Now to get a question with that much detail just once is a little peculiar, but to get it three times in five days is way too unusual to be coincidence. Any time an issue or a question comes up involving the NIV there is always a good chance Fundamentalist defenders of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible are ultimately behind it. Sure enough, the third person to ask the question told me they saw “something about it on facebook”.
Armed with that information, I decided to post on the issue in the hopes that someone will eventually upload it to facebook and perhaps shed some light on the issue for anyone that might be confused by the claims against the NIV.
Just so there be no confusion, I have nothing against the King James Version of the Bible. The Lord has achieved incredible things with the KJV and there is not one thing wrong with using the KJV. Having said that, the truth is the King James Version is the least accurate version of all the “word for word” English translations of the Bible. Yep, you read that right. I said the LEAST accurate. Now before I am branded some kind of a NASCAR hating heretic, I will tell you why this is true. To do that, I need to provide a little, OK maybe a lot of background information, so bear with me.
The Bible is only inerrant in the original language in which it was written. Where the New Testament is concerned, with the possible exception of Mathew, that original language is Greek. Since Koine Greek is essentially a dead language, scholars study it, not so much in order to speak it as one would say, French; but so they can translate it into other languages while preserving the original context. This ability to translate in context is ultimately the art form of the Greek scholar.
A translation of the New Testament is only as good as the quality of the Greek manuscripts that underlie it. A number of factors determine the quality of a particular Greek manuscript. In an effort to keep this post from being a mind numbing technical discussion of textual criticism, for our purposes here I will use these two relatively broad generalizations: older is better and more is better. That is to say, a manuscript that dates to 120AD is much more likely to represent the original rendering than a manuscript that dates to 1400AD. Similarly, five copies of the Gospel of John that all preserve a verse with identical wording are much more likely to be accurate than a single copy of that same Gospel that records the same verse with a variant reading.
A translator working with inferior manuscripts has little chance of preserving the original thought and subsequently the original context of a particular passage with exact precision. If that translator strays far enough from the original context of the passage he is translating, he runs the risk of forfeiting any claim to inerrancy. To put it succinctly, the accuracy of the Greek underlying a translation is important. Really important.
SCRIBAL ERRORS AND THE MONASTIC SYSTEM
For centuries, the manuscripts that make up the New Testament (and the Old Testament for that matter) were preserved by scribes living and serving in the world’s monasteries. These scribes copied and re-copied the manuscripts in their original language; handing them down from generation to generation. Christians the world over owe an enormous debt to these men that literally devoted their entire lives to the copying of these sacred manuscripts and in doing so made it possible for people of every tongue to have and read the Bible in their own language today.
There were two methods used in copying the manuscripts. One of those was to have a single monk read aloud a particular book of the Bible while several others recorded the words of the reader. This technique allowed many copies of a single book to be made at one time, however it was vulnerable to error. There are a number of Greek words that sound essentially the same but are spelled differently. An English example would be the two words “breadth” and “breath”. The words sound very similar. A scribe to whom the word “breadth” was read out loud could easily misunderstand and record the word as “breath”. In a room where say 25 men were serving as scribes, the likelihood was that only a very few would record any given word incorrectly, while the majority recorded it correctly. The bad news was that the scribes were human. That being the case, it was a virtual impossibility for any scribe to record an entire book without some error, albeit a minor one. The good news was that it was exceedingly rare, if it happened at all, for every scribe to make the same error on the same word at the same time. So, in our hypothetical example of 25 scribes recording the same book, by comparing all 25 of the finished manuscripts and in the case of variations making the assumption that the majority got it right, we would be able to determine with a good degree of precision the true and correct reading of the original. Hence the idea that generally speaking, more is better.
The second method of copying the manuscripts was having a single scribe make a duplicate copy of an existing manuscript by copying it by hand with no one reading it to him. This method was also subject to transcription errors. Errors of this type could take one of several forms. I will just mention those that most frequently occurred. The most common is a simple mis-reading of a word or more literally, a situation where one monk couldn’t read his predecessor’s handwriting. Errors like these often involve words that sound nothing alike (obviously not a situation where the scribe “heard” a word incorrectly) but have similar spellings. An English example would be the words “tree” and “free”. In this scenario, a scribe might mistake the “t” in an existing manuscript for an “f” and in doing so; alter the reading of the copy.
Another common error made in the “single scribe” method was the omission of an entire phrase or on occasion, the duplication of a phrase. Imagine the tedious nature of copying a manuscript in a language other than your native tongue, often in dim light, for hours on end. Scribes got tired just like everyone else and when they did they sometimes lost their place; at times skipping or inadvertently repeating a line. Though the errors were generally slight, as these corrupted copies were themselves duplicated, the error was transmitted to any subsequent copy made from the flawed manuscript. Over the course of many centuries, additional transcription errors were added to the already corrupted manuscripts and the end result, in many instances, was a manuscript that contained phrases which varied at least to some degree, from the original. It does not require a tremendous amount of insight to arrive at the conclusion that a manuscript that dates to 300AD necessarily has far fewer transcription errors than a document that dates to 1400AD. Hence the idea that generally speaking, older is better.
