Luke 23:34 “But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves.”
Today’s post represents a recent attempt at answering a question raised by someone over the textual integrity of one of Jesus’ sayings from the cross in Luke 23:34. The significant meaning of this saying, and the omission of it in some of the more ancient manuscript copies of Luke, has caused some skeptics to accuse the New Testament text to be utterly corrupt. Is this the case? Below represents the response I gave to some of the issues one will find when reading into the textual history of Luke 23:34.
In order to make today’s post as readable as possible, I have included what I call a “Cliff Notes version” and a “longer nerdy explanation” of the reasons why I think Jesus’ saying in Luke 23:34 is original. I will then close out the post with some final practical suggestions for anyone who preaches or teaches on this text.
Reasons why I think Jesus’ saying in Luke 23:34 is original
In surveying the Greek text of the latest critical edition of the New Testament (Nestle-Aland 28), as well as other resources, here are some thoughts.
1). To give a Cliff notes version and then a more detailed explanation, roughly 5% of our manuscripts of the New Testament omit or have doubts about Luke 23:34.
Now for the detailed nerdy explanation. One of the ancient papyri copies (called P75) and some of the ancient translations of this passage (Syriac and Coptic translations), with readings traceable to the end of the 2nd century, omit this saying of Jesus. Also, a total of eight other early good manuscripts, dated 5th-9th century, omit this phrase. I checked online the one manuscript, Codex Siniaticus, dated early fifth century. The manuscript (one of our best preserved and one of the top two manuscripts in the world), has the phrase, but then it looks like a later scribe erased it and then reinserted it again. This is the evidence cited against this saying of Jesus in Luke 23:34. According to New Testament scholar Randall Price of Liberty University, we have over 5,700 Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament and over 20,000 manuscripts of ancient translations and versions. The evidence cited above accounts for less than 5% of the total manuscripts in existence.
2). In surveying the same critical Greek Text (NA 28), which underlies all of our modern English translations, the manuscript evidence in favor of Luke 23:34 being original has, in my opinion, as much if not more lending evidence in favor of Luke 23:34 being an original saying of Jesus. That’s the Cliff Notes version.
For those who want to know, here is the nerdy, detailed explanation. The one 5th century manuscript, Codex Siniaticus, has the verse reinserted into the text, telling us that the line of scribes that took care of that manuscript must had believed it to be original. The other manuscript evidence in favor of the saying of Jesus have as much geographical distribution and more manuscripts.
Interestingly enough, more of the remainder of ancient translation and versions retain this reading. The early church father Irenaeus, who lived at the end of the 2nd century, has this saying of Jesus. Finally, 95% of all the manuscripts of the New Testament, stretching from at least the 5th century to 16th century contain this reading. This kind of evidence tells me at least that Luke 23:34 is likely original and at bare minimum, is a preserved saying that came from Jesus’ lips on the cross.
3. Cliff Notes version: One significant Scholar thinks the saying to be original to Jesus but wonders about its placement in Luke. Nonetheless. the scholar is unwilling to exclude it from the New Testament.
Now for the nerdy explanation and quote from the scholar. The late New Testament Scholar and foremost expert on textual variants, Bruce Metzger, has a textual commentary on the Greek New Testament wherein he discusses variations such as Luke 23:34. In most (not all) cases, I trust his judgment. Here is what Metzger has to say about this variant, page 154: “The absence of these words from such early and diverse witnesses as (he names the manuscripts) is most impressive and can scarcely be explained as a deliberate excision by copyists who, considering the fall of Jerusalem to be proof that God had not forgiven the Jews, could noot allow it to appear that the prayer of Jesus has remained unanswered. At the same time, the logion (a saying of Jesus), though probably not part of the original Gospel of Luke, bears self-evident tokens of its dominical origin, and was retained, within double square brackets in its traditional place where it has been incorportated by unknown copyists relatively early in the transmission of the Third Gospel.”
4. I have read critics that have tried to use the variations among the manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments as evidence for the corruption of the text. I have in my research found that such blanket statements are over-reactions and hasty generalizations. When surveying the variations among the manuscripts (over 200,000), Dr. Daniel Wallace, a N.T Textual critic out of Dallas Theological Seminary, notes:
a). The vast majority of the variants, some 75%, are simply nonesense readings or differences in spelling.
b). The next 24% are meaningful, but not viable, differences. According to Wallace, this simply means that the translation and sense of the text is not affected.
c). According to Wallace, only 1% of the entire text of the New Testament (138,162 words) has variants that are meaningful and viable.
All Wallace simply means by this last class of variants is that they do affect in some degree the meaning and sense of the text. However, he cautions: “To argue for large-scale skepticism because we cannot be certain about a very small portion of the text is careless overstatement.”
Dr. Wallace is correct. In an average Greek New Testament (nearly 800 pages), all of the variations that fit in the last category mentioned by Wallace could fit on 3-4 pages. As the late and perhaps the greatest Greek Scholar of the past 100 years, A.T Robinson noted, that of all the variations among all the manuscripts, there may be 1/1000th of the text of which we are not sure of its reading. Which means then that in 99.9% cases, we can discern which readings of original and which ones are the result of a scribal mistake.
5). I know that this kind of stuff may seem tedious, yet whenever we preachers are preaching, many of our modern translations have little footnotes at the bottom that will read something like: “this word, phrase or verse is not found in some of the oldest manuscripts“. Another note one will commonly see in modern English versions is: The NU omits this word or phrase (NU referring to the Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies Greek New Testaments). 99% of the time, when I’m preaching, I never point out the variations. In the 1% of cases, if I do mention it, I cite older versions like the KJV, NKJV and tell the people that matters of doctrine and faith are unaffected. Furthermore, with other cross-references and the surrounding context, we can discern the author’s meaning and wording.
Some final practical suggestions:
a). I do think the evidence tips in favor of Jesus saying as not only being original in Luke 23:34, but that it does indeed belong to Luke’s Gospel.
b). I would still preach this saying in Luke 23:34 as original.
c). To omit this saying destroys the symmetry of the seven sayings Jesus uttered from the cross that we find throughout the four Gospels. The number seven refers to perfection in the scripture. It makes no sense to doubt it’s authenticity
d). Jesus’ statement about praying for the forgiveness of his executioners is not to be restricted only to the Jewish nation. I think a substantial case can be made from the rest of the New Testament that this saying extends to everyone Jesus died for.
e). As Dr. Wayne Grudem notes in his Systematic Theology, we have the original text and wording of the New Testament spread throughout every copy of the New Testament. The fact we can point out variations does not cast suspicion on the text, but actually affirms it, since even the scribes themselves would make notations about doubtful readings. None of this stuff is new. The ancient scribes and us today are so certain about 99% of the text as to render integrity of the New Testament unaffected.
Hence those are the reasons why I think Jesus’ saying in Luke 23:34 is original.