Why Do Some Versions of the Bible Leave Verses Out?

  • by Jody Sledge
  • Saturday, March 19th, 2011
  • Series: Your Word is Truth

I want you to do something.

Get your Bible and look up the following verses: John 5:4, Mark 9:46, and Acts 8:37.

If you are reading a King James Bible, you might be thinking, Why did I just look up these three random verses? But if you have a more modern translation of the Bible, you might be thinking, Where are these verses? Or, Why does my version of the Bible leave verses out? More often than not, people who support using the King James version as the only “authorized” version of the Bible appeal to this issue. Why would you want to use a version of the Bible that leaves verses out? Or, a better question than that, what would motivate people to leave verses out of the Bible?

The issue that is at stake here is called by bible scholars ‘textual criticism’ - which simply means making sure that we have the most accurate readings of the Bible as possible. The writings of the Bible have been copied, and recopied, and passed back and forth, and copied again, generation after generation. And while the people copying the Bible were very careful, it would be quite amazing if there were no discrepancies at all. The goal of ‘textual criticism’ is to try to discover what the original text was behind every discrepancy.

How Do They Determine What the Original Text Said?

Let’s take the New Testament, for example. There are nearly 5,700 manuscripts of the books of the New Testament. Some of the manuscripts are whole books. Some of them are just sections of books. Some of them are just a few verses. In these 5,700 manuscripts there are, as you would expect many varied readings. By placing different manuscripts side by side, comparing and contrasting them, we can discover what the originals said.

One type of varied readings, which is the vast majority of them, is a typographical error, such as a spelling or grammar error. Imagine you were looking at four different manuscripts to determine the original behind John 14:18. Here is what you have:

    I will not leave you as orphens; I will come to you.
    I will not leave you as orfans; I will come to you.
    I will not leave you as orphan; I will come to you.
    I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

You have four different copies of the verse. But it is obvious what the verse originally said. Two of these varying texts are spelling errors. One has a grammar error - the number doesn’t agree. And one is correct. By this process of cross-checking and comparing the many manuscripts we have, we can discover with great accuracy what the original texts actually said.

How Do They Discover the Original Texts with Whole Verses?

Another type of varied readings is additional or missing verses. This is where our verses from the beginning come in. Occasionally throughout the Bible, some manuscripts have more verses while others have less. Discovering the original is not as simple as it was when there was a typographical error. But that doesn’t mean it cannot be done. Here are a couple of questions that help us discover which varied reading is more likely the original:

1. Which reading came first? While we have thousands of manuscripts of the Bible presently, it has been a process of discovery over the centuries. More and more manuscripts were discovered throughout the years, which has helped us to have more accurate readings of the Bible. Some manuscripts that have been found in recent years date as far back as the second century.

Asking the question of which reading came first can help us determine the original text. It makes more sense that a manuscript dated later would be changed from the original. It would be very difficult to imagine the process going from the original to an incorrect copy back to a correct copy. An earlier manuscript is more likely to reflect the original.

This is why new versions of the Bible are “missing” verses. The chapters and verses of the Bible weren’t added until the Middle Ages. And since then we have discovered earlier manuscripts that did not include these verses. These verses weren’t left out because the translators didn’t like them. They were left out because more than likely they were not in the original.

2. Which reading is more difficult? Another way to explain the differences in manuscripts has to do with difficult texts. Some things in the Bible are plain and simple. Others can be quite difficult. It makes sense then that scribes who copied manuscripts may have tried to smooth out some hard texts.

For example, in Matthew 24:36 some manuscripts leave out Jesus’ teaching that he didn’t know when he would return. It makes sense that a scribe, who felt that this didn’t mesh well with Jesus’ deity, would leave this out. No one would want to make the Bible more difficult to understand. It is hard to imagine someone changing a text to make it harder. But, as you can see, it is not hard to imagine changing a text to make it clearer. Asking the question of which reading is more difficult can help us better determine what the original text said.

Does This Mean That Our Bibles Can’t Be Trusted?

No. We may not know with 100% accuracy what the original manuscripts of the Bible said. But this doesn’t mean that we cannot trust our modern translations of the Bible. Some have suggested that there are 400,000 discrepancies in the biblical manuscripts. At first glance, that sounds staggering!

But consider this. The vast majority of those discrepancies are typographical errors. Another large portions of these discrepancies are so minor that they don’t change translation - such as leaving out a ‘the’ or ‘an’. Another large portion of the discrepancies don’t change the meaning at all - such as some manuscripts saying ‘the Lord’ and others saying ‘Jesus’. The smallest portion of the discrepancies do change the meaning of a phrase or a verse. But none of these significantly change the meaning of any passage. Nor do they contradict any of the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith - like the Virgin Birth, the sinlessness of Jesus, the deity of Jesus, the Trinity, salvation by faith, and the resurrection of Jesus.

The evidence for the accuracy of the Bible is what is staggering. God by his goodness has preserved his Word for us that we might have a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119:105).