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Why Do Translators Include Passages They Know Are Not Original?

Based on what I have said about the textual variant of 666 and 616 in the book of Revelation, several readers have asked a distantly related question.  Here is how one of them phrased it:



If the biblical scholars know with certainty that Mark 16:9-20 and John 7.53-8.11 were added by later scribes, why are they still in the modern bibles, that is, why are they not *completely* removed? I know these verses were removed in the RSV but added back in the NRSV.



This is a great question.  On one level it doesn’t make sense.  If textual scholars go to all the trouble of trying to figure out what the “original” text of the New Testament was, and they decide that some passages were not originally there in the originals, why do translators (who are often themselves the textual scholars who have made these decisions!) include such passages in their translations?

The problem is exacerbated by looking carefully at what translators have done, because strictly speaking they are not consistent.  In the vast majority of instances …

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Ehrman vs Licona Debate on the Resurrection
666 and Scribal Changes of the Text



  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  November 8, 2017

    A senior Roman Catholic apologist said to me on the air that the longer ending of Mark may not have been the original ending but has been “canonized,” thus making it pretty hard to omit I would guess. There’s good stuff in that longer ending such as Mark 16:15 which directs that the good news be proclaimed to “all creation.”

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 12, 2017

      With ebooks, you could have the option of reading the most unadorned original version we can reconstruct–or leave in the later interpolations.

      And wouldn’t you learn more from that?

      Christianity didn’t end with the original versions of these works–it began. What came later is important.

      The Reformation led to the bible being edited down.

      But did our understanding of scripture really improve by that?

      Leave it all in, and educate people regarding its provenance.

    • Avatar
      TGeiger  November 13, 2017

      So the ends justifies the means?

      • Avatar
        godspell  November 14, 2017

        Do you get this irritated by editions of Greek mythology or Arthurian legends that don’t stick to the earliest versions we know?

        People believed all of that, and even fought wars over it.

        What we do with our stories–even those based on real events–is a matter of self-expression. What people after Jesus had to say matters too. Even when they put their words in his mouth. As when Plato put his words in the mouth of Socrates. Could be most of the dialogues are Plato’s ideas. Which has also had some severe consequences, since they can be used to justify dictatorships.

        Don’t be so selective.

  2. Avatar
    TGeiger  November 8, 2017

    My thought is that before we can assign motive to anyone, we first need to know who the ultimate “translators” were. I am ignorant of this process, so what I say may not make sense, but did the actual translators have editors/proofreaders (i.e. supervisors/bosses)? Who’s call was it to leave a certain translation in one version, bracket it another, or remove it entirely? I guess it comes down to the worker bee versus the queen bee.

    If it is the worker bee, then I think the two scenarios you provide certainly make sense, although you are certainly less cynical than I am. If there were others involved, especially with subsequent publication of a translation, then the motives become more murky as the worker bee may not have gotten paid for his work, but someone certainly was getting paid eventually.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      At the end of the multi-year process, there was a three-person sub-committee that made final decisions of which changes would be in and which ones would be out.

  3. Avatar
    godspell  November 8, 2017

    Suppose that Shakespearean scholars found the Bard’s original hand-written manuscripts of his plays.

    Almost certainly some lines that have gone down to posterity as proof of his genius, that any half-educated person can quote (or misquote) were actually ad-libs by members of the Globe theatrical troupe.

    Would you leave them out?

    The Bible is a religious work. It is also an historical document that has, in its widely accepted form, influenced many generations of leaders, thinkers, and ordinary people. And it is a great work of art, and like many such, has more than one hand in its making, not simply because it is many books in one, but because each of those books were themselves at least partly collaborative in nature.

    I mean, who seriously thinks Homer wrote the entire Iliad? He didn’t WRITE any of it!

    So this seems like a non-issue to me. We live it in, properly notated, because that’s what you do with works like this. We just get all funny about it when it’s THE BIBLE.

    A more perfect opportunity, incidentally, to educate people as to how we got the text in its present form I could not possibly imagine. Might be those translators didn’t want to only be doing all that work for people who can already read the original texts, and will mainly be nitpicking their renditions.

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 8, 2017

      Leave it in. Not live it in. Not sure how that typo happened.

  4. Avatar
    tskorick  November 8, 2017

    I loved this post. John 1:18 is one of my favorite versus to show people in the Greek and then survey various translations. The way I usually explain the many discrepancies is that translation committees exhibit a seeming aversion to readings that might be “theologically problematic.” I’m actually very curious as to your take on this verse also, given p66 and p75 etc, specifically the monogenes theos wording …

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      In Orthodox Corruption of Scripture I give a long argument why I don’t think it can have been monogenes theos.

