The shocking headline above recently featured on a meme alongside a list of verses that the RSV is said to have removed from the Bible. Other such memes exist for other translations like the NIV and with different lists, but the complaint is one that has abounded since well before the existence of the Internet.
The thing is, they are actually correct: compared to older versions like the KJV, modern versions do indeed contain fewer verses. What are we to make of this? How can we know which translation is correct? And is it really true that modern versions remove legitimate verses or should it be viewed the other way round: that the KJV adds verses that should not be there?
A book that explores this subject is a compilation by Bruce Metzger entitled ‘A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament’1, which is a collaborative effort by a committee of many world-leading experts in the field of textual criticism from various schools of thought, different denominations and from all around the globe.
The book systematically examines all of the major variations in the New Testament from Matthew through Revelation, discussing the reasons why you get words, sentences or even entire verses left out or added in, as well as different sentence structures when comparing different manuscripts.
For each passage the book outlines which texts the variations are found in e.g. Western, Alexandrian, Caesarean, the Byzantine texts (that the Textus Receptus are mostly based upon), as well as a number of others. The book then discusses factors like geographic distribution of passages containing a particular variant, the age of the texts and how they were quoted in the earliest church writings.
These factors are important for the following reasons:
- Geographic distribution – if a particular variant of a passage is found in a number of manuscripts but only from one small area of the world e.g. Egypt and nowhere else, then this can indicate to us that this variation is possibly an interpolation unique to a particular area. Conversely, if a variation exists in manuscripts from all over the world then this may, as a rule of thumb, suggest legitimacy as it is easier to falsify a small number of texts than it is to falsify all of them across the whole world, especially in a pre-digital era.
- Age of a text – another rule of thumb is that the closer a text is to the time of the events described, the less likely it is to have been amended and the more likely it is to be an accurate copy of an original text. By contrast, more recent versions may have been based upon copies of copies of copies, which, like a game of Chinese whispers, can result in more opportunities for copying errors, marginal notes being unintentionally added to the text and word orders becoming confused.
- Contemporary quotations – texts such as commentaries written by the earliest Christian theologians from the first few centuries after the publication of the Bible often quote Bible passages. How they were quoted at that time can then be compared with manuscripts to determine which variation was most commonly accepted at that time.
In Metzger’s book, all of these factors are considered when attempting to determine the legitimacy of a passage and whether it should be considered to be an addition or an omission. Differences of opinion amongst members of the committee are presented within the book and a conclusion is drawn as to which variant is most likely the correct one.
The reliability of this conclusion is then graded on a scale from A to D. This grading system roughly breaks down as follows2:
- Grade A – Signifies that the text is certain
- Grade B – The text is almost certain
- Grade C – The Committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text
- Grade D – Occurs only rarely, indicates that the Committee had great difficulty in arriving at a decision – sometimes none of the variant readings commended itself as original
Using Metzger’s book, I went through all of the passages listed in the original meme and in every single case there was a majority agreement that the verse should not be there:
- Matt 18:11 – omit verse [B]
- Matt 23:14 – omit verse [A]
- Mark 7:16 – omit verse [A]
- Mark 9:44 – omit verse [A]
- Acts 8:37 – omit verse [A]
- Mark 9:46 – omit verse [A]
- Mark 11:26 – omit verse [A]
- Acts 15:34 – omit verse [A]
- Mark 15:28 – omit verse [A]
- Luke 17:36 – omit verse [A]
- Acts 24:7 – omit verse [B]
- Luke 23:17 – omit verse [A]
- John 5:4 – omit verse [A]
- Acts 28:29 – omit verse [A]
That’s 12 A grades and 2 B grades. For the meme to be valid, you’d expect there to be some Cs and Ds in the list, but in every case the consensus (and the evidence upon which it is based) is against the KJV, thereby demonstrating that these passages are actually wrongful additions rather than malicious omissions. The reason that they are omitted in newer translations is that they simply should never have been there in the first place.
Each passage has a description attached it, however these would be too lengthy to list in full. One example though is the entry for Mark 11:26:
Although it might be thought that the sentence was accidentally omitted because of homoeoteleuton3, its absence from early witnesses that represent all text-types makes it highly probable that the words were inserted by copyists in imitation of Mt. 6.15.4
Note that this description does not say that this variant under discussion is missing from just ‘some’ early texts. Rather it says ‘all text-types’. This means that this variant is not found in any of the earliest of Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean or other texts and would only have been found in later manuscripts from hundreds of years later such as those upon which the Textus Receptus and KJV are based.
When all of this is taken into consideration, a close examination of the list of omitted verses in the original meme reveals that the passages listed are actually some of the best examples of why modern versions have a better textual basis than the KJV, as the texts are more reliable, are older and are better attested by the very earliest of witnesses.
- Metzger & Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (Oxford, 2005)
- White, King James Only Controversy: Can you trust modern translations? (Bethany House, 2009)
- Bruce Manning Metzger, United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994)
- Ibid., xxviii.
- “Homoeoteleuton is the omission of an intervening passage because the scribe’s eye skipped from one line to a similar ending on another line.” Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Rev. and expanded.; Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 370.
- Metzger, op. cit., 93.