The words of the LORD are pure words. —Psalm 12:6a

The Pool of Bethesda

In John chapter 5 there is a story of a lame man who was healed by Christ. In the preserved text, the story reads like this:

John 5:1 After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.
3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.
4 For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.
5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.
6 When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?
7 The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.
8 Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.
9 And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.

Although the story of the angel here is unique, there is nothing else extraordinary about this passage, and when expounded in context, it makes perfect sense.

However, someone in history was apparently so disturbed by the mention of the angelic ministry in this passage that they saw fit to remove it from the Bible—or rather, they clumsily attempted to remove it. As seen above, God’s word was still preserved. And to see why, just consider the work of the would-be editor of the scripture, as found in the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus manuscripts:

5:1 After this was the feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 And there is in Jerusalem at the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.
3 In these lay a multitude of sick persons, blind, lame, withered.
5 But there was a man there that had been sick thirty-eight years.
6 Jesus saw him lying, and, knowing that he had already been sick a long time, said to him: Wilt thou be restored to health?
7 The sick man answered him: Sir, I have no man, that when the water is stirred he may put me into the pool; but while I am coming another goes down before me.
Jesus says to him: Arise, take up thy bed, and walk.
9 And the man was restored to health, and took up his bed and walked; but a sabbath was on that day.

Did you catch that?

Verse 4 and the end of verse 3 were dropped, removing all talk of the angel and the troubling of the waters.

Yet in verse 7, when the man answers Christ’s question as to whether he has a desire to be healed, he explains his continued infirmity by saying that he has “no man, that when the water is stirred he may put me into the pool; but while I am coming another goes down before me.”

This statement implies two things:

  1. The water of the pool would be stirred from time-to-time.
  2. Only the first person to step into the water after it was stirred could expect healing.

Indeed, Jesus’s very question implied that the man’s continued sickness might speak to an indifference on his part to his condition—that is, Jesus’s question called for an explanation of why this man had not been healed in such a long time, when healing was readily available.

However, none of this is explained to us in the Alexandrian manuscripts. Instead, we are left with an incomplete story, of a man babbling incoherently about being healed by troubled waters. In the preserved text though, the full story is told, so that we understand what the man is talking about.

This comparison does far more than show a rough spot in the Alexandrian manuscripts. And nor does it simply suggest their inferiority. It forces us to logically deduce three things:

First, it shows that the Alexandrian text was deliberately tampered with. The story it records is incomplete; part of it has been removed. This makes these manuscripts unreliable witnesses, which cannot be trusted.

Further, it is evident that this reading is wholly derived from that found in the received text. As such, the Alexandrian reading is not only not the best, it is not the oldest either. Since it is derived from the preserved text, the reading in the preserved text must be the older of the two.

And really, this is the question that is important. Not which manuscript is oldest and best, but which reading, which text, is oldest and best. The Alexandrian fails here on both counts.

But that is not all. Not only must we acknowledge the preserved text as the older of the two, but we must actually dispense with the notion of two texts altogether. The search for the original reading is the search for a viable reading, because the original, being given by God, would not contain grammatical or literary errors. Yet here in the Alexandrian manuscripts we are presented with a reading that cannot be correct, because it is has a literary defect—part of the story has been erased. As such, this reading is not viable. It does not point to an older text, other than the preserved text from which it was clearly derived. In which case, we are not faced with two alternative texts between which we must choose. The Alexandrian manuscripts do not present a viable alternative at all. The preserved text is not merely the best option, it is actually the only option.

The Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are indeed filled with non-viable readings, to such a degree that we may truly say that they do not offer an alternative text at all, because they do not offer a viable text.

In deciding what God’s word says, we are not left with two options. We have only one, by any measure: the text which God has faithfully preserved to all generations, according to his promise.


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