      • Avatar
        tskorick  November 14, 2017

        Of COURSE that would be in a book I don’t have yet 🙂 I’ll add that to my queue ASAP, thanks!

  5. Avatar
    ardeare  November 8, 2017

    I’ve always thought that there was also a belief that continuing revelation might have played a role. That while copying and translating, a scribe or group of scribes were thought to have had a unique spiritual experience, that still small voice that inspired them to arrange passages and even add passages that were divinely inspired. Future scribes and copyists noticed the differences but felt justified for leaving it in due to inspirational factors that led the earlier group of scribes to add/change it in the first place.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  November 8, 2017

    Are fundamentalists ever involved in major translations? Can one even be a fundamentalist and consider whether certain passages are original, added, modified, etc? Seems like an oxymoron.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      Yes, indeed. My favorite translation in college was the New American Standard Bible, done by fundamentalist scholars.

  7. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  November 8, 2017

    It is crucial to establish that the notions of the divine authorship and ASSEMBLAGE of the Bible, and the manmade involvement in its authorship and assemblage, are NOT mutually exclusive notions. Men may have had their various reasonings for selecting what would be included in Scripture, but their very choices happened according to a higher cosmic orchestration – a sovereign Intelligence behind all things.

    Mark’s ending is the perfect exemplification of this, but to understand the higher meaning of the situation, the Gospel/Timeline template must be observed.

    Mark is the Gospel of Christianity; both the historical 2,000-year duration of the Church Age, as well as the spiritually bereft MENTALITY of the Christian institution. (Any Bible scholar would agree that Mark thematically portrays the disciples as a more spiritually oblivious and spiritually defiant bunch than any other Gospel.)

    Regarding Mark’s amended ending, we see only in that Gospel that they were rebuked for their “stubborn refusal to believe” in the risen Christ (16:14). This represents the pervasive mentality of Christianity, which emphasizes literality and historicity. Quite bluntly, it does not matter if a guy with a beard crawled out of a tomb 2,000 years ago. It does not! What matters is to bring to life the DORMANT CHRIST WITHIN; awakening to the intrinsic divine essence within man himself. After 2,000 years, therein is the symbolism of Jesus’ “third day resurrection,” regardless of whether or not this LITERALLY occurred!

    And again, as has been emphasized, the Christian institution, and the unspiritual mindset of it, is Mystery Babylon. The call is now being given to come out of that mindset – to de-emphasize the historical Jewish guy with the beard and to bring to life the universal Christ presence WITHIN. Those who “remain in Babylon” will be withheld from the “millennial reign.” (Again, this is regardless of whether or not it is a LITERAL 1,000 years.) This then is why Mark, the Gospel of Christianity, had ORIGINALLY ended with a dismal and hopeless tone, but was later restored to portray the disciples experiencing the resurrection. The delayed ending represents the detainment of Christians, who suppress the TRUE resurrection of Christ within, until after the millennial reign.

    Again, Christianity and its Gospel has been a 2,000-year interruption of the TRUE Kingdom message, which must now be restored. Remember, the Olivet Discourse says that the Gospel of the KINGDOM will be proclaimed at the end of the age; that is NOT Christianity’s blood atonement “Gospel.” Christianity’s time is DONE!

    Contrary to what Christianity teaches, man’s intrinsic nature is DIVINE. But the idea of the historical guy with the beard must be put to death in order to bring to life the divine Christ within. “Jesus,” He who only taught in parables, is Himself a parable!

    • Avatar
      meohanlon  November 13, 2017

      Interesting point of view, and not too different from my own. You mention a higher cosmic orchestration that decides ultimately which stages things progress through towards which significant outcomes (significant indeed not for their historical/literalist meaning, as you correctly observe, but within the deeper spiritual-allegorical reading, more along the lines of what the sages who wrote the scriptures intended – though they need neither agree with each other nor understand the ultimate outcome themselves and what drives their narratives, for it to come together, long after, in a meaningful way that embraces contradiction without any problems – for our consciousness is forever evolving as we better come to understand our divinity.). So this “cosmic orchestration” is in essence our collective consciousness, evolving and moving through all of its stages and viewing itself through the focusing lens of archetype and the truth-baring character of myth.

