Have you ever heard someone say that there are verses missing from the Bible? Perhaps this has even been someone in your church, and they might be comparing your NIV translation to their KJV. They’re saying, “Look, these new Bible publishers, they’re taking verses out of the Bible. They’re distorting. They’re corrupting God’s word.”
Is this true? You yourself might even have been looking at a passage that your pastor was preaching out of and you might have realized at some point, “I don’t actually have that verse in my Bible.” Or maybe you’re reading around and you see where somewhere in your Bible it goes from verse 10 to verse 12, and the question is: Well where’s verse 11?
All of these types of questions are related to something called textual criticism. That sounds really complicated, but we’re just going to talk through this together to explain why different Bibles might have different verses in them. If you’re able to get a Bible, I would suggest that you get one right now and turn to about Matthew 18. If you’re in your car like so many people are that listen to podcasts, like I often am, you’ll totally be fine with your Bible, but if you do have it, turn to Matthew 18. It will be helpful as we look at a couple of things.
We’ve talked about this before, but the Bible we have now is actually the result of a lot of work by a lot of people. Our Bible has a history. As Christians who affirm that the scriptures are the word of God, they’re the very breath of God breathed out to us, we need to know their history. Part of that is what we’re going to cover today. We certainly can’t cover the whole history of the Bible in a 14-minute podcast, but we can cover part of it.
Initially, people like Paul wrote down on a manuscript, either personally or using a scribe or someone to write on their behalf, a letter, let’s say, to the church in Galatia. That letter was sent to the church, and they found it to be helpful, and they copied it, and they sent it other places, and people borrowed it, and those people copied it. Copies were made of copies were made of copies were made of copies. Then this got translated into Latin. It also got translated into Syriac and different languages like that.
Then we came along and we said we needed an English translation. We took some Greek manuscripts and we translated into English. Today we do the same thing. Our English translation today, let’s say the most recent version of the NIV, is not a translation of the previous NIV, which is not a translation of the RSV, which is not a translation of the KJV. It doesn’t go back like that. It’s not a telephone game in that way.
Every time we make a new translation, every time we want to try to faithfully take God’s word and put it into modern language, we go back to the earliest and best manuscripts. What this speaks to is that there is a question as to which manuscripts we should use. We have over 5,800 copies of partial manuscripts or full books of the New Testament. We’re always striving to go back to the oldest and best.
The reason for this is sometimes manuscripts got changed as they were copied. Now you may have noticed that, if you had to copy something, you may have inadvertently drifted your eyes down to a different line and written some words there, and then gone right back up. You might not have realized it, so you actually inserted something from a different place in the text.
Or perhaps, if you were copying something so frequently that you knew it so well, you might have included something from another part of the document in a previous part because it kind of fit.
Scribes did the same types of things. What we see is sometimes, in Matthew, a scribe accidentally, or maybe intentionally just trying to be helpful, included something from Mark that wasn’t originally in Matthew. We actually see, when we look at old manuscripts of Matthew, some things are not there that are in later versions of Matthew. This doesn’t mean the text was corrupted. It was simply a mistake or a helpful note.
The same thing happens with, for instance, Luke. Sometimes another scribe copying in Matthew might have included something from Luke. When the KJV was translated, we ended up with some verses in there that were from much later manuscripts. They did not reflect the earliest and best manuscripts, so these readings, these verses that were included in the KJV, were not original. They were not Holy Spirit-inspired scripture because they weren’t in the originals. But our verse numbers in our Bibles today are the same verse numbers the KJV has.
I want to quickly just recap these two very important points: Copies were made of copies were made of copies, and sometimes these copies got changed. The verses we have in our Bible, at least the numbers, match how the verses were in the KJV.
What that means is when we go to make a new translation, to take the Bible and to put timeless truths into modern language, sometimes we’ll come to a verse number that points to content that wasn’t in the originals. We might get to a verse that got inserted into a later manuscript but it’s not in the Bible; it’s not in the originals, so we don’t want to include it in our modern translation.
This leaves us with a question: What do we do with that number? If you’re reading along in Matthew, and you’re in Matthew 18, and you’re reading verse 10, and verse 11 isn’t actually a verse—it should never have been there but it had a number—what do we do with that? Do we just say what used to be verse 12 gets moved up to 11, and then everyone is off by a whole number? No, that wouldn’t be good.
What scholars have come to as a consensus is that we just skip that number. If whatever used to be considered verse 11 isn’t original, we just skip it. In Matthew 18, your Bible may very well go, verse 10 and then verse 12. You might not even notice this when you’re reading, which would actually be a good thing. We don’t want to necessarily call to attention to that. That shouldn’t be a stumbling block. But you need to be aware that this type of thing happens.
It’s not just Matthew 18:11. It also happens in Matthew 17:21. You might be reading along and it goes verse 20 and then verse 22. I’m Matthew 17:21, in the KJV it reads like this: “But this kind,” (this kind of demon or evil spirit), “does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
This is assuredly not something Matthew originally wrote. What it actually seems like is the scribe copying this inserted the content from Mark where Matthew was saying the same thing. It’s the same way in Matthew 18:11. This says, “For the son of man came to save the lost.” That’s certainly true, but that is not in the earliest and best manuscripts of Matthew. It’s not original to Matthew. It seems like a scribe inserted it from Luke, because it was in the same sort of section where Luke was talking about the same thing. Your Bible probably skips these.
