Found or Not Found? An Examination of 2 Peter 3.10

August 11, 2013 in Theology · 10 comments

earth-fire

Let’s briefly take a look at one of the knottiest textual problems in the New Testament: 2 Peter 3.10.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll set aside issues of canonicity (hotly-contested) and authorship (not Peter) and simply focus on the text of this single verse.

The NIV renders 3.10 as:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

For this same text the NASB reads:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.

As you can see, the final verb differs in each translation. Why? Because the NIV’s “laid bare” is a translation of the Greek εὑρεθήσεται, which literally means “will be found,” while the NASB is translating κατακαήσεται, which literally means “will be burned up.” This isn’t a subtle difference: it’s a matter of two completely different words with completely different meanings. So where do those words come from?

Many of our earliest and best Greek manuscripts, including Codex Sinaiticus (א‎, 4th c.),
Codex Vaticanus (B, 4th c.), Codex Mosquensis (Kap, 9th c.) and Codex Porphyrianus (Papr, 9th c.) read “εὑρεθήσεται” — “will be found.”

2pet310-sinaiticus

2 Peter 3.10 in Codex Sinaiticus, ΕΥΡΕΘΗΣCΕΤΑΙ (εὑρεθήσεται) highlighted

But another manuscript tradition which includes Codex Alexandrinus (A 5th c.), 048 (5th c.), 049 (9th c.), 33 (9th c.) and many others, reads “κατακαήσεται,” — “will be burned up.”

2pet310-alexandrinus

2 Peter 3.10 in Codex Alexandrinus, ΚΑΤΑΚΑΗCΕΤΑΙ (κατακαήσεται) highlighted

But that’s not the end of it: Codex Ephraemi (C, 5th c.) uses yet another verb: “ἀφανισθήσονται” — “will vanish,” the Sahidic Coptic (copsa 3rd/4th c.) and Philoxenian Syriac (syrph, 6th c.) read “οὐχ εὑρεθήσεται” — “will not be found” and Codex Athous Lavrensis (Ψ, 8th/9th c.), the Vulgate (vg, 4th c.) and Pelagius all simply omit the end of the verse.

To top it off, our earliest Greek manuscript of 2 Peter 3.10, P72, from the 3rd/4th century, uses εὑρεθήσεται, but adds λυόμενα after it, thus reading “will be found dissolved.”

All of that adds up to the fact that our five earliest Greek manuscripts of this passage offer four different readings: א‎, B, Kap, Papr, etc. read εὑρεθήσεται. A, 048, 049, 33, etc. read κατακαήσεται. C reads ἀφανισθήσονται and P72 reads εὑρεθήσεται λυόμενα.

We’ve seen where these variations come from, but the real question is why do we have these differences? It’s because what appears to be the earliest and best reading — εὑρεθήσεται — simply doesn’t make sense. Bruce Metzger, in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, goes so far as to say: “εὑρεθήσεται, though the oldest of the extant readings, seems to be devoid of meaning in the context.”

Here we have a picture of apocalyptic destruction: the heavens disappear, the elements are destroyed and the earth is … found? It’s as if you were describing a house fire and said “it’s a total loss, the fire consumed everything, all my possessions were destroyed, the entire yard was burned to ashes, I couldn’t save anything, but I found my house!” Nonsensical to say the least!

Scribes copying the Bible realized this issue from very early on and were quick to try and remedy it, hence the reading in P72: “will be found dissolved,” C: “will vanish” and A: “will be burned up,” all of which make much more sense in the context of this passage. It makes perfect sense to say “My house caught on fire and everything was burned up” or “My house caught on fire and I found everything destroyed.”

The crux of the issue is this: our earliest extant manuscripts don’t seem to make sense, so later manuscripts changed the text. But what did the original text actually say?

We have three options available to us:

  1. A conjectural emendation: substituting words or letters to come up with something that does make sense. This is essentially what scribes did when they started using κατακαήσεται. The problem here is that we’re basically guessing. Scholars have proposed all sorts of creative manipulations of the text that attempt to solve the problem, but without extant manuscript support, they’re just shots in the dark.
  2. Accept one of the variant readings that does make sense, despite the fact that there aren’t any extant manuscripts that satisfactorily connect them to an original text.
  3. Accept our best text as is and come up with a different understanding of εὑρεθήσεται — an understanding that does make sense in this context.

