Acts 8:37: Omission or Addition?
The general argument when discussing a Bible translation should be based on a single question: what best represents the original manuscripts? Since we do not have a single original manuscript scholars must use the existing ones and piece together what they believe to most accurately represent the originals. It’s not an easy task, which is why the work is done by teams of highly educated professionals.
Below we will discuss the evidence for and against the authenticity of Acts 8:37, which is removed in almost all modern Bibles, with the exception of just a few. The newer translations that do retain the passage, such as the NKJV, NASB, or the HCSB, place brackets around the passage and supply a note declaring that some early manuscripts do not contain the verse.
37 [1 And 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.”] (Acts 8:36-37 NASB)
It should come as no surprise that since the KJV is based on later manuscript traditions, excepting the Latin, that this verse is a source of debate among Christians.
Evidence for Acts 8:37 Authenticity
The passage, as retained by the KJV and the NKJV, italicized below says,
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.
The KJVO advocates are quick to point this omission out and they usually claim some nefarious scheme by Bible translators to remove the gospel from the Bible. However, those critics usually do not understand how the Bible is translated and transmitted. We have thousands of manuscripts and only some of them disagree with each other. Some of the manuscripts contain verse 37 and some do not.
Of the oldest manuscripts, we have both Greek and Latin sources. The oldest Greek manuscripts do NOT contain verse 37. The Latin manuscripts that contain the verse only date as early as the 6th century, so the passage does not have strong manuscript support in any early witnesses. If it was included in the Latin Vulgate (4th century) then the passage might be able to stand on it’s own, however, it is not in Jerome’s Vulgate, which means no Latin manuscript was known to the church in the 4th century.
That being said, there is a case for including verse 37, even if we do not have it in our oldest and (supposedly) more accurate manuscripts. The early church fathers seem to believe that the Eunuch did at least say “I believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God.” Irenaeus comments on Acts 8 with the following statement:
[Philip declared] that this was Jesus, and that the Scripture was fulfilled in Him; as did also the believing eunuch himself: and, immediately requesting to be baptized, he said,
“I believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God.”
This man was also sent into the regions of Ethiopia, to preach what he had himself believed, that there was one God preached by the prophets, but that the Son of this [God] had already made [His] appearance in human nature (secundum hominem), and had been led as a sheep to the slaughter; and all the other statements which the prophets made regarding Him. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies)
Irenaeus lived from 130 CE to 202 CE, which means he wrote, roughly, 100 years after the writing of the book of Acts. His writings predate the known manuscripts. The same manuscripts that omit this verse. Another early church leader, Cyprian (c. 200-258), recounts the story of Philip and the Eunuch to include this missing verse.
In the Acts of the Apostles: “Lo, here is water; what is there which hinders me from being baptized? Then said Philip, If you believe with all your heart, you may.” (Cyprian, Treatise 12, Book 3)
Thus it appears that as early as the 2nd century, there was some tradition or text that was known to contain the verse. Additionally, the Latin, post-Vulgate, also includes this verse. Translated from the Latin it says,
Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he replied, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’
The Latin tradition combines both versions of Acts 8:37 given by Irenaeus and Cyprian. Thus, neither church father quoted the KJV version, even though both quotes differed from the extant manuscripts. This late Latin reading is the version that we have in the KJV. Other church fathers give similar accounts that include the confession but they are much later than the early manuscripts which show the verse omitted. The only early patristic witnesses to Acts 8:37 are the two mentioned above.
Evidence Against the Authenticity of Acts 8:37
On the other side of the argument, Bruce Metzger provides an equally appealing explanation for why the verse is not in modern Greek textual apparatuses.
Ver. 37 is a Western addition, not found in 𝔓45, א A B C 33 81 614 vg syrp, copsa, eth, but is read, with many minor variations, by E, many minuscules, itgig, vgmss syrh with * copG67 arm. There is no reason why scribes should have omitted the material, if it had originally stood in the text. It should be noted too that τὸν Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν is not a Lukan expression.
