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The Necessity of Textual Criticism
Textual criticism concerns itself with the problems suggested by various kinds of errors. textual evidence is so vast—exceeding that of any other literature, as has been seen—that two results follow: First, since the copying by hand of any document of appreciable length almost inevitably involves change and error, many textual errors and variants will be found in this great quantity of MSS. Second, such a wealth of evidence makes it all the more certain that the original words of the have been preserved somewhere within the MSS. Conjectural emendation (suggesting a reading that is not found in any MS), to which editors have resorted in the restoration of other ancient writings, has almost no place in the textual criticism of the. The materials are so abundant that at times the difficulty is to select the correct rendering from a number of variant readings in the MSS.
It must not be overlooked, however, that the textual critic deals with a relatively small percentage of the text. With the NT, as with ancient literature in general, the wording of perhaps 85 percent of the text is unquestioned. It is true that if the total number of variant readings of all the MSS were counted, the sum would be many thousand. But the true perspective is probably given by E. Abbot: “About nineteen-twentieths of the variations have so little support that … no one would think of them as rival readings, and nineteen-twentieths of the remainder are of so little importance that their adoption or rejection would cause no appreciable difference in the sense of the passages in which they occur.” The is of such supreme importance, however, that it is worth the attention of the textual critic to improve the text, if possible, even to a small degree.
Of the errors that give rise to variant readings, some are unintentional, and others are intentional.
Linguistic or Rhetorical Corrections: These alterations were no doubt often made in good faith under the impression that a linguistic error had crept into the text and needed correcting (e.g., 2nd aorist endings on 1st aorist verbs).
Historical Corrections: These include changes introduced to correct an apparent error of fact, e.g., the change in Mark 1:2 in many MSS from “Isaiah the prophet” to “the prophets.”
Harmonistic Corrections: As distinct from unintentional harmonization, these include the apparent intentional assimilation of parallel passages, e.g., the assimilation of the Lord’s Prayer in many MSS of Lk. 11:2–4 to the fuller form of Mt. 6:9–13.
Doctrinal Corrections: These are among the less frequent deliberate changes. Sometimes readings regarded as embarrassing were changed, e.g., the reference to Jesus’ family going to take Jesus in hand and thinking Him mad in Mk. 3:31 was altered in various ways in some MSS of Mark. Other intentional doctrinal changes include the addition to 1 Jn. 5:7f of the reference to the “three heavenly witnesses” (found in no Greek MS earlier than the 16th cent.), the addition of fasting to prayer in Mk. 9:29, and the addition of “who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” at the end of Rom. 8:1 and “and in your spirit, which are the Lord’s” at the end of 1 Cor. 6:20. E. J. Epp has argued that the Western text shows a deliberate “anti-Judaic” tendency in various readings and has pointed to the need for further investigation of this matter and other possible indications of deliberate doctrinal changes.
Liturgical Corrections: Certain changes might have been introduced into the text because of the use of the passage in the liturgy. The addition of the doxology to the Lord’s Prayer, “for thine is the kingdom,” etc. (Mt. 6:13, AV), might have had this origin.
Some Interesting Variants
Let us now look at some variants that are interesting for one reason or another without being theologically important.
One variant that I believe unnecessarily tantalizes textual scholars is found in Mark 6:22. In this passage concerning the famous dance by the daughter of Herodias that cost John the Baptist his head, there are three variants: one reading refers to the girl who performed the dance as “the daughter of Herodias herself” or “Herodias’s daughter herself”; a second reading is commonly taken to mean “his daughter Herodias.” In a third reading, a number of versions have simply dropped the pronoun “herself” or “his” and read, “the daughter of Herodias.”
Looking at internal evidence, the first and third readings make good sense; if either of these was original, there would have been no reason for a scribe to introduce the second one. The second reading, however, is the more difficult or problematic reading, since the girl was not the daughter of Herod, and her name was not Herodias. If this second reading was original, a scribe could easily have been tempted to alter two letters of the Greek pronoun “his” to change the meaning to “herself” (the first variant) or to drop the pronoun completely (the third variant).
