Was John 5:3 removed from modern Bibles?

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

Many modern translations of the Bible do not have John 5:3 in the main body of their text, relegating it instead to a footnote. King James Only advocates accuse these modern translators of deleting or suppressing the verse and tampering with the word of God. Modern translators, however, claim that the verse isn't in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts and that it was a later scribal addition. Thus, they say that they are not removing anything from the Bible. Rather, others added these words in. They were not part of what John originally wrote. To settle the matter, we must look to the manuscript evidence.

The Verses in Question

The verses under discussion here traditionally read in the KJV:

"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 5:3-4, KJV).

Many modern translations lack verse four entirely and have a shorter form of verse three, thus reading:

"In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed," (John 5:3, ESV).

This passage is not, however, a "King James Only" issue. A number of modern translations contain this material as well. The MEV and NKJV, for example, are based on the same Greek text as the KJV and so contain this verse. Other translations, like the NASB, also retain the verse in the main body of their texts and simply mark them with brackets to let the reader know there are questions about them. Thus, even if one concludes that the longer form of these verses are, indeed, part of the original text of Mark's gospel, one need not rely only on the KJV. Plenty of other translations also have this verse. Still, the issue is worth careful consideration.

The Manuscript Evidence

The manuscripts of this passage present us with a more complicated scenario than merely "these are the manuscripts for" on the one hand and "these are the manuscripts against" on the other. There are, indeed, manuscripts with the short form of verse three and that lack verse four entirely, just as we find in many modern translations. There are also manuscripts that back up the KJV by containing both the longer form of verse three and the entirety of verse four. There are also, however, copies that have the longer form of verse three but still lack verse four. Conversely, there are copies that contain verse four and yet have only the short form of verse three. Finally, there are also manuscripts that have the material but mark it off with asterisks and still others that contain it but in different forms and wordings.  Here is the basic landscape:

Manuscripts with the short form of verse three and lacking verse four:

The form of the text found in many modern translations, with only the short form of verse three and without the sentence that would later be called verse four, is backed up by very ancient manuscripts. Papyrus 75 (later second/early third century) and 66 (third century), Codex ‭א and Codex B (early fourth century), Codex C and Codex T (fifth century), as well as a few later copies like Uncial 0141 (tenth century).   This form of the text is also found in the Syriac Curetonian gospels (fifth century), the Old Latin manuscript itq (late sixth/early seventh century), and in the vast majority of Coptic manuscripts across all dialects.

Manuscripts with the long from of verse three but still lacking verse four:

Other manuscripts, though containing the longer form of verse three, still lack verse four entirely. Notable among these are Codex W (late fourth/early fifth century), Codex D (fifth century),1 and a few later copies like Minuscule 33 (ninth century). A few Old Latin manuscripts also read this way, such as itf (sixth century) and itl (eighth century), as do some copies of the Vulgate. The Armenian and Georgian translations concur.

Manuscripts with the short form of verse three but which contain verse four:

A smaller group of manuscripts have the shorter version of verse three like modern translations yet do contain verse four. The primary examples of this are Codex A (fifth century)2 and Codex L (eighth century).

Manuscripts affirming both the long form of verse three and the contents of verse four:

The full reading found in the KJV, containing both the long form of verse three and all of verse four, does not appear in the Greek until much later. It is not found until Codex K, Θ and Π (all ninth century). The reading is also present in the majority of medieval Greek manuscripts. Old Latin copies like ita (fourth century), itb (fifth century), ite (fifth century), and itc (thirteenth century) contain the verses this way, as do many of the Vulgate manuscripts. The Syriac Peshitta and other later Syriac manuscripts contain it, as do some of the Bohairic Coptic manuscripts. Some later translations contain it as well, such as the Slavonic and Ethiopic.

Even among these manuscripts that contain the verse, there are a number of variations on the wording not here listed in detail. To give just a few examples, the Latin manuscripts and the earlier Greek texts on this list read "An angel of the Lord came down..." whereas the the later medieval manuscripts (and thus the KJV) just say "An angel came down..." Most of the Old Latin manuscripts (including the oldest copies such as ita and itb) and some of the Vulgate tradition also contain a longer list in verse three of the sorts of people who sat by the pool. Codex D, a Greek/Latin parallel text, does not contain verse four but does contain this expanded form of verse three, probably derived from the Latin tradition.

Manuscripts which contain the passage, or a potion of it, but mark it off with asterisks:

Finally, there are also manuscripts that do contain the longer form of both verses, but they are marked off with asterisks (not unlike the brackets used around this passage in the NASB). These include Uncial 047 (eighth century), Codex Λ and Codex Π (ninth century), Codex S and Minuscule 1079 (tenth century), Minuscule 2174 (thirteenth century) and some later Syriac manuscripts.

