The Text of Scripture

As we conclude this short series on the Bible we are taking up several matters of a more controversial nature. In believing Christendom throughout its history there has been little disagreement that the Bible is the Word of God written, that it has an absolute authority over a Christian’s thought and life, that it is without error, and, at least in Protestantism and still to a degree in Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, that Christians know it to be the Word of God through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. We considered each of those assertions in turn. But then we turned to elements of our doctrine of the Bible that all Christians have not embraced or have embraced only in a partial way. The first of these was the unity of the Bible – our subject two Lord’s Day evening’s ago – about which there has been considerable disagreement. The second, our subject last Lord’s Day evening, was the canonicity of the Bible: which books belong to the Bible and how are they known to belong to it? Again different answers have been given to that question over the Christian ages. Now tonight we deal with the third of four more controversial aspects of the doctrine of the Bible in the believing Christian church. Next Lord’s Day evening we will conclude our series with the fourth, the question of the interpretation of the Bible or what has been called “the right of private judgment.”

Tonight then we take up the question of the Bible’s text. In the modern era and perhaps especially in English speaking evangelicalism there have been sharp disagreements over the propertext of the Bible, and especially of the New Testament. Interestingly this is not a debate that we have as Protestants with Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians. This particular controversy takes place almost entirely within believing Protestant Christian life and faith. As we begin let me say that I fully realize that our subject tonight is complicated and somewhat technical. I thought, for that reason, about omitting it from our series; but I know a number of you have encountered this issue to one degree or another and have wondered about it; it concerns the Bible and, even more practically, what translation of the Bible one ought to use; and because we are talking about the text of Holy Scripture, which is, after all, the foundation of our faith, it is a matter of some consequence and one that thoughtful Christians should know something about. We have found, from time to time, as we consider texts of Holy Scripture in our services here, that questions of the proper text or the right reading of a verse or passage can make some difference. And, like it or not, we cannot avoid the question. At point after point one must decide what the Bible actually says when different Bibles read differently because they are translating different Hebrew or Greek texts. The important differences may be few and far between and they are, but they do exist. So, if you find what follows difficult, do your best to get from it what you can. I tried to make it as straightforward and uncomplicated as I could.

The fact is that we do not have the original manuscript of any part of the Bible. We have only copies of copies. In all likelihood, the earliest copy of any part of the Bible that still exists today is some generations of copies removed from the original; that is, is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy and so on. The earliest copy of any part of the New Testament that currently is known to exist is a small piece of papyrus, approximately 3 ½ by 2 1/3 inches in size that now resides in the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester. On this small piece of papyrus is written a fragment of the Gospel of John, chapter 18: on one side vv. 31-33, on the other vv. 37-38. The fragment is dated circa A.D. 125. Depending, of course, when the Gospel of John was written – our finest contemporary commentary on the Gospel of John, that of Don Carson, very tentatively dates the composition of the Gospel to the 9th decade of the first century, say sometime between the years 80 to 85 – that makes the earliest fragment of that Gospel that we have in existence today to be separated from the writing of the Gospel itself by merely a single generation, some 40 years. That may seem a long time to you, but in terms of ancient documents it is virtually a minute, or better a second, no more. To have a copy of a document that old dated so near to the original is literally unprecedented. For example, no one doubts that we have a reliable text of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, but the oldest text of that book that now exists comes from some 900 years after Caesar’s lifetime. Thucydides, the Greek historian, lived four hundred years earlier than Caesar, as did his contemporary Herodotus, but, we have only a few papyrus scraps of their histories dating from the early Christian era – five centuries later than the books were written – and the earliest complete manuscript dates from fully 1,300 years after the writing of those books. So to have a fragment of a Gospel that dates from merely 40 years after the writing of the original is remarkable. And that remains true in regard to a much larger number of manuscripts – copies of entire NT books or parts of books – that come from before 200 or around that year – including a manuscript of much of the Gospel of John – and in greater numbers thereafter. We have complete Bibles from the early 4th century. The gap, historically speaking, between the original and the surviving copies is astonishingly small in comparison to virtually every other ancient document.

