In the previous post, we looked at the external evidence regarding Jesus’ saying from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” found in Luke . We saw that although this sentence is included in 99% of existing Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke, the copyists of six early manuscripts – Papyrus 75, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Bezae, Codex W, Codex Koridethi, and 070 – did not include it in the text, and because these particular manuscripts constitute early representatives of diverse branches of the text’s transmission, this is seem by some researchers – including James White of Alpha & Omega Ministries – as evidence that the passage was not in the original text. On the other hand, we also saw that this passage was used by over a dozen patristic writers in the 100’s, 200’s, and 300’s.
Either these words were put into the text of Luke, or else someone took them out. A few theories have been proposed as attempts to explain why and how someone would put these words into the text:
(1) After someone in the early church noticed that Jesus made six pronouncements from the cross, he decided that it would be an improvement if Jesus had made seven statements from the cross, so he created one, or borrowed an oral tradition, and put it into the text.
(2) These words circulated in the early church as an agraphon, or unwritten tradition about the sayings of Jesus, and someone, somewhere, decided to put them at this location in the text.
(3) A copyist did not want Jesus to appear less forgiving than Stephen, who prayed to Jesus as he was being stoned to death, “Lord, do not hold this sin to their account” (in Acts 7:59-60).
Let’s briefly look at each of these theories.
DID SOMEONE ADD THESE WORDS DUE TO A DESIRE FOR THERE TO BE SEVEN SAYINGS FROM THE CROSS?
It is intrinsically unlikely that anyone would deliberately invent a saying and insert it into the text just to make the total number of sayings from the cross total seven. The notion that Jesus only spoke six words from the cross could only exist after all four Gospels were considered a distinct narrative unit – that is, after all four had been composed, collected together, and recognized as specially authoritative – by which time, the individual Gospels would have already circulated for decades, making it difficult for any such novel insertion to suddenly appear and gain acceptance from church leaders such as Irenaeus.
Recent supporters of the idea that the sentence was added in order to bring the number of Jesus’ sayings from the cross to a total of seven have pointed to the order in which the sayings appear in Tatian’s Diatessaron (to the extent that it can be reconstructed); however, changes in order in the Diatessaron occur often, and in this case the re-ordering of the sayings from the cross appear to be a side-effect of Tatian’s attempt at chronological harmonization of the four Gospels’ accounts; they are not indicative of any instability in the text, as if the sentence was floating around somewhere further along in Luke 23. Furthermore, I cannot find any comment by any patristic writer about the significance of there being seven sayings of Christ from the cross. Without question, people mildly appreciated groups of seven when they found them in the text, but I know of no case whatsoever in which any early Christian writer altered the text to create a total of seven of anything. (And would this not be intrinsically unsatisfying to the person making the alteration?)
DID SOMEONE CREATE AN AGRAPHON, WHICH SOMEONE
INTO THE TEXT?
Did someone in the early church value an agraphon (an unwritten tradition consisting of, or centered around, a saying of Jesus) so highly that he thought it should be inserted into the text of the Gospel of Luke? That is the theory proposed by Bruce Metzger in his Textual Commentary on the United Bible Society’s compilation: “The logion,” he wrote, “though probably not a part of the original Gospel of Luke, bears self-evident tokens of its dominical origin.” However, there is no physical evidence that this statement ever circulated in any form other than as part of the text of Luke 23:34. The statement, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” demands a narrative context: who is being forgiven for what? It seems unlikely that this sentence would ever circulate without a framework.
Several agrapha were mentioned in patristic writings – but the intrusion of an agraphon into the Greek text of the Gospels is exceptionally rare. Interpolations in Codex Bezae, and Codex W’s “Freer Logion” between Mark 16:14 and , are almost unique in this respect. Codex D has interpolated sayings of Jesus after Matthew 20:28, after Luke 6:4, and after John 6:56. These features – and a few others which resemble parallel-passages – display the influence of a loosely translated and interpolated Old Latin text, which is in the same codex on alternating pages. But though attested in Codex D, these readings are not in the Byzantine Text, indicating that either copyists possessed considerable resistance against novelties in their exemplars, or that only a very few copyists were reckless enough to insert them in the first place, or both.
Consider the curious incident of the saying about money-changers: Γίνεσθε δόκιμοι τραπεζιται (“Be ye approved money-changers”). Brook Foss Westcott (of Westcott & Hort fame) liked this saying so much that he put it on a preface-page in his Introduction to the Study of the Gospels. Several patristic writers used it too, including Clement of Alexandria (who referred to it as a saying of Jesus in Stromata 1:28), Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria, and even John of Damascus in Orthodox Faith, Book 4, chapter 17 – a composition from the early 700’s).
But even though this saying circulated in the churches for over 500 years (and here we are, still discussing it!), how many copyists inserted it into the Greek text of Scripture? Inasmuch as it appears in no Greek manuscript of any part of the New Testament, the answer seems to be zero. This does not bode well for the plausibility of the theory that typical copyists were open to the idea of putting additions of any kind into the Greek text of the Gospels.
