Knowing We Can Trust the Bible: an Example of Textual Criticism

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

Science can’t be trusted.

Nor can scholarship.

Research can’t prove anything.

Nor can statistics.

These kinds of claims, spoken out loud or silently assumed, are stubbornly stained on the minds of many churchgoers.

Too many.

Since the aftermath of Darwin’s theory launched conflicts in the 1900s, like Scope’s Monkey Trial, the church has had two general responses.

The first response, liberalism, went along with secular conclusions of the day, heralding the idea that the scientific era had rightfully replaced religion with research.

But the majority of American Christians had a different reaction.

In an attempt to protect the intellectual integrity of Christianity from science and liberalism, many slid into the other extreme: fundamentalism, which initially started as five fundamentals, or core beliefs, of Christianity:

  • The inerrancy of the Bible

  • The virgin birth

  • The bodily resurrection of Jesus

  • A literal reading of miracles and the creation account

  • And substitutionary atonement

This reaction is human, but extreme, emotional, and unnecessary.

It assumes that there are two polarized opposites with nothing in between—either blindly follow science, or blindly disregard science.

It’s a false dichotomy.

One assumes science is essentially flawless, and the other assumes science is inherently anti-Christian.

Neither is true.

Neither is wise.

Just this past year, this anti-scientific stain covering Evangelical’s eyes has resulted in:

  • Opposing vaccines

  • Denying the reality of COVID

  • Denying the seriousness of COVID

  • Refusing to follow medical protocols for COVID

This makes us look like primates.

Like Neanderthals terrified of technology because we think it's sorcery.

Apart from making Christians look a little behind, it has also led them to distrust Biblical scholarship, including new translations of the Bible.

This fear of research has led too many to remain enthusiastically misinformed about textual criticism.

That’s one reason we will use textual criticism to examine a controversial verse, step-by-step, with pictures and notes, for all to see, so you can decide for themselves.

By the end, you should be able to:

  1. Understand the arguments about textual criticism

  2. Assess the value of various translations

  3. Do your own detective work in the manuscript traditions for any variant

You can see for yourself what the manuscripts say, which translations are trustworthy, which manuscripts are most reliable, and most importantly—why!

In fact, you’ll be able to look up and investigate any textual variant in the New Testament.

Determining the Original Text of 1 John

The last article went over the general process of how we got our Bibles:

  1. Original Greek documents (autographs)

  2. Greek copies of the original (manuscripts)

  3. Ancient translations of the copies

  4. Discovering and compiling the copies

  5. Determining the original reading

  6. Translating into contemporary languages

The process of comparing the manuscripts to figure out the original is called textual criticism.

As the last article explained, there are two types of variants: insignificant ones that don’t change our translations, and significant ones that include whole words, sentences, even chapters that brutally change our translations.

We also saw a list of popular verses that have variant readings which most scholars agree don’t belong in the Bible.

One of those is 1 Jn. 5:7-8.

This is also known as the Comma Johanneum.

Modern translations of this passage read, “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (ESV).

But the KJV reads, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”

The words in red are in the KJV, but not newer translations.

First, notice how it reads smoothly without the additional words.

That’s a clue.

1 John 5:7 is used in KJV-only circles as an argument to trash all other English translations.

Why do the new translations omit these words?

The KJV crowd claims it’s because people have taken away from the word of God.

That Satan or whoever tampered with it with malicious intent.

Others make arguments based on textual criticism, such as this book: New Age Bible Versions. But then the subtitle says these satanic translations are bringing about a one-world order.

It asserts that the new translations are based on inferior manuscripts.

Mormons and Muslims tell would-be converts that the Bible can’t be trusted because it has been copied too many times, which is why it's important that we need to listen to their prophets.

By the end of this article, you’ll be equipped with the first-hand knowledge necessary for judging these scenarios for yourself to know what’s true.

And most importantly: you’ll know why!

Here’s an image from a Greek New Testament of 1 John 5:7-8.

It can look chaotic and confusing at first, but it just needs to be decoded.

At the top of the picture, you can see the words, “The Witness concerning the Son”.

Below this sentence are five lines in Greek, which are verses 6-8.

Below that is a straight line.

Everything below this line is textual information, which is called a textual apparatus.

The textual apparatus is how we can analyze all the manuscript data.

Here's the basic layout of the textual notes:

  • Verse number

  • Variant rating (A, B, or C)

  • Greek words included in this variant

  • List of manuscripts that support this variant

Notice that the second paragraph with “6”, signifying that this paragraph is a textual note about verse six.

It has an A rating, refers to the certainty of the chosen reading, which means this variant is extremely likely to be the original.

The third paragraph starts with “7-8”, which is about the verse we’re investigating.

You can see the verse number, the A rating, the Greek word, μαρτυροῦντες.