Nevertheless, take the point. We possess only copies, and copies of copies at that. And what is true of the Greek New Testament is true as well of the Hebrew Old Testament. The text that serves as the basis for the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and of all translations into English from that Hebrew text is a single manuscript (Codex Leningradensis – a dated term as Leningrad has now once again become St. Petersburg!) located in the public library of that city. It was copied in the early years of the 11th century, perhaps in A.D. 1008. There are a few other surviving texts and fragments of texts of the Hebrew Bible earlier than this text, but nothing as fine and nothing of great significance until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain, as you may know, a complete text of Isaiah, the first two chapters of Habakkuk, and many fragments of other biblical texts. With the discovery of the scrolls in the late 1940’s, in one fell swoop, our earliest copy of the text of the Hebrew Bible became more than a thousand years older than what we had before. Interestingly, the primary conclusion to be drawn from the comparison of the biblical texts found in the scrolls and Codex Leningradensis from a thousand years later was how much the earlier and later texts agreed with one another. But still, with the Hebrew Bible as with the Greek, we have only copies and, indeed, copies of copies.

What is more, also a point not in dispute, these copies do not agree in every respect. There are variants, that is differences of various types from one manuscript to another. A word may be spelled differently, or left out altogether; other words may be substituted or their order changed; some sentences are present in one manuscript and missing in another; even an entire paragraph in a few cases. We find this comparing Greek NT manuscripts to one another and we find it in comparing the manuscripts of the Greek NT on the one hand with citations ofthe Greek NT in the writings of the early Christian fathers. Sometimes it is very obvious that the preacher, Chrysostom, or the commentator, Origen, was looking at a somewhat different text than the one we have before us today. And we find a similar situation when we compare the various sources of information about the Hebrew Bible. We don’t have nearly as many ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible as we do of the Greek, but we have other sources of information about the Hebrew text as it existed in ancient times. One of the most important of these is the Septuagint. This is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible referred to typically with three Latin letters, capital LXX, the Latin Roman numeral for 70, because there were supposed to have been 70 translators working on the translation. It was produced some 200 years before Christ and is almost invariably referred to as the Septuagint, again from the Latin name, Septuaginta which means seventy. It differs in various ways from the Hebrew text, indicating that the Hebrew text they were translating into Greek was not precisely the same in every particular as the Hebrew text we have before us today.

Now this is not at all hard to understand. Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century it was virtually impossible, human beings being what they are, to produce a hand-written copy of a document as long as the New Testament or even as long as a single book of the Bible that was in every respect an exact reproduction of what was being copied. We all know how often how we have to correct our written work. I remember the first page I typed of the final draft of my dissertation. To have completed it was something of a milestone, the proof that I was near to being done with three years of doctoral study. I looked at and read that page a number of times. It was when I showed it to Ian Hamilton that he pointed out a glaring spelling error that I had completely missed no matter that I had read that page a number of times. We all know how this goes. We have misspelled a word, or we unaccountably left out a word. And when we copy someone else’s work – as I often do when I enter some valuable observation or remark into the margins of my Bible – I find that I make all the typical scribal mistakes. I write “there” when I should have written “their.” I commit the very common mistake that is known in textual criticism as homoioteleuton, which means “similar ending,” (also spelled homoeoteleuton), which happens when the copyist’s eye skips from one occurrence of a group of letters or a word to the same group of letters or word farther down the page, resulting in the omission of the material in between. For example, I omit a line of the text I am copying because it has two lines that end with the same word and when my eye returned to the text I was copying I picked up at the end of the second line rather than the end of the first. We all make such errors all the time.

