Who’s Messing with the Bible? The NIV and Those Missing Verses

The different translations of the Bible available at your local LifeWay sound like President Roosevelt’s alphabet soup: Whereas FDR had the NRA, TVA, FHA, and the WPA, LifeWay sells the NIV, KJV, ESV, and CSB, to name but a few bestsellers. Further complicating our baptized alphabet soup are the strong opinions Christians hold about the different translations: Ask enough Christians and you’re sure to come across someone who would find it shocking that I preach from the NIV because the NIV has removed words and entire verses from the Bible! After all, if the KJV was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!

Though I’ll return to the differences between the versions of the Bible in the coming weeks, I want to camp out on the question of why there are missing verses in the NIV. Here’s my thesis statement: All Christians who respect the Bible and understand why the translators removed verses will agree that the verses needed to be removed. There are two moving parts in that previous sentence: First, we need to understand what it means to respect the Bible. Then, we’ll discuss why the translators removed certain verses.

Respecting the Bible

First, let’s do some theology: To respect the Bible means that we believe that God inspired the original authors to write the original copies of each biblical book; since God inspired the original, the original is authoritative for doctrine and praxis. Our modern Bibles are thus only authoritative insofar as they reflect the content of the original copy. If I write a book, bind it in leather, and call it the Bible, it’s not authoritative because it doesn’t reflect the content of the original copies of the Bible. A Bible verse is authoritative if and only if it was in the original copy coming from the hand of the person whom God inspired. If we become convinced that any given verse was not in the original copy of the biblical book, then we should remove it from our modern translations because it is not authoritative.

Removing Verses

The first thing we need to grasp in order to understand why the NIV (and other modern translations) is missing verses is where we get our modern Bibles. For starters, the Bible wasn’t written in English, not even in ye olde King James English! Instead, the Bible is a large anthology of ancient writings written over thousands of years in three different languages on multiple continents by at least forty authors. The problem in all of this is that we don’t have any of the original copies: We don’t have the copy of Galatians with Paul’s fingerprints on it, we don’t have a copy of Isaiah in Isaiah’s handwriting, and we don’t have the copy of John that the apostle himself wrote. These original copies have been lost to history never to be seen again. Instead of the originals, we have copies of the originals—lots of copies.

Not having the originals is not uncommon when dealing with ancient writings, however. Instead of hoping for the originals, scholars hope for lots of copies of the originals because they can figure out what the original said by comparing the copies to one another. The more copies we have, the more confident we can be that we know what the original said. Here’s some good news: We have lots of copies of the New Testament. To give you a point of reference, we have 5,366 copies of the Greek New Testament; Homer’s Iliad—the ancient writing with the second highest number of copies—has 643 copies.[1] We do indeed have lots of ancient copies of the Bible!

Since we don’t have the originals, scholars compare the thousands of copies of the Bible in its original languages to one another in order to ascertain the original reading which is then printed in our modern Bibles. Obviously, if the overwhelming majority of our copies of the Hebrew Old Testament say the same thing for Genesis 1.1, we’re justified in saying that we know what the original said. Scholars are certain about the original text said for at least 97% of the New Testament and at least 90% of the Old Testament.[2] When things get interesting is when the copies say different things, which is not rare by any means.

The reason that the copies may have different readings is due to human error in transmission. Until very recently, there was no such thing as a printer; in the time before printers, the only way to have another copy of any book—including the Bible—was for some poor soul, whom they called a scribe, to sit down and copy the book by hand. I hope you see the problem here: People have an amazing propensity to mess things up!

While copying the Bible, scribes might occasionally skip a line on accident. Or, if a word was repeated twice in a row, they might miss one of the occurrences. Occasionally, the scribes might misspell a word, or even change the spelling of a word—remember that standardized spelling is a fairly recent phenomenon. Sometimes, the changes weren’t so innocent: Scribes would attempt to smooth out difficult passages or to put their theology into the text. These small changes might then be compounded as another scribe copied a mistake made by a previous scribe.

However, I don’t want to paint too grim a picture. The truth is that the scribes were usually remarkably meticulous in their work. The scribes who copied the Hebrew Old Testament, for example, knew how many words were in each book of the Old Testament; if they wanted to make sure a manuscript was perfect, they could count the words. They also kept meticulous records of where oddities were located so that they could ensure that the oddities were preserved. For example, in a Hebrew Bible, Deuteronomy 6.4 has two letters that are about twice the size of the rest of the letters; the scribes simply took note of and preserved the oddity. Nevertheless, sometimes mistakes got past the scribes and made it into our copies of the Bible.

Consider a few examples of different readings among our copies of the Bible: 1 Thessalonians 2.7 has two different readings in the copies of the Greek New Testament. The original said either that Paul, Silas, and Timothy were “little children,” or it said that they were “gentle.” The difference is only one letter in the Greek text. Those who translated your Bible had to decide whether they believe the letter was added or left out.

Another example: My NIV Bible does not have Acts 8.37. In the King James Version, Acts 8.37 contains Philip’s response to the Ethiopian Eunuch’s baptism request: “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest [be baptized].” The Eunuch then responds: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” That’s a touching story and some great theology! The problem, however, is that many copies of the Greek New Testament don’t have this verse. The translators of modern versions—who have much better manuscripts than the KJV translators did—believe that Acts 8.37 was not in the original copy of Acts; since they’re committed to what the original copy actually said, they left it out. The reason is that it’s more likely that a scribe added this verse to build up the theology it contains than it is that a scribe skipped the verse. In a turn of irony, then, it seems that modern translations haven’t deleted verses, but that older translations have extra verses!

Here’s an important point: Even though there are portions of the Bible we’re unsure about, we are certain that we have the original reading for the overwhelming majority of scripture. What’s more, not a single essential Christian doctrine is based upon one of the questionable portions of scripture. We can read our modern translations and be quite confident that what we’re reading is what the original authors wrote.

Modern translations have removed verses that the KJV contained; the reason, however, is not that the translators didn’t agree with theology, are trying to change the Bible, or are trying to improve God’s word. The reason is that the translators have a high respect for what God said to humanity in the Bible, and they want to make sure that we are correctly understanding God’s word. The verses they’re removing are verses that were not in the original copies of scripture and are thus not inspired by God; these verses should not have been in the Bible in the first place, and they do not belong in our translations.

Notes & Sources

[1] Josh McDowell, Evidence for Christianity: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 65.

[2] Willian Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 122.

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