Turning to external evidence, we find that the second reading is supported by the best Alexandrian texts and Codex D, a prominent Western ms. The first reading also has strong support, including witnesses from all the major text-types and the Caesarean manuscripts as well. Support for the third reading is not as strong as either of the other two. When the strong internal evidence is combined with the more ambiguous external evidence, the support seems to lean somewhat in favor of the first reading—and this in spite of the difficulty the passage might have posed to the scribes who copied it. It is the reading adopted by the UBS GNT, albeit with their least confident ranking.
While we prefer the more difficult reading in Mark 6:22, we needn’t conclude that the wording involves a historical error on the part of the gospel writer Mark. Instead of reading the Greek phrase as “his daughter Herodias,” we can read it as “his daughter of Herodias,” meaning “his daughter—that is, Herodias’s” (i.e., “his stepdaughter, who was actually the daughter of his wife Herodias”). This construction is admittedly a bit awkward, but I believe that Mark could have written it, and I do not see how the pronoun “his” could have been introduced by a scribe if it were not original.
Luke 6:1–10 deals with the observance of the Sabbath laws. At the end of verse 4, Codex D adds this brief item: “On the same day, [Jesus] saw someone working on the Sabbath and said to him, ‘Man, if you know what you are doing, you are blessed; but if you do not know, you are accursed and a transgressor of the law.’ ” This story fits the context of the chapter, and the incident may be true, but since it is found in only one ms, we cannot even consider the possibility of its being a part of the original text.
In Eph 1:1, some mss omit the words “in Ephesus.” These words could hardly have been missing originally, even though some scholars believe they were; without them the Greek text is awkward. And they could not easily have been omitted accidentally. It can be rendered in English fairly acceptably as “to the saints who are also faithful,” but this raises the serious question of why Paul would have put this emphasis on the “faithful” saints. Actually the Greek very likely would be “to the saints who are, and faithful,” as a reference to the greetings in Phil 1:1 suggests. Some commentators have suggested that Paul intended that this letter be copied and sent to several churches and that he left a blank space after “are” so that the appropriate destination could be inserted into each copy. However, no other destinations or churches are named here in any known ms of this epistle (although the heretical teacher Marcion did call it the epistle to the church in Laodicea). Internal evidence, then, favors the inclusion of the phrase “in Ephesus.”
As for ms evidence, some of the best Alexandrian texts plus the early papyrus 𝔓46 support the omission, while the Western, Byzantine, and part of the Alexandrian support the inclusion of the phrase. This might seem to leave the external evidence in doubt, and indeed, the UBS GNT includes the words translated “in Ephesus” in brackets, indicating the editors’ uncertainty about the authenticity of the words. However, as we pointed out in the preceding chapter, the Alexandrian text sometimes makes a “sophisticated” error—that is, an intentional change that has some reason and thought behind it but is nevertheless wrong. This may be such an instance: an Alexandrian scribe, knowing the tradition that this letter was sent to several churches, may have taken it upon himself to omit the designation “in Ephesus.” In conclusion, then, although the ms support for the omission is fairly strong, it is the type of error that the Alexandrian text sometimes makes. Moreover, the support for the inclusion of “in Ephesus” is broader, and internal evidence strongly supports the inclusion.
In Rev 12:18 (or, in some versions, 13:1), some mss read, “And I stood on the shore of the sea,” and others read, “And he stood on the shore of the sea.” The difference is only a matter of the inclusion or omission of the Greek letter n. “He stood” fits in with the preceding verses, which refer to the activities of the dragon. “I stood” fits in with the verb “I saw” that follows immediately in 13:1. However, a study of the structure of Revelation shows that the words “And I saw” almost always indicate the beginning of a new section. On this assumption, 12:18 should be at the end of the preceding section referring to the dragon, and “he stood” would more likely be the original. As for ms evidence, “I stood” is probably Byzantine, while “he stood” is clearly Alexandrian and enjoys the support of some of its witnesses, including 𝔓47. Thus, both internal and external evidence indicate that the original text is “he stood on the shore of the sea.”
