By Mark L. Ward, Jr.
“Cast the first stone” is one of many biblical phrases that have become common expressions. So why are these words left out of some Bibles?
Well, they are and they aren’t: All the major modern English translations put the passage in which they occur (John 7:53–8:11, about the woman caught in adultery) in italics or brackets. They mark off this passage as if it doesn’t belong with the rest of the Bible—and they usually include some kind of explanatory note. Here’s what the New International Version says: “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53–8:11.”
So should we skip this particular story in our Bible reading? Should we correct someone who cites it in a Bible study? Should we—and this is the most important question—incorporate “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” into our picture of who Jesus is and how he treats sin?
We Christians are supposed to “live … by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4 ESV), but that’s hard to do if we’re not sure which words are truly his. The study of differences among biblical manuscripts is a field of scholarship called “textual criticism.” What do Christians need to know about it?
Early Manuscripts of the Bible
When the New International Version refers to “the earliest manuscripts,” it’s talking about handwritten copies of Bible texts. For the New Testament, we have nearly 6,000 manuscript copies of various sizes containing different portions of Scripture. Some of these manuscripts go back to ancient times, as early as a century or two after Jesus.
Until Gutenberg invented movable-type printing in the 15th century, every copy of the New Testament had to be made by hand. Have you ever used pen and paper to copy a whole page of text? If so, you almost certainly made mistakes. Humans are not computers; we cannot make perfect copies by hand once the text goes beyond a certain length.
People in the past were no different, so all the hand-copied Bibles that have survived the passage of the centuries have minor differences between them—differences that began showing up very early.
Among the thousands of New Testament manuscripts, some are tiny scraps of papyrus (paper made from reeds along the Nile River) with less than one verse on each side; some are full New Testaments written in beautiful calligraphy on carefully prepared animal hides (parchment). Out of this evidence, we have to figure out whether the story of the woman caught in adultery belongs in Scripture. This is what textual criticism is all about.
The Two Biggest Textual Variations in the New Testament
John 7:53–8:11 is one of two—and only two—lengthy and substantial differences among New Testament manuscripts. The other is Mark 16:9–20, an account of Jesus’ ministry after his resurrection. Each of these passages is bracketed out by all the major modern English translations of the Bible.
The story of the woman caught in adultery appears in some very early manuscripts but not in others—and sometimes it appears at different points of the narrative, both in John and in Luke. Despite these variations, the translators behind the King James Version (published in 1611) chose to include the passage without an explanation. The translators of the New International Version (first released in 1984) made a different decision. In their view, the variations were significant enough that readers should be made aware—and that’s why the NIV includes a note.
At the end of Mark’s Gospel, in chapter 16, some manuscripts stop at verse 8 while others include verses 9–20, often called the “longer ending of Mark.” There are, in fact, four different endings to Mark found in various manuscripts. But don’t worry that you might be missing out on something God has said. Most modern English translations include Mark 16:9–20, along with a note to explain the variation (just as they do for John 7:53–8:11).
Do these passages belong in our picture of Jesus? It’s not perfectly clear. God did not choose to give us exhaustive certainty about the validity of these verses.
The vast majority of differences between biblical manuscripts are so minor that they make no difference to meaning—and quite a lot of them don’t even show up in translation. For example, some Greek manuscripts spell King David’s name as Dabid, while others use Daouid (spelling was not fixed in Greek until the printing press came along). But no one is confused; both spellings are properly translated into English as “David.”
Even when the differences do show up in translation, they rarely make a difference in meaning. Below are three examples from Matthew 1. Each compares two English translations based on different editions of the Greek New Testament—the “Textus Receptus” (the “received text”) and the “Critical Text” (produced by modern textual criticism). The King James Version, which is based on the Textus Receptus, is on top. Underneath is what the KJV would look like if it used the Critical Text instead. The differences between the two readings are highlighted.1
In Matthew 1:6, the Textus Receptus follows ancient manuscripts that call David “the king” twice. Based on this Greek edition, the KJV (on top) includes the repeated words in English.
Other ancient Greek manuscripts don’t repeat “the king.” When the editors of the Critical Text assessed all the manuscript evidence, they determined that the repetition probably originated from the copying process: at some point, one scribe inadvertently repeated the words “the king,” and this variation was copied by later scribes (thus becoming more common in the trail of manuscripts).
Because the Critical Text editors were trying to reconstruct the earliest version of Matthew, they decided to call David “the king” only once. Although this translation reads differently, it doesn’t alter the meaning of the verse.
In Matthew 1:18, the Textus Receptus includes an “as” that the Critical Text does not, but again—there’s no discernible difference in meaning.
In Matthew 1:25, I can’t discern a real difference. Can you?
Other verses in the passage clarify multiple times that Mary is a virgin, so of course Jesus is “her firstborn.” Perhaps “firstborn” is intended to imply that Mary later had other children. But once again, there’s no significant difference in meaning.
Troubled by Textual Variations?
Even these minor variations among Bible texts might leave us feeling uncomfortable, but we have to submit to the Bible God gave us, not the one we might wish for. Although there are plenty of questions about the Greek text of the New Testament, we’re still left with a lot of certainties.
For example, consider 2 Timothy 3, which includes perhaps the most important comment on what the Bible is: “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” Between the Textus Receptus and the Critical Text, this chapter has exactly zero textual differences that show up in translation (see for yourself at KJVParallelBible.org/2-timothy-3/). If two English translations differ—such as “breathed out by God” vs. “given by inspiration of God”—it’s because Bible translators had different strategies for communicating the same Greek statements to English readers.
Ultimately, the variations across biblical manuscripts—and the translation differences we find in English versions—make little impact when it comes to the meaning of Scripture. But if you’re still troubled by textual variations, think of this: no Christian denomination holds distinctive doctrines based on differences in the Greek or Hebrew texts of Scripture.2
Confidence in the Bible
How much attention you give to textual criticism depends on your gifting, calling, and interest level. If you’re often talking about the Bible with non-Christians, for instance, it helps to be aware of this field of scholarship. In recent years, claims that the Bible is unreliable have gained traction, often from unbelieving writers who overstate the significance of textual variants in their effort to destabilize people’s faith.
But most Christians just need a basic awareness of the general issues—enough knowledge so they can (1) have confidence in Scripture, and (2) understand the occasional textual notes they come across in their Bible study.
Here’s the bottom line: The differences between biblical manuscripts are minor—like typos—and do not cast doubt on the overall truth, message, or integrity of the Bible.
1 Images of these examples are from KJVParallelBible.org.
2 To see this for yourself, just explore any systematic theology written from any doctrinal perspective. It will put Bible references in parentheses—such as “(John 3:16)”—without ever specifying which Bible translation you should use to look them up.