Most of us have read John 5:1–9—the story of the blind, paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda—many times. But I’ll bet there’s something that escaped your attention.
Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” 7 “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” 8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.” (John 5:1–9 NIV)
If you read closely, you’ll notice that verse 4 is missing! Start at verse one and count out loud: 1, 2, 3 . . . 5?
In case your Bible version doesn’t have the verse, the omitted words read: “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted” (NASB).
The verse is not just missing in the NIV; the situation is the same in the ESV, NRSV, CEV, NLT, and the NET Bible. If you use the NASB or NCV you will see the verse but it’s been placed inside brackets, whereas the KJV and the NKJV contain verse 4 without any notation or demarcation. So what’s going on here? Who took John 5:4 out of the Bible?
If you’re using a study Bible that doesn’t have verse 4, you will likely see a note at the end of verse 3, or the beginning of verse 5, explaining why it isn’t there. This is a textbook case of a disagreement between manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. What would be John 5:4 (the missing material that begins in verse 3) is not found in any of the earliest and most accurate manuscripts of the Gospel of John. Scholars who make a career of comparing manuscripts (“textual critics” and “paleographers”) have discovered that in roughly two dozen manuscripts scribes put asterisk marks at the verse to warn the next scribe who would copy the manuscript that the verse was likely not original. To top it all off, four of the last five Greek words of what would be John 5:4 aren’t found anywhere else in John’s writings. This suggests that John 5:4 does not belong in the New Testament, which explains why many modern Bible translations have omitted it.
After 1900, translators used new manuscript discoveries from the 1800s, which revealed that the verse was likely not original. This is why verse 4 is listed in the pre-1900 KJV “as is” without brackets (the NKJV followed the KJV in this regard). More recent Bible translations (omitting or retaining the verse with brackets) give us a clearer picture of what the original product of inspiration looked like.
Why would verse 4 have not been included in the original New Testament? It is not because of the angel in the story. The Bible has no problem with angels; they’re all over the place, doing all sorts of things. But, like today, there was a great deal of folklore and superstition about them. The idea that an angel stirred the waters at a given time during the year was one such superstition. John 5:7 mentions the stirring of the water but does not mention the angel. It’s likely that John knew of the belief about the waters of Bethesda but chose to leave it out for a specific reason. Perhaps he does not wish to endorse that an angel was stirring the water. By excluding the popular belief about the angel, John focuses his readers on the healer who was indeed present—Jesus.
There are some lessons for us all in “the case of the missing verse.” First, we need to train ourselves to read the Bible closely. If we missed something like the normal order of numbering in John 5, what else are we overlooking? Second, it pays to compare Bible versions. Even scholars who read Greek and Hebrew actively compare manuscript traditions. The work of another scribe (or Bible translator) can often direct our attention to something important. Third, we need to be sure the content of our preaching and teaching has a secure footing in the text. God moved people to spend their lives transmitting the biblical text; the least we can do is pay close attention.
Dr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.
This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.
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