Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Matthew 1:25 - Mary's Firstborn Son

      With Christmas approaching, many Bible-readers are likely to encounter the variant-unit in Matthew 1:25 – The Byzantine Text says that Joseph “knew her not until she had brought forth her firstborn son, and he called his name Jesus.”  The Alexandrian Text says that Joseph “knew her not until she had brought forth a son, and he called his name Jesus.”
          Although there are some other variant-units in this verse, let’s focus today on this one:  “had brought forth a son,” or “had brought forth her firstborn son.”  With some data derived from Jonathan Clark Borland’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament blog, we can obtain some hard figures about the quantities involved in the support for each variant.  These numbers are slightly obsolete but nevertheless they indicate the proportions involved:  τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον (her firstborn son) is supported exactly by 1,446 MSS, and inexactly by 13 MSS; υιον (a son) is supported exactly by 7 MSS, and inexactly by 1 MS. 
           The seven manuscripts which support υιον include Sinaiticus (À) and Vaticanus (B).  Also listed in UBS4 is Z (035), that is, Codex Dublinensis, a palimpsest from the mid/late 500’s.  According to Swanson, 1, 1582*, 33, and 788 (a member of f13) also support υιον.  Borland describes this slightly differently, including them all, along with 071vid (400’s or 500’s, discovered at Oxyrhynchus) and 1192 (a member of f1), but qualifying Z as Zvid. 
           The testimony of 071 merits closer investigation.  This was the first item presented in 1910 in Volume 3 of Grenfell & Hunt’s series on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri and therein we find this acknowledgement:  “The vestiges are indecisive between υιον (ÀBZ, W-H.) and τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον (CDEKLM, T-R.), since with either reading the letters αυ would come where they appear to do in l. 14, and there is not enough at the beginning of l. 15 to show whether the word to which ν belongs was abbreviated or not.”  Thus 071 cannot legitimately be regarded as a witness for either reading.  (UBS2 listed 071vid as a witness for υιον but UBS4 does not.)
Mt. 1:25 in Codex Bezae (D)
          UBS4 lists f1 and f13 as support for υιον although most members of each family display the reading τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον; apparently the UBS compilers assumed that copyists have thoroughly conformed most group-members to the Byzantine reading.
          Willker provides data about the versional evidence (see variant-unit #10 in his Textual Commentary on the Greek Gospels); the Old Latin and Palestinian Aramaic are split; the Peshitta and the Vulgate and the Harklean Syriac favor τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον.  (The Vulgate reads:  “Et non cognoscebat eam donec peperit filium suum primogenitum: et vocavit nomen ejus Jesum.”)  The Nubian version, of which only scant remains are extant, favors τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον.  The Armenian and Ethiopic versions also favor τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον, although the Old Georgian supports υιον.  The Sahidic and Bohairic versions favor υιον, the Curetonian Syriac favors υιον, and the Sinaitic Syriac wanders off on its own with a reading that means “to him a son,” which is an aspect of the thorough corruption in the Sinaitic Syriac (shared, to an extent, by Codex Bobbiensis) in Matthean passages pertaining to the relationship between Joseph and Jesus.  The Gothic version is a non-witness here because Codex Argenteus is non-extant in Matthew 1:1-5:14.  The Middle Egyptian manuscript (Schoyen 2650) supports υιον.  
Mt. 1:25 in Codex Regius (L)
           As far as patristic evidence goes, UBS4 lists only Ambrose and Chromatius in support of υιον; however, Jerome, in Against Helvidius, in chapters 3 and 5 (written in 383), uses the reading with υιον, and in chapter 9 he appears to quote Helvidius doing so.  Bengel noticed this, but also noticed that Jerome, in his Commentary on Matthew (composed in 398), quotes the complete passage with the reading “she brought forth her firstborn son.”
           UBS4 lists Cyril of Jerusalem, Didymus, Didymusdub, Epiphanius (in Panarion 78:17), Chrysostom, Proclus, Jerome, and Augustine (Harmony of the Gospels, 2:5) as support for τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον.  Basil of Caesarea (330-379) also clearly utilized a text with τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον in Matthew 1:25. 
           The testimony of the Latin-writing author of Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum regarding Matthew 1:25 has been contested.  This work, from the early 400s, (it is worth mentioning that this composition was edited by Erasmus in 1530) quotes Matthew 1:25 as “Et non cognovit eam, donec peperit filium suum primogenitum” according to Migne’s P.G. vol. 56, col. 635, on lines 37-38 – supporting the Byzantine reading.  However, in the recent edition of Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum translated by James A. Kellerman (in the Ancient Christian Texts series), the quotation of Mt. 1:25 is presented as if it agrees with the Alexandrian reading.  However the content of what immediately follows indicates that the author read τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον:  the author mentions the view of followers of Eunomius and states that “he calls Christ the firstborn because we call him firstborn whom other siblings follow.”
Mt. 1:25 in Codex Sangallensis (Delta)
          The testimony of the Diatessaron is shown in Ephrem of Syrus’ commentary on the Diatessaron; in his comments on the birth and conception of Jesus (See Carmel McCarthy’s Saint Ephrem’s Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron, pages 45-65), Ephrem repeatedly cites verse 25:  “He lived with her chastely until she gave birth to her First-born.”
          The reference in UBS4 to Didymusdub refers to De Trinitate, 3:4, where the author (either Didymus, or someone else in Egypt in the late 300s) states:  “It helps us to understand the terms ‘firstborn’ and ‘only-begotten’ when the Evangelist states that Mary remained a virgin ‘until she brought forth her first-born Son;’ for neither did Mary, who is to be honored and praised above all others, marry anyone else, nor did she ever become the mother of anyone else, but even after childbirth she remained always and forever an immaculate virgin.”  Also, in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, in the volume on Matthew, Chromatius is presented as quoting Matthew 1:25 in support of τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον in his Tractate on Matthew 3:1.  In the same volume on the same page, Chrysostom quotes Matthew 1:25 with υιον. 
With the external evidence described, we now turn to internal considerations.

