by Al Maxey

Issue #686 ------- January 15, 2016
When you have decided what you believe,
what you feel must be done, have the
courage to stand alone and be counted.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

Conversion Conversation Challenge
Is Acts 8:37 an Addition to the Original Text?

In Jeremiah 13:23 the question is posed: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?" This is an intriguing statement, especially in light of this prophet's evaluation of the spiritual state of Judah. "Using a famous proverb, Jeremiah points out that Judah is so far beyond change that her repentance would be like a suspension of nature's laws" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 466]. While it may be true that an Ethiopian, at least at that time, had no ability to change the color of his or her skin, there was nevertheless change that he or she could effect: an inner change. This kind of change was evidenced in the account of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26f). Outwardly, this individual bore in his body a couple of characteristics that troubled many Jews: he was black and he was a eunuch. The Jews struggled with acknowledging the worth of such persons. Deuteronomy 23:1 even declared that no eunuch could enter the assembly of the Lord, so they even believed they had God on their side in this. Sharing the gospel with a man who was both an Ethiopian and a eunuch, therefore, was way outside the comfort zone of most Jews during the time of the establishment and expansion of the new covenant church. But those religious norms were being challenged by the disciples of Jesus (just as the Lord Himself daily challenged the religious and cultural norms of society during His public ministry). It took some doing, but Peter was called to bring in a Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius. Samaritans were also being invited to come to Christ and fellowship with their Jewish cousins. That too was not easy for many Jews in the first century to accept.

Thus, the account of Philip bringing the Ethiopian eunuch to a saving faith in Jesus was a "big deal" at that time, and it would most likely have been discussed and debated widely, and also most certainly heatedly. Without doubt, and even before the event itself was recorded by Luke in the book of Acts, word of this conversion spread rapidly within the growing Christian community. Various versions of the account would likely exist, since any oral tradition pertaining to an historical event would be subject to unintentional inaccuracies and even careless amendments over time. It is not uncommon, therefore, to find in various places certain variations of the narrative, some of which might even differ somewhat with the facts the Spirit inspired Luke to record. What many may not realize is: this is exactly what has happened with the telling of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. There is a serious question as to the authenticity of one aspect of this account. In the KJV, for example, one will find this conversation in Acts 8:37 -- "And Philip said, 'If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.' And he answered and said, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.'" This verse is completely missing, however, in a great many other highly respected versions (the ASV, RSV, NIV, NEB, ESV, just to name a few), while being included in brackets in several others (like the NASB) with a footnote explaining that the authenticity of this verse is highly questionable. So, what is the problem? What has led to this confusion among versions regarding this conversion?

Those who take the time to do a little research here will quickly find that the conversation between Philip and the eunuch does not appear in the text of any of the early and respected Greek manuscripts. In fact, "the earliest known New Testament manuscript which contains the words dates from the sixth century" [Dr. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 360]. That manuscript is Codex Laudianus. Yet, such venerated ancient manuscripts as Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, and the Chester Beatty Papyrus, just to name a few, all do not contain verse 37 from the text of Acts 8. This has led the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia to declare the conversation in Acts 8:37 "textually insecure" [vol. 1, p. 412]. In other words, the text of Acts 8:37 is NOT part of the original which was penned by Luke, which led J. W. McGarvey (1829-1911), one of the noted figures in our own Stone-Campbell Movement, to declare boldly, "In regard to scarcely any reading are the textual critics more unanimously agreed, or on better manuscript evidence, than the rejection of this verse" [New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, p. 159]. McGarvey went on to characterize that passage as "an interpolation" [ibid].

Complicating this manuscript evidence against the genuineness of Acts 8:37 is sufficient patristic evidence that the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch was at least known as far back as the second century. Although there may not have been any textual validation that Luke wrote this in Acts, there is nevertheless some evidence of an oral tradition prevalent that early. Thus, the narrative was likely being passed among the disciples long before any historical document was penned. The oral tradition, of course, doesn't prove that this conversation actually took place, but it does show that many believed that it did, and thus were passing it along to others verbally. It was this oral tradition that may well have been inserted back into the text by some copyist in the sixth century who felt the text should be amended to reflect the common belief from that tradition. This is not a good practice, for no copyist should take upon himself the authority to insert tradition into the biblical text, but the reality is that such happened more often than we might like to think. Textual criticism has done much to discover these additions (and also subtractions), which explains why many of the more recent versions and translations have left out certain passages. They did so because investigation demonstrated that these were not part of the original. This certainly appears to be the case with Acts 8:37. Even as far back as 1890, the Darby Translation refused to include this verse, explaining in a footnote, "Verse 37 in the Authorized Version is recognized as not genuine."

