Did Jesus pray, “Father, forgive them”?

Luke 23:34 is one of the most famous sayings of the Bible because it is one of the seven last words of Christ from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” This is a beloved text of scripture, and for good reason. Here Jesus models for us what he in fact commands all of his disciples to do. Even as his enemies torture and kill him, Jesus loves his enemies and prays for them.

I delivered a sermon at my church yesterday on this text. But when I began preparing for the message last week, I wrestled with a significant textual difficulty that occurs precisely at this point of the text.

[Warning: This rest of this post is going to be unusually technical, not the kind of thing that I would normally do here on the blog. Nevertheless, in my sermon preparation I spent an unusual amount of time on this problem, so I thought it might be useful to other pastors as well.]

The problem is this. Some of our earliest and best Greek manuscripts do not contain these words. There is no prayer at all in these early witnesses. This omission has led the editors of both the UBS and Nestle Aland texts to place the words in double brackets. Here is how the verse appears in NA27:

The double brackets enclose all of Jesus’ prayer and indicate that the prayer is a later addition to the text that is not from the pen of Luke. The editors of the UBS text give the omission a grade of “A”—which means that they think that it is absolutely certain that these words did not come from Luke. Some other scribe added them later. Here’s how the evidence shakes out in the apparatus:

P75 is an ancient papyrus that goes back to at least the early 3rd century. This is the oldest Greek manuscript that we know of containing this verse, and the prayer is not in it. In his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Bruce Metzger cites two main arguments against the authenticity of this saying of Jesus: (1) that early witnesses like P75 omit it and (2) the improbability of later scribes omitting such words (p. 154).

So is this the end of the story? Are we really to conclude that this prayer is a non-canonical addition to the text of the New Testament? I don’t think so. In fact, I feel confident that Bruce Metzger and the editors of the UBS text have gotten this one wrong.

The early manuscripts that omit the verse are not as conclusive as it might seem. Joël Delobel has shown that the text’s appearance in Tatian’s Diatessaron (late 2nd century) predates the earliest Greek witness P75 (3rd century) that omits it (Joël Delobel, “Luke 23:34a: A Perpetual Text-Critical Crux?,” in Sayings of Jesus: Canonical and Non-Canonical: Essays in Honour of Tjitze Baarda, Supplements to Novum Testamentum [Leiden: Brill, 1997], 28-29.). Even though the evidence from the Diatessaron is indirect (all that survives is a commentary on this book), we should not dismiss this important, early testimony that the saying is from Luke.

The supposition that later scribes would not have omitted these words is also suspect. Bart Ehrman argues that in fact some scribes might very well have been motivated by an anti-semitic bias to drop the reading (Bart D. Ehrman, “The Text of the Gospels at the End of the Second Century,” in Codex Bezae: Studies from the Lunel Colloquium, June 1994, New Testament Tools and Studies [Leiden; New York: Brill, 1996], 111-13). But this idea is not new with Ehrman. Without calling it anti-semitism, Leon Morris argued in his 1974 commentary on Luke that “Early copyists may have been tempted to omit the words by the reflection that perhaps God had not forgiven the guilty [Jewish] nation” (p. 356).

So if you are reading the UBS Greek New Testament, don’t let the “A” grade in favor of the omission throw you for a loop. There are good reasons for regarding this saying as authentic to Luke. It would be a shame for pastors and teachers to pass over this text simply because of the “A” grade from the editors. There are solid reasons to preach it as an authentic, canonical saying of Jesus.

16 Responses to Did Jesus pray, “Father, forgive them”?

  1. Brent Hobbs January 24, 2011 at 9:37 am #

    Good post, thanks Denny. I enjoy stuff like this.

  2. Charlton Connett January 24, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    Thank you, Denny. That post helps me think a bit more about how to handle those situations where we come across a passage that may or may not be original to the text.

