a pretty big issue, and a simple blog can’t do it justice. Finding a gap like this can lead many who are looking for a reason to disregard the authority of the Bible as the way God communicates to us, to jump up and down with glee. Many of the people involved in the discussion don’t know much Greek (if any). Let’s see if we can clear up what is going on.

This is the basic question of the Greek text, and the technical name for it is “text criticism.” Here is the basic reconstruction.

1. The writers wrote their gospels and epistles and sent them to their churches.

2. These documents were copied so they could be shared. In the process of copying, changes were introduced. (By the way, this is not academic conjecture; we have these different manuscripts and can see the differences for themselves.)

Some changes were accidental but others appeared to be intentional, but not always for nefarious reasons. It is often to add an explanation, or substitute an easier word to understand, or to harmonize the gospels, etc.

In John 5:4, most believe that a scribe (the person doing the copying) thought it was puzzling why the man would lie there for 38 years. Perhaps he knew a tradition that said the angel periodically came down to stir up the waters and the first person in was healed, and so he added in the verse. (Others would argue that for some reason the verse was dropped off.)

3. As time progressed (and as we can tell from archaeology), biblical manuscripts were collected in five different geographical areas. Since the center of the church was in Rome, this area had the greatest number of copies.

4. Erasmus (1500s) created a Greek text based on two manuscripts from the 12th century (Matthew through Jude) and another 12th century manuscript for all but the last 6 verses of Revelation. He went from the Latin back into Greek to get those last 6. His work became the basis of the early bibles in English including the King James translation.

5. 150 years ago we started digging up new manuscripts that were in fact must older (by centuries). They came from a different geographical area than the majority of the texts we currently had, and they were different in places. For example, they did not have John 5:4.

And so the science of textual criticism was born, which is the science of determining which of the different “readings” is most likely original.

The general preference is to see scribes as adding verses, not removing them. For that reason, and others, most feel that John 5:4 was added after the fact; there is no good reason why it would have been omitted.

But God in his sovereign love made sure that the differences among the manuscripts would not hinder our faith.

  • About 5% of the Greek text is in question
  • No major doctrine is brought into question by that 5%.

You can trust your Bible!

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