A Simple Introduction to Textual Criticism (John 5:3-4)

The careful reader of Scripture will likely at some point ask, “Why is there no verse 4 in chapter 5 of John’s Gospel?” If not this specific question, then one like it. There are numerous places one might turn for textual variations among English translations (both old and new). This brief article will not address the matter exhaustively, but it will provide an introductory explanation and basic defense of the affirmation of biblical reliability and fidelity.

First, let’s take a look at the particular passage in view, John 5:3-4.

King James Version

“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.”

New American Standard Bible

“3 In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, [waiting for the moving of the waters; 4 for 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.] (Notice: brackets are included by NASB translators)”

English Standard Version

“3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. (Notice: verses 3b and 4 are simply missing from this translation)”

Second, let’s consider why many translators include verses 3b and 4.

The reason why some English translations include the verses is that the text is included in the majority of later manuscripts.[1] Manuscripts are the multitude of copies of the original biblical text, dated at various points throughout human history. While we have no original documents, the vast number of manuscripts gives us a great deal of confidence regarding the content of the originals. Because most manuscripts available to translators during the time of their translation do include verses 3b and 4, several groups of translators have believed it prudent to include the verses in their translation.

One translation that includes the disputed verses is the King James Version (KJV), also known as the Authorized Version (AV), which was originally published in 1611 and revised for spelling and vocabulary in 1769 by Dr. Benjamin Blayney. The KJV is based on many sources, including the Septuagint [LXX], the Latin Vulgate, Textus Receptus (TR), Erasmus’ Greek NT, many available manuscripts, and William Tyndale’s translation work. In fact, Tyndale’s translation accounts for 84% of the New Testament and more than 75% of the Old Testament.[2]

Another translation containing verse 3b and 4 is the American Standard Version (ASV), which is grounded in the KJV and originally published in 1901. It was updated in the form of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), published in 1952 and 1989 respectively. However, both later translations omitted the disputed text.

The most recent translation to keep the curious verses is the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which was grounded in the ASV and KJV, originally published in 1960, and most recently updated in 1995. The clear demarcation of brackets around these verses (as noted above), and other included-but-dubious texts, makes this translation a good combination of historical gratitude and biblical fidelity.

These translations and others, which include verses 3b and 4, are not unfaithful for doing so. These translations are not deceptive, nor are they lacking in integrity. These translations, like all faithful ones, seek to bring the original text of infallible and inerrant Scripture to the contemporary reader through the use of fallible and imperfect translations. Such an effort is commendable and greatly appreciated.

However, the reality is that translations do require perennial critical review and appropriate responses to the findings. The Committee of translators of the NRSV (which excludes verses 3b and 4) explained the situation well in their preface.

“This preface is… to explain, as briefly as possible, the origin and character of our work… To summarize in a single sentence: the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is an authorized revision of the Revised Standard Version, published in 1952, which was a revision of the American Standard Version, published in 1901, which, in turn, embodied earlier revisions of the King James Version, published in 1611… With good reason [the KJV] has been termed ‘the noblest monument of English prose…’ We owe to it an incalculable debt. Yet the KJV has serious defects. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the development of biblical studies and the discovery of many biblical manuscripts more ancient than those on which the KJV was based made it apparent that these defects were so many as to call for revision.”[3]

The message is clear: we continually discover more manuscripts, encounter earlier manuscripts, and advance in our efforts and methods in the field of biblical studies. This necessarily will lead to the criticism of past work in the field of translation, as well as other fields.

The translators of the original King James Version of the Bible believed that this kind of criticism was what they were doing, and they expected that such criticism would continue after them. They wrote in the preface:

Let us… bless God… to have the translations of the Bible maturely considered and examined. For by this means it cometh to pass, that whatsoever is sound already… the same will shine as gold more brightly, being rubbed and polished; also, if anything be [uncertain], or [added], or not-so-agreeable to the original, the same may be corrected, and the truth set in place… [There is] no cause, therefore, why the word translated should be denied, or forbidden, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it. [For nothing is] perfect under the sun… [except that which the] Apostles… men endued with an extraordinary measure of God’s Spirit, and privileged with the privilege of infallibility, [wrote from] their hand…”[4]

From the view presented above, it is inevitable that their own work would eventually become the object of scrutiny and come to need ‘rubbing,’ ‘polish,’ and even ‘correction.’

Third, let’s consider why many translators exclude verses 3b and 4.

Because of discoveries and advances in the field of Bible documentation and translation, translators have come to realize that the earliest manuscripts do not include the disputed text (v3b-4). Since it is more likely that biblical text would be added during transcription than subtracted, many translators concluded that the later manuscripts must be the result of a scribal addition (maybe multiple scribes).

