Does anything sound less holy than saying, “I’d tear that right out of the Bible if I could!”? I confess that those words have come out of my mouth. But wait, if you’ve been reading my blog, surely I’m a conservative orthodox reformed evangelical who supports both Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and Biblical Inerrancy, so why would such words ever leave my lips?
Let me try to explain. The Bible that I hold in my hands does not contain the original words that left the pen of the authoritative writers. It does contain a very accurate transmission and translation of that Holy Spirit inspired text, but the modern Bible is just that, a transmission and translation. Remember, The Old Testament was predominately written in Hebrew and The New Testament was written in Greek neither was written in English. The goal within modern translations is to most accurately reflect both the words and the meaning of the original words written. This is not always as easy as it sounds, language and culture are complicated matters. All translations must decide when it is best to use a non-literal word to capture that actual meaning.
Let’s look at one example. One Hebrew word for “inner man” (ie the seat of emotions and affection) is kilyah which when translated literally means the kidneys. This is not an error as it is no different than everyday speech in English that refers to “following your heart.” No one who speaks this way is told that they are foolish for thinking the heart is not an organ that pumps blood through the body, it is simply figurative language that is prevalent in all cultures. Therefore, it would not be in the best interest of the modern reader to read: “Examine me, O LORD, and try me; Test my kidneys and my heart”, but would be better translated as it is “Test my mind and my heart.” (Psalm 26:2) Christians wrestling with these translations should remember the Bible’s own testimony, “unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.” (I Corinthians 14:9)
Understanding the above helps to lay the necessary groundwork for grasping the concept of Biblical Textual Criticism. Doesn’t that term sound nasty? It is not, check the link for a great introduction to it. There is a form of “higher criticism” which is unholiness incarnate, but textual criticism is not that. Similar to translation, textual criticism is seeking the most accurate transmission of the Word of God. Historically, Christians have not believed that the Bible came down out of heaven, but that God used human writers that were being used by the Holy Spirit to breath out the Words of God in what they wrote. (II Tim. 3:16) These original words are what Christians affirm to be inerrant and considering the accuracy of these transmissions is nothing new, consider the word’s of Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century, “I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand.”1 (emphasis mine) Christians have always been aware of the fact that not all transmissions have been accurately handled and the goal of faithful textual criticism is to find out where these mistakes have been made.
Unless you read a King James Bible, the translation in your hand has most likely taken into account a transmission mistake found in I John 5:8-8. Out of a vast number of Greek manuscripts only eight such late manuscripts contain the portion of that verse which says, “in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth”. Now as a staunch defender of the orthodox view of the Trinity this would be a nice proof text, but as someone who takes seriously the warnings in Scripture that are given not only for taking away from it but also adding to it (Revelation 22:18-19, Deut. 4:2), I take very seriously the evidence that this verse was added by a scribe in the 10th century as that is when it first appears in the manuscript record. Thankfully, most translations have removed this langue from the Bible precisely because it is not the Word of God.2
Such additions do not belong in the Bible, they have no place in being considered Scripture.3 For most Christinas removing the additional language found in I John was not a big deal as orthodox Trinitarian beliefs can easily be defended without that addition, after all, they were developed without it! However, there have been two passages that lack the same necessary credentials that have been far more difficult to remove from the Bible. Those two passages are Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11, I will focus on the latter as I believe that is the one with the most emotional attachment towards it.
Nearly all Christians are familiar with the story of Jesus and the adulteress woman who was caught in the very act and Jesus graciously turns the focus on the crowd and declares “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” This passage certainly fits with the Biblical presentation of who Jesus is, but the only problem is that John never wrote it. In very few places will you find both liberal and conservative scholars in agreement but the scholarly opinion is nearly unanimous, the story of the adulteress woman was added to the text and is not part of the original writing. It is indeed an addition to the Word of God. Check your Bible’s, they will most likely have a footnote that says something to the effect of, “Later manuscripts add the story” or “Not found in the earliest manuscripts.”
