When I was a kid, we had Sword Drills. I’m guessing some of you did, too. While seated, you put one hand on the front cover of your Bible and one hand on the back. Someone called out a Bible reference (for example, John 3:16) and then shouted, “Go!” And the race was on! To win, all you had to do is find the verse, stand up, read it and then give a snide, self-righteous look at the other kids who, for some reason, opened to Obadiah and got majorly lost in the minor prophets.
So, let’s have a Sword Drill. Get a Bible and get ready. In just a second, I’ll give you three references. When I say, “Go,” you must find the first one, read it; move on to the second, read it; and then go to the third, read it and say, “Done.” If you can do that in less than two minutes, I will declare you the winner. Okay, do you have a Bible? Are you ready? Seriously, you will want to do this. Okay, here are the three references: Matthew 17:21; John 5:4 and Romans 16:24. On your Matthew, get your Paul, go! (I’ll wait here while you look and please look – it will be worth it).
First, an explanation. If you are not surprised by what just happened and are wondering what is going on, you are using an old King James Bible. Pick up an NIV and start again. If you are surprised (even shocked), I can say definitively that you are using a modern version. Now, with that out of the way, we can go on to the good stuff.
If you can remember back when we had real church, you may recall that when we had the Scripture printed in the program, we often left out the verse references. However, we never left out the actual verses! But here, we have the exact opposite! We have verse references, but no verses (although some translations don’t even have the verse reference, they simply skip that number or include both the reference and the verse in a footnote)! Now to be honest, there are bracketed sections in our Bibles of which I am very aware (the most famous of which are Mark 16 and John 8), but I was not aware of individual verses in the middle of a chapter disappearing. Now, it is true that if you are not paying attention to the verse references, you might not even know that a verse has been left out. But here, we find three whole verses that aren’t here! And if that wasn’t a big enough shock to your system, there are 13 other verses that are also not there!
Now, you might be wondering what’s going on. Are biblical moths eating away at our Bibles? Are liberals stealing away verses? Are these missing verses clues to help DaVinci find the treasure hidden in some Declaration of Independence Day movie? I’m afraid it is nothing that sinister. It’s a case of changing the text-type. Let me explain.
Before the invention of the printing press, copies of the Bible were made by hand one copy at a time. When someone figured out that was not very efficient, someone would read a book to a group of professional scribes who would write down what they heard. In this way, multiple copies could be made at the same time. That was a huge advantage over the days when individuals copied manuscripts one at a time.
Consider this hypothetical example (“hypothetical” is another word for “fake” or “lying”). A Christ follower from Ephesus is visiting Rome on the Sunday Phoebe is reading Paul’s letter to them. Our Ephesian friend is deeply moved by the letter and asks if he could make a copy of the letter to take home. Phoebe agrees; and since our Ephesian friend knew both how to read and write (that’s another clue that this is a fictional account), he sat down with Romans and copied the whole book on to a blank piece of papyrus. Now please, do not try that at home. You would more than likely bust an eyeball trying hard not to make a mistake, but it would be all for naught since somewhere along the line, you would surely introduce an error into your copy. You might leave out a word, turn one word into another (like changing “your” into “our”), skip or duplicate a line, or even leave out a letter (think of the difference between “brother” and “bother”). But these are not just mistakes you would make if you tried copying a book of the Bible, all of these were very common errors that crept into all ancient manuscripts, including the Bible. In fact, the history of the transmission of the Bible is littered with these sorts of mistakes. You are probably thinking, I am so glad we moved on to professional scribes writing down the text as someone dictated it! Absolutely! We are all delighted for this development, except dictating the text introduced all sorts of different errors. For example, the scribe may have misheard what the one dictating had said (think of the difference between “waffle” and “awful!”) or the scribe may have written down the homophone instead of the intended word (think of the difference between “sea” and “see” and “your” and “you’re”) or the scribe may have fallen asleep and missed a few words. The one dictating could also have tried to make sure the intent of the passage was clear by inserting the notes from the margin of his text, not realizing that the scribes would insert those notes into their copies. All that to say, mistakes happen, and ancient manuscripts all contain mistakes. But do not worry. Textual critics have gone through each ancient manuscript to guarantee that our New Testaments are extremely (even extremely extremely) close to what the original writer penned.
But let’s go back to our friend from Ephesus. Suppose (remember, I am making this whole story up), as he is copying Romans 14, he misreads the word, “weak,” and replaces it with the word, “meek” (maybe the “w” in the word “weak,” was smudged so that it looked like an “m). So now, we have an error in Romans 14, but our Ephesian friend doesn’t know it. Now, it just so happens that someone from Thessalonica is visiting Ephesus and would like to have a copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans. When he gets to Romans 14, he doesn’t even question if “meek” is the right word. He assumes that this is the word Paul used. Now, suppose a thousand other people copy the Thessalonian’s copy with the result being all these copies have this unique reading of Romans 14:1, “Accept the one whose faith is meek.”
Now, suppose we (in the here and now) find ourselves in a room with five thousand New Testament manuscripts and discover that a thousand of them have a strange characteristic; they all have the word “meek” in Romans 14. What we now have is a textual family (a group of manuscripts that share the same sort of characteristics). Now, in regards to the New Testament, there are four main text-families, the Byzantine text (which stands behind the King James Version), the Western text (characterized by very sloppy copies), the Caesarean text (a mixture of the Western text and our next contestant) and the Alexandrian text (a text probably prepared by trained scribes which has resulted in having excellent credentials). Every ancient manuscript we have can fit into one of these four “textual families,” even though individual manuscripts within those families will have their own personality and errors (just like you and your sister are different, but you are all part of the same family).
