Open up your English Bible and turn to Luke 23:34. Here’s how the verse reads in the Holman Christian Standard Bible: “And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” I’m curious if your translation has a footnote at the bottom of the page dealing with this particular verse. The RSV has a footnote at the bottom of the page that reads, “Other ancient authorities omit the sentence And Jesus . . . what they do.” The ESV has one that reads, “Some manuscripts omit the sentence And Jesus . . . what they do.” Or maybe your translation has the entire verse in brackets. That’s what the Holman Christian Standard Bible does, along with a note that reads, “Other mss omit the bracketed text.” Maybe this is the first time you’ve ever even noticed that note. It might be surprising, but believe me when I say it’s not that wild. Manuscripts before the age of the printing press and Xerox machines were copied by hand. As they were used, they got wore out. As they got wore out, new copies had to be made. There’s a least a question about whether or not Jesus really prayed for the forgiveness of those who were crucifying him. Some manuscripts record that he did, others leave this verse out. We have to wrestle with this when we study our New Testament.
Before I give you some ways that you can think about this issue (and others like it) for yourselves, let me just point out some very important observations: Just because there are some footnotes about different manuscripts having different readings in our New Testament doesn’t mean our Bibles are full of errors or that we can’t trust our Bible. That’s simply not the case. What it means is there are some differences among the manuscripts. Before the age of Gutenberg and Xerox, all texts were written by hand. And as you can imagine, if you were copying a manuscript as long as some of these, there might be some issues that arose along the way. You might make a mistake, leave off a word or two, copy a word wrong, etc. This happened with the New Testament texts just like it happened with every single work that was kept and preserved for historical, literary, and cultural reasons. And somewhere along the way someone might have even thought they were doing the text a favor by inserting or removing something to make the text clearer or better fit with their own setting. It just happens. There are some differences in the manuscripts, but nothing that should really cast any doubt on whether we can trust our Bibles.
So let me just point out a few types of data that factor in to what is called a textual analysis, that is, an analysis that attempts to ascertain the original wording of a specific New Testament passage when manuscripts containing that passage are not in total agreement. There are more than a few, but I’m just going to highlight a few here.
The first consideration is the date of the manuscripts. The thinking goes as follows: It is reasonable to think that there is a higher probability that earlier manuscripts will contain the original reading. Why? Because the time span between original composition and an earlier copy of a manuscript is smaller than the time span of a later copy. That’s what we call a firm grasp of the obvious, and I’ve been complimented many times in my life for having one of those (though not always much more than that!). The more time between original composition, the more opportunity there is for a change to occur in the text. But we have to remember, an early copy is still not the original and as such there is always a possibility that a change to a passage could have occurred—intentionally or accidentally—while it was being copied. No copy, no matter how early it is, is entirely trustworthy. One of the things I am discussing in the forthcoming Energion book on textual criticism is how God inspired the original manuscript. The act of divine inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16) occurred with the original composition, not the act of copying the original.
The second consideration is the geographical distribution of a particular reading. This one is a little more difficult to explain. The best way I can describe it here is to imagine a map that focuses on the Middle East with the Mediterranean Sea (just north of Libya) as the focal center. There were four regions of the world that produced manuscripts over the millennia and a half following the original composition of the New Testament texts. And these manuscripts are grouped into respective groups based on patterns for how they read in certain places. Those manuscripts are identified in the following ways: (1) Alexandrian, associated with Alexandria, Egypt in northern Africa; (2) Caesarean, associated with the land of Israel and its environs; (3) Byzantine, associated with churches in the Byzantine Empire; and (4) Western, associated with the Western Roman Empire. Now none of these are wholly trustworthy. In other words, we can’t just prefer one over the other. In fact, there are differences between some manuscripts even within the respective groupings. God didn’t inspire one particular group. The groups exist because of what happened as the texts of the New Testament were copied over the years. One thing that is important though is we want to consider if a particular reading is only found in one location, or whether a particular reading is found in all of them. I’ll explain this in just a second when we come back to Luke 23:34.
A third consideration is the context of a passage. We have to ask things like, “Does this particular reading fit in this context?” Rest assured, the original reading is going to fit with the context. It’s going to match the author’s style. It’s not going to contradict anything else in the New Testament. It’s going to fit. And if it doesn’t, we should start asking ourselves what’s going on and taking a hard look at the evidence for the other reading.
