As described briefly in the previous post, there are at least two ancient versions of St. Luke’s Gospel that emerge from the fog of the early decades of Christianity into the light of the mid-second century side by side. This post will describe three of the most interesting variations between these two versions of St. Luke’s Gospel and what they reveal about their respective texts. These two versions of St. Luke’s Gospel are accompanied by two different versions of the Acts of the Apostles which differ from each other by roughly 8-10 percent. The vast majority of these variations in Acts are merely the result of more elaborate descriptive language in the various narratives. At least some of the variants within the two versions of St. Luke’s Gospel, however, are seen to have weightier theological import.
Cataloging and addressing the complete list of variants between St. Luke’s Gospel in the “Western” and “Alexandrian” textual traditions, or even in their chief exemplars, manuscript codices Bezae and Alexandrinus respectively is beyond the scope of a blog post. There are, however, several passages of significant interest in which there is variation between these two textual traditions which are worthy of comment. This is the case primarily because these variations serve to highlight certain patterns of variation between the two texts, and therefore represent the basic evidence by which a tendenz of one tradition or the other can be addressed. The discussion regarding the relationship between these two lines of tradition, and their mutual relation to Marcion’s gospel, hinges upon these texts which are taken to reflect their respective lines of tradition as a whole.
To demonstrate that these variants are not isolated incidents of transcriptional error or even insertions of individual traditions or harmonization on the part of the scribe, the variants themselves must be connected to broader tendencies visible in the variants found throughout the two texts when they are compared. Therefore, while it is important to address each of these significant passages in their particularity, it is also necessary to show how these variants at these points fit into the overall scope of their respective texts taken as literary wholes. If this cannot be done, it is evidence that an individual variant is not significant to an understanding of the distinction between these two manuscript traditions as wholes.
The first variant of major consequence to understanding the two text traditions involved in the transmission of St. Luke’s Gospel occurs in the account of Jesus’ baptism. In the Alexandrian textual tradition, the heavenly voice states, “Σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν σοὶ εὐδόκησα,” the familiar, “You are my beloved Son, in you, I am well pleased.” The Western textual tradition, however, has here, “υἱός μου εἶ σύ ἐγὼ σήμερον γεγέννηκά σε,” or, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” The latter, Western reading is a direct quotation from Psalm 2:7 in its Greek Old Testament rendering. This particular variant, therefore, brings to bear St. Luke’s use of the Old Testament, his teaching about Jesus’ baptism in particular, and by extension his entire Christology. In addition to these larger issues of Lukan theology, the Western version of this text enjoyed widespread currency throughout the first three centuries, frequently cited as such and the quotation from Psalm 2:7 being drawn out in some detail in the fathers and other early Christian authors from a wide geographical spread, not only in the West.
In assessing the theological value of either variant, the Alexandrian reading seems in this case to be, appropriately, neutral. It brings the account of Luke into parallel with the corresponding account of the baptism of Christ in Matthew. The Western reading, on the other hand, implies more regarding the nature of Jesus’ descent from David, the nature of his divine sonship, and his Messianic status. It represents a more theologically laden text, whether its provenance is earlier, later, or parallel. The place of the Alexandrian reading within St. Luke’s Gospel, and the overarching work of Luke-Acts, is then simple. It represents merely another case of parallel material with St. Matthew’s Gospel and is therefore unremarkable. The Western variant, on the other hand, can be further assessed in regard to Luke’s theology as expressed elsewhere in the work. It has become commonplace to hold that this reading represents an adoptionist Christology, proposed by some to be ‘early’. It is worth noting in this context that the so-called Gospel of the Ebionites, in its record of the baptism of Christ, records both variants with an interpolated, “and again.” If this were indeed the natural reading, it would call into question the relationship of this text and the preceding birth narrative in St. Luke’s Gospel. However, the fact that this reading represents a quotation from a messianic Psalm rather calls into question it’s reading as a statement concerning Christology in the abstract.
St. Luke’s Gospel, and the Acts of the Apostles, contain further connections between Jesus’ messianic role and purpose and the figure of David, and the promises made to him in the Old Testament as reflected by this quotation. The first of these, like the variant in question, is peculiar to the Western text of St. Luke’s Gospel. In St. Luke’s Gospel, the account of Christ’s baptism is immediately followed by the genealogy of Jesus. The Western text of this genealogy, however, differs from the Alexandrian in tracing the descent of Jesus from David to Joseph in that it follows specifically the kingly line. While this makes the approach of the genealogy roughly comparable to that of Matthew, here the text of Luke is not limited to Matthew’s fourteen generations, and so the figures of Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah are added in order to bring the genealogy in line with the Old Testament account of the descent of the Judahite kings. Psalm 2 is a messianic Psalm, and the specifically quoted words were used at the accession of a new king, representing the beginning of that king’s special relationship with Yahweh the God of Israel. This connection in the Western variants communicates a view of the baptism of Christ as a coronation, followed by the reading of Jesus’ genealogy as a testament to his credentials to assume the Davidic throne. In the second century, St. Justin Martyr cites Luke 3:22 in its Western form in his Dialogue with Trypho (88.8) to precisely this effect, as a demonstration of Christ’s messianic status as the king descended from David.