Richard Bauckham in his commentary on 2 Peter provides a detailed discussion of all these options and though he is sympathetic to the second choice, he ultimately accepts the third option as the best — or perhaps the least worst.

This is also the choice of virtually all modern translations: accept εὑρεθήσεται as the true text — following in the path the eclectic Greek text first compiled in Westcott and Hort’s The New Testament in the Original Greek — and then provide an English translation that moves εὑρεθήσεται past its primary meaning in order to makes sense of the sentence. This can be seen in the variety of translations of εὑρεθήσεται: “found to deserve judgement” (NLT), “will be laid bare” (NET, NIV), “God will judge” (NIRV), “will be exposed” (CEB, ESV, GW, ESV), “will be disclosed” (HCSB, NRSV).

All these interpretations are confidently put forth in our English translations despite the fact that we have no extant manuscripts in which εὑρεθήσεται clearly carries any of those meanings. To be fair, these translations merely reflect the best scholarship that was available to them. The NA27 chose εὑρεθήσεται as the “best” reading for that verse, though it gave it a D rating, representing its lowest degree of certainty. However, most English Bibles have no way of conveying that uncertainty; at best they include a brief note along the line of the ESV’s: “Greek found; some manuscripts will be burned up.”

However, earlier this year the NA28 was published. This new edition of the Greek New Testament incorporates the text from the second edition of the Editio Critica Maior. The ECM represents the latest scholarly work on the Catholic Epistles using the Institute for New Testament Textual Research‘s (INTF) Coherence-Based Genealogical Method, a technique for evaluating textual decisions that, to my mind at least, is somewhat akin to quantum theory: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

And, lo and behold, the scholars at the INTF declared that “οὐχ εὑρεθήσεται” — “will not be found” — is now the best reading for 2 Peter 3.10. Essentially they decided, along with many scholars down through the ages, that the common reading of “εὑρεθήσεται” was all but incomprehensible and chose the most straightforward textual emendation that made sense of the text. The emendation of “οὐχ” — “not” — isn’t complete conjecture since it is present in early Coptic and Syriac manuscripts, but it still borders on a “guess” since we have no early Greek manuscripts that actually reflect this reading.

Why does any of this matter?

First, textual issues such as this pose a serious challenge to notions of Biblical inerrancy. Even if we try to sidestep the issue and claim that inerrancy holds true for only the original autographs, the doctrine of inerrancy is, practically speaking, rendered moot since we don’t have those autographs and, especially in this case, really don’t have a good idea of what the original actually said. Even the best scholarship in the world is unable to determine the original reading of 2 Peter 3.10 with any meaningful degree of certainty and most modern English translations now reflect the exact opposite meaning of the latest edition of the Greek text upon which their translations are based. Faced with this conundrum, one must either admit that we don’t have the very Word of God contained in the pages of the Bible, or else arbitrarily choose a specific version and by reason of blind faith alone declare it to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God. This latter option offers the ease of essentially ignoring textual issues like the one presented above, but is tantamount to sticking your head in the sand.

Second, there are significant theological implications at stake in this verse. The eschatology reflected in 2 Peter, if taken seriously, will affect how we live here and now, how we value the environment and how we view God’s final judgement. Does what we do here on Earth now really matter? Will it all be “burned up?” Will it be subjected to God’s judgement and “exposed” for all to see? Or is this all just apocalyptic balderdash that represents a (possibly Gnostic) worldview that Christians should be wary of?

Finally, as Christians we must be aware of these issue because they affect the text that is at the center of our faith. We must be honest in how we understand the Bible, willing to confront the difficulties head-on and not shirk our call to live for truth. These challenges should serve as a warning lest we become overconfident that we have, in any single translation, version or manuscript, a perfect representation of God’s Word.

10 comments… read them below or add one

Dave Hodsdon August 14, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Great work! Most of my ministry was in Montana and Wyoming. Now serving in Maryland. My college and seminary work was in Biblical Languages and Literature. I would like to commend you for doing a very good job of addressing one of the thorny textual issues in the New Testament.

If you have not yet been exposed, you may find NT Wright’s work to be of interest, as it bears on how we understand this text, and even how we come to our decisions about which text is “best”.

