this is a very difficult problem.” Thus
wrote Wieland Willker, in his Textual Commentary on the Greek Gospels, about the variation-units in Matthew 21:29-31,
to which he devoted eight pages of analysis before concluding that “a fully convincing solution is currently not available.”
“Verses 29-31 involve a rather complex and difficult
textual problem.” Thus begins the NET’s
note on the same subject – one of the longest notes in the NET.
But you wouldn’t know that there is a very tough textual
variant here from most of our English Bibles.
The CSB, ESV, NASB, NIV, NLT, EHV, MEV, NRSV, and NKJV all say that the
answer to Jesus’ question was “The first,” and they have no footnote here. (The EOB-NT is a rare exception; the EOB-NT
has “The first” in the text and a footnote says, “A few manuscripts, notably D,
read “the second” which is unlikely but presents the Jews as spoiling the
parable by giving (seemingly deliberately) the wrong answer.” The EOB’s note could be improved, though, by
replacing “the second” with “the last.”)
I think one has to go back to J.B. Phillips’
version to find, in English, anything other than “the first” (or, in the CEV, “the
older one”) as the answer that was given to Jesus’ question in Matthew 21:31. (In Phillips’ version, the answer is given as
“The second one,” echoing the variant δευτερω. A different reading, ὁ ὕστερος, was in the
text of the 25th edition of the Nestle-Aland compilation, and was
also adopted by Westcott & Hort and Tregelles. (The 1881 Revised Version reads “The
first.” Perhaps the Revision Committee
was unimpressed with Westcott and Hort’s divided opinion.) (The
Tyndale House GNT deviates from Tregelles’ compilation, adopting the usual
reading ὁ πρῶτος, with an exceptionally thorough apparatus-entry.)
Hort, in 1881, devoted over two full pages (in Notes on Select Readings) to Mt.
21:28-31, and mentioned the view of Lachmann that the Jews’ answer to Jesus in
Mt. 21:31 is “an early interpolation” (along with the four words which follow
it). Westcott inserted a note of his own
into Hort’s analysis, stating, “Considering the difficulty of the Western
combination of readings it seems not unlikely that Lachmann is substantially
The array of readings in this passage is
interesting: first comes a contest in
verse 29: οὐ θέλω, ὔστερον δέ μεταμεληθεὶς
ἀπῆλθεν is read by the Byzantine Text, and by C L M W Π 157 565 579; À* has almost the same reading but without the δέ). Codex Vaticanus has, instead, ἐγώ κε
καὶ οὐκ ἀπῆλθεν (“I go, lord, and did not go”).
Third, f13 and 700 (Hoskier’s
604) read ὕπαγω κύριε καὶ οὐκ ἀπῆλθεν.
Fourth, Θ (038) has ὕπαγω καὶ οὐκ ἀπῆλθεν. Fifth, Codex Bezae (05) reads οὐ θέλω ὔστερον
δέ μεταμεληθεὶς ἀπῆλθεν but adds εἰς τὸν ἀμπελωνα (repeating the words from v.
There are other textual contests (Byzantine witnesses
have και before προσελθὼν; Alexandrian witnesses tend to have προσελθὼν δε, and
the scribe of À skipped ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς ειπεν
in v. 30), but the main contest near the beginning of v. 30 is between ἑτέρω
(another) and δευτέρω (second).
Δευτέρω (second) is supported by B L M S Ω and by most Greek manuscripts,
and by 28 33 700 892 and 1424. The
Byzantine Textform is somewhat split here, though: δευτέρω is in the text and ἑτέρω is in the
Ἡτέρω (the other) is supported by À*, D, Q, K, Π, W, Y, Δ, 157, 565,
579, et al. In Codex À, someone creatively changed ἑτέρω by putting δ in the left margin
and υ between the first ε and τ, thus
producing the variant δευτέρω.
Those two textual contests must be kept in mind as we
approach the main textual contest in verse 31, where we see (after another variation-unit
in v. 31: after λεγουσιν, most MSS have αυτω
but not B À L D Θ 33 f13 788) the answer that
Jesus’ listeners gave:
Codex B and some Ethiopic copies support ὁ ὕστερος (“the
Almost all manuscripts support ὁ πρῶτος (“the first”).
Codex D and Θ 700 f13 and several Old Latin
copies (a, b, d, e, ff2, h, l) and the Sinaitic Syriac and the
Armenian version support ὁ ἔσχατος (“the last”).
