This week, as Christians contemplate the words spoken by Christ during His crucifixion, we shall take a close look at the textual variant in Luke 23:34a, where, in almost all Greek manuscripts (and in the Latin Vulgate and the Peshitta), these words of Jesus are recorded: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It may seem overly cerebral to offer a technical analysis of these words which convey such a power message about the love of God – but future Bible-readers won’t see that message if it is taken out of their New Testaments, which is what some evangelical apologists would like to do, claiming that Luke did not write it.
Before we survey the evidence pertaining to this sentence, let’s investigate how a few modern translations treat this passage, remembering that the editors of the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece put it within double-brackets, meaning, according to the Nestle-Aland Introduction, that the words within the brackets “Are known not to be a part of the original text.”
● The New American Standard Bible (© 1995 by the Lockman Foundation) has no footnote at all to indicate that a textual variant exists at this point.
● The 1984 New International Version (no longer in print), had the sentence in the text, with a footnote stating, “Some early manuscripts do not have this sentence.”
● The English Standard Version has a similar footnote, stating that “Some manuscripts” omit the sentence.
● The New Living Translation (© 2004 Tyndale House Publishers) also has a footnote; it says, “This sentence is not included in many ancient manuscripts.”
The New Living Translation’s footnote is inaccurate, and it should have been corrected a long time ago.
Now suppose someone asked the footnote-writers, “If a dozen manuscripts can be described as ‘many,’ then how should one describe the over one thousand and five hundred Greek manuscripts that include the sentence?” Their response would doubtlessly be, “Manuscripts must be weighed, not counted” – the most abused axiom ever spoken in the field of New Testament textual criticism.
The idea behind that saying is entirely legitimate, in theory: if one manuscript is shown to be a direct copy of another manuscript, or if two manuscripts are shown to have been copied from another manuscript, then, in the first case, we have a voice and its echo, and in the second case we have a voice with two echoes. When we have both a manuscript, and its exemplar (that is, the manuscript from which it was copied), we have one witness repeated, rather than two independent witnesses.
This principle may be extended to groups of manuscripts which, although none of them is a direct copies of any of the others, share the same meta-textual features: if they possess the same exact form of canon-tables for the Gospels, the same book-introductions, the same chapter-titles, the same subscription-notes, and the same lection-divisions, it is generally safe to say that they are all twigs on the same branch, so to speak. This is especially true of manuscripts which exhibit the same commentary in the margin alongside the text or interspersed between blocks of Scripture-text.
And what is true of meta-textual features is also true of the text: if, out of a thousand manuscripts, two dozen share the same array of otherwise unattested readings – not just in a few cases which may be explained as randomly recurring scribal errors, but consistently in chapter after chapter – the group of manuscripts with shared rare traits may be considered to be related to each other, like great-grand-children of an ancestor whose rare genetic trait they have all inherited.
And there is no reason to limit this to small groups. Large groups of manuscripts which share the same readings are in some sense specially related; at least they are more closely related to each other than to the families of manuscripts that share rare readings.
That is the main application of the axiom that manuscripts must be weighed: it means that manuscripts must be separated into groups, or branches; the voice of the individual manuscript is not regarded as an independent voice when it sings in unison with fellow-manuscripts in the same choir. Different groups of manuscripts singing different notes – that is, displaying different textual variants – are organized into different groups, providing insights into the contents of their respective ancestor-manuscripts.
Other factors – such as a manuscript’s age, the skill of its scribe, and its physical condition – also come into play when assigning “weight” to a manuscript. The valid objective of this approach is to amplify the ancestral texts that contain the readings shared by distinct groups of manuscripts – to put the focus not on the twigs, but at the points where the branches diverge, so to speak.
Unfortunately that is not what most of today’s textual critics do. For over a century, the “weighing” of manuscripts has been more like the handicapping of horses at a crooked race-track: after several races in which one horse consistently wins, the race-track owners put weights on the other horses, so that the “best” horse wins more and more races – even if they are run at different distances, at different locations, and under different conditions than the races in which that horse won.
With that in mind, we come to the external evidence about Luke 23:34a. In Papyrus 75, Codex Vaticanus, and the earliest stratum of the Sahidic version, the sentence is not there – which implies that these witnesses do not have it because the ancestral text upon which they were based did not have it. Similarly, Codex Bezae, the Sinaitic Syriac, and Old Latin Codex Vercellensis (from the late 300’s) appear to echo an earlier Western form of the verse that did not have this sentence.
Those witnesses are joined by a few other Greek manuscripts – Codex W (which has an essentially Byzantine text in Luke after 8:12), Codex Θ (which is regarded as having a Caesarean text), 070, 579, and 1241 – but without them, it would be clear that the non-inclusion of the sentence is a very ancient reading, apparently traceable to a point in the transmission-stream when the Alexandrian and Western branches had not yet diverged.
The word “apparently” should not be overlooked, for the non-inclusion of the sentence is also attested by a smattering of relatively late manuscripts. If we apply the canon, A reading attested sporadically in unrelated manuscripts tends to be non-original, then this would suggest the existence of a special factor which affected the text of Luke 23:34 in separate branches.
But instead of exploring that possibility today, let’s linger over the external evidence a while longer. While the just-mentioned witnesses lack Luke 23:34a, an imposing array of manuscripts includes the sentence, including Codex Sinaiticus (in which the sentence, after being written by the main copyist, was marked alongside the text with parentheses around each line, after which someone else erased (without complete success) the parentheses-marks) and Codices A, C, N, L, 700, 1424, family 1, and family 13 – plus the Byzantine minuscules, which constitute a huge mass (over 90%) of the Greek manuscripts here. Most of the Old Latin manuscripts also have the passage. So do early versions such as the Vulgate, the Palestinian Aramaic version, the Armenian version, the Old Georgian version, and the Ethiopic version. That covers quite a lot of territory.
