I. The Issue:
The question here is the beloved saying of Jesus from the cross: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” The phrase appears in the traditional text, but its authenticity is challenged in the modern critical text which encloses the phrase in double brackets. The Introduction to the NA 28 explains that double brackets “indicate that the enclosed words , generally of some length, are known not to be part of the original text. These texts derive from a very early stage of the tradition, and have often played a significant role in the history of the church (cf. Jn 7,53-8,11)” (p. 55).
II. External Evidence:
The traditional text is supported the following Greek mss: The original hand of Sinaiticus and its second corrector [b] (c. 7th century AD), A (using the aorist eipen for “he said” rather than the imperfect elegen), C, third corrector of D, K, L, N, Q, Gamma, Delta, Psi, family 1, family 13 (without the conjunction de), 33, 565, 700, 892, 1424, 2542, Lectionary 844, and the vast majority of extant mss.
Among the versions it is found in the Vulgate and part of the Old Latin, the Syriac (Curetonian, Peshitta, Harklean), some Bohairic Coptic mss, and in the Latin version of Irenaeus (dated to before 395 AD).
The modern critical text is supported by the following Greek mss: p75, second corrector [a] of Sinaiticus (c. 7th c. AD), B, original hand of D, W, Theta, 070, 579, 1241.
Among the versions it is found in the 4th century Old Latin manuscript “a”, Syriac Sinaiticus, the Sahidic Coptic, and some Bohairic Coptic mss.
III. Internal Evidence:
Metzger notes that the absence of these words from “such early and diverse witnesses” as those cited above “is most impressive and can scarcely be explained as a deliberative excision by a copyist who, considering the fall of Jerusalem to be proof that God had not forgiven the Jews, could not allow it to appear that a prayer of Jesus had remained unanswered. At the same time, the logion though probably not a part of the original Gospel of Luke, bears self-evident tokens of its dominical origin, and was retained, within double square brackets, in its traditional place where it had been incorporated by unknown copyists relatively early in the transmission of the Third Gospel” (Textual Commentary, p. 180).
Leon Morris, however, states: “Early copyists may have been tempted to omit the words by reflection that perhaps God had not forgiven the guilty nation. The events of 70 AD and afterwards may well have looked like anything but forgiveness. We should regard the words as genuine” (Luke, p. 327).
In favor of the originality of Luke 23:34a is its relation in context to the words of Jesus in Luke 23:46: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” If original, Luke would have the first words of Jesus on the cross be an intercessory prayer addressed to the Father for his persecutors (v. 34) and his last words on the cross be a prayer addressed to the Father before his death (v. 46), thus framing Luke’s discreet description of Jesus’ suffering on the cross (vv. 34-46).
The external evidence for Luke 23:34a is strong. It is even supported by the original hand of Sinaiticus, providing another example of divergence between the twin modern critical heavyweights of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. Is there a plausible explanation for why the phrase would have been omitted? Yes. Some scribes might have believed the prayer of forgiveness was unheeded given the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (an event given special emphasis in Luke; cf. 19:43-44; 21:20-24). It is unclear how Metzger can declare this as a “scarcely” tenable explanation or on what basis he concludes it is “probably” not part of the original text of Luke. Furthermore, Metzger, like other modern critical text advocates, acknowledges that the words of Jesus cited here obviously have very early attestation. He even suggests it is an authentic “dominical” saying, though not original. Given this, why not simply accept that the 23:34a is not only an early authentic saying of Jesus but an authentic saying that was, from the beginning a part of Luke’s Gospel, demonstrating, along with the prayer of Jesus in 23:46, his communion in prayer with the Father, even while on the cross. In the end, I agree with Morris: “We should regard the words as genuine.”
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