  3. James K. January 24, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    So is there any other older textual evidence to support the common reading other than a reference in a commentary on the Diatessaron?

    It seems that you are saying that the bulk of the manuscript evidence except for the Diatessaron reference is against the authenticity of the prayer.

    Arguing for what a scribe may or may not have done is highly speculative and often cuts both ways.

  4. John January 24, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    I think this case would be highly strengthened by evidence for Acts 7:59-60. If this passage is well attested to, then I think it lends credence to the originality of Luke 23:34.

  5. LarryS January 24, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    John, i think i can guess where u might go in your thinking (stephen is following example of Jesus).

    I’d say that stengthens Luke 23. To say ‘highly’ strengthens seems a bit strong. We also need to factor in our love of the Luke 23.34 saying and consider how those ‘feelings’ and tradition factor in.

  6. RD January 24, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    This is just one of several instances where scriptures that we are given in our modern translations are not present in the earliest known manuscripts. The account of the woman who is caught in adultery, found in John’s Gospel, is not included in the earliest manuscripts. The entire final portion of Mark’s Gospel (after the women flee the empty tomb, comitting to tell no one of what they’ve discovered) is a later addition and not included in earliest manuscripts of Mark.

    Does it matter whether these were actual (factual) accounts of events?

  7. James K. January 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    @John: I like this kind of intercanonical support for the prayer in Luke.

  8. Eric Redmond January 26, 2011 at 1:21 am #

    Thanks for calling attention to this TC note, Burk. Good post. I will be able to use this in one of my freshman courses. Blessings! ECR

  9. Peter G. January 28, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    For those interested, Nathan Eubank has recently published an article in JBL (No. 3 [2010], 521-536) arguing for authenticity of Jesus’ prayer. I found a version of it online here.

  10. RD January 28, 2011 at 1:46 pm #

    Peter G., thanks for sharing the link to the Eubank article.

    I have to ask again, though, does it really matter whether Jesus actually said this? It’s inclusion in the narrative of Luke demonstrates for us a truth about the nature of Jesus (whether he actually uttered the words or not).

  11. Charlton Connett January 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm #

    RD,

    I know we come from different perspectives on this, but I would say for myself, it absolutely matters whether Jesus said those words, or something like them (recognizing the fluidity of pre-modern quotations). Why? Because I hold to the inspiration, infallibility, and authority of Scripture. If a scribe or someone else has inserted a text into a passage that was not original to the author, then when I preach, I am preaching the words of man as though they had the authority of the Word of God. It is the Word of God that changes the heart of men, and that word is what a preacher or a teacher is called to put forth. To preach on this passage, if it is not authentic, is to thus elevate the words of men to a status they do not deserve.

    If a passage is not authentic to the text, then that raises questions about that passage’s inspiration. If we cannot be sure that passage is part of the inspired Word of God, then that removes its authority. (The way I understand inspiration is not simply that a text has been accepted for hundreds of years, but it was actually written by one of the inspired authors of Scripture.) If a passage no longer has authority, then it ought not be preached on, or held with the same esteem as the rest of Scripture.

    I know there are then questions about which section should or should not be thus included, and I think in that area we must each study and determine an answer for ourselves. As long as a passage does not teach anything heretical we may simply disagree on it, but we should certainly be, at the least, cautious about preaching from such a text unless we are willing and able to give a defense for its inclusion in Scripture. (Thus, for instance, I won’t preach on the last section of the Gospel of Mark. Because at this point I am not convinced that section is original.)

  12. RD January 28, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

    Charlton, how have you been, my friend!?

    I know a lot of pastors who won’t preach on the passage in John’s gospel concerning the woman who was about to be stoned by the angry mob because they are not convinced that the story can be attributed to Jesus. I guess I can understand that, if you want to insist that the passages on which you preach are original. But, really, how can we know for certain what is and what isn’t original? We have no copies of any of the originals. Can’t the Holy Spirit use the stories and verses that we do have in our Bible to convict and teach etc? Jesus used parables to express truth. His listeners weren’t concerned whether the stories he told really involved actual people.

