4 strategies for dealing with textual variants in your preaching
If you preach long enough, you’ll encounter textual variants. Here’s what you should know when you do.
Every pastor wants his congregation to know the Bible well. But sometimes people’s familiarity with certain translations can actually pose a challenge. Consider one of the most widely memorized passages in all of Scripture, the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13). When I played high school basketball, my team would recite the Lord’s Prayer together in flawless King James language before every game. But when pastors today preach or read the Lord’s Prayer from the English Standard Version (ESV), it can often result in raised eyebrows and troubled hearts.
“Wait a minute!” people wonder. Where’s the ending? What happened to “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen”? The ESV and almost all other modern translations place these words in a footnote that begins, “Some manuscripts add . . .”
This is a prime example of what scholars call a textual variant — a place in the Greek or Hebrew manuscripts where different readings exist. In this case, some manuscripts contain the familiar words, and some don’t, leaving textual scholars to determine which reading is original.
This process can be unsettling for many Christians. They aren’t likely to be familiar with the process of how the Bible went from the original handwritten Greek and Hebrew manuscripts to the printed English version in their lap. But they rightly believe the Bible to be God’s Word, and they know the warnings about not adding to or taking away from it (Rev. 22:18–19). So it shouldn’t surprise us that they might wonder whether the ESV and company are guilty of changing God’s Word. Others might worry that the entire Bible is now up for grabs. And as those tasked with shepherding their souls, we pastors owe them a patient explanation, not a timid side-stepping and certainly not a patronizing eye-roll.
The fact that this issue arises in a passage as familiar as the Lord’s Prayer shows that we can’t avoid it. If you teach for long enough, you’ll encounter textual variants like this one. I’ve been preaching and teaching to the same congregation for more than a decade and have had to deal with this issue many times — from the ending of Mark’s Gospel to the ending of the Lord’s Prayer. And since my congregation hasn’t yet fired me, I hope I might be doing something right.
Here are four ways to guide your people through textual variants.
- Know the people in your church
How well you can do this will vary depending on the size of your church. But as much as possible, know what kinds of people sit in your congregation. What are their backgrounds? What Bible translations are they using?
In my context, I know that some of my older hearers use the King James Version. Others come from a fundamentalist, King James-only background (or have friends still in those circles). And while I know they wouldn’t be at our church if they were still hardcore King James-onlylists, I also know that old fears and ingrained thought patterns can linger for a long time.
Be aware that some people have been trained to believe that instances like the NIV’s “omission” of the phrase “though his blood” in Colossians 1:14 are part of a Satanic conspiracy to pervert the Bible. You may have found this argument easy to laugh about with your seminary buddies back in the dorm, but you’ll feel differently when dealing with a troubled (or angry) parishioner who actually believes it.
If social media have taught me anything, it’s that it’s easy to be obnoxious in an echo-chamber. When you assume everyone listening to you shares all your assumptions, it’s easy to speak contemptuously of the “idiots” out there who believe “stupid” things. You need to be aware that some of these people are probably sitting in your audience.
They’re not idiots, and it’s your job to instruct them, not belittle them.
- Teach the basics of textual criticism
Textual criticism may sound bad — who wants a pastor who criticizes the text of Scripture? But it’s actually not. Textual criticism is the unavoidable process of evaluating different manuscript readings in order to determine what the authors originally wrote.
I know — you’re not an expert in textual criticism. Neither should you pretend to be. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from the experts. Indeed, pastors have rarely had as many resources as we do now. For instance, evangelical textual critic Daniel Wallace has entire courses available online. A new book called Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, edited by Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry, is scheduled for release later this year and is geared toward helping ministers and laypeople understand these issues. On the pastoral level, James R. White has also well modeled the teaching and use of textual criticism in his book The King James Only Controversy.
In my church, I once dedicated two or three weeks in the adult Sunday school class to explaining the basic principles of textual criticism. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive. Just things like: The reading that best explains the existence of the other readings is probably original (which is why Mark’s Gospel probably ends at 16:8). Or, the non-harmonized reading is probably original, which is why the words “to repentance” are likely original in Luke 5:32, but not in Mark 2:17 or Matthew 9:13.
This lesson doesn’t have to be boring. Christians want to know why their Bibles differ from each other. You can teach them the basics.
- Assure them these issues aren’t new
Christians who worry about the “omissions” in new translations are usually the kind of people who have a respect for the old and reservations about the new. That’s why it can be helpful to assure them that though these issues might be new to them, they are not new to the church.
For example, while recently studying the “missing” ending of the Lord’s Prayer, I discovered that William Tyndale didn’t include it in his first English translation of the Bible in 1526. Knowing that Tyndale is someone my congregation reveres as a godly martyr as well as good translator, I made sure to share this fact with them.
I’ve also found it useful to point out that the original King James Version included textual variants in the margin, and the King James translators defended this practice against the same objections people still have:
Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty, should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point.
If it was good enough for the King James translators, it’ll likely be good enough for them.
- Model faithfulness to the Word of God
Your congregation doesn’t just need to trust God’s Word; they need to be able to trust you. You can say all the right things, but it won’t matter if they’re not convinced that you trust the Bible and would never dream of tampering with it. Hopefully they’ll charitably grant you their trust at the beginning, but over time you need to earn it.
I know the persuasive power of example from experience. I grew up in a setting where the KJV was the only Bible allowed, and text-critical questions were “solved” by reasoning that “the KJV is the Bible, so that settles it.” I was given the impression that preachers who used modern translations were apostates who didn’t believe the Word of God.
What brought me out of that mindset was not first and foremost hearing technical arguments but listening to faithful preachers: men like John Piper who preached expositionally from modern translations and clearly trembled at God’s Word. This shattered my paradigm and made the technical arguments plausible.
You need to model both theological integrity and also intellectual virtue. I can’t promise that everyone will like you. And you won’t convince everyone. But over time, your example will exert influence, and people will see that the presence of textual variants in the Bible doesn’t need to shake anyone’s faith. And perhaps when youth in your church get to college and read Bart Ehrman, they’ll be able to say, “This is nothing new; I learned about this sort of thing in Sunday school.”
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.