I had finished preaching a sermon from Matthew 5:21-26 and as usual was speaking to people after the service. I was not ready for one astute member who asked me why his version of the Bible and the one I read from and put up on the screen during the service were different in verse 22. I use the Holman Christian Standard Bible which reads, “But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”

The HCSB leaves out a phrase found in the New King James Version, “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment” (emphasis added.) The member’s follow-up question was important, “Well, does Jesus give us an out or not?” In other words, is it OK for me to be angry if I have cause?

My friend in the pew did not realize it, but he asked a text-critical question. Prior to that conversation, I was similar to many preachers who refused to deal with text issues at all from the pulpit, believing that doing so might confuse congregants or cause people to question the validity of the biblical text. That conversation changed my mind.

I went home wondering if others in the congregation that morning had the same questions about the text but did not ask. Were others questioning why verse 22 read differently in their translations? Maybe they were asking why there is a footnote in their copy of God’s Word that indicates: Other manuscripts add “without a cause”?

This is not the only text in the New Testament in which similar questions might be asked. What about John 7:538:11, the famous passage about Jesus and the adulterous woman? There are brackets around it in the HCSB with a footnote reading “other mss omit bracketed text.” The NKJV footnotes the text, reporting some do not believe it to be original.

If you are preaching through John, how are you going to handle that text? This is one of the most famous stories ever told about Jesus. If you believe it to be original, you may not see a problem; however, the footnotes and/or brackets are still there. There are likely those in the congregation who wonder about that. If you do not believe the text to be original to John then you can skip the passage, but there are going to be questions in the pews regardless of whether they are voiced. “Why is the preacher skipping this passage? It’s my favorite!”

My conversation after church about Matthew 5:22 convinced me that preachers should not skirt text-critical issues. How can you do so without bogging down the sermon with too much information, confusing congregants, boring them to tears, and (more importantly) keeping them from questioning the authenticity of the biblical text? Allow me to suggest a few ways.

Become Acquainted with the Discipline
The problem for most preachers is they have no idea what text criticism is all about and do not wish to learn. They slept through the couple of lectures on the subject in Greek class and avoided the text criticism elective as they would the plagues of Egypt. I do not believe preachers have to become experts in the discipline, but any preacher can and should know enough about it that text-critical questions can be explained from the pulpit or discussed one-on-one with a questioning parishioner.

The good news is you do not have to collate a Greek manuscript to do so. You can become more acquainted with text criticism without getting bogged down; just read a little. My recommendation is to pick up David Alan Black’s New Testament Text Criticism: A Concise Guide (Baker). In approximately 80 pages, you can learn what text criticism is, why it is important, and how to deal with text variants on your own.

By educating yourself on the topic just a little, you probably will see that you do not have to be afraid of the discipline, can grasp the basics, and with reasonable knowledge of your congregation figure out a way to communicate text issues when necessary in an understandable way. After becoming more acquainted with the topic…

Determine not to Skirt Delicate Text-Critical Concerns in a Sermon or Bible Study
Not every sermon text has debated variants in it; in fact, most will not. You do not have to be on the hunt for text-critical problems. You do not necessarily have to do your own text-critical work during exegesis. If you are comfortable with the process, then fine; however, good commentaries will clue you in to potential issues. When it happens, do not avoid the disputed text. Decide to tackle it.

After educating yourself and determining to tackle debated texts in a sermon when they arise, the question is: How can text criticism be communicated successfully to your congregation? This can be done in three ways.

First, only talk about the major text questions. Not all variants are created equal, so I am suggesting handling only those that have a direct impact on the meaning of the overall message you are preaching.

Let’s consider Matthew 5:22 again. It makes a lot of difference in meaning and application whether Jesus said, “…without a cause.” I should have taken the time in the sermon to talk about that phrase. Obviously it is important to deal with larger chunks of text that are called into question. Primarily I’m thinking of John 7:53—8:11 and Mark 16:9-20. If you are going to preach through those two books, you will do your congregants a great favor by explaining why they should or should not be considered authentic.

