Tuesday, January 05, 2021

WM 187: Text Note: Matthew 1:25: "her firstborn son"


I want to add another note on the text of Matthew, focusing on several variants in Matthew 1, before settling on a significant one in 1:25.

I am currently preaching through Matthew, and I previously did a post on the genealogy, looking at Matthew 1:7-8, 10 (see WM 185).

I thought I would add another on a variant at Matthew 1:25, but before getting there I want to look briefly at a couple of other variants which Bruce Metzger discusses in his Textual Commentary, second edition (1994).

Several of these variants are supported by the TR, and incorporated into the modern critical text, yet Metzger discusses them, and his interest seems especially aimed at examining or considering readings that would be at odds with an orthodox theological understanding of Christology or with inerrancy/infallibility.

Brief look at five other variants addressed by Metzger:

Between the opening two notes on Matthew 1:7-8 and 1:10, and the final note on 1:25, Metzger discusses five other passages:

First: 1:11: He notes that several mss. add a name to the genealogy, Joakim. He gives the omission an {A} rating.

Second: 1:16: the description of Joseph as “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” This is the TR reading, and it also has an {A} rating.

Metzger notes two variants.

Given the above as the first reading, the second is: “to whom being betrothed the virgin Mary bore Jesus, who is called Christ”.

And the third: “Joseph, to whom was betrothed Mary the virgin, begot Jesus who is called Christ.” This is found in the Sinaitic Syriac.

It is the last variant that seems most to intrigue BM, since it would be a reading that would deny the virgin birth and see Jesus as the natural son of Joseph.

This is the longest discussion in the commentary on Matthew 1 (pp. 2-6) and closes with a decisive paragraph debunking the third reading (p. 6), but one might wonder why there was so much interest to begin with? Note: There will be a connection with 1:25.

Third: 1:18: “of Jesus Christ.” This gets only a {B} reading since Metzger dubs it “intrinsically improbable” that “Jesus Christ” would be prefixed by a definite article. He even says this construction only appears in “inferior manuscripts” like those with Acts 8:37. Circular reasoning!

Fourth: 1:18: The modern critical text reads genesis (creation, generation) rather than gengesis (birth) as in the TR.

The traditional reading seems right in context, the genealogy having already been given, and it seems even the modern English translations use “birth” here.

Fifth: 1:22: It is noted here that a few ms. insert the name “Isaiah” here as a “scribal explanation.”  Neither the modern text or the TR include the prophet’s name.

What is the issue in Matthew 1:25?:

The traditional text reads (Scrivener’s TR):  και ουκ εγινωσκεν αυτην εως ου ετεκεν τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον και εκαλεσεν το ονομα αυτου ιησουν

An English translation (KJV): “And he knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.”


The modern critical text (W & H): και ουκ εγινωσκεν αυτην εως [ου] ετεκεν υιον και εκαλεσεν το ονομα αυτου ιησουν

An English translation (ESV):  but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.


Cf. Luke 2:7 (Scrivener): και ετεκεν τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον και εσπαργανωσεν αυτον και ανεκλινεν αυτον εν τη φατνη διοτι ουκ ην αυτοις τοπος εν τω καταλυματι


External Evidence:

The traditional reading is supported by, among others, the uncial codices C, D, K, L, N, W, Gamma, and Delta (note: of these C, D, and W are very early), as well as the vast majority of later minuscules. It is the Majority reading. It is also found in various Old Latin mss. (aur, d, f, ff1, and q),as well as the Vulgate and the Syriac Peshitta and the Harklean Syriac.

The modern reading is supported by the two heavyweights Aleph and B, perhaps Z, perhaps 071, family 1, family 13, and 33, as well the Old Latin, the Middle Egyptian, the Old Syriac (Sinaitic and Curetonian), and the Coptic (Sahidic and Bohairic, with some variation).

Internal Evidence:

Metzger’s major assumption (see his first paragraph in this entry) is that the traditional reading is a harmonization with Luke 2:7 (Scrivener): και ετεκεν τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον και εσπαργανωσεν αυτον και ανεκλινεν αυτον εν τη φατνη διοτι ουκ ην αυτοις τοπος εν τω καταλυματι

Though both Matthew 1:25 and Luke 2:7 are part of their respective birth narratives, they are not necessarily literary parallels. Matthew 1:25 comes after the account of the angelic appearance to Joseph and the fulfillment citation of Isaiah 7:14. Luke 2:7 comes in its own distinctive context.

Would a scribe have recalled this parallel or even turn to compare it?

Is it not just as possible not that a scribe of Matthew drew from Luke to “correct” Matthew, but that both Matthew and Luke drew from a common Christian tradition that identified Jesus as the firstborn son of Mary?

Metzger proceeds to note the reading in the Sinaitic Syriac: “She bore to him [to Joseph] a son.” And to compare this to the Sinaitic Syriac of Matt 1:16.

His point seems to be to raise the possibility of early sources that would not have known the virgin birth and there did not need to stress Jesus as the first born son of Mary.


The traditional reading of Matthew 1:25 has ancient (C, D, W) and widespread (Majority, early vulgar translations) attestation.

Jesus was clearly known in the tradition as the “firstborn [prōtotokos]” of Mary (cf. Luke 2:7).

We can easily see either how the traditional reading might have been omitted through scribal error or through an intentional effort to deny the virgin birth.

On the other hand, we do not believe there is a compelling reason to abandon the traditional reading and run the risk of possibly undermining a cardinal doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth.

We are repeatedly told that no variant affects doctrine, but this is not so. Aside from doctrines of canon, sufficiency, and preservation of Scripture, various issues arise within individual variants like this one in Matthew 1:25. The modern critical text of Matthew 1:25 by omitting “her firstborn son” offers a muted undermining of the traditional text’s affirmation of the miraculous conception and virgin birth of Christ.

The traditional text, thus, should be maintained.


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