In 1 Cor 11:29 the two readings entail the inclusion and omission of the word “unworthily” in the verse: “For anyone who eats and drinks [unworthily] without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.” If “unworthily” was in the original text, there would be no reason for it to have been omitted intentionally, since that is clearly the sense of the verse; nor is there any basis for supposing that it would have been omitted accidentally. On the other hand, if “unworthily” was not in the original text, a scribe, thinking that “without recognizing” meant that the partaker comes under judgment “because he does not recognize” the Lord’s body, and that the verse would therefore seem to condemn everyone, could easily have added “unworthily.” However, “without recognizing the body” can also mean that the partaker is condemned “if he does not recognize the body,” which does not require the word “unworthily.” From internal evidence we therefore conclude that the omission is preferred. As for ms evidence, “unworthily” is supported by the Byzantine and Western texts, while the omission is supported by the Alexandrian text-type plus the early papyrus 𝔓46. Both internal and external evidence thus support the text without “unworthily,” with “without recognizing the body” meaning “if he does not recognize the body.”
At the end of the same verse, after “without recognizing the body” some mss omit the phrase “of the Lord.” This latter phrase would not easily have been omitted accidentally if it were original; and there would have been no reason for even a heretic to omit it intentionally, since “the body” is clearly the Lord’s body. On the other hand, if the phrase was not original, a scribe could easily have added it in order to leave no doubt about the meaning. The ms evidence for and against the inclusion of the phrase are almost exactly the same as for the addition and omission of “unworthily.” Again, both internal and external evidence agree, and we conclude that what Paul wrote here was simply “without recognizing the body.”
Sometimes the scribes have really warmed to their work and have developed a great variety of readings in a particular passage. In Mark 6:33, for example, a considerable assortment of variants for “got there ahead of them” in the phrase “[they] ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them” have accumulated, including the following: “came to them,” “came together there,” “came there,” “got there ahead of them,” “came together to him,” “got there ahead of them and came together to him,” and others. The phrase “got there ahead of them” has good internal support, since scribes may have made the changes because they felt that it was unlikely that the crowds on foot could have arrived before the boat did. External evidence also favors “got there ahead of them.”
Colossians 2:2 also has an assortment of readings. The ms evidence favors “in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ.” However, since it is possible to misunderstand the Greek text as saying, “the mystery of God of Christ,” scribes apparently tried to clarify the text in various ways, producing such variants as “the mystery of Christ,” “the mystery of God and of Christ,” “the mystery of God, namely Christ,” “the mystery of God who is in Christ,” “the mystery of God the father in Christ Jesus,” “the mystery of God the father of Christ,” “the mystery of God the father of Jesus Christ,” “the mystery of God the Father and of Christ,” “the mystery of the God and Father of Christ,” and “the mystery of the God and Father and of Christ.” A careful study of these many readings can show how they developed from the simple original. It is important to note, however, that in this very theologically meaningful passage none of the variant readings show any attempt to weaken or distort the theology.
Galatians 4:7 is another passage in which scribes have developed a multitude of readings. The ms evidence supports “and if [you are] a child, then [you are] also an heir, through God” (nrsv). It is more natural, however, to think of our being heirs through Christ than through God, although the latter concept is reasonable (cf. 1 Cor 1:9). This apparent problem led scribes of various mss to change “through God” to “of God,” “because of God,” “through Christ,” “through Jesus Christ,” “of God through Christ,” “of God through Jesus Christ,” “through God in Jesus Christ,” and “of God and joint heir of Christ.” Once again, however, the reading that has the strongest external support is the one that best explains the others. Notice again also that not one of these readings shows any attempt to corrupt this theologically significant passage.
