Missing Verse - Matthew 18:11

This weekend at Faith Church we looked at Matthew 18:10-18. Something interesting you may note when reading this passage is that most English translations (such as the NIV and the ESV that we preach from) omit verse 11 -- going from verse 10 to verse 12, with the words from verse 11 found in a footnote (“For the Son of Man came to save the lost”). Other translations (the New American Standard Bible - known as the NASB) put it in brackets. However, you will find it in the old King James Version (from 1611) as well as the more recent New King James Version. You will see this in a few other places throughout the New Testament.

What accounts for this difference? Does this mean that the Bible is not reliable or that translators are changing the Bible? The field known as textual criticism is what deals with discussion looking for the original wording of an ancient text. This can be a complicated area of study, but I will highlight some key elements related to textual criticism of the Bible that might help us understand what is going on here.

The Background to Textual Criticism

It is good to remember that we do not have the original manuscripts of the books of the Bible (which was written in a different language, with the New Testament written in Greek); we have copies of copies. This is true for most ancient books, as writing materials from 2,000 years ago were extremely perishable (this was before digital writing!), and Christians were often persecuted, leading to the burning of their writings. The copying of copies was done carefully by hand, but because it was done by hand as opposed to by copy machines, you will find differences between particular manuscripts. Most of these differences are the equivalent of a modern typo, though there are also some other reasons for the differences. (If you want more detail about the transmission and copying process, I’ve written about it here).

It is also good to remember that the division of the text into chapters and verses was something done by later editors to help readers find particular sections of the Bible; they were not put there by the authors of the various books in the Bible. It is much easier to say, “open your Bible to Matthew chapter 18, verse 10” than to say, “find the section a little over halfway through the book, after this and before that.” Therefore, while we will question if this particular verse was originally in the text, it is really a question of if this line or sentence is there. In omitting it, the editors of these translations do not think that the writer skipped over verse 11 and just went from 10 to 12!

The Issue Here in Matthew 18:11

What we find in this case is that the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament do not feature the words of Matthew 18:11. In particular, the earliest full manuscripts of the New Testament that come from the 4th century but either were not discovered (Codex Sinaiticus) or able to be widely used by scholars (Codex Vaticanus) until the 19th century (and thus not readily accessible to the translators of the 1611 King James Version of the Bible) do not feature these words. There are a number of other manuscripts and witnesses (such as ancient translations and ancient Christian writers quoting the passage) from a variety of geographic locations that also do not feature these words here. 

I do need to point out that the majority of the manuscripts do feature these words (with these manuscripts being the ones used for putting in verses - hence why it has a verse number), but the bulk of our manuscripts are from a later date. Rather than simply going with the reading found in the most manuscripts, I (and many scholars) think it is best to look at what is found in the earliest ones since a large number of manuscripts could be copying from a single manuscript. There are others, however, who think you should go with the reading found in the majority of manuscripts. All that said, there are also some manuscripts from the fifth and sixth centuries that do include the verse, but the earliest ones available to us do not feature it.

Some Rationale for Making a Decision

Textual criticism does not just look at the number and date of available manuscripts, but also seeks to think through what is the best explanation for differences in the manuscripts by comparing the differences and looking at other factors. They effectively ask if there is a reason why some words might have been omitted or added in the copying process. Scholars often argue that the shorter or more difficult reading is more likely because these are more likely to be expanded or explained because of tendencies of copyists. Another thing scholars sometimes find  is that a saying found in one place of the gospels may be repeated in a different place because it was a well-known saying or is in a similar passage. That would seem to be the case here, as Matthew 18:11 essentially says the same thing as Luke 19:10 (slightly different, though some variants on Matthew 18:11 read the exact same as Luke 19:10), where the manuscript evidence is unified. However, the context is a little different, as Luke 19 is the story of Zaccheus. That said, this is a saying that we see elsewhere in the gospels, and thus a copyist may have had in the back of his mind as he copied.

These words do link together verse ten and what follows and provides an explanation of what one sees, so it may have been added into the text as some point (perhaps as a side note or comment - like headings in modern Bibles), and because it helped things flow well, it was not seen as an addition by some when they were copying and thus became part of some manuscripts and copied moving forward. 

The date of the manuscript and potential explanation of the saying appearing here leads me to side with the editors and scholars who think that verse 11 most likely was not in the original text. 

The Implications 

Does this mean the Bible was being constantly changed and is unreliable or that there was some conspiracy early on to change the teachings of Jesus? As I have written in other posts (see here and here), I don’t think so. In fact, I think it points to the opposite. The simple fact that we talk about this shows that there is not something being hidden from the public’s eye. If that was the case, the editors of the Bible would not have this footnote and would find a way to cover this up. Moreover, I think it is important to remember what is at stake -- whether or not verse 11 was in the original writing does not change any teaching. It is saying verse 11 is found in other parts of the gospels, so it is something we know Jesus taught. The teaching of Matthew 18:10-14 does support the principle as we see Jesus seeking to save the lost in terms of the sheep, but it seems like a piece of commentary or explanation of the passage from a saying of Jesus elsewhere in the Bible may have inadvertently been inserted into the text here. Because of the nature of preserving original texts, you will find these things in various places in the Bible, but these differences we find do not offer divergent teachings about the Christian faith or alter Christian belief. In fact, let the discussion of this particular verse not stand in the way of this important teaching:  Jesus came to save us when we were lost, and we are called to reach out to those wandering so that they might come to know and remember the love of Jesus 

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