Textual Issues in the Passion & Resurrection Narratives
The Gospel accounts of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ are among the most familiar and widely-read of all the Scriptures. Indeed, to judge from the early preaching in the book of Acts, along with other historical evidence, these were probably the first Gospel narratives to take shape — as such, they stem from the most ancient layers of the New Testament witness. And yet, any careful, unbiased study of these remarkable passages reveals a range of surprising and fascinating detail: divergences between the Gospels, apparent discrepancies, odd synchronisms, questions of chronology, along with some of the most difficult (and profound) Christological statements in the New Testament. Here I will be exploring just one of these many areas of study: the variant readings in the text of these Gospel passages.
Many of the notes and articles on this Study Site involve what we call Biblical Criticism, and on (New Testament) Textual Criticsm in particular. I discuss all the main terms and concepts of Textual Criticism in a separate three-part article (“Learning the Language”), which I recommend that you read, if you have not already done so. In these Saturday Series studies I endeavor to show how the ideas and methods of criticism work in practice, using specific passages as examples to introduce the entire exegetical-critical approach for reader and students for whom it may be unfamiliar. Thus far, we have been focusing on different parts of the Gospel of John. Today, I present the first of two studies on the Passion and Resurrection Narratives in the Gospels.
A particular area of importance in New Testament and Gospel studies involves the “variant readings”, that is, textual variants, where the text differs between the various Greek manuscripts (and other witnesses), which are at the heart of the matter. Most variants are negligible or insignificant; but others are substantive—they genuinely affect the sense and meaning of the text. Nearly all of the variants in the Passion and Resurrection narratives which I discuss below are substantive—indeed many involve the question of interpolation. An interpolated passage has been added to the original text, from another source, during the process of copying and transmission. It is a special category of variants where a word or phrases is added/omitted, though an interpolation normally involves at least an entire verse. As such these variants are of the utmost significance.
It is sometimes said that variant readings in the manuscripts do not affect theology or Christian doctrine. Such a claim is misleading and inaccurate, as it is only partly true (as will be discussed in more detail in a future article). Many of the variants discussed below do affect, to a greater or lesser extent, key points of doctrine—Christological and Soteriological. They are also among the most disputed variant readings in the New Testament.
The first variant I will explore comes from the Lukan version of the Last Supper. To begin with, it might be useful to look at the three Synoptic accounts side-by-side, along with Paul’s traditional account from 1 Corinthians (notable add/omit variants are in square brackets):
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, the translation is my own, quite literal in style. Parentheses indicate helping English words; a slash indicates two alternates for rendering the same word, for the sake of clarity. Italicized words are left untranslated, as there is no single English word quite appropriate in context. The noun diath¢¡k¢ (diaqh/kh) literally means something that is “set/placed through(out)”, i.e. an “arrangement”. It is often used in the context of a “disposition” or “testament” (such as a last will). In the New Testament, the usage follows the Greek version(s) of the Old Testament, where diath¢¡k¢ translates the Hebrew b§rî¾ (tyr!B=), a word which fundamentally refers to a binding agreement—especially in the religious-theological sense of the agreement established by God with the people of Israel (Abraham and his descendants).
||1 Corinthians 11:23-26
|22And (at) their eating, taking bread (and) blessing, he broke (it) and gave to them and said: “Take, this is my body.” 23And taking (the) cup (and) expressing gratitude, he gave (it) to them, and all drank out of it. 24And he said to them, “This is my blood, of the [new] diatheke, which is (being) poured out for (the sake of) many. 25Amen, I say to you that no, no longer shall I drink out of the produce of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
||26And (at) their eating, taking bread (and) blessing, Jesus broke (it), and, giving to the learners, said: “Take (and) eat, this is my body.” 27And taking [the] cup and expressing gratitude, he gave (it) to them, saying: “Drink out of it, all (of you), 28for this is my blood, of the [new] diatheke, which is (being) poured out around/concerning many unto the release/forgiveness of sins. 29And I say to you, I shall not drink again from the produce of the vine until that day when it drink it new, with you, in the kingdom of my Father.”
||14And when the hour came to be, he fell/sat down (to eat), and the apostles with him. 15And he said to(ward) them, “With longing, I have longed to eat this pascha with you, before by suffering. 16For I say to you that I shall not eat it until that (time) it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. 17And receiving/taking (the) cup (and) expressing gratitude, he said: “Take this and divide (it) unto yourselves; 18for I say to you [that] no[, no longer] shall I drink from the produce of the vine from now on, until the (time) when the kingdom of God comes.” 19And taking bread (and) expressing gratitude, he broke (it) and gave to them, saying: “This is my body [that is given for you: do this unto my remembrance.” 20And like(wise) the cup, with/after the dining, saying: “This the cup is the new diatheke in my blood, that is poured out for you.] 21But more—see, the hand of the one giving me over (is) with me upon the table. 22That the Son of Man indeed travels according to that which was marked-out/determined, but more—woe to that man by whom he is given over!” 23And they began to question toward themselves (as to) the one of them who perhaps it might be, the (one) about to do this.
||23For I took over from the Lord that which I also have given over to you: that the Lord Jesus, in the night that he was given over, took bread 24and, expressing gratitude, broke (it) and said: “This is My body which is [broken/given] for you. Do this unto my remembrance.” 25Like(wise) the cup, with/after the dining, saying: “This the cup is the new diatheke in my blood: do this, how often if you drink, unto my remembrance.” 26For, how often if you eat this bread and drink this cup, you announce the death of the Lord until the (time) when he comes.