Then the number “8”, (verse eight) more Greek words, τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα, then a series of symbols starting with: א A B.

Remember, after the Greek words is a list of manuscripts, which are represented by symbols.

These first few symbols are highlighted for clarity.

Separating Superior from Inferior Manuscripts

Doing textual criticism is a bit like solving a mystery, or a puzzle: we have codes that need decoding because they point to the clues, then we figure out what the clues mean to piece together what happened.

The first step is decoding the apparatus symbols.

There are many types of symbols in the apparatus, pointing to different kinds of manuscripts.

These are the types of manuscripts:

  • Papyri: written on papyrus paper, symbolized by a superscripted “p”: 𝔓1

  • Majuscules/Uncials: written in all caps, symbolized by capital letters: א A B

  • Codex: an ancient book categorized as majuscules

  • Minuscules: written in cursive, symbolized by numerals: 1, 2, 3

  • Lectionaries: calendar readings, symbolized by an italicized l

  • Ancient translations: “it” for Old Latin, “vg” for Vulgate, “syr” for Syriac, etc.

  • Church fathers

That’s all.

But they’re not all equal in importance because they’re not all equally accurate.

The book, New Age Translations, claims that because the majority of manuscripts (called the Majority Text) have a certain reading, then they must be the most reliable.

That’s spurious.

It’s like saying that the scientists at the Center for Disease Control are wrong about the efficacy of wearing masks in public to stop the spread of COVID because most Evangelicals, who outnumber these scientists, don’t believe this.

Here are the different manuscripts in general order of reliability:

  1. Papyri are considered the oldest and most reliable, mostly because they are the earliest and best-preserved. Most of them are written before the 4th century, and none were written later than the 8th century.

  2. Majuscules (or Uncials), are mostly written before the 6th century, with none later than the 11th century.

  3. Church fathers: there are dozens of them in the apparatus, including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement, Origen, Tertullian, even Eusebius, and their quotes go as early back as the 2nd century.

  4. Minuscules, which replaced majuscules by the 10th century, make up most of the Greek manuscripts (over 2700).

  5. Lectionaries make up more than two thousand of the Greek manuscripts, but they are all written late: between the 9th-18th century.

  6. The New Testament was also translated into ancient languages: Latin from the 4th century, Syriac from the 4th-7th century, Coptic from 3rd-4th century, and many others. But translations are typically less precise due to the nature of languages. Something is always lost.

Scholars included all the major manuscripts in the apparatus, which are categorized according to their variants.

There are three primary variants in 1 Jn. 5:7-8, which means that out of all the manuscripts of 1 John 5:7-8, they all say one of three things.

These three variants are separated by two diagonal lines.

Everything before the first set of diagonal lines is the first, most attested-to variant.

All the manuscripts in this section have the words, τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα, which means, “the spirit and the water and the blood”.

This is what the new translations have.

Notice that:

  • No papyri are listed

  • All the majuscules testify to the first reading

  • Some familiar church father names are Clement, Origin, Ambrose, and Augustine, all of whom testify to the first reading

  • Most manuscripts supporting the second and third readings are much later

Everything between the second and third set of diagonal lines is the second reading, which is what the KJV and NKJV have.

The manuscripts that support the second reading are highlighted below.

The second variant adds words, translated as, “testifying on the earth: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.”

These are the red words highlighted above in the KJV and NKJV translations.

How can we tell which one is the original?

New Age Bible Versions states that most manuscripts support the second reading.

But not all variants are created equally.

It’s not the number of manuscripts of a variant that make it more likely the original; it’s the quality of manuscripts.

Say for example that a 2nd-century scribe copied this verse but added “amen” out of enthusiasm.

Then let’s say this copy was copied thousands of times more than all the other versions that don’t add “amen”.

Most of the manuscripts would say “amen”, but this doesn’t mean “amen” was original.

Quality matters.

There are other ways to judge the quality of manuscripts.


Pugs were historically used in dog breeding since the 1500s to shrink larger breeds.

They’re still interbred today with Huskies (to make Hugs), Chihuahuas (to make Chugs), and Beagles (to make Puggles).

Dog breeds are categorized by similar traits even as manuscripts are categorized by similar variants.

And as dogs can interbreed to make new breeds, so various manuscript traditions intermixed to make new readings.

Within each dog breed are individual dogs with personalized characteristics, just as each of the manuscripts in each region has the regional marks but also their own unique wordings, copyist errors, misspellings, and skipped sentences (common types of mistakes).

Dog breeds have been associated with their geographical places of origin, which is also true of manuscripts.

Today, there are five major families of New Testament manuscripts grouped into regions:

  • Alexandrian: the earliest and most accurate, largely because the region was dry and preserved manuscripts longer; and they were often done by more studious scribes

  • Byzantine: has the largest number of manuscripts, which contain the latest, and therefore less reliable, witnesses

  • There are also Western, Eclectic (Caesarean), and Egyptian.

