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Monday, April 7, 2014

If These Aren't the Exact Words then the Whole Thing Just Falls Apart


Over the course of this weekend I engaged in a conversation with an acquaintance who was upset by (at least) one of the changes made in newer editions of the NIV (New International Version) bible.  He pointed me to that famous conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in John chapter 3. 

9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.[e] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[f] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[g]

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.


I scanned it quickly, but didn’t notice any changes; the words all still seemed to be as I remembered them.  “It’s not in the words that they used,” he told me.  So I read it again.  “It’s verse 16” he told me, impatient for me to see it.  “They’ve left off the quotation marks.” 

This was not something I’d noticed before.  I compared it to an older copy of the NIV that I have, and sure enough, there are quotation marks on those verses.

The translators have, apparently, concluded that verses 16 – 21 are not part of the conversation proper, but are editorial comments from John (or his final editor /redactor…) The translators of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New English Translation (NET),and others  made the same choice. I started to explain this to my friend, but he interrupted me to say “If these aren't the exact words Jesus said, then the whole thing just falls apart.”

We were interrupted in our conversation at that point.  But I continued to think about it. How fragile his faith is – to be so inextricably linked to the idea that the gospels represent court room style transcripts of verifiable, certifiable, quantifiable, actual-factual historical events.  I worry for him and others like him, whose faith may very well indeed ‘just fall apart’ if they ever actually confront the gospels as they are, instead of reading them through this inerrant lens.


(All of this, of course, ignores the fact that there are no quotation marks at all in biblical manuscripts, but don’t tell him that…)

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