So when this evidence is considered in terms of weight, three Alexandrian heavyweights and three Western heavyweights do not have Luke 23:34a; nor do Codex W and Codex Θ. On the other hand, one Alexandrian heavyweight (Codex Sinaiticus), most of the Caesarean heavyweights, and all of the Byzantine heavyweights except Codex W include Luke 23:34a.
However, there is some important and weighty evidence yet to consider: the patristic evidence. Where a patristic writer from the 100’s or 200’s makes a specific quotation, it is like finding a small papyrus fragment embedded in his writings; where a patristic writer from the 300’s makes a specific quotation, it is like an echo of a manuscript from the same time when Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus were made. In addition, the patristic writers’ comments sometimes express difficulties that they had when interpreting a passage – and if a passage seemed problematic to a commentator, the probability is high that it seemed problematic to copyists as well. (See Wieland Willker’s textual commentary for details about the following patristic references.)
The patristic evidence shows that “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” is an extremely ancient reading:
● Tatian (170’s) had the sentence in his Diatessaron, as shown by three citations in Ephrem Syrus’ Commentary on the Diatessaron (c. 360).
● Tatian (170’s) had the sentence in his Diatessaron, as shown by three citations in Ephrem Syrus’ Commentary on the Diatessaron (c. 360).
● Hegesippus (170’s) recorded, according to Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History Book Two (chapter 23), that when James the Just was killed after being thrown from a tower, he prayed, “I entreat you, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The same anecdote is recorded by Epiphanius (c. 375) in Panarion 77 (Antidicomanians 14:5).
● Irenaeus (c. 180), in Against Heresies, Book Three, twice mentions the passage: in chapter 16, he alludes to Jesus’ prayer that His Father would forgive those who crucified Him; in chapter 18 he quotes Jesus’ words.
● Pseudo-Ignatius, in the late 100’s, stated that Jesus prayed for His enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
● Hippolytus (early 200’s) uses the passage in Contra Judaeos 3, in the course of interpreting Psalm 69. Hippolytus points out that when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them,” those to be forgiven were the Gentiles. The authorship of Contra Judaeos is disputed; however, Hippolytus also quoted the passage in The Blessings of Jacob and Isaac, in the course of comments about Genesis 27.
● Archelaus (early 200’s), in Disputation with Manes, quotes the passage and compares Jesus’ prayer to Moses’ prayer for Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
● The Syriac Didascalia (c. 250) includes the following imprecise but recognizable statement: “Our Savior made supplication to His Father for those who had sinned, as it is written in the Gospel, ‘My Father, they know not what they do, nor what they speak; yet if it be possible, forgive them.”
● Origen (c. 230-250), as translated by Rufinus (in Latin), appears to cite the passage in part of his Homily on Leviticus; however there is a chance that this is a parenthetical comment inserted by Rufinus. In De Pascha 2:43, a text recovered among the Tura Papyri and published in 1979, Origen appears to utilize the passage.
● Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 330) included the passage in his canon-tables, in Canon Ten.
● Acts of Pilate/Gospel of Nicodemus (300’s), in chapter 10, uses Jesus’ words in Luke 23:34a along with some of the surrounding text of Luke.
● Apostolic Constitutions (c. 380), which depends at some points upon the Syriac Didascalia, quotes the passage more precisely in II:16, and again in V:14.
● Ambrose (late 300’s), in his Commentary on Job, cites this passage twice (in 2:6 and ).
● Many others use the passage – all without raising any question about its genuineness: Gregory of Nyssa (late 300’s), Hilary (c. 350), Acts of Philip (300’s), Clementine Recognitions (300’s), Chrysostom – several times (c. 400), Pseudo-Justin (c. 400), Jerome, in Ad Hedibiam (c. 400), Hesychius (early 400’s), Augustine (early 400’s), and Theodoret (c. 450). The only writer who challenges the sentence’s right to be in the text is Cyril of
Alexandria (c. 425) – hardly surprising considering his location – as
reported by the writer Oecumenius, around the year 600, in Asia Minor, in his
commentary on Revelation. In the course
of commenting on the first part of Revelation 7, Oecumenius cites Luke 23:34a
and mentions that “Although Cyril, in the thirteenth book of Against Julian, says that this prayer of
the Lord is not found in the Gospels, we use it nevertheless.”
Now that we have some idea of the scope of early evidence in favor of the inclusion of this passage – for in the case of most of these patristic references, it is perfectly clear that Luke 23:34a was in the Gospels-manuscripts used by the writer, and that he expected the passage to be found in his readers’ copies as well – we can proceed, in the following post, to analyze the treatment of the passage in more detail. First, though, as I conclude today, I wish to address a claim that Alan Kurschner recently made.
At James White’s Alpha & Omega website, Kurschner stated: “If this is an excision,” – that is, if the sentence is original and has been removed in the early Alexandrian text – “it is difficult to explain its omission in toto from an anti-Judaic tendency of a scribe. There are examples in which over-pious scribes in the copying process would omit a single word with theological, pious, or “harshness” effects. . . . Surely then, we should see at least one example of a witness altering Jesus’ prayer for theological reasons. But this is not the case; the witnesses either omit the prayer all together, or it is all intact.”
However, not only does this line of reasoning seem circular – claiming that copyists could not remove a sentence because copyists did not remove sentences – but according to Nathan Eubank in a detailed 2010 essay about this variant-unit, Epiphanius altered the wording slightly, so as to say, “Father, yield to them,” or, “Father, be patient with them” – a shift from ἄφες to συγχώρησον. This is how Gregory of Nyssa cited the passage as well. This little clue provides some guidance about the significance of some other patristic treatments of the passage – as we shall see, God willing, in the next post.