Here in the Saturday Series, I will be beginning a set of studies on the Book of Acts, looking at various critical issues and how they relate to a thorough and accurate interpretation of the book. Acts is essentially a history—of the early Christian movement, and the missionary activity of the apostles and other early believers. As such, there are many important historical-critical questions and issues to be addressed. These involve the historical background of the narrative, the historical reliability of the episodes recorded, and how that history is presented within the religious and literary framework of the book.
Of special importance are the sermon-speeches that appear throughout the book of Acts, featuring prominently within the narrative structure. The nature of these speeches raise a number of challenging critical questions. I have addressed most of these in considerable detail in my earlier series “The Speeches of Acts,” and will only be touching on a few of them in the current studies. The sermon-speeches are part of a complex literary and artistic structure, and can only be explained fully by commentary that takes into account the literary-critical scope of the work. Such analysis examines the composition of the book—how the narratives were put together, the style and rhetoric used, the development of the principal themes, the theological points of emphasis, and so forth.
With regard to the text of Acts, there is one major text-critical issue which all scholars and students of the book must confront. The book of Acts exists in two versions, or recensions: one represented by the majority text (including the “oldest and best” manuscripts), and the other by the so-called “Western Text”. The label “Western” refers primarily to the great uncial manuscript D (the Beza Codex, or Codex Bezae), along with a large number of Latin (and various other) manuscripts. There are important differences throughout the New Testament that mark these manuscripts as “Western”; however, they are much more pronounced in the book of Acts. The differences are often so great that one can rightly speak of a separate version or recension of the text.
Scholars continue to debate the nature and origins of the two ‘versions’ of Acts, with most commentators holding that the Bezae/Western version represents a secondary development. The Western text (of D, etc) tends to be much more expansive, and so is considered to be secondary, on the basis of the general critical principle that the shorter reading is more likely to be original (lectio brevior potior). However, in a few key instances, the ‘Western’ text has a markedly shorter reading; B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, in the notes to their critical edition to the New Testament, identified a number of these and referred to them by the rather confusing label “Western non-interpolations”. An interpolation is a technical-critical term for a secondary addition to the text. Westcott and Hort held that, in these selected occurrences where the Western text has the shorter reading, the Western reading is to be considered original, against the weight of evidence from the (longer) majority text.
Nearly all of these “Western non-interpolations” are in Luke-Acts, with most occurring in the Passion and Resurrection narratives of the Gospel of Luke. Previously, many critical commentators accepted the Westcott-Hort evaluation of these shorter readings; in more recent decades, however, the situation has changed, and most modern commentators now tend to accept the longer ‘majority’ text in these instances. Papyrus discoveries (such as the Bodmer Papyri) have added important manuscript support for the originality of the longer readings.
In this week’s study, as a way of introducing this area of critical analysis (of Luke-Acts), I wish to focus on the variant readings at the close of Luke’s Gospel.
Luke’s Gospel concludes with a scene (apparently still on Easter day) which, in the “oldest and best” manuscripts (Ë75 a B C* L 1 33 579 etc), reads as follows:
50 Ex¢¡gagen dé autoús [éxœ] héœs prós B¢thanían kaí epáras tás cheíras autoú eulóg¢sen autoús. 51 kaí egéneto en tœ¡ eulogeín autón autoús diést¢ ap’ autœ¡n kaí anephéreto eis tón ouranón.
“And he brought/led them out[side] until toward Bethany, and lifting over (them) his hands he spoke well to them [i.e. blessed them]; and it came to be, in his speaking well to them [i.e. blessing them], he stood (apart) from them and was carried up into the heaven.”
52 Kaí autoí proskyn¢¡santes autón hypéstrepsan eis Ierousal¢¡m metá charás megál¢s 53 kaí ¢¡san diá pantós en tœ¡ hierœ¡ eulogoúntes tón Theón.
