The ‘missing verses’ in modern Bible translations

The ‘missing verses’ in modern Bible translations

Observant Bible readers sometimes notice that the verses in some passages skip a number. For example, in most modern translations, the text goes directly from Matthew 17:20 to 17:22. There is no verse 21. This can also be noticed in places like John 5:4 and Acts 8:37. In each case, there is a footnote that says that “some manuscripts add” before listing the words that are not in the main text.

This does seem a little confusing. When you add the information that the King James Version includes all of these “missing verses” into the main Bible text, it starts to look like a conspiracy. There are people who claim that the NIV and ESV have removed verses from the Bible for some sinister reason. If that was true, we should indeed be very concerned.

Conspiracies are interesting and exciting. However, the truth of this situation is less dramatic. It would not be true to say that the translators of the NIV and ESV have removed verses. To understand what is going on, we need to know a little about how we received our English translations of the Bible.

The Bible was not originally written in English; the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (with a little Aramaic in parts), and the New Testament was written in Greek. At the time of writing, and long afterwards, it was impossible to print or photocopy new copies of the Bible or any of the books that make it up. Everything was copied by hand. A scribe would have access to a manuscript of John’s gospel, for example, and he would then carefully copy it out onto another scroll. That scroll would then be sent to a church in another place, and the process was repeated. Over time, this meant that there were thousands of manuscripts of the whole Bible or parts of the Bible in many places around the known world. They have been found in such diverse places as Ethiopia, England, Russia and Syria.

Despite the many copies of copies made, the manuscripts are remarkably similar to one another. The differences are very minor. Maybe a word here or there, a phrase in some places. The scribes were very careful, knowing they were handling the word of God. They were human, so there are minor copying errors, but the differences are incredibly small.

The King James Version was written in 1611, and the translators aimed to produce an English translation in the common language of the time. They only had a small number of manuscripts to work with. The rise of archaeology as a serious endeavour came later than this, so most of the early and best quality manuscripts we now have were not yet discovered by 1611.

It is here that we get the explanation for the “missing verses”. There are a handful of places where all of the earliest and best manuscripts we have now simply do not have a phrase or sentence that was in the manuscripts used to underpin the KJV. All modern translations note this when a verse is skipped. This is not a conspiracy. The KJV translators did the best they could do with the manuscripts they had; they just did not have access to all of the manuscripts available today.

As the verses had been established for so long, the translators of the new versions didn’t change the versification. They just omitted any words not in the best manuscripts they had. Hence, the verses occasionally skip a number.

If you examine the verses that are skipped, you will see that they don’t change the meaning of the passages. Usually, the verses don’t impact the theology of the section in any way. If there was an intent to remove certain emphases in the Bible by modern translations, they would have removed verses more consistently. In the end, the conspiracy is a little bit of a non-issue. The KJV and the ESV and NIV are very close, and I would be happy for people to use any of them.

There are two longer sections that modern translations have a difference of opinion with the KJV, but that will need to be the subject of the next blog post.