DID SOMEONE THINK THAT JESUS SEEMED TO BE LESS FORGIVING THAN STEPHEN,
AND CREATED THESE WORDS TO EVEN THE SCORE?
The idea that someone in the early church created Luke 23:34a so that Stephen would not appear more altruistic than Jesus has several problems. First, nothing in the account of Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts 7 matches the phrase, “for they know not what they do.” Second, while the statement of Stephen and the statement in Luke 23:34a are conceptually similar, they are diverse where vocabulary is concerned. Third, inasmuch as Stephen made his statement a gasp away from death, a person desiring to create a parallel in Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion would be more likely to insert it at the point of Jesus’ death, not more than three hours earlier. Fourth, the actions of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke are repeatedly emulated by Jesus’ followers in the book of Acts; to whatever extent Stephen’s statement in Acts 7:70 resembles Luke 23:34a, it is just the sort of resemblance that points to Luke as the author.
These proposals do not plausibly explain the ancient and widespread presence of “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” in the text of Luke. In addition, an internal feature of the passage constitutes subtle but forceful evidence that it was written by Luke: it exemplifies Luke’s distinct emphasis on ignorance (the term “ignorance” is used here in its technical sense, not in a derogatory sense) as an extenuating circumstance capable of eliminating or reducing a perpetrator’s guilt.
Some examples of this emphasis may be listed: among the Evangelists, Luke, and Luke alone, records the saying of Jesus in which He establishes different measures of judgment for those who know their master’s will, and for those who do not know it. In Acts 3:14-7, Luke records Peter’s statement that although members of his audience had “killed the Prince of life,” they had acted in ignorance, and so had their rulers. He proceeds to invite them to repent. In Acts 13:27, Luke records Paul’s statement that the inhabitants of
and their rulers handed Jesus over to be executed “because they did not know
Him.” And Acts – part of Paul’s address to the Athenian
philosophers – states, “God overlooked these times of ignorance, but now
commands all men everywhere to repent.”
The probability that someone in the 100’s perceived and mimicked what Eldon Epp has called Luke’s “Ignorance Motif,” and expressed it in a 12-word insertion (with syntax consistent with Luke 11:4), seems very far lower than that alternative explanation that Luke wrote these words.
OR: DID SOMEONE REMOVE THE PASSAGE BECAUSE HE THOUGHT THAT THE JEWS HAD NOT BEEN FORGIVEN?
A strong motivation existed for early copyists to omit these words: a desire to avoid the impression that Jesus’ prayer had been rejected. About 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and it was devastated again in the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed; many others were enslaved, and they were deprived of their homeland. The pagan jibe can easily be written: “Is this what happens when Jesus asks for people to be forgiven? Their city is laid waste, and they and their families are slain or enslaved? His intercession does not seem very effective.” Even without a pagan around to express the objection, an ordinary reader could perceive a difficulty when comparing Christ’s prayer to the history of the Jews in the century that followed.
Many early Christian writers considered the Jewish nation corporately responsible for Christ’s death; they interpreted Matthew 27:25 as if it referred to all Jews. Compositions such as Melito of Sardis’ Easter Homily, a.k.a. Peri Pascha (c. 170) display this interpretation very clearly. Melito, in the course of addressing the Jews in a diatribe, says, “You did not recognize the Lord; you did not know, O
, that this one was the firstborn of God” – but he also insists
that the Jews should have known, in light of the prophecies about the Messiah. Israel
Origen, writing Against Celsus (Book 4, chapter 22), similarly regarded the destruction of
as divine retribution. And about 150
years after Origen wrote, John Chrysostom, in Homilies Against the Jews (better titled, Sermons Against Those Who Partake in Jewish
Customs), preached that the Jews, collectively, were in a situation similar
to that of Cain – guilty but unwilling to admit that they had done wrong – and he
advised that Christians should not even pray for them, alluding to Jeremiah
7:16 and 15:1 as justification.
So when Chrysostom (or someone whose works have been mixed up with the sermons of Chrysostom) commented on Luke 23:34 in Homily on the Cross and the Robber, he began with the obvious question: “Did He forgive them the sin?” – and Chrysostom’s answer was that forgiveness was given to those who repented – to Paul, and to the multitudes of Jews who became Christians in the book of Acts – but then, judgment fell.
Hippolytus found a simpler solution in the incomplete composition Demonstratio Contra Judaeos; he concluded that Jesus’ prayer was on behalf of the Gentile soldiers who did the actual work of crucifying Him.
The unknown author of the Didascalia Apostolorum (c. 250) resorted to a more reckless course: he altered Jesus’ prayer to make it conditional, like Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, adding the phrase “if it be possible” – the implication being that just as it turned out to not be possible to let the cup of suffering pass, it was likewise not possible to forgive those responsible for Christ’s crucifixion, in light of their non-repentance.