Romans 4:19 has a variant of two readings that seem at first to be contradictory: Abraham “considered his own body, which was already as good as dead” (nrsv) and “did not consider his own body, which was already as good as dead.” The contradiction, however, is only a matter of appearance, not substance. The first reading means that even though Abraham recognized that his body was too old, he nevertheless did not hesitate to believe God’s promise that he would have a son. The second reading means that because of God’s promise, Abraham did not consider his body too old to enable him to become a father. Both readings, then, make good sense, although “considered” requires a bit of thought to understand the argument, while “did not consider” is easier to grasp at first sight. So it is more likely that “considered” was changed to “did not consider” than vice versa. “Considered” is the Alexandrian reading; “did not consider” is Western and Byzantine. Both internal and external evidence, therefore, support “considered.” Whichever reading is assumed to be original, however, it is important to note that the change was not an attempt to weaken the text or introduce a false teaching.
It is remarkable how much difference in meaning one small Greek letter can make. In Luke 2:14, for example, if the final word in the Greek text ends with an s, the meaning is “upon earth peace among men of good will” (literal translation). If the final word ends without an s, the meaning is “on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (nkjv). In the first reading it is possible that “men of good will” could refer to people who have an attitude of good will toward others, but it much more likely means “peace to men on whom his favor rests” (i.e., peace on those with whom he is pleased), as the niv and most modern versions interpret the passage.
The question is whether Luke wrote that final Greek s or not. The form without the s is easier to interpret; indeed, its meaning is so obvious that it is very improbable that a scribe would have changed it intentionally. On the other hand, if the s was original, a scribe might have omitted it intentionally to make the reading easier to understand, or he might have omitted it accidentally, since the Greek s at the end of a line was sometimes written as a very small raised letter. Internal evidence, then, favors the reading with the s.
In ms evidence, the form with the s is supported by the best part of the Alexandrian and Western texts, while the other form is Caesarean and Byzantine, so the inclusion of the s is preferred on these grounds as well. Thus both internal and external evidence favor the reading “upon earth peace to men with whom God is pleased.”
In 1 John 3:1, following “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” some mss add the words “And that is what we are!” Could this be a case of a heretical scribe deliberately omitting this phrase to eliminate the strong assertion that we are not only called children of God but truly are his children? If so, it is heresy perpetuated by the Byzantine text-type, the Textus Receptus, and the kjv! We can safely say that it is not an intentional heretical omission, however, because the mss that omit “And that is what we are!” agree with all other mss in reading, “Dear friends, now we are children of God,” in the very next verse. On the other hand, if the author did not originally include this phrase, a well-meaning scribe could have added it to strengthen the passage, wanting to make it clear that we truly are God’s children.
There is another possibility, however: it might have been an unintentional error. In Greek uncial letters, the phrase “and we are” closely resembles the letters immediately preceding them in this verse; it consists of the last seven letters of the following sequence: κληθωμενκαιεσμεν. A scribe’s eye could easily have skipped from the first μεν to the second, causing him to omit the last seven letters. It thus appears that “and we are” could have been either added intentionally or omitted unintentionally.
Manuscript evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the inclusion of the phrase. The Alexandrian and Western texts include it; only the Byzantine text, which more often adds words than omits them, omits these words. Combining this strong external evidence with the internal evidence, we may confidently conclude that John originally included the phrase “and we are” and that subsequent scribes accidentally omitted it.
Another interesting variant occurs in 1 John 4:20, of which the readings are “[he] cannot love God, whom he has not seen” and “how is he able to love God, whom he has not seen?” An accidental error seems unlikely in this case even though the difference in the Greek text is a matter of only two words of two and three letters respectively. As for intentional change, a scribe might have felt that “he is not able” was too absolute and softened it to “how is he able.” Another possibility is that the scribe adopted the form of the rhetorical question for greater dramatic effect. It is also possible, but less likely, that a scribe might have intentionally changed “how is he able” to the more factual “he is not able.”