The NT Greek scholar, Dr. Bruce M. Metzger, wrote, "Although the earliest known New Testament manuscript which contains the words dates from the sixth century, the tradition of the Ethiopian's confession of faith in Christ was current as early as the latter part of the second century" [A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 360]. A number of the so-called "Church Fathers" in the early years of the church's existence, showed they were familiar with that part of the conversion conversation between Philip and the eunuch. Irenaeus (c. 125-202 A.D.), a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of the apostle John, wrote, "Philip declared that this was Jesus, and that the Scripture was fulfilled in Him; as did also the believing eunuch himself; and, immediately requesting to be baptized, he said, 'I believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God'" [Against Heresies, 3.12.8]. Other church "fathers" such as Cyprian, Ambrosiaster, Pacian, and Ambrose also spoke of this confession of faith by the eunuch, although all of their quotes differ in wording from one another. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), in his Sermons on Selected Lessons of the Gospels, wrote, "That same Philip baptized the officer, that is, the eunuch of queen Candace, who had worshipped in Jerusalem, and returning thence was reading in his chariot Isaiah the Prophet, and understood it not. Philip being admonished went up to his chariot, explained the Scripture, unfolded the faith, preached Christ. The eunuch believed on Christ, and said when they came unto a certain water, 'See water, who doth hinder me to be baptized?' Philip said to him, 'Dost thou believe on Jesus Christ?' He answered, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.' Immediately he went down with him into the water" [Sermon 49, Section 11].

So, how did this brief question from Philip and confessional response from the eunuch get into the King James Version? "Although the passage does not appear in the late medieval manuscript on which Erasmus chiefly depended for his edition, it stands in the margin of another, from which he inserted it into his text because he 'judged that it had been omitted by the carelessness of scribes'" [Dr. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 360]. "The Byzantine text also omits this reading, but Erasmus included it in his critical editions because he concluded that it had only inadvertently fallen out of the textual tradition he knew, and therefore it became embedded in the Textus Receptus and the King James Version" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 365]. Many scholars feel the Q&A of Acts 8:37 reflects "the formula used by the early church in baptismal ceremonies, and may have been written in the margin of a copy of Acts" by some later scribe who felt the account by Luke was lacking in not including this early custom [Metzger, p. 360]. Dr. F. F. Bruce states, "At quite an early date (perhaps in the first decades of the second century) it was felt that the original text by Luke was not quite adequate. Philip surely must have satisfied himself first of the genuineness of the Ethiopian's faith. No doubt he did so satisfy himself, but there are some minds that cannot be content to leave such things to be inferred. So we find the Western addition which appears in the Authorized Version as vs. 37. This addition certainly reflects primitive Christian practice" [Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 189-190]. Early records show that it was the custom in the early years of the church for a question to be posed to the new believer and for a response declaring his/her faith to be given. Since baptism in water is a symbol of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it only seems logical that before that symbolic act is performed a "confession of faith" be given, for, after all, what purpose does baptism serve for one who does NOT believe the truth it symbolizes? It would be like observing the Lord's Supper while denying the reality it represents. Since men can't peer into the heart of the believer (which is where God is looking), we must evidence our faith in visible/audible ways. Thus, the question and response which reflects one's heart.

"The motive for the interpolation lies on the surface. The abruptness of the unanswered question, and the absence of the confession of faith which was required in the Church's practice on the baptism of every convert, seemed likely to be stumbling-blocks, and the narrative was completed according to the received type of the prevailing order for baptism" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 54]. Why was it so important for someone to try and amend this narrative in Acts 8? Why would someone want to insert "faith" into the text? After all, Philip got the eunuch "to the water," didn't he? He got him dunked!! Isn't that all that matters? Many today think so, for they view the act of baptism itself as the point of salvation; the point of God's acceptance. The teaching of the apostles, however, was that one is saved by grace through faith, and NOT by any human act done either by or to him. Luke's text, without this part of the conversation, seemed much too abrupt to many, and could leave the impression that this was "a rush to the water." It is our faith that is central here, baptism merely evidences that saving faith, which some felt was not adequately emphasized by the original text. "Profession of faith is required of those being baptized, and therefore it is evident that we are not first ingrafted into Christ when we are baptized, but are already ingrafted, and then are baptized" [from the 1599 Geneva Bible translation notes]. This verse was "probably inserted by some early transcriber to show that the eunuch was not admitted hastily to baptism, and this addition was then afterward retained. It contains, however, an important truth that is elsewhere abundantly taught in the Scriptures" [Dr. Albert Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. And what is that truth that someone felt needed to be shown? That it is our faith that is central to our salvation, and not any one particular act testifying to that faith. Verse 37 of Acts 8 may not be part of the original text, but the truth it conveys IS part of the Gospel message and oral tradition that predates the written text itself. And that truth is we are saved by grace through faith, and our lives are from that moment forward devoted to evidencing (in countless different ways, including baptism) that love for and faith in and obedience to the Lord who redeemed us.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Barbados:

Thanks, Al, for your article "Father, Forgive Them: A Reflective Study of Luke 23:34a" (Reflections #685). It truly was a reflective study, at least for me, for you gave me a deeper understanding of this saying from the cross. From this study I have learned of a few issues that I knew not of before. Thus, it has prompted me to call for a study of these sayings from the cross in my own congregation. I cannot recall a recent study of this, and your Reflections on this matter drives me to ask for such a serious study here. If that request is granted, I shall push to have your articles used as a part of that study (giving credit where credit is due, of course). I am also indebted to Neal Griffin, and I thank you for sharing his article and insights with us, for it has helped to confirm my beliefs on the true nature of the gift of salvation. Brother Al, in light of Nehemiah 6:3, you are doing a good work, so don't come down!! To God be the glory as He gives to you and your family a very productive 2016.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Look at the interlinear (any one you wish) and read the passage where Christ on the cross prayed for His murderers. You will find that it is an intentional mistranslation by the enemies of God. Any proper interlinear clearly shows the "not" was moved out of place to make it say what they wish it to say. The interlinear says, "Father, forgive them NOT, for they know what they do." The translators moved the "not" over behind the word "know," making it read, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Don't take my word for it ... look for yourself.

From a Minister in New Mexico:

What is the scariest passage in the Bible? I nominate Matthew 6:14-15 -- "For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then neither will your Father forgive your transgressions." The consequence of failing to forgive others lasts for eternity, eliminating our hope of eternal life. "Neither will your Father forgive your transgressions" should be etched in our memories as a constant reminder that He calls us to forgive even our enemies. Have we taught this truth in our congregations? If not, why not? It's hard to forgive those who would behead us for our failures to agree with them (i.e., those who claim to adhere to Islamic faith). God loves even the worst of sinners, and He stands ready to forgive all who repent. That's Good News for humans everywhere, regardless of religious practices. And that great news must become the focus of our preaching and teaching. That was and is the message of Jesus Christ. May God bless you richly in this new year of service in His kingdom.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Each time I receive a new issue of your Reflections, the first thing I do is read the feedback (the letters you post from your readers). The message in your last readers' section from the dear soul in Nigeria ... WOW!! That's all I can say. I hope and pray that you recognize the positive messages you receive as being the very voice of the Father letting you know that you are indeed a man after His own heart. Brother, I could never adequately tell you how much you bless me! You are a true spiritual leader!!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Brother Al, while I have enjoyed reading many of your articles over the years, I can no longer continue to do so. Jesus said that belief PLUS baptism equals salvation. Yet, you tell me that belief plus nothing equals salvation. Your articles are becoming an attack on my faith. Please remove me from your mailing list. Thank you.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

How does one manage to remain in a congregation and listen to the same old religious garbage week after week and not lose his faith?! It was easier when I was still stuck in the legalism rut and didn't know any better. Every sermon here, Bro. Al, ends the same: "You are saved by baptism in water." This is causing me to become very angry with the stupidity of these leaders and their refusal to preach a salvation by grace through faith without any additions. If it weren't for the fellowship of some very good brethren here, and also the fact that I am too old and ill to move, I would be gone from here! As it is, I am stuck here, and I guess have to make the best of things. However, I am feeling like a hypocrite because of the ill-feelings I hold for the idiotic teaching we hear every week. Here is just the latest example: Noah was separated from a sinful world by water, so we must be separated the same way (by water) before we can come to God. Thus, the preacher said, water saved Noah and water saves us! How twisted can it get?!!

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Brother Al, I'm not sure which article I enjoyed more: "Father, Forgive Them" or the one by Neal Griffin. Both were very powerful and wonderfully written. As I've told you many times before, my past preaching and teaching while a member of the Churches of Christ shames me. How could I have been so ignorant?! Thus, it is well that I should pray, and I often have, "Forgive me, Father, for I didn't realize what I was doing!" Blessings on you, my brother.

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