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The Canon – Part 7: Intentional Changes in the Manuscripts

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In the previous part of this series, we talked about the manuscripts, the textual witnesses, and what changes were made unintentionally.

Before that, however, in “The Canon – Part 5: The Comma Johanneum“, we had already considered in detail 1 John 5:7,8, a very famous example of an intentional change. Was this a rare exception? As early as the 2nd century, a pagan critic of Christians named Celsus argued that Christians change their texts entirely as they see fit. Interestingly, Origines did not deny this in his rebuttal, but spoke of a large number of differences in the manuscripts of the Gospels. A little over a century later, Pope Damasus was so concerned about the differences in the Latin manuscripts that he commissioned Jerome to produce a standardized text, which then became part of the Vulgate. And already he had to compare different manuscripts in Latin and Greek that differed from each other.

Deliberate Mistakes

Some changes were inserted when copying a manuscript because it was believed that a marginal note (gloss) or insertion between the lines was not an additional comment but actually belonged in the text. And some of these are still found in current translations and are not always indicated by a footnote. For example, in Revelation 20:5.

The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years were complete. This is the first resurrection.

Revelation 20:5 BSB

The first sentence is missing in Codex Sinaticus, Codex Vaticanus, and the Aramaic texts (see this article). The translators of the 2001 Translation note:

This familiar description of the resurrection has been quoted for years and used as a basis for many religious doctrines. However, the words shown in italics above aren’t found in the Bible’s oldest Greek manuscript of the Revelation, the Codex Sinaiticus. Nor are they found in the oldest Aramaic manuscript, the Khabouris Codex.
Therefore, they appear to be a later, spurious addition to the Bible, and this is why we have chosen to cross them out. They’re probably some ancient preacher’s personal notes which he had written between the lines; they were likely moved into the main text by later copyists who couldn’t tell if they were part of the original text or not.

Comment 2001 Translation on Revelation 20:5

But you can also mislead the reader a bit more:

(The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years were ended.) This is the first resurrection

“Therefore, when you catch sight of the disgusting thing that causes desolation, as spoken about by Daniel the prophet, standing in a holy place (let the reader use discernment),, …

Revelation 20:5; Matthew 24:15 New World Translation

Who once has read the insertion in brackets in Matthew 24:15, will assume in Revelation 20:5 in the same translation that this is just as much a insertion. After all, in the old NWT one could still read in the footnote: “”The rest of the dead . . . 1,000 years were ended,” AVg; missing in אSyp.” In the current edition this footnote is missing. Revelation 20:5 is just very important for the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, the first part, which is not included in the oldest manuscripts and is later found in various places as a marginal note in some manuscripts, cannot be considered as certain. And therefore it is a good example that one should be careful when a certain teaching is based on only one text.

Intentional Changes

[Examples from Bart D. Ehrman Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bibel and Why, Chapter 3]

In Mark 1:2,3 we read:

 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” —

Mark 1:2 NIV

The problem is that not only Isaiah is quoted here, but also Malachi and Genesis. That is why some writers have changed it to “as it is written in the prophets“ (see King James Bibel for example).

Another example is Matthew 24:36:

“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.

Matthew 24:36 ESV and NKJV (and KJV)

Some writers must have wondered how this could be: The Son of God does not know? Is he not also omniscient? The text was probably also used as an argument against the Trinity. That was what they wanted to prevent. And so the part “not even the Son” was left out.

In Matthew 17:12-13, some copyists wanted to prevent the misunderstanding that John the Baptist was the Son of Man. And so they added the explanation: “his disciples recognized that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist”.

A whole series of other changes were made so that the text could not be used by ‘heretics’.

For example, in Luke 5:38-39.

No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’ ”

Luke 5:38-39 NIV

When in the second century there was a movement among the Christians who were convinced that the old religion of the Jews was completely overtaken by the new religion of the Christians, the conclusion of this text was suspicious to them: How could Jesus say that the old wine is better than the new one? And so copyists simply left out the last part.