In ancient times it was not uncommon for a number of copyists in a room or scriptorium to be following a reader at the front of the room. It was a convenient and inexpensive way to make copies. One reader and lots of copyists or scribes and as the reader read out the text to be copied, the scribes all wrote it down. But it was easy to misunderstand or mishear what was said. A famous example is found in Romans 5:1. Did Paul say, “being justified by faith we have peace with God,” (έχομεν) or “being justified by faith let us have peace with God” (έχωμεν)? Both readings are found in NT manuscripts or copies. The answer depends entirely on which of the two “o”s in the Greek alphabet is read in the verb “ to have.” One “o” (omicron) makes the verb indicative (“we have”), the other “o” (omega) makes it subjunctive (“let us have”). Well a scribe sitting at a desk listening to the reader read Romans 5:1 could very easily have confused the one “o” for the other, all the more given that the two vowels probably weren’t pronounced very differently, if at all. Still more, even with the best will in the world, it can’t be said that the conditions for copying were ideal or that the copyists were always equal to the task. A marginal note in an Armenian manuscript of the Gospels tells us that a heavy snowstorm was raging outside, that the scribe’s ink had frozen, his hand had gone numb, and the pen fell from his fingers.” [Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 18] We might well wonder why he bothered to write that kind of information on the manuscript he was copying, but it appears he was more concerned about his cold hands than about the use that might be made of the page he was copying. He was a like a youngster writing notes to the student sitting next to him in class! We have there a window into the world of the medieval copyist! Ask yourself how would you feel if you had started at 8:00 that morning and this was the fifth or sixth day in a row that you had started at 8:00 in the morning, and you had been doing nothing but copying, copying, copying and now it was 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. How careful, how scrupulous would you have been? Under the circumstances, it is remarkable that the manuscripts we have were, in general, copied so faithfully. Even in the age of spell-checkers, I find errors in my own work and in the work of others all the time!

Now, to be sure, the total amount of change in the copied texts of both the Hebrew and Greek Bible is very small. Great care was taken to preserve the text of the Bible accurately because it was the Word of God and the scribes were largely successful in this endeavor. Most of the variations in readings in the Hebrew Bible are inconsequential and the same is true of the Greek New Testament. Of the Greek NT one scholar summarizes the situation this way:

“[nineteen-twentieths of the textual variations in the manuscripts of the Greek NT] have so little support [as to be of no consequence, that is to say they represent changes that nobody thinks were original to the Gospel or to the letter of the Apostle Paul or some other book of the NT] and nineteen-twentieths of the remainder are of so little importance that their adoption or rejection would cause no appreciable difference in the sense of the passage where they occur.” [Ezra Abbot in Warfield, Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament, 100, 114]

What that means, put simply, is that, for all intents and purposes, we have what the biblical authors wrote. Nevertheless, that is not to say that there are not some substantial variations. We know about the story of the woman caught in adultery that appears in our text of the Gospel of John at the beginning of chapter 8 but which is noted in all modern translations of the English Bible as very likely not to have been a part of John’s original. The note in both the NIV and the ESV alerts their readers: “The earliest manuscripts do not include John 7:53-8:11.” They could have said much more to indicate how unlikely it is that that famous account was part of the Gospel as John wrote it. But it is not hard to understand how unsettling it was for Bible believers to hear that this beloved narrative, the Lord’s famous remark, “Go and sin no more,” his forgiveness of this woman, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in condemning her, and all the rest, that it was not, in fact, part of the Bible. It is not hard to understand how suspicious they became of the textual critics – that is the scholars responsible for determining the accurate text, the original text, of the Bible –; I say, it is not hard to understand that they came to feel that people plying this trade did not love the Bible as they did. But most Bible believers today accept that John’s original Gospel moved directly from our 7:52 to our 8:12, as do a number of important early manuscripts of the Gospel, showing no indication whatsoever that any such narrative ever was there.