  8. Avatar
    wje  November 9, 2017

    Good evening, Bart. How do scholars know that the Johannine Comma and the story of the adulterous woman are not original? And where did that weird name come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      A “comma” is a group of words expressing a sense in a sentence (shorter than a colon) (and what is a colon? It is longer than a comma. 🙂 ) I’ll add your question to the mailbag. Short answer: the oldest and best manuscripts don’t have these passages and there are stylistic and substantive features of them that show they do not belong with the books, originally, that they are now found in.

  9. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  November 9, 2017

    Your publication date for the Triumph of Christianity is almost in time for my birthday! Do you have any book signings or release events scheduled yet?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      Yup, a number in the works, but all in the Triangle area so far.

  10. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  November 9, 2017

    “The translators put in hundreds and hundreds of hours of very labor-intensive work and got not a single penny for their troubles.” That’s disturbing! Given how much money publishers make off the sale of Bibles, it seems unconscionable that the people who provide the translations get nothing fungible in return. How did such an unholy arrangement come about?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      I suppose it’s a practice that started before publishers made tons of money on these things.

  11. Lev
    Lev  November 9, 2017

    “Moreover, in the judgment of some of the translators, including Metzger (an opinion I disagree with, but they didn’t ask my opinion!) the story may well reflect something that actually happened in the life of the historical Jesus.”

    I’m currently reading through ‘A Marginal Jew’ by John P Meier. In a footnote on page 301 he claims:

    “Ehrman (“Jesus and the Adulteress,” 35-36) thinks that one of the two hypothetical sources of the pericope (i.e., the form of the story close to that of Synoptic dispute stories) has a good claim to authenticity.”

    Have you changed your mind since you wrote Jesus and the Adulteress?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      Ah, that’s a very complicated issue. Short story: I’m on the fence. Long story would take about ten full posts to unpack and trust me, it would not be interesting to your normal blog reader! (I reconstruct two earlier versions of the story and then argue that one of them has a decent claim to authenticity)

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  November 10, 2017

    Psalm 51 looks like 2 psalms to me (in English). Vv. 1-15 is a personal lament, while the rest looks like it was written in opposition to temple sacrifice or after the destruction of Solomon’s temple. Have any scholars analyzed it that way?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      A good resource for this kind of question is a decent Study Bible done by critical scholars, such as the HarperCollins Study Bible.

  13. Avatar
    HenriettePeterson  November 10, 2017

    Speaking of passages, how could have Jesus said (Matt 10:38), “and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” It’s all over the gospels that disciples were freaking out at even Jesus’ mentioning he was going to die. So how could have the historical Jesus said something directly related to his death, even particularly to the way he eventually died? Six chapters later Peter is rebuked for trying to prevent Jesus’ death. In chapter 10 nobody has a problem with Jesus making direct references to crucifixion.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      Yup, it’s almost certainly a passage put on his lips by later story-tellers.

  14. Telling
    Telling  November 10, 2017


    Given what you say that Jesus was a common variety preacher with an apocalyptic message and a tiny following, how can we believe anything at all that is in the gospels? Why shouldn’t we believe that the gospels are a concoction of the teachings of two or more of these end of world doomsayers. Jesus being a common name, it seems there could be lots of confusion who those Aramaic notes and texts could be attributed to. What if the man who turned over the tables of moneychangers doing legitimate temple related business in the courtyard was not the same man who said to be non-violent and to treat our enemies as friends? Can we really know? Could the experts and scholars be subjectively creating their own “Jesus”, writing their own gospel, as you sometimes mention?

    Do you think this quote, which appears in synoptic gospels and Thomas, might be applicable to any “orthodoxy” not just the Jews as was the original?:

    Jesus said, “The Pharisees and the scholars have taken the keys of knowledge and have hidden them. They have not entered nor have they allowed those who want to enter to do so.”

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      You may be interested in seeing how historians go about making these kinds of determinations. I give a simple explanation in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Much fuller explanations can be found, for example, in the multi volume work of John Meier, A Marginal Jew.

  15. Avatar
    HenriettePeterson  November 13, 2017

    Are the Greek original phrases for “Verily, verily I tell you” and “Truly I tell you” common in other ancient literature? My point is – is it possible that they were inserted in the text to make Jesus sound more like a philosopher/big teacher? Or are they more likely a translation from an original Aramaic phrase he might have used?

  16. Avatar
    Jana  November 22, 2017

    I just noticed the jacket of your newest book due out in February !!! Giving me several months to save! Congratulations and How Exciting!!!! It looks beautiful too promising another NY BEst Seller.

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