The formula πιστεύω … Χριστόν was doubtless used by the early church in baptismal ceremonies, and may have been written in the margin of a copy of Acts. Its insertion into the text seems to have been due to the feeling that Philip would not have baptized the Ethiopian without securing a confession of faith, which needed to be expressed in the narrative. Although the earliest known New Testament manuscript that contains the words dates from the sixth century (ms. E), the tradition of the Ethiopian’s confession of faith in Christ was current as early as the latter part of the second century, for Irenaeus quotes part of it (Against Heresies, III.xii.8).
Although the passage does not appear in the late medieval manuscript on which Erasmus chiefly depended for his edition (ms. 2), it stands in the margin of another (ms. 4), from which he inserted it into his text because he “judged that it had been omitted by the carelessness of scribes (arbitror omissum librariorum incuria).”
(Metzger, B. M., A textual commentary on the Greek New Testament)
Bruce Metzger is regarded by many academics as the god-father of Biblical Greek. While being a long time professor at Princeton he was the person that spearheaded the NRSV translation which is the pew Bible for many denominations. His work is regarded as second-to-none. That being said, we should examine his logic and proofs so that we can understand both sides of this debate.
Bruce states that verse 37 is a Western addition to the text. That refers to an addition that stems from the Western text-type which contains manuscripts dated as old as the 4th and 5th century CE. However, the Western text-type manuscripts date as recently as the Medieval period. The Western church leaders are some of the most famous, including Tertullian, Cyprian, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Polycarp, etc. The Western text types are some of the oldest manuscripts but not as old as the Alexandrian text-types or any writings of the ante-Nicaean fathers. However, the Alexandrian text-types are dated as old as the 2nd century CE. The issue with these older Alexandrian manuscripts is that they were altered more frequently than later manuscripts, unlike the Byzantine text-types that underlay the Majority text of the KJV. Nevertheless, this cohesiveness is later manuscripts has less to do with textual traditions and more to do with advancing technology for writing and the fact that literacy rates were quite different between the two time frames.
Often the inconsistencies in the early manuscripts were due to scribal mistakes or footnotes that were added into the actual text during copying. When manuscripts from the early text-types have verses omitted it’s usually assumed that the original did not include the passage because it was more likely for a scribe to add to the text than to remove from it. The typical way that a footnote becomes a textual variant is a 3 step process.
- Scribe adds note next to block of text for clarification
- Later copyists assume it was accidentally left out so it gets added in line
- Even later copyists start copying and multiplying the altered manuscript
To demonstrate this phenomenon, we need not look any further than Acts 8:37 which once used to exist only as a marginal note.
It’s a fairly easy thing to do and it can happen by accident. This is how Bruce Metzger is viewing Acts 8:37. It does not appear in the earliest manuscripts (even if the church fathers believed that it was part of the story). It does appear in later manuscripts but with multiple variations. In even later manuscripts the verse is more consistent. The manuscripts where it does NOT appear are listed by Bruce as follows:
Ver. 37 is a Western addition, not found in 𝔓45, א A B C 33 81 614 vg syrp, copsa, eth
𝔓45 is an early Greek manuscript from the 3rd century (c. 250 CE) that is considered by some as part of the Alexandrian text-type. This is the earliest text-type that we have for the NT manuscripts. It was in an Egyptian style codex that is believed to have been about 220 pages originally, though only 30 exist today. Luckily for us modern day readers a portion of Acts was in those 30 pages. Specifically, Acts 4-17. In this manuscript verse 37 does not exist.
The א [aleph] codex which also does not include vs 37 is a Greek Uncial (written in all CAPS) that dates to about 330-360 CE. It’s only of the largest and most complete biblical manuscripts that has been found in Greek. In addition to missing Acts 8:37, it also omits Acts 15:34; 24:7; 28:29.
The A Codex [Codex Alexandrinus] is a 5th century (c. 400-440 CE) Greek codex that is also in Greek Uncials. It also omits Acts 8:37; 15:34; 24:7; 28:29. However, it does include writings from early church fathers such as Clement and Athanasius. In addition, it includes a copy of the Septuagint (LXX), the Deuterocanonical books like Maccabees, and a few others that our modern Bibles do not include.
Codex B [Codex Vaticanus] is a 4th century (c. 300-325) codex in Greek Uncials that is considered to be the oldest Greek New Testament. Like it’s Uncial sisters, it also does no include Acts 8:37; 15:34, 24:7; 28:29. Among modern biblical scholars who do textual work, it’s regarded as the most accurate witness to the original Greek manuscripts of the NT. It also is an Alexandrian text-type.
