Textual Criticism - Lesson 30

Some Famous Textual Problems: John 5:3b–4

Why was the man waiting for so many years at the pool of Bethesda? Was there really an angel stirring up the waters and healing the first one in?

Daniel Wallace
Textual Criticism
Lesson 30
Watching Now
Some Famous Textual Problems: John 5:3b–4

I. Variants


A. Transcriptional Probability

1. Unintentional change

2. Intentional change

3. Harder reading

4. Shorter reading

B. Intrinsic Probability

C. Conclusion: A- for shorter reading


A. Date and Character

B. Genealogical Solidarity

C. Geographical Distribution

D. Other Considerations

E. Conclusion: Grade A- John 5.3b-4 not authentic

  • Since the original autographs of the Bible no longer exist, the primary goal of Biblical Textual Criticism is to determine the exact wording of the original inspired text dispatched from the author with as much accuracy as possible. As a secondary goal, we desire to trace changes to the text and get a window into ancient Christianity.

  • Contrary to popular textual critics, the wrong way to record textual variants is to count each unique variant and multiply by the number of existing manuscripts, rendering millions of variants. On the contrary, the correct method is to count the same variant that occurs across all manuscripts as one variant, rendering not millions but hundreds of thousands of predominantly minor variants.

  • Compared to other ancient literature, the field of Biblical textual criticism possesses “an embarrassment of riches.” New Testament TC absolutely dwarfs the resources of other ancient literature, not only in number of manuscripts and the recent time in which they were produced, but also confirming quotations by extra-biblical writings.

  • The vast majority of NT Variants are minor, easily explained scribal errors that don’t affect the meaning of the text. Among 400,000 textual variants of the NT, over 99% make no difference to the meaning, and less than 1% are both meaningful and viable.

  • Recent attempts to change the goals of NTTC such that critics no longer seek to obtain the original autographs in favor of understanding a writer’s historical contexts undermine the original goal of NTTC. However, faithful textual critics must not subscribe to the notion of a “multivalence” of the original text, but instead pursue the primary goal: to get as close as possible to the original autographs.

  • The vast majority of all copies of the New Testament were probably recorded on scrolls, but copied in codex format. This may lend to the theory that Christians used cutting-edge, easier-to-use media technologies to further the word-based faith.

  • Various materials were used in creating NT manuscripts. Wallace discusses papyrus, parchments, and paper, each with advantages and disadvantages for transmitting the text faithfully.

  • There are three fundamental issues that significantly affect the transmission of the NT Text: early copies and causes of corruption, the role of canon in shaping the text, and the emergence of localized text forms.

  • Because of the radical nature of Christianity, it took some time for OT-based Jews to accept the NT as canonical. But over time, coinciding with the progressive development of a certain “canon-consciousness,” scribes were compelled to modify texts in various ways, not for malicious reasons, but in efforts to clarify, preserve, and revere the sacred scriptures.

  • Although questioned by some critics, most TCs acknowledge four major localized forms of the NT text: Alexandrian, Western, Byzantine, and (questionably) Caesarian. These “cross-pollinated” text families have arisen from diverse historical, cultural and socio-political factors, but all serve to strengthen, and not weaken the integrity of the NT text.

  • While it is undeniable that NT scribes made mistakes of various types in copying the inspired text, understanding the often simple reason for these mistakes renders much reward in understanding the sacred text. The fundamental principle of textual criticism is this: select the reading that best explains the rise of the other readings.

  • Contrary to popular belief, intentional scribal changes were not malicious in nature, but rather displayed pious intentions and a high view of scripture. Scribal corruptions for the most part, did not reflect a desire to obfuscate, but to clarify the scripture.

  • This lecture introduces papyri, critically important as the earliest witnesses of New Testament text. Papyri are some of the most important documents of NT MSS.

  • Since papyri are the earliest records of NT text (containing 50% of NT) they are critical in revealing the original text shape of the NT text. Even Codex Sinaticus and Vaticanus, the two most important NT MSS in the world, are confirmed by Papyri.

  • This lecture describes the most important new Testament manuscripts: the Majuscules, formerly known as uncials. These documents contain the full text of the NT written many times over, on parchment, written in all caps.