The Church Fathers

There a several early church father's who describe similar details to those found in John 5:3. The earliest of these by far is Tertullian, a Latin author who writes in the early third century that:

"An angel, by his intervention, was wont to stir the pool at Bethsaida. They who were complaining of ill-health used to watch for him; for whoever had been the first to descend into them, after his washing, ceased to complain," (Tertullian, On Baptism, Chapter 5).

One obvious way to look at this is to say that Tertullian and others had this verse in their copies of John, thus making the reading older than it appears in the surviving manuscripts. On the other hand, none of these citations actually quote the verse as it appears in any known manuscripts,  nor do they reference it specifically as a verse of Scripture. Thus, these writers certainly show familiarity with the tradition of the angel stirring the water, but they do not necessarily display knowledge of an actual verse in John about the angel stirring the water. It could just as well be, then, that there was first a narrative tradition about the angel that helped to explain John 5 and only later was that story inserted into the text, possibly directly but more probably as a marginal note later added in. Both possibilities must be considered. It is also noteworthy that even the story appears first in Latin sources and only later appears in the Greek.

Evaluating the Evidence

The oldest Greek manuscripts by a long shot do not contain the verse. The oldest Syriac and Coptic translations also lack it. In the earliest centuries, it is almost exclusively a Latin reading. Even in the Latin, some of the manuscripts lack the verse and none of the early copies contain the particular form of the verse found in the KJV. Indeed, the variety of versions is itself a piece of evidence against the verse's originality. It is also quite notable that verse four and the long form of verse three seem to be two separate units. For a long while, most scribes had one or the other (or neither) but not both. This, likewise, points to explanatory traditions being added in to clarify a text. This seems, at any rate, far more likely than any explanation of why, for example, only the end of verse three might sometimes be removed. Thus, the manuscript tradition seems to point together to this being an interpretive tradition that developed in the text over time, starting first in the Latin, and was not originally part of John's gospel.

The strongest evidence against this hypothesis appears to be the existence of the references in certain early church fathers. Again, however, these writers all describe the tradition without ever citing the verse or claiming it to be written in John's gospel. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the earliest reference to this tradition is found in Tertullian, the first major Christian writer to use Latin rather than Greek. Tertullian had a profound influence on the Latin west and, after Tertullian, the Latin manuscripts are the next place we find this story popping up. These references in the church fathers actually fit well into the idea that this was an explanatory tradition that probably made its way into the manuscript tradition through popular preaching and/or marginal study notes.

A common King James Only argument is that the verse was willfully suppressed by the early church because they were uncomfortable with idea of the angel stirring the water to heal people. There is, however, little evidence for this supposed discomfort. Indeed, when we look at early Christian writings, we see quite the opposite! The "Shepherd of Hermas," one of the most widely read non-biblical books among early Christians, was full of angelic activity. It claims, for example, that every man has two angels with him, one that feeds him righteous thoughts and the other wicked thoughts and temptations.3 It also claims that there is an angel who rules over wild beasts. This angel even shuts the mouth of those beasts to protect Hermas.4 The early second-century father Papias wrote that God gave angels dominion "over the arrangement of the world."5 Justin Martyr likewise wrote that God "committed the care of men and of all things under heaven to angels whom He appointed over them."6 Athenagoras likewise writes that:

"this is the office of the angels,—to exercise providence for God over the things created and ordered by Him; so that God may have the universal and general providence of the whole, while the particular parts are provided for by the angels appointed over them," (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, Chapter 24).

Clement of Alexandria speaks of angels over nations, cities, and some individual persons.7 Origen says of angelic activity:

"We indeed also maintain with regard not only to the fruits of the earth, but to every flowing stream and every breath of air that the ground brings forth those things which are said to grow up naturally,—that the water springs in fountains, and refreshes the earth with running streams,—that the air is kept pure, and supports the life of those who breathe it, only in consequence of the agency and control of certain beings whom we may call invisible husbandmen and guardians," (Against Celsus, Book 8, Chapter 31).

Far from being a tendency to suppress or deny angelic activity in physical things of the world, the tendency of the early Christian writers was, if anything, to magnify the role of angels! There would be no clear motivation for scribes to delete these verses if they were there. There would be, however, the tendency to embrace or imagine angelic explanations of things. Thus, it would make sense for such a tradition to carry on in the early church and to find its way into the text. All the data from every direction points to the same conclusion: that John 5:3 is probably not original to John's gospel. Modern translators are wise to point these issues out to readers.

  • 1. Codex D actually has a slightly longer form of verse three even than the KJV, but still lacks verse four entirely
  • 2. a much later scribe added the longer form of verse three in, but it was not written in the original hand
  • 3. Shepherd of Hermas, Book 2, Commandment 6, Chapter 2
  • 4. Book 1, Vision 4, Chapter 2
  • 5. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, pg. 154, Extract VII
  • 6. Justin Martyr, Second Apology, Chapter 5
  • 7. Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book 6, Chapter 17