Friday, February 23, 2018

Matthew 27:49 Was Jesus Pierced before His Death?

THGNT Blog: Variants in the Passion Narrative (2)

This post is part of a series [2018] on some of the textual variants found in the Passion narratives. We will discuss the rationale behind the text adopted in the Greek New Testament as Produced at Tyndale House in (1) Mt 27:16,17, (2) Mt 27:49, (3) Mk 14:30, 49, 72a, 72b, (4) Lk 22:31, (5) Lk 22:43-44, (6) Lk 23:34.

In many ways the following variant is salutary, as it will correct any slavish tendency to think about the ‘earliest and best’ attested reading as an almost pleonastic collocation. The ‘best’ reading is not always the ‘earliest’, there may be good reasons not to follow the earliest manuscripts, and our variant is a good example. And, yes, we could, and probably should have mentioned the variant in the Tyndale House Edition, but we did not.

Mt 27:49
οἱ δὲ λοιποὶ ἔλεγον· ἄφες, ἴδωμεν εἰ ἔρχεται Ἠλίας σώσων αὐτόν.
But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him” (ESV).

The early variant ἔλεγον / εἶπαν should not distract us here, what is interesting is the addition we find after the final word of this verse:

ἄλλος δὲ λαβὼν λόγχην ἔνυξεν αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ὕδωρ καὶ αἷμα.
And someone else, taking a spear, pierced his side and there came out water and blood.

Those who know their gospels will suspect that we might have influence from one of the other gospels, and indeed, in John 19:34 we have (without relevant variation):

Jn 19:34
ἀλλ᾽ εἷς τῶν στρατιωτῶν λόγχῃ αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν ἔνυξεν, καὶ ἐξῆλθεν εὐθὺς αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ.
But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. (ESV)

The addition in Mt 27:49 and the undisputed text in Jn 19:34 are not identical, but they share the same vocabulary: ‘spear’, ‘to pierce’ (same form), ‘his side’ (same word order), ‘to come out’ (same form), ‘water and blood’ (reversed word order).

The differences in the first words of the addition in Matthew are explained by the immediate context of Matthew. The non-specific ‘someone else’ (ἄλλος) is in line with the equally non-specific designations in Mt 27:47 ‘some’ (τινές), 27:48 ‘one of them’ (εἷς ἐξ αὐτῶν), and 27:49 ‘the others’ (οἱ λοιποί). The participle λαβών in the phrase λαβὼν λόγχην comes from the earlier Mt 27:48 λαβὼν σπόγγον. However, in Jn 19:34 this piercing happens after Jesus’ death, whilst in Matthew the death occurs only in the next verse.

On transcriptional grounds (influence of parallel account) and internal grounds (unlikely that Matthew would associate the loud cry of Jesus with the piercing) the addition in Matthew 27:49 is clearly secondary, but what about the external testimony? Happily, this is one of the Teststellen in the Matthew volume of Text und Textwert (no. 63, volume 2.2). There are some minor variants (addition of ευθεως before εξηλθεν and the order of ‘water and blood).

With the addition in Mt 27:49:
the majuscules ℵ B C L U Γ,
the minuscules 5 26* 48 67 115 127* 160 364 782 871 1010 1011 1057 1300c 1392 1416 1448 1555 1566 1701* 1780* 2117* 2126 2139 2283 2328T 2437* 2585 2586 2622L 2680 2766* 2787,
and NA28 adds some Vulgate mss, and the middle Egyptian, and there is the CPA and Ethiopic.

Without the addition: everyone else (including 15 witnesses that leave out the whole of the verse).
[Incidentally, Text und Textwert did not pick up the majuscule U-030 in support for the addition. It ought to have listed U-030 under a new variant, 3D, with ευθεως and the order ‘blood and water’.]

On external evidence, the addition has definitely a very good shout. Or, to put it in the short-hand principles behind the THGNT, “In light of the external evidence, do we have good reason not to print the reading of the ‘earliest and best manuscripts’?” And indeed, this is one of those high-profile cases where I think that the transcriptional and internal reasons outweigh the external evidence. We should beware of treating any group of manuscripts as so reliable that we ignore what stares us in the face.

However, is there any way we can bolster the argument for the inclusion of the addition? Obviously, if original, the removal of the extra words may solve a problem in the sequence of events in comparison to the other gospels: Jesus did not die because of the spear thrust and neither should the text give any suggestion as such. Therefore, the shorter text provides a less difficult reading.