Like dog breeds, every region has unique traits:

  • Alexandrian has the most papyri, and the earliest, best-preserved manuscripts

  • Byzantine has the oldest manuscripts

  • Western has the longest readings

Because each region is different, the more regions a variant is spread across, the more likely it is original.

Think of it this way: if a 4th-century scribe in (Latin-speaking) Rome accidentally wrote “our joy” instead of “your joy” (a common error), that variant would only survive in the Latin copies made after the 4th century.

Here’s how to find out the dates and regions.

Many Greek New Testaments have an exhaustive list of all the manuscripts with certain information.

But you can look up each manuscript on your own.

Here’s an example of a manuscript key.

The key lists:

  • The manuscript symbol and number (A 02)

  • What New Testament books it contains (eacpr=Evangelists, Acts, Catholic Epistles, Pauline Epistles, Revelation)

  • Where the manuscript currently lives, and its name (London: Alexandrinus)

  • Its date (Fifth century).

Do you recognize the first three in the example key? א A B.

They are the Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus—the earliest codices.

And they’re the first manuscripts listed for 1 John 5:7-8.

Notice that they are dated between the 4th-5th centuries.

This is early in the textual world, even for the New Testament.

Consider that there are less than five manuscripts from the 2nd century, and the majority were written after the 10th century.

You can view Codex Sinaiticus here.


It is the oldest surviving book from the ancient world.

It contains:

The earliest copy of the entire New Testament

  • The Greek Old Testament (LXX)

  • Non-canonical Christian books (The Shepherd of Hermes)

  • Non-canonical Jewish books (1 Maccabees).

It also gives us a window into what books the early Christians valued.

Now we just need to know the region, which you can find here.

This is a simpler version that’s easier on the eyes.

Note: “Catholic Epistles” (meaning universal)refers to the epistles in the New Testament not written by Paul.

In the top left corner, you’ll see the first three manuscripts in our passage, which belong to which region?


Once we use the key to figure out when these manuscripts were written, and what region they belong to, we discover the first reading is attested to by:

  • Majuscules, codices, minuscules, ancient translations, lectionaries, and church fathers

  • Translations of Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Slavic, and more

  • Manuscripts from Alexandrian, Byzantine, Western, and Caesarean regions

  • Manuscripts between the 4th-16th centuries

Overall, this is a well-attested variant because it has a wide variety of witnesses, it has the majority of the best (Alexandrian) witnesses, and it has the earliest witnesses.

The second (and its similar, third) reading are lacking these.

In fact, there are only eight manuscripts that have the longer reading. These:

  • Are mostly written in the 16th century

  • Four of them have the words added in the margins later on

  • The earliest witness is a 10th century manuscript with the words in the margins

This is certainly suspicious.

If we were investigating a murder, we might start to suspect that someone planted fake evidence to throw us off, which isn’t far from the truth.

The Story Behind the Comma Johanneum

What Happened to 1 John 5:7-8?

It’s about its theological significance.


What special theology is in the longer reading?

Here’s the KJV with the additional words in red: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”

The trinity!

It’s the most explicit verse for the trinitarian formula in the Bible (three persons who are one being, crystalized in the 5th century), which explains why some were so adamant to include it in their translations.

But just because it favors our theology doesn’t make it authentic.

Not everyone who had influence over the shape of the Bible would agree though.

Erasmus was the German theologian and Biblical scholar who put together the Textus Receptus (behind the KJV).

He originally didn’t include the longer reading, but theological politics happened.

The trinitarian words were in a manuscript, but none that Erasmus had ever seen, which explains why he originally excluded it.

But why didn’t the manuscripts have it?

Here’s what has been pieced together by textual scholars.

There are no manuscripts that certainly have this as their original reading until the 16th century, which is the same time this argument happened.

The earlier ones have it added in the margins as a textual note.

The earliest manuscript that certainly contains it is a Greek translation itself (how odd) from a Latin document, called “Acts of the Lateran Counsel”, which itself likely came from a homily.

Then it somehow made its way into later copies of the Latin Vulgate, which was the main Bible of the time.

It’s understandable, then, why Erasmus’s peers would insist on including the Comma Johanneum.

This shouldn’t surprise us.

It’s like the Pharisees excluding people for not living out the Sabbath the way they thought they should, according to their traditions.

Or like church-fillers today excluding people for not living out Christianity the way they think they should, according to their tradition.

Or for reading different translations!

Erasmus said he saw no textual justification for including the addition.

But the powers of the church pressured him.

Things got heated.

He swore that if his critics could find a manuscript with these words in them, he would add it.