And, for a similar consequential variation in the text in the Hebrew Old Testament, we note that the text of Jeremiah in the LXX, the Greek translation of the OT, is shorter than the Massoretic Text. The Massoretic Text after the name Masoretes, the medieval scribes who were entrusted with the preservation of the Hebrew text, the MT, or the Massoretic Text,is the text represented in Codex Leningradensis which is the standard text upon which all study of the OT is based nowadays. Nevertheless the LXX in Jeremiah is shorter than the Massoretic Text by the equivalent of approximately seven chapters worth of text, that is, the LXX is about 1/8th shorter than the Hebrew text of Jeremiah. Or, to put it in other words, there are some 2700 words in the Hebrew text missing from the LXX’s text 200 years before Christ. The LXX also has quite a different arrangement of what is left. Interestingly fragments of the Hebrew Jeremiah found at Qumran usually agree with the MT, the standard Hebrew text, but sometimes agree against the MT with the LXX. Or take this example maybe more immediately interesting to some of you. There are fragments of three manuscripts that contain portions of Samuel discovered at Qumran [in the Dead Sea caves] and they contain readings that often diverge from that of the standard Hebrew text and agree against the Hebrew text with the LXX. Some of these readings clearly appear to be superior to those of the MT which has long been thought to have been corrupted in transmission perhaps more than almost any other part of the OT. For example, both the Qumran text and the LXX put Goliath’s height at 4 cubits and a span – depending upon how those measurements are understood either 6 feet 6 inches or 6 feet 9 inches – not the Hebrew text’s over 9 feet tall.

Now all of that seems straightforward and uncomplicated. We have only the copies and the copies are not entirely uniform. And we have a variety of sources to compare with one another. The various copies give us different readings in certain respects. No one disputes that. But how are we to know which of the various readings represented in various manuscripts is the correct reading? That is the question! And especially evangelical Christians have answered that question in two quite different ways. What is more, at least some of those evangelicals think that the answer one gives to that question is a bellwether, an indicator of a person’s loyalty to Holy Scripture.

Let me describe the situation generally. You will appreciate that I am generalizing. It would be altogether too confusing to add much detail. I am also going to limit myself to the question of the right text of theNew Testament. It seemed to me that it would be confusing to be constantly going back and forth from Greek to Hebrew and it is not necessary. The point is the same in each case. We’ll use the text of the Greek New Testament to make the point.

There are basically two approaches, two theories as to the best way to reproduce the original reading of any text, to get as close as possible to what the NT author himself actually wrote.

  1. The first approach, taken by the vast majority of biblical scholarship (liberal and evangelical alike), taken with respect to other texts of ancient literature by scholars in those fields – that is, the way the scholars of Homer or Thucydides reconstruct their texts – and taken by the translators of the NIV and the ESV (including virtually all professors of biblical languages and biblical studies in our Reformed and Presbyterian seminaries), I say, this first approach produces what is usually called an eclectic or critical text. By this is meant that variants are judged or critiqued each in its turn, according to the evidence in every case. That evidence is of various kinds. Certain manuscripts are judged to be more reliable, more accurate copies of the original than others. So if those manuscripts support a reading, greater weight is given to that reading. If all the manuscripts that support a reading tend to be considered of inferior quality, even taken together they do not amount to much of an argument for that reading. For example, more texts than not contain the account of the woman taken in adultery in John 7:53-8:11, but the manuscripts that contain that account are regarded generally in textual scholarship as less valuable, less accurate, and, in this case, are generally much later. A poor copy copied many times does not make for a good copy! Accordingly, the fact that a reading is contained in many manuscripts does not necessarily make it more likely to be the correct reading. The quality of the manuscript is more important than the number of manuscripts.