“And they, kissing toward him [i.e. worshiping him], turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy, and they were through all [i.e. continually] in the sacred place [i.e. temple] speaking well to [i.e. blessing] God.”
(The Majority text differs slightly, primarily in reading eis B¢thanían [“unto Bethany”] instead of prós B¢thanían [“toward Bethany”] in v. 50, and adding kaí ainoúntes or ainoúntes kaí [“blessing and praising God”] in v. 53.)
There are, however, two major variants (omissions) in the key Western MSS (D, Old Latin a b d e ff2 l, and the Sinaitic Syriac):
- Verse 51 reads: kaí egéneto en tœ¡ eulogeín autón autoús diést¢ ap’ autœ¡n “and it came to be, in his blessing them, he stood (apart) from them” (without kaí anephéreto eis tón ouranón “and he was carried up into the heaven”). In other words, it relates that Jesus simply “parted” from them, without any reference to an ascension into heaven.
- Verse 52 continues: kaí autoí hypéstrepsan eis Ierousal¢¡m metá charás megál¢s “and they turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy…” (without proskyn¢¡santes auton “worshiping him”).
See how this shorter version of vv. 50-53 reads, in context, in conventional translation:
“And he led them out toward Bethany, and raising his hands over (them) he blessed them; and it came to be, in his blessing them, (that) he parted from them; and they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the Temple, blessing God.”
These are both so-called Western “Non-Interpolations” (see above). The first of the two (in v. 51) is far more significant, especially since, in addition to the Western MSS, the shorter reading is also found in the Georgian version (group 1) and the original hand of Codex Sinaiticus (a*).
How is one to explain this variant? As indicated above, the vast majority of MSS, including all the early/best Greek MSS (Ë75, a [corrected], A, B, C, K, L, W, X, D, etc.) contain the words “and he was carried up into the heaven” (kai anephéreto eis ton ouranón). The manuscript evidence would seem to be decidedly in favor of the longer reading, but internal considerations make it a bit less certain. In which direction did the change occur? There are a number of possibilities:
Reasons for Omission (in support of the longer text):
- To avoid contradiction with the chronology in Acts. It is certainly possible that scribes, noticing the apparent discrepancy between v. 51 and Luke’s own account of the Ascension in Acts 1:1-11, deleted the words. In the Gospel, it would seem that the Ascension takes place on the same night as the Resurrection, whereas in Acts (v. 3) it occurs 40 days later. This is probably the most popular explanation.
- A scribal mistake. A scribe may have skipped from a)p’ au)twn kai in v. 51 to ou)ranon kai au)toi at the end of v.51 & start of v. 52 (homoioarcton: each has the segment nkai). However, this would require that (the precursors of) a and D both made the same mistake, which is rather unlikely.
- Theological reasons. Some scholars have thought that the so-called “Non-Interpolations” (involving the Resurrection appearances and “Ascension”) exhibit a purposeful tendency in the Western text (in Luke-Acts) to eliminate concrete references to the resurrection body of Jesus, and physical nature of the Ascension, etc. With regard to the Ascension in particular, see especially Eldon J. Epp’s article “The Ascension in the Textual Tradition of Luke-Acts”, in New Testament Textual Criticism: Its Significance for Exegesis. Essays in Honor of Bruce M. Metzger. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981, pp. 131-145.
- The support of Acts. Acts 1:2 would seem to indicate that the Gospel referenced the Ascension (áchri h¢¡s h¢méras … anel¢¡mphth¢, “until which day…he was taken up”). Assuming this is the case, it could be (rightly) argued that the author would not say he described an event which he in fact did not record. It should be noted that several Western witnesses also omit reference to the ascension (anel¢¡mphth¢) in this verse.