In ms evidence, “he is not able” has strong Alexandrian support, while “how is he able” is Byzantine and possibly Western. Considering this evidence and the probable preference of internal evidence, we conclude that the original text is “he is not able” and that a scribe weakened it to “how is he able” not from a heretical motive but from a feeling that it might not be totally impossible for a person to love God even if he did not love his brother.
In Matt 6:1 the Alexandrian and Western texts read, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men,” while the Caesarean and Byzantine texts read, “alms,” instead of “acts of righteousness.” The external evidence thus favors “acts of righteousness,” which we understand as referring to various deeds of righteousness such as those Jesus goes on to mention: alms (v. 2), prayer (v. 5), and fasting (v. 16). If “alms” was original, it would hardly have been changed by a scribe to the much less obvious “acts of righteousness.” It is much more likely that a scribe thought that “acts of righteousness” in verse 1 meant the same thing as “alms” in verse 2, so he changed the more general word to the more specific word for the sake of clarity. Both internal and external evidence, then, support “righteousness” as the original text here.
In Matt 6:4, after the phrase “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you,” the Byzantine text adds the word “openly,” but the other three text-types omit this word. External evidence thus favors the omission. As for internal evidence, there is no apparent reason for “openly” to have been omitted either accidentally or intentionally if it was original. If it was not original, however, it would have been very easy for a scribe to add it to make a more complete contrast with the word “secretly” in the preceding clause. Both lines of evidence thus favor the omission of “openly.” Jesus was making the point that God will reward righteous deeds, not necessarily that the reward will be obvious to everyone. Incidentally, the same variant occurs in verse 18 with even less ms support.
Some Important Variants
Let us now look at some more significant variants, instances in which the meaning of the passage is affected to some extent by the readings.
In Mark 1:1 most mss read, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” but some mss omit “the Son of God.” Heresy! someone cries. But let’s take a closer look. First, from internal evidence we see that if Mark did not include the phrase “Son of God” here, a pious scribe could easily have added it. But if the phrase was part of the original text, would a heretical scribe have omitted it? If he did so, why would this presumed heretic leave the word “Christ,” which is an exalted title for Jesus, in the text? Furthermore, the very mss that omit “Son of God” here include these very words in Mark 15:39, in which the Roman centurion, seeing Jesus die, calls him “Son of God.”
It is more likely that the phrase is original and was omitted accidentally. The last three letters of the word “gospel” plus the phrase “Jesus Christ Son of God” would have been written as ιουΙΥΧΥΥΥΘΥ in an early Greek ms. The repetition of the letter υ could have caused a scribe’s eye to skip over the last four letters, which form the regular Greek abbreviation for “Son of God.”
Turning to external evidence, we find that only the Alexandrian Codex Aleph (א) and some of the Caesarean witnesses omit “Son of God” here, while the rest of the Alexandrian text-type, the Western and Byzantine text-types, and the other Caesarean texts include the phrase. Manuscript evidence therefore strongly supports the inclusion of the phrase. Since internal evidence indicates that the phrase was probably omitted accidentally, we conclude from both lines of evidence that “Son of God” was part of the original text of Mark 1:1.
Another significant variant is found in Acts 8:37. After the Ethiopian official asks Philip, “Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” some mss include verse 37, as follows: “And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ The eunuch answered, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ ” Other mss omit this dialogue and immediately after the Ethiopian’s question continue with verse 38: “And he gave orders to stop the chariot.…”
Verse 37 could hardly have been either added or omitted accidentally. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the verse was intentionally omitted by a heretic wanting to eliminate this confession concerning Jesus Christ, because the same mss that omit this verse include acknowledgments of Jesus as the Son of God a few verses later, in 9:20. On the other hand, if the author of Acts did not provide the exchange recorded in this verse, it would have been tempting for a scribe to do so, since the question in verse 36 must have received a reply.
The ms support for verse 37 is very weak, consisting only of part of the Western text. The verse is not found even in the Byzantine mss. Although the verse appears in the Textus Receptus and therefore in the kjv, it was not in the ms Erasmus used principally for Acts in his first published Greek New Testament in 1516. He found this passage as a marginal addition to another ms of Acts and added it in a later edition, thinking that it must have been original but that it had been omitted from his other ms by accident.
