Gospel of John Sunday School | Week 14

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Notes on John 5:3b-4

After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

John 5:1-4

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Without looking too hard, you will absolutely be able to find a Bible containing John 5 that looks and reads just as it appears above. No cross references, no foot notes, no asterisks. However, most modern English translations of this passage will have brackets, italics, or some other insertion to help you understand the text. These markers aren’t unlike verse numbers or chapter headings – their purpose is to assist the reader in understanding the medium that is the English translation.

What sets this passage, and a handful of other selections of scripture, apart is the fact that is a textual variant. In this case, that means there are Greek manuscripts that disagree as to whether John 5:3b-4 are original to the Gospel of John. In other words, do these verses even belong in our Bible? One might ask…

How did this happen?

Does it mean that we should doubt what is included in our Bible?

What are the implications for our faith?

The last two questions are easy to answer. Scholars agree that nearly all (99%) of what we have in our Bible is original to the first century writings. Furthermore, even within that tiny fraction of debated texts there are no essential doctrines that are compromised or otherwise altered. We can be confident that good English translations communicate the same inspired truth of the Greek and Hebrew scriptures.

The first question is more complex, but also straightforward in a general sense. Here is an overview of “how it happened”:

  • The Holy Spirit inspired apostles to write gospels and epistles in the first century.
  • The original audiences of these documents made copies, and these copied were distributed across the growing church.
  • As the church grew, and as copies of copies were made, small variations entered into the text. The vast majority of these are word order (Jesus Christ vs. Christ Jesus), spelling variations, and what appear to be unintentional exclusions (missing a line while copying).
  • Since so many copies were made, many of the variations can be traced. Also, since these texts have always been considered holy, there was also an internal effort to correct and redirect copies to their original forms.
  • As the church continued to grow, different “traditions” or “types” began to emerge. Based upon geographical location, three major traditions developed: Alexandrian (Northern Africa/Middle East), Western (Europe), and Byzantine (Eastern Europe/Western Asia). Although there is still overwhelming agreement across the traditions, the variants became distinct within each type.
  • At the time of the Reformation (1517-1648), the texts of the Byzantine tradition were the most complete, well known, and widely used. Therefore, most of the first translations into German, French, or English used the Greek from the Byzantine texts.
  • It wasn’t until the 19th century that Alexandrian texts were discovered that were significantly older (4th century) than the Byzantine texts (6th century). This allowed scholars and translators to better trace back some of the variants and make educated, critical decisions regarding how an accurate translation should read.

Each one of those points is a snapshot of a complicated process. What is important to remember is that this field doesn’t destroy the Bible or erode the foundations of Holy scripture. Faithful, conservative men and women are on the front lines of this research. The sheer magnitude of Biblical texts from antiquity that we possess (over 5,700 sources totaling over 1.2 million pages!) is astounding. Even more astounding is they are practically in lock-step with one another.

So what about John 5:3b-4?

These verses were not found in all early manuscripts in the Byzantine tradition, however the translators erred on the side of including the verses. As more manuscripts were discovered, including very early Alexandrian texts, it became clearer that these verses were probably not original. What most scholars believe is that there was truly a superstition that an angel stirred up the waters. John’s gospel only references this (verse 7), so someone added the explanation as notes later. Somehow this explanation was copied into the text and persisted in a line of transmission. Modern translations include the verses with notation to point out this issue to readers.

Again, this passage and the handful of others that fall into this category ought not discourage us. If anything, the firm grasp that Christian scholarship has on textual criticism should encourage us. The abundance, integrity, and diversity (location, date, tradition) of manuscripts that we possess all point to agreement on the message and text of the Bible. Within reason, we should do what we can to understand the process for our own edification, for strengthening the body, and to offer an argument for our faith.

Forever, O Lord,

Your word is settled in heaven.

Your faithfulness continues throughout all generations;

You established the earth, and it stands.

They stand this day according to Your ordinances,

For all things are Your servants.

Psalm 119:89-91

God promises that His word will persevere. Just as the ground beneath us is solid, God’s word will endure that much more. If we adhere to this promise, it stands that our faith will encompasses the Bible being inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. Jesus had this view of the Old Testament, and the early church had this view of the apostolic writings.

Moreover, the preservation of His word demonstrates God’s character. God is faithful. In His revelation and redemption, He is faithful to His people. We can have faith in God’s promises because we can have faith in God’s word because we can have faith in God.

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