exorcismI remember sitting in my first class on “hermeneutics” as a freshman in college. The college I attended was associated with Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity. Therefore, there was a lot of talk about angelic and demonic beings, spiritual gifts, spiritual warfare, and so forth. It was a great surprise to many of the students sitting in class one morning when our professor noted the textual variant of Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29 which are two passages that narrate exorcisms. Since most of us were familiar with the KJV we read these two passages respectively as saying, “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” and “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting”. Our professor noted that Mt. 17:21 was not authentic and that the long ending of Mk. 9:29–“by fasting”–was also not part of the original text.

There were some students who did not like this. These passages were used as proof texts that there are times when we might pray for someone who is demon possessed and it will not be enough. Instead, we must be praying but also fasting. I think it was understood that those who fasted often would be prepared to face “this kind” of demonic being. Those who did not fast often would not be ready.

For others it was a great relief because we did not fast enough to be ready for “this kind”. I was one of those who found textual criticism very valuable that day. I always felt guilty because I had a really, really hard time with fasting.

I found it interesting that in Misquoting Jesus Bart D. Ehrman mentions this passage.  He provides an excellent explanation for how and why this passage came to be altered. Let me quote him here:

On occasion scribes modified their texts not because of theology but for liturgical reasons. As the ascetic tradition strengthened in early Christianity, it is not surprising to find this having an impact on scribal changes to the text. For example, in Mark 9, when Jesus cast out a demon that his disciples had been unable to budge, he tells them, “This kind comes out only by prayer” (Mark 9:29). Later scribes made the appropriate addition, in view of their own practices, so that now Jesus indicates that “This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.”

Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, San Francisco: Harper, 2005. 97.

This is why textual criticism, even as the amateur level such as my own, is worthwhile. There are some who see textual criticism as a bad thing, distorting the word of God or undermining the doctrine of inspiration/inerrancy. But it is not a bad thing at all. As it has been noted before: these variants are there whether or not we acknowledge or ignore them. If we bury our head in the sand in hopes that they will go away so that we can preserve our understanding of the Bible without working through these issues we put ourselves and those we minister to in the church at great risk. It is better to examine the text at whatever level we are trained for the sake of rightly dividing the word of truth. Also, it may help the really skinny ascetic folk in your congregation find joy in eating a nice steak with some mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables!

For more visit the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog.