Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

A Disconcerting Prayer: On the Originality of Luke 23:34a

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

A Disconcerting Prayer: On the Originality of Luke 23:34a

Article excerpt

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Luke 23:34a ("Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing"), one of the famous "seven last words" of Jesus, is enclosed by double brackets in NA27 and UBS4, indicating that the logion is known not to be a part of the original text.1 In reality, however, a vigorous debate rages on, with the proponents of the shorter reading tending to emphasize external evidence, and defenders of the longer reading focusing on intrinsic probability. Both sides have claimed victory in the transcriptional arena but have paid little, if any, attention to early Christian interpretations of the prayer, giving this aspect of the debate a regrettably speculative flavor.2 In this essay I shall review the external evidence, arguing that proponents of the shorter reading have exaggerated their case. Then, after examining the formidable intrinsic evidence in favor of the longer reading, I shall turn to neglected transcriptional evidence that shows that Luke 23:34a was a problem passage in early Christianity.


The evidence for the spuriousness of Luke 23:34a is both early and diverse. The prayer is missing from arguably the two strongest Alexandrian witnesses, p75 and Codex Vaticanus, as well as from 579 and the Sahidic version. It is missing also from important Western witnesses-most notably, the first hand of Codex Bezae and the Old Latin manuscripts a and d-and from the Caesarean manuscript Codex Koridethi. Finally, it is missing from Byzantine manuscripts stretching from Codex W in the late fourth century to 597 in the thirteenth century.

Although it lacks the august company of an early papyrus, the long reading also enjoys early and diverse attestation. Jason A. Whitlark and Mikeal C. Parsons have attempted to characterize the prayer as a distinctively Western reading, claiming that "the evidence for the inclusion of Luke 23.34a is restricted to the Western text prior to the fourth century."3 Yet the only pre-fourth-century witnesses to the text of Luke are p75 and a handful of church fathers, hardly enough evidence to justify speaking of a variant being confined to a particular text type. Moreover, one of these pre-fourth-century witnesses is Origen (ca. 185-254), whose citations of Luke consistently support the Alexandrian text.4Whitlark and Parsons dismiss Origen's testimony, claiming that his "writings evidence many distinctly Western readings," but they make no attempt to explain why one should presume that Origen used a Western text when writing De Pascha (2.43.7-14) and Homiliae in Leviticum (2.1.5), both of which quote the prayer.

Having thus characterized the pre-fourth-century evidence, Whitlark and Parsons assert that the presence of the logion in Codex Sinaiticus is due to mixture with the Western text, citing Westcott and Hort's claim that "Western readings [in Codex Sinaiticus] are specially numerous in St John's Gospel, and in parts of St Luke."5 Surprisingly, Whitlark and Parsons do not attempt to explain why Luke 23 should be considered one of the parts identified by Hort, thereby demoting an important Alexandrian witness to a Western text without an argument. This treatment of the evidence is particularly unfortunate in light of the absence of Western readings in Sinaiticus at the end of Luke, an absence that suggests that Sinaiticus retains its Alexandrian character here. Apart from a few very minor exceptions, such as the omission of ?δη in v. 44, Sinaiticus never agrees with Bezae against p75 or Vaticanus in Luke 23. Moreover, Sinaiticus disagrees with Bezae on every major variant in Luke 23, and lacks the Western non-interpolations.6

Other Alexandrian witnesses to Luke 23:34a are Codex Regius and the Bohairic Coptic version, as well as Didymus the Blind.7 The Palestinian Syriac version, thought to be based on a Caesarean Vorlage,8 also contains the prayer, as do a number of Western witnesses, including Old Latin versions (itaur, b, c, e, f, ff2, 1, r1), the Vulgate, and the Old Syriac. …

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