Are people removing scripture from the Bible?

While it is not typically asked in such an “on the nose” way, this question has come up frequently. Are the translation committees that are tasked with creating new versions of the English Bible purposefully removing sections of scripture? If you spend any time on Facebook, you might have seen memes that claim such a thing. But even if you haven’t, the teenagers in your church have. What’s the answer, though? Are there really passages of scripture being removed from our Bibles?

Yes…sort of.

This isn’t something to be alarmed about, though. Unlike Thomas Jefferson’,[1] these modern translation committees are doing so with an attempt to present us with a more accurate Bible translation that’s closer to the original thing. But let me explain what I mean by way a few passages in the New Testament.

How’d We Get Our English New Testament?

The New Testament that we have in our English Bible’s is an “eclectic text.”

In other words, we don’t have the original documents that Paul, Matthew, or James wrote back in the first century A.D. Instead, what we have are thousands and thousands of copies of those documents. And, it’s often the case that archeologists discover small pieces of biblical books and not the whole thing. Many of our oldest manuscripts are very fragmented. For example, one of the oldest copies of the New Testament that we’ve found is a credit card sized fragment from chapter 18 of John’s Gospel that dates back to the late 100’s A.D.[2]

The oldest complete New Testament that we have is called Codex Sinaiticus and it was created sometime in the 400’s A.D. That means that this complete New Testament copy is 200-300 years younger than these fragmented pieces we’ve found. So, when scholars and Bible translators go to create a new English addition, they look at all of these texts, complete and fragmented, and piece them together to get the oldest reading that better reflects what the original might have said.  

And, more often than not, these manuscript copies line up. Sometimes a pronoun is different. There are cases where scribes have accidentally repeated or omitted words. And these mistakes are both easy to catch and theologically insignificant. The Bible is God’s inspired and inerrant word to us, that is, in its original form. Human error sometimes got in the way (especially before the printing press when scribes had to write this stuff out all by hand!)

A Few New Testament Examples

However, there are a few instances of larger manuscript disagreements. And this is usually what causes the “are people removing content from our Bibles” types of questions.

For example, the ending of the Gospel of Mark might be different depending on what version of the Bible you use.

Mark 16:9-20 is not found in oldest versions of Mark that we have (like Codex Sinaiticus). The early church Fathers also do not mention this ending in any of their writings. But without this, Mark’s gospel would end with the phrase “…for they were afraid” and it wouldn’t include any post-resurrection appearances. So, it seems natural that this would have bothered an ancient scribe. The best working theory as to why we now have this longer ending is that a scribe simply summarized the other Gospel endings and added this after 16:8 in Mark which then became the standard document to copy by others.

Another example is found in John 7:53-8:11.

The story of Jesus forgiving an adulterous woman, and consequently stopping her stoning by the religious elite, is not found in the earliest manuscripts we have. There is also internal evidence of this story not being original to John. If you read John chapters 7 and 8 but omit 7:53-8:11, the narrative flows better. It’s likely that this story wasn’t just made up out of thin air though. It was probably a true story about Jesus that a scribe wished to have included somewhere within scripture. I mean, John himself admits that much more could have been written about Jesus than what his Gospel attests to (John 21:25). Nevertheless, it’s likely that 7:53-8:11 wasn’t something that John himself originally recorded.

One last example of this is found at the end of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6.

As a kid, you might have memorized 6:13 as: “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil for yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.” Well, all of that bolded portion of Matthew 6:13 is actually not found in the earliest manuscripts we have of Matthew’s gospel (it isn’t in Sinaiticus or Vaticanus) nor do any of the earliest Church father’s have it within their writings. There’s nothing theologically wrong with this doxology, though, so it might have been the traditional way that early Christians prayed this prayer in their gatherings borrowing language from 1 Chronicles 29:11.[3] If this was the case, it is easy to see why a scribe might slip this into a copy of Matthew’s gospel.

What Does All This Mean for Us?

So, are there people who are intentionally removing scripture from our English Bibles? Yes. But it’s debatable whether or not this context was originally scripture in the first place. Nevertheless, and in light of this reality, here’s what we can take away from this whole process:

1. We shouldn’t allow this to cause us to doubt the reliability of scripture. The opposite, actually. We can be more confident that the Bibles we have are closer to the actual words of Matthew, Mark, John, etc.

2. We shouldn’t base our theology directly on these contested passages. The good news is there really isn’t anything “unique” contained in them anyways that other scripture doesn’t attest to already.  

3. We can trust and enjoy “newer” English translations and do not have to be afraid of the translation committees’ supposed agendas. The entire Bible is not up for grabs. But, as biblical scholars faithfully translate scripture from ancient manuscripts into modern English, they do sometimes find clear evidence for later insertions. Removing them (or putting them in the margins like good study Bibles do) just allows us to read more closely the original words of our holy God.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jefferson_Bible

[2] Google “Ryland’s Library Papyrus P52” if you’re interested in knowing more about that. It’s pretty neat!

[3] See Michael J. Wilkins, The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 280.  

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