The Ethiopian official surely must have confessed his faith in Jesus before Philip baptized him, either before or after he raised the question of baptism. That Philip’s question and the official’s confession were not part of the original text here, however, is certain on the basis of both internal and external evidence. Incidentally, if someone wonders why this addition has a verse number if it was not original, he should remember that our verse numbers were not put into the text until the fourth edition of Stephanus in 1551, as we noted earlier—long after Erasmus had included the verse.
In Mark 9:29 Jesus says of the unclean spirit he had expelled from a boy, “This kind can come out only by prayer,” or as other mss read, “by prayer and fasting.” The words “and fasting” could hardly have been either added or omitted accidentally. Neither is it likely that the phrase was omitted intentionally in prejudice against fasting, because the same mss that omit “and fasting” here include a favorable reference to fasting in Mark 2:18–20. However, if Mark did not originally include this phrase, an early scribe could easily have added it to emphasize the spiritual effort involved in the exorcism. Internal evidence, then, favors the omission of “and fasting” here.
Most mss include “and fasting,” however. Only the two best Alexandrian mss (Codd. Aleph [א] and B), one Western witness, one Caesarean witness, and one church father’s quotation omit it. External evidence, then, is doubtful but may favor the inclusion of the phrase. However, if a scribe added these words in a ms, the increasing emphasis in the early church on the necessity of fasting might have attracted other scribes to the addition even if they knew that it was not found in all mss in their day. Internal evidence, therefore, leads to the conclusion that “and fasting” was not an original part of Mark here, even though fasting is favorably mentioned elsewhere.
It is worth noting that the phrase “and fasting” is added by some mss in 1 Cor 7:5 as well, following the words “so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” Here, however, the ms support for the addition is only Byzantine, and it is clearly not original.
In their worship, Protestants conclude the Lord’s Prayer with the doxology “for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” This version of the doxology appears in Matt 6:13 in the Byzantine text and some Alexandrian and Caesarean witnesses, while the Western text, part of the Alexandrian, and some Caesarean mss omit it. Manuscript evidence therefore favors the omission, although not strongly.
The doxology is omitted by all witnesses from the Lord’s Prayer recorded in Luke 11:2–4. It is not likely that the doxology would have been omitted either accidentally or intentionally from Matthew if it had been original. However, since without it the prayer seems to end a bit abruptly, when it came to be used in worship services, a doxology such as this could easily have been added. From this use it could have been added to the mss by scribes who thought that its use in worship indicated that it must have been as much a part of the original text as the prayer itself. The conclusion, then, strongly from internal evidence and to a lesser degree from external evidence, is that the doxology was not part of the original text of Matthew. Of course, it is still perfectly proper to use the doxology when reciting the prayer in worship or devotions. (For a similar doxology, see 1 Chr 29:11.) It should be remembered that when Jesus gave this prayer to his disciples, he was not giving them a liturgical form to repeat but rather was teaching them how simply and directly they could talk to their heavenly Father.
In 1 Cor 6:20 the question is whether Paul simply says, “therefore honor God with your body,” or whether he adds, “and with your spirit, which are God’s.” The added words are a perfectly proper exhortation, but if they were original, there is no reasonable way to account for their having been omitted in so many good mss. On the other hand, if they were not original, a devout scribe could have added them, possibly in an effort to guard against the idea that we should glorify God only with our physical bodies. We should, of course, glorify God with our spirits as well, but in this passage (1 Cor 6:12–20) the apostle is speaking specifically of the physical body, and the reference to the human spirit here is not in harmony with the context.
The omission of the reference to the spirit is strongly supported by the Alexandrian and Western text-types, while the addition is supported by the Byzantine. Both internal and external evidence, therefore, make it clear that Paul’s words here are simply “therefore honor God with your body” as an emphatic summary of his discussion of the sanctity of our bodies.
