Was Mark 7:16 removed from modern Bibles?

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

King James Only literature often accuses modern translators of "deleting" or "removing" Mark 7:16 from the Bible. Of course, this assumes that the verse was originally part of Mark's gospel and therefore it was "taken out" in more recent Bibles. Modern translators claim, however, that this verse is not present in the earliest manuscripts we possess. They contend that they have not deleted anything. Rather, later scribes added these words. They are not what Mark actually wrote. The fact of the matter is, whether the verse is original or not, there was no conspiracy to hide or remove it. It is lacking in many modern translations because it is lacking in the early manuscripts on which those translations are based. But which reading is most accurate?  We must consider the data.

The Verse in Question

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

"If any man have ears to hear, let him hear," (Mark 7:16, KJV).

This verse is absent in the main text of most modern translations, though is noted in a footnote for its presence in many manuscripts. The MEV and NKJV, based on the same Greek text as the KJV, include the verse. Other modern translations like the NASB and HCSB, though not based on the same Greek text as the KJV, still include the verse in the main text, but place it in brackets with a note that some early manuscripts to not contain the words.

Why Question These Words?

There is nothing doctrinal or theological in these words which a modern translator or ancient scribes might have been trying to remove or suppress. Further, no one in any camp doubts that Jesus said these words in other contexts. Literally the exact same verse is found elsewhere in Mark in all versions:

"If any man have ears to hear, let him hear," (Mark 4:23).

And very similar words are present in still another universally agreed-upon verse in Mark:

"And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear," (Mark 4:9).

The phrase "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear" is also found in Matthew 11:15, Luke 8:8, and Luke 14:35. One also finds the very similar phrase, "Who hath ears to hear, let him hear," in Matthew 13:9 and 43. Even in the book of Revelation, where Jesus often speaks, we find the words "He that hath an ear, let him hear..." (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22), and "If any man have an ear, let him hear," (Revelation 13:9). All translations agree, Jesus said these words and words like them again and again. It was part of His distinctive pattern of speech. Clearly, no modern translator is willfully trying to suppress them or they would be missing in these other places. No teaching or doctrine, not even a secondary one, hangs at all on this clause being here in this chapter. A Christian reading a translation with or without this particular verse will walk away with the same meaning, the same doctrines, the same practices, the same faith. Thus, the difference is not one of willful editing of the text whereby anyone is conspiring to alter the word of God here. It is a matter of honest disagreement on where the evidence points. 

The Manuscript Evidence

The verse is present in an impressive list of early and diverse sources. It is found in Codex W (late fourth or early fifth century), Codex A and D (fifth century), Codex Σ (sixth century), Codex E (eighth century), Codex F, G, H, K, Θ, Π, and minuscule 33 and 892 (ninth century), as well as the majority of medieval manuscripts. It is likewise present in the Old Latin and in the Vulgate, as well as in the Syriac and some of the Coptic manuscripts. It is present in the Armenian, Slavonic, Gothic, and Ethiopic translations and in some of the Georgian copies.

The verse is absent, however, in the earliest witnesses, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex B (both early fourth-century). The verse is also absent in Uncial 0274 (fifth century), Codex L (eighth century), Codex Δ (ninth century), and other later manuscripts on into the middle ages. Some Coptic and Georgian manuscripts also lack the verse. Bruce Metzger gives a fair summary of why, based on this evidence, so many modern scholars have doubts about the verse:

"This verse, though present in the majority of witnesses, is absent from important Alexandrian witnesses (א B L Δ* al). It appears to be a scribal gloss (derived perhaps from 4.9 or 4.23), introduced as an appropriate sequel to ver. 14."1

The NET textual notes reflect the same reasoning:

"Most later mss add 7:16 'Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.' This verse is included in A D W Θ Ë1,13 33 Ï latt sy, but is lacking in important Alexandrian mss and a few others (א B L Δ* 0274 28 2427). It appears to be a scribal gloss (see 4:9 and 4:23), perhaps introduced as a reiteration of the thought in 7:14, and is almost certainly not an original part of the Greek text of Mark. The present translation follows NA27 in omitting the verse number, a procedure also followed by a number of other modern translations."

