If you’re using a modern translation, and you should, you’ll notice John 5:4 deleted altogether or relegated to a footnote. What in the world?! Is there an actual “hole” in the Bible? Or is there some mysterious reason why the verse has been deleted? The mystery exists because of the appearance of textual criticism in modern times, which evaluates the hand copied texts of Scripture to get as close as possible to the original reading. Let’s back up and think about the origin of the New Testament.
Several different authors wrote the works that comprise the New Testament in the time period between the resurrection of Christ and the end of the first century. The original manuscripts are lost, but as soon as the works were written and received by the churches, they began to be copied and sent to other churches. So, the original hand-written copy was then copied by hand. And copied again. And again. This resulted in transcription differences that can be catalogued and identified. For example, if the end of two lines of text has a similar set of letters, or even the same word, the scribe might skip a line of text resulting in an omission. Is that an error in the Bible? No, it’s an error in the copy. An error that can be catalogued and compared to the other manuscript copies of the Bible. This has resulted in the academic discipline of textual criticism and an analysis of all the different ways a scribe might make a mistake.
Since we don’t have the original, we compare all the different copies and work to restore the original author’s intent as best we can. Some people disagree with this process and use an older version of the Bible. They’re still Christians, and we can respectfully engage their opinions about the way to restore—or not—the text of Scripture.
John 5:4 is an example of a scribal “gloss.” As time went by, some of the history related to the text of John 5 got lost and so a well-meaning scribe made an explanatory addition to the text. This got picked up in some of the copies, but not all of them. Textual critics examined the copies and have determined that verse 4 was not part of the original text for three reasons: first, the oldest manuscripts do not have verse 4. Second, some of the copies mark verse 4 as an addition. A scribe recognized that it was different from what he had seen elsewhere or remembered from an earlier copy, so he marked it as different and kept copying. Third, the verse does not align with John’s typical vocabulary and, finally, a variety of changes in John 5:4 across different text “families” that can be identified by geographical region. Some of this might seem abstract and difficult, but these criteria have been developed and tested over the last century or so. John 5:4 was added by a scribe to try and clear up a historical situation that many had forgotten. He was trying to make the Bible readily accessible to his audience.
Is the modern translation that you are reading today reliable, or full of holes like John 5:4? The textual history of every book of scripture differs, but the scholars who work on cataloguing and analyzing the text consider every little change very carefully before giving an opinion about the way to restore the text. They rate every suggested change from A (most likely) to D (least likely) before the editors of a translation decide how to handle their suggestion. Most modern translations agree with the A rating of the textual critics that John 5:4 was not originally written by the Apostle John. The verse either gets omitted with a footnote, or similarly set apart from the text. The original language text behind the modern translation you are reading has been carefully analyzed and restored according to the very best efforts of the textual critics and the editorial boards who publish the major translations.
Can you trust your Bible? Absolutely! And scholars continue working to ensure that the Bible you have today is reliably transmitted and translated. Transmission is the process of making sure that the text you hold in your hands is as close as possible to the text that the author wrote. There haven’t been a bunch of random additions to the Bible over the centuries since it was written. Translation is the process of making sure that the language you read faithfully reproduces the meaning of the language that the Bible was written in. You have a reliable text that has been accurately translated from the original language.