Why are verses “missing” from the ESV and NIV?

Here’s the facebook message I’ve had concerned members contact me about lately. So, what’s the deal? Why are we using a “corrupt” Bible that’s out to undermine our faith?
I can reassure you, though, that there’s no conspiracy afoot. Both the NIV and ESV are translated by conservative, evangelical scholars who are deeply committed to their faith. I’ve had some of them as professors and they aren’t interested in undermining anything about Scripture. They are committed, though, to passing on what is true.
So, what happened in this case? Here’s the situation: the numbered verses we rely on in our Bibles (3:16, for instance) come from the 16th century. They were added by a man named Erasmus and were based on the Latin version of the Bible that he was translating into Greek for publication. The Bible he was using (generally called the Textus Receptus) became the foundation of the KJV translation less than 100 years later. And his numbering system became the default everyone uses (so we all have a similar reference point, even if sometimes we wish he would have made chapter divisions somewhere different).
Here’s where we get into a problem, though. The textus receptus is only one family of manuscripts. Imagine a family tree. The original copy of the book of John is the first parent. And from there, copies (and copies of copies, and copies of copies of copies, etc) are made. Which copy best represents what was in the original?  Ideally, you’d have the original copy of John to judge by, but no originals of the New Testament (or OT, of course) are known to exist (this shouldn’t surprise us – they were written 2000 years ago on papyrus – think about how crusty our paper receipts look after just five years!).
The good news is that the New Testament is the best-preserved set of documents in the ancient world. There are literally thousands of copies of manuscripts and copies in a variety of places, languages, and forms (scrolls, books, etc). And that doesn’t include all the other books written in the first couple centuries of the church that quoted the New Testament.
Even more good news: not only are there tons of manuscripts to compare, they are overwhelmingly in agreement with each other. The vast majority of times that one manuscript disagrees with another, it’s over how a name is spelled or something else minor. When there are more meaningful disagreements (such as in the cases you mentioned in the forward), it’s often because the scribes were more inclined to include rather than exclude, so they added phrases they knew from other gospels or phrases. For example, the verse you mentioned from Matthew 18:11 is also found in Mark 10:45. There are no major (or even minor) doctrines on the line when it comes to textual criticism. And I don’t think that’s a conservative opinion – that’s just the reality of the evidence.
So, who decides what was in the original New Testament documents? This is actually a whole academic discipline that you can get a Ph.D. in – it’s called textual criticism. Based on extensive research, examining manuscripts, secondary sources, etc, groups of scholars produce original language Bibles (the best of which are the Novum Testamentum, UBS – 27, and Biblica Hebraica). In these, there are tons of footnotes that list what ancient documents and manuscripts included (or excluded) words in question. And this is where the differences come in: The ESV, NIV, NRSV, NLT, The Message, NASB (basically, everyone but the KJV and NKJV) use these as their source material to translate from. The KJV and NKJV are translations of the textus receptus and since that’s the one that verse numbers come from, it looks like other translations are “removing” verses. In reality, though, they’re just disagreeing with the textus receptus understanding of which best represents what the original writers wrote.
Let me give you an example: If you were a scribe in the third century and you heard the reader say that a verse read “the Lord Christ” but you remember the verse as “the Lord Jesus,” what would you write down? Many scribes didn’t want to mess things up, so they just included both, “the Lord Jesus Christ.” But fast forward 1700 years. A scholar looks at all the manuscripts. The five oldest, best-attested manuscripts all said, “The Lord Christ.” They’re able to piece together what happened. To be authentic to the original author (rather than the KJV), would you be willing to take “Jesus” out of the Bible?
Unfortunately, there is a strand of American Christianity (especially prominent in the South) that sees the KJV as the ONLY translation you should use. And sometimes they can be quite belligerent about that opinion. I’m grateful for the KJV – it helped spark the English expression of the Reformation and is the most published translation in history. But it’s over 500 years old, which means that (besides being difficult to read) a lot of manuscripts have been discovered since then, so we are better able to understand what the original manuscripts said. Yes, that means that in a few places words need to be removed, even if it looks bad in an email forward.

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