Why are there Missing Verses in the New Testament?

The basis of all certainty is the reception of the Bible as the perfect Word of the only true God. With that as my worldview foundation (and foundation of Interpreting the Cosmos), I’d better be able to reason about what the Bible is, and how it came to us here in the 21st century.

Burn Your NIV

I was brought to repentance and faith in Jesus by reading Psalms of repentance (51, 86, 143), and I had been reading my NIV when it happened. You could imagine my surprise when I found out a few years later that the NIV was missing at least 40 verses! What had happened to Acts 8:37? Why was it stuck down in the footnotes?

36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” [37] [c] 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. (Where’d it go?)

And where was Matthew 17:21 and 18:11 and a fistful of other New Testament Scripture? A conspiracy was afoot!

The local King James Onlyists had gotten a hold of me around late 2005. They gave dire warnings that the Satanic cults of mystery Babylon were alive and well in the modern world, and they had perverted all the Bibles except for the pure, only-holy King James Version (of 1611 of course). I was given a copy of Gail Riplinger’s book New Age Bible Versions, and taught all about how I did not have God’s Word if I didn’t have the King James Version.

Who could argue?

Who could argue?

Not the dreadful New King James Version, oh hell no – gimme that old paths, only-perfect, worthy of the Apostle Paul King James Bible… and burn your NIV. And so I began a journey of over seven years now, seeking to know the truth about the Bible’s “missing verses.” Thank y’all, King James Onlyists.

Don’t Burn Your NIV

There is just not that much more I could add here to the thorough refutations the KJV-Onlyists have suffered in the past 20 years. Scholars who love Christ have dismantled their position over and over, so I will leave off a full treatment of the controversy by pointing you to Dr. James White’s King James Only Controversy or D.A. Carson’s The King James Only Debate. The KJV-Only position is the product of a sectarian, elitist, fearful little group of fundamentalists, usually (unfortunately) known by its rancorous, mocking mouthpieces like Peter Ruckman and Sam Gipp (whom I have had the personal misfortune to debate).

No my friends, don’t burn your NIV, “missing” verses and all…

Let’s look at a single example of a missing verse, and see where we go from there.

Did Luke Write Acts 8:37?

The good doctor Luke was a dear friend and traveling companion of the Apostle Paul. He wrote his gospel and the book of Acts after he had “carefully investigated everything” pertaining to the life of Jesus “from the beginning,” telling his friend and sponsor of the book “I too decided to write an orderly account . . . so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4 NIV). The book of Luke is therefore a careful account of the historical events surrounding the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus; and Acts is the careful account of the beginning of His Church.

Yet when Luke recorded the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8, did he write this amazing one verse exchange between them?

37 Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

What an amazing confession of faith! It would be a tremendous witness to the power of the Scripture that the eunuch had been reading moments before Philip met him if he were ready to confess such a direct, clear belief in Jesus as Christ and Son of God.

Yet the historical record is fairly straightforward: Luke probably did not write that verse. How do we know? From the time the New Testament was written, in order for it to be distributed around the Roman Empire, each manuscript had to be copied by hand onto new parchment. This means that over time as hundreds of copies were made, mistakes were made in the exact transfer of the original spelling, wording, sentence order, and even sometimes whole sentences would be accidentally dropped. The study of all the different types of textual mistakes is known as “lower criticism,” or “textual criticism.” Suffice to say, it is a complex, yet necessary science in the securing of our original Bible.

Naughty Little Scribes Added Stuff

Follow me now. This is important: although most reputable textual critics agree that in the 6,000 (or so) original Greek hand copies of the New Testament manuscripts the total number of copyist errors is as high as 400,000, yet there is absolutely no reason to panic. That 400,000 includes hundreds of thousands of spelling mix-ups and obvious mistakes that cast no doubt on the original wording behind them. As a matter of fact, even the greatest skeptics of the New Testament will admit that over 98% of the entire document is certain as to the original wording.

How so? Think of it this way. Let’s say we have 350 partial and full copies of Acts ranging from the mid-second century up through the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth-century (I’m not sure of the actual number, but work with me).  In a particular verse, of the 350 hand-copies of Acts,  335 show the word “Christ,” 13 have nothing there, and 2 have the misspelling “Crhist.” What was the original? In all likelihood, the 335 that have Christ would be original, right? Not so fast – the 13 that have nothing there are mostly from the second – fifth centuries. All those that have Christ are from later centuries.

See that? What becomes obvious is that some naughty little scribe probably added the word somewhere in the sixth or seventh centuries, and his addition was carried forward by all who copied him. It’s pretty clear that the word Christ was not there originally – not a big issue to solve. Furthermore, even if it was there originally, then somehow dropped out for a few centuries only to be added back in, it doesn’t change the meaning of the text either way.

That’s the story of almost all the differences between the manuscripts of the New Testament. Usually it is crystal clear to spot the stuff naughty little scribes added to the text. Why did they add stuff sometimes? Who knows – could be an honest attempt to smooth out a rough sentence, or perhaps there were two different manuscripts to choose from, and rather than risk losing a word from the original, he goes with copying the one that has the additional word… or perhaps it could have been done maliciously at some point by a person or two… but the point is that no one scribe ever has had the power to permanently alter the text of the New Testament. All the other copies that agree against the new reading testify against it, and help us today to make very clear choices about what the original really looked like.

The original New Testament is fully contained within the body of manuscripts preserved from the past 1,900 years of textual transmission.

Back to Acts 8:37

So did Philip ask the Ethiopian Eunuch to make a clear profession of faith before he was baptized? He might have – but Luke probably didn’t write that verse. It’s one of those that shows up in most of the manuscripts of Acts, but not the oldest ones.

