Making sense of … well, God destroying the world

Making sense of … well, God destroying the world August 14, 2013


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, 9thc.) read “εὑρεθήσεται” — “will be found.”

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.”

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 for our understanding:

  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, in 2013 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. They decided that the common reading of “εὑρεθήσεται” was all but incomprehensible, and so 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.


Dan WilkinsonDan Wilkinson
Dan is the Executive Editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. He is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has two cats.

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  • DonRappe

    I think it helps to remember that the writers of scripture were not inerrantists. There is no reason at all to believe the author had a physical interpretation in mind. The apparent incongruity is probably intentional and designed to illustrate that God’s judgement searches all things.

  • Joris Heise

    Thanks for a detailed textual analysis. Very clear and very helpful–towards the mystery of inerrancy.
    In my mind, I keep reflecting a little more philosophically on the epistemological dimension: A “Bible” is a book–a coherent set of atoms of various kinds, which sits there as part of the physical universe. In and of itself, It is not errant nor inerrant–it just IS. Human beings read the Bible(s) in their various texts, versions and updatings, and using our human faculties, find meanings, make judgments, we are inspired (or not), and so on. A human being “responds” to what he or she reads. We learn. We learn and understand. One dimension is our certitude and judgment about the worthiness–truth, value, meaning–of texts. At this stage, I wonder whether inerrancy is simply a slippery concept with shades of meaning (like “liberal” or “conservative”) that means something subjective, not objective.

    One could, for instance, read this passage as parable, as a “mashal” in the most technical sense–a vivid pictorial representation of a spiritual and invisible reality–and the textual problem (and its inerrancy-problem) recedes as less important than the poetic impact of the passage. No matter what the text said originally, its “inerrancy” is the poetic truth to a ready subject–the “sense” or “feeling” of the final Advent of Christ.
    I say this not to diminish the difficulty of this passage (and Job 36, too, comes to mind), but to emphasize that a mechanical definition of “inerrancy” will just not fit all believing minds. i can believe the text is “inerrant” and accept any of these “originals” or I can deny inerrancy and point to the variants. The problem, I suggest, is in the subject more than in the text. Respectfully offering….

    • Thanks for those insights. You’re right that we can’t separate ourselves from the text — we are always interpreting and responding. There are, of course, different nuanced articulations of inerrancy, some with more merit than others. But when we get hung up on defending specific texts to the bitter end we are very likely to lose the “poetic truth” that you you describe.

  • Richard W. Fitch

    Some one pointed out in another venue that both 2 Peter and Jude are heavily dependent on the Book of Enoch, which was rejected from the canon. However, when Jerome created the Latin Vulgate he insisted that these two disputed writings be included. It should also be noted that Jerome is the ‘saint’ who changed the doctrine of Universal Salvation into the dogma of Eternal Punishment and Reward. By replacing the koine word for ‘eon’, meaning for an age, time, period, to the Latin word for eternal, he completely rewrote the NT assurance that all Creation would in time be reconciled to its Creator. (cf, Michael Wood, “The Jerome Conspiracy”)

    • Not a Jerome fan, huh?

    • Joris Heise

      This is the first I have heard of this “change,” [and I know and respect Michael Wood’s writings] but it dovetails with my own conviction–I am now 76 and entitled to some distinct convictions–that “‘olam” in the Hebrew and its Semitic cognates refers less to “eternal/unending/timelessness” (a Greek concept) and more to depth, with a meaning of “unfathomably DEEP.”

      When our English bibles, therefore, translate (from the “originals”) into “eternal life,” they suggest to me that Jesus was actually saying something like “REALLY living,” or “TRULY alive.” or something of that nature. Knowing that the Semitic mind tended to consider the ‘olam “as far as you can see,” or “as long as you live (with various subtexts about generations)” or roughly “from the beginning that we know to the end we guess”–I suggest Jesus was very much “in the present” and emphasized being “in the present moment” as being ALIVE! now. His more Hellenistic-influenced followers (still Jewish of course) would understand this less, and think more length than depth, and instead of Jesus coming into our daily lives via others’ needs (Matthew 25), they would understand a future, apocalyptic “Book of Henoch” type thing. Alertness would pertain to both.

  • keithbrenton

    Could the earth be destroyed and yet still “found” a few words later? I have to think it could, if it is referring (albeit obliquely) to the teaching of a new heaven and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21). Old earth is destroyed; new earth is found.