Lo and behold, one was discovered.

Or made.

The evidence points to it being manufactured.

This copy is the codex 61, written by Roy/Froy in the 16th century.

How convenient.

Is it still shocking how tight traditions can squeeze people?

It squeezes the humane right out of their humanity.

Evangelical’s priority and for traditions is tantamount to the Catholic church of the 16th century, which was a shade away from the Pharisaic Judaism of the 1st century, but that’s for another article.

Eventually, he reluctantly inserted the foreign words into his 3rd edition, but he included a lengthy footnote indicating that it was likely produced to confute him.

He had his reasons, but he gave in to the pressure.

This is a lesson for us not to follow in our conflict with Evangelical traditions pressuring us to compromise our compassion.

Now, with all the textual and historical evidence laid before you, hopefully, it’s clear how overwhelming the evidence is for the shorter reading; the one represented by all the newer Bible translations.

Good translations.

There is no logical, Biblical, historical, or ethical reason to include the Comma Johanneum.

All of these screams for us not to include it.

It. Wasn’t. Original.

But if you insist on believing that it is, that’s your business. We’re still friends.

If you are a self-identified KJV-only citizen but you pursue allegiance to Jesus and his people, we’re still family.

Either way, hopefully, you understand the basic procedure for textual criticism, and you can see for yourself what the arguments are about.

If you want to learn more about this topic, see the resources listed below.

Now, to the questions we never answered.

What is God-Breathed?

The last article raised questions that remain unanswered, and this far into our journey into the Biblical composition, we’re much more equipped to face the answers.

These questions were:

  • What does “God-breathed” mean?

  • What is Biblical inerrancy?

  • And how do we reconstruct from here?

What does “God-breathed” mean?

This is one composite word in Greek: θεόπνευστος.

The lexicons don’t have much more than “inspired” here, which, if we settled with it, would quickly lead us into circular reasoning as we read our current understanding into the definition of “inspired”.

We need real answers.

The etymology here is helpful. Θεόπνευστος is from “God” and “breath”.

It’s a rich picture, pregnant with twins.

It first reminds the Old-Testament-saturated readers of God inducing creation into existence with his words, which come with breath, even as his Spirit was present at the creation (Spirit is the same word as “breath”).

The second image, on the next page in Genesis, is YHWH “breathed into” Adam “the breath of life”, and “breath” is Hebrew for Spirit.

These pictures in Genesis 1 and 2 are not accidentally similar. They’re thematic.

This is how God creates.

This is how God makes alive.

How fitting that Paul would speak of the word of God as life-giving:

  • Jesus’s words bring life (Jn. 5:24, Phil. 2:16)

  • The Spirit brings life (Jn. 6:63; Rom. 8:2)

  • The Spirit brings life through Jesus’s words (1 Thess. 5, Eph. 1:13)

What’s Paul’s point?

The etymology does not hint at the intellectual integrity of God’s word.

It points to the effect of God’s word.

Life. Empowerment.

Is the context about the inerrancy or effect of the Bible?

The Hebrew mode of thought is effectual, while Greek thought is ontological (see Boman’s Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek).

This means that Hebrews ask, “What does it do?”, while Greeks ask, “What is its nature?”

If this is true (and it is!), then the Hebrew context supports the life-giving effect over speculations about the nature of the Bible.

The textual context supports this too:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

The purpose.

Which is “every good work”.

Not its nature.

Not its accuracy.

Not that it’s inaccurate, only that this verse isn’t about that.

Nor that the Bible isn’t trustworthy, only that inerrancy misses the point. It’s like thinking the goal of being healthy is to have a clear diagnosis, instead of being happy and alive.

The point of the Bible is what the Bible does in us.

And for us. And through us.

It empowers us to live out our humanness.

The improper focus on the Bible as a perfect abstraction not only happened as an anti-intellectual defense against science’s perceived attacks against the Bible.

The doctrine of inerrancy goes back to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Princeton fathers, which goes back to the influence of Platonism on Christianity.

Again, it’s not that this theory is entirely wrong, only that inerrancy:

  • Misses the point of the Bible

  • Warps the truth of history

  • Denies the facts of reality

  • Has become too central

  • Has replaced the goal of the Bible with the enemy of the Bible

The point of the Bible is to do good works. Yet, the doctrine of inerrancy not only replaced this; it often opposes it.

People divine over these issues.

People throw flaming arrows at each other over translations.

People trash churches and denominations because they don’t use the KJV.

Or because they only use the KJV.

This is like taking the Bible apart to build a weapon of mass destruction and then detonating it where people gather in Jesus’s name.

It needs to stop.

Our faith is not one of intellectual precision.

Our faith is about Jesus. And living out Jesus through actions.

It’s not about a book.

Or an idea.

Or a doctrine.

Or a theology.