The most reliable and most accurate early manuscripts lack this story and it slowly finds its way into the text sometimes being found in John 7, sometimes at the end of John, other times at the end of Luke 21 and still other times at the end of Luke, a story looking for a home. The best texts (codex Sinaiticus, codex Vaticanus, P66, P75)4 are all in agreement: this story was not original and therefore is not inspired by the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, it is not just the manuscript evidence that is against this text, its style, vocabulary and syntax are all inconsistent with the entire Gospel of John further displaying that it was not original. The historical record clearly speaks against this story and for a belief system that rests entirely on a historical event happening in both time and space we must take that evidence with due regard. After all, doesn’t the warning that a curse will be placed on anyone who adds to Scripture naturally imply that it is in fact a possibility that additions will be made?
Now, it is important to point out that there is still some legitimate debate that this text might have some historical merit. By this I mean that it very well could have been a story that was carried on in tradition and eventually someone felt inclined to write it into the text and finally it found its home in John 7-8. However, whether or not it is historical is irrelevant in determining if it was the Apostle John’s words which were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Jewish historian Josephus, and Tacitus the Roman historian, both wrote some historical comments about Jesus but we certainly do not believe that these words are Scripture. As textual critic Dan Wallace says, “But to regard it as scripture if John did not write it is another matter. The problem is this: If John wrote his gospel as a tightly woven argument, with everything meeting a crescendo in the resurrection, would he be disturbed that some scribes started monkeying with his text? If we don’t respect the human author, then we could discount this issue. But if the Bible is both the Word of God and the words of men, then we are playing fast and loose with the human author’s purpose by adding anything—especially something as long as this passage—that takes a detour from his intentions.”5
Christian do you tremble at God’s Word? (Isaiah 66:2) Do take seriously the fact that our faith is a faith grounded in history? Do you trust the authority of the Holy Spirit inspired words written in the Gospel of John and the warning written by the the same Spirit and same human author at the end of Revelation? If you do then we must be willing to stop calling this passage Scripture. No matter how much emotional attachment we have to this story we must be willing to say that it does not belong in our Bibles.
Consider those whom you disciple coming across a hostile critic like Bart Ehrman and having no prior knowledge that this passage does not belong and then listening to his compelling argument against it that he then twists to attack the reliability of the entire Bible. The irony is that Christians not only could be convinced that this particular passage is not accurate, but that they should be convinced that it is not trustworthy! But far from being evidence against the Bible, it actually helps to confirm the overall trustworthiness of the Bible. If we can spot what does not belong it confirms that we can trust what does belong and the vast majority of the text belongs. But I assure you, many a Christian has been taken for being unequipped to handle that kind of attack, we must treat the Bible with the care and respect that the Word of God deserves and that means not subtracting from what was written but it also means not allowing ourselves to call something Scripture that has clearly been added to it.
Finally, I would just like to add that if this passage has been used to encourage your faith the fact that it is not Scripture does not negate that God has truly used it to strengthen you. God can use all kinds of means to encourage and build His children, even using something as outrageous as added words to the Bible to help you. Yet, no matter your personal experience with this text, we cannot let experience rule over clear evidence. We are to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind. (Matthew 22:37) This means we must use our minds here and when rock solid evidence and faith filled reasoning say a text is not Scripture because it was added to the original text we must submit ourselves in the fear of the Lord to not teach or instruct from it as if it were something that it is not, no matter how it has personally been used in our lives.
- Augustine’s letter to Jerome (Ep. 82.1.3); The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, Edited by: D.A. Carson, Chapter 2: “The Truth Above All Demonstration”: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine, by Charles E. Hill, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016) 60-61
- Michael Kruger and Andreas Köstenberger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity, (Crossway; Wheaton, IL, 2010), 218-220
- There are some practical considerations for additions when we reflect on the OT and should consider Jesus’s view of the OT when looking at them. For a helpful resource: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/wrote-mosess-obituary-deuteronomy-34/