For some copyists, it was also not enough that Jesus is not called the son of Joseph in Matthew 1:16. Instead of Joseph being Mary’s husband, they changed the text so that he was only the fiancé. Jesus was not allowed to have a human father in any case.

When an ascetic lifestyle became more important to some Christians, they added ‘ and fasting’ in Mark 9:29:

And He said to them, “This kind is able to go out by nothing except by prayer.”

So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.”

Mark 9:29 Berean Literal Bible, New King James Version

One of the most famous liturgical changes is that of the Lord’s prayer in Luke. The prayer in Luke seems hopelessly abbreviated compared to the familiar words in Matthew 6:9-13, so copyists have ‘harmonized’ the text in Luke and simply inserted parts from Matthew into Luke.

In some translations, even today, you can read an account that reminds you more of the Apocrypha:

In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, [waiting for the moving of the waters; 4for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.]

John 5:3,4 NASB 1995

In the oldest and best manuscripts, there is no movement of the water and the reason for it. Due to the oral tradition, this part was added later by copyists. According to the oldest and best manuscripts we read only:

Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.

Johannes 5:3,4 NIV; according to the oldest and best manuscripts

However, there are other intentional changes to the text that have a greater impact on the central message and teachings of the text.

Jesus Christ was full of love and compassion, wasn’t he? For example, Mark 1:41 says

 Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” He said. “Be clean!”

Mark 1:41 BSB

Many will know the text and it probably touches us all. But in another translation we can read:

Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”

Markus 1:41 NIV

In one of the oldest textual witnesses, however, the Codex Bezae, and three Latin manuscripts, we thus find the word orgistheis (to be angry) instead of the Greek word splangnistheis (to have compassion). Based on these textual witnesses, we can assume that this textual variant dates back to the second century. But can it be that Jesus is angry or resentful? He is never portrayed that way in Luke and Matthew. Many scholars assume that Mark was a source for both. But even when they do give a fairly accurate account of the text from Mark, it omits that Jesus was angry. But also in Mark 3:5 we can read that ‘he looked around at them with anger’. And according to Mark 10:14, he was even angry or displeased with his disciples. Both Matthew and Luke report the same thing, but without mentioning Jesus’ feelings. And finally, according to Mark 1:43, he also ‘snapped at’, ‘threatened’, ‘sternly rebuked’ the sick man.

Could it be that our image of Jesus is too much influenced by the Gospel of Matthew, Luke and especially John. And we ignore the nature of Jesus according to the Gospel of Mark? We would not be the first to do so. Some copyists in the earliest history of Christians changed the text of the manuscripts because of this.

Thus, Jesus is portrayed in Luke’s Gospel as being unshakeable by anything. Except for his prayer on the Mount of Olives according to Luke 22:39-46.

saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. When He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping from sorrow,

Luke 22:42-45 NASB

In some of the oldest and best manuscripts (in ‘Alexandrian’ texts) the crossed out words are not found. But in some other ancient textual witnesses. Therefore, scholars are still debating whether these words are from Luke or not. And even though this text may not affect any central dogma, it changes the picture of Jesus considerably. And there were already very, very early different versions of this gospel.

And also in Hebrews 2:8-9, a teaching about Jesus’ death is involved:

But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Hebrew 2:9 NIV

Most of the textual witnesses contain the idea that Jesus suffered death “by the grace of God”. But what does that mean? But in some other textual witnesses it says that Jesus died “separated from God”. And Origines writes in the early 3rd century that this was found in most manuscripts of his time. I wonder what was in the autograph? We don’t know. And not even Origines in the early 3rd century could figure it out. Both variants have interesting theological consequences. In the context of this series, let us note: It is an example of a text where we do not know what is ‘right’ from the 3rd century until today. The text has not been handed down to us by God in a clear and certain way.

Intentional, theologically motivated changes to the text

Let us give just a few more examples of intentional changes to the text, where we can see which view among Christians this was directed against. These different movement and their importance for the development of the canon of Christian scriptures will be discussed in a later part of this series.