    But manuscript reputation is not the entire story. Internal considerations must still be weighed. Can the variant be explained? Is there an obvious reason for it? Can it be accounted for as a typical copyist’s error? Does the change seem to have been made to resolve a problem or to make the text easier to understand? Copyists or scribes tended to resolve problems, not create them. They figured that the text ought to read this or that way; that it must have originally read this way or that. By the way, people do the very same thing today. Good men, biblical scholars, have argued that the statement in 1 Cor. 14:34 about women being silent in the church must be a later scribal addition and not original to Paul’s letter. There is no textual evidence for that. No manuscript of the Greek NT, among the thousands that exist from medieval times and earlier omit that statement. Nevertheless they are sure Paul would not have written that and so they argue it should be taken out. Copyists did the same thing long ago. They couldn’t make sense of a reading; they thought it was a mistake, so they fixed it! One of the most important principles for weighing readings and determining which reading is most likely to be correct is the principle of lectio difficilior, that is, the more difficult reading is likely to be correct. Scribes, when having to choose between readings in the manuscripts before them, preferred readings that made sense to them and so they tended to choose the easier reading, not the more difficult. Prof. Bruce Waltke, a specialist on the text of the Hebrew Bible whose reputation in such matters in evangelical scholarship is second to none, has written that he considers the rejection of the easier reading to be the most important canon of textual criticism, that is, the most important rule by which to determine the correct reading among a set of different readings of the same biblical statement or text. Choose the reading that is most difficult and reject the reading that is easiest to understand. That doesn’t mean that the difficult reading is always correct. Mistakes can occur for many reasons. But it is an important principle and often decisive in choosing or rejecting a reading found in biblical manuscripts and we will draw attention to that shortly.

    By the way it is by applying these various principles of intrinsic probability that manuscripts and groups of manuscripts are themselves weighed and their quality judged. If, for example, in a certain manuscript changes are regularly made that seem to resolve difficult readings into easier ones, that manuscript will be regarded generally as less accurate, less close to the original, less authoritative. In the same way, if predictable mistakes, mistakes that can be easily explained as scribal blunders are more often found in certain manuscripts, those manuscripts will be judged in general less accurate, less close to the original and less reliable. On the contrary, if a manuscript seems to preserve more difficult readings and not to change them, if predictable and explainable errors are few, then that manuscript is going to be judged in general more accurate, more reliable and nearer to the original. It is by the application of these principles that certain manuscripts and families of manuscripts have come to be regarded as particularly valuable witnesses to the original text. When you read in a footnote in your Bible that “the best manuscripts read…” that is what is meant. They have evaluated those manuscripts according to these principles, measured the number of typical scribal errors, and judged them accordingly.

    So, the manuscripts and the internal evidence are weighed and a reading is chosen. That is done time after time until one has a complete text of the New Testament. That is what is meant by an eclectic or critical text. That is what we have in the standard Greek NT (Nestle-Aland) that almost all biblical scholars and pastors use. It is an eclectic text, a text created by choosing in every casewhat is thought the best reading – sometimes from one manuscript or group of manuscripts, sometimes from another (though more often than not from a certain set of early manuscripts judged to be highly reliable) – a text that, in its entirety, may not exist in any single manuscript but is thought to reproduce as closely as possible the text as it was originally created by the biblical writers.

  2. Now, that may seem entirely plausible, but it has provoked strong reaction from some evangelicals. They argue that instead of an eclectic text, a text created by choosing reading after reading on the basis of the rating of manuscripts and the application of various principles of textual criticism, we should instead choose the text of the NT that is found in the greatest number of manuscripts. This is the majority text position and there are some, including some in our own Presbyterian Church in America, who are staunch advocates of this position. The New King James Bible is a translation that exists in largest part because of the scholarly support in some circles for the majority text. It is a translation of the majority text, a text which is much more like the old Textus Receptus or Received Text of the Greek New Testament, that formed the basis of the old KJV in the early years of the 17th century. Many of the texts that are nowadays in biblical scholarship regarded as the very best witnesses of the original Greek NT were not known to exist in the days of the Textus Receptus, the days of the translation of the King James Bible.