Additionally, St. Luke indisputably cites Psalm 2:7 in St. Paul’s sermon at Antioch in Acts 13:16-41. Here, Jesus is first specifically connected to David as his seed in v. 23, in parallel to the genealogy in particularly the Western text of Luke, but then goes on to further connect Jesus to David by way of Psalm 2:7, first, and then through further prophecy drawn from the Psalter and David himself. Acts 13 presents David as having spoken in the person of Christ before Jesus’ birth, in his own generation. Further, in the sermon at Antioch, the subject of St. John the Forerunner and his baptism is interwoven with the overall argument regarding Jesus and David. In this passage of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke revisits the themes of the earlier chapters of his gospel account, presenting this as a further thematic argument in favor of the Western reading as a reflection of authentic Lukan thought.
Another variant of theological significance between Western and Alexandrian texts occurs in Luke 22:19-20, in the narrative of the institution of the eucharist. The latter narrative encompasses the immediate context of 22:15-20, though the textual variant occurs in the final two verses. Specifically, the Western manuscripts lack v. 19b-20 of the Alexandrian text. In this case, the text of the Western manuscript tradition is significantly shorter than that of the Alexandrian text, and so this variant constitutes one of Westcott and Hort’s “Western non-interpolations.” The passage is so categorized not only because the text is shorter than the Alexandrian, but also because Westcott and Hort saw good reason to consider the Western reading older, and therefore more “neutral” than the neutral text.
The Western text, reads, “καὶ λαβὼν ἄρτον εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς λέγων· Τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου. πλὴν ἰδοὺ ἡ χεὶρ τοῦ παραδιδόντος με μετ’ ἐμοῦ ἐπὶ τῆς τραπέζης,” or “and when he took bread he broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body…Now look, the hand of the one who betrays me is with mine on the table.” The longer Alexandrian reading inserts several phrases within Christ’s saying, “Τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν διδόμενον· τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν. καὶ τὸ ποτήριον ὡσαύτως μετὰ τὸ δειπνῆσαι, λέγων· Τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη ἐν τῷ αἵματί μου, τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν ἐκχυννόμενον. πλὴν ἰδοὺ ἡ χεὶρ τοῦ παραδιδόντος με μετ’ ἐμοῦ ἐπὶ τῆς τραπέζης.” Inserted into the ellipsis in the first quotations are the words, “…given for you. Do this as my remembrance. And the cup likewise after the supper, saying, “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you.” The added wording here in the words of institution is similar, but not identical, to the wording of that statement in 1 Corinthians 11:24. In that context, St. Paul is recording not only what he says is a historical event, parallel to St. Luke’s depiction, but also a liturgical usage common already in the Christian gatherings at that time. This reading also incorporates elements from the parallel passage in Mark 14:22-24 which are not present in the shorter Western variant.
Though the Western reading is attested by far fewer manuscripts, both in the Greek and in the ancient versions, there are several strong arguments for the Western reading being the more neutral Lukan text. The vocabulary of the longer Alexandrian reading is perceived as being atypical for Luke-Acts. This includes both the language of the “new covenant” and the relationship between the shedding of blood and the remission of sins. The former language does not appear in the rest of the Lukan corpus, while the latter language is seen to run counter to other emphases and ways of understanding Christ’s death and the role of his blood in Luke-Acts. In particular, it seems to run counter to the tendenz of St. Luke’s transformation of passages related to the atonement in St. Mark’s Gospel.
One feature of the longer Alexandrian text is that the added phrases produce two seemingly distinct cups in the narrative of the meal. This produces a sequence of cup followed by bread followed by cup has been argued to be commensurate with the normal Jewish practice of the paschal meal. At the same time, however, the affinity of the added phrases to St. Paul’s recounting of the words of institution implies that the passage in its Alexandrian form is more closely linked to the later Christian celebration than to the initial historical meal. The latter featured only bread and cup. It has been alternately argued that the Alexandrian text is more neutral, and that the separation of the early Christian community from Judaism led to a misunderstanding of the two cups, resulting in the removal of the later phrases, or that the Western text is more neutral, the words being added to bring the text in line with later Eucharistic practice in which the cup was offered second. The latter argument is weakened by the fluidity of the order in which the consecration of the elements is described in early Christian sources.