  13. Larry S January 28, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

    Charlton + RD

    How many people (even pastors with degrees) are equipped to as Charlton writes “I know there are then questions about which section should or should not be thus included, and I think in that area we must each study and determine an answer for ourselves.”

    IMO, making a truly ‘informed’ decision is pretty much reserved a person who has devoted their academic career to textual criticism. Dr. G. Fee comes to mind and others in the academy. Most of us have a hard enough time just trying to track the presentation of the material/arguments. So “determining an answer for ourselves” is a bit of a stretch.

    And I’m enough of a realist to think that if the pastors who frequent this blog got up on a Sunday and said they had come to the conclusion that Luke 23.34 didn’t come from the lips of Jesus they would be looking for a new church fairly soon.

    Further, I truly think that if we are brutally honest we would admit that our emotional investment and love of a particular text plays a part in our decision making.

    Speaking of which, Charlton are you aware that yjr 1 Cor. 11-34-35 (women be silent) are thought by some textual critical scholars to be a later scribal gloss? Just asking is all 🙂

  14. Charlton Connett January 29, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    Larry,

    I was actually aware of that one. =)

    Rd,

    It depends on what aspect of life you are asking about. In regards to life in general though, God has been reminding me of how gracious he is, beyond what I deserve.

    As to the topic at hand,

    I don’t think it is too much to ask a pastor to take the time to familiarize himself with the text he is preaching on. Any pastor should know at least the controversial parts of a passage he is preaching, the most controversial interpretations, and have a response to them.

    There are enough resources available that even if a pastor cannot spend a lifetime as a textual critic, he can at least exercise a degree of critical thinking when it comes to examining the arguments made about a specific text. (I submit to you that Denny has likely not spent years analyzing this text, yet he made an informed decision that he has now publicly defended.) To say that a pastor cannot be familiar with the arguments both for and against the passage in John that RD has referred to (or the long ending in Mark, or some of the numbers in the Old Testament, etc.) and thus make a determination for himself seems lazy to me.

    This idea seems to me like saying that because of the intricacies of the Greek or Hebrew, no one but a scholar who has devoted his life to mastering those languages should attempt to base his exegesis of the text on what he reads in those languages. While it sounds like a good caution, it assumes that either a person has gross ignorance or total mastery. A person with only a basic understanding of Hebrew can pick up books on specific exegetical issues though, and should do so, if there is any controversy associated with the text, or if he has difficulty understanding the text. (I note this because it was what was required of myself and other students in Seminary. We were not told, “Your exegesis is excusable because you haven’t mastered the language.” And I would look with suspicion on any professor who would say such.)

    I’m aware that pastor’s have a great number of responsibilities, but I do not think a pastor who does not have time to read and study, so he can properly preach and teach the Word to his people, is using his time wisely. If a pastor is basing his duties on what Scripture lays out, reading and studying and being prepared to defend hard exegetical decisions is one of his duties. (I’m including whether a text is original to Scripture as an exegetical decision.)

    Here are some questions though: If we should not make such decisions about the text, then how should we preach? Accept all questionable passages, or reject all questionable passages? If we rely upon the “informed” opinions of experts, and do not attempt to make such decisions ourselves, then which expert do we trust, as even experts disagree? A thousand more questions and difficulties spring to my mind if we take the road of “trust the experts”.

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    […] Burk offers a lengthy discussion of the textual problem in Luke 23:34 and why think thinks many experts are wrong when they conclude that Jesus’ prayer […]

  2. Around the Blogosphere 1/24/2011 | Servants of Grace - January 24, 2011

    […] Did Jesus pray Father forgive them? by Dr. Denny Burk: http://www.dennyburk.com/did-jesus-pray-%E2%80%9Cfather-forgive-them%E2%80%9D/ […]

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