“The earliest manscripts do not include this section…”

“The earliest manscripts do not include this section…”

In the last blog post, we looked at the issue of the “missing verses” in the modern translations of the Bible compared to the King James Version. There are, however, two longer sections that need some explanation. They are the ending to Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:9-20) and the episode of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11. In both of these cases, the ESV inserts this text above the section:

“The earliest manuscripts do not include [this section]”.

The translators are signalling something important to us here. The fact is, for both of these sections, all of the best and earliest manuscripts do not have these episodes at all. The translators of the NIV and ESV and other modern translations would rather put these sections in the footnotes rather than the main text. They cannot do this, however, because the passages were in the KJV. If they removed them altogether, they are open to the charge of removing sections from the Bible, even if that charge is not true (see the earlier blog post for a more detailed explanation of the issues).

These sections of the text should not be seen as part of the Bible. They were not there in the earliest manuscripts and are only found in later ones. What does this mean? It means that some well-meaning scribe inserted them at some point. After that insertion, all copies tended to include these episodes as well. As we count the infallible word of God as what was written in the original manuscripts, it is clear these passages should not be there at all.

Let’s have a brief look at these two episodes in turn.

The longer ending of Mark’s Gospel is fascinating and disturbing. It is the only place that says that the signs that accompany those who believe will include casting out demons and drinking deadly poison that won’t harm them. It is out of step with the rest of the New Testament witness. It is also easy to see how this ending might have been added by a well-meaning scribe. Without it, Mark’s Gospel ends with “for they were afraid.” This doesn’t sound triumphant enough, so a more positive ending was added.

The episode in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery is a little different. There is nothing theologically unusual about this section. Indeed, it might well be a true event; we do know that Jesus did many things that were not recorded in the Gospels (John 20:30). Maybe it was a true account looking for a home, and some well-meaning scribe decided to add it into John’s Gospel while copying it. That fits the evidence from the manuscripts we have. This episode sometimes turns up a little earlier in John’s Gospel, or at the end, or towards the end of Luke’s Gospel. There is no other episode like this that can be found in such a variety of different locations. The truth is that all the earliest manuscripts don’t have this episode at all; memorable as it might be, it was not included in the Gospel when John the apostle wrote it down. Therefore, it should not be in our modern Bibles either.

Don’t let these manuscript issues disturb you. They are not major, and 99% or more of the Bible lines up perfectly across translations and manuscripts. There is no conspiracy to remove sections from the Bible. All we need to know is a little history and understand how we received our English Bibles, and these seemingly sinister issues can be easily explained.