In John 6:11, as John presents his account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, an instructive textual variant appears: where the KJV and NKJV say that Jesus, after giving thanks, gave the pieces of fish to the disciples, and the disciples gave to those who were seated, the EHV and ESV, NIV, CSB, etc., do not specifically mention the disciples in this verse about the distribution of the pieces of fish.
Textually, the difference between the Greek text of the KJV and NKJV, versus the Greek base-text of the other versions, is uncomplicated: the Textus Receptus, supported by a large majority of manuscripts, has, after the word διέδωκεν (“gave”), the words τοῖς μαθηταῖς, οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ (“to the disciples, and the disciples”).
Theoretically, these words could be lost by accident: they begin with exactly the same word that follows them (τοῖς), and a copyist who skipped from one τοῖς to the next τοῖς might not realize his mistake. On the other hand, these words could be deliberately inserted in order to bring John’s account into closer harmony with the other Gospel-writers’ descriptions of the same event:
● Matthew 14:19 says that after Jesus gave thanks for the bread, He broke it and gave to the disciples the bread (τοῖς μαθηταῖς τοὺς ἄρτους), and the disciples (οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ) to the crowd (τοῖς ὄχλοις).
● Mark 6:41 says that after Jesus broke the bread, He gave (ἐδίδου) to the disciples (τοῖς μαθηταῖς)
● Luke 9:16 says that Jesus gave (ἐδίδου) the broken bread and fish to the disciples (τοῖς μαθηταῖς)
Wieland Willker’s Textual Commentary on the Greek Gospels gives an overview of the relevant external evidence. Greek support for τοῖς μαθηταῖς, οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ includes D (Codex Bezae), S, Δ, Θ, Ψ, and versional allies include the Sinaitic Syriac, Lycopolitan John (the Qau Codex), and some Old Latin manuscripts.
Here is an additional sample of the large majority of manuscripts that support the Byzantine reading: Codex G (011), Codex Y (034), 72, 115, 116, 157 (with οχλοις (“the crowd”) instead of τοῖς ἀνακειμένοις (“those who were seated”)), 178 , 484, 490, 505, 537, 715, 699, 714, 796, 892 (with αυτου (“His”) describing the disciples), 1186, 1187, 1200, 1209, 1318, 1478, 2612, 2099, and 2290.
In addition, two witnesses have notable features:
● In GA 1346 the main text does not include τοῖς μαθηταῖς, οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ but in the outer margin, partly trimmed away, the words have been written, and in the margin and in the text where the correction was intended to appear, the ⁜ symbol appears.
● In GA 775 the main text did not include τοῖς μαθηταῖς, οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ but a corrector has erased part of the shorter ending and replaced it with the longer reading.
If representatives of the Alexandrian text stood alone, it would be very tempting to reckon that an early Alexandrian copyist accidentally lost τοῖς μαθηταῖς, οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ via a parableptic error when his line of sight drifted from τοῖς to τοῖς. However, representatives of the early core of the Byzantine Text – representatives of Family Π – are allied with Codex A, Codex N (a purple uncial), and distinctly non-Alexandrian versional evidence in support of the non-inclusion of τοῖς μαθηταῖς, οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ: 114, 265, 389, 1079, 1188 , 1219, 2615, 2291(with συν before ἀνακειμένοις), and 2757 support the non-inclusion of τοῖς μαθηταῖς, οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ.
It may be plausible to posit one parableptic error, but not the same parableptic error in multiple transmission-lines – which is what is required to explain the lack of support for τοῖς μαθηταῖς, οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ in (1) the Peshitta, (2) in the Vulgate, (3) in Gothic, (4) in the P75-B-L-Sah cluster, and (5) in members of Family Π, if these words are original in John 6:11.
What has happened – and it must have happened fairly early to be echoed in witnesses as diverse as D, the Sinaitic Syriac, and the Qau Codex – is a very common kind of textual variant in the Gospels: a harmonization. This introduction of words from Matthew 14:19 into John 6:11 was probably intended to guide readers to an accurate understanding of the scene, so that they would not misunderstand John’s words to mean that Jesus gave the bread Himself without the agency of the disciples. It may be considered a benign harmonization – even a pastorally motivated one – but it would have been better to let John’s own words stand as they were.
This variant-unit shows that a simple appeal to the majority of manuscripts is not a safe path to the original form of the text. It also shows that the early production-date of a witness is no guarantee that its text is better than that of a much later manuscript (such as 114).
Readers are invited to double-check the data in this post.