  • This lecture continues the discussion about the most important New Testament manuscripts: the Majuscules, formerly known as uncials. This lecture describes Codex Alexandrinus - A, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus - C, Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph), and Codex Washingtonianus - W - 1906.

  • Since the field of TC is so small, obtaining resources are very expensive. However the internet is still a great place to conduct free TC research. In this lecture, major internet resources for studying NT manuscripts are compared and contrasted.

  • Founded 2002 by Daniel Wallace, the mission of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) is to be a premiere resource in the great and noble task of determining the wording of the autographa of the New Testament. This is facilitated through high-resolution digital photography of extant Greek New Testament manuscripts so that such images can be preserved, duplicated without deterioration, and accessed by scholars doing textual research.

  • The KJV has been rightfully called “the single greatest monument to the English language,” but this is more from a literary rather than a translation standpoint. This is because the Greek MSS behind the KJV text is far inferior to that of modern translations in terms of textual basis, late MSS dates, and a less than perfect process of creation.

  • The arguments used to position the Textus Receptus as the sole textual basis for the true word of God range from questionable to downright irrational. Proponents of this position rely on view of the so-called “doctrine of preservation,” which illegitimately uses certain Bible texts to argue its dubious claims.

  • This lecture describes the major problems of TR-only people, who subscribe to an unbiblical Doctrine of Preservation, which as defined, effectively emerges as a Marcionite view of the Bible. Wallace claims that while there is no biblical, exegetical, or empirical basis to argue for the doctrine of preservation, God has overwhelmingly preserved Scripture in a way that is not true of any other ancient literature.

  • In this lecture, Daniel Wallace describes the discovery of Sinaiaticus, and its importance to the field of textual criticism. He recounts fascinating details about his visits to St. Catherine’s, the oldest Christian monastery, at the base of Mount Sinai, Egypt.

  • This lecture summarizes the life of Constantine von Tischendorf [1815-1874], and his very important discovery of Codex Sinaiticus.

  • This lecture describes highlights of the history of NT TC since the TR. Describing the formation of the textus receptus, Wallace also characterizes major players in the process of arriving at the modern text.

  • This lecture describes Westcott and Hort, and how they dethroned the Textus Receptus by proving that the Textus Receptus was late, inferior, and secondary.

  • This lecture is 1 of 3 lectures on reasoned eclecticism. Eclecticism is the process of compiling a text from multiple sources, while reasoned eclecticism consists of rectifying the differences and evaluating variants based on both their attestation and intrinsic merit.

  • This lecture is 2 of 3 lectures on reasoned eclecticism.

  • This lecture illustrates the principles of reasoned eclecticism.

  • Was Jesus "moved with compassion" or "indignant" when he saw that his disciples could not heal the man with leprosy?

  • Why was the man waiting for so many years at the pool of Bethesda? Was there really an angel stirring up the waters and healing the first one in?

  • Do these two passages call Jesus “God”? Thankfully, the Bible affirms the divinity of Christ many other ways and in many other passages than these two.

  • This lecture presents some very technical arguments for why Daniel Wallace believes that the phrase “ουδεουιός” (nor the Son) is not an authentic part of Matthew 24:36.

  • This lesson teaches you to appreciate the rigorous historical research required in biblical studies and the importance of respecting dual authorship. It sharpens your understanding of external and internal textual evidence and their implications for a passage's authenticity.
  • The text of Mark 16:9-20 is most likely not part of the original inspired text of scripture, and v 8 is Mark's intended ending.

  • This lecture evaluates popular translations of the Bible in terms of their textual basis. The bottom line is that while all translations are interpretations, The Spirit of God has ensured that the truth of the scriptures can be found in any one of them, and reading widely among different versions is good to promote understanding about different concerns of TC.

  • As time progresses in the field of Textual Criticism, we continue to get razor-thin closer to the original manuscripts. The good news is that with all the known variants, no essential doctrine of the Christian faith is jeopardized by any viable variant, so we can have great confidence in the text of our Bibles to provide us all we need for life and godliness.

Dr. Daniel Wallace is one of the world's leading textual critics. His ministry, the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM.org) is currently the most prolific organization for discovering, photographing, and cataloging ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. In this class, he discusses the issues of textual variants, how ancient manuscripts were made, the types of errors that we can see in the manuscripts, the issue of the Textus Receptus and its role in the King James translation of the Bible, the historic work of Westcott and Hort, and ends with discussions of the most famous textual problems.