    The majority text is found primarily in the large mass of later medieval manuscripts, medieval manuscripts called minuscules because they are written in a sort of cursive, lower case hand-writing which did not come into vogue until the 9th century. The biblical text represented in these copies – of which we have a great number, in part, of course, because they were copied later in history, that is in the later Middle Ages, – tends to be a text characterized by easier readings – that is, readings that have been smoothed out – and by rather typical and predictable changes, the sort of changes scribes or copyists are likely to have made. For that reason, most biblical scholarship regards the majority text as inferior, a less exact copy of the original text of the Greek NT. The earlier manuscripts and the earliest among them tend not to be like the majority text in just those ways you might expect the original to be unlike the copy. But these considerations do not weigh with the advocates of the majority text.

    There are perhaps several different reasons why good men favor the majority text approach.

    1. There is, of course, the conservative instinct to which we are all susceptible. It may well be that the preference for the majority text in some minds is very like the preference for the KJV in other minds. It is what we are used to and have come to love. It is not an accident that the advocates for New King James Version and the majority text view of the Greek NT are the same people! But that also explains why some advocates of the majority text speak as if the faith were at stake or as if advocates of the eclectic text were forsaking the Bible. That is the way some advocates of the KJV still speak about modern translations. If the KJV were good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me!
    2. In the second place, many of those involved in the editing and publishing of the standard Hebrew and Greek testaments are not evangelical Christians and there is a natural suspicion of their scholarship. Can we trust liberals to determine the correct text of the Bible? But it is important to remember that we are talking about textual criticism, the reconstruction of the most accurate text; a dry and highly technical discipline. It is fair to say that here one’s theological outlook is less likely to play a formative role in the eventual decisions one makes. Liberals might in fact make even better textual critics because they have nothing at stake in the result. Further, the original champions of the eclectic text approach, the English scholars Westcott and Hort in the 19th century, were devout men and in the years since many devout men have subjected their scholarship to careful examination and have found it persuasive. Counting noses is not the way to find the truth, but there are reasons why virtually all evangelical biblical scholarship today rejects the majority text approach and favors instead the eclectic text approach.
    3. Third, the majority text men have a theological argument. They argue that the majority text was the text used by the Greek speaking church for fifteen hundred years and so must be the proper text because God would not have allowed the church to use a corrupt text. There may be a superficial force to this argument, but that is all. The fact is, the difference between the majority text and the eclectic text is not very great frankly, and nothing of any substance hangs on the difference. The majority text is not a corrupt text, and no one says it is, if by “corrupt” we mean that it does not give us substantially an accurate NT text. Moreover, it is not true that the church used a single text, the so-called majority text, for fifteen hundred years. The fact is no manuscript is precisely the same as another. There were always variations of one kind or another. In the earliest years of the church the text most often used apparently was not the majority text. In fact, the very idea of a “majority text” is a construct. It is a family of texts that agree with one another largely, but not in every respect. Until the invention of the printing press, a copy invariably departed from the exemplar in some instances and the majority texts manuscripts differ from one to another. What is more, of course, the Bible of the western church for 1500 years was not the Greek text, majority or otherwise, it was the Latin Vulgate, a translation from a Greek text in the fourth century.
    4. Fourth, and finally, the majority text advocates have their technical arguments about manuscripts and their antiquity, the canons of textual criticism and the like. I won’t repeat those. But you should know that they have persuaded only a very small company of evangelical biblical scholars. For the past century the eclectic text position has grown stronger and stronger as more evidence has been accumulated and studied.