Note especially the yellow highlighted text above, to demonstrate how close 1 Cor. 11:24-25 is to the disputed portion (vv. 19b-20) of Luke 22.
The textual tradition of Luke 22:17-20 is somewhat confused, as is indicated by the fact that six major variants are attested for this passage. The Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (second edition, pp. 148-150) provides a nice table summary, which I include here captured out of Biblesoft’s electronic version:
Actually, these six variants really can be reduced down to two: a long version, which includes vv. 19b-20, and a short version, which does not have the verses. The text-critical question then is: which of these is most likely the original reading? Was vv. 19b-20 added (an interpolation) by scribes at some point in the process of transmission, or were they deleted?
Interestingly, the manuscript evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the long version, as it is the reading found in every Greek MS except one. It is found in the oldest relevant papyrus (Bodmer, Ë75) and the major uncials (a A B C K L T W, etc.) as well as most miniscules and ancient Versions (translations). It is decidedly the Majority reading, including the entire early Alexandrian Tradition. On the other hand, the short version is only found in Codex Bezae (D) and in five Old Latin manuscripts (a d ff2 i l). Didache chap. 9 might also be a witness to an original cup-bread sequence (i.e., the short version).
The superior external (manuscript) evidence would seem to clinch the decision in favor of the long version, were it not for the fact that no one has been able to provide a good explanation as to how the shorter text ever could have happened. It does not appear to be the result of (any obvious) scribal accident. Moreover, a scribe, puzzled by Luke’s cup-bread-cup sequence, would more likely have remove the first mention of the cup, rather than the second, and thereby bring the sequence into harmony with the other Gospels (see above). Beyond this, it is a general rule of textual criticism that, in a choice between two readings, the shorter version is more likely to be original (lectio brevior potior)—though there are exceptions, of course. The long version has sometimes been called the more difficult reading (which generally is to be preferred); but I tend to regard both, in their own way, equally difficult. I must confess, it is a bit hard to imagine a pious scribe deleting vv. 19b-20, with their vital soteriological content. On the other hand, it is a bit easier to imagine a scribe adding these verses, given their obvious similarity to 1 Cor. 11:24-25—such familiar verses could have quickly taken root in the manuscript tradition, to be forever preserved in the Majority text.
One of the strongest modern advocates for the short text has been Bart Erhman, who devotes a lengthy discussion to the question in his book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford: 1993, pp. 197-209). While I disagree with much of his view of Lukan theology, he makes some excellent points regarding this passage. Here I cite a diagram (p. 206) which shows, from his point of view, the natural structure and continuity of the shorter text:
(A) And taking bread, giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, This is my body (v. 19a)
(B) But (pl¢¡n) behold, the hand of the one who betrays (tou paradidóntos) me is on the table (v. 21)
(A1) For (hóti, continuation!) the Son of Man goes as it was ordained for him (v. 22a);
(B1) But (pl¢¡n) woe to that man through whom he is betrayed (paradídontai) (v. 22b)
In the late 19th and early 20th century, influenced by Westcott and Hort’s analysis (this passage was one of their “Western non-Interpolations”), more scholars were willing to regard the short text as original; today, very few are willing to do so. Joseph Fitzmyer’s discussion of the issue in his classic 2-volume commentary (Anchor Bible 28A pp. 1386-1392) is as good as any. Fitzmyer, among others, brings out how Luke’s unusual cup-bread-cup sequence may simply preserve more of an original (historical) Passover context. There would have been (at least) three cups in the ceremony: a first cup (qiddûš) to sanctify the feast day, a second (hagg¹d¹h) following the liturgy, and a third (“cup of blessing”, kôs šel b§r¹k¹h) following the meal proper. In this scenario, the cup of vv. 17-18 could be the first or second cup, with the cup of the diatheke (‘new covenant’) in vv. 19b-20 would be the third. While it does not at all explain the omission of vv 19b-20 in the short version, this is a most attractive interpretation.
Overall, it is impossible to ignore the external (manuscript) evidence for the long reading, and I would tend to accept it as original. However, I do not regard it nearly as certain as many do today.
A much smaller, related variant was noted in the table above. Quite a few manuscripts, in both passages, read t¢s kain¢s diath¢k¢s (“the new covenant/testament”) instead of t¢s diath¢k¢s (“the covenant/testament”). As in the case of Luke 22:19-20 above, it is important to note that a high percentage of substantive textual variants involve the question of harmonization between passages (especially in the Gospels). Scribes were prone, intentionally or unintentionally, to modify the text of a Gospel to match that of another (also to modify an Old Testament quotation to match that of the Seputagint, and so forth). As a result, in choosing between variant readings, the one which more closely harmonizes with another passage, typically is less likely to be original. In this instance, kain¢¡s (“new”) is probably not original, and is most likely a harmonization, either from Luke 22:20 or 1 Cor. 11:25. It is also worth noting that scribes (orthodox ones, at least) were more apt to add a significant soteriological or Christological detail than to remove it.
Join me next Saturday for a discussion of additional variant readings which are important for a critical study of the Passion and Resurrection Narratives.