Three Longer Variants
There is a textual variant in John 5:3–4 that we should examine. Following the reference to the sick people at the Pool of Bethesda in verse 3, some mss add that they “waited for the moving of the waters. 4 From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had.” Other mss omit this final part of verse 3 and all of verse 4.
That these words were original and were omitted accidentally is very unlikely, since none of the elements that commonly lead to accidental omission are present. Furthermore, an ancient scribe would have had no reason to omit this reference intentionally, since it gives relevant information. Nor would the reference to an angel’s activity have been a problem for a scribe; the mss that omit this passage freely include references to angels in other parts of the Gospels. On the other hand, if John did not originally include this explanation of the popular belief in the curative power of the pool, it would have been a very natural thing for an early copyist who knew of the tradition to add it. Indeed, a scribe might have put these words in the margin of his ms not intending to add them to the text of the gospel but simply giving a note to explain what happened at the pool. A later scribe, seeing the note in the margin of the ms as he was copying from it, might then have taken it to be a part of the gospel text that had been accidentally omitted and later added in the margin (which was done at times) and on that basis have incorporated it into his ms. The addition would then have been included in all further copies made from this ms.
Additional evidence against the likelihood that this passage was in the original ms is the fact that six or seven words or phrases in it are not used anywhere else in John’s gospel; indeed, three of the words are found nowhere else in the New Testament.
As for ms evidence, the passage is omitted in the best part of the Alexandrian text, including two of the oldest papyrus mss (𝔓66 and 𝔓75), as well as part of the Western text. It is included by the Byzantine text and the Caesarean mss and by some witnesses of the other two text-types. Many mss that include the passage have notations indicating that it was not considered to be a part of the original text. Both the internal and the strong external evidence make it clear that this explanatory note was not part of John’s text but was added later.
There are two significant passages in the New Testament in which a textual variant involves several verses. One of these is John 7:53–8:11, the story of the woman taken in adultery. The question here is not whether the story is true—as John 20:30 reminds us, Jesus did many things that are not recorded in the Gospels—but simply whether John included this story when he wrote his gospel.
Let us look at the external evidence first. We would not question the passage if it were present in all of the mss, but it is omitted by the Alexandrian text—including Codices Aleph (א) and B and two of the oldest papyri (𝔓66 and 𝔓75)—as well as by the Western text, some of the Caesarean witnesses, and by a variety of versions and church fathers. Other mss include the passage here but with notations indicating doubt that it is genuine. Still other mss place the story after Luke 21:38, after John 7:36, at the very end of Luke, or at the very end of John. Furthermore, the story is not commented on by any Greek church father until the twelfth century, and the first Greek father who does so states that accurate copies of the gospel do not contain the passage. In view of the vast extent of ancient commentaries on the New Testament, it would be incredible that they would not have dealt with a story such as this if the church fathers had considered it a genuine part of John’s gospel.
Among witnesses that include this passage at this point with no indication of doubt concerning it are part of the Western text, the Byzantine text, and some other mss and Latin church fathers that are not classified under the recognized text-types. The ms evidence, then, is decisively against considering this passage as an original part of John’s gospel.
Turning to internal evidence, the passage is obviously too long to have been omitted accidentally from more than one or two mss. But could it have been omitted intentionally by scribes who felt that the story dealt too leniently with a sin as serious as adultery? This seems unlikely, inasmuch as there is no indication that any scribes attempted to delete either the story in Luke 7:36–50 of the gentle treatment that Jesus gave to the “sinful woman” who anointed his feet or the statement in Luke 23:43 of Jesus’ promise of forgiveness to the repentant thief on the cross. Furthermore, if a scribe had wished to delete this story, there would have been no necessity for him to eliminate 7:50–8:2, which would have joined well with 8:12.
It is especially significant to observe that this passage contains many Greek words and forms of words that are not in harmony with the style or vocabulary of the rest of the gospel. Indeed, one scholar pointed out a number of years ago that the passage more closely resembles the vocabulary and style of Luke than of John. In the final analysis, then, although this story may very well be true, since it is not inconsistent with other gospel accounts about Jesus, it is nevertheless clear that it cannot be called a part of the inspired gospel record.
