A disputed verse, in Acts chapter 8, is found within the account of the Ethiopian eunuch coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Without providing the entire account, the following is the specific portion of the passage under consideration with only a few extra verses before and after for context. Take note of verse 37, which is included, yet noted in some fashion, such as parenthesis, as being in question.
For reference, take note of a few translations which supply the verse with annotation:
Lastly, a number of translators have chosen to completely remove verse 37 with only a footnote on the preceding verse, as did NIV, or a perhaps a solitary footnote marker along with the verse number.
Some undeniable facts may be derived from this account:
The verse in question (v37), which was retained, omitted, or marked, is in the middle of this account of the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Those who rail against all who do not unquestionably retain the verse also typically make disparaging claims about what the removal of this verse does to the substance of the text. Statements such as this are not uncommon (as pulled from one website):
If this, or any other verse, "met its doom" in the 2nd century, the burden of proof rests on the claimant to show that it unquestionably existed prior to the 2nd century and - having now placed it in the text in recent centuries - that it is not a late addition to the text. In other words, how did the verse get from the first century to, let's say, the 16th century?
These individuals tend to refer to any manuscript that doesn't agree with the manuscript family or tradition they have adopted as being "corrupted". While it's easy to make a claim of corruption, merely showing that a manuscript is different than another does not make it the one which is corrupted, no matter how widespread or limited its usage. (Nor does a missing page from an earlier manuscript make it "corrupted" in regards to the content that is still available for inspection. A bible missing a page due to age is still a bible). Could not branches of the church throughout history, especially, as we will see in the Eastern Church, make a claim against the west for having corrupted the text by addition? It is an arrogant western mindset that claims western usage automatically superior to the rest of the world.
Again, what evidence supports the later manuscripts underlying the western text now having something that does not appear in earlier copies, especially in the east?
What does verse 37 add to the account?
This verse has Philip asking a very plausible question, seeking an audible confirmation of the Eunuch's faith in Jesus Christ. The response is likewise plausible and unquestionably expresses the saving faith that the Eunuch was undeniably a recipient of. So, the question is not whether the two statements are plausible, or reflective of what may have taken place, it rest solely in the question of whether either or both statement where part of the original record.
Scriptures does not attempt to record every action or statement made within specific accounts, rather it regularly abridges the essential, either in summary, or with select details, or a combination of the two (c.f. John 20:30-31, 21:25). This is especially true of the book of Acts.
A common accusation of those claiming malicious removal of this passage is that early Gnostics were the forces at work "ripping" verses right out of the text to suit their nefarious purposes:
Gnostics undeniably had an extremely distorted view of God, beliefs that permeated their writings and distorted who Jesus was and is. Yet corruption of an existing text was not their primary modus operandi, rather they commonly wrote new works (so-called "lost" gospels) that they tried to pass off as Scriptures. These were not subtle alterations; rather they were typically blatant in expressing their distorted views. If an existing work was to be altered by Gnostics, they would have consistently altered the entire account to bring it inline with their world (and otherworld) view. Simply put, it's a spurious claim that Gnostics made alterations to the text by removing a view words or passages in some isolated places throughout Scriptures - as if this would alter the message of the whole. The burden of proof remains on those making such a claim to show that Gnostics did so, or that this was even a typical tactic of that sect.
In specific, these Gnostic conspiracy theorists claim that it was the intent of Gnostics to remove testimony that Jesus was the Son of God:
These envisioned Gnostic perpetrators, professedly having the power to snip text at will and have others accept and use their alterations, were obviously bumbling idiots. They left in the beginning of the book of Acts, a passage that clearly states that Jesus is alive. Would not removal of a clear passage make more sense that clipping out one that hinges on the tense of a verb? For reference consider the first three verses of Acts...
Moreover, an additional passage in Acts clearly has the Apostle Paul (i.e. Saul, immediately following his conversion), teaching that Jesus is the "Son of God". This does not make sense if a Gnostic editor was trying to remove such statements from the book as these modern Gnostic conspiracies allege.
Others have held that removal of Acts 8:37 is tantamount to allowing baptism without a profession of faith, condoning baptism apart from conversion. Yet, even without the verse, the text clearly shows that the gospel was preached and that the Eunuchs' request to be baptized was an act of faith. Obviously God recognized the Eunuch's saving faith, as God had the eunuch continue on his way, Philip no longer being needed to bring him to faith in Jesus Christ. This follows suit with other undisputed passages in Acts, where the same order of faith then baptism is also displayed, yet they too record no audibly expressed statement of belief (though, again, it is plausible that such was made but not recorded). For example:
Beyond a Gnostic conspiracy, others believing that the text should be there have offered equally creative speculations as to why a "well meaning" Christian scribe would remove the wording.
Why would omission of this verse support a delay between conversion and baptism? Their argument for this is entirely missing or seriously lacks. The baptism certainly, by context, followed immediately after conversion, with or without the statement. Additionally, there are a host of other locations in the book of Acts also showing baptism immediately following conversion (e.g. Acts 2:38-41; Acts 8:12-13; Acts 10:44-48; Acts 16:14-15; Acts 16:31-33; Acts 18:8). If this nameless monk was attempting to obliterate the concept of immediate baptism, he was inept. Removing the word "immediately" or "at the same hour (KJV)" from Acts 16:33 would have been a smaller and more effective alteration.
Both the Gnostic speculation and the revising Christian scribe hypothesis are equally fanciful straw-men created to support a preconceived idea. There is no evidence to support either - they are mere conjecture. Yet "King James only" articles and sites regularly feature such; the following being an example merging both...
It is much more probable to assume that a well-meaning monk or scribe added the words in clarification, attempting to expand upon the meaning and intent of the original message. Since God's word is in the meaning and intent of what was written - not bound into specific wording or language - such an expansion would not really add anything to Scriptures that was not already inferred by the surrounding passage. In fact, this understanding holds to a higher view of Scriptures, recognizing that God safeguarded the meaning and intent of his words throughout the ages and regardless of the language to which it was subsequently translated. There is nothing lacking in the meaning and intent of this passage, whether or not this disputed verse is present.
Having said this, a consideration of the evidence available does raise questions as to whether this verse is from the original. I believe that a properly worded footnote would help the reader to know that, while disputed, there is evidence to support exclusion and inclusion.
One of the earliest evidences in support of inclusion comes from an early church father, Irenaeus, a bishop and apologist who lived his later life in Gaul (modern Lyons, France). He was a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn had been a disciple of the Apostle John. His statement concerning the words of the Eunuch seems to quote the later half of Acts 8:37. While, notably, he does not attribute it to the book of Acts; Irenaeus (as did many early writers) casually used quotations apart from direct attribution. He certainly quoted Scriptures throughout his writings (Old and New Testament) and references a number of passages indisputably found in the book of Acts in the paragraphs immediately preceding this excerpt below:
It is not improbable that Iranaeus was quoting the later statement from his copy of the book of Acts. Certainly this is reasonable evidence that this later portion of Acts 8:37 has early witness.
If Iranaeus testified to the last half of Acts 8:37, Pontius can be said to testify for the substance of the first half. This is, again, not a direct quotation from the Book of Acts, but is very clearly a reference to that canonical book.
Cyprian, himself, appears to quote not only the last half of verse 36 but also the first half of verse 37. It is likely that Cyprian and his deacon Pontius were both utilizing the same manuscript of Scriptures.
As referenced earlier, while there were debates in the church around, and following, the time of Iranaeus over how fast a convert should be baptized (even as there still is today), he and other early church fathers all conceded that the eunuch was baptized immediately having obviously believed. Claims that scribes or monks removed the text of Acts 8:37 to try and promote long periods of training or proving before baptism are without merit. It is not necessary for a direct statement of belief to be in the passage to arrive at an understanding that the eunuch was baptized immediately following coming to faith in Christ. That the Eunuch was baptized, and the Holy Spirit subsequently takes Philip away, as his work there was now done, is witness that Eunuch was a believer in the sight of God. Likewise, it is clear by the totality of Scripture and the remainder of the book of Acts that the Eunuch was not saved by baptism but rather by faith in Jesus Christ.
Opposite to those who claim removal, the claim that "this passage was apparently inserted by a scribe who wanted to explain why the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized" is a red-herring as scriptures as a whole, and the remainder of the book of Acts before and after, testify that the eunuch was baptized because he had come to faith in Jesus Christ. This is indisputable fact, unchanged by the inclusion or exclusion of Acts 8:37.
Tertullian (Africa) is one early church father who is sometimes cited in support of Acts 8:37 END NOTE 3, yet his comments and citation of the account merely acknowledge that the eunuch had true faith without citing any specific response to Philip...
Another early writer gives a summary that would be identical with the account not having verse 37, though some claim that the included statement of the eunuch believing meant there had to be a recorded statement of him expressing such.
Augustine, also in Africa, references the passage in a similar way, evidence for belief resting in the Eunuch's understanding of Scriptures rather than a specific statement. In this case Augustine obvious felt it sufficient to not cite the full profession of faith of verse 37.
To be fair, Augustine does appear to be aware of the totality of verse 37 as he makes a longer citation elsewhere...
Codex Laudianus (Uncial 08 [Ea]), dating to circa 534-550 A.D., is the oldest manuscript of the book of Acts that has been found which contains the text of Acts 8:37. This manuscript comprised of 227 parchment leaves (27 x 22 cm per page) is almost complete, only missing leaves that span Acts 26:29-28:26. As a diglot it has both Greek and Latin in parallel columns on each page, with Latin being the primary (in the left column). This manuscript was copied in Italy and taken to England sometime in the late 7th or early 8th centuries. (See END NOTE 4 regarding claims that the Old Latin manuscripts included Acts 8:37).
Since evidence of having the text of Acts 8:37 is lacking among eastern writings END NOTE 1, of which we have earlier copies, and with Laudianus (the first direct evidence) clearly being a western text, most scholars believe Acts 8:37 to be a later western tradition (i.e. addition). This is more of an argument from lack of evidence than from the evidence itself. Not having western manuscripts as early as the eastern should not be a dead end, rather it is reasonable to examine secondary evidences such as the early church fathers from the west. END NOTE 6
The earliest allusions to the books of Acts among the early church fathers all appear to be from the west, significantly including Justin Martyr (circa 130-150 A.D.). Additionally the earliest direct quotations from Acts also appear in the western fathers. The historian Eusebius, in the early forth century, and the linguist and translator Jerome, later that century, both testify that Luke was originally from the east (Antioch) but Jerome goes further in clearly stating that Luke was with Paul during his two-year house arrest in Rome and that he wrote the book of Acts from that city. This makes the book of Acts originally a western manuscript.
Scriptures certainly testify that Luke remained with Paul even to the end of his ministry...
Again, this is evidence that the book of Acts first circulated in the west. This should give higher significance to early quotations of Acts 8:37 by western fathers who would have been closest to the source and original copies, perhaps showing that it was a subsequent copy sent to the east that was lacking this text by a slip of the pen. Subsequent eastern manuscript families and translations would have been derived from this. (It is notable that no doctrine of Scriptures is absent or added by this specific omission, making these copies still useful as God's Word throughout the early Eastern Church, containing the mean and intent of the original message. Even without the text, it is certainly implied by the surrounding text).
Significantly Sinaiticus (Aleph01), Alexandrinus (A02), Vaticanus (B03), Ephraemi Rescriptus (C04), and the Chester Beatty Papyrus P45 all omit Acts 8:37 END NOTE 2. Each of these are typically given high priority and status by modern translators due to age (3rd to 5th centuries), yet all are eastern text types and would logically be missing the passage if derived from an eastern manuscript family which had accidentally omitted the verse END NOTE 5. Giving preeminence to these eastern texts without giving due consideration to the witness of very early citations in the west, and the likelihood of the book's western origin, is ill advised.
On this basis, even in the absence of direct early manuscript evidence, I believe it is premature for translators to abandon the passage. Perhaps the best course of action would be to retain the passage and provide a detailed footnote explaining that there is early witness to its inclusion even though the earliest direct manuscripts of Scriptures currently extant are lacking it. Some translations have done this to a degree, though the footnotes tend to be summary and without detail especially in regards to the witness of the western early church fathers.
1. Early church fathers in the east quoted from Acts chapter 8 but, unlike the west, make no citation or allusion to Acts 8:37. This absence bears witness to the fact that the Eastern Church appears to have not had the verse in their earliest manuscripts. This is something that could be as simple as the original manuscript sent to the east was missing it due to accidental omission in copying a western source. If this early eastern source was the foundation for subsequent manuscript families in the east it would take centuries before subsequent transmission from the west would be used to correct or add to the eastern text. The longer the east used manuscripts without it, the harder it would be for them to recognize it as an omission and not an addition. For the record, an eastern early church father regarding the eunuch...
I have spent much time trying to find works by some of these authors in regards to the Ethiopian eunuch (beyond those I quoted in the article), but was unable to. At this juncture the burden of proof is on those quoting these fathers to provide references or citations (and I would welcome an email with such, if they exist!).
To claim "many church fathers who lived before anything we have in the way of Greek copies" to have quoted this verse will require a better list that the one given anyway. Irenaeus and perhaps Tertullian are the only two given that actual predate P45 (see END NOTE 2).
4. Statements are made in some articles defending Acts 8:37 that "This verse is in the Old Latin Vulgate of 90-150 A.D. which was a direct copy from the original autographs". In reality we do not have direct evidence of the Old Latin, rather we have later manuscripts that were copies of earlier Old Latin manuscripts, based on Old Latin wording in their texts. It is possible that these later manuscripts are faithful copies of much earlier texts, but the possibility also exists that they were updated to match Latin Vulgate manuscripts then commonly in circulation which contain this verse. For example, one cited manuscript given as witness to Old Latin inclusion of Acts 8:37...
5. The ancient Sahidic (2nd century) and Bohairic (4th century) Coptic translations do not have Acts 8:37. These very early translations of the Bible logically would be missing Acts 8:37 if based upon the Greek family lack such in the early Eastern Church.
The ancient Syriac Peshitta (2nd century) translation also does not have Acts 8:37. Again, this would be expected as this too is an Eastern Church translation. Since some KJV-only articles claim that the Peshitta does include this verse, I'll refer questioners to the work of George Kiraz and Beth Mardutho of the Syriac Institute in the forward of The Syriac New Testament By James Murdock, George Anton Kiraz, Horace L. Hastings.
6. There is no need to do a comprehensive list of manuscripts having Acts 8:37. In the west, especially following the sixth century, a number of Latin and Greek manuscripts include this verse. Those who appeal to a "majority text" will often site the large number of manuscripts including it. This later witness merely appears to reflect an understanding that the verse was present in the earlier western manuscript tradition (even though early western manuscripts are largely not extant for comparison).
(c) 2010 Brent MacDonald/LTM.