Dr. Wallace gives a three hour summary of this class in our Academy program. The first of the lectures is here.

Please visit Dr. Wallace's ministry, Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and support them financially. 

Thank you to our friends at Credo House for sharing this class with us. You can purchase their workbook or the DVDs for the class from them.



A. John 5:3b-4 – Troubled Waters 

In this second part of these famous textual problems, the three remaining textual problems include: John 5:3b-4 and 1st Timothy 3:16 and John 1:18. These three really don’t belong together; John 5 is one textual problem that is very different from 1st Timothy 3:16 and John 1:18. These last two are very similar and relate to each other. In this lecture, we will look at only John 5:3b-4. This has to do with the angels stirring up the waters so that whoever could get into the Pool of Bethesda first was healed. I will read from the King James to begin with and then in a modern translation. So, the KJV Bible - in these lay a great multitude of important folk of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time, he saith unto him, wilt thou be made whole? The important man answered him, sir; I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.

The waiting for the moving of the water is only found in the King James Version of the Bible and the word for put me into the pool is typical translated throw me. So, in modern translations we have, a great number of sick, blind, lame and paralyze people were lying in these walkways. Verse 7 is the same in the modern translations and the KJV in terms of the textual basis. So, does this passage speak about an angel who stirs up the waters so that the first person who got into the pool was the one who was healed? That is the issue.

1. Transcriptional Probability 

Is it possible that there is an unintentional error here; there is a possibility of that but we are going to discuss that later. There is only one possibility as far as I can tell. What about an intentional change? Some explanation within the text seems to be called for. I will show you the passage again without these verses. Why is the man at the pool; what is he actually doing there? John 5:3-5 in modern translations such as the NET Bible: A great number of sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed people were lying in these walkways. Now a man was there who had been disabled for thirty-eight years and then he says in verse 7, sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. So, Jesus asks the question: do you wish to become healed and the man said, sure I do. I have been sitting here for a long time, but nobody is here to help me get into the water. This just begs for an explanation. So, what is the deal about getting into the water? It looks like that we are expecting some kind of explanation which we have in a number of manuscripts. It is also a harder reading not to have this explained. So the question is: is this something that we sometimes have with Biblical authors? Do they sometimes tend to be ambiguous and we try to fill in the gaps with what they are saying? The shorter reading also omits the verse; so the harder reading doesn’t give us an explanation for why he says what he does in verse 7. The shorter reading, what we find in modern translations confirms the canon of both the harder and shorter reading. It does this in a significant way.

2. Intrinsic Probability 

So what would an author be likely to do; a couple of stylistic matters? This passage doesn’t fit John’s syntax. There are some key elements that just don’t look like John. And there is another stylistic issue; angels are the least prominent in John of all four Gospels. Would he be one to mention an angel? He only mentions angels three at a time: 1:51, 12:29 and 20:12. Matthew mentions angels twenty times with five times in Mark and twenty-five times in Luke. It looks like an interpolation; something that somebody else would add. So, when you look at the transcriptional evidence, this seems solid but the stylistic evidence would be given an A-minus. In the external evidence in terms of date and character, John 5:3b-4; those verses are absent in P66, our oldest manuscript for this passage. Codex Sinaiticus or Aleph which is one of two most important manuscripts for the New Testament and B the other two most important manuscripts of the New Testament; Codex C, D, and many others; these are some of the most New Testament manuscripts we have of the Gospels and they don’t have these verses. Why would they omit these verses? It is found in Codex A, Alexandrinus which we said was Byzantine in the Gospels but Alexandrian elsewhere. Codex L an 8th-century Alexandrian manuscript but it has some Byzantine readings. The old Latin manuscripts which goes way back, perhaps even to the 2nd century and then the Byzantine manuscripts. The earliest and best manuscripts lack these verses. In the NET Bible where they actually discuss manuscripts; you don’t have to know any Greek as the NET Bible has notes on all of this. An Asterisk after a manuscript number or letter indicates that manuscript has been marked on or corrected. Corrected is a loose term where the correction might be of an actual mistake. So, we have the original scribe writing something and in this instant the original scribe didn’t put these two verses in. Either a later scribe or the same scribe comes back and adds this material. Codex C is so extraordinary difficult to read since the original manuscript was erased and then written over it. It is a Palimpsest manuscript; that was the one the Tischendorf deciphered in Paris.

