Friday, October 13, 2023

The Interpolation in Matthew 27:49: Why?

             “Two suppositions alone are compatible with the whole evidence.   First, the words ἄλλος δὲ κ. τ. λ. may belong to the genuine text of the extant form of Mt, and have been early omitted (originally by the Western text) on account of the obvioous difficulty.  Or, secondly, they may be a very early interpolation, absent in the first instance from the Western text only, and thus resembling the Non-Western interpolations in Luke xxii xxiv except in its failure to to obtain admission into the prevalent texts of the third and fourth centuries. 

            “The prima facie difficulty of the second supposition is lightened by the absence of the words from all the earlier versions, though the defectiveness of African Latin, Old Syriac, and Thebaic evidence somewhat weakens the force of this consideration.  We have thought it on the whole right to give expression to this view by including the words in double brackets, though we did not feel justified in removing them from the text, and are not prepared to reject altogether the alternative supposition.”

            (Hort, Notes on Select Readings, p. 22)

             What was F.J.A. Hort talking about?  Most Americans who are acquainted with the NIV, ESV, CSB, and NASB have no clue, because these versions have no footnote at Matthew 27:49.  The Tyndale House Greek New Testament does not have an apparatus-listing at Matthew 27:49.  (Dr. Dirk Jongkind, Tyndale House GNT editor, discussed it in February 2018 at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog).  

            The CSB is particularly strange in this regard, because it features a textual footnote pointing out trivial textual variants nearby, but not for this one which involves a drastic change in meaning and in doctrine.

            Let us take a closer today.


From Westcott & Hort's 1881 Greek text
ἄλλος δὲ λαβὼν λόγχην ἔνυξεν αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ὕδωρ καὶ αἷμα is supported by Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, C L U Γ and by about 35 minuscules MSS (specifically, 5 26 48 67 115 127 160 175 364 782 871 1010 1011 1057 1300 1392 1416 1448 1555 1566 1701 1780 2117 2126 2139 2283 2585 2586 2622 2680 2766 2787).  The first hand of minuscule 2437 (previously examined here in 2018) should be included in this list, despite having had the words erased by a corrector.

            Also supporting the inclusion of these words (in some cases with ὕδωρ and αἷμα transposed) are Palestinian Aramaic copies, the Ethiopic version, Middle Egyptian, quite a few Irish Vulgate and Old Latin copies (the list includes the Book of Mulling and the Book of Kells and the Book of Dimma).
            I will not review the details of what Hort, in 1881, and more recently, Willker has written regarding Macedonius and Chrysostom and Severus and the ancient (alleged) autograph of the Gospel of Matthew found on Cyprus in the late 400s.
            The Revision Committee in 1881 heeded Hort’s advice somewhat, and as a result the 1881 RV featured a margin-note linked to Matthew 27:49 which stated, “Many ancient authorities add And another took a spear and pierced his side, and there came out water and blood.   See John xix. 34.
                   If the men who translated and edited the 1984 NIV had done what they did 99% of the time – i.e., follow the Nestle-Aland compilation – then the NIV, too, would say “And someone else, taking a spear, pierced his side and there came out water and blood” in Matthew 27:49.  The same can be said regarding the creators of the NASB, ESV, NNIV (that’s how I refer to the 2011 NIV, which varies drastically from the 1984 NIV), and CSB.   I cannot of course judge their motives but they seem awfully fickle at this particular point.

            Perhaps their fickleness is due to reluctance to admit into the text, even in double brackets or in a footnote, a textual variant which would destroy the doctrine of inerrrancy (which I have already discussed here).  Philip Comfort acknowledgd  in Encountering the Manuscripts (2005) that the inclusion of ἄλλος δὲ λαβὼν λόγχην ἔνυξεν αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ὕδωρ καὶ αἷμα would appear to create “a jarring contradiction.”

            (Notice, by the way, that there is no distigmai in Vaticanus here – because Sepulveda would not have pointed out to Erasmus such an erroneous reading in his (Sepulveda’s) prized ancient codex.)

            Operating on the premise that editors of the NIV, ESV, CSB, etc., have held (that it is an interpolation), what would motivate an early scribe to create and into the text these words?

            A desire to show that some Romans, or some Jews, were merciful to Jesus as he was dying on the cross.  Crucifixion is a painful experience.  It can last for days.  A person who ended Jesus’ torture would be understood by his contemporaries to be acting mercifully.

            There is a slight anti-Judaic tendency in the Western text of Acts.  I propose that there was a slight pro-Jewish tendency at work in the Alexandrian Greek transmission-line, which carried over into the Old Latin transmission-line that is represented in some Irish Old Latin copies of the Gospel of Matthew.  

            Before the four Gospels were collected together, our interpolator could point to his interpolation and say “Look!  Not all of the Jews on the scene were bad.  Sure, God destroyed Jerusalem forty years later, but there was a remnant there on Calvary; there was at least one noble Jew who defied the Romans and showed mercy to Jesus on the cross – not giving him a drink to prolong his suffering, but spearing him, in defiance of the Roman soldiers, in order to end his suffering.”

