‘Father forgive them’ – the variant in Luke 23:34a
The previous variant that we discussed (Lk 22:43-44) was substantial and important. It makes quite a difference how Jesus is portrayed by Luke whether or not the episode of the strengthening angel and the sweat like drops of blood is present. The final variant of this series is, in my view, even more important and one with considerable theological ramifications. Come to think of it, I am not sure if there are many variants that have a bigger impact on New Testament Christology than Luke 23:34a.
It concerns the presence or absence of the following words
ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔλεγεν· πάτερ, ἄφες αὐτοῖς· οὐ γὰρ οἴδασιν τί ποιοῦσιν.
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
None of the other evangelists has any reference to Jesus prayer of forgiveness for those who are crucifying him; the presence of these words make a unique contribution, their omission changes Luke’s narrative considerably. And just to draw the modern battle lines: the THGNT has these words as part of the main text, though signalling the problems with a diamond in the apparatus. NA26-28 has these words in white square brackets, claiming that these words are certainly not part of the original text of the gospel but have been inserted at an early stage.
Here is the Greek evidence, and as far as the omission goes I believe it is complete:
omit P75 ℵ2a B D* W Θ 070 579 1241
text ℵ* ℵ2b A C D3 K L N Q Δ Ψ 0211 f1 f13 33 158 700 713 892 1071 l844 Maj
[IGNTP-Luke mentions 0124, but that witness is now combined with 070.]
There are at least two similarities between this textual variant and Lk 22:43-44, the angel and the sweat like drops of blood.
The first is found in the supporting evidence. This was the evidence for the omission of Lk 22:43-44
omit 22:43-44 P75 ℵ2a A B N R T W 0211 f13(but adds after Mt 26:39, as does a later corrector of C) 158 579 713 1071* l844.
The witnesses that omit at both places are P75 ℵ2a B W 579. The ones that omit in 22:43-44 and not at 23:34a are A N 0211 f13 158 713 1071 l844 (R and T are only extant at the first place) and those that omit 23:34a but not 22:43-44 are D Θ 1241 (070 only extant at 23:34a). The five witnesses that omit at both places form something of a solid core, it is not remarkable to see P75 B W 579 together (and on their combined testimony alone I am prepared to consider any reading quite seriously).
A second similarity is the nature of the longer reading. Neither in 23:43a or in 22:43-44 is there a clear source of influence. Yet there are plenty of thematic links with the Lukan corpus. Stephen’s words in Acts 7:60 (κύριε, μὴ στήσῃς αὐτοῖς ταύτην τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’) convey a similar sentiment as 23:34a but the wording is quite different. We have a shared theme rather than a source of harmonisation. The same is true for the shared notion of ‘not knowing what they are doing’ in 23:34a and Acts 3:17 (κατὰ ἄγνοιαν πράξατε ‘you acted in ignorance’). One could even argue that Acts 3:17 presupposes something like Luke 23:34a. Yet again, it seems unlikely that Acts 3:17 provided the wording that we find in our passage.
So what are the arguments for or against?
- The main argument against the originality of 23:34a is that it is left out in a part of the earliest evidence.
- If these words were original, there does not seem to be a good motivation for leaving it out.
- A reconstructed background is that the words in question may be an agraphon (Metzger’s Commentary) which is subsequently made part of the gospel-tradition for numerological reasons as it brings the number of sayings on the cross up to seven (Whitlark and Parsons).
The arguments in favour of printing the passage are:
- The shorter text can be explained as a harmonization, this time by omission. And there are parallels elsewhere in the early manuscripts, and especially so in the Passion narratives. We have seen harmonization in the early witnesses in Matthew 27:49, and harmonization by omission in the variants in Mark 14, and I believe also in the two earlier discussed variants in Luke 22. And for those who accept the reading ‘Jesus Barabbas’ in Matthew 27:16, 17 (which I don’t) there is another example of harmonization by omission.
- Thematically and theologically it fits the Lukan writings.
- Metzger in his Textual Commentary mentions the destruction of Jerusalem as an event that seems in contradiction to Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness. One could go one step further and suggest that the omission is an anti-Jewish variant (in the sense that they should not be forgiven). However, as with many attempts to find a social or theological background to a textual variant, such reconstruction is rather speculative and perhaps more indicative of our desire to have a story behind a textual variant than that it provides us with a real argument. Admittedly, anti-judaism is not a strange sentiment in early Christianity (see Eubank who unpacks this line of argument).
For these reasons the Tyndale House Edition presents the text ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ as part of the original text of Luke. There seems to be enough going on in the P75 B-03 group to throw some doubt over their testimony in the big variants in the Passion narratives. The omission has – what I would call – strong external support. But this is exactly why textual criticism cannot be reduced to choosing an algorithm or preferred group of manuscripts. The reality of historical transmission is more complex and messier than any simple solution.
Nathan Eubank, “A Disconcerting Prayer: On the Originality of Luke 23:34a”, Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010): 521-36
Jason A. Whitlark, and Mikeal C. Parsons, “The ‘Seven’ Last Words: A Numerical Motivation for the Insertion of Luke 23.34a”, New Testament Studies 52 (2006): 188-204 (see a discussion of this article on the ETC blog here).