This use of the destruction of
Jerusalem as an
interpretive lens was not limited to commentators of the early
church, but also was employed by copyists.
Eldon Epp, in his book, The Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae Cantebrigiensis in Acts, devoted a chapter to the
subject of anti-Judaic tendencies in the text of Codex D – i.e., in the Western
Text that is displayed in Codex D. Epp
showed that a scribal tendency to alter features in the text that could be
understood to excuse or reduce the guilt of the Jews for Jesus’ death is discernible
in the Western Text. (C. K. Barrett
wrote a response to Epp’s claim, challenging it, but Barrett’s answers, for the
most part, are far from effective; it is like watching someone turn “they killed him” into “those evildoers deliberately rebelled and
killed him” and then be told that the person making the changes was just
trying to make the sentence more clear.)
Westcott and Hort, in 1881, had little reason to suspect that the text found in their favorite manuscript could be contaminated with Western readings. However, the discovery of the Glazier Codex (G67) of Acts shows that the Western Text was used at an early period in
Egypt. (Although James White has spread the claim
that “Every one of the papyrus manuscripts we have discovered” represents the
Alexandrian text (see KJV-Only
Controversy, page 152, 1995 edition), that is simply false; papyri that
have a text that is not Alexandrian include P29, P38, P45 (which is quite a
substantial manuscript), P48, P54, P59, P69, and P88.)
Codex Glazier’s Egyptian text confirms the antiquity of the anti-Judaic tendency that is displayed in the text of Codex Bezae’s Greek and Latin text: in Acts 10:39, it is not enough to say simply that “they” killed Jesus; there is, in the Glazier Codex, an alteration, specifying that the Jews rejected Him and killed Him. (According to Epp, this reading is supported by the Old Latin Codex Legionensis, MS VL 67. Unfortunately this variant was not selected to be mentioned in the apparatus of the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece.)
Without further ado, let’s consider what all this implies:
● The scribes who made the Western form of the text of the Gospels and Acts in the 100’s and 200’s had a bias against the Jews, regarding them as corporately responsible for Christ’s death and understanding the destruction of Jerusalem as evidence that God had not forgiven them. This affected their treatment of some passages.
● Various patristic writers in the 100’s and 200’s (and later) express the opinion that the Jewish nation as a whole could not have been forgiven for Christ’s crucifixion; those who accept Luke 23:34a tend to feel obligated to explain that it does not mean that the Jews were forgiven then and there.
● Some writers altered the text of Luke 23:34a to make it interlock with their understanding that the destruction of
signaled that God had not forgiven the Jews. (The Didascalia
added, “if it is possible;” Gregory of Nyssa and others changed “forgive” to
● In Codex D – the flagship Greek manuscript of the Western Text – Luke 23:34a is absent. The copyist of D did not create this reading; it is also shared by the Old Latin Codex Vercellensis and the Sinaitic Syriac; these three witnesses echo an older form of the text.
● The Western text, and its creators’ anti-Judaic sentiment, circulated in
as shown by the Glazier Codex and other evidence.
Thus considerable force drives the hypothesis in which Egyptian copyists around the end of the second century were aware of two forms of the text of Luke 23:34 – one (echoed by Sinaiticus, C, L, 33, 892, et al) that contained “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and one (echoed by P75 and Vaticanus), that did not. But a review of the allies of P75 and B in this case – D, a, d, the Sinaitic Syriac – informs us that this originated as a Western reading.
Once this reading (or, rather, this omission) was known in
it was very difficult for scribes to resist adopting it, because it was consistent with
their understanding that the destruction of Jerusalem
implied that the Jews, collectively, were unforgiven. Rather than face the foreseeable jibes and
questions that the inclusion of these words would invite, they concluded that
such a statement could not be original, and so they adopted the omission (which
first emerged in part of the Western Text) into part of the Alexandrian
This conclusion – that a scribal prejudice elicited the omission of Luke 22:34a, and the adoption of the omission – is further confirmed by the observation that the sentence is omitted in a smattering of Byzantine manuscripts. Rather than suggest that these particular copies are somehow genealogically connected to manuscripts such as P75 and B, this shows that a non-textual factor – scribes’ anti-Judaic prejudice – could independently elicit the omission of this sentence in unrelated witnesses.
Inasmuch as “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” is in Luke 23:34 in a massive majority of Greek manuscripts representing multiple transmission-branches, as well as in massive versional evidence, and is supported by very ancient and very widespread patristic evidence, and inasmuch as there is compelling evidence that its rival-reading originated as the result of scribes’ prejudice against Jews, I conclude that this sentence is original to Luke.
And since it is inspired Scripture, let us not perpetually cause Bible-readers to question its authority by introducing oversimplified footnotes, as if we suffer from the delusion that such vague notes do justice to the evidence. Let us acknowledge that it is original – and may we therefore be inclined to forgive, and to yearn for the forgiveness of those who do not know their Master’s will.