The Saturday Series studies this Fall will focus on passages in the New Testament illustrating how Biblical Criticism (and especially textual criticism) relates to the overall meaning of a passage—including important theological and doctrinal points. This has been discussed in earlier studies, along with a number of examples which clearly show that, contrary to the claims of some scholars and theologians, the textual differences in the manuscripts, etc, do affect considerably the meaning and interpretation of certain passages. While other areas of Biblical Criticism will be explored, it is Textual Criticism which will be foremost in these studies, since establishing the text of Scripture is necessary for any proper interpretation.
If you are unfamiliar with the tenets and principles of Textual Criticism, I strongly recommend that you consult my three-part introductory article entitled “Learning the Language”. When we speak of “textual variants” (or “variant readings”) of the New Testament, this refers to differences that exist between the surviving Greek manuscripts, translated versions (in Latin, Syriac, etc), and citations (in early Christian writings). Many of these differences are minor and insubstantial, but others are substantive and must be considered carefully if one wishes to determine what was most likely the original reading of the text. While secondary readings may be of historical and theological interest, most scholars and commentators would not wish to base their exegesis of Scripture upon them. The primary goal of textual criticism remains the establishment of the original text, insofar as this is possible.
When it comes to the Gospels, and the sayings and traditions of Jesus recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels, the text-critical situation is complicated considerably. For often we are dealing, not only with differences between the manuscripts of a specific passage, but with different versions of the same (or comparable) tradition as it has been preserved in the various Gospels. Here textual criticism blends with source criticism, historical criticism, and other areas of criticism as well. When looking at a particular saying of Jesus or a related tradition, it is important to compare the different Gospel versions, in addition to any textual differences within the specific Gospel passage.
“But if (it is) in [i.e. with] the Spirit of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then the kingdom of God (has already) arrived upon you!”
while in Luke we have:
“But if (it is) in [i.e. with] the finger of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then the kingdom of God (has already) arrived upon you!”
Here the text of each version is secure, with the difference, or variant, occurring between the two versions. In dealing with such inter-Gospel differences, involving the words/sayings of Jesus, traditional-conservative commentators are sometimes inclined to explain (or ‘harmonize’) them by positing either: (a) that they represent separate traditions (i.e., something similar Jesus said on separate occasions), or (b) that the two versions each give only a partial record of an originally longer saying (i.e., Jesus said both things). While I consider such explanations often to be unconvincing on the whole, here neither approach is at all possible, since:
- The two versions clearly represent the same saying—they are virtually identical, and occur in the same location/context within the Gospel narrative.
- The relevant difference occurs at the same syntactical/grammatical point in the saying, involving a single word, making it virtually impossible that Jesus could have said both things (at the same time).
This leaves us with just two options:
- The variation reflects a difference in translation (into Greek) from an Aramaic original, or
- One version more or less accurately represents the original saying/tradition, while the other has been modified in some way; this modification could be the result of:
(a) alteration during the process of transmission of the saying, or
(b) a change by the Gospel writer as the saying/tradition was included within the Gospel narrative
In this case, the difference does not seem to be the result of translation from an Aramaic original. The best explanation, in my view, is that the Lukan version preserves the authentic tradition, reading “in/with the finger of God” (en daktýlœ Theoú). The Matthean version has altered this to “in/with the Spirit of God” (en pneúmati Theoú), apparently for the simple purpose of explaining the idiom “finger of God” for readers who may not be familiar with its significance. In the Old Testament, the idiom “finger of God” refers to God’s active power manifest (and visible) among human beings; it is used only rarely (cf. Exod 8:19; 31:18; Deut 9:10). Among early Christians (and Jews), this would more naturally be explained by referring to God’s Spirit (pneúma). Paul makes the obvious connection between God’s finger and Spirit when discussing the Exodus 31:18 tradition, in 2 Corinthians 3:3ff. The Gospel writer may well have done the same in Matt 12:28.
Fortunately, in this instance, the difference between the two Gospel versions makes no real difference to the essential meaning of the saying. The situation is not so straightforward in Mark 3:28-29 / Matt 12:31-32 / Luke 12:10—where we find different versions of the saying (or sayings) of Jesus regarding the “sin against the Holy Spirit”.
This saying is preserved within two broad lines of Gospel tradition: (1) in the Gospel of Mark (3:28-29), a version of which is also found in Matt 12:31; and (2) the material contained in Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark (the so-called “Q” material). For those unfamiliar with the terminology, “Q” is shorthand for German quelle (translated roughly as “source”); in Synoptic studies, it refers to a source (for sayings and traditions of Jesus) used by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most critical scholars assume that “Q” represents a distinct source document, though it properly refers simply to that material common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. A widely held critical theory, called the “Two-Document Hypothesis”, holds that Matthew and Luke made use of at least two distinct source documents—the Gospel of Mark and “Q”. Matthew 12:31-32 would tend to support this hypothesis, as it contains together both the Markan and “Q” versions of the saying.
Those two versions, while similar, are quite different in several respects, which leads to the important critical question of whether we are dealing with two distinct historical traditions, or variant forms of a single historical tradition. Traditional-conservative commentators tend to opt for the former, while critical commentators typically assume the latter. The situation is further complicated by additional differences between versions of the Markan and “Q” sayings, the possibility of variation as a result of translation from an Aramaic original, and other factors (see above).
Matthew contains both the Markan and “Q” forms, joined together at 12:31-32, while Luke has only the “Q” saying (12:10). Let us compare the Markan saying as it is found in Mk 3:28-29 and Matt 12:31, respectively:
“Amen, I relate to you that all (thing)s will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men—the sins and the insults, as many (thing)s as they may give insult—but whoever would give insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not hold release [i.e. forgiveness] into the Age, but is holding on (himself) a sin of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal sin].” (Mk 3:28-29)
“Through this I relate to you (that) all (kind)s of sin and insult will be released [i.e. forgiven] for men, but an insult of [i.e. against] the Spirit will not be released.” (Matt 12:31)
What of the “Q” form of the saying? Here are the Matthean and Lukan versions:
“And whoever would speak a word against the Son of Man, it will be released [i.e. forgiven] for him; but whoever would speak against the holy Spirit, it will not be released for him—not in this Age, and not in the coming Age.” (Matt 12:32)
“And every (one) who shall utter a word unto [i.e. against] the Son of Man, it will be released [i.e. forgiven] for him; but for the (one) giving insult unto the holy Spirit, it will not be released.” (Luke 12:10)
The general warning about speaking “against the holy Spirit” is the same in the Markan and “Q” saying-forms, but the setting of the contrast differs considerably. In the Markan version, the contrast is with sins and “insults” committed by human beings generally, while the “Q” version refers to any sort of insult against the “Son of Man”, which, in the Gospel and early Christian context would seem to mean speaking against Jesus. In this regard, the “Q” version is more problematic and creates certain difficulties for interpretation not found in the Markan version, where the point of contrast is more obvious and straightforward.
It is worth exploring these differences in more detail, which we will do in next week’s study. A proper interpretation requires that we consider the textual, historical, and source critical issues raised by these differences. How did the two forms/versions of the saying come to be preserved? Do they ultimately stem from the same historical tradition or separate traditions? If deriving from two main lines of Gospel tradition (Markan and “Q”), how did the respective authors of Matthew and Luke choose to deal with this material? Finally, and most important from a theological and doctrinal standpoint: how are we to explain the reference to the “Son of Man” in the “Q” version, and what exactly is the significance of insulting (or speaking against) the Holy Spirit, in particular, which demands such total condemnation and punishment? We will attempt to address these questions in our study next week.