So what about Luke 23:34? Is this sentence original or not: “And Jesus was saying, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’” We need to start by being able to explain what the issue is and why it matters for us? If we can’t explain why it matters for how we understand the passage, we’re not going to get anywhere. In this passage, it really matters. One of the reasons we read and study the Bible is because we want to know more about the one who gave his life for us on the cross. We want to know him, like Paul wrote in Philippians 3:10. We want to know who he is, how he acted, and what he cared about. We want to know how he suffered too, just like Peter pointed out in 1 Peter 2:21–25. Not only do we want to know more about the depths of his love and the incredibleness of his redemptive plan, we understand that we are being conformed into his image and, therefore, we want to know how he lived, so that we can begin to pursue a lifestyle that honors him and models for the world today the life he lived two millennia ago. This verse in Luke 23 is quite remarkable. If the verse is original, it sure tells us something amazing about Jesus: While he was being crucified, reviled, mocked, scorned etc., there was one thing on Jesus’ mind. The forgiveness of sins was the one thing that drove Jesus to the cross, the place where those he wanted to see forgiven would drive the nails into his hands and feet. In Luke 9:51 it says Jesus set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem. The cross was no accident (Matthew 16:21). He was going to Jerusalem so he could go to the cross. And he was going to cross so that those who believe in him could actually be treated as if they had never committed a single sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). Incredible. But unless anyone question his resolve to bring about this forgiveness—if this verse is original—well, this verse drives it home even more. Jesus wanted people to be forgiven. And by the way, just an important observation here, the text doesn’t say that Jesus prayed; it says “and he was praying,” suggesting he pled for this forgiveness at least twice, but maybe even more. But what if the text is not original? Do we lose anything theologically? Does our understanding that Jesus wanted people to have forgiveness of their sins hinge on the originality of this verse? Nope. Just see Matthew 9:2–6; Luke 7:44–48; etc.
Okay. Here’s the thing though: I can’t make a decision about the originality of a verse based on whether or not it’ll “preach” really good, or whether I just like the idea that Jesus prayed for people while he was being crucified, or something like that. No, I have to make a decision based on the evidence, taking into consideration things like the date of manuscripts, the geographical distribution, and whether a reading fits with the context of the passage (and, remember, there are other factors to consider). In this case, the earliest manuscript we have containing this portion of the Gospel of Luke that does not include this verse is a papyrus manuscript. It dates around the 3rd century. And we’ve got five other manuscripts that date between the 4th and 6th centuries. So give one point to “not original.” What about geographical distribution? Guess what. That reading where the verse is omitted—the one with the earliest manuscripts—well, it is almost entirely restricted to a single geographical location, namely Alexandrian. That just seems really problematic. How would the verse make it into all these other geographical regions if it wasn’t original? In fact, two of the manuscripts that contain the verse are dated to the 5th century. That’s pretty early, isn’t it? And those two manuscripts are associated with two different geographical regions, one Alexandrian and the other Byzantine. So give one point to “original.” And then we think about the context. The Gospels all indicate that Jesus was speaking from the cross. He prayed to the Father, he coordinated that John would care for his mother, and he even promised one of the thieves that he would be with Jesus in paradise when he died (i.e., he was forgiven!).
If you ask me, the verse is original. It’s not supported by the oldest manuscripts, but it is supported by two manuscripts associated with two different geographical locales copied prior to the sixth century. And it definitely doesn’t conflict with the rest of the crucifixion narrative or the life and ministry of Jesus in general. Just imagine Jesus praying for these people. Even in his darkest hour of his life, one thing mattered—forgiveness of sins. What a savior!
So someone is going to ask me the following question so I better just go ahead and answer it: How did the verse become missing in those early manuscripts? Ultimately, I cannot know for certain. I can make an educated guess. Maybe it was because after the fall of Jerusalem it looked like Jesus’ prayer for their forgiveness wasn’t answered and some scribes decided to take it out versus it looking like Jesus could pray a prayer and it not be answered. Or maybe someone glanced over it, forgot to copy it, and from that point, in those Alexandrian manuscripts, the verse was removed. But for the rest of the world, they kept hearing Jesus pray this prayer for forgiveness. And hopefully it would have the same impact on them that it had on Stephen when he encountered the darkest day of his life and prayed the forgiveness of those who were putting him to death (Acts 7:60).