There are a few places in the Bible where there are brackets around verses. One of those places occurs in Romans 16:24 —
Those brackets indicate, according to the editor’s footnote in the margin, “Early mss do not contain this v.” That is, this verse is absent in the oldest Greek manuscripts of Romans. How should we think about this “missing verse?”
While we have many ancient manuscripts of biblical texts, we need to recognize that we do not have original biblical documents. We don’t have Paul’s actual letters to any of the churches or individuals he wrote, for instance. The oldest documents we have are copies of copies (“third generation” manuscripts), and there are very few of those. Most of the oldest documents we have date from the third and fourth centuries.
Because the source documents of the New Testament are sourced over a thousand year period, scholars are constantly comparing and contrasting documents (and we have thousands!) to discern what the original authors actually wrote.
Sometimes there are differences because of honest mistakes and errors — there might be a misspelling that slightly changes the tense of a verb or changes a “you” to “us” in the Greek text. Those errors are generally easy to discern and are not a malicious attempt by a copyist to change or distort the meaning of a text.
Sometimes there are errors because a copyist tries to “fix” what he thinks is an error or omission that isn’t an error. So occasionally copyists will add things that weren’t in the original text in front of them; there will then be two similar manuscripts with differences and that creates a challenge to determine the wording of the original text.
That has happened with verse 24. As we read the final chapters, it seems like Paul has tried to “stop” several times (15:33; 16:20, 24, 25-27). But did Paul write all the different endings? As we have looked at the evidence, it seems quite clear that v. 24 was not written by Paul but inserted by someone who thought the book should end there, because the oldest manuscripts don’t have this verse.
In fact, my favorite book that analyzes differences in manuscripts simply says about this verse, “The earliest and best witnesses omit ver. 24.” [Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 476.] In the estimation of Metzger and the other editors of the Greek text, this verse is clearly the insertion of a benediction by a copyist and not the original work of the apostle Paul.
One “take-away” for us is that we should be encouraged that we can discern and be confident in what Paul really wrote. While there are differences in ancient texts, there is a science to studying texts that enables us to evaluate and understand well the textual variants. We should also be thankful to the Lord that He has preserved so many manuscripts (we have a great many more manuscripts of the Bible than any other secular historical text) — the plethora of manuscripts enables us to be confident of the text we hold in our hands, certain that it is the inerrant Word of God.
We may trust and be confident in this book.