    • You’re right that it’s important to look at this verse in its immediate context and in relationship to the broader eschatology of 2 Peter and Revelation.

  • Hello Dan,
    if historical scholarship cannot make the difference between two interpretations, one morally acceptable, the other presenting God as an evil monster, is it permissible to CHOOSE to believe in the first possibility, or at the very least to hope this is true?

    I think militant atheists are largely right when they say that fundamentalists are looking forward to a genocide far worse than everything which has happened under the sun.

    A genocide whose victims will suffer eternally.

    On my blog, I TRY to develop a theology allowing us to avoid such blasphemous non-senses:

    I do hope that my modest and fallible thoughts can be inspiring to fellow believers who are also struggling.

    Lovely greetings from Germany.
    Liebe Grüsse aus Deutschland.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    • The situation is more bleak than the inability of scholarship to tell us the “correct” interpretation — scholarship can’t even reliably tell us the original text that we’re to interpret!

      Generally speaking, I don’t think we should simply choose the interpretation that most appeals to our moral sensibilities. Rather, we should do our best to objectively ascertain what the original author was trying to say, who they were saying it to and why they were saying it, and then evaluate that message in light of the broader context of the Bible and our understanding of God.

      You’re right that there is a militant and even blood-thirsty strain of “Christianity” that too-eagerly seeks “the end” and seems to take overt delight in the “justice” of Hell. Needless to say, that belief system is not consistent with my own.

      • Hello Dan.

        My belief that God is perfect is fundamental for my very theology, and this rules out such end-time massacres.

        And since I reject Biblical inerrancy, the existence of bad texts within the Canon doesn’t trouble me that much.

        Personally, why do you think God permitted obvious mistakes wiithin the Canon?

        Lovely greetings from Germany.
        Liebe Grüsse aus Deutschland.

        Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

        • “Personally, why do you think God permitted obvious mistakes within the Canon?”

          First, I’d be a bit hesitant to phrase the question that way. I think that many of the “mistakes” often have to do more with misunderstandings of time and place and culture and perspective. I prefer to look at them more as “tensions” or “challenges” or even “difficulties.” This may seem like a minor point, but I think it’s important. We shouldn’t simply label a particular text as “obviously wrong” and then ignore it. Rather, we should try to better develop the nuances and implications of differing understandings. So, for the example of 2 Pet 3.10, there are a variety of interpretations that seek to accurately represent the text as not proclaiming an “end-time massacre.”

          But, more to your question, why did God permit the Bible to come together in the form we have? Perhaps for the same reason he allows us as people to make mistakes and learn from them. For me, the Bible is a virtually endless resource for study and appreciation — not in spite of its “flaws,” but at least in part because of them. The challenges and complexities contained within the pages of the Bible often defy quick and easy understanding and encourage us to dig deeper into the text and into our faith.

  • John Aitken II

    Interesting… One greek text fragment found with “ουχ” and now we can be, finally, loved by the modern environmentalist movement…”please, please love us…we’re good people too.” Gnosticism goes both ways. Ascetic gnostesism was about destruction of the material world, true! But Libertine Gnosticism (among many groups) was more natural in origin. Don’t label the belief in the destruction of our environment as “gnostic” please…it makes you look silly.

    Rather than trying to look “good” to the world and it’s philosophies…I suggest being good. If God is going to destroy the elements…so be it! What are we afraid of?

    Perhaps Peter was just making another very biblical point. Stuff doesn’t matter!-God does!

    John II

    • To clarify … NO extant Greek mss read “ουχ”. And, contra your point re: environmentalism, “will not be found” is far closer to “will be burned up” than is the metaphorical understanding of “will be laid bare”. I really don’t see the Earth being “not found” as a plus for environmentalism.

      Regarding Gnosticism: some would say that 2 Peter is at least in part a polemic against Gnosticism (2.1-22 & 3.16). I don’t think it’s appropriate to reduce Gnosticism down to a simple set of positions (e.g. anti-environment). However, many Gnostic authors do characterize the physical world as essentially a mistake and urge us to seek release from our material constraints.

      I also think it’s problematic to declare that “stuff doesn’t matter!” — indeed, I think the idea that “stuff” does matter is a recurring theme throughout the Bible.