Second, keep it simple. Of course this is a principle to keep in mind in overall sermon preparation, but it is especially important when dealing with a text-critical issue from the pulpit. There are a lot of things to consider when dealing with a text variant. There is external evidence. Which manuscripts have which wording? There is also internal evidence, questions of authorial style, scribal habits and probability. The vast majority of data you gather as you come to a conclusion about the variants should be left in the same place most of the commentary work is left—in the study.

Let’s go back one more time to Matthew 5:22. In studying the text possibilities, I would have learned there are major Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that omit “without a cause,” but that the external evidence also could be read the other way. The manuscript evidence is mixed and not especially determinative.

Matthew’s writing style is not an issue here, but probability is. What are the chances Jesus spoke the disputed phrase? Taking the larger context of Matthew 5:21-48 into consideration, what is the probability that Jesus gave His listeners (including us) an out for anger, especially in this section of the Sermon on the Mount where no similar out clauses are found for adultery, oath making, resisting evil doers and loving one’s enemies? He does say sexual immorality may be a reason for divorce in 5:32, but that is certainly more straightforward than “without a cause,” which is left to individual interpretation.

Something else to consider is that an ancient scribe could have included the words to soften the overall statement, believing Jesus to be too absolute. It seems to me it is easier to explain how the phrase could be added to the text, given scribes usually made a text easier than harder. The verse without the phrase is a difficult instruction for us for sure. Thus, based primarily on internal considerations, I believe the phrase is not original to Matthew’s Gospel.

That said, I could have explained my conviction to the congregation in the following way: “There are some Bible translations which read, ‘But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.’ Not all early Greek manuscripts of the New Testament include the phrase ‘without cause’. In fact many important ones do not. We must know what Jesus said so we can apply the text.

“Let me ask: Do you think Jesus would give us an excuse such as this? Does that seemd to be something He would say? Wouldn’t we all hold on to our anger and rationalize it by saying, ‘I have cause’? The larger context of 5:21-48 shows He would not have done that. The overall testimony of the gospels is that He would not give us an excuse, an out.”

Of course you do not have to agree with my text-critical decision here, but the point is the explanation is simple and straightforward. Explain your conviction about the text one way or another and keep moving.

Finally, educate the congregation and teach some basic text-critical principles. I am not at all sure you do people a favor by leaving them in ignorance. Teaching on this subject probably is done best somewhere other than a worship setting, perhaps a discipleship class or Bible study context. Think of it as Text Criticism 101. I would use Black’s manual as a guide. You can assist the congregation in understanding ancient writing, scribal methods as related to the text of the New Testament, sources used to reconstruct the text, and briefly explain the process. End the study with a couple of simple examples to show how text criticism works.

If that sounds a bit tedious for your taste or that of your congregation there are alternatives to a text criticism study by itself. I once taught some of the basics during a three-part mid-week series “History of the Bible.” Usually, people are interested in that topic. I included text-critical principles within the study and never heard a discouraging word. Regardless of setting, make sure the congregation knows the vast majority of variants concern spelling and word order, and no text-critical problem does harm to a basic doctrine of the Christian faith.

You and the church benefit from teaching the basics of the discipline. You are helped in that a foundation is laid for the times during a sermon that you must address a variant reading. The church benefits as an understanding of the text critical process will help alleviate unfounded concerns anyone might have about the reliability of the biblical text. In the end I find that helping the church with an elementary understanding of text criticism enhances confidence in the Bible translation from which they read.

Simply put, the purpose of text criticism is to determine the Bible’s original text. Theologically an inauthentic text is not inspired and should not be preached and taught in the church. Practically, without a reliable text you have nothing to say. When you get right down to it, the work of the text critic is foundational and vital. So do not run from text criticism.

Learn how it works and decide not to avoid dealing with text questions in a sermon. Discuss only the major ones that affect meaning, and give your hearers a simple, straightforward explanation in the sermon and move on to your next point. Decide to educate your congregation, and you are likely to enhance their confidence in the biblical text. That is always a good thing.

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