Not a Conspiracy

Written on: April 29, 2023

Article by: Thayer Salisbury

We hear many conspiracy theories these days. Some of them may be true. Some are completely outlandish, even laughable. Most are in the political realm. But a few are on important subjects.

About twenty years ago, Dan Brown (and some others) made a lot of money promoting the claim that there was a conspiracy to supress the apocryphal books of the New Testament, keeping them unavailable to the masses. The claim was ridiculous.

There was no conspiracy to hide these books. They had been forgotten, not hidden. If a person wanted them, they could be purchased. No effort was made to prevent their publication or distribution. Copies of the early manuscripts of these books were (and are) on public display at museums around the world. The manuscripts were (and are) available for study by scholars.

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The conspiracy claim was a marketing hoax designed to increase the sale of the books that supposedly revealed the conspiracy. Any decent bookstore could order a copy of these apocryphal books. Oxford University Press had kept the New Testament Apocrypha in print at least since the 1920s. In the preface to the 1924 edition, M.R. James wrote, “It is a matter of common knowledge that there exist such things as Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles, Revelations…” (xi). Unfortunately, what was common knowledge in 1924 was no longer known in the 1990s. People became ignorant of the apocrypha not because there was a conspiracy, but simply because they had not studied. Their ignorance became an opportunity for those who wanted money. Dan Brown promoted the idea of a conspiracy not because there was any truth to it but simply to sell his book and make money.

Not all conspiracy theories make money for their proponents. Some are spread by people who are themselves ignorant of the facts.

One such theory makes the rounds on the Internet and comes up in Bible classes at times. It is the theory that the NIV, the ESV, and other conservative Bible translations are secretly removing words and even whole verses that belong in the Bible. This is done, it is claimed, with a secret agenda. The translators, it is claimed, want to change fundamental biblical teaching. This conspiracy theory has shaken the faith of many. We occasionally meet people who are afraid to trust any Bible, because they fear that any Bible they purchase might have been tampered with in secret.

A huge flaw

If versions like the NIV and the ESV were conspiring to remove words without our knowing it, they would not call attention to that fact. That is fundamental to the whole idea of a conspiracy. But that is not what has happened. Far from hiding what they are doing, or why they are doing it, these versions call attention to what they are doing and give a very brief indication of their reasons.

For example, Matthew 17:21 is not printed in the text of the ESV or the NIV. But both versions call attention to this by placing a footnote at verse 20. The footnote gives the words in question and indicates why they have not been included in the text. There is not room for a lengthy explanation; but the translators have called the attentive reader’s attention to verse 21. Those interested, and willing to study, should be able to look up the available evidence. It is publicly available to those willing to search and study. Whether the evidence is judged to be strong or weak is not the point. This is not a conspiracy to eliminate the verse secretly. No sane person, hatching a conspiracy to remove this verse, would call attention to it by means of a footnote. In fact, if one really wanted to secretly remove the verse, the verse numbering might easily have been modified so that there still would be a verse 21.

This is no conspiracy. The editors of the NIV and the ESV might be mistaken in their judgement about this verse. But they are decidedly not trying to hide the omission of the verse from the text.

A second flaw

If there were the desire to modify the teaching of the New Testament by removing key statements, those statements would be removed each time they appear. Again, that is not what has happened.

Acts 10:6 is in all English translations, but the KJV of this verse is longer than most. According to the ESV, Cornelius is told to send for Peter who “is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” The KJV says the same, but has the additional words, “he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do.” That phrase may not seem like much, but there is an important lesson to be learned here.

Cornelius was an exceptionally good man. He was devout, prayerful, and generous (Acts 10:1-5). But that was not enough. There was still something more Cornelius needed to do, and Peter was going to tell him what it was he needed to do.

So, did the NIV and the ESV remove those words because they are opposed to baptism into Christ? Are they trying to promote the idea that people can be saved by being good? Hardly.

The question here is not whether similar wording belongs in the account of the conversion of Cornelius or not. The question is if it belongs in two places or only in one. The NIV and the ESV both include the even stronger statement of 11:14 (“he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household” ESV). If it were the intent to leave this teaching out of the Bible, they would have obscured it or removed it in both places. Their intent was instead to be true to the manuscript evidence. The manuscript evidence indicates that words to this effect were not originally in both places. Possibly a scribe, remembering the statement from later in the account, repeated it as he copied 10:6, and inserted it inaccurately. 1 But the NIV and the ESV cannot be accused of taking out the words for doctrinal reasons. They have the statement in 11:14, which is the only place it appears in the oldest manuscripts.

Best judgement

The New Testament text is supported by far more witnesses (manuscripts and fragments) than any document of similar age. While there are a few questionable words and phrases; overall, we have an excellent understanding of its original content. There is no doctrine of Christianity that would be changed by any of the questionable words or phrases.

Those who are spreading this conspiracy theory are doing great harm. Unbelievers are being handed an excellent excuse for neglecting the Bible. Satan loves this conspriciy theory. It keeps people from studying the scriptures.

The judgements of the scholars who prepared the Greek texts from which the NIV and the ESV were translated may not always be 100% correct. They would not even claim such perfection. But to accuse them of a conspiracy to remove doctrines from the Bible is false. No such conspiracy has taken place.

Resources

Those who wish to study this matter further are advised to purchase reliable books on the subject. The Internet is awash with misleading and false claims on the subject. With proper study and preparation, one can sort through those claims and find the truth. Among the best books on the subject, we would recommend these.

How We Got the Bible by Neil R. Lightfoot. This is one of the best simple and short introductions to the subject. It was first published in 1963 and was revised shortly before the author’s death.

The New Testament Documents: are they reliable? By F.F. Bruce. Another concise introduction to the subject. It was first published in 1943 and has been reprinted many times.

The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration by Bruce Metzger. A longer and deeper book, but still accessible to most readers.

The Text of the New Testament by Kurt and Barbara Aland.

The English Bible: A History of Translations by F.F. Bruce. This was first published in 1961 and was revised in 1970. While it does not cover the NIV or the ESV, it will open the reader’s eyes to many facts about the older translations and the process that produced them.

The English Bible from KJV to NIV by Jack P. Lewis.

From God to Us, How We Got the Bible by Norman Geisler and William Nix. First published in 1974, this book was revised in 2012.

If you read any of these books, be sure you are reading the book, not reading your own ideas into the book. I have found that many people have their minds made up on this subject. They read their own ideas into whatever source they consult.

For many years I used the Lightfoot book in a course that I taught. Early in the book Lightfoot says, “The Bible is by no means the oldest book in the world.” He then goes on to list several books that are older. Every time I taught the course, at least one student (and frequently several) would report that “The Bible is the oldest book in the world.”

I once heard the ‘conspiracy to removed verses claim’ presented in a Bible class. I asked the person promoting the theory where he received his information. He claimed that it came from the Geisler and Nix book. I felt certain that this could not be true. I purchased a copy of the book that very day. Geisler and Nix contradicted what the man had said on every point. He had read into the book what he expected to find there, rather than reading what was really in the book.

Please, do not spread this false conspiracy theory. Every translation has its flaws and difficulties. But there was no conspiracy by the editors of the NIV or the ESV to remove any verse or doctrine. This conspiracy theory is undermining the faith of our youth. It is keeping unbelievers from studying the Bible. It is causing Satan to rejoice. Do not spread this harmful conspiracy theory.

1 In the first edition of his Living Oracles translation of the New Testament, Alexander Campbell (who was very clear on the need for being baptised into Christ) placed the phrase at the end of 10:6 in italics to indicate that it was doubtful. By the fourth edition, Campbell left the words out entirely.