Why Do Some Translations Have Jesus with a “Broken” Body?

The above question has often been asked. Recently, a member of the church actually thought a congregation was in error because he kept hearing those presiding over the Lord’s supper speaking of Jesus’ “broken body,” yet he nowhere read in his Bible anything about Jesus having a “broken body.” To the contrary, he pointed out, it was prophesied and fulfilled that “Not one of His bones shall be broken” (Jn. 19:36 cf. Ps. 34:20). This brother’s reaction shows the need of dealing with this question. The answer can potentially be very technical. Below is, hopefully, a simplified answer.

On the same night Jesus was betrayed, He instituted the Lord’s supper during the Passover meal, a yearly remembrance of God’s delivering Israel from Egyptian bondage (Mt. 26:26-29 cf. Ex. 12:12-20, 26-27). From that first day of the week until Jesus comes again, His disciples are to gather on the first day of the week to remember the suffering and death of Christ by partaking of unleavened bread and “fruit of the vine” (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:23-30).

The “Broken” Body Passage

In First Corinthians 11:24, as Paul instructed the church at Corinth on properly taking the Lord’s supper, the KJV-family of translations reads, “And when he [Jesus] had given thanks, he brake it [the unleavened bread], and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.” Other translations eliminate “broken” and simply read, “This is my body, which is for you” (ASV, NAS, ESV). Two questions immediately arise. Why do the translations read differently? Which translation is correct? A third question eventually arises: Does “broken” have a different meaning than how we usually understand the word?

We can certainly know that none of Jesus’ bones were broken. According to John’s account, the Jews asked Pilate if the legs of those crucified could be broken to hasten death “because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day)” (Jn. 19:31). Thus, the soldiers broke the legs of the two crucified on either side (Jn. 19:32), but:

[W]hen they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. 34But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. … 36For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, “Not one of His bones shall be broken.” 37And again another Scripture says, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced.” (Jn. 19:33-37 cf. Ps. 34:20; Zec. 12:10)

No Original Documents Are Available

The answer to the question as to whether Jesus’ body was “broken” as per First Corinthians 11:24 is not found in an alternative definition of “broken” or in the difference between a broken “bone” and a broken “body,” but in differences in some ancient manuscripts. This may come as a surprise to some, but we have no original documents of the New Testament. That is, no manuscript “autographed” by Paul (cf. 2 Thes. 3:17; 1 Cor. 16:21) or any other New Testament writer exists today. Does this mean we cannot have a reliable Bible? Absolutely not! We have much more powerful evidence than original manuscripts. We have five to six thousand pieces of evidence (ancient copies, translations, sermon notes, etc.) that prove beyond doubt that an original had to exist. What is the more powerful evidence in a court of law: one person who said he did something or five to six thousand witnesses who testified he did something? Obviously, the five to six thousand witnesses prove it!

Compare this to the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith claimed to have seen golden plates (i.e., an original document) upon which God revealed “Another Testament” that he translated into the Book of Mormon. His three closest associates also claimed to have seen these documents, but each one later recanted his claim. Thus, the entire Book of Mormon is built upon one man’s claim of having possessed an original that cannot be validated. The New Testament documents, on the other hand, were copied (cf. possibly in Col. 4:16), translated, and used by ancient writers in sermons or to refute false doctrine from the time they were penned (cf. 2 Pet. 3:15-16). It would be impossible to have thousands of ancient manuscripts from all over the Mediterranean world that read the same without there being an original document. Each of these thousands of pieces of evidence undeniably bear witness to this fact! However, because humans were involved in copying the text, there are errors in transmission.

“Inspiration” Versus “Transmission”

Before continuing, the difference between the “inspiration” of the original New Testament text and the “transmission” of the original New Testament text must be noted. Concerning “inspiration,” Paul confirmed that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16). The word translated, “given by inspiration of God” (theopneustos, θεόπνευστος) literally means “God-breathed,” as in “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (ESV). Because God is perfectly omniscient and omnipotent, the original documents He “breathed out” through human pens were without error, infallible, and completely trustworthy (1 Cor. 2:7-10; Eph. 3:1-7). Inspiration of the Bible is God’s part!

The “transmission” of the New Testament refers to how the original, God breathed documents came down to us. Whereas the inspired originals came from the supernatural process/power of God, the transmission of the text involved the providence of God through fallible human hands. Where humans are involved, there is potential for error. Human error, however, takes nothing away from God’s perfect part in the inspiration and writing of the original documents. As mentioned earlier, none of those “autographed” originals are available today.

A “textual variant” is when one manuscript reads differently from another in the same place. No one can rationally deny that textual variants exist (though they are rare compared to the volume of ancient New Testament texts available). Ancient manuscripts are cataloged and available in museums and libraries all over the world for people to see (although some are more accessible than others). There are several ways errors could creep into even the most carefully copied manuscript. The more common include misreading similar letters (cf. writing “fold” instead of “told”); substituting one homonym for another (cf. writing “there” instead of “their”); and omitting intervening words from the beginning of two similar sentences (cf. 1 Sam. 14:41).

