Saturday, July 16, 2016

Matthew 1:18 - Two Doctrinally Significant Variants in One Verse

          It is sometimes claimed by apologists who dabble in New Testament textual criticism that textual variants do not have an impact on Christian doctrine.  They should abandon that claim, and instead state that no basic Christian doctrine depends on any single text-critical contest, with the exception of the doctrine of inerrancy.  In just the first chapter of the first book of the New Testament, there are five variant-units that have a potential impact on Christian doctrine, depending on which variant is selected. 
          I have already addressed the textual contests of “Asa-versus-Asaph” and “Amon-versus-Amos” in Matthew 1:7-8 and 1:10.  I set aside, for the time being, the textual variant in the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript in Matthew 1:16 which says, “Joseph, to whom was betrothed Mary the virgin, begot Jesus who is called the Christ.”  We focus today on Matthew 1:18, a famous verse which is often read at Christmastime:  “Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ happened.  After his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.”   
          There are two important textual contests in this verse.  The first one involves the Greek word that is translated as “birth” in most English versions:  did Matthew write γενεσις or γεννησις
          The external evidence in the γενεσις-verses-γεννησις contest is essentially divided between the texts found in Egypt (and attested by Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Papyrus 1, and other Alexandrian witnesses) and Caesarea, and the text found almost everywhere else.  The first term, γενεσις, allows the meaning “origin,” while the second term, γεννησις, specifically refers to conception and birth.  The theological significance of this is that a reference to the γενεσις of Jesus Christ can be employed in a case that Matthew taught that the Savior’s whole existence began, or originated, in Mary’s womb, while γεννησις refers instead to His physical incarnation and birth.  Such an interpretation is not built into the adoption of the variant γενεσις – the term is fully capable of referring to birth – but that reading opens the door, so to speak, to that interpretation, while γεννησις does not.       
          The surrounding context clearly favors γεννησις:  Matthew anticipates the birth (εγεννήθη) of Jesus in 1:16, narrates the angel’s reference to Jesus’ conception (γεννήθη) in 1:18, and refers back to the birth (γεννηθέντος) of Jesus in 2:1.  Although a clever defender of the Alexandrian reading could reshape this point to argue that γεννησις is the result of scribal conformation of γενεσις to nearby similar words, such an approach says that context means nothing when Vaticanus and Sinaiticus agree.
Matthew 1:18 in Lectionary 150.
          According to the apparatus of the Nestle-Aland27/UBS4 compilation, both Irenaeus (writing in southern France, c. 180) and Origen (writing in Caesarea, from about 230-250) support the reading γεννησις.  Origen even emphasizes the difference between the word that is used in Matthew 1:1 and the word that is used in 1:18, asking, as the introduction to his exegesis, “Why does the evangelist make mention here of ‘birth’ whereas at the start of the Gospel he had said ‘generation’?”.  (The genuineness of the fragment from which this statement is taken has been challenged, but apparently not very convincingly.) 
          This impressive early testimony is reinforced by John Chrysostom (writing in Constantinople, c. 400), by Epiphanius (writing in Cyprus in the late 300’s), and by the author of the composition De Trinitate.  (This was probably Didymus of Alexandria, who wrote in Egypt in the late 300’s, but if not him, them someone in the same locale, and at about the same time.)  In addition, according to Solomon C. Malan, the Peshitta makes a distinction between the terms in 1:1 and 1:18.    
          Inasmuch as the testimony of a very large majority of Greek manuscripts in favor of γεννησις is allied with widespread early patristic testimony, nothing stands in the way of the adoption of γεννησις except a bias toward the Alexandrian Text, and, perhaps, a concern that the Egyptian text might be suspected of having been produced by heretics if its reading here is rejected.  However, the innocence of the early transcribers of the Alexandrian text of Matthew 1:18 can be maintained, simply by reckoning that Alexandrian scribes sometimes worked by dictation – that is, one person read the text out loud, while the copyists wrote down he said – and scribes hearing “γεννησις” thought that they heard “γενεσις” and (without any malice or mischief involved) thus originated the Alexandrian reading. 
          A second, more complex possibility – if an alternative explanation is necessary – is that the Alexandrian reading is the result of two scribal phenomena:  one scribe committed itacism, the substitution of similar-sounding vowels (turning γεννησις into γεννεσις), and another scribe committed haplography, failing to repeat the repeated letter (in this case, ν).  This explanation seems entirely plausible in light of the incredibly inconsistent spelling-practices of Alexandrian scribes.      

          We now turn to the second textual contest in Matthew 1:18:  did Matthew write “Jesus,” or “Christ,” or “Christ Jesus,” or “Jesus Christ”?    The reading of Vaticanus, “Christ Jesus,” is rejected even by Hort, in consideration of Vaticanus’ tendency to transpose the words “Jesus Christ” into “Christ Jesus” in the Pauline Epistles.  The NA/UBS compilers and the Byzantine Text agree here; they read Ιησου Χριστου.  This reading is supported by a wide variety of patristic and versional witnesses.

