THE MISSING VERSE
For an interesting response from most Christians, one merely needs to ask them to look up and read John 5:4 in the NIV. A few page flips later, and their eyes narrow, their brows furrow, and then they look up in confusion: “It’s not there!” As most modern Bibles skip smoothly from verse 3 to verse 5, it appears as if something is seriously awry. The Bible is missing a verse, and there is likely a conspiracy afoot.
However, most Bible scholars and learned theologians know that there is more that goes into the translation, interpretation and ordering of the Bible than most people acknowledge, and it is here that we examine the odd instance of an abduction of a verse in the middle of one of Jesus’ more famous miracles: the healing of the invalid by the waters of Bathseda.
In the NIV, a footnote at the end of verse 3 leads astute readers to the following footnote: “Some less important manuscripts paralyzed—and they waited for the moving of the waters. 4 From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had.” From this, readers are informed that the latter half of verse 3 has been excised, and verse 4 completely.
This footnote offers confusion to the lay reader. Is it in the Bible or not? Can we trust this verse or is it “optional”? Some people even find their faith shaken when others use passages like John 5:4 to try to undermine the authority and veracity of scripture. Others use it to raise contention between believers and their use of one “superior” translation over another, such as the KJV-Only movement.
So what does “less important manuscripts” mean, and why does John 5:3b-4 exist in some versions of the Bible – such as the KJV, NASB and ASV – but not others? As the Bible urges us to pursue the truth and not hide from the hard questions, something as seemingly innocuous as a missing verse deserves our attention and detective skills.
OTHER ABDUCTED VERSES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
If Christians and others are surprised to find John 5:4 missing, they will be astounded to learn that the NIV and other modern translations omit between 20-30 verses and passages from the New Testament that the KJV has, either relegating them to footnote status or deleting them altogether. Additionally, several passages such as Mark 16:9-20 have a special in-text prefix by the translators stating that the most reliable and early manuscripts did not feature the following passage. However, the verse numbering from the KJV remains in the NIV, as it was not the intent of modern translators to hide the yanked verses (such as how many buildings have no 13th floor, and the elevator goes from 12 to 14 in button numbering) or to come up with a new numbering system.
So why, these surprised readers ask, were these verses taken out?
Bible translation committees are not prone to treating the task of constructing the most authentic and accurate version of the Bible lightly. It is their job to ferret out which verses might have been added after the Bible was written (by copy errors, the inclusion of traditions, or the manipulation by a specific source), to evaluate the best translation of every word, phrase and passage, and to do so by using the best manuscript source available.
They knew that scribes were human and prone to human errors, such as misspellings, word omission and the like. They also knew that scribes tended to write notes into the margins when they made an error, had a thought on the passage, or wanted to reference another work. These were not always caught by editors for the next copy, and some slipped into the passage as a successive line of scribes continued to write. Thus, some textual errors and non-Biblical commentary became absorbed into later manuscripts. This prompted translators to look to earlier manuscripts as the generally more accurate ones, a technique that has become more refined as the centuries passed.
The problem is that some versions of the Bible are based on different manuscript families – the King James Version used the later Textus Receptus as its NT source (circa 1100 A.D.), while the NIV chose to go back to earlier Greek manuscripts instead (some as early as 150 A.D.). Thus, NIV proponents claim, the KJV was more prone to these copy errors, as the Textus Receptus came after centuries of copying and recopying.
IMPACT OF THIS VERSE ON THE PASSAGE
One question that every hermeneutically-minded Christian should ask is, “How does this verse tie in with the larger passage, and what effect does it have on the passage if it is included or excluded?” The exegesis of 5:3b-4 is a vital “eye witness” to the case for its legitimacy.
In this passage, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem during one of the Jewish feasts. He goes over to one of the gates (“the Sheep Gate”) where there is a pool around which disabled people lay. Jesus focuses on a particular crippled man who he orders to get up and walk, thus healing the man and demonstrating God’s power. The passage goes on to shed light on the two perspectives of this miracle: the legalistic Jews who cared only that the formerly-crippled man was carrying his mat on the Sabbath, and the healed man who went out to share his testimony about Jesus.
The inclusion of verse 5:3b-4 provides a possible background to why the disabled were at this particular spot: an angel would periodically come down, stir the waters, and the first person to go into the waters would be healed. Whether the verse is accepted as true or not, the invalid is certainly concerned with reaching the water and distraught that he has no help getting there.
This verse does seem to raise a few theological questions. Firstly, if it is included, does this lessen Jesus’ own miracle – he is, after all, providing the same miracle as the angel-stirred body of water purports. Secondly, is the angelic-stirred pool in line with what we know of miracles in the Bible?
Some say that verse 4 shows off a miracle more in line with ancient superstitions than biblical history, especially that the miracle in question seems capricious, random and possibly cruel – after all, it seems to reward the least crippled out of the group.
THE CASE FOR INCLUSION
Some have made the case for the inclusion of verse 3b-4 based on the invalid’s response to Jesus found in verse 7: “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” The phrase “water is stirred” seemingly points to the specific action of the angel in 5:4 (“an angel would… stir up the waters”). In addition to this is the invalid’s concern to reach the water and his dismay that others beat him to it. If verse 4 is omitted as a reason for his urgency to reach the water, there lacks an explanation of why he is so upset.
