Why are Some Verses in Square Brackets?


Most modern English translations of the Bible have some places where scholars believe the traditional English translations included some words, verses or even whole sections, that may not have been part of the original text written by the Biblical author. When scholars are uncertain if part of the text is original, the passage is put in square brackets.

UBS [United Bible Societies Greek New Testament] and NA [Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament] explain that single-bracketed entries “may be regarded as part of the text … but cannot be taken as completely certain.” Double-bracketed passages, on the other hand, are “known not to be part of the original text” but are included in the text because of their importance to the history of the church. Double-bracketed passages present special challenges for translators.1

There are a number of passages that are treated differently in various English translations of the Bible. All of these verses are included in the main text of the King James Version, but revisions of the KJV may treat them differently. For example, the New King James Version uses footnotes for many of these verses.2

New Testament Verses That May Be Omitted

PassageAMPCEBCEVCJBERVESVEXBGNTGWHCSBLEBMSGNASBNETNIVNKJVNLTNLVNRSVOJBREB
Matthew 9:34F
Matthew 12:47FFOFFFFFF
Matthew 17:21FOOFFOOBOOBOFFFOF
Matthew 18:11FOOOFFOOBOOBOFFOOF
Matthew 21:44FFOFFOFBFFFF
Matthew 23:14FOOOFFOOBOOBOFFOOF
Mark 7:16FOOOFFOFBOOBOFFOOF
Mark 9:44OOOOFFOOBOOBOFFOOF
Mark 9:46OOOOFFOOBOOBOFFOOF
Mark 11:26OOOFFOOBOOBOFFOOBF
Mark 15:28FOOOFFOOBOOBOFFOOBF
Mark 16:9–20FBFFBBFBBBBBBFBF
Luke 17:36FOOOFFOOBOOBOFFOOF
Luke 22:20FFFF
Luke 22:43FFFBB+FBBFFF
Luke 22:44FFFFBB+FBBFFF
Luke 23:17FOFOOFFOOBOOBOFFOOBF
Luke 24:12FOFF
Luke 24:40FFF
John 5:4OOOFFOOBOOBOFFOBOBF
John 7:53–8:11FBBBB+FBBFF
Acts 8:37FOOOFFOOBOOBOFFOBFBF
Acts 15:34FOOOFFOOOOOBOFFOOBF
Acts 24:7OOFOOBOOBOFFOOBF
Acts 28:29FOOOFFOOBOOBOFFOOBF
Romans 16:24FOOOFFOOBOBOFFOOBF
List of New Testament verses not included in modern English translations (Wikipedia) Accessed 30-Nov-2020.
  • Empty cell = Reading included in main text
  • B = Reading in main text, but in brackets
  • F = Reading in footnote
  • O = Reading omitted without a footnote

 

There are  five passages that appear in double brackets, but two of them are twelve verses long.

Mark 16:9-20 (ESV)

Mark 16:9-20 is called the long ending of Mark. Most ancient manuscripts don’t include these verses, although some of the church fathers indicate they were aware of them, but didn’t accept them as canonical. The original ending of Mark may have been Mark 16:8:

And they [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8 ESV)

The long ending of Mark includes the appearances of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and to the eleven disciples at the Great Commission. All of these appearances are written about in other gospels3, so nothing is lost if these are not original.

For more than 1,500 years, people have argued whether Mark wrote the passage or not. Some people have argued that Mark did write 16:9-20, but the last page of his manuscript may have been damaged, so later copies didn’t include it. A counter-argument is that the vocabulary used in Mark 16:9-20 is unlike the rest of Mark. 

More information on this textual variant is available at:

John 7:53-8:11 (ESV)

John 7:53-8:11 is the story of the woman caught in adulatory. The inclusion or removal of this passage is much more controversial than the long ending of Mark, because the story isn’t included in the other gospels. This passage isn’t contained in most New Testament manuscripts written before A.D. 8004, and it’s not referred to by most of the early church fathers. When it does appear in manuscripts, it’s not consistently in the same place in John, and is often marked as being uncertain. In the Greek manuscripts, it may appear after Luke 21:38; 24:53, John 7:36, 52, and at the end of John.

Although the story was likely not part of John’s original gospel, it could be authentic. It may have been written by one of the other gospel authors, or it could have been passed on orally. The story may simply have been put in the wrong place in our Bible.

More information on this textual variant is available at:

Conclusion

Why are these passages included if they’re not original to the Bible? The primary reason is tradition. Some Bibles have been printed without these two sections, and the publishers have been highly criticized. The decision to include these passages in double-quotes in some versions is a compromise that many people are willing to accept. If you look at the chart above for these two passages, you’ll see none of these versions completely omits them. All of them either include the text without any comments, includes the text within brackets, or includes a footnote. Even versions that omit some verses include these passages. 

Footnotes

  1. Ebojo, Edgar Battad. “Myths About Modern Translations: Variants, Verdicts and Versions” In: Hixson, Elijah and Gurry, Peter J. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019; Logos) Page 312. (Amazon) (Logos)
  2. List of New Testament verses not included in modern English translations (Wikipedia) Accessed 30-Nov-2020.
  3. Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18 ESV); Disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35 ESV); Appearance to the eleven disciples (Matthew 28:16-20 ESV)
  4. Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (Wikipedia) Accessed 30-Nov-2020.

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