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What Are English Translations of the Christian Bible Based On?

Because their translators used different Greek source texts, the King James Version includes 16 verses not found in more recent translations of the New Testament.


Perceptive readers who compare English translations of the Bible may notice something strange. Some translations, such as the King James Version (KJV), include verses not found in other translations, such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). For example, the KJV includes Matt 18:11, but in the NRSV the verse numbers jump from Matt 18:10 to Matt 18:12—there is no Matt 18:11. What is going on?

Translators of the KJV and of more modern editions did not use the same printed Greek text. The KJV’s translators used a printed Greek text that included about 16 verses not included in more recent printed editions of the Greek text. Because of this, the KJV includes verses that more recent translations do not.

The very first Greek text to be printed and published was edited by the famous Christian humanist scholar Erasmus in 1516. He had only a very small number of handwritten Greek New Testament manuscripts available as the basis for his printed text, and the ones he used the most were from the 12th century (the oldest manuscript, which he used the least, was from the 10th century). Erasmus’ 1516 printed text reflected the Greek text as found in 12th-century manuscripts. Subsequent editions, including the influential 1522 third edition, included only slight revisions.

Later editions of the Greek New Testament basically echoed Erasmus’ text. These include the 1550 third edition of Robert Estienne (also known as Robertus Stephanus), whose 1551 fourth edition was the first to include verse divisions. His work was used by the Geneva Bible translators, whose New Testament was published, with the support of John Calvin, in 1557. The many editions of Théodore Beza (Calvin’s successor at Geneva) differed little from Estienne’s fourth edition, and Beza’s 1588-89 and 1598 editions were heavily used by the translators of the 1611 KJV. Virtually all English translations from the Geneva Bible and the KJV down to 1880 used the same basic Greek text as their foundation, a form that later came to be known (on the basis of a 1633 “publisher’s blurb”) as the “received text” (Latin, Textus Receptus). This was basically Erasmus’ text, edited on the basis of a few 12th-century Greek manuscripts.

The situation changed dramatically starting in the late 1700s, as many more manuscripts—some of them six to nine centuries older than those Erasmus used—became available to European scholars. On the basis of this older evidence, it soon became clear that the text of the New Testament had “grown” slightly as it was copied by hand century after century. Some verses present in the manuscripts Erasmus used did not appear in the older manuscripts. In some cases, such as John 5:3b-4, a scribe mistook an explanatory marginal comment for a correction­ and copied it into the text. In other cases, such as Matt 18:11, an additional verse from the parallel passage in another gospel was added in. In all, there are about 16 instances of “added verses”: Matthew 17:21, Matthew 18:11, Matthew 23:14, Mark 7:16, Mark 9:44, Mark 9:46, Mark 11:26, Mark 15:28, Luke 17:36, Luke 23:17, John 5:3b-4, Acts 8:37, Acts 15:34, Acts 24:6b-8a, Romans 16:24, and 1 John 5:7b-8a.

Printed editions of the Greek New Testament based on this older evidence began to appear as early as 1831, when Karl Lachmann published his edition. Because many of the older manuscripts did not include the 16 verses just listed, newer 19th-century editions of the Greek New Testament likewise tended not to include them. In particular, the very influential editions of Constantin von Tischendorf (8th ed. 1864-72)—the famous manuscript hunter who brought the celebrated Codex Sinaiticus and many other manuscripts to the attention of European scholars—and the two Cambridge scholars B.F. Westcott & F.J.A. Hort (1881) did not include any of the 16 verses listed above.

But not until 1881, when the Revised Version was published in England, did an English translation bring this new knowledge about the earliest manuscripts to public attention by leaving out all 16 additional verses. The appearance of this new translation was a major cultural event, causing an uproar partly because of these verses’ absence.

The uproar was hardly surprising. When compared with the long-dominant and very familiar KJV, the new translation appeared to omit verses of the New Testament, a move that struck many readers as nearly blasphemous—or even dangerous under the strictures of Rev 22:19: “If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life.”

But the earlier, older manuscripts—the ones followed by modern printed editions and translations of the Greek New Testament—make clear that the newer Greek manuscripts behind the KJV include verses that were added to the New Testament and were never part of the earliest surviving manuscripts. In this case, Rev 22:18 (“If anyone adds to [the words of the prophecy of this book], God will add to that person the plagues described in this book”) would be the relevant passage.

So how do things look today? Among major translations of the past 75 years or so, only the very few which used the same Greek text as the KJV—the New King James Version, for example—continue to include these verses. Most translations use printed editions of the Greek text that do not include them, and translators handle the matter in various ways. Some translations, such as the NRSV, the New International Version (NIV, 1984 edition), the English Standard Version, and the Contemporary English Version, omit the verses entirely and include a footnote stating that other translations include the verse in question. Others, such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB), place the verse in brackets and include a footnote stating that early manuscripts do not include the verse. The NIV (2011 edition) and the New American Bible (Revised Edition) omit the verse but include the verse number in brackets, along with a footnote indicating that some other translations include the verse in question.

Do modern translations “leave out verses,” or did the KJV translators, through no error of their own, include verses that were never part of Scripture? Regardless of how you answer, now you at least know why the question arises.

  • Michael W. Holmes

    Michael W. Holmes is University Professor of Biblical Studies and Early Christianity at Bethel University. His publications include The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. (Baker Academic, 2007); The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition (SBL and Logos Bible Software, 2010); and (with Bart Ehrman), The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, 2nd ed. (Brill, 2013).