Against Dynamic Monarchianism or Adoptianism

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, there were a number of Christian groups that advocated dynamic monarchianism or Adoptianism (see Wikipedia or Bart D. Ehrmann, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, ch. 6). The best known group was that of the Judeo-Christian sect of Ebionites. For one thing, they insisted that all followers of Jesus must also become Jews. They were also strict monotheists in the sense that for them only God the Father could have a divine nature. Jesus did not exist as a man before his birth. He was ‘adopted’ by God as a son at his baptism because of his special righteousness. Because of his faithfulness to the point of death on the cross, God rewarded him by raising him up and exalting him to heaven.

Dhis view, however, contradicted the developing doctrine of the Trinity held by the proto-orthodox church. Therefore, someone changed the text of 1 Timothy 3:16 in a way that can be found even today in Bibles:

And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.

1 Timothy 3:16 KJV

In the earliest manuscripts, however, such as the Codex Alexandrinus, this is found:

By common confession, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was proclaimed among the nations, was believed in throughout the world, was taken up in glory.

1 Timothy 3:16 BSB

From ‘he’, which clearly referred to Jesus, became ‘God’. In Greek, a slight difference from ΟΣ to ΘΣ (as an abbreviation for ΘΕΟΣ, God). Thus it came about that many Christians over nearly 2,000 years found in this text the idea that God was revealed in the flesh. Since this is a central doctrine of the Christian churches, this has not been a minor change.

For a similar reason, you can still find this today:

And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.

Luke 2:33 KJV

Whereas in many other translation you can read:

The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.

Luke 2:33 NIV

A large number of copyists substituted Father for Joseph because they wanted to avoid giving the impression that Jesus had a human father, which would have helped the adoptionists in their argument.

As said, the disagreement was also about when Jesus became the Son of God. These texts are of interest in this context:

And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22 NIV

In an early Greek manuscript and various Latin ones, however, one finds this:

You are my son, today I have begotten you.

Early Greek manuscript, Latin manuscripts and quotations from the Church Fathers.

In fact, many church fathers quoted this text very often in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, that is, at a time before most of the textual witnesses were written. And what statement did they almost always quote? “Today I have begotten you”.

Against Docetism

Another group of Christians had the exact opposite view towards Adoptianism, which is called Docetism (Wikipedia). The name comes from the Greek word DOKEO, which means ‘to appear as something’. According to this, Jesus was fully and exclusively divine. He only ‘appeared’ to be a man, because as God he could not also be man.

However, some copyists wanted to make sure that Jesus was very much a real man on earth. Therefore, they added the part about Jesus sweat like blood in Luke 22:43-45, which we have already discussed.

We find another addition in the description of the Lord’s Supper:

After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table.

Luke 22:17-21 NIV.

The crossed-out part is missing in one of the oldest Greek manuscripts and some Latin textual witnesses. Typical of an alteration is the alignment with the account in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. And the resulting circumstance that this unexpectedly mentions two cups: before and after the bread. Why the text was added can be seen, for example, in the writing of Tertullian Against Marcion: it was to emphasize that Jesus had a real body of flesh, which was also sacrificed. But we do not want to go into that here now.

Against the ‘Separationists

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries there was another movement that we could call ‘Separationists’, although this is not a common name. For them, there was Jesus, who was only human (as in the Adoptionists) as well as the Christ, only divine (as in Docetism). This idea is often found also among the Gnostics of that time.

We have already looked at one text that was changed to go against these ideas: Hebrews 2:9. The idea that Jesus died “apart from God” and not “by God’s grace” would have fit this idea all too well.