This is a very simplistic explanation of the situation, but basically age of manuscripts usually outshines the number of them. 1,000 manuscripts from the tenth century may say Jesus ate strawberry jam, but if three manuscripts from the second century say no such thing (and if those three are from different geographical regions especially), then we know with a high, high degree of certainty that Jesus wasn’t having crumpets and jam on His way home to see Mom.

And so it is with Acts 8:37 – it’s earliest manuscript witnesses are sixth-century and newer, a full 500+ years after Luke wrote. Ask yourself how likely it is that over that 500 year period, the “true” text of Acts 8 was out there somewhere, but lost, and someone finally found it again and *forehead slap* – everyone had been copying Acts without verse 37! Not likely. Easily solved… as with so many New Testament textual variants.

King James and His Kids

The truth about the differences between modern Bibles is that they weren’t all translated from the same ancient manuscripts. The King James Bible, along with the New King James (and a few other minor versions) were translated from Greek copies of the New Testament dating back only to the middle medieval period. At the time when the King James Bible was created (early 1600’s), the manuscripts that were available for comparison were much fewer, and much younger than those we have available today.

No doubt the KJV is a fine Bible, and if you like a literary challenge, it can be comforting to read, but it is not a pristine version of the Scriptures. When you read the KJV, you are getting a translation of a set of manuscripts from the ninth and tenth centuries, on average.

We’ve done better than that in the past 400 years, now having found manuscripts that date to within decades of the writings of the Apostles… in other words, the manuscripts used to translate your NIV, ESV, NASB, HCSB, and many others are much more ancient, reliable, and reflective of the original words written by Jesus’ companions.

HOWEVER – the remarkable thing about it is that whether you read a KJV, NKJV, or one of the Bibles with a better manuscript foundation like an ESV, the differences between them is miniscule, and basically, without any major change to an ounce of theology. The Bible has been handed down to us with some bumps and scrapes, yet in virtually perfect shape. Take it to the bank, my friends.

Sorry to be so Simple!

That was the most elementary explanation of these things you may ever read from someone who is not King James Onlyist. I am only trying to give you a brief overview of the issues at hand, and to help you to know that our Bible, as it is today, is trustworthy as a near-perfect reflection of the original autographs of the writers.

Please leave a question or comment if anything here is foggy, or if I left out some salient point. You can also use the Questions and Comments page at the top right of the blog to correspond with me privately if you would prefer.

I hope that helped someone, and I will attempt more such posts with perhaps some technical lingo in the future.

Here are some links to the experts on the subject:

Daniel Wallace, textual critical scholar of top quality

James White’s Alpha and Omega website

Thanks for reading,

-Justin

Categories: Foundations of ItC blog, The Nature of the Bible | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “Why are there Missing Verses in the New Testament?

  1. Blog Reader

    If God allowed naughty scribes to slip stuff in, who is to say God didn’t allow the very first scribe to slip stuff in? Doesn’t this prove that humans did indeed fiddle with the bible? Man messes up everything he touches. The bible included. Bible worshipers place their faith in Man. My faith is in God.

    • How do you know your faith is in God if He is unable to reveal Himself to us through His Word without humans overpowering Him and “changing” it?

      • Blog Reader

        Are you indicating that the only way to know my faith is in God is if the bible is 100% God?

        If God was “unable” to reveal himself through HIS word, yeah that’d be a problem. I’m saying he isn’t revealing himself in every one of MAN’S words in the bible. God is not “unable”, who would say such a thing?! Why do you assume man’s messing with the bible means God is “unable” and has been “overpowered” by humans? So if God didn’t choose to force man to write the bible perfectly that means he can’t be God? God doesn’t force man to do anything else perfectly.

        The universe is God’s word. God’s word is planted in the heart of every person. God’s truth shines through the b.s. man added to the bible.

        • I’m not being cheeky with you, but how did you get so certain about all those assertions?

          What I’m saying is that the Lord graciously has spoken to us through a redemptive historical narrative in the Bible, and He used human language (and scribal copying) to do it.

          You assert there are human additions in there. How do you know? Because your heart tells you? But my friend, we’ve been through this a year ago, and Looking Up gave beautiful answers to your questions.

          I’m very sorry you’re still unsettled! Peace to you in Jesus.

  2. Excellent synopsis. The scribal additions could be characterized as the innocent addition of information, e.g. in the KJV of Luke 11:2 [Our Father which art in heaven], the scribe has ‘fleshed out’ Luke’s simple “Father, Hallowed.be thy name” to conform to Matthew’s text.

    Acts 8:37 may have been the common confession for baptism in the scribe’s own day.

    • Yes, thank you for that addition. It seems the majority of substantial textual addition was by innocent attempt to harmonize one text with another. Also, many times a scribe would jot something in the margin as a note of commentary, and later generations would stick the note into the text (probably what happened at 1 John 5:7 et al.)

      Thanks brother!

    • Haha! You made a lifelong friend there, didn’t you? Man – even their syntax is characteristic of the sect they belong to – I could spot a KJV Onlyist from a mile away.

  3. Blog Reader

    Naughty scribes tinkered with the bible. But as this post details, we can follow a little trail back to the truth. Ya might even say the trail itself was provided by God.

    God has also left a nice little trail for us, leading to the truth that the very first writers of the bible slipped some of their own spin in. Look around you at your fellow man. The trail is before you, all around you. The trail is you. Man is wretched!

    But don’t despair because an imperfect bible does NOT mean an imperfect God! In fact, the reality that man messed with the bible is all part of the Truth God wishes to reveal about man. See how that works? God’s will is done even in the most unexpected ways.

  4. Pingback: Am I Using the Wrong Bible? | I'm All Booked

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