THE ORIGINAL TEXT HAS BEEN PRESERVED
First, we have good reasons to think the original New Testament text is preserved in the manuscripts at our disposal. Why? For one, because we are blessed with such a remarkable number of manuscripts—around 5,700 and counting. As New Testament scholar Eldon Epp notes, “The point is that we have so many manuscripts of the NT . . . that surely the original reading in every case is somewhere present in our vast store of material.”
But it is not just the number of manuscripts that matters. Our confidence that we possess the original text in our manuscripts is due to what’s called the tenacity of the text. Once a particular reading enters the manuscript tradition, it doesn’t leave. Instead, it stubbornly persists. Kurt and Barbara Aland comment:
The transmission of the New Testament textual tradition is characterized by an extremely impressive degree of tenacity. Once a reading occurs it will persist with obstinancy. . . . It is precisely the overwhelming mass of the New Testament textual tradition which provides an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text.
In other words, the high number of New Testament manuscripts and the tenacity of the text together give us assurance that the original text hasn’t been lost.
If so, the challenge of recovering the original text is different from what some might think. It’s not so much that we lack the original text but that we have the original text plus some variations in the manuscript tradition. In short, we have too much material.
MOST TEXTUAL VARIANTS ARE OBVIOUSLY UNORIGINAL
If we have good reasons to think the original text is preserved in our many manuscripts, the next step is separating it from any later variations. And this leads to a second observation: the vast majority of textual variations do not have a legitimate claim to originality. Most variations simply aren’t viable contenders for being part of the original text written by the biblical authors. This can be due to a number of factors. Some readings appear only once in the manuscript tradition (and therefore are unlikely to be original). Others are obvious scribal blunders or “nonsense” readings. Still others lack meaningful manuscript support.
When all the dust settles in these debates about the New Testament text, the essential message of the New Testament remains the same. It has not changed.
These sorts of considerations are relevant for addressing the most commonly discussed bracketed words in our Bibles: Mark 16:9–20 (known as the long ending of Mark) and John 7:53–8:11 (the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman). When we examine these two disputed passages, we have good reasons to doubt their originality. In the case of the long ending of Mark, it is missing from our earliest copies of Mark (found in codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) and from the testimony of the early church fathers (particularly Eusebius and Jerome). This indicates that most early copies of Mark lacked the longer ending. Similarly, we don’t find the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman in any of our early copies of John (papyri 66 and 75, codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus), again suggesting it was a later addition.
So, while these two bracketed texts may raise concerns for the average reader—particularly given their length and popularity—they do not present the threat we might suppose. If we know they are not original, then we cannot say the text is unreliable at these points. The text would only be unreliable in these passages if we did not know what the original text was.
Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that for the average English reader, it feels like a problem to say these texts are not original. Given that these passages have been part of our English Bible tradition for generations—largely due to the influence of the King James translation—it can seem like they are being unduly kicked to the curb. And such a response is understandable. But if we step outside of our English Bible tradition for a moment and just ask what was originally in the Greek text of Mark and John, then we realize that these texts are not getting “kicked out” of the New Testament. Instead, we realize that they were likely never there to begin with.