Yet, the fact remains that this is not a typical case where the verse in question relies only or even primarily on a claim to "the majority of manuscripts." The majority of manuscripts are late medieval copies and can be rightly called into question by a minority of early witnesses, especially if those witnesses are diverse in origin. But in this case, the verse is not merely preserved in the late majority. It is well attested in early manuscripts and translations of wide-ranging origin. The evidence in favor of the verse is actually quite impressive. On the other hand, there is no discernible reason for any scribe to have removed these words if they were originally there. It is also true that the two earliest copies both lack the verse and, even if only a small minority, manuscripts did continue to be copied that way for many centuries, so those early copies that lacked it were not mere flukes or irrelevant blips on the transmissional radar. Somewhere in the first few centuries, a scribe either added or mistakenly omitted these words, affecting many subsequent copies. The original is certainly preserved. Nothing has been lost. One of the two versions present in our manuscripts is definitely correct. But which one?

Scribal Gloss or Accidental Omission?

There are common reasons why a scribe might accidentally skip a section of scripture while copying. He might reach the end of a line and mistakenly skip a line before starting the next. If the same word is used more than once close by to one another, his eyes might, while going back and forth between the page he is copying and one he is writing on, mistakenly jump back to the wrong instance of the word, thus causing him to skip all the words in between. The same mistake can happen with different words that have similar endings, such as the English words "revelation," "devastation," "relation," "creation," etc. Your eyes might simply see the letters "ation" and you may think that is where you left off and pick up from there. There are a number of features like this that scholars look for as common causes of scribal error. If they are present, it makes it more likely that an accidental omission is behind a shorter reading.

There are also common reasons why a scribe may add words into a text. They may be familiar with a similar text in another passage, especially when two gospels report the same or similar stories. One scribe may write words in the margin near a text as a study note or a cross-reference to another passage (remember that chapter and verse numbers did not exist for cross-referencing for many centuries). A later scribe may mistake the words for part of the original text and add them into the main body of his copy. Just as with omission, there are a number of such factors that scholars look for when weighing out if a passage might have been mistakenly or even purposefully added into the text.

In the case of Mark 7:16, there are no obvious reasons why a scribe would have accidentally skipped the verse. It's not long enough to have been a whole line, it is not surrounded by similar words, and none of the other major factors apply. This does not automatically mean that an accidental omission did not occur. Anyone who has done a lot of hand-copying knows that our mistakes do not always make that kind of clean, logical sense. Still, without an obvious reason for an omission, one must look for evidence of other explanations.

So, then, is a scribal gloss a more likely explanation? Well, the same story is told in Matthew 15:1-20, but the words are not present there. Thus, this is not an example of words borrowed from the parallel account in another gospel. As noted above, there is an identical verse earlier in Mark (and another very similar one). Metzger and others speculate that it is from there that the scribe may have brought the words over. The reasons for this borrowing are not immediately obvious. The two chapters tell completely different stories. Metzger argues that the scribe may have done so because he saw it as fitting in light of Jesus' words in verse 14:

"After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, 'Listen to Me, all of you, and understand,'" (Mark 7:14).

Its true that "Listen and understand," does pair well with, "If any man has ears to hear, let him hear." Yet, in the parallel passage in Matthew 15, Jesus likewise says:

"After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, 'Hear and understand,'" (Matthew 15:10).

Yet no scribe ever felt that Matthew's passage needed the words added to it as a fitting conclusion. So, while Metzger offers a possible explanation, it is not an especially compelling one. On a closer examination, however, there is a possible connection between the two contexts. If we read Mark 7:16 along with the verse after it, we see:

"If any man have ears to hear, let him hear. And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable," (Mark 7:16-17). 

Earlier, in Mark chapter 4, just after telling the parable of the sower, we read:

"And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable," (Mark 4:9-10).

Luke, after the same parable, similarly records:

"He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?" (Luke 8:8b-9).

So, both earlier in Mark and also in Luke, Jesus said "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear," and right afterward his disciples asked him to explain the parable. In Mark 7, when Jesus' disciples again asked him to explain a parable, its not unthinkable that a scribe would remember Jesus having said "he who has ears..." before they asked for a parable to be explained and, thinking then that the manuscript before him was defective, he may have added in the "missing" words. Such things are known to have happened at times, and this is certainly a possibility here. This blunder would not have happened in the parallel passage in Matthew because Matthew does not record the disciples asking that question in his account.

There is also another reason previously mentioned why a scribal gloss might have ended up in the text that is worthy of further discussion. Is there a reason that these common words of Jesus might have been written in the margins by an early scribe as an editorial note? Is there some reason why an early scribe might have written this phrase next to this context, not intending to insert it into the text, but rather as a study note or a cross-reference? If so, the next scribe might easily have mistakenly copied it into the main body of the text as simply a misunderstanding, and thus, sounding exactly like something Jesus would say, it would be copied into every manuscript that followed. But why might a scribe have noted these words next to this passage if they were not originally part of the text here? There are, in fact, some good reasons.