Now how would you know this? Some translations that are older actually include them in the text like they are original, and I would say that’s not good. Other translations will have a footnote. Some translations may even put them in double square brackets, which is helpful, but that kind of puts them in the text where shouldn’t be and can distract you when you’re reading.
My favorite translation is the New English Translation. I know a lot about it. I’ve worked with the scholars who have translated that. I’ve been involved with the people who has managed that process over the years. Fair disclosure: I used to work for the Biblical Studies Foundation that makes the New English Translation. I think it’s a very good translation.
But one of its most notable points is over 62,000 translator’s notes on why they chose the readings they chose. Part of this involves why they chose to translate some verses and not others. Why is Matthew 17:21 not included? There’s a note to tell you this. It says: because it’s not in the earliest and best manuscripts or witnesses.
That can be a helpful thing for you to know. Often, your Bible, your study bible will have some pointers as to why this type of thing occurs. Now you might be wondering, how many verses is this true for? How many verses are not in my Bible?
The first thing is we need to change our thinking. They’re not actually verses. They weren’t original, so let’s not refer to them like they should be in there and they got removed. There are about 19, give or take how you classify them, things that used to be considered verses in the Bible which we now know are most likely not original, so they are not included in modern translations. I’ll include a link to a helpful little chart of how different translations handle these different verses. It will also have a list of the verses so you can see what we’re talking about here. There are about 19 or 18 of these types of things. Those are full verses.
Now this type of concern, things getting added that we now know were added, it pertains to partial verses too. For instance, Matthew 18:15, in older translations, reads: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault.” But you may notice your more modern translation says, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault.” Those are kind of different things. The first one only pertains to if my brother sins against me, but the second one is a general point: “If my brother go and sins, go and show him his fault.”
What we see when we look at the manuscript evidence is that “against you” was only included in later manuscripts. It’s most likely not original, so some translations won’t include that. Once again, how would you know? There’s probably a footnote that tells you this. This actually does have to do with the doctrinal point. How do we handle these things? I’ve discussed these things with pastors before and they’ll say, “I don’t think this is the type of situation where someone should go talk to them because Matthew 18:15 says, ‘if they sin against you, and they haven’t sinned against you.'”
I’ve mentioned, “Have you considered that older and better manuscripts don’t actually include “against you”? We should probably look at this differently. The originals say, “If your brother sins … ” It’s a general point. Sometimes these types of considerations do change how we understand scripture, but they’re known.
The biggest point to take away from today is not that we can’t have confidence in scripture because that are things that are different now than they used to be. The point is that we can know what was different that points to us knowing what the originals were. We don’t physically have possession of the originals, but we’re able to zero in on them through this process of textual criticism where we look at all the manuscripts and we come to understand, based on age and location and types of changes, what the originals said with extreme certainty.
That’s the process called textual criticism. It basically just says, what are the manuscripts that are the best readings and how should we include and translate what we put into our Bible today?
Now I do want to address the one thing I mentioned earlier, which is some people will say, “Why has your Bible omitted or excluded this verse?” That’s really the wrong verb. It’s not that it was omitted or excluded; it’s that it was included before and never should have been. Some translations actually will say, this verse is “empty.” There’s nothing here because there was never actually something here. There never used to be something between the sentences of Matthew 18:10 and Matthew 18:12. In the originals there was nothing there. It got inserted later and now we’re stuck with what you might call baggage of that verse number 11.
I hope that helps you understand how to understand your Bible better, some of the process behind how we got our Bible. Paul or Matthew or someone would write a document. It would get copied, it would get copied, it would get copied, and somewhere along the way, sometimes things got changed either accidentally or intentionally in terms of being helpful. I’m not saying people tried to corrupt the text to make it say Jesus wasn’t God or something like that. In fact, there are no major differences between manuscripts that affect any of our doctrines, our core doctrines of the church. It’s not like one of them says Jesus ascended to heaven and one of them said he just hung out and came back as a dog or something like that. That sounds silly, but there’s nothing that is important at that level. They’re minor wording differences.
The vast majority of changes are just punctuation and spelling errors or differences. Even though there are a lot of changes or what scholars would consider variants, different readings between manuscripts, that shouldn’t concern us. Because the very fact that we know there are changes points to us knowing that there are original readings, and us having certainty in what they are. You can’t know something has been changed if you don’t know what it used to be. We can have certainty in the text in that way.
But more than that, it shouldn’t be the number of changes that concern us; it should be the type of changes. As I mentioned, there are no changes that substantially change the meaning of the text, so we can have confidence in what the Bible says.
Also, we’ve talked about how the fact that translations always go back to the oldest and best manuscripts. They’re not going to the previous English translation which was of the previous English translation which was of the previous English translation. That’s just not the case. You’d be surprised at how many people who are critics of Christianity don’t understand that. They think it’s just a translation of a translation of a translation. It’s not, it’s clearly not.
I hope you’re better equipped to talk about how we got our Bible and maybe understand why some verses are in there or not in there. Hopefully now you won’t get thrown back on your heels when someone bring up the fact that verses are “missing” from the Bible. You can point out they were never in there to start with, and we know that now.
I hope this has increased your confidence. I look forward to talking with you next week, where we have a special podcast where I’ll be talking with the coauthor of a book that I’ve written on gender. It’s for parents. It’s a conversation guide. I look forward to you hearing about that, what’s going on with that, and how you can get the book. It goes on sale April 25th. We’ll be making a big push and we’ll be talking about it that Thursday on the podcast. I look forward to talking with you then on Unapologetic.