Why are the footnotes in most English translations of the New Testament so unhelpfully vague? “Some manuscripts say this.” “Other manuscripts say that.” While some readers may appreciate being notified about the presence of textual variants, the immediate effect of such vague footnotes is to render the passage doctrinally useless, unless both variants mean the same thing. Furthermore, the use of “some” and “other” to describe manuscript evidence can be highly misleading.
Let me show you what I mean by sharing some details about textual variants in four passages from the Gospel of Matthew, and how they are treated in the
ESV (English Standard Version) and in
the HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible).
(Bear in mind that the HCSB is about to be re-issued in a revised form
as the Christian Standard Bible, and there is no guarantee that their footnotes
will be identical. The ESV can also change from one edition to another.) I will first present each passage as it is translated in the New King James Version, just to provide a frame of reference.
● MATTHEW 12:47
NKJV: Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.”
HCSB: And someone told Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to You.” A footnote says, “
12:47 Other mss
omit this verse.”
What has happened is that in an ancestor-manuscript of the three primary Alexandrian manuscripts of this passage – Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Codex L (019) – a copyist accidentally skipped from the word λαλησαι at the end of verse 46 to the same word at the end of verse 47, thus losing all the words in between. The mistake was a relatively early one – impacting not only the Alexandrian Text’s leading witnesses but also an early form of the Syriac text. However, not only does the longer reading account for the shorter reading in this case, but the external support for the inclusion of the verse is massive and ancient. It includes almost all Greek manuscripts (not some bare majority, but over 99%, including Codices D and W) and a strong array of Old Latin copies, the Vulgate, and the Peshitta. In addition, a comparison of two Middle Egyptian evidence may confirm the passage’s vulnerability to accidental loss: Mae-2 (Schoyen Codex 2650) does not have the verse, but Mae-1 (the Scheide Codex, from c. 400 or slight later) has the verse.
Some additional details are worth noting. In Codex D and some other manuscripts (including L and Θ), the order of the last two words in verse 46 is reversed; this may echo an early copyist’s practical attempt to decrease the perceived risk of losing verse 47 via parablepsis. In Codex Sinaiticus, the copyist did not only skip all of verse 47 but also the last portion of verse 46, losing the words ζητουντες αυτω λαλησαι (“seeking to speak with Him”). This level of sloppiness should be a concern.
Footnotes which do not convey the limited range of the non-inclusion of Matthew 12:47, and which fail to convey the mechanism which accounts for the accidental loss of the verse, are worse than no footnote at all. It would be better for the compilers of the
base-text of to acknowledge that their favored manuscripts are defective at this point (as Michael Holmes has done in the SBL- GNT).
● MATTHEW 13:35a
NKJV: “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet,”
A footnote states: “Some manuscripts Isaiah the prophet”
HCSB: “so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled:” (no footnote).
In New Testament passages that quote from the Old Testament without naming the specific reference, some copyists were tempted to embellish the text. We can observe this, for example, in Codex Bezae (D) in Matthew 1:22; the name “Isaiah” is inserted into the text. We see the same tendency in modern paraphrases; in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, for example, when a New Testament author quotes from the Old Testament, The Message often inserts the name of the Old Testament book, whether it is specified in the Greek text or not.
Occasionally, reckless copyists who made such embellishments assigned quotations to the wrong source. In Codex Sinaiticus, for example, in the margin alongside Matthew 2:5-6, the name “Isaiah” appears in a vertically-written note to identify the prophet whose work is quoted in the text. The prophet being quoted, however, is Micah, not Isaiah. A little further along in Codex Sinaiticus, the name “Numbers” appears in a vertically-written note alongside Matthew 2:15, even though the text cited in Matthew
2:15 is Hosea 11:1.
The same thing has happened in Codex Sinaiticus in Matthew
except the embellishment has been inserted directly into the text; Codex
Sinaiticus is one of the few manuscripts that reads “Isaiah the prophet” in
Matthew 13:35. This reading was known in the late 300’s by Jerome, who
expressed a belief that the passage had previously referred to
“Asaph the prophet” and that copyists who did not recognize Asaph’s name
changed it to “Isaiah.”
The external evidence for the non-inclusion of Isaiah’s name in Matthew 13:35 is enormous and wide-ranging: it is supported by B, D, W, and by every branch of the Byzantine Text, and by all known Syriac, Latin, Sahidic, and Armenian copies.
The attribution of the quotation to Isaiah is an error, and to some textual critics, this makes it likely to be original, on the grounds that it is thus the more difficult reading. Hort, in 1881, demonstrated his non-belief in inerrancy in his Notes on Select Readings, stating, “It is difficult not to think Ἠσαίου [Isaiah] genuine.” Eberhard Nestle (the originator of the Nestle-Aland compilation) embraced the erroneous reading in his 1901 Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament. On page 251, after acknowledging that this reading was only attested by a smattering of extant manuscripts, but was also mentioned by Eusebius and Jerome (both of whose explicitly rejected it), Nestle wrote, “It was used still earlier by Porphyrius as a proof of Matthew’s ignorance. It is certainly, therefore, genuine.”
Nestle seems to have put a high degree of confidence in the ability of Porphyry to resist the temptation to use scribal mistakes as ammunition for his jibes, and a low degree of confidence in the ability of Christian copyists to simply reproduce the contents of their exemplars. He does not explain why the same scribes who allowed Jeremiah’s name to stand in Matthew 27:9 (where some initial puzzlement is natural, considering Matthew 27:9-10 is mostly based on Zechariah 11:12-13) found it intolerable to read Isaiah’s name in Matthew 13:35. The explanation of the evidence is not complex: the name “Isaiah” crept into the transmission-stream as an early copyist’s erroneous attempt to specify which prophet was being cited – and, when this embellishment was recognized as what it was, it was duly resisted and jettisoned.