Mark 7:15 and Early Christian Debates

The context of certain early Christian debates may have led a scribe living in those times to note these words of Jesus in the margin next to Mark 7:15. Mark 7:1-23 tells the story of a group of Pharisees challenging Jesus because his disciples don't go through ritual washings before they eat. Such was not commanded in the Law, but had become a tradition. Jesus sternly rebukes them and then declares:

"There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man," (Mark 7:15).

This story, and especially Jesus' climactic words here in verse 15, were relevant to a number of early Christian debates. In the second century, Christians were still engaged with non-Christian Jews over debates about the applicability of the Mosaic food laws.2 There was also discussion among Christians themselves as to whether or not Christians are restricted in what they eat.3 Even beyond the matter of food, in the early third century, Tertullian warns against the slander of one's enemies by alluding to Jesus' words in Mark 7:15.4 These and numerous other contexts would provide ample cause for someone to emphasize this verse by writing Jesus' common chilling refrain in the margin, "If any man has ears to hear, let him hear."

Yet, there is still a more direct parallel in third-century Christian literature. Again from Tertullian, we learn that there was a debate over the issue of fasting. Though taught nowhere in the New Testament, fasting regularly on Wednesdays and Fridays had become a widely accepted tradition among many early Christians. This practice was debated by some, however. They held such regular fast days to be unnecessary, perhaps even contrary to Scripture. The Pharisees had their tradition of twice-a-week fasting (Luke 18:12), and some early Christians connected such a practice with the Old Covenant. They then argued from Jesus' own words that: 

"For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear," (Matthew 11:13-15).

Citing these words, "all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John," they argued that the Old Covenant had passed after John and that Jesus had instituted something new. And under this New Covenant in Christ, they argued, what one chooses to eat or not eat doesn't affect their standing before God, for:

"There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man," (Mark 7:15).

Tertullian (who supported the fasts as obligatory and opposed the view stated above) went on to explain of them that:

"By the instrumentalities of these and similar passages, they subtlety tend at last to such a point that everyone who is somewhat prone to appetite finds it possible to regard as superfluous, and not so very necessary, the duties of abstinence from, or diminution or delay of, food, since 'God,' forsooth, 'prefers the works of justice and of innocence.'  And we know the quality of the hortatory addresses of carnal conveniences, how easy it is to say, 'I must believe with my whole heart; I must love God, and my neighbor as myself: for "on these two precepts the whole Law hangeth, and the prophets,"' not on the emptiness of my lungs and intestines," (Tertullian, On Fasting, Chapter 2).

Thus, even while rejecting the argument himself, Tertullian informs us that there was a faction of Christianity who saw a direct connection between Matthew 11:13-15 (which includes the words "He who has ears to hear, let him hear,") and Mark 7:15 about what defiles a man. Thus, it is rather easy to imagine why the words from the one passage might have been written in the margins as a cross-reference next to the other passage. In this way, "If any man has ears to hear, let him hear," may have entered into Mark 7 as a marginal note which was then copied into the main body of the text due to the misunderstanding of later scribes. Since this would have happened in the third or even the second century AD, it would be plenty early enough to explain the manuscript data. Still, without discovering an early manuscript with these words in the margins rather than in the main text, this remains only a reasonable hypothesis.

Evaluation and Conclusion

Textual criticism is not a simple "majority wins" process, as even the King James Onlyist must admit since the KJV contains a number of readings found in only a small minority of manuscripts and, indeed, some readings found in no Greek manuscripts at all! Thus, modern scholars look at the data here and, even though only a small minority of manuscripts lack the verse, they consider the explanations for why the words might have been added to be more likely than any explanation for why they would have ever been removed if they were original. Still, these explanations are tentative and one might reasonably think that an accidental, random omission on the part of an early scribe is more likely and better fits the manuscript data. Both are reasonable conclusions, given what we know. Either way, in a situation like this, it is important to note both possibilities for the reader and to let the Spirit lead. In this case, the best course is probably that taken by the NKJV and NASB, which include the verse in the main body of the text but provide a footnote briefly explaining the existence of the alternative reading in some early manuscripts.

  • 1. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Edition (German Bible Society, 1994) 81
  • 2. For example, see Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 20 and Pseudo-Barnabas, The Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 10.
  • 3. See, for example, Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 1.
  • 4. Tertullian, Treatise on Patience, Chapter 8