In last few months, several members of Coram Deo (the church I pastor) have asked me about a Facebook post that has been floating around. The post accuses various modern translations and their publishers for removing verses from the Bible. If you haven’t seen it, I have attached a picture of the post, which has been shared 26,000 times:
On the surface, it is shocking. Would Zondervan and Crossway really remove Bible verses because it does not fit their agenda? Should we stop reading the ESV/NIV translations because of this? Is it even true? Many questions such as this have been asked of me of late and I thought I would explain what is going in the textual differences.
Textual criticism is not a phrase that gets thrown around in common Christian circles very often but it is incredibly important when understanding the textual differences that we see in different translations of the Bible. As Christians, we believe the Bible is God’s word, literally, breathed out by God (2 Tim 3:16). At the same time, the Bible was written by human authors and then transmitted through human copyists. As humans, we are fallible and prone to error, even when our intentions are correct.
In order to preserve the accuracy of the original text, copyists took painstaking efforts to keep the text as pure as possible. But with any human effort, errors are a natural occurrence. For example, in grade school, we used to copy definitions from the back of textbooks onto sheets of paper. From time to time, we would either skip a line, repeat a word, or miss a punctuation mark. This is natural as our eyes glance from the textbook to the notebook. You probably also remember copying large chunks of text and accidentally repeating words or entire lines, forgetting key words, or misspelling difficult words.
The same is true in copying texts of Scripture. At times, a copyist would be transcribing a text like we would with a textbook open, glancing back and forth between the text and the writing. Other times, someone would be reading the text out loud and they would copying down what they heard. In both cases, small textual errors would develop as people would spell words wrong, repeat words or lines, or omit punctuation marks. Contrary to what secular theologians would assert, the number of key errors in the biblical text is incredibly small, less than 1%.
It is the job of a translation committee to gather these various manuscripts (which are dated from various time periods) and assess which ones display the most accuracy. This is done through multiple ways, such as finding the most difficult translation, finding the oldest manuscripts, and a host of other complex solutions. When we read this Facebook post then, is it right to claim that Zondervan and Crossway are leading a crusade against the Bible they publish?
MISSING VERSES AND UPDATED MANUSCRIPTS
Again, one of the ways translators choose the most accurate text is by date. For example, we all would intuitively understand that a copy of a text written in the 3rd century is probably far more accurate than one copied in the 13th century because there is a larger gap between when the original text was written and when it was copied. In other words, the more time that elapses in the copied manuscript, the more likely it is prone to error (a bit simplified but lets work with it for now). How does this impact the Facebook post in question?
The author of the Facebook quote claims that the KJV is superior to the ESV and NIV in accuracy because it has not removed the verses in question. In order to understand why these verses were removed, one has to understand the previous statements regarding textual criticism. You see, the KJV was translated and built off an outdated manuscript system, namely, the Textus Receptus. This manuscript system was developed by Erasmus in the 16th century, which was a Greek translation of the Latin Vulgate. At the time, these were the most updated manuscripts they possessed.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, we now have over 25,000 manuscripts (comprised of various Greek, Latin, and Syriac/Coptic translations). Simply put, the more data, the more accuracy. Furthermore, we now have manuscripts that date very early in comparison to its publication, compared to the Textus Receptus that used relatively outdated manuscripts (in today’s standards). Because of simply the amount of data now available through the thousands of manuscripts, translators have seen that previous translations did not provide the most accurate translation due to the manuscript deficiency that they possessed.
WHAT ABOUT THE MISSING VERSES?
This leads us to finally deal with the problem at hand: where are the missing verses? If you were to open up the ESV or NIV translation to Matthew 18, you will notice that there is no verse 11, it simply goes from verse 10 to 12. You will also notice that every modern translation provides footnotes where verse 11 should be. Most translations will indicate that due to a lack of manuscript accuracy, these verses have been removed. The verses are missing because they were most likely not included in the original writing at all, which is demonstrated by textual criticism with updated manuscripts. The verses are still included in the KJV because it is still built on an outdated manuscript system.
Be not afraid, there is no coverup or theological conspiracy to undermine the accuracy of the Bible. On the contrary, the men and women who sit on translation committees for the majority of modern translations are godly, wise, and Bible-loving people that want to translate the Bible into vernacular English in the most faithful way possible. So for those questioning whether or not you should be using the ESV or NIV, you can have all confidence that God’s word is being preserved and sustained through the diligent and faithful work of translators in the 21st century.