Back to our topic at hand. In our Bibles today, we have 16 verses that don’t exist. The references are there, but the words are not (for full disclosure, they are Matthew 17:21; 18:11; 23:14; Mark 7:16; 9:44, 46; 11:26; 15:28; Luke 17:36; John 5:4; Acts 8:37; 15:34; 24:6-8; 28:29; Romans 16:24; and most of the middle of 1 John 5:7-8). Interestingly, all these verses were part of the Byzantine-text family, a text type that dominated the European landscape for hundreds of years (the other text families were not well known until relatively recently). Since this was the only text type available, this was the text the translators used to produce the King James Version (I’m oversimplifying greatly here, but the KJV comes from “Received Text” which comes from the Byzantine text family; think of the “Received Text” as one of the children of your great-grandfather—you’re all related, but you come from your great-grandfather’s third son and his second daughter). Here’s the point: As the translators were creating the KJV, they imported the verse numbers and the verse content from the Received Text. And this was the Bible for hundreds of years.
And then, we discovered the other text-families. Now, we could compare which family was superior and which reading was the truest to the original. That sounds impossible, but it is really a matter of applying logic and deductive reasoning. By comparing all the textual families together, scholars can make wise decisions about what the original reading was by comparing different readings and determining which reading best explains the genesis of all the variants. By looking at those conclusions, it was discovered that the Alexandrian type was the superior family (it had the best reading for the vast majority of the time). It was also evident that the Byzantine text type, the Received Text and the King James Version included verses that were not in the original (according to the best manuscript evidence). As a result, textual critics of the New Testament concluded that these sixteen verses were not in the original text, but were added later for one reason or another. As a result, these verses should not appear in our Bibles (to put it crassly, these were not the words of God, but mistakes of scribes and editors). But here’s the problem: while we (rightly) threw out these verses, we couldn’t throw out the verse numbers. These had been passed down to us from the Received Text, and to disrupt the versification or to have each translation have its own versification would create horrific confusion. And so, the editors made the only decision they could. They vacated the verse, but left the verse number. And that is how we ended up with 16 verses that do not exist!
So, next time you find yourself in a Sword Drill and someone asks you to turn to the shortest verse in the New Testament, turn to one of these 16 verses. No matter how short “Jesus wept” is, it is huge compared to a verse that has zero words.
For those of you who are bothered by how we could decide to throw out these verses, let’s look quickly at the three verses I used for our Sword Drill.
In the KJV, Matthew 17:21 reads, “However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Besides not being found in the best manuscripts, these words strongly resemble Mark 9:29. It seems extremely likely someone imported Mark’s words into Matthew’s account, perhaps to emphasize the importance of prayer and fasting. It also makes Matthew’s text more applicable. “Here is something you can do. You can pray and fast, just like Mark said, and find spiritual power.”
Romans 16:24 in the KJV reads, “The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.” Oddly enough, Paul had just given that exact same benediction in verse 20! The knockout blow is that verse 20 is very well attested by ancient manuscripts, but verse 24 isn’t. It seems clear that someone mistakenly duplicated Paul’s benediction and inserted it in verse 24.
John 5:3 in the NIV reads, “Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.” That’s the whole verse. The KJV, however, adds more words to verse 3 and then inserts a whole verse (vs. 4) that the NIV leaves out so that now the passage in the KJV reads, “. . . waiting for the moving of the water. 4 For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” Not only are these words missing from the earliest and best manuscripts, but they also utilize words or expressions that appear nowhere else in John’s writing. That’s troubling. Worse, the manuscripts that do contain this verse, all disagree about the wording. Worse still, the insertion of this verse downplays Jesus’ miracle and says that miracles were taking place at this pool long before Jesus showed up. And that seems very out of place in John’s Gospel. And when the church fathers quote this passage, they also make no mention of a mysterious healing angel. Hence, it is with good cause that we leave this verse-and-a-half out of our New Testaments.
Additional footnotes (just because):
1 John 5:8 is a famous deletion. Verses 7-8 in the NKJV read, “For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.” The first time we read these words is in a 5th century “Confession of Faith” (that’s right, not in the Bible!). In fact, these words do not appear in any Greek manuscript before the 15th century! And then, it was created by taking the Latin text and translating it back into Greek for the express purpose of including these words in the official Greek text of the day. The knockout blow here is that had this verse been around in the early church, the church fathers would have quoted it often as they wrestled with how to explain the Trinity (“Look! The Trinity in one verse!”). But they never once referenced it, which is tantamount to saying, it wasn’t there. All that to say, it seems certain that this verse was not part of John’s original text.
One more thing about excluded verses. There are many more parts of verses that have also been deemed later additions to the New Testament. They include Matthew 20:16b; Mark 6:11b; Mark 4:8b; Luke 9:55-56; Luke 23:17; Acts 9:5-6; 13:42; 23:9b. Wow! Who knew? And that does not include Mark 16:9-20 or John 7:53b – 8:11 which remain in the text but are bracketed to make sure we know that the earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have these verses. In other words, they are there, but they shouldn’t be. However, we are trying to make everyone happy and so we will include them, but we all know there aren’t original. I tell you, the life of a textual critic is not easy!
And now you know the rest of the story!