Brackets in the Bible: Discerning Scholarship or Spiritual Surrender?

Brackets in the Bible: Discerning Scholarship or Spiritual Surrender?

72% of Americans do not believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, or should be treated as such. Even 22% of so-called Evangelicals would disagree that the Bible is 100% accurate.

Even as textual criticism grows and fabulous biblical texts are unearthed, faith in the Word of God is diminishing. This is surprising, because the evidence overwhelmingly indicates the ancient origin and faithful transmission of the Bible. But some have also accepted a translation and textual philosophy that undermines faith. In an effort to preserve the ‘pure text’ of Scripture, sections of the Bible are now put in brackets, italicized, or footnoted in our Bibles.

I don’t deny that biblical translators are trying to create an accurate version of the Bible. Yet brackets, italics, and footnotes are not the answer. The following three perspectives demonstrate the danger of that approach.

A Muslim Perspective

Muslims view the Qur’an as 100% factual. They believe that it is a physical replica of an eternal, heavenly Qur’an; earthly manuscripts are only copies of that unchangeable and inspired text. Because the Qur’an is a miracle, textual criticism is not only unnecessary, but unacceptable.

Brackets in the Bible make Christians look uncertain whether they have the Word of God. Muslims already believe that the Bible is corrupted. When they see the footnoted, italicized, and bracketed sections – what will they think? Brackets undermine the eternal, inspired nature of Scripture.

A Liberal Perspective

Liberals – even those who claim to be Christians – agree with atheists and agnostics that the Bible has been tampered with. Because they know that humans are fallible, they believe that the Bible must be fallible. They forget that God, being infallible, is able to preserve His Word throughout the centuries, and they deny what Jesus said – “assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”[1]

Brackets in the Bible help to reinforce the idea that that Bible is fallible. It is as if Christians are admitting that they don’t have the perfect Word of God! This gives the idea that the Bible is likely to change, as if next year we will discover that Matthew was forged, or Ephesians was written by a heretic. Brackets undermine the changeless, historically accurate nature of Scripture.

A Christian Perspective

Christians who are unfamiliar with textual criticism or the history of the Bible are confused. They are told that the Bible is perfect and inspired, but they wonder whether that is true. They notice footnotes about ‘other manuscripts’ and sense that there is some disagreement about the Biblical text. Never getting the full picture, they develop uncertainty.

Pastors are not helping this situation. They mention ‘other manuscripts’ and go with different wordings than the translation they use. Pastors mention textual ‘errors,’ but rarely preach on the inspired and perfect nature of the Scripture, and almost never explain how to reconcile these ‘errors,’ or explain how the Bible is perfect. Brackets undermine the divinely-preserved, authoritative nature of Scripture.


Brackets in the biblical text undermine the authority of Scripture. The philosophy leading to them needs to be avoided. But what can be done about this?

Bible translators need to make up their minds. Study the issue, and then decide: if the text should be there, keep it, and if it is a later addition, remove it. This will involve some hard choices, but that is your job as a translator. You are the best equipped to make these decisions – passing the question on to readers simply gives the hard decision to one who is unprepared to make it. Most laypeople don’t know enough about textual criticism to understand the issues, and for those who want to know, there are plenty of available resources. Bracketing the text does a disservice – it makes it appear ‘semi-inspired.’

My message for pastors is simple: Bible translators may understand biblical languages and textual criticism better, but that doesn’t mean they understand the doctrine of inspiration better. Yes, you may have to deal with the text, brackets and all, when you come to it in a message, but don’t spend most of your time talking about ‘textual errors’ or ‘alternate manuscripts.’ Study the issue, explain it to the people, and teach them how the Bible is perfect and divinely preserved.

Laypeople need to ‘mentally erase’ the brackets. If it is in your Bible, consider it inspired whether it is bracketed or not. The translators thought it was worth putting into the text. If it is in a footnote, consider it an alternate but uninspired variant, because the translators did not put it into the main text. Admittedly, this is a general principle that simplifies the issue. Those who want to teach and more fully understand the Bible should learn more, beginning with what the Bible has to say about inspiration and preservation (believe me, it has plenty to say).

This may not be a final answer for this issue, but it provides a starting point. Even in our translation philosophy, we must remember that “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.”[2]

[1] Matthew 5:18.

[2] Psalm 19:7