Thursday, November 08, 2018

Text Note: John 14:15

The issue:

John 14:15 is an important instruction which Christ gives to Philip and the other disciples in the upper room.

In the KJV (following the traditional text), the verse is rendered as follows:

If ye love me, keep my commandments.

In the Greek text, the verse contains a slight textual variant in the apodosis, regarding the verb téreo “to keep.” In the traditional text, as reflected in the KJV, it is an imperative or command: keep my commandments (cf. NKJV, MEV).

In translations based on the modern critical text, however, the verb is in the future tense. Here is the ESV:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

The variation here is slight, but not insignificant. What did Christ say (cf. John 14:26)?

External evidence:

John 14:15 is a third class conditional [probably future sentence] sentence, with the protasis introduced by ean and “you love” in the subjunctive. The apodosis in such constructions can appear in any mood.

According to the NA 28 apparatus there are three primary variations here (given in reverse order from NA 28):

First, there is the reading taken by the modern critical text:

térésete, the future active indicative, second person plural: you will keep

It is supported by the codices B, l, Psi, as well as by the Coptic and by the Church Father Epiphanius of Constantia (d. 403).

Second, there is minority variation:

téréséte, the aorist active subjunctive, second person plural: you should keep

This variation is found in p66, Sinaiticus, 060, 33, and 579

Finally, there is the reading found in the Majority of Greek mss. and included in the TR:

térésate, the aorist active imperative, second person plural: keep

This reading is supported by A, D, K, Q, W, Gamma, Delta, Theta, family 1, family 13, 565, 700, 892, 1241, 1424, Lectionary 844, and the majority of the remaining extant mss. of this verse.

So, the difference comes down to a single letter: Is it epsilon (making the verb a future active indicative), eta (making the verb an aorist active subjunctive), or an alpha (making the verb an aorist active imperative). The majority reflects a consensus on the latter, while modern reconstructionists prefer the former.

Notice also that here is a place where three of the earliest uncials all have different readings: Alexandrinus: traditional; Vaticanus: modern; Sinaiticus: minority variation.

Internal evidence:

What prompted modern text critics to depart from the traditional text?

Metzger’s Textual Commentary (second ed.), gives the modern text only a {C} reading (see p. 208). He relays that the majority of “the Committee” preferred the future tense reading, rather than the imperative, though conceding the latter is “rather well supported.” He also suggests that the modern text reading is “perhaps indirectly supported by witnesses that read the aorist subjective.” The only specific internal argument put forward is that the traditional reading, in Metzger’s opinion, “accords less well with erótésó in the following verse.” See v. 16: “And I will pray [ask] the Father and he will give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever.”

Questions: Could one not suggest, however, that the modern reading reflects an attempt to smooth out the text by making it agree with the future tenses in v. 16? Would this not make the imperative reading in the traditional text a more difficult, and thus by the canons of modern text criticism, a preferred reading? Is this an example of inconsistent application of those canons and a rather arbitrary decision to depart from the traditional text? Could the variants from the traditional text possibly be explained simply as an unintentional scribal blunder in the copying of a single letter?


This is a minor variation, compared to several much more significant variations elsewhere in the NT. It is not, however, without significance. What did the Lord Jesus say? Have his words been faithfully preserved? Did he issue a command to his disciples to obey his commandments?

The traditional reading is grammatically fitting and, as even Metzger concedes, “rather well supported” by external evidence. The internal evidence against the traditional text is weak. This was the reading embraced by the majority of Greek mss. I see no compelling reason to abandon it.


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