            Or, the interpolation might have been made by an early pro-Roman scribe, who wished to convey that the Romans who crucified Jesus were just following orders, and had no personal vendetta against Jesus (something most first-century readers of Matthew would naturally assume), and that one of them, in an act of insubordination, speared Jesus, causing his immediate death and an end to his sufferings.


Picture from the Rabbula Gospels

         The traditions about Saint Longinus may thus become more relevant – was he Roman, or Jewish?  Or both?

             The earliest traditions about Longinus consistently portray him as a Roman centurion, as far as I can tell.  On that premise, the interpolation in the Alexandrian text of Matthew 27:49 was created in order to excuse the Romans.  The Romans could argue that as legitimate agents of the Roman Empire, they should be forgiven for crucifying Jesus – and, with this interpolation, offer an extra consideration:  they didn’t even allow Jesus to suffer on the cross longer than what was required to carry out the orders of Pontius Pilate – barely enough time to crucify Jesus, and enough time to allow all the bystanders to read the inscription Pilate ordered them to post on the cross, and enough time to finish gambling.

             (As it turned out, it only took Jesus six hours to suffer and die for the sins of the whole world, but the Roman soldiers couldn’t have known that.)

             I consider it very likely that John, when he wrote the fourth Gospel in Ephesus, was aware of this interpolation and either read it, or heard about it.

             Notice the explicit words of John 19:35  - “The one who saw it [i.e., John] has testified , and his testimony is true.  He knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.”  What could be the motivation for such explicitness, except to respond to an interpolation that John detected in his own copy of the Gospel of Matthew, or a copy that someone had told him about?

              So:  after walking through the external and internal evidence carefully and slowly, I conclude that the words ἄλλος δὲ λαβὼν λόγχην ἔνυξεν αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ὕδωρ καὶ αἷμα in the Alexandrian text (and whatever other texts) are an interpolation, and may confidently be treated as the interpolation they are.  That is, they are an interesting display of an early scribe’s concern, but as a representation of the autograph of the Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew, they should be entirely ignored.



Demian said...

James, I appreciate your intelligent criticism of the standard scholarship which has made the agreement of aleph and B a strong indication of the original text even when it goes against the majority of the majuscules, the versional evidence and the writings of the fathers. The “best and most ancient manuscripts” failed here and in other countless places to preserve the original. I personally benefited from many Alexandrian readings that are clearly better supported and superior over the entire Byzantine tradition reflected in the textus receptus, the patriarchal text and majority text but I lament the fact that it became the primary text and everything else became just a secondary or text that has grown, even when its support is more ancient and far better in witnesses from different locales.

Just a quick comment on your post here. In the same gospel of Nicodemus from which we first learn the name of the soldier that pierced Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea accuses the Jews of piercing Jesus with a spear, even though Annas and Caiaphas say that it was the soldier Longinus that did it. It is possible that the apocryphal is reflecting an ancient tradition where this soldier is associated with the Jews. The accusation against the Jews who pierced Jesus was totally negative there. Here’s what it says in chapter 12:

“And you have acted not well against the just man, because you have not repented of crucifying him, but also have pierced him with a spear. And the Jews seized Joseph, and ordered him to be secured until the first day of the week”

So, another possibility is that the variant was a product of an oral tradition imbued of anti-Judaic sentiments by the same scribes who excised Lk 23:34 from the gospel of Luke.

Jeff Dodson said...

Matthew 27:49 in the complete RV Bible published in 1885 reads:

"And the rest said, Let be ; let us see whether Elijah cometh to save him."

The verse is footnoted, and the note reads:

"Many ancient authorities add And another took a spear and pierced his side, and there came out water and blood. See John xix.34."

James Snapp Jr said...

Jeff DOdson, Thanks! I'll update the post accordingly.

James Snapp Jr said...


<< So, another possibility is that the variant was a product of an oral tradition imbued of anti-Judaic sentiments by the same scribes who excised Lk 23:34 from the gospel of Luke. >>

It is very difficult to differentiate between what is pro-Roman and what is anti-Judaic.


VEITU said...

There's any translation that maintain this verse?

Horizon Garage Door said...

For reliable garage door repair in Ellicott City, trust our skilled technicians to address your needs promptly and efficiently. Whether it's a malfunctioning opener, damaged springs, or any other issue, we have the expertise to diagnose and fix the problem. Our team is committed to providing top-notch service, ensuring your garage door operates smoothly and securely. We prioritize customer satisfaction and offer competitive pricing for our services.

Don't let a faulty garage door disrupt your daily routine; contact us for professional and prompt repair services in Ellicott City. We strive to exceed your expectations and ensure the long-term functionality of your Garage door repair ellicott city.