          Metzger expressed the judgment of the UBS Committee when he dispatched the Byzantine reading in a single sentence:  “The Textus Receptus, following C D* K W Δ Π most minuscules al, inserts τόν before υιον and adds αυτης τόν πρωτότοκον (“her firstborn son”) from Lk 2.7.”  If this appraisal is correct, the words must have been inserted very early so as to appear in witnesses as diverse as D, W, the Vulgate, the Peshitta, the Diatessaron, and 087 (from the 500’s).  Against this consideration, however, one may counter that the reading υιον may be a natural conformation to the wording of Matthew 1:23 (which itself quotes from Isaiah 7:14).  A charge of harmonization can be made against the Byzantine reading, to the effect that a copyist reached into Luke to find the basis for an expansion, but a charge of harmonization can also be made against the Alexandrian reading, to the effect that a copyist reached back two verses to find the basis for an abridgment which yielded a tighter symmetry between the prophecy (in verse 23) and its fulfillment (in verse 25).
Mt. 1:25b in MS 490
          In addition, the theory that the Byzantine reading is a harmonization to Luke 2:7 faces an obstacle:  the popularity of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.  As one can see from Jerome’s response to HelvidiusLuke’s reference to “her firstborn Son” was interpreted as evidence that Mary had subsequent children – the idea being that the existence of a firstborn implies a second-born, and thus that the individuals who are called Jesus’ brothers and sisters in the Gospels were literally the children of Mary, rather than Jesus’ cousins, or the children of Joseph from a previous marriage (as some writers in the early church insisted that they were).  The proposed harmonization thus requires that a copyist deliberately made the passage more difficult, which goes against the general tendencies of scribes.
          One might say, however, “If this was such a problem, why was the passage in Luke 2:7 left untouched?”.  But if we consider data which was unavailable to Westcott and Hort, we can see in Codex W that Luke 2:7 was not left altogether untouched:  although Codex W refers to Christ as “her first-born Son” in Matthew 1:25, in Luke 2:7 (where, as Willker notes, W’s text is predominantly Alexandrian), τόν πρωτότοκον is absent.  This is a fairly clear symptom of a theological concern.  And if it could happen in part of the early Alexandrian text-stream in Luke 2 (as seen in one Greek manuscript), it could happen in another part of the early Alexandrian text-stream in Matthew 1 (as seen in seven manuscripts).
Mt. 1:25 in MS 72
          An important consideration, however, is the question:  how likely is it that both Matthew and Luke would happen to employ the five-word phrase τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον?  This is not as improbable as one might initially assume.  One might similarly ask:  how likely is it that both Matthew and Luke would happen to employ the seven-word phrase υιον καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ιησουν?  Matthew has these exact words in Mt. 1:21; Luke has these exact words in Lk. 1:30 – because this phrase is based on the final phrase of the Septuagint’s text of Isaiah 7:14 (διὰ τοῦτο δώσει Κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον· ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει, καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ᾿Εμμανουήλ.)
           Two authors’ use of the same source can give a false impression that one author is dependent upon the other.  Is there an identifiable source which employs the phraseτον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον?  No.  However, it does not seem implausible that two authors could independently use the same common words to make a connection to to Exodus 4:22 – “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn.’” (LXX:   σὺ δὲ ἐρεῖς τῷ Φαραώ· τάδε λέγει Κύριος· υἱὸς πρωτότοκός μου ᾿Ισραήλ.)  An explicit identification of Jesus as “firstborn” is consistent with Matthew’s treatment of Hosea 11:1:  in Mt. 2:15, Matthew rejects the Septuagint’s rendering and follows instead the Hebrew reading of Hosea 11:1 – “Out of Egypt have I called My Son” – so as to construct a parallel between Israel, the anointed people, and Jesus, the anointed Person.
Mt. 1:25 in MS 478

