Sola Which Scriptura?

Of Asterisks, Additions, and Other Ancient Authorities

The Venerable Bede translates the Gospel of John on his deathbed.
The Venerable Bede translates the Gospel of John on his deathbed. (photo: James Doyle Penrose, “The Last Chapter,” 1902)

On what ground do we receive the Canon as it comes to us
but on the authority of the Church?

~ Bl. John Henry Newman


Got your Bible handy? Good. Turn to John’s Gospel, Chapter 5. We’ll get to it in a minute.

I grew up evangelical Protestant, so I spent a lot of time with my Bible, naturally enough. As a firm adherent of sola Scriptura – the Reformation principle of “Scripture alone” – I relied on the Bible as the exclusive authority for what I believed and how I tried to live. Paul’s words to Timothy were at the core of my Christian identity: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Consequently, I read my old Revised Standard Version regularly, underlining especially inspiring and challenging passages, jotting down thoughts in the margins. For me, that old RSV was a personal link to God, and so I wanted to immerse myself in it, to know it inside and out, to make it part of me – because I wanted God to be part of me and in my life. It seemed so obvious and direct: If the Bible was our primary connection to the divine, then I had to thoroughly connect with my Bible. What could be simpler?

Then I got older, went to college, and started asking questions I hadn’t asked before – like which Bible should I be reading, and was it all right to take for granted the scholarly integrity of those who translated it for me? It also meant reading the footnotes and grappling with their implications.

Footnotes? Implications? Okay, here’s where you turn to your Bible, and I’ll show you what I mean.

The beginning of John 5 tells the story of Jesus healing a paralytic who’d been hanging around the pool of Bethesda for a long time awaiting a miracle (verse 6). For an explanation as to why he’d been doing that, look at verse 4… wait, where is verse 4? See the asterisk? You’ll probably find John 5:4 in a footnote at the bottom of the page. Here’s how that footnoted verse reads in the Catholic New American Bible:

For [from time to time] an angel of the Lord used to come down into the pool; and the water was stirred up, so the first one to get in [after the stirring of the water] was healed of whatever disease afflicted him.

The question arises: Why is verse 4 stuck down there instead of up in the main text? The footnote provides some insight. “This verse is missing from all early Greek manuscripts and the earliest versions, including the original Vulgate.” Somewhere along the line, it seems, an ardent copyist decided that the paralytic’s spectacular patience in John 5:6 required clarification, so he independently tossed in verse 4, and it went biblically viral (or its hand-copied textual equivalent). Yet, the consensus among modern biblical scholars is that the verse isn’t really inspired text, so they’ve yanked it out and relegated it to its lowly position as a historical curiosity.

Wrong – at least for Catholics. For us, the keywords in that footnote are “missing from… the original Vulgate,” St. Jerome’s fourth-century Latin translation of the ancient biblical texts that became the standard for the Church thereafter. In the earliest centuries of the church, there was plenty disagreement as to what was going to constitute the Christian biblical canon. What’s more, none of the original writings that make up the Old and New Testaments – the biblical “autographs” – survived the ravages of time, so we’ve had to make do with copies and copies of copies. When the Reformation rolled out its revolutionary biblical exclusivism, the Church found it necessary to definitively articulate what had been the longstanding assumption: that Jerome’s Vulgate was the authoritative key to what counts as Sacred Scripture and what doesn’t.

The Council of Trent explicitly affirmed this in 1546, and Pope Pius XII reaffirmed it implicitly in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu 400 years later. He writes that that the Vulgate’s special place is “because of its legitimate use in the Churches throughout so many centuries” which is in accord with the Church’s understanding that it is “free from any error whatsoever in matters of faith and morals” (DAS 21). The Vulgate’s important status doesn’t preclude study and translation of the surviving Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, for, as the Pope notes, its “authenticity is not specified primarily as critical, but rather as juridical.” Yet, this last phrase also means that, notwithstanding contemporary textual criticism of the Bible, Jerome’s Vulgate serves as an official benchmark for what’s in the Bible.