The second of these major textual problems involves the ending of Mark. The Alexandrian Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (Aleph [א] and B) both omit Mark 16:9–20, as does the second-century church father Cyril of Alexandria and a few other witnesses. In addition, the Ammonian Sections (a system of section divisions for each of the gospels developed in the early fourth century that is something like our verse divisions but generally longer) stop at Mark 16:8. Two third-century church fathers who quote Scripture very extensively make no reference to these closing verses in their writings. Among the mss that do contain these verses, some have notations indicating that there is doubt that they are part of the original text, while others insert the following brief passage before verse 9 to smooth the otherwise rough transition between verses 8 and 9: “Then they briefly reported all this to Peter and his companions. Afterward Jesus himself sent them out from east to west with the sacred and unfailing message of salvation that gives eternal life. Amen” (nlt). In addition, one fifth-century ms also includes a ninety-word addition following verse 14.
Although the great majority of the mss and versions do contain verses 9–20, the evidence for the omission of these verses is too strong to be passed over. Let us consider the factors involved.
If the Greek text of 16:9–20 harmonized with the rest of the gospel, we would be inclined to suppose that these verses had been accidentally omitted from the witnesses mentioned above. For one thing, if the verses are omitted, the gospel is left with no record of the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection. Indeed, the gospel without these verses ends on a note of pessimism and frustration: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” More than this, the final word in the Greek text is the conjunction “for” (“because” in the niv). The Greek “for” cannot stand first in a clause, so it follows the Greek verb “they were afraid” here. However, ending a sentence with “for,” while not impossible, would be somewhat unusual. The reader would normally expect more words to follow.
The problem, however, is not so simple. The words and forms in these verses are so different from the rest of the gospel that a student who had read Mark in Greek up to this point but had not read any of the rest of the New Testament in Greek would find himself in unfamiliar material in these last verses. Furthermore, as we have noted, the connection between verses 8 and 9 is exceedingly harsh. The subject changes from “the women” in verse 8 to “Jesus” in verse 9, and yet Jesus is not named. In verse 9 the writer tells us who Mary Magdalene is, although she has already been named in verse 1. There is another small but significant point. In the seven other instances in the New Testament in which the phrase “the first day of the week” occurs, including one instance in Mark 16:2, the Greek form is literally “day one” rather than “the first day.” Yet in Mark 16:9 the form is “the first day”—which sounds better in English but is not the characteristic New Testament form.
If, then, verses 9–20 are not an original part of the gospel, what do we make of the situation? One possibility is that the original ending of Mark was lost at a very early date and that a scribe wrote verses 9–20 in an attempt to supply a suitable ending for the gospel. Another is that despite the abruptness of the language, the original gospel ended at 16:8.
How might the final part of the gospel have been lost? Early in this book we noted that the original mss—the autographs—of the gospels were written on papyrus, likely in scroll form. When someone finished reading a scroll, the outer part of the scroll would be the end of the book if the reader did not bother to reroll it. It is possible that the autograph of Mark, or a very early copy, could have been left without being rerolled, in which case the last one or two spirals of the scroll could have been accidentally torn off. On the other hand, we also noted that at a very early date mss of the New Testament were also produced in codex form, like our present books; it is possible that even the original or at least one of the earliest copies was produced in this form. If this were the case, it would have been even easier for the final quire or the final one or two sheets to have been torn off accidentally, leaving the gospel with the abrupt ending at 16:8.
In summary, both external and internal evidence strongly indicates that verses 9–20 as we know them were not part of the gospel of Mark as originally written. The original ending of Mark may have been lost very soon after it was written. It is also possible that the original Gospel of Mark simply ended somewhat abruptly at 16:8.
 J. Harold Greenlee, The Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 87–103.
by C. F. Sitterly and J. H. Greenlee
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