Was Luke 17:36 removed from modern Bibles?

by Luke Wayne
Return to King James Onlyism

King James Onlyists make much of the so-called "missing verses" in modern translations. Among the passages which they accuse modern translators of having "deleted" or "removed" is Luke 17:36. It is indeed true that many modern translations do not have this verse in the main text (though they all provide the verse fully in a footnote). The problem with the King James Onlyist's accusation, however, is that it assumes that the verse was originally part of the biblical text and that modern translators have taken it out. The verse, however, is not present in the earliest manuscripts, and many modern scholars believe that it was actually added in by later scribes and was not originally part of Luke's gospel.

The Verse in Question

The verse under discussion here traditionally reads in older English translations:

"Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left," (Luke 17:36, KJV).

Of course, every translation agrees that Jesus said these words. The question is whether or not Luke wrote them. They are certainly in Matthew's gospel, where we find the identical verse in all translations:

"Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left," (Matthew 24:40, KJV).

So the question before us is not whether these are genuine, biblical words of Jesus. Of course they were. The question is whether or not Luke wrote them in chapter 17 of his gospel.

The Manuscript Evidence

There is not a lot of Greek manuscript evidence in favor of this verse. It is found only in Codex D (fifth century) and a handful of medieval minuscules and lectionaries. The verse is, however, found in all the Old Latin manuscripts, including some that date back to the fourth and fifth centuries, and a large portion of the Vulgate manuscripts as well. It is also present in the entire Syriac tradition, including the fourth-century Sinaitic Palimpsest and the fifth-century Curetonian gospels. It also has representation in some copies of a few later translations. 

By contrast, the evidence against the verse is very ancient, diverse, and numerically massive. First of all, the verse is absent in Papyrus 75. This manuscript from the late second or early third century is by far the oldest copy we have of this passage. The verse was also absent in Codex א and Codex B (early fourth century), Codex W (late fourth/early fifth century), Codex A, C, and Q, and Uncial 0274 (fifth century), Codex N (sixth century), Codex E and Codex L (eighth century) Codex H, K, Δ, Θ, Π, Ψ, and minuscule 892 (ninth century), and the vast majority of all other Greek manuscripts on through the middle ages. While the Latin tradition overall favors the verse, some Vulgate manuscripts do not contain it. The entire Coptic manuscript tradition lacks the verse. It is also lacking in a number of later translations.

Even the Textus Receptus, the tradition of printed Greek texts which lies behind the KJV, did not contain this verse for most of its history, and thus modern translators are far from novel in questioning it. The early English translations of William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, and the Matthew Bible all lack the verse. The 1539 "Great Bible," the first "Authorized Version," had the verse in the text, but had it bracketed and in a smaller font to mark the text out as doubtful. The 1557 Geneva Bible did not have the verse in the main text but did have it listed it in a footnote (just as many modern translations now do). Even the 1611 KJV itself contains a note in the margins next to this verse which reads:

"This verse is wanting in most of the Greek copies."

Thus, the King James Translators themselves thought it wise to publically note for all readers the serious doubts about this verse.

Examining the Evidence

So what are we to conclude? What is the best explanation of this data? Well, in favor of the verse, even Bruce Metzger (who seriously doubts that this verse belongs in the text) notes that it is technically possible for a scribe to have accidentally skipped this verse as a result of his eyes jumping to the wrong place on the page due to similar word endings. Indeed, there are a few manuscripts that are missing verse 35 for this same reason.1 Thus, one could reasonably explain why a normal scribe might have honestly omitted the verse. If the verse was present in the earlier manuscripts and missing only or primarily in the later ones, even in a majority of later ones, this argument would hold much more weight. The fact of the matter is, however, that if it were not for Codex D, this verse would not have a single witness in the original Greek language until the 11th century AD, over a thousand years after the book was written. And even then, the three 11th-century copies that do contain it do not agree on exactly how the verse should be worded. Thus, other than Codex D, this verse has no presence in the Greek manuscripts whatsoever until the middle ages.

But, of course, up to this point, I have had to keep saying "other than Codex D" to make this point. The fact of the matter is that the verse is in Codex D, so doesn't that prove it was part of the Greek manuscript tradition at least as early as the fifth century? Actually, no. Codex D is a very unique manuscript. It can be a valuable source, but it also has notable weaknesses. Codex D is a Greek/Latin diglot which also contains a number of unique and interpretive readings. There is evidence that the Latin text in D sometimes influenced its Greek text. Thus, when a reading is found in the Greek of Codex D but is otherwise found only in the Latin, it is most likely because that reading is a gloss in the Latin which made its way into D's Greek text. Thus, in this case, D serves primarily as a Latin witness rather than a Greek one. So, again, we are left with a scenario where the verse exists in the Latin and Syriac translations but not in the Greek for over a thousand years. Even afterward, when the reading finally finds its way into the Greek in the middle ages, it only does so in a small minority of late manuscripts. While it is interesting that this reading dominated both the Latin and the Syriac traditions from such an early date, that is not enough to explain how this reading could have been so thoroughly and completely eliminated throughout every single stream of Greek transmission so far back that even P75 does not contain it.

Even those who compiled the TR and the early English translators all thought that this text was not likely to be original. Indeed, even the KJV translators themselves noted their doubts for all to read. It seems wisest for us to do the same in our translations today. Whether one moves the verse out of the main text and into a footnote (like the Geneva Bible historically and the NIV and ESV today), puts brackets around the verse to mark it as doubtful (like the Great Bible historically and the NASB today) or simply notes in a footnote that manuscript support for the verse is lacking (like the KJV historically and the NKJV today), the standing tradition of English Bibles is to let the reader know that this verse was probably not originally part of Luke's gospel.

  • 1. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Edition (German Bible Society, 1994) 142-143