          When one considers 
(1) the second-century support for τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον from the Diatessaron,
(2) the wide-ranging patristic support for τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον – from North Africa (Augustine) to Cyprus (Epiphanius) to Egypt (De Trinitate) to Syria (Peshitta) to Constantinople (Proclus),
(3) the likelihood that early scribes could regard τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον as potentially scandalous, drawing the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary into question,
(4) the evidence from Codex W that τον πρωτοτοκον was considered objectionable somewhere in the Alexandrian text-stream,
(5) the close proximity of Mt. 1:21, compared to the relatively distant proximity of Luke 2:7, rendering the former more likely to be the basis for a harmonization,
(6) the relative scope of support for the rival readings:  τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον has the support of approximately 99.4% of the Greek manuscripts, drawn from members of every text-type, whereas the epicenter of the shorter reading appears to be in Egypt, and
(7) the thematic consistency of a description of Jesus as a firstborn son in 1:25, echoing Exodus 4:22 (where Israel is the subject) in a way similar to the way in which Matthew 2:15 treats Hosea 11:1,

the evidence, on balance, favors τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον as the original reading; the Alexandrian reading is a conformation to the wording in Mt. 1:21 and 1:23. 


Archepoimenfollower said...

I am never sure why you just don't say that in every case you count the manuscripts and leave it at that! Every article or comment on other blogs confirms that you are a proponent of the Byzantine text, why go through all the arguments for internal or external probability when in fact, you are always going to choose the Byzantine reading.


James Snapp Jr said...

I am not an advocate of the Byzantine Priority view; my approach is Equitable Eclecticism.

If you were to take the time to look at my compilations of James and Jude and Philemon, it would be perfectly clear that I do not always adopt the Byzantine reading.

At points where the Alexandrian Text and the Byzantine Text disagree, the Nestle-Aland compilation favors Alexandrian readings about 99% of time time. (Regarding this see the posts on the text of reasoned eclecticism). Now let's say, just by way of illustration, that the compilers were incorrect 24% of the time, and that a better compilation would be only about 75% Alexandrian. It would take dozens and dozens and dozens of posts to correct that 24% -- to undo the excessive pro-Alexandrian handicap, i.e., to fix the fence where it is broken -- and /still/ favor the Alexandrian text very often. Right?

Pastor Jack said...

Thank you for this post. I began preaching through Matthew, and wanted to deal as objectively as possible with what is found in modern translations in Matthew 1:25. Given the theological significance of the term "firstborn" I felt certain that you would not have neglected this textual issue, and after a search of your archived posts, I was not disappointed. I had already consulted the resources listed below, and was assessing the dismissals of the longer reading in Comfort, Greenlee, Metzger, et al., prior to reading your post. It was encouraging to see the evidence you included to add to what I had already gathered. All this to say that I appreciate your efforts which I track via email and Facebook.

Here are the resources I mentioned above:

John William Burgon, The Revision Revised. Three Articles Reprinted from the Quarterly Review: I. The New Greek Text. II. The New English Version. III. Westcott and Hort's New Textual Theory. To which is added a Reply to Bishop Ellicott's Pamphlet in Defence of the Revisers and their Greek Text of the New Testament: Including a Vindication of the Traditional Reading of 1 Timothy III. 16 (London: John Murray, 1883).

John William Burgon, The Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels Vindicated and Established (London: George Bell and Sons, 1896).

P. W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008).

The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, 2nd ed., eds. Zane C. Hodges, Arthur L. Farstad, et al. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985).

J. Harold Greenlee, The Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson Publishers, Inc., 2008; rev. Scribes, Scrolls, and Scripture, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985).

Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament (third edition) (Stuttgart, Germany: United Bible Societies, 1971).

Bruce M. Metzger, and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament (4th rev. ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994).

Edward Miller, A Guide to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London: George Bell & Sons, 1886); available as a free PDF download on Holy Bible Institute at [accessed 4 MAR 2013].

Novum Testamentum Graece, eds. Eberhard and Erwin Nestle, 27th ed., eds. Barbara and Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1898, 1993).

Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont, The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform 2005 (Southborough, MA: Chilton Book Publishing, 2006).

Soli Deo Gloria,

John T. "Jack" Jeffery
Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
Greentown, PA