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.