So, it is difficult to tell which corrector it is; was it done at the same time or at a later time. What we have apart from that are some extraordinary important witnesses that don’t have these verses. I think about genealogical solidarity; it is absent in the Alexandrian and the best Western manuscripts. It is present in the Byzantine and some Western and a couple of late Alexandrian manuscripts. This tells us that the archetype of the Byzantine text almost surely had these verses. Did the Western text have these verses? It is hard to tell; probably not but it might have. The Alexandrian certainly did not. My guess is that the Alexandrian and Western lacked it, but the Byzantine had it. That tells us that we have a 2nd century reading for the omission; clearly we have that. We may have a 2nd century reading for the addition if we are going switch our view of the Western text. That is the genealogical solidarity. Now, in regards to geographical distribution, it is absent in the Alexandrian and the best Western manuscripts. We have a reading that is widespread earlier on. You have manuscripts throughout the Mediterranean region that don’t have these verses. That is not something that could have happened by accident. Consequently, this shows that they go back to an earlier source, but it is in the Byzantine and some Western manuscripts. So it is kind widespread only later on. I would give the external grade a solid A for the omission.

Now, in putting all of this together with other considerations; we have some writers around the 6th century who actually say that they had been to Jerusalem and to the Pool of Bethesda and there the angel would stir up the water from time to time and people would get healed. If this is really true and if it really happened, then perhaps that is what John wrote. But if this is what these patristic writers, not the best ones; if they are speaking about and these are not the most reliable witnesses, so perhaps it isn’t true historically. We will get to that when we look at the archaeological evidence. I suggest an accidental change; that there may have been a marginal note in some manuscripts that actually speak about this angel stirring up the waters and another scribe comes along later and saw in his manuscript places where that first scribe forgot to put in the verse and so he puts it in the margin. Well, did he forget to enter the verse; he isn’t sure, but what is the scribal principle? If in doubt, don’t leave it out. So, he would put it into his text and that was how it got into it. In 1896, the White fathers, a Roman Catholic group did a serious archaeological dig of the Pool of Bethesda. What they discovered is fascinating. It is one of the pools that Herod the Great built and the size of about two Olympic sized swimming pools; it is huge. In the Dead Sea Scrolls it refers to the pools of Bethesda. There are porticos which are covered walkways. So, you have a sidewalk around the four sides of the pool that is covered and then one splitting the pool. So, is it two pools are one pool? So, they dug down further and what they noticed was an underground spring that was bubbling up and on occasion you would get these minerals that would have a somewhat therapeutic effect on people.

So, was this an angel stirring up the waters? No, I don’t think so; it was an underground spring that was causing it. That shows that you have these patristic writers that are assuming that it is an angel but John didn’t assume that. John didn’t put that in there. If these verses are authentic, then this would be the only place in the Bible that says that God helps those who help themselves. (God really doesn’t say that here but it is implied) Here is the poor man, he has been lame for thirty eight years; Jesus saw that he had been there for a long time and so what happens? He asks the man whether he wishes to become well and of course he replies that he does. He had been trying to get into the water for he believed that an angel would stir up the water. But this is not what John says. This person had been trying to get in the pool for years and somebody always got there first. God helps them that help themselves; I don’t think this is a Biblical principle. So, I am glad that these verses are almost surely not authentic.

My conclusion is that they are not authentic; they don’t show up in your modern translations except in a marginal note. I would give this a grade of an A. One of comment: these verse numbers that we have, they were invented in 1551 by Stephanus Aucamp based on the Textus Receptus that Erasmus had
produced. Consequently, there is going to be more verses in our King James Bible than in other modern translations because those were based on later manuscripts. So, when it looks to some people like we are cutting out portions of the Bible, the reality is that those verses were later added to the Bible. It isn’t as if we have just 90% of the Word of God in our modern translations; the KJV Bible has 110 percent of the Word of God if you will. This is how I would deal with this passage and there is about two dozen places where you have one or two verses that are in the KJV Bible but not found in the oldest manuscripts. There are two places and only two that longer than the two verses which is Mark 16:9-20, the long ending of Mark’s Gospel. Then there is the story of the woman caught in adultery: John 7:53-8:11.