Why We Don’t Clean Up the Bible

A Depiction of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Vasily Polenov, 1888

Ever had junk accumulate around your house until you finally got so sick of seeing it every day that you did some major purging? Sell it, give it away, throw it away -who cares, as long as the mess goes away? What about the Bible? Is there accumulated junk in the Bible? And if there were, shouldn’t it be eliminated?

Well, there actually are some cases of questionable material in the Bible. That may come as a shock for some Christians, while some skeptics might be saying, “Tell me something I don’t know.” But not so fast. While skeptics like Bart Ehrman make much of the textual variants between different manuscripts, like copying errors, and scribal additions and deletions, the vast majority of these variants are typos and spelling differences.  Also, the enormous quantity (and quality) of manuscripts from different times and places  allows us to trace the development of these differences and have a high degree of confidence in what the originals said. For more on the fascinating field of textual criticism, I’d encourage you to check out Dr. Daniel Wallace’s work.[1] But what about cases like the Pericope Adulterae, the story of the woman caught in adultery found in John 7:53-8:12? This is a favorite story of many Christians, but the evidence weighs heavily against it being an authentic part of John’s gospel.  If that’s the case, and we really are concerned about truth – especially in our Holy Scriptures – why does it remain in the Bible?

To answer that, let me provide a more contemporary example. Four of the states I’m licensed in fall under new design provisions for tsunamis that are being introduced for the first time in the US later this year. In the course of researching the new provisions, I came across an interesting article on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s  website regarding their investigation and compilation of historical weather data [2].  While tsunamis and hurricanes can both generate large amounts of flooding, they have fundamentally different causes. Hurricanes are atmospheric events, while tsunamis are ground events (typically earthquake-induced, but also possible from landslides, like a 600′ high tsunami in Alaska in 2015 [3]). As it stands now, only the western coast of the US and Hawaii are considered in the new tsunami risk maps, due to two fault lines of the type that can cause tsunamis. But if a tsunami had been recorded on the east coast or gulf coast, then there would be obvious precedent for requiring us engineers to consider that risk in our designs in those areas as well. Well, there was a particular case in 1909 of a reported “tidal wave” sweeping over Grand Isle, Louisiana after a hurricane, killing hundreds. Was this tragic event tied to the hurricane, or was there an earthquake along an unmapped fault line in the gulf? Further investigation and computer simulation of the storm revealed the “tidal wave” to be part of the hurricane storm surge. While no less tragic for the families of those killed, establishing the true cause of past events like this helps us to design for them correctly and save lives in the future. Now, did NOAA delete this entry out of their Tsunami database? No, and here’s their reasoning:

So how does NOAA handle a spurious data record like this one? Do we delete the record? Oddly enough, we leave it in! We include notations that “debunk” the original tsunami designation, set the validity field to 0 (not a tsunami), and indicate that this event is of meteorological origin. If we removed the record entirely, it is likely that it would show up again in some future book or Web site, unopposed by the facts. Someone would email NOAA and say, “I found this great info about a tsunami in Louisiana in 1909. Why isn’t it listed it in your database?”

Can you see the application to biblical manuscripts? When copying manuscripts and confronted with questionable source material, scribes down through the centuries would typically err on the side of including the questionable material, just like NOAA did when they included the 1909 tidal wave in their database in 2002. But the scribes, like NOAA, would also add marginalia – margin notes and symbols – to denote concerns with the text of a passage. Now, if you’ve read almost any modern translation of the Bible, you’ve seen notes in the margin telling you things like, “Some early manuscripts do not contain this sentence”, or in the case of the adulterous woman passage, “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:12.” You’ll find similar statements at John 5:3, Mark 16:9-20, and 1 John 5:7-8. The idea is that it’s better to include questionable data, duly noted as such, than to possibly eliminate divinely inspired teaching. Then, later, as more and more manuscripts are discovered and catalogued, if the passage is confirmed to be authentic, it hasn’t been lost due to overzealous “cleaning.” And if it’s confirmed as not genuine, then it is noted as such in each translation, so nobody has to be fooled by an appeal to some “shocking, scandalous, newly discovered Bible verses, hidden for centuries.” Like NOAA, we want to be able to oppose any future challenges with the facts.

Indeed, Bible translations are remarkable in their transparency, noting suspect passages, textual variants, and alternate translations quite openly rather than trying to hide them. But that’s because integrity to God’s Word is of utmost importance to the Christian, and most especially to the translator with the sacred duty of making God’s Word known to people in their own language. Despite the skeptic’s cynicism, we Christians understand that we are accountable before God for how we handle His Word [2 Tim 2:15].  And woe to the one who tries to corrupt it [Rev 22:18-19]. That’s one reason why we don’t translate from previous translations, as some uninformed skeptics like to think. Rather, we go back to the original languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic), and retranslate them into the current vernacular of English, Spanish, German, and so on. And contrary to skeptics’ claims of Bible translation being like the “telephone game”, as we find more (and earlier) manuscripts, our translations become more authentic, not less. In fact, check out Daniel Wallace’s site [4] to see their extremely high-resolution (50 megapixel) photographs of many of the world’s surviving Greek manuscripts (350,000 images and counting). You simply can’t beat that kind of transparency: you can judge the translators’ interpretation of the source material for yourself. So stop blindly accepting the allegations of skeptics about the Bible and start reading all those margin notes yourself! Study up, take Dr. Wallace’s Credo House course on textual criticism like I did, learn some Greek or Hebrew, look at ancient manuscripts – dig deep!  If you do, you’ll find the Bible to be reliable in both its transmission and its content. But then the question remains: what are you gonna do with that discovery? Our Creator, who gave us the message that is the Bible, doesn’t want to be your hobby, and He tells us as much in there. There’s something to think on next time you open up a Bible.


[1] http://www.credocourses.com/product/textual-criticism/
[2] https://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/magazine/tsunami_database/or_stormsurge.html
[3] https://www.adn.com/alaska-life/we-alaskans/2016/09/11/collapsing-alaska-mountains-southeast-alaska-landslides-and-tsunamis-on-the-rise/
[4] The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

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