According to Irenaeus, Mark’s Gospel was the first choice of those who “separate Jesus from Christ.” Therefore, Mark 15:34 was changed:

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

Mark 15:34 NIV

There is solid evidence – e.g. in the Gospel of Philip, that some Gnostic groups interpreted this text very literally and considered it as the moment when the divine Christ separated from the human Jesus. Therefore, there are one Greek and several Latin manuscripts in which the copyists replaced the text with this: “My God, my God, why have you mocked me?” It was creative, because in the account of Jesus’ execution in Mark, almost everyone mocked him. But it is not in our earliest and best textual witnesses, nor does it fit the Aramaic text.

How are Differences Assessed?

Now that we have considered a whole range of intentional changes to the text, the question arises of how to evaluate such changes and differences. Several criteria should be considered to assess how reliable a word, text or passage is. (See the article in the forum).

An overview and explanation of falsified texts can be found in the articles in the forum (each text a separate article).

The 2001Translation translators cite these three criteria regarding manuscripts:

A. The words are missing from the prominent old manuscripts, especially the great codexes (e.g. Matthew 6:13).
This is direct evidence that the words were not always accepted as genuine.

B. The wording has different fundamental meanings in different manuscripts (e.g. Acts 7:16).
This suggests there was no original to check against, and could be common notes added by different people before being transposed into the text.

C. The words jump around in different places in different manuscripts (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:33).
This suggests that earlier copyists knew they were unoriginal, so they copied them in different places as marginal notes until, eventually, different copyists transposed it into the text wherever they found it.

2001Translation, see article in forum

There are also criteria that take into account the context:

D. The words are out of context and break the narrative (e.g. Matthew 27:52-53).
Original words would not do this, but later additions would. This, by itself, would not be enough evidence to declare a passage spurious.

E. They say factually incorrect things or don’t make sense (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:34).
The original inspired writers could not make silly mistakes, but later persons inserting fake words could easily do so.

F. The words reflect later dogmas that nobody believed at the time (e.g. 1 John 5:7-8).
An original writer would not say something that would require a time machine.

G. Removing the words allows the passage to flow better or to make more sense.
If a passage is spurious, removing it would make no difference or improve the text. Removing original words could break or worsen the passage (usually, but not always).

2001Translation, see articel in forum


As we have already seen from some examples, the text of the manuscripts was unfortunately also intentionally changed. On the one hand, because it was thought that a text in the margin or between the lines had only been forgotten and in reality belonged to the original text after all. In a number of cases, however, the text was also intentionally changed in order to promote a certain doctrine or to prevent other interpretations. And this demonstrably happened as early as the second century. Before that, we just don’t know anything. Often the reason was to exclude Christians with other interpretations of the text as heretics.

“The Bible is God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, fully inspired by God and thus containing exactly what God intended. It has been preserved for us to this day exactly as the Bible itself says so, every book, paragraph, sentence, word, comma and period.

So even if – as one translator of the 2001 translation noted – we were sure of 99.9% of the text, that would still mean that there are about 150 errors lurking in the text. In fact, it might be difficult to give an estimate here. And what is even more important for our question: For the last 2,000 years, all Christians have had a much, much worse text with many more errors. God has not perfectly preserved the ‘original text’, that is, the autographs.

On the other hand, we must not disproportionately interpret the facts and also what I just said. The facts prove that the extreme form of the statement, can not be held. But the facts also do not show that the text of the Christian scriptures is completely unreliable. And it is not at all about a binary statement: Do you believe that the text in the Bible is correct or not? Can you base your faith on it or should you leave it alone altogether?

The facts provide us with a better foundation: We can make statements about how reliable the text of the canon of Christian scriptures is. We do not make a blanket statement for the entire canon, but can determine, depending on the text, on the basis of the many textual witnesses, whether there were or are deviations or whether none are known. When we think about a biblical text, the very first thing we should do is to check how reliably it has been handed down.

Of course, a gap of many decades or even more remains between the autographs and earliest manuscripts. What changes there may have been during this time we cannot directly verify. Neither whether there were hardly any or many. We are left only to weigh a few considerations and trust in the faithful of the patristic period and the early church fathers who compared the texts with each other and with the oral tradition. And created the canon of Christian writings, as we will see in the next episode.

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