And then there is Dan Gurtner, in the recent Holmes Festschrift (who does an excellent job of discussing the versional evidence). He is also bold enough to put the suggestion forward that it is perhaps John who is editing the original text of Matthew and places it at a different, more appropriate location in his narrative. However, ultimately this possibility (I don’t think Dan proposes the originality of the longer text of 27:49) raises so many other problems that the simpler conclusion of influence of parallel accounts is preferable over any complex, redactional theory. We may wish the combined cluster of ℵ-01 B-03 C-04 L-019 Γ-036 to be infallible, but it is not. The ‘best and earliest manuscripts’ do not always present us with the ‘best and earliest readings’.

Incidentally, a comparable variant happens at Matthew 27:35, where we have another intrusion inspired by the gospel of John. It concerns the added fulfillment of Psalm 22:19 as found in John 19:24. In the variant we see a similar adaptation of the Johanine language (ἵνα ἡ γραφὴ πληρωθῇ ἡ λέγουσα) towards Matthean style (ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τοῦ προφήτου), just as happened in the longer text of 27:49. The difference is that the external evidence for the addition in 27:35 is less impressive, but it is a good illustration of the same phenomenon as in Matthew 27:49. As far as I can see almost every transmissional strand suffered these harmonisations.

Gurtner, Daniel M. “Water and Blood and Matthew 27:49: A Johannine Reading in the Matthean Passion Narrative?” In Studies on the Text of the New Testament and Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Michael W. Holmes On the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, edited by Daniel M. Gurtner, Juan Hernandez and Paul Foster (New Testament Tools, Studies and Documents 50. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015), 134-50.


  1. Thanks Dirk, I think you are right that this reading ought at least to be in the apparatus.

  2. Dirk: "The ‘best and earliest manuscripts’ do not always present us with the ‘best and earliest readings’.

    True indeed. However, one should not neglect the strong evidence that the longer and secondary addition in this instance actually represents the original Alexandrian archetype, with later minuscule support reflecting certain aspects of Orthodox tradition dealing with or depicting the combined events surrounding the crucifixion.

  3. Good post Dirk. I never thought of the correlation between these two interpolations being an adaptation of Johannine language to Matthean. It's as if some sinister scribes had asked, "What can I do to this to make future textual critics think it has internal evidence in its favor?" But you also have to factor in the complication of the earliest and best Byzantine manuscripts not having ευθυσ or ευθεως in John 19:34.
    If the THGNT had printed Mark 16:9-20 without comment, then yeah, it would be okay to ignore this variant too. But when we are solemnly informed in the footnotes of every English Bible without K and J in its name that the "oldest and best," or at the very least, the "earliest" manuscripts omit it, then it is the height of deception not to admit that these same two manuscripts add something untenable to Matthew 27:49--and that with the support of dozens of other manuscripts, and several versions.
    Deceptive, because there is no question that it would come as a big surprise to your basic reader of English Bibles without K and J in their names, filled as they are with such highly selective footnotes, that these manuscripts may often be the oldest, but are far from always being the best.
    Is the truth really that dangerous?

    1. I don't see deception at work in such footnotes, but rather simplistic attempts to bolster the position which modern scholarship is seen as supporting.

  4. Dirk,
    It is not unusual to encounter, in apologetic works, the claim that no significant textual variant brings any major Christian doctrine into question. However, regarding specifically the doctrine of inerrancy -- which is described as an "essential" at the Dallas Theological Seminary's website -- if the Alexandrian reading at Mt. 27:49 were original, wouldn't this require the concession that a statement of error exists in either the text of Matthew or the text of John?

  5. Thanks, Dirk. Thinking of my recent comments on Matt 18.11, it it surely inconsistent for Byzantinists to reject this longer reading as harmonization but not the longer reading at Matt 18.11 on the same grounds given how much more similar that text is to its parallel then this on is to its parallel.

    On another note, is anyone else surprised at the number of minuscules that have the longer reading in Matt 27.49? It seems that if the apparent inconsistency with John were the cause of removing it, we would not find so many minuscules that include it.

