by Mark Gutman
Recently the discussion in our Sabbath School class took a brief detour because a member was surprised that a verse was missing from her Bible. She had been asked to read Matthew 23:15 and had just noticed that verse 14 was missing.
For a moment I was mentally back in a Korean tea room. While I was in college, I spent a year as a student missionary in an English language school in South Korea, teaching English conversation and Bible. Students would take me to tea rooms, as that gave them the chance to practice their English. In one such setting a student asked me to show him the Trinity in the Bible. Since I had recently memorized 1 John (in the King James Version [KJV]), I quickly turned to 1 John 5:7-8, only to get one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever had. My proof text wasn’t there! It’s a fantastic proof text for the Trinity, but the KJV and the New King James Version are about the only currently-used English translations that have the longer version of 1 John 5:7-8 (KJV). In Korea the KJV was too difficult for our students to use, so we used the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which I discovered, to my dismay, leaves out the Trinity wording.
My student got distracted, and the topic was not brought up the rest of the chat. But as soon as I could I grabbed the SDA Bible Commentary (SDABC) to find out what was going on with my missing passage. The SDABC gives an explanation (partly discredited) of how the KJV wording came about. But why was I just finding out about the issue at age 18? For starters, sermons and Sabbath School quarterlies ignore the issue. A few years ago the Sabbath School quarterly covered 1 John but did not take advantage of the chance to explain the issue. Instead, Revelation 22:18 or 19 (out of context) was quoted as a threat to anyone who might tamper with Bible writings. As I recall, the quarterly gave absolutely no explanation about how the passage got into the KJV. There was no explanation why it probably didn’t belong in the KJV. The fact that there were other such verses in the KJV wasn’t mentioned. So I wasn’t surprised that many Sabbath School class members appeared to be unfamiliar with the textual criticism issue.
But these members are long past age 18. Yet they are surprised to discover that some verses they’ve read or heard don’t belong in the Bible. For instance, there are problems with John 5:4 (angel would stir up the waters, and the first person in got healed), Acts 8:37 (belief needed before baptism), and Revelation 22:14 (“blessed are they that do his commandments”). People probably don’t realize how much Bible translations smooth out difficulties. We may be familiar with how the New World Translation translates John 1:1, but other translations use similar techniques. In fact, the Clear Word (not a translation) is a bestseller among Adventists partly because it suggests that the Bible reads just the way Adventists would like it to read. Difficulties taken out. The writer (or paraphraser) even states, “I attempted to harmonize in the four gospels what at first appears to be contradictory.” No wonder some Adventists are puzzled when others aren’t quick to believe our version of Bible doctrines or see problems we don’t. Sometimes the Bible doesn’t actually say what we think it says.
I suggest that a bigger problem than the missing verse is a missing willingness to explain or a missing awareness to explain or a missing interest in investigation. Many preachers know nothing about higher criticism or lower criticism. And many who are aware fear disturbing the spirituality or the peace of members by preaching on the topic. We explain that non-Adventists should be searchers, while we do not venture beyond the relatively safe topics that will probably be received with a minimum of protest. I know that I have heard many sermons on the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the sanctuary, and the second coming, but none (that I remember) on verses that are mistakenly in the KJV but end up in many Bible study sheets.
Recently a relative asked me about the book of Enoch. You might remember that Jude 14 refers to Enoch, but you may not be aware that Jude quotes 1 Enoch 1:9, which was probably written in the intertestamental period. The question of sources became front and center for a while after Walter Rea wrote The White Lie, but after a flurry of writing on the topic, the matter of sources faded into the background. The issue is not an issue in official church publications now. You’re not proper mainstream believers if you are interested in determining which verses belong in the Bible, let alone which books belong in the Bible.
While many Adventists are able to give a certain number of proof texts for several of the 28 fundamental beliefs, far fewer are able to answer other questions relating to why we’re using the proof texts at all. Do we know (or how do we know) that John wrote 1 John? Does it matter? If Jude quoted from 1 Enoch, why is 1 Enoch not in the Bible? What is the difference between higher criticism and lower criticism? Why is 1 John 5:7-8 missing from modern translations? If we (as a church, officially) don’t believe in an inerrant Bible, what is an example of an error in the Bible? (I have found Alden Thompson’s book, Inspiration, most helpful on this topic.)
Well, Mark, you ask, do you mean we have to be experts in Biblical criticism to be spiritual? If people are good Christians, what difference does it make if they don’t know about missing verses or how books got into or didn’t get into the Bible?
I’ll give three quick examples of practices that can be affected by knowledge (or a lack of knowledge) of Biblical criticism:
(1) We can read through 66 Bible books each year, as if length is more important than depth, because of a feeling that the verses are all important or they wouldn’t be in there. Don’t miss reading Nahum through each year, even if you never learn much about in depth about any other books.
(2) We look askance at believers in the Quran (or Koran) or the Book of Mormon, wondering how anyone could believe such stuff, while we judge Bible skeptics as either uninformed or wicked. But we often know little about how our Bible reached its current revered status. We’ve accepted it rather unquestioningly, and we think others should too.
(3) We avoid reading what raises questions (Bart Ehrman or Marcus Borg, or even Adventist Today), or we toss the Bible after reading the questions because we see no alternative to all-or-none thinking.
What do we have to fear from an investigation of the Bible we regard so highly? If there are problems, what do we gain by not knowing them? Or how can we ask others to keep learning while we are shutting the door to things we are afraid we might find out? When we discover a missing verse or a verse we hadn’t noticed or a question we hadn’t thought about, let’s use it as a springboard. Let it lead us to study to become more informed about the Bible that serves as the basis for much of our philosophy of life.