The New International Version (NIV) was originally published 1973 (based on best available Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic manuscripts at the time), and it was updated in 1978 and 1984. The 2011 NIV update is a notable departure from the NIV translation tradition, but these exclude verses 3b and 4 and feature translation notes explaining the omission.[5]

The English Standard Version (ESV) is grounded in the RSV and KJV translation traditions and is based on Masoretic text and the best available Greek texts (the Greek New Testament 5th Ed. and the NA28). It was originally published in 2001, and it too excludes the brief passage (v3b-4).

Both the NIV and the ESV include translation notes, which explain that the missing text is found in some translations. However, the NET Bible, published in 1996 and updated in 2005, provides extensive textual-critical notes throughout. This translation is unique among others for its open and candid attempt to exhaustively furnish the reader with sufficient rationale behind textual and translation decisions. The NET Bible excludes verses 3b and 4, for the reasons cited above.

With these translation committees disagreeing on such an important matter (Is this text canonical or not?), what is a person to do? Any thinking person can see that this has big implications for the rest of Scripture and the general trustworthiness of the Bible.

Fourth, and last, let’s consider four features of a thoughtful response.

First, I think it is wise to take a deep breath… and acknowledge that God never promised anyone an inerrant translation of His word. Christians have overwhelmingly affirmed (and successfully defended) the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Bible, but only in its original manuscript form. Christians have just as regularly been willing to embrace the unique difficulties that transmission and translation over the centuries create for faithful Christians.

Second, faithful Christians need not release their grasp on a strong affirmation of biblical inerrancy.[6] Acknowledging errors or variants in a copy or a translation does in no way undermine the potency and purity of the original. We may simultaneously recognize the need for constant criticism of translations and manuscript evidence and boldly affirm the historic doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Third, for this particular passage (John 5:3b-4), I believe we can and should acknowledge it as a scribal addition and not canonical Scripture. The earliest manuscripts we possess do not contain verses 3b-4; this portion includes vocabulary and syntax which does not match John’s writing generally; and several of the manuscripts that do include verses 3b-4 place an asterisk or obelisk to mark the portion as a scribal addition. Therefore, I believe it is unauthentic, and rightly excluded. For a much more thorough (and scholarly) address of this subject, see Gordon D. Fee’s essay “On the Inauthenticity of John 5:3b-4[7]

Fourth, we must consider our selection of Bible translation wisely and knowingly. I do not think that any of the translations cited in this article are bad ones. In fact, I believe each one has value beyond that of any other book known to mankind. However, we ought not blindly hold a view of any translation that the translators themselves did not hold. Nor should we place our trust in any notion of an inerrant translation.

Do research on which translation best brings the original text of Scripture to your mind and heart. Ask your pastor which translations he prefers and why. Don’t throw away a translation you like, but be aware of its own unique flaws, so that it will not surprise or offend you when someone else points them out.

There are attacks launched from many vantage points against Christianity today. Even from within American Evangelical churches, you may hear the Scriptures undermined. In such a cultural climate, Christians cannot afford to credulously parrot tired slogans and call it evangelism or fidelity. Christ has called His followers to much more than that, and His word is worthy of more than that.

For our own sake, for the sake of those who do not now love and trust Christ, for the sake of the next generation, for the sake of God’s glory… let us seek to wisely affirm the power and purity of God’s holy word. Let us make bold claims from sure and solid ground. And let us find incredible confidence in the trustworthy promise of God: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:33).



[1] “The majority of later MSS [abbreviation for ‘manuscripts’] (C3 Θ Ψ 078 f1, 13 𝔐) add the following to 5:3: ‘waiting for the moving of the water. 5:4 For an angel of the Lord went down and stirred up the water at certain times. Whoever first stepped in after the stirring of the water was healed from whatever disease which he suffered.’ Other MSS include only v. 3b (Ac D 33 lat) or v. 4 (A L it). Few textual scholars today would accept the authenticity of any portion of vv. 3b–4, for they are not found in the earliest and best witnesses (𝔓66, 75 א B C* T pc co), they include un-Johannine vocabulary and syntax, several of the MSS that include the verses mark them as spurious [or unauthentic] (with an asterisk or obelisk), and because there is a great amount of textual diversity among the witnesses that do include the verses. The present translation follows NA27 [Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, 27th Edition] in omitting the verse number, a procedure also followed by a number of other modern translations.” Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press.

[2] Lawson, Steven. The Daring Mission of William Tyndale (A Long Line of Godly Men Profiles) (Kindle Locations 1848-1849). Reformation Trust Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Translator’s Preface of the King James Version: http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_2/KJVPref.pdf

[5] For more on the NIV, see this article: https://marcminter.com/2016/03/15/is-the-niv-bible-good-or-bad/

[6] I recommend the following resources on the subject of biblical inerrancy: “Scripture Alone” by James White; “The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration” by Basil Manly; “The Scripture Cannot Be Broken” edited by John MacArthur; and “Inerrancy” edited by Norman Geisler

[7] Fee “On the Inauthenticity of John 5:3b-4” (PDF): https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/inauthenticity_fee.pdf


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