Specifically I would refer you to “Surprised by Hope” which is essentially a Theology of End Times (Eschatology), and also his commentary series (For Everyone), specifically the volume that includes 2 Peter (The Early Christian Letters).

While he does not go into the depth (re: Textual Criticism) that you have, his theological stance is one that may interest you, (and your readers) and point you (and them) to a resolution of the textual issues.

May Grace & Peace be yours, in abundance.

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Dan August 14, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Hi..thanks for taking the time to comment. I love N.T. Wright and Surprised By Hope is one of my favorites of his…I think it should be pretty much be essential reading for every Christian.

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Dale Thornton August 15, 2013 at 7:51 am

My homiletical mindset actually is intrigued by the possibility behind the irony of the earth being found. The earliest and best rendering of the text is rife with possibilities for preaching which challenges the heretical assumptions in pre-millennial thinking and preaching. Isn’t Jesus’ continual coming to Earth a finding, even if the universe dissolves? Isn’t that what we call grace? That Jesus will always find Earth when everything else is apocalyptically banished? Like the end of Luke 17, where being “left behind” is preferable to being taken to where the dry bones are and the vultures gather, this passage strikes another blow to a theology that diminishes suffering (the rapture) and its subsequent transformation by resurrection.

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Dan August 15, 2013 at 8:03 am

I’m extraordinarily sympathetic to this view…and I think a good case can be made for such an understanding. But just because you or I like it doesn’t make it true! And, if it turns out that “will not be found” is actually the best reading (as is now reflected in NA28), then we must deal with those theological implications…

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Karl D Rhoads September 11, 2013 at 7:12 pm

YOU SAID: “First, tex­tual issues such as this pose a seri­ous chal­lenge to notions of Bib­li­cal inerrancy. Even if we try to side­step the issue and claim that inerrancy holds true for only the orig­i­nal auto­graphs, the doc­trine of inerrancy is, prac­ti­cally speak­ing, ren­dered moot since we don’t have those auto­graphs and, espe­cially in this case, really don’t have a good idea of what the orig­i­nal actu­ally said.”

THANK YOU! Even though I am just a layman ( a High School dropout with a G.E.D. more specifically), I have also come to the same conclusion. You are the first person I have heard publically admit that “in the original manuscripts” is quite meaningless.

I am also of the mind that when the NT texts were being cannonized, some texts were altered, some texts were added in, and some texts were removed to support the bias of the religious leaders of the time. Especially considering the later councils that did not include those from Constantinople. They were unable to attend the latter councils that futhered the Trinity agenda, et. al. And the rancor and discrediting of ohter scholars of the day that did not curry the favor of Constantine.

But again, I’m just a layman, so what do I know? 😉

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Dan September 12, 2013 at 7:21 am

Are you familiar with the work of Bart Ehrman? Particularly Misquoting Jesus? Ehrman isn’t a Christian and I think often presses his point a little too far, but nevertheless is an important scholar worth paying attention to when it comes to the text of the Bible.

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Karl D Rhoads September 12, 2013 at 7:30 am

Not fully familiar, but I have watched a couple of videos of him on YouTube. His prideful arrogance was over the top IMO, but he did make very valid points that I wish more “Christians” were aware of. Unfortunately, since he is not “a Christian” many choose to ignore his findings.

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buzz December 10, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Is it possible the author’s original intent was more metaphysical? That the temporal physical universe would be swept away and the true-yet-non-physical-essence of everything in it would remain, with nothing blocking that essence?

(I’m not arguing this point, jes’ wundrin’…)

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Dan December 10, 2013 at 8:42 pm

Sure that’s possible … when it comes to apocalyptic imagery, anything’s possible! However, that understanding seems to have a Gnostic leaning that I’m not a big fan of…

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Gerson Grubert March 2, 2017 at 6:50 pm

Portuguese : Eu penso que a incompreensão do versículo está ocorrendo porque estão aceitando εὑρεθήσεται como sendo o final do pensamento de Pedro, sendo que, na verdade, o pensamento CONTINUA no versículo 11. O texto grego não tem ponto final em εὑρεθήσεται, mas continua εὑρεθήσεται τούτων οὺν πάντων λυομένων, ou seja as obras da terra serão encontradas (ou se encontrarão) todas dissolvidas! Pensem nisso.

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