New Testament,  Scripture,  Textual Criticism

Does it Burn, or is it Exposed? (2 Peter 3:10)

Does it burn, or is it exposed in 2 Peter 3:10? Depending on which Bible translation you are reading, you could come away with a different perception.

photo of burn

Note, for example, the way various translations treat 2 Peter 3:10.

ESVBut the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
NASBBut 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.
HCSBBut the Day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed.
KJVBut the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.

What is going on here?

This is an issue of what is called textual criticism. Although criticism sounds bad, in this context it simply means textual evaluation. In other words, textual criticism is the means by which we evaluate which words are original, and which words are scribal additions (either intentional or unintentional).

In situations like 2 Peter 3:10, we examine what is called external evidence. External evidence means looking at Greek manuscripts and seeing which manuscripts say what. As an example of this, I have compiled a chart on 2 Peter 3:10 with the evidence below. Don’t worry if you can’t read it. Like Gandalf told Frodo, “There are few who can” (i.e., just skip it if you need to).

ReadingTranslationManuscript Evidence
εὑρεθήσεται“It will be found/revealed”א B K P 0156vid 322 323 1175 1241 1739txt 1852 18881 syrph, hmg arm
οὐκ εὑρεθήσεται“It will not be found/revealed”copsa
εὑρεθήσεται λυόμενα“It will be found/revealed being destroyed”î72
κατακαήσεται“It will be burned up/consumed”A 048 33 81vid 436 945 1067 (1243 1735 κατακαήσονται) 1292 1409 1505 1611 1739v r 2138 2298 2344 (2464 κατήσονται) Byz [L] Lect itir vgcl syrh, pal copbo eth geo slav (Cyril); Augustine

If you can’t read the chart, basically what it says is that there are many Greek manuscripts that support the last reading on the list, κατακαήσεται (“It will be burned up,” from κατακαίω). The first option on the chart, εὑρεθήσεται (“It will be found/revealed”), also has a number of manuscripts that have it, but not as many as the “burned up” reading.

So what is going on here is that the NASB and KJV are using one Greek word, and the ESV and HCSB are using a different Greek word as the underlying verb. The ESV and HCSB side with the reading εὑρεθήσεται (“It will be found/revealed”) while the KJV and the NASB side with κατακαήσεται (“It will be burned up”).

How do we decide which word is the original?

In deciding issues like this, we must also look at the internal evidence. To do this, it is important to keep three considerations in mind.

  • First, whichever reading is original is probably the reading that would explain how the other readings came to be.
  • Second, the more difficult reading (i.e., the reading which does not make as much sense) should be highly considered. The reason for this is because scribes had a tendency to change difficult wording or ideas to easier words or more simple ideas. Thus, it is more probable that the difficult reading is what was originally written since a scribe was not likely to change something to make it more difficult to understand.
  • Finally, it is normally the case that the shorter reading is preferred. This is because scribes often would expand readings to clarify things.

In this case, although κατακαήσεται (“It will be burned up”) has the most Greek manuscripts on its side, εὑρεθήσεται (“It will be found/revealed”) is actually supported by the Greek manuscripts that are dated earlier. Usually, if the manuscripts are dated earlier, then there is less probability that a scribe would add something in (because the early manuscript was copied fewer times than the later manuscripts).

Not only does the “it will be found/revealed” reading have the preference of earlier reading, it also is the more difficult reading. It is difficult to see how κατακαήσεται (“It will be burned up”) would be changed to εὑρεθήσεται (“It will be found/revealed”). But, if εὑρεθήσεται (“It will be found/revealed”) was the original reading a scribe may have changed that because it did not make as much sense to him. In the end, my vote goes with the ESV and the HCSB choice.

A Concluding Note

At this point some people panic and say, “That looks like a hard decision to make, can we ever know that we really have God’s words in our Bibles?!” Let me assure you that we can trust our Bible translations.

There are only a few difficult textual decisions like the one presented in this post. Most of the differences in Greek manuscripts are not even worth mentioning because it is easy to see that the copyist misspelled the word, or skipped a line on accident, etc. These few difficult textual conundrums do not affect the theology of our Christian beliefs.

We live in a time where we have access to thousands of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. As we continue to find more manuscripts and to study them more and more, we gain even greater certainty that God has preserved His Word, and that we do have access to the very words of God.


photo credit: Kylir via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

2 Comments

  • William Varner

    And the NA28 follows the reading not found in any Greek manuscript – οὐκ εὑρεθήσεται – only in the Sahidic Coptic version (see above). This is what is called a conjectural emendation. Fortunately the SBL and Tyndale House GNTs have the best soppoeted reading, εὑρεθήσεται

    • Peter Goeman

      I still remember struggling with the text for the first time in your Jude/2 Peter class. That was the first time I was introduced to the CBGM and some of the intricacies of textual criticism. Very thankful for that opportunity!

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