You’re in church for worship, and your pastor is preaching through the book of Acts. The day’s text is Acts 8, the part about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Your pastor is reading from the ESV, and you’re following along in your NKJV.
The translations are a little different, but you can usually follow. The pastor reads:
36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:36–38, ESV)
Following along in your NKJV, you see:
36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” 37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” 38 So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:36–38, NKJV, emphasis added)
Why does the NKJV have Acts 8:37? And why doesn’t the ESV include the same content?
It all has to do with textual criticism.
How did we get the New Testament?
Ask just about any pastor or Bible scholar where the New Testament came from, and you’ll hear the story of thousands of manuscripts, many fragmentary, that witness the text of the New Testament. Textual Criticism is the field (some call it science, others say it’s an art) of how this vast collection of manuscript material comes together to inform one’s reading of the New Testament.
The footnotes in your Bible summarize the situation from the translators’ perspective and point out the presence or absence of the material called Acts 8:37. Most modern Bible translations will at least have a sentence or two on this type of textual issue.
If you want more than that, there are several resources in Logos Bible Software that can help you weigh the options and come to an understanding of the textual issues and possible solutions. The Logos team has assembled some of our best text-critical resources in the definitive Textual Variants Collection. It’s a great way to get started.
One type of resource you can turn to is a “textual commentary”. These books comment on the text-critical issues of the Bible. Some textual commentaries, such as the Lexham Textual Notes are high level, giving the reader an overview of the textual options. Others, such as Metzger’s Textual Commentary are fairly focused and use text-critical terminology in their discussion. Textual commentaries available in Logos include:
- Lexham Textual Notes on the Bible by Israel Loken and Rick Brannan
- A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament by Bruce Metzger
- A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament by Roger L. Omanson
- New Testament Text and Translation Commentary by Philip Comfort
Get to know the Textual Variants section
In Logos 8, the Textual Variants section of the Exegetical Guide provides links from your passage to the discussion in the textual commentaries you have in your library. In this video, Todd Bishop, one of our Logos Pros, shows you how the Textual Variants section can help you dig into textual criticism.
Get started with textual criticism
As you saw in the video, this type of situation happens in more places than just Acts 8:37. Have you ever had the same question about Matthew 18:11? Or John 5:3? On the general issue of how textual critics understand the earliest knowable state of the Greek New Testament, there are a few books that are helpful:
- Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism by Philip Comfort
- The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon by Arthur Patzia
- The Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition by J. Harold Greenlee
Next time you run into the presence or absence of a verse like Acts 8:37, don’t take it as a challenge or a conspiracy. The editors of the translation have good reasons for the path they chose and will usually leave a note to clue you in. With a little work, some consulting of textual commentaries, and some wider understanding of how thousands of manuscripts inform our understanding of the Greek New Testament, you can examine the evidence yourself and come to your own conclusion.