Textual Variants

This entry is part 142 of 331 in the series Inquiring Minds
Image by Robert C from Pixabay

Why are there brackets around some Bible passages like Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11?

So you’re reading along in your Bible and you come to brackets or double brackets and it has a footnote, and when you check out the footnote it says something like, “These verses do not appear in the earliest manuscripts.”

Or you read John 5 where the invalid wants to get into the pool of Siloam but tells Jesus that no one will put him in the pool when it is stirred. Suddenly, as you read closer, you realize that you missed a verse. You go back and reread John 5:3 but you weren’t crazy. It goes from John 5:3 to John 5:5. Where is verse four?

You look at your footnote and find out that it translates the verse for you but tells you it’s not in the original manuscripts. This is the explanation of why the man wants to get into the pool first. An angel comes at certain times and stirs the waters of the pool and anyone who gets in right after that is healed!

These missing verses and even entire sections in our Bibles that have brackets or are missing with a footnote are called textual variants. A textual variant is a part of the text that appears in some manuscripts and not others.

The ones that are marked in most Bibles are the ones that scholars believe came later than the original texts of the Bible. They were added in at some point in history.

How do we know about these textual variants? We have over 5900 Greek manuscripts of different types. Textual criticism is the “most scientific” method we use to discover differences in the same text from different manuscripts. A manuscript has text from the New Testament written on it.

These manuscripts can be just a sliver of text, perhaps one verse, or be entire books or collections of books. Each of them is dated by archaeologists and scholars to approximately the time that they were created. This is an entire study on its own. The general rule of thumb is that the earlier, harder readings are the most accurate.

That means that if we find a misspelling of a Greek word and it is hard to put the sentence together, this is probably one of the earlier readings. This is why I put “most scientific”” above. As I have done textual criticism in my Greek studies, sometimes I agree with this rule and other times I don’t.

So those parts of the New Testament you find in brackets or missing verses in footnotes are usually later readings that may have been added. The people who translated your Bible version are just warning you that what you are reading may or may not have been original thoughts of the author.

Sometimes scholars think that this part may be in the wrong place or even by the wrong author. For instance, the story of the prostitute that all of the religious leaders want to stone to death in John 7:53-8:11 many scholars now consider to be written by either John or Luke. But they do believe it is a genuine encounter with Jesus written by someone.

If it is written by John, they think it’s in the wrong place. If you take it out of the story, we don’t lose anything in the flow of the story before and after it. That’s why they believe it’s in the wrong place. Are they right? I have no idea. But the translators of your Bible version want you to know that what you are reading may or may not fit where it has been placed for centuries.

This information probably raises a host of other questions. The most common one I get after I explained this part is, “How can I have faith in my Bible if some of it does not belong?” That’s a fair question. But you need not worry.

Remember that I mentioned the story in John 7:53-8:11 may be written by John and belong right there. Or it may be written by Luke. The fact is that scholars believe it is a story that is a true encounter with Jesus. If it’s just in the wrong spot, that’s not a big deal at all. We’re still getting a genuine story of an encounter with Jesus.

What about things like the explanation in John 5 of an angel that came to stir the pool? Without that explanation it doesn’t make any sense that the invalid would want to get in the pool first and why would he mentioned that it gets stirred? It could have been stirred by a human being. But how would that give it properties for healing?

The explanation helps us to make sense of what the man is saying. But even without it, does the points of John’s telling of this account change? Nope. We still get the point that the man is searching for a different source of healing then Jesus. Only Jesus can heal us, not some pool with magical healing powers. Our faith is unshaken by the addition or subtraction of this verse.

Now we get to the big one. The ending of Mark, we are told, does not belong there (Mark 16:9-20). Without it, Mark ends quite abruptly with the women at the tomb being too afraid to talk to anyone. These 11 versus help to close out the gospel of Mark.

The best scholarship on these verses of completion (Mark 16:9-20) is that they were not included in the earliest manuscripts we have to date, which are from the fourth century. However, this reading does appear to be from the second century and is part of the text of Mark beginning in the fifth century.

The way this is usually resolved is that while we know Mark probably didn’t write these last 11 versus, they have been included for many centuries, so long that they had become part of what we call the “received text.” This is the text that the church reads from and studies now.

I conclude by telling you that these verses are not wrong in their content. They agree with the rest of the Gospels. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in the book of John (Mark 16:9-11). He also appears to to disciples in the book of Luke (Mark 16:12-13). The Great Commission appears in Matthew and Luke (Mark 16:14-15).

As far as the text of Mark 16:16-17, the signs that follow the believer, we see all of these, except drinking deadly poison, in the book of Acts. The conclusion (Mark 16:19-20) we see elsewhere as well.

The point I’m making about the Gospel of Mark and its longer ending after Mark 16:8 is that it was probably not written by Mark but doesn’t contain information that is not found elsewhere (except for the drinking of poison). It’s not as if whoever wrote this ending was lying or adding to Scripture. So our faith should not be challenged even if we took off these last 11 versus from Mark.

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