So, there is the background. Let me conclude, then, on this Pentecost Sunday, with a brief exercise in textual criticism. Turn to John 14:17. Much here turns on a single word, in fact, on the tense of a single verb. The NIV and the ESV takes the statement Jesus made about the coming Holy Spirit to read: “for he lives with you and will be in you.” My copy of the ESV doesn’t alert the reader to the presence of an alternate reading but the NIV does. The marginal note in my NIV indicates that “some early manuscripts read and is.” That is, the Lord said to his disciples that the Holy Spirit “lives with you and is in you.” I don’t have to tell you how much hangs on that choice between the future tense and the present tense. Generations of Christians have been taught that the Holy Spirit was with believers in the OT but he is in believers today, whatever that distinction might be thought to mean. When we say, “God be with you,” we certainly don’t mean to express our hope for an inferior measure of God’s blessing! They think that this indicates that there is a greater measure of the Holy Spirit and his ministry enjoyed by believers in the new epoch than was enjoyed by believers in the ancient epoch. We are, in some undefined way, more spiritual than they were, Abraham, David, Jeremiah, and that crowd.

But did Jesus say that the Spirit will be in you or did he say that the Spirit already is in you? Both readings are found in manuscripts, even early manuscripts, of the Gospel of John. Well here are the facts.

  1. It isn’t simply that the reading “is” is found in “some early manuscripts;” it is found in the very best early manuscripts the manuscripts that are generally regarded as the most accurate exemplars of the original text of the NT.
  2. “is” is also the most difficult reading, the reading a scribe was most likely to change precisely because he came to think about Pentecost the way generations of evangelicals had been taught to think about it: as elevating the spiritual experience of believers above and beyond what was known in the ancient day. The more difficult reading we said is all things being equal more likely to be correct and “is” is certainly the more difficult reading.
  3. The present tense already exists in the sentence; the Holy Spirit is with you. There is nothing in the context to indicate that the Lord is making a contrast between “with” and “in.” He is telling them why they know the Holy Spirit whom he is describing and whose coming ministry he is describing. They know the Holy Spirit. The second preposition may just as well be elaborating or emphasizing or reinforcing the first.
  4. In the little volume published by the editors of the standard Greek NT text [the Nestle-Aland text, 27th edition] that gives their judgment about many choices that they made in establishing their text, if you look up John 14:17, you will find that the reading “will be” is given by these editors a rating of “D”, their lowest possible rating. In the paragraph they explain their choice of the future, rather than the present tense, this way: “A majority of the committee interpreted the sense of the passage as requiring the future…” They are virtually telling you that almost every principle of textual criticism argues for the present tense. They chose the future because theythought that is what Jesus must have said. As a credit to their honesty and their scholarship, they give that future tense reading, “will be” a “D” rating, the lowest possible rating, which shows that there is, they say, “a very high degree of doubt concerning the reading selected for the text.” [B. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 245, xxviii]

The fact is, by virtually any standard of textual criticism we should conclude that Jesus said that the Holy Spirit who was to come at Pentecost his disciples already knew, because he was already living with them and was already in them. Nowhere else in the NT are we taught that there is some substantial difference between the internal ministry of the Holy Spirit in the first epoch and that ministry in the second. The difference is in the extent of that ministry as the Spirit now takes the gospel to the hearts of the whole world and no longer primarily just to the Jews. But you see the point: weight the manuscript support, consider the likelihood of the reading according to the principles of textual criticism and choose the text you believe is what John originally wrote.

Why God did not see fit to preserve the originals I cannot say. Interestingly, the same problem occupies Muslims, who have to decide between variant readings present in different copies of the Koran. It has certainly made necessary the very exact and careful study of the biblical text in the original languages and that is certainly all to the good. But what is most important to remember is that, for an ancient document, written in parts, over many centuries, by a number of different authors as the Bible was, it is a miracle of history that virtually everyone accepts that we have today the Bible virtually as it was originally written. The remaining questions are, by and large, trivial. We know what God has said to us. We have the truth in our hands to take into our hearts.

Think of it carefully,
Study it prayerfully,
Deep in your heart
Let its oracles dwell.
Ponder its mystery,
Slight not its history,
For none ever loved it
Too fondly or well.