Tabletalk Subscription
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining.You've accessed all your free articles.
Unlock the Archives for Free

Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.

Try Tabletalk Now

Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?

Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.

{{ error }}Need help?

It can be a disconcerting experience for modern readers of the New Testament to come across verses that are enclosed in brackets and introduced with a phrase such as, “Our earliest manuscripts do not include. . . .” For those who have been taught that our New Testaments are reliable and trustworthy, these brackets raise a number of thorny questions: How certain are we about the New Testament text? If these passages are in doubt, then are other passages in doubt too? And if these passages are not original, then why are they still in our English translations? Unless these questions are answered, the existence of these brackets can become, at least for some, the proverbial fly in the ointment of biblical authority.

As we answer such questions, we need to begin by realizing that book production in the past was different from what we experience in our modern, post-Gutenberg age. In the ancient world, there were (obviously) no laptop computers, spell checks, printing presses, or other modern conveniences to help produce books. If one wanted to write a book, one did it by hand. And if one wanted to see that book “published” and distributed throughout a broad geographical region, copies of that book would have to be made—also by hand. Thus, the New Testament was transmitted the same way every other ancient book was transmitted: it was hand-copied by scribes.

As one might imagine, even the best scribes, from time to time, made mistakes. There’s nothing scandalous about this—it was an inevitable part of copying books, New Testament or otherwise, in the ancient world. Most of these mistakes were run-of-the-mill scribal slips such as spelling errors, word order changes, or the accidental omission of a word. But occasionally, during the copying process, there were larger changes such as the duplication or omission of an entire line, or perhaps a scribe would add words that he thought belonged in the text. In light of such changes, there is an area of scholarly study that examines the multiple hand-copied manuscripts of a book in order to determine what was written by the original author and what may have been a later mistake committed by a scribe. This area of study is called textual criticism.

Although textual criticism is relevant for all documents of antiquity, it is especially important for New Testament documents. After all, as Christians, we believe that the original words of the New Testament writers were inspired by God. These authors wrote down exactly what God, through the Holy Spirit, led them to say. Thus, it is important that we recover the original text of any New Testament book—or at least the earliest possible text—and separate that text from any later scribal changes.

As Christians we believe that the original words of the New Testament writers were inspired by God. These authors wrote down exactly what God, through the Spirit, led them to say.

So, when we apply the principles of textual criticism to the New Testament, do we have a reason to trust, with a reasonable level of certainty, the text of the New Testament? Absolutely. In fact, the textual credentials of the New Testament are excellent.

The Original Text Has Been Preserved

First, we have good reasons to think the original New Testament text is preserved in the manuscripts at our disposal. Why? For one, because we are blessed with such a remarkable number of manuscripts—around 5,700 and counting. As New Testament scholar Eldon Epp notes, “The point is that we have so many manuscripts of the NT . . . that surely the original reading in every case is somewhere present in our vast store of material.”

But it is not just the number of manuscripts that matters. Our confidence that we possess the original text in our manuscripts is due to what’s called the tenacity of the text. Once a particular reading enters the manuscript tradition, it doesn’t leave. Instead, it stubbornly persists. Kurt and Barbara Aland comment:

The transmission of the New Testament textual tradition is characterized by an extremely impressive degree of tenacity. Once a reading occurs it will persist with obstinancy. . . . It is precisely the overwhelming mass of the New Testament textual tradition which provides an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text.

In other words, the high number of New Testament manuscripts and the tenacity of the text together give us assurance that the original text hasn’t been lost.

If so, the challenge of recovering the original text is different from what some might think. It’s not so much that we lack the original text but that we have the original text plus some variations in the manuscript tradition. In short, we have too much material.

Most Textual Variants Are Obviously Unoriginal

If we have good reasons to think the original text is preserved in our many manuscripts, the next step is separating it from any later variations. And this leads to a second observation: the vast majority of textual variations do not have a legitimate claim to originality. Most variations simply aren’t viable contenders for being part of the original text written by the biblical authors. This can be due to a number of factors. Some readings appear only once in the manuscript tradition (and therefore are unlikely to be original). Others are obvious scribal blunders or “nonsense” readings. Still others lack meaningful manuscript support.

When all the dust settles in these debates about the New Testament text, the essential message of the New Testament remains the same. It has not changed.

These sorts of considerations are relevant for addressing the most commonly discussed bracketed words in our Bibles: Mark 16:9–20 (known as the long ending of Mark) and John 7:53–8:11 (the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman). When we examine these two disputed passages, we have good reasons to doubt their originality. In the case of the long ending of Mark, it is missing from our earliest copies of Mark (found in codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) and from the testimony of the early church fathers (particularly Eusebius and Jerome). This indicates that most early copies of Mark lacked the longer ending. Similarly, we don’t find the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman in any of our early copies of John (papyri 66 and 75, codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus), again suggesting it was a later addition.

So, while these two bracketed texts may raise concerns for the average reader—particularly given their length and popularity—they do not present the threat we might suppose. If we know they are not original, then we cannot say the text is unreliable at these points. The text would only be unreliable in these passages if we did not know what the original text was.

Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that for the average English reader, it feels like a problem to say these texts are not original. Given that these passages have been part of our English Bible tradition for generations—largely due to the influence of the King James translation—it can seem like they are being unduly kicked to the curb. And such a response is understandable. But if we step outside of our English Bible tradition for a moment and just ask what was originally in the Greek text of Mark and John, then we realize that these texts are not getting “kicked out” of the New Testament. Instead, we realize that they were likely never there to begin with.

No Unresolved Textual Variant Affects a Key Doctrine

Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that decisions about the originality of variants is not always clear cut. There are a number of places where we have competing variants that seem to be equally viable—though, on the whole, this is relatively rare. But this leads to a third and final observation about New Testament textual criticism, namely, that no unresolved textual variant places a significant doctrine in jeopardy. Whichever variant is chosen in such unresolved cases, no core Christian belief is changed.

Of course, some will be frustrated that we don’t have absolute, 100 percent assurance about every last textual variant. But we don’t need assurance about every textual variant to be certain about the message of the New Testament. God has sufficiently preserved His Word so that the glorious good news of the gospel is intact.

It is here that we come to the nub of the matter. When all the dust settles in these debates about the New Testament text, the essential message of the New Testament remains the same. It has not changed. As Jesus promised, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).

Walking in Wisdom toward Outsiders

Previous Issue

The Promised Messiah

Keep Reading The Synod of Dort

From the January 2019 Issue
Jan 2019 Issue