Occasionally, well meaning scribes would add words or phrases to the text. Known as GLOSS, these additions, while rare, were often made to clarify what the transcribing monk considered to be an ambiguous phrase. Gloss often appears in the Gospels (note that in the verses in question, all but one is in the Gospels). It is not uncommon for the same incident to be recorded in more than one Gospel. Where the language varied between parallel accounts, scribes would sometimes add words to make the two accounts read identically, presumably operating under the assumption that the added words had been erroneously omitted sometime prior.
Transcription errors and gloss are known as VARIANTS. Incredibly, we have so many extant Greek manuscripts, scholars are actually able to trace and even date the origin and evolution of the variants. In the grand scheme of things, the variants are relatively slight. That is to say that even the most corrupted of the Greek manuscripts do not contain any errors so severe as to alter on any meaningful level the context of the original. In fact, if we were talking about any book other than the Bible, the variants would be so insignificant they would merit little mention, so don’t get too worked up. It’s not like Jesus said “I might return” and some poor, sleep deprived monk having a bad day got it wrong.
The Greek underlying the King James Version of the Bible is known as the Textus Receptus; Latin for Text Received. Since my intent here is not to provide a complete history of the Textus Receptus, I will hold the discussion here at a cursory level. The Textus Receptus was the best compilation of the Greek manuscripts that make up the New Testament to which the translators of the KJV had access. Based on Erasmus’ Greek New Testament and its successors, the Textus Receptus consisted only of approximately 15 Byzantine era (circa 1200AD) Greek manuscripts. Defenders of the KJV as “the only legitimate Bible”, use every conceivable form of spin, for lack of a better word, in their effort to downplay the importance of this most inconvenient of truths. At the end of the day however, the reality is the Textus Receptus IS based on a very small number of what can only be described as poor quality, late dated manuscripts. And there is no getting around it.
By contrast, the most recent edition of the Greek New Testament is compiled from approximately 5,800 extant Greek manuscripts. Of these, the oldest dates to the first half of the second century.
A person does not have to be a trained textual critic to recognize the vast difference between the underlying Greek of modern day translations of the Bible and the Greek manuscripts upon which the KJV is based. The best analogy I can think of (as I sit here watching the British Open out of one eye) would be to compare the quality of the pictures of first generation televisions to that of the pictures of our modern day high definition televisions. The truth is there is no comparison. HD is far superior to the old technology of the late 1950’s. The much larger number of manuscripts represented in the current Greek New Testament in and of itself assures a much greater degree of precision than the comparatively minute number of manuscripts that made up the Greek New Testament in 1611; the date the KJV was published. In addition, the much older manuscripts available to modern scholars assure that the current Greek New Testament contains substantially fewer transcription errors and gloss than its 17th century predecessor. (If someone ever comes out with a translation called the Bible in HD, you are my witnesses, you heard it here first.)
The end result is that translations based on modern versions of the Greek New Testament, like the NIV and the 2011 NIV in particular, are based on a Greek New Testament that is a much better representation of the exact language of the original texts than the older KJV.
It is true that the NIV is NOT a “word for word” translation of the Bible. It is what is known as a DYNAMIC EQUIVALENT or “thought for thought” translation. Recall that I mentioned earlier that the true objective of English translators is to render the original language into English while preserving the original context. Some translating committees believe the best method of doing so is dynamic equivalency. Though it is a dynamic equivalent, the NIV is almost universally acknowledged as a very high quality English translation of the Bible.
So, finally to the original question; why are those verses left out of the NIV? The omitted verses were gloss and do not appear in the best extant examples of the ancient texts. Accordingly, those verses are rightfully omitted in the current Greek New Testament upon which the NIV is based. The verses never existed in the first place, or to put it another way, they are NOT Spirit inspired Bible.
Some English translations of the Bible, most notably the NASB, place the verses in brackets to denote that the verse is not present in the best ancient manuscripts, but almost all of the newer translations, including the NIV and ESV, omit them altogether.
As a sort of disclaimer, I should note that I do not use the NIV as my primary English translation of the Bible and I have no personal stake in defending it. I have always found it odd that some so-called Bible believing Christians are so critical of newer translations of the Bible that are clearly based on far superior Greek than that of the KJV and thus are more precise representations of the original language used by the original authors of the New Testament books.
There is no question that the King James Version IS the Bible and there is nothing wrong with preaching from it, teaching from it or reading it. It sure seemed to work pretty well for Billy Graham. It is just not the best or most precise rendering of the original language and it is most assuredly not superior to the NIV.
It is worth noting that the vast majority of the critics of newer translations and specifically the NIV all come from a small handful of fringe denominations of the Church at large. It is something of a regrettable irony that these denominations that represent the most fervent of the critics of the NIV have contributed little, if anything at all, to linguistic or theological scholarship at any point in their histories.
There are a lot of things I do not know. One thing I can say for a certainty though is this; there is not a single living Greek scholar of any note anywhere on the planet that advances the notion that the KJV of the Bible is even so much as a top 5 best representation of the original language of the New Testament.
And that is the truth.
For a full discussion of the textual variants of the Greek New Testament see, “A Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament”, Bruce M. Metzger, German Bible Society, 1994