The ornate Lindisfarne Gospels (digitally altered here, 
without the interlinear Old English) supports the usual
Vulgate reading of Matt. 1:18, "Christ."
           The Old Latin evidence and the Vulgate, however, support Χριστου.  In addition, Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, uses this reading in the following excerpt from Book 3, chapter 16:  “Matthew might certainly have said, ‘Now the birth of Jesus was on this wise; but the Holy Ghost, foreseeing the corrupters [of the truth], and guarding by anticipation against their deceit, says by Matthew, ‘But the birth of Christ was on this wise;’ and that He is ‘Emmanuel,’ lest perchance we might consider Him as a mere man.”  Irenaeus thus emphasizes the shorter reading Χριστου and uses it as a platform from which to promote the doctrine of Christ’s deity.  (In chapter 11 of the same book, Irenaeus quotes Matthew 1:18 with “Jesus Christ” but this may be an expansion made by copyists of Irenaeus’ works.)
          Meanwhile Codex W, along with the composition The Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila (from the 500’s), support the reading Ιησου.  One could propose (using the method by which Hort identified conflations in the Byzantine Text) that practically all Greek manuscripts (including Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) display a conflation here in Matthew 1:18, echoing the decision of an early copyist who found Ιησου in one exemplar, and Χριστου in another, and combined them – in which case, the question would arise, between the readings Ιησου and Χριστου, which one is authentic, and how did the other one originate? 
          However, considering the extent of the evidence in favor of Ιησου Χριστου in multiple transmission-streams, it is much more probable that both of the shorter readings began in the second century when copyists began abbreviating the nomina sacra (especially the Greek words for “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” and “Christ”), and accidentally left out one of the two abbreviated words.  I suspect (as I explained in an earlier post) that some early copyists inherited a Hebrew custom in which the main copyist left a blank space where the name of God occurred (to be inserted by the proof-reader).  When this was done in manuscripts of the New Testament, in which there was not just one, but four (or more!) sacred names, the proof-reader sometimes inserted the wrong sacred name, or inserted one sacred name where there should have been two – and sometimes even failed to notice the blank space (as seems to have happened in James 5:14 in Codex B.)  But one does not have to adhere to this theory to acknowledge the immense weight of the support for Ιησου Χριστου.   

Matthew 1:18 in minuscule 2396
(The Exoteicho Gospels)
.
          In passing, I note that even though the Latin evidence squarely favors Χριστου, and the Greek evidence squarely favors Ιησου Χριστου, the hyper-paraphrase known as The Message begins Matthew 1:18 with the sentence, “The birth of Jesus took place like this.”  Surely Irenaeus would consider such a text to be vandalized.  I wonder why others do not.   






4 comments:

Rev. Bryant J. Williams III said...

I would also add that according to HGP, Randall Buth comments on pages 221-222 of his paper,"Ἡ Κοινὴ Προφορά," the following:
"The Status of η
While the decision on the above four phonemic vowel sounds was easy and unambiguous, there
are several points where a more cautious judgment and approach are necessary. The vowel η has a more stable spelling history in spite of apparent changes in sound.

The vowel η became like ι and ει by the third century CE.11 Gignac is of the opinion that η
merged with ι in sound in the second century CE12. This means that some might want to drop this distinct sound from their Koiné inventory. Such a decision would fit with the general trend of the language and fits smoothly with Modern Greek. (Principle #4.) However, because of the long stability of distinction of [η] from [ι] during 300 BCE to 150 CE, the spelling of η appears to be more stable in the following centuries as a "historical spelling". The sound had changed but most people kept spelling words correctly according to the older spelling tradition. Historical spelling is a common phenomenon among languages. Broadly speaking, it would appear that most people correctly used η as an equivalent for a close/mid-high [e] sound in the early Roman period. Consequently, we may conclude that most speakers in the first century still maintained η as a separate phoneme. We may, for example, expect that Luke's audiences expected to hear it or that Paul used it when preaching all over the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, there were people using Greek who were controlling this η vowel in a substandard manner and by the end of the Roman period it had disappeared from Greek speech, probably first among the uneducated and then by the upperclass.

η: The interchange of ει/ι for η and η for ει/ι. These are late second century CE.
13
John 10:41 p66 ειν (corrected to ην) ἦν 'was' (200 CE)
John 11:44 p66, 75 κηριαις κειρίαις ‘cloth strips’ (200 CE)
2Cor 12:21 p46 ταπεινωσει ταπεινώσῃ ‘humbles’ (200 CE)

These manuscripts were written at a time when ει sounded like ι and they show such confusion of ει as ι elsewhere in their writing (e.g., p46 Rom 8:32 ημειν for ἡμῖν. p66,75 John 3:10 γεινωσκεις for γινώσκεις ) so these alternations of η and ει appear to reflect the [i] sound for η.14

Living Koine Greek includes η as a separate vowel sound. It appears to have still had popular phonemic status in the early Roman period, so the phonemic principle (#2) supports this inclusion of a separate sound for η. It also carries a fairly heavy functional load within the phonological system so this is worthwhile keeping.15

The reason that I bring this up is that Buth mentions that there was an "interchange of ει/ι for η and η for ει/ι. These are late second century CE." This would indicate part of the problem of the second possibility with the confusion over the eta to be more plausible than first thought. If I am correctly understanding what Buth saying at this point.

Kyle Claunch said...

Thanks for the work here. Interesting read! I wonder, however, if you have overstated the potential for affecting Christian doctrine. Even if genesis (no grk font on my phone) is the original reading, rejection of the personal pre-existence of the Son is not demanded by that reading, nor even implied by it. It is only made possible if the text is read in isolation from other texts that affirm pre-existence. You acknowledge this in your article but still seem to say that this affects Christian doctrine. Again, this was a good read. I appreciate your work here and elsewhere. I only wonder if you're overstating the significance of the textual variant?

Kyle Claunch said...

Thanks for the work here. Interesting read! I wonder, however, if you have overstated the potential for affecting Christian doctrine. Even if genesis (no grk font on my phone) is the original reading, rejection of the personal pre-existence of the Son is not demanded by that reading, nor even implied by it. It is only made possible if the text is read in isolation from other texts that affirm pre-existence. You acknowledge this in your article but still seem to say that this affects Christian doctrine. Again, this was a good read. I appreciate your work here and elsewhere. I only wonder if you're overstating the significance of the textual variant?

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