Footnotes which merely say that “Some manuscripts” have Isaiah’s name in Matthew 13:35 mislead the typical reader twice. First, the term “some” does not convey that the number of manuscripts which have Isaiah’s name in this verse is very small. Second, such a footnote fails to inform the reader about the scribal tendency to embellish non-specific references, and to provide names for prophets and other individuals whose names are not supplied in their exemplars. (Even Papyrus 75, for example, has an embellishment in Luke 16:19, where a name is given to the rich man). With these two factors in view, the reader is equipped to evaluate the evidence; without them, the sketchy footnotes only succeed in puzzling the reader.
● MATTHEW 14:30a
NKJV: “But when he saw that the wind was boisterous”
HCSB: “But when he saw the strength of the wind” with a footnote: “Other mss read the wind”
Here the editors of the
ESV and the editors of the
HCSB disagreed about which reading belongs in the text. The phrase that is found in almost all Greek
manuscripts is βλέπων δε τον ανεμον ισχυρον, but the ESV
is based on the text of Codices B, À, and 33, which do not have the word ισχυρον. The Middle Egyptian Schøyen Codex also
supports non-inclusion of this word. The shorter reading is efficiently explained by the longer
reading: a copyist whose work influenced
the exemplars of the Alexandrian Text’s flagship manuscripts carelessly skipped
from the letters -ον at the end of ανεμον to the same letters at the end of
ισχυρον, accidentally losing the letters in between and thus losing the word
Footnotes which give readers no clue about how the omission originated are not just unhelpful; they raise doubts about the stability of the text even in cases where a little information about word-endings has a strong clarifying effect. Of course if a translation (in this case, the
ESV) has adopted the incomplete text, those
who want to maintain its credibility might want to avoid mentioning such inconvenient
● MATTHEW 17:21
NKJV: “However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
is included in the text, within brackets:
“[21However, this kind does not come out except by prayer and
Out of about 1,700 Greek manuscripts of Matthew 17, almost all of them include verse 21, including the uncial codices D, L, Σ, and W, which represent different transmission-branches or locales. The verse is also included in most Old Latin copies, and in the Vulgate. The
however, is based on the Nestle-Aland compilation, which does not include this
verse because this verse is not included in Vaticanus and Sinaiticus and a few other
witnesses representative of the Alexandrian Text; nor is this verse supported
by two representatives of an early Syriac version of the Gospels.
Earlier than any of those witnesses, however, were the manuscripts used by Origen in the early 200’s – and Origen quoted this verse in his Commentary on Matthew, in Book 13, chapter 7. In the mid-300’s, Basil of Caesarea also quoted this verse. Ambrose of Milan used it, slightly later, in his Epistle 65, part 15. So did John Chrysostom, in his Homily 57 on Matthew, and Hilary of Poitiers. It is also included in the Peshitta (with fasting mentioned before prayer).
Bruce Metzger – one of the compilers of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament – wrote in his influential Textual Commentary that “There is no good reason why the passage, if originally present in Matthew, should have been omitted.” I must suspect that the
committee’s search for a reason for excision was awfully brief, because it is
not difficult to perceive that a Christian copyist could easily be alarmed by
the thought that readers might conclude that the eternal Son of God needed to fast in order to control fallen angels.
(The same consideration motivated the excision of the words “and
fasting” from Mark 9:29 in the
Alexandrian Text; the presence of the words in Mark are confirmed, however, not
only by almost all manuscripts, but also by Papyrus 45.)
In this case, referring to “Some manuscripts” and “Other manuscripts” obscures rather than illuminates the real state of the evidence, in which over 99% of the manuscripts favor the inclusion of the verse, and in which it is cited by patristic sources going back to the early 200’s. Such vague footnotes do more harm than good. They provide only an illusion of informing the reader, while failing to share information about meaningful aspects of the relevant evidence, such as the scope and antiquity of the evidence.
The misleading vagueness in the footnotes for these four passages is typical of the textual footnotes that occur throughout the
ESV. The term “some” is used to describe about a dozen manuscripts, and it is also used to refer to over 1,600 manuscripts. There is no way to tell from the footnotes what kind of evidence is meant
by “some” manuscripts. No attempt is
made to explain to the reader how the reading in the footnote originated. That is remarkably unhelpful.
If the editors of modern English translations wish to turn the margins of our Bibles into a collection of trivia about the mistakes made by ancient copyists, we should at least insist that they present the evidence fairly, instead of inviting readers to look at the manuscript-evidence through lenses that are foggy, distorted, and broken.
Textual footnotes should be helpful, concise, and focused. When early patristic evidence is relevant, it should be mentioned. (For instance, it is certainly deceptive to tell readers that “The earliest manuscripts” do not include Mark 16:9-20 without mentioning that Irenaeus quoted Mark 16:19 around 180, over a century before the two Greek uncials that omit verses 9-20 were made.) When a textual variant is supported by fewer than ten Greek manuscripts, or when a variant’s support is almost exclusively from one transmission-branch, the scope of the evidence should be pointed out. Exactly how to do this, while maintaining conciseness, is a challenge, but it will be far better to undertake that challenge than to continue to distract and puzzle Bible-readers with misleading footnotes.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (
is Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News
The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is © Copyright 2000 Holman Bible Publishers,
. Nashville, Tennessee
The New King James Version (NKJV) is Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.