Now, compare that perspective with what confronts our Protestant brethren when it comes to John 5:4 – also dropped to asterisked footnote status in all other modern translations. There’s no mention of the Vulgate in those footnotes. Instead, you get some variation of this prefacing comment from the old RSV that I encountered as a young evangelical: “Other ancient authorities insert, wholly or in part….” The English Standard Version, preferred by many evangelicals today, uses similar language, as does the still popular New International Version: “Some manuscripts include here, wholly or in part….”

Good to know, but, so…is John 5:4 inspired or not? Is it God’s Word? Who knows? If you’re a Protestant reader, you’re left to either follow the translators’ verdict and just give the verse a passing glance, or you can throw in your lot with those “other ancient authorities” and read the verse as inspired text. It might be, as the ESV “Preface” states, that the “Bible is God’s personal Word to us” and “worthy of our complete confidence and trust.” Yet, if we can’t know for certain what actually is included in the Bible, what’s the point? The whole “personal Word to us” project would seem to be up for grabs!

Maybe it’s not such a big deal when it comes to a little aside like John 5:4. I mean, if you were an angelologist, it might matter a lot to know if a heavenly healer agitated those Bethesda waters; otherwise, not so much. Yet, for a sola Scriptura Christian, just one verse of dubious merit – no matter how insignificant – has got to make you uneasy. At least, it did me. I was staking my eternal destiny on a single book, and so I sure as heck wanted to be confident in its absolute veracity and contents. Stray verses here and there, that may – or may not – be Sacred Scripture, were worrisome signs that I needed additional inputs.

And here’s the thing: It’s not just stray verses. Turn in your Bible to the end of Mark 16 where we find the Resurrection and its aftermath. In my NAB, there’s a big boldfaced sub-title after verse 8 that reads “The Longer Ending,” and it’s followed by another of those pesky asterisks. Track it down to the bottom of the page, and you’ll find a wordy discourse on the Gospel’s concluding 12 verses (16:9-20), which apparently have some questionable characteristics and a spotty provenance reminiscent of John 5:4. If nothing else, the section’s references to snake handling and drinking poison (v.18) are unsettling, to say the least.

What’s more, there’s another “Shorter Ending” to contend with, along with a weird add-on to the Longer Ending’s verse 14 – the Freer Logion, as it’s called, because it appears in a lone manuscript held by the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. The Logion is strange and apocalyptic, talking about an “age of lawlessness” and “years of Satan’s power,” but it’s not any stranger than the rest of the Longer Ending. So, Scripture or not Scripture? How about the rest of the passage and its various configurations? Who gets to decide?

No worries. As the NAB footnote acknowledges, Mark 16:9-20 “has traditionally been accepted as a canonical part of the gospel and was defined as such by the Council of Trent,” and you’ll find it firmly ensconced in the main body of the text.

But what matters isn’t the extra material’s origins or purpose, nor even our own exegetical inclinations. What matters is that, as St. Augustine wrote, “I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me” (CCC 119). That ecclesial authority does take into account critical considerations and the latest scholarship, but it leans heavily on living tradition.

Through that same living tradition, “the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her,” in the words of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum (8). The Council Fathers go on to assert that Scripture and tradition, together with the Church’s teaching office,

are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls (10).

It’s a non-linear interplay that’s more like a dance than a dissertation – more like swimming than a syllogism. For a Bible-only Christian like myself, one whose literary lifeline to salvation was getting frayed by the frequency of footnoted “other ancient authorities,” it was a liberating concept, and it hooked me in. My own path to and with God had always been tremendously messy – hasn’t yours? The idea that he’d lead us by means of a whirling, wild give-and-take between past, present, and page resonated deeply. It still does.

Make no mistake, though: The page is vitally important, and we all do well to read our Bibles regularly – daily even. But we do it as a means to an end, and that end is encounter with Christ – “not a written and mute word,” in the words of St. Bernard, “but incarnate and living” (CCC 108).

And that’s something that all the ancient authorities will agree on.