Reasons for Addition (in support of the shorter text):
- Literary or Theological reasons. Although Luke-Acts may have been published together as a ‘two-volume’ work, by the mid-second century (at the latest), the Gospel of Luke was being copied and distributed bound together (in codex form) with the other Gospels; meaning that, as in nearly all printed New Testament editions today, it was separated from the book of Acts. The shorter reading, if original, would close the Gospel with the suggestion that Jesus simply “parted” from the disciples—a rather unexciting and possibly misleading conclusion. The scribal tendency was always to add Christological details, rather than remove them; it would have been natural to add the few extra words (both in v. 51 and 52), in order to exalt the portrait of Christ.
- The shorter text removes the chronological difficulty with Acts. This argument cuts both ways (see above), for the longer text could be said to be the more difficult reading (lectio difficilior potior). However, since Luke explicitly records the Ascension taking place at least 40 days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3ff), would he (the same author of Luke-Acts, by general consensus) have created the confusion by recording the Ascension (apparently) taking place on the day of the Resurrection (Luke 24:50-53)?
- Additional support from Acts. It is possible that the phrase áchri h¢¡s h¢méras … anel¢¡mphth¢ (“until which day…he was taken up”) in Acts 1:2 should not be taken to imply that the Ascension was narrated in the Gospel, but only events which took place prior to that day. In this regard, to note the reference (v. 22) in Peter’s subsequent address (Acts 1:15-22), where nearly similar language is used. Could the author of Acts simply be reproducing the phrasing from v. 22, as part of his “prologue”, without specific reference to details in the Gospel?
- Evidence from the Church Fathers. The Ascension is referred to numerous times in writings of the 1st-3rd centuries, for example:
Epistle of Barnabas 15; JUSTIN: 1 Apology 26, Dialogue with Trypho 82, 87, On the Resurrection ch. 9; IRENAEUS: Against Heresies I.10, III.17, IV.33.13, 34.3, V.31, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 41, 84; CLEMENT: Stromateis VI. ch. 15; ORIGEN: On First Principles Pref §1, II.6.1, 7.2, On Prayer §23, Against Celsus VII.8; TERTULLIAN: Against Marcion V.8, Against Praxeas 25, 30, Prescription Against Heretics 13, On the Resurrection 51; The Muratorian Canon; Epistle of the Apostles 18; Cyprian On the Lord’s Prayer §8, etc. (by no means an exhaustive list). Most of these references are to the narrative in Acts 1:9ff; Ephesians 4:9-10, or to the belief generally; however, I have not been able to find a single clear reference to the long text of Luke 24:51-52 cited in any writing up through the third century (outside of the Diatessaron [§55], a work with a singularly difficult textual history). Moreover, in Tertullian’s fourth book Against Marcion, in which he goes over many details of Luke’s Gospel, up through the Resurrection appearances (chapter 43), he does not cite the long text of v. 51 or 52, and makes no reference to the Ascension (cf. Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 257-8).
- The Western Non-Interpolations. Despite protests from scholars on both sides of the argument, it is hard to avoid the notion that the 9 key “non-interpolations”, eight of which are all found together in the same set of MSS (D a b d e ff2 l), stand or fall together—most likely, they are all original, or they are not. If one accepts the shorter text in the previous 7 Lukan instances, then one really ought to do so here as well.
Clearly, intrinsic/transcriptional arguments can be made for both sides. Ultimately, it is difficult to ignore the overwhelming textual evidence. If the longer reading is, in fact, original, I suspect that the apparent discrepancy (with Acts) may be the result of Luke compressing/conflating the narrative, thereby giving the impression that it all happened on one night. This sort of handling of historical narrative was quite common with ancient writers, as unsatisfying as it might be to our modern sensibilities. On the other hand, the clear scribal tendency was to add significant Christological details to the Gospel narrative, rather than omit them (even when there are apparent discrepancies involved); it seems to have been much more acceptable to modify (instead of deleting) difficult words in the text. The presence of the longer reading(s) in the Bodmer Papyrus (Ë75, c. 200) have turned the tide decisively; however, I am by no means so certain the shorter reading(s) can be dismissed as easily as many commentators do today.