While the fact these textual variants exist is without question, there is plenty of question as to why they exist. Here is where the field of “textual criticism” enters the scene. Contrary to what people might think (based on our current usage of “criticism”), textual criticism, when done objectively, is not truth’s enemy but truth’s ally. Textual criticism seeks to determine the exact wording of the original, “autographed” text of each book in the New Testament by examining and comparing the variant readings found in ancient manuscripts. It must be pointed out here that no textual variants change God’s definition of sin and what a person must do to be saved (Mt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:38). Some of them, like whether Jesus’ body was broken (1 Cor. 11:24, KJV), do involve avoiding contradiction in better understanding biblical teaching. As Christians, should we not want to know how the original, God-breathed documents of the New Testament actually read (cf. Jn. 7:17)? Should we not be interested in restoring New Testament Christianity? Would we want to perpetuate an error by accepting a reading that was not in the original New Testament documents?

There are seven general standards of textual criticism. When a textual variant is discovered, the variants are put through a seven-fold test. First, the preferred reading is the one that is older. Generally speaking, the one closest in time to the original would more likely be correct. Further away in time would allow more potential for errors in copying to occur. Second, the preferred reading is the one that is more difficult. Scribes would sometimes “correct” writings they thought were inaccurate. The potential for this was often greater before AD 325, when Christianity was legalized. Before that time, scribes may not have been members of the church (because many in the church were illiterate) and much copying was done “under the radar” in dark corners, out of public view. Third, the preferred reading is the one that is shorter. Scribes would be more likely to add to rather than take away from a text. Humans sometimes want to know or explain more than what is originally given. Fourth, the preferred reading is the one that best explains the variants. In other words, to compare it with another verse with a textual variant, would it be more likely that a scribe would add or take away “and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:20, KJV cf. ASV)? Fifth, the preferred reading is the one that has the widest geographical support. A reading limited to only one geographical area would be suspect, but a reading found throughout the Mediterranean world is strongly supported. Sixth, the preferred reading is the one that conforms to the style and diction of the author. This is not to say that authors cannot have different styles, but that if a reading is radically uncharacteristic of a writer from which it claims, it must be closely examined. Seventh, the preferred reading is the one that reflects no doctrinal bias. Especially during times when the Roman Catholic Church wielded unchecked influence, Catholic scribes would alter texts to reflect Roman Catholic ideas (e.g., “transubstantiation,” which teaches the unleavened bread and fruit of the vine become the literal flesh and blood of Jesus when given by the Catholic priest).

Application to Jesus’ “Broken” Body

When the principles of textual criticism are applied to First Corinthians 11:24, it is clear that the original, God-inspired document read, “and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me” (ASV). Note the main standards of textual criticism that particularly apply to this verse. The first standard of being older favors the reading, “which is for you.” It is supported by manuscripts closer to the time of the apostles. It is found as early as AD 200 (℘46 [papyrus 46]), and also from the AD 300s א) [Sinaiticus], B [Vaticanus]), 400s (A [Alexandrinus], C), and ancient translations from the 400s and 500s. Much of this evidence was not available to the KJV translators because most of it was discovered in the 1800s. The Greek text behind the KJV was based on only a small fraction of what we have today. The third standard of being shorter also favors the “which is for you” reading. The fourth standard of which reading best explains the others favors the “which is for you” reading. It is more likely that someone would add “broken” (especially given the dominance of Roman Catholic scribes influenced by the idea of transubstantiation) rather than take it away if the “broken” body reading were original. Finally, the “broken body” reading seems to show doctrinal bias and would thus not pass the seventh standard of textual criticism. All textual variants must be weighed on their own set of evidence, but in the case of First Corinthians 11:24, the original that came from Paul’s pen did not have Jesus with a “broken” body.

Should Knowing This Destroy Our Faith?

Aside from people not knowing how we got the Bible, one major reason why subjects like this are often avoided is for fear of people losing their faith. However, our faith must be built on evidence (cf. Heb. 11:1). There is no truth of which we should be afraid (cf. Jn. 8:32), including truths in the field of textual criticism. If the evidence favors a reading that may be different from what we are familiar, we should still base our conclusions on the evidence, not our familiarity. The KJV translators did the very best they could with the evidence they had. Much more evidence, though, has come to light since 1611. Yet, even with all the variants, the Greek texts behind the KJV and the ASV are almost identical in word count. As part of our being able to “give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15) and as spiritually mature Christians (cf. Heb. 5:12–6:2), we need to have a working knowledge as to why some translations leave out words and phrases that others include. This is not a “liberal versus conservative” issue, but a truth issue. Should we not want to know what was actually written in the original, God-breathed documents of the New Testament? Why would we be afraid of evidence, even if it supports a reading that is unfamiliar? Those who do not use a KJV-family translation may think people who do are upholding false doctrine when they make reference to Jesus’ “broken” body in Lord’s Supper talks and prayers. Non-KJV-family translation users may think people whose Bibles do not give Jesus a “broken” body are “subtracting from the word of God.” Both need to realize the issue is because of a textual variant.