A third variation between the Western and Alexandrian textual traditions occurs in Luke 22. The Western text of this passage contains two verses, 43 and 44, at the end of the account of Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. These two verses read, “ὤφθη δὲ αὐτῷ ἄγγελος ἀπ’ οὐρανοῦ ἐνισχύων αὐτόν. καὶ γενόμενος ἐν ἀγωνίᾳ ἐκτενέστερον προσηύχετοκαὶ ἐγένετο ὁ ἱδρὼς αὐτοῦ ὡσεὶ θρόμβοι αἵματος καταβαίνοντες ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν,” translated, “And an angel appeared from heaven and strengthened him. And because he was in agony, he began to pray more tenaciously, his sweat falling like drops of blood upon the ground.” The two verses are found across the Western textual tradition, as well as in nearly all Caesarean and Byzantine manuscripts, but not in the Alexandrian tradition. This textual consensus was an early crack in the now crumbling edifice of the idea of manuscript families of the New Testament text. Additionally, they are cited extensively throughout the patristic witness. This widespread popularity led to an early consensus, as expressed by, for example, Adolf von Harnack, that these verses were authentically Lukan. To that date, no evidence had been found for manuscripts lacking these verses before the year 300.
Since that time, two manuscript finds have led to reconsideration, and even a reversal, of this general consensus. The first of these finds were two separate papyri from the third century, P69 and P75. The latter excluded the two verses, while the former excluded not only these verses but the entirety of Luke 22:43-44. The second find was a family of minuscule manuscripts from Southern Italy, f13, in which these two verses were transposed into the text of St. Matthew’s Gospel at 26:39. The two papyri cast doubt as to the uniform presence of this text in early manuscripts. The fragment suggests that the two verses represent a free-floating tradition that was interpolated into the text at various places, finally settling in St. Luke’s Gospel at some point in the third century. This evidence, while suggestive, is not however decisive. F13, as a family of manuscripts, dates from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries in its primary exemplars and shows clear evidence of editing related to the then-current local Byzantine texts. They are therefore somewhat eclectic in nature. Likewise, while the two papyri show that there was at least some textual diversity before 300, they at most move that variation back to the mid-third century and therefore do not fundamentally transform the character of the textual witness as a whole.
In light of the ambiguities cast by these manuscripts, a new consensus emerged, pioneered by Bart Ehrman in an article co-authored with Mark Plunkett. Ehrman argued that these two verses represent an interpolation made in the mid-second century, and made deliberately for doctrinal reasons. The contents of these two verses, Jesus’ agony in the garden and his strengthening by the angel, point to the humanity of Christ. Ehrman argues that due to the apparent absence of these verses in Marcion’s gospel based on early witnesses, that this is an anti-docetic and in particular an anti-Marcionite, interpolation. This theory is bolstered by the presence in certain eighth and ninth-century authors engaged in the monophysite controversy who attribute the addition of these verses to the Nestorians. Marcion’s contemporaries, however, unjustly or not, accused him of having purged a series of texts from his gospel, implying that there were already significant textual differences between the standard text of Luke in the second century and Marcion’s text. While it is not impossible that Marcion’s opponents deliberately added to their sacred text in order to better counter his argumentation, it is equally possible, and perhaps even more likely, that there was already textual diversity in the mid-second century, which diversity the opponents of Marcion attributed to the latter’s malice.
If one continues to tilt at the windmill of the “original text” of St. Luke, these examples are of no help. Even Westcott and Hort, dedicated to finding the original text of the New Testament Scriptures, had to ultimately admit that their preferred text was more original, except when it wasn’t. Barring a textual find that would be nothing short of miraculous, there is no way of determining in this world which of these two texts proceeded from the pen of St. Luke or his scribe, if either. Scholars have suggested, in addition to the preference of one for the other, that they both derive from a single, common, “original” parent or that St. Luke composed both versions, one earlier and one later. What we see in St. Luke’s Gospel, however, is the way in which difference, discrepancy, and uniqueness within the richness of our New Testament tradition can itself bring forward and spotlight theological principles. The addition of a few names to a genealogy in a few manuscripts, combined with a slight variation in wording, can forefront an important aspect of Christology. Variations in narrative wording can reveal the early stages of liturgical tradition and its movement from Jewish feast to Christian sacrifice. A preserved piece of tradition can cement the teaching of the incarnation. The attempt to isolate a single authoritative text buries all of this tradition by excluding and marginalizing the richness that carries and preserves it down to us and our generation.