Monday, May 28, 2012

Text Note: Luke 23:38 (John 19:20)

The issue:
I recently ran across this interesting textual variation in Luke 23:38.  The traditional text includes mention of the tri-lingual inscription over Jesus on the cross (cf. John 19:20); whereas, the modern critical text omits mention of the three languages.
We can see this difference by comparing translations:
Translations of Luke 23:38 based on the traditional text (emphasis added)
KJV:   And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

NKJV:  And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Translations of Luke 23:38 based on the modern critical text:
RSV/ESV/NRSV:  There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
NIV:  There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

External Evidence:

The traditional text appears to have strong support among the manuscripts generally held in high regard by modern text critics.  These include the original hand of Sinaiticus, A, D, W, Theta.  It is also supported by the vast majority of manuscripts in the ecclesiastical tradition.  There are some variations in this tradition.  For example, codices A and D omit the phrase “over him” (ep auto) and use the verb epigrapho rather than grapho.

The modern critical text, on the other hand, is supported by p75, the first corrector of Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, L, 070, and 1241.

Internal Evidence:

The decision to omit the phrase in question in the modern text is no doubt driven by the assumption that there was a scribal effort to harmonize Luke 23:38 with John 19:20, the only other verse in the canonical Gospels to include mention of the tri-lingual inscription.

Metzger in his Textual Commentary gives the modern critical reading a “{B}” rating (see pp. 180-181).  He concludes, “The mention here of the three languages in which the inscription on the cross was written is almost certainly a gloss, probably taken from the text of Jn 19:20.”  He lists three considerations against the traditional text:

(1) “it is absent from several of the earliest and best witnesses”;

(2) there are differences in the texts that include the passage; and

(3) “there is no satisfactory explanation for the omission of the statement, if it were originally present in the text.”

How might one respond to these three challenges?

(1)   The traditional text has especially strong external attestation.  It is even the reading of codex Sinaiticus.

(2) The differences in the texts that include the tradition might be exaggerated.  Would we not expect some variation given apparent conflict in the early scribal tradition over the precise reading?

(3) If it might be assumed that the traditional text represents a “gloss” to harmonize with John 19:20, might we not also reasonably theorize that the removal of the disputed phrase could possibly be an effort to harmonize with the accounts of Matthew 27:37 and Mark 15:26, which omit reference to the tri-lingual inscription?  Do all efforts to harmonize necessarily include expansion or might they also include abbreviation?

In addition, we might note the fact that of all the Synoptic Gospels, Luke appears to have the strongest literary connections with John.  Just one example of this would be the appearance of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42 and their prominence in John 11 (cf. also Jesus’ account of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 and the role of the disciple Lazarus in John).  Would it not make sense for Luke and John to share in this colorful detail regarding the tri-lingual inscription?


The traditional text of Luke 23:28 has strong manuscript support, buttressed by reasonable internal evidence to validate its continued acceptance as the standard text of Scripture.

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