Pastor’s Bookshelf: The Case of the Missing Bible Verse

For “Pastor’s Bookshelf” posts, I often write about books I’ve been reading for ministry.

A few months ago during the span of a couple days, I received the same exact question from about three different people (at Concord, as well as the Tucker Prison Program) about alleged “missing verses” in some translations. The question was basically: Why do some verses appear in some bibles, but not others? The verses in question were John 5:3b-4. I tried my best to answer this difficult issue, and this write up is based off of some information in a bible commentary I inherited from a retiring pastor–The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. This series of books is a go-to resource for sermon writing, and is especially useful for understanding confusing bible passages!


The Controversy

John 5:3b-4 has somewhat of a rocky history. Some Christians allege “lost or missing verses” in other translations. Christians on the other side of the debate argue that the opposing side “added verses to the bible.”

In the King James Version, this is how the section reads (verses 3-5 with the area of contention italicized):

3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.

4 For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

This section is treated differently by various bible translations:

  • As noted above, 3b-4 is clearly included in the King James Version.
  • New English and English Revised versions omit 3b-4 entirely (in other words, it jumps from 3a to verse 5).
  • New International and New King James versions place a footnote right after 3b-4 stating that some bible manuscripts have it, while the earliest manuscripts do not.

So what’s the deal? Why three different approaches?

Many modern bible scholars, basing their research on several ancient manuscripts of John’s gospel, believe that 3b-4 is what is known as an interpolation—a fancy word for a section added later to an original document. Reasons for “adding” 3b-4 vary and are impossible to know for sure. Perhaps the original author simply revised a previous copy of his or her text (so the earliest copies don’t have 3b-4). Maybe a student of said author inserted something to clarify a broader point.

Some Christians may assert King James is misleading or inaccurate since the oldest copies of John don’t have this verse. The truth, as is the case with many controversial issues, is more nuanced. Scholars in 1611 at the time of KJV writing were simply using the best resources available to them. Their primary document was a Greek translation called Textus Receptus, dated to around 1500 during the Middle Ages, based off of other Greek manuscripts. Since the time of the King James Version’s origin, older bible manuscripts and fragments have been discovered.

Most notably, P66, a near complete set of John’s gospel, was discovered in 1952 in Egypt. It is dated to around the year 200, much earlier than what the King James translators had access to. P66 provided much more insight into several sections of John that may have differed from later Greek versions like in 1500.

In P66, there is no mention of verse 3b-4. This is why most modern translations do not include the detail about the angel near the pool stirring the water. Scholars of modern translations assert that this thought was a later addition to the story—an interpolation.

Cultural Issues… Pagan Pools?

The history behind ancient healing pools from John 5 is also worth considering, too. During the 1st century AD, Romans often believed in divine healing from water gathered in certain bath areas known as ascelpeions. These areas were devoted to the pagan Roman god Asceplius. This healing god was alleged to “trouble the water” through an unseen spiritual force. Ancient peoples would often bathe and cleanse themselves in these pools in hopes that this Roman god would heal them.

From a Jewish perspective in the 1st century AD, however, pagan gods and spirits were obviously idolatrous and sinful. There is only one God—Yahweh. Yet at the same time, however, many people asserted they had been healed at these places (like with John 5). So, in order to explain the possible healing qualities of a particular pool of water, it was a popular Jewish belief that an angel would actually stir the water, instead of Asceplius. Roman gods do not exist, but God does, and God acts in supernatural ways through miracles.

Therefore, bible translators and scholars from the early church were faced with a dilemma with the story of the pool at Bethesda. In the oldest of fragments on John’s gospel, there was no mention of an angel “troubling” the waters. It simply states that people would gather there for healing. Would this text be OK on its own without some sort of anti-pagan footnote? Or might it be best to clarify John’s story of this healing by noting that healing comes from God via angelic powers?

This is how bible translations came to differ as the years progressed. Earliest texts make no mention of the angel stirring water, but some Christians in later centuries believed it best to explicitly note that God is different from pagan Roman practices. Therefore, we have some “missing verses” in this book of the bible.


Summary

My personal opinion on the matter is that I tend to side with the NIV’s and NKJV’s approach. In the New International and New King James, the translators have placed a footnote after verse 4, stating the brief issue concerning this “omitted” verse. It provides a thoughtful approach to this passage, that some manuscripts include this thought on angels, while others do not contain this interpolation.

In my reading of passages like this one, I believe there is no significant theological difference. Most “added” verses in the King James simply provide more context to a biblical thought. There are no contradictions. In fact, the so-called “missing verses” of John simply add a bit of unique history for any student of the bible.

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