An image of an ancient Bible manuscript in Greek.
An image of an ancient Bible manuscript in Greek.

Some Bible verses are disappearing because textual criticism revealed they are not in the early manuscripts or most reliable manuscripts and shouldn't be there. I recall years ago while reading my Bible, I stumbled across a note, “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do no have John 7:53-8:11.”  I Thought, “What does that mean?”  They had the verses right there.  The verses were translated. “How could they say that?”  I was very leery of this comment and I quietly looked past it as though it wasn’t here.  I had never heard of such a thing.


The Bible is the Word of God.  Verbally inspired by God Himself.  There are no errors in the Bible.  I had been taught this.  I believed it.  But for years I tip toed over this and other comments in my Bible about such verses.  My friends did the same.  I never asked my Pastors and none of them ever mentioned it.  You may wonder if I still believe there are no errors in the Bible.  Yes, I do believe the Bible is Error free.  I also think the Church should understand what is gong on here and it is a great injustice to them that they have not been taught.  This is how we get the “King James only” followers who argue for the “re-inspiration” of the Bible as the King James to bypass the manuscript evidence.

I have the Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 1[1].  It has some very good articles in it about the Bible and how we got it.  I read all 667 pages of the book. It was good information.  Over the years I have gotten to know several Bible translators and discussed this issue with them.  They write those notes in Bibles.  This has help me to understand why these notes are in the Bibles.  The newer Bibles now days are moving these verses into footnotes instead of leaving them in the text because the manuscript evidence is against them being original to the text.

In the history of the Bible there was a time of writing the manuscripts and a time of copying manuscripts.  Often the scribe or several scribes proofread a new manuscript and made corrections to improve the quality of the manuscript.  Accuracy was important to them and them took steps toward that end.  The Church Fathers wrote about the Bible and quoted scripture, thus adding to the copies of some verses available to us.  Then came the translations into different languages. Which were followed by lectionaries.  Many manuscripts were burned in two attempts to destroy them all.  Eventually, the Greek manuscripts seemed to have no value to those who could not read the language.  They burned some manuscripts.  Later many manuscripts were discovered by archaeologist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Tischendorf who scoured Europe in search of manuscripts, saved one of our most complete manuscripts (Codex Sinaiticus) from a basket full of manuscripts set to be burned in a monastery.[2] 

With all of these manuscripts, it is easy to look and see that they are not identical to one another.  So it is not reasonable to think the New Testament writers wrote their books and then hundreds of scribes showed up and made copies of them without ever losing their place or replacing a word with a similar word between the time they read it and the time they wrote it, or misspelling a word.  The evidence cannot support it.  In fact, the evidence is against that having happened.  Not all manuscripts are “exactly” the same.  “Some of the ancient Near Eastern texts that have been unearthed are nothing but schoolboy exercises or student copies of manuscripts.”[3] Of course those manuscripts have mistakes in them. But any handwritten document of any length will have a mistake it.  People just are not perfect copyist.

There are ways to decipher the correct reading by examining the manuscripts. It works in most cases.  A lady once asked me, “But how do you know?”  Unfortunately, she was done listening as soon as the words left her mouth.  But there are answers for those who want to know.  Among other things, you just kind of know there is an added passage when the whole passage has multiple versions, or it is found in various places within the book like verses without a home.

I have a database[4] that compares 5688 text and identifies tens of thousands of variances.  But the beauty of it all is that we have so many manuscripts and thousands of fragments of manuscripts to compare to each other that we can be 99.99% sure the text is correctly corrected.  The minute uncertainty that exist does not affect portions of scripts concerning any major doctrine of Christianity.

The process of comparing all these manuscripts and fragments is called Textual Criticism.  Textual criticism has created what we call a critical text.  Textual Criticism is more than a numbers game.  A person does not just count how many manuscripts have a certain reading like taking a vote.  It is more like trying to investigate why the differences exist.  There are thousands of spelling error and those are typically easy to correct unless it actually spells a word that fits the context.

When one group of manuscripts have a passage or phrase and another group does not, a person must ask a series of questions about a passage or phrase.

  • Why would it have been removed if it were originally in the manuscript.
  • Why would it have been added if it was not originally in the manuscript.

Common explanations include the scribes eye jumping forward or backwards to a word that looks similar and skipping or repeating a section.  Sometimes a scribed recalled something from another account of the same story in another book and inserted it into the other place also.

Sometimes it is more difficult to choose between the different manuscripts readings and one must consider another question.

  • Which reading is the most difficult of the two.

This question works because a scribe would tend to try to make the text easier to read if he made a change on purpose.  The easy reading was probably the result of a change by a scribe while the difficult reading is more likely the original reading.  There is much more involved in the process of Textual Criticism, but this covers the most common major issues and gives us some idea about those notes we find in our Bibles.

When people used hand copied manuscripts it was common to find differences between one’s copy and a friend’s copy.  It was just a fact of life.  So, they did not FREAK-OUT over it.  Today with the use of the printing press all copies of any book are exactly the same.  We are used to our Bibles saying exactly the same thing as our friends Bible.  Of course, unless they have a different translation.  But we understand that.  It is after people got used to the King James Bible and then started using new translations that they started noticing differences again.  And they FREAKED-OUT.  Some people are still weird about translations other than the King James.  Consider the thousands of manuscripts that have been discovered and studied since the King James was translated in 1611.  We have learned a lot.  We have learned about the text and the Greek language.  We are able to translate better because of quantity and quality of manuscripts available today.

You may be thinking it sound like I think there are errors in the Bible.  Your thinking of that .01% uncertainty.  I believe the original God inspired manuscripts were inerrant.  Through the time between then and now a lot has happened.  I think it is amazing the text is still as good as it is.  We live in a blessed time with all the manuscripts we have to study and compare.  No other time period has known of so many manuscripts as we have today.  Scholars have manuscripts that no one has had a chance to study yet.

With the degree of accuracy of the critical texts available exceeding that of the King James translation, we have the some of the best Bibles available since the ancient times.  The ancient manuscripts were not very available.  Hand copying was very time consuming and expensive.  There were few manuscripts available compared to the number of Christians.  Their manuscripts had copyist errors too.  We have proof that copyist errors existed in ancient manuscripts because many of them were preserved to modern times and are available to scholars today.

The notes in my Bible that once concerned me are now something I understand and appreciate.  I know why they are there.  I know how we know which text is correct or extremely close to the original manuscripts.  It is not someone’s random idea that these verses have issues.  There is a lot of research and hard work that has gone into it. One can read about how the decision came about and the factors for and against a reading in textual commentaries.  There are no secrets.  The information is  available for those who want it and you do not have to be a scholar to use the tools to double check the notes in your Bible. Which is much better than wondering about it without knowing why the changes are occurring.


[1] Fee, G. D. (1979). The Textual Criticism of the New Testament. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Introductory Articles (Vol. 1, p. 425). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Andrews, E., & Wilkins, D. (n.d.). THE TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism.

[3] Comfort, P. (2005). Encountering the manuscripts: an introduction to New Testament paleography & textual criticism (p. 18). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman.

[4] The Center for New Testament Textual Studies NT Critical Apparatus

H. Milton Haggard Center for New Testament Textual Studies. (2010). The Center for New Testament Textual Studies: NT Critical Apparatus. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.