Even if there was no direct angelic intervention, the mere belief or superstition on the part of the people might suggest a logical reason why they were congregated there, and thus, verse 3b-4 could be read as their reasoning for gathering there, not what actually and historically happened on behalf of God and the angels. After all, other local superstitions are certainly referenced in the Bible as to provide background for a particular account.
Another issue that may have impacted verse 4’s removal was the possibility that it simply did not fit within the early church’s theological framework of the rest of the NT and was cut out of certain manuscripts (Alexandrian). It appears inconsistent to other miracles performed in the NT, especially considering its somewhat mystical and random quality – the miracle is not directed at any one person, but to whoever managed to get to a body of water first after it was stirred, sort of a “miracle lottery” system – and some argue that the church decided to delete the problematic passage from future copies because of this.
Verse 5:3b-4 has a few measures of support in early manuscripts dating back to circa 400 A.D., but these texts are primarily Western and limited in how widespread they became. Even so, some scholars have argued that this is enough to indicate that this verse was part of the original autograph.
KJV-Only followers will simply state that this passage should be included because it was in the KJV, the only “inspired” English version of the Bible.
THE CASE FOR EXCLUSION
Scholars generally bring up three reasons for the exclusion of 5:3b-4: “(1) Its absence from the earliest and best witnesses, (2) the presence of non-Johannine words or expressions, and (3) the rather wide diversity of variant forms in which verse 4 was transmitted.”
While there is evidence that 5:3b-4 existed in some Western manuscripts of the early church, the Eastern manuscripts are entirely void of mention of this passage, as well as the rest of the Western texts. There are also some Greek manuscripts dating around 900 A.D. that feature a mark by the verse, meaning that the scribes thought the verse was questionable but included it anyway. So we end up with a verse that was not in most of the ancient manuscripts, but happened to be in one that the KJV and other translations used as their source.
In attempting to deduce whether a verse was written by the author or not, a common tool for investigators is to compare the words and language used with the rest of the text. John 5:3b-4 appears to deviate from the rest of the book with words and phrases unusual to John – including several hapax legomenas (words that occur only once in a given author’s work). Out of the 34 words that comprise this verse, 10 of them are either unusual to the NT or to John’s style of writing. As Fee points out, John is defined by his repetitive use of the language and does not tend to stray so much from his “voice” elsewhere.
Another thing to consider is the stability of a verse across multiple manuscripts. Does it appear consistent, more or less, across a wide body of copies, or does it vary widely between them? John 5:3b-4 is in this latter category, with many different variations on the passage present in the manuscripts in which it appears.
As for the question of the early church censoring the passage due to its discomfort with the angelic slant, Gordon Fee responds by stating that there is no indication that the second century church, in Alexandria or elsewhere, was antagonistic toward angels. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The “stirring” referred to in verse 7 might simply be the effect of a natural spring occasionally bubbling and moving as a pocket of air rose to the surface. There may have been a superstition based around the pool that had no claim of truth to it. Another possible explanation as to why the invalid wanted to get to the pool was for a baptism (an interpretation of the phrase “stirring of the waters”). Early Christian art often featured baptism as a man coming out of the waters with a bed on his back.
In all likelihood, the scribes added it as a “gloss” to explain the setting behind the miracle as side notes, written somewhere around the second century, which eventually became absorbed into the main text in some Western manuscripts. It is also more likely that a scholar would add something to the text than take it out, which means that the manuscripts without the verse were the originals instead of the other way around. The NIV and other versions translators rooted out these faux verses that lacked evidence to be included in the true authority of scripture, but could not remove it entirely from the Bible without explanation – hence the footnote.
The evidence is stacked against 5:3b-4 as being part of the original autograph of John, as shown in its limited early appearances in manuscripts, its unusual language and phrasing, and the weight of scholarly opinion against it. The case for its inclusion is weak at best, and had little scholarly support behind it.
John 5:3b-4’s exclusion does not change the theological message of the passage, but in fact keeps a questionable superstition out of the reading and helps present a more accurate version of the passage.
Barclay, William. The Gospel of John: Volume 1. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956.
Dabbs, Matt. “The Case of the Missing Verse” http://mattdabbs.wordpress.com/2008/03/20/the-case-of-the-missing-verse-john-54/
Fee, Gordon D. “On the Inauthenticity of John 5:3b-4,” The Evangelical Quarterly 54.4 (Oct-Dec 1982): 207-218.
Filson, Floyd V. (ed) The Layman’s Bible Commentary: The Gospel According to John. Richmond: John Knox, 1966.
Gaebelein, Frank E. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 9 John-Acts. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
McLaughlin, Ra. “Reformed Answers: Missing Verses?” http://www.thirdmill.org/answers/answer.asp/file/99739.qna/category/pt/page/questions/site/iiim
Morris, Leon. Commentary on the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans, 1971.
 Fee, 218.
 Fee, 207.
 Morris, 302.
 Fee, 209.
 Fee, 214.
 Fee, 207.
 Fee, 215.
 Fee, 213.
 Fee, 209.
 Filson, 57.
 Barclay, 176.
 Gaebelein, 62.