Let’s remember one of the canons of textual
criticism: prefer the more difficult reading. The reading of Codex Bezae is the more
difficult reading here – but it also makes Jesus’ hearers appear idiotic; it is
obvious that the son who told his father that he would go, but did not go, did
not do what the father wanted him to do.
Jerome’s Vulgate supports ὁ πρῶτος. But in his Commentary
on Matthew, Jerome said something about the variant in verse 31: “one
should know that with respect to what follows: ‘Which of the two did the
father’s will? And they said, ‘the last,’ the authentic copies do not have ‘the
last’ but ‘the first.’” Jerome proposed that “If we want to read ‘the last,’ the interpretation is plain. We would say that the Jews indeed understood
the truth, but they are evasive and do not want to say what they think.” In other words, to Jerome, the reading ὁ ἔσχατος
(“the last”) makes the Jews seem not stupid, but duplicitous.
Bruce Metzger, in his Textual
Commentary, rejected the very difficult reading of Codex Bezae, stating
that “it is not only difficult, it is nonsensical” – and explained that the UBS
committee judged that D’s reading originated “due to copyists who either
committed a transcriptional blunder or who were motivated by anti-Pharisaic
bias.” Whatever the mechanism was, the
range of its effect must have extended not only to Codex D but to several Latin
copies, to the Sinaitic Syriac, and to Jerome’s “authentic” Latin manuscripts – most of which are major representatives of the Western Text.
[But not the Curetonian
Syriac. As Willker notes, the Curetonian
Syriac was erroneously cited in NA27 as if it supports ὁ ἔσχατος. Willker supplies Peter Williams’ rendering of
the Curetonian Syriac, which concludes with “The first/former”.]
[Another oddity in the
apparatus of NA27 is that Θ is assigned two
readings in v. 31: ἔσχατος and ὕστερος.]
[A mistake might have been
made by Kurt and Barbara Aland in their
Text of the New Testament where they took
a close look at this passage (beginning on p. 233), and they zoom in on Mt.
21:31 (beginning on page 235). The Alands stated
that ὁ ὕστερος is supported by Codex Vaticanus “and other Greek manuscripts as
well as in some Sahidic manuscripts and the whole Bohairic tradition.” What are the “other Greek manuscripts” here? The apparatus of NA27 lists B Θ f13 700 al;
however, this seems to refer to the reading ὕστερον near the end of v. 30; Swanson gives ὁ ἔσχατος as the reading of Θ f13 700 in v. 31 before λέγει. If there are any other
Greek manuscripts that read ὁ ὕστερος other than Codex Vaticanus, I do not know
what they are. If anyone knows of any, please mention them in the comments.]
Now let’s apply another canon: prefer the variant which accounts for its
rivals better than they account for it.
The reading in Mt. 21:31 adopted in the UBS compilation – ὁ πρῶτος – does
not explain ὁ ὕστερος. And ὁ ὕστερος can
account for ὁ πρῶτος and ὁ ἔσχατος.
As as answer to Jesus’ question, ὁ ὕστερος is a somewhat
fluid answer; to someone whose first language was Latin, ὁ ὕστερος might be
misunderstood as if it means “the latter.”
And such a misunderstanding explains the origin of the Western reading;
there is no need to suppose that an “anti-Pharisaic bias” was involved here.
Ὁ ὕστερος also explains
ὁ πρῶτος: The answer “The later one”
refers to the first son, not initially (when he said that he would not go), but
later (after he changed his mind). An
early scribe who perceived that ὁ ὕστερος could be misunderstood as a reference
to the second son could easily avoid the misunderstanding that mars the Western
Text by making the wording clearer, and he did so, creating the reading ὁ πρῶτος.
This internal evidence – (1) ὁ ὕστερος is difficult but not nonsensical, and (2) ὁ ὕστερος accounts for ὁ πρῶτος
better than ὁ πρῶτος accounts for ὁ ὕστερος, and (3) ὁ ὕστερος accounts for ὁ
ἔσχατος – compels the adoption of ὁ ὕστερος.
Whatever other shortcomings Vaticanus’ Gospels-text has,
here in Matthew 21:31, it preserves the original wording. This
was the verdict of Tregelles, and it should be the reading in future
By the way, I adopted ὁ ὕστερος
over a decade ago in my Equitable
Eclectic English Edition of the Gospel of Matthew, rendered as “The later
one.” EEEE Matthew, as I call it, is available
as a Kindle e-book on Amazon for $1.99.
In closing, I
recommend that that the Armenian and Ethiopic evidence in Matthew 21:31 should be