    1. I was also surprised to see how much support the addition has among minuscules. This certainly makes the reading more compelling on external grounds than it would have been otherwise, but I agree with Dirk that the internal evidence presented in this post still makes a stronger case. I'll admit that the apparent inconsistency with John might have inspired multiple scribes not to propagate the reading (as 7 corrections in the minuscules listed above attest), but I don't think that it's problematic enough for the omission to have caught on so widely. The fact that we can point to so many other apparent inconsistencies between the gospels is evidence that most scribes weren't bent on eliminating them entirely. Besides, the preference to harmonize, even superficially, was clearly more important to some scribes (e.g., the corrector of 1300, and if you're correct about Matthew 18:11, plenty of other scribes).

      My guess is that the extra support for the addition among later minuscules is due to a combination of contamination and a series of dueling additions and omissions among the scribes. The addition is demonstrably early, so it had more time to spread out than most later harmonizations had.

    2. Regarding the comparison with Mat 18:11: To insist that one cannot suppose Matthew originally to have read in a manner quite similar to a non-parallel passage in Like and then posit that some other reading to be a harmonization would seem to require the person making this supposition nowhere to accept a reading that verbally resembles a parallel where an alternative reading is available. If he responds that other factors, whether internal or external, should be allowed to modify the assessment of an apparently harmonizing reading in some cases, why should Byzantine priority theorists not be allowed the same luxury? Second, BP theorists do not necessarily see harmonization as the primary motivation for the long reading here.

      Regarding the miniscule support, I am not particularly surprised. The miniscules are not, to borrow an adverb from the present post, slavishly homogeneous. Moreover, they are more tolerant of difficult readings than they are often made out to be.

    3. Peter G.: "[I]t it surely inconsistent for Byzantinists to reject this longer reading as harmonization but not the longer reading at Matt 18.11 on the same grounds."

      Not really, as Robinson and most "Byzantinists" would say, to borrow phraseology from Hort, that those documents should be preferred here which have been found habitually to contain those morally certain or at least strongly preferred readings elsewhere, and those should be rejected which habitually have been found elsewhere to contain their rejected rivals, since the text of the first has been transmitted in comparative purity, and the text of the second has suffered comparatively large corruption.

    4. Some "Byzantinists" do not claim the Mt 27:49 expansion to be harmonizing as opposed to having been present in the Alexandrian archetype (as noted earlier). If it were mere harmonizing, not only would the wording be much closer to that found in the Johannine parallel, but the contradictory placement location within Matthew would be even more problematic.

    5. MAR, how do you think it got there?

    6. How? Most obviously by intent of those responsible for the Alexandrian archetype (I obviously don't consider the passage of autograph originality).

      As to why they chose to include it at this point, this might have more to do with Matthean popularity and particular ecclesiastical traditions regarding the grouping together of events surrounding the crucifixion than anything else.

      Interestingly, S. W. Whitney, in his commentary, The Revisers' Greek Text, 2:164-168, actually considers the Matthean reading original, suggesting that it is the account in John's Gospel that is out of chronological order (!).

    7. There is some discussion of the traditions alluded to in any essay in the Festschrift for MAR. I don't know if MAR agrees with all of the reasoning there, but it sounds like he agrees at least in part.

  6. This passage is a good one for pondering the balance between prefer the more difficult reading and prefer the less harmonised reading. In this case the less harmonised reading is not at all difficult; the harmonised reading appears to be the (way) more difficult reading. But would it really have been that difficult to an early copyist? How many examples of deletion to solve a harmonising difficulty do we have?

  7. We ought to include in the list 1293 too: It has the variant ending with "water and blood".

  8. Addition to Gurnter's article( ), mentioned in the bibliography at the end of Dirk's post:
    Tobias A. Kemper "in escam meam fel dederunt et in latus lanceam - Zur Darstellung des Lanzenstichs im Frühmittelalter". ( )
    Matthew 27:33-54 is read in the Byzantine liturgy as gospel lesson nr 7 of Good Friday and on 16 October, the feast of the holy martyr Longinus.

    Teunis van Lopik, Leidschendam, NL

    1. This is correct as to the portions read on Good Friday and 16 October, but do any lectionary manuscripts have the insertion?

      Certainly, the printed AD edition does not, and the UBS apparatus says Lect in general do not include such.

    2. As far as I know the insertion is NOT in printed lectionaries. I did not see about it in Matthaei.

      Kemper's data from Latin, Syrian and other Eastern (not Byzantine) traditions are maybe of interest. Are they the source of the insertion of the (late) Greek mss?

    3. Perhaