The truth about John 3:16 … textually

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A friend today asserted that John 3:16 was not in the original text of the New Testament but had been changed or added in later by a translator. I have asked my friend for evidence upon which this assertion is based and as of the present, none has been forthcoming. I’m not going to hold my breath.

When we consider the textual evidence, this charge is seen to have no foundation. Every early manuscript containing the relevant passage, as far as I can see, contains verse 16. If even one manuscript could be produced showing John 3:16 missing, then there may be reason to have a discussion, though it would have to be a significantly early manuscript to even begin to call into question the weight of evidence to the contrary.

Let’s consider first John Wycliffe’s translation of the Latin Vulgate into early English. This was done over a period of years from 1382 – 1395, and the following is his translation of John 3:16:

“For God louede so the world, that he yaf his `oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf.”

Let me put that into our modern English spelling:

“For God loved so the world, that he gave his own begotton son, that each man that believeth in him perish not, but have everlasting life.”

Did John Wycliffe add the verse in the 14th century? Well, no, for he copied what was in the Latin Vulgate.

“Sic enim Deus dilexit mundum, ut Filium suum unigenitum daret: ut omnis qui credit in eum, non pereat, sed habeat vitam æternam.”

The Latin Vulgate had been the Bible translation of choice for 8/900 years prior to Wycliffe, itself a revision by Jerome of Older Latin manuscripts. Could Jerome have been the translator that added in John 3:16? Again, no, for we have Old Latin (Vetus Latina) manuscripts, such as Codex Vercellensis that pre-date Jerome (from mid 4th century) and contain John 3:16.

Could an earlier Latin scribe or translator have added it, corrupting the entire transmission that followed? We can be sure this has not happened because this is not the only line of transmission.

Throughout the Middle Ages, many Greek artifacts and manuscripts were brought from the Byzantine empire to Europe. Among these were Greek manuscripts of the New Testament dating from the 12th century, and from these Erasmus collated a critical Greek text in 1516. This in turn became the basis of the King James Version of the Bible, and the most well known version of John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

We know that neither the translators of the KJV, nor Erasmus added or modified John 3:16, for we have almost 1000 Byzantine manuscripts dating from the Great Schism of 1054 (when the Greek Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire separated from the Roman Catholic Church) through to the 14th century. All that contain John’s Gospel, contain chapter 3 verse 16.

As well as these later manuscripts, we also have a 5th century manuscript in this Byzantine tradition, Codex Alexandrinus, by which we can be assured that no corruption has come into the text of the intervening centuries. This Byzantine text reads as follows:

“Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον”

And this Greek text is further validated by the more recent discovery of even early manuscripts, many from Egypt, a completely different area of the world. These manuscripts, referred to as Alexandrian, are dated to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and while they contain minor variation from the Byzantine text, John 3:16 is very much there and, in Papyrus 63 at least, remains exactly the same.

“Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον”

Papyrus 66 and Papyrus 75, both from around 200AD, have a slight variation, with no αὐτοῦ (his) in the text, in relation to the only begotten Son.

“Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλὰ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον”

This would therefore read:

‘For God so loved the world, that He gave THE only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish but have everlasting life.’

We then ask the question, who is THE Son that God gave? Read the rest of John’s Gospel and it is clear that THE Son is ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (John 20:31), and therefore ‘His Son’. So the only difference is essentially no difference at all!

In conclusion, we have three independent lines of transmission, from distinct geographical areas, with multiple sources, all of which contain John 3:16. Even when there is a slight variation in the text, the variation makes no meaningful difference. This gives us such a solid foundation that it makes the assertion of corruption sound like folly. For even if we found a manuscript where John 3:16 was missing that was significant enough to bring into question one line of transmission, we would still have two other lines of transmission, and a significant weight of evidence underpinning this glorious truth, that

God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life!

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