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 . I set aside, for the time being, the textual variant in the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript in Matthew 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
The surrounding context clearly favors γεννησις: Matthew anticipates the birth (εγεννήθη) of Jesus in , narrates the angel’s reference to Jesus’ conception (γεννήθη) in , 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
This impressive early testimony is reinforced by John Chrysostom (writing in
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.