Codex C [Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus] is a 5th century (c. 450 CE) and is unique to manuscripts in that it’s been recycled. The original text was in Greek and contained much of the Bible. It was subsequently “washed” and written over with another text, likely in the 12th century CE. However, with technology that exists today, the original text is not lost forever. Much of it was still decipherable and in good enough condition to apply a dating to the text.
We could go on examine the other manuscripts listed by Metzger but they are much later in date. It should also be pointed out that the Syriac Peshetta, a 2nd century translation, also does not include Acts 8:37. The early Latin manuscripts include variants of this verse but they differ greatly and are dated later than the Greek manuscripts.
The earliest true attestation to verse 8:37 is from Codex E [Codex Laudianus] which is a 6th century (c. 550) manuscript that has parallel readings of both Latin and Greek. It’s likely that the manuscript tradition it followed was the Latin, not the older Greek. The Greek used in the Codex is a mixture of various text-types. A similar manuscript (multi-lingual) exists which includes Acts 8:37 and it goes by the title of Codex D [Codex Claromontanus]. It’s also from the 6th century and is also Latin and Greek, with the Latin being the primary tradition for the copy.
Other witnesses to the existence of Acts 8:37 are from much later manuscripts from the 9th century and beyond. At this point most textual critics would agree that the readings from the older manuscripts would more accurately represent the originals. In this case it’s especially true since there is a visible progression through time that shows this verse “appearing” in manuscripts only as they become later in date and inconsistently copied until the Medieval period. In cases like these it’s easy to assume that the verse was an addition.
Metzger also points out that “τὸν Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν” (Jesus the Christ) is not an expression that Luke uses. Meaning it’s out of character for Luke. All the NT writers have phrases and ways of saying things that are unique to their own style. Within Luke’s gospel and in Acts he uses the following titles for Jesus.
- Christ the Lord (x2)
- the Lord’s Christ
- the Christ (x17)
- The Christ of God
- Christ, a King
- Christ, the chosen of God
- the Christ, the Son of God!
- Jesus Christ (x6)
- Lord Jesus Christ (x6)
- Jesus Christ of Nazareth (x2)
- Jesus as/is the Christ (x2)
Luke’s most common form of the Christ title is simply “the Christ” or “Jesus Christ”. However, the phrase “τὸν χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν” does actually appear two other time in Acts (other than in the omitted verse 37). In Acts 5:42 and 18:5 this exact phrase that Metzger describes as non-Lukan appears.
And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ [τὸν χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν]. (Acts 5:42)
When Silas and Timothy had come from Macedonia, Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ [τὸν χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν]. (Acts 18:5)
It would appear that while τὸν χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν is not a common phrase that Luke uses for Jesus, it does at least appear in two uncontested passages in Acts. Neither one of these verses are considered to be a textual variant nor are they in dispute for authenticity.
I think that the Eunuch quite possibly did make a confession before being baptized. However, I do not think that his confession was originally part of the Greek text. I think it became oral tradition first, then later made it into the texts. Even though the tradition was known and even repeated by early church leaders like Irenaeus, it was not uncommon for the written scriptures and oral tradition to co-mingle. Quite often when the early church fathers re-tell the biblical stories, they tend to mix details in or leave some out. That does not mean that one is wrong and the other is right. It just means that the written record does not always contain every single detail. This is why church tradition (extra-biblical texts) are so important. They might not be scripture but they do provide a witness.
I think that if this verse existed in the original manuscripts then it would have survived. There is no reason why a scribe would remove this verse, especially considering it’s importance to the early church which placed a high level of importance on the sacred church sacraments, like baptism. Nobody would benefit from omitting such a passage. However, as Metzger points out, it would have been much more desirable to add this verse into the text so that this passage would line up with the traditional baptism confession formula. By the time this verse appears in the manuscripts (6th century) the baptismal confession was a well known formula and a requirement for baptism.
It’s also important to remember that we do not have copies of every manuscript that existed. We don’t have originals either. It’s quite possible that a Greek version existed in Irenaeus’ time the did include this confession. However, no copy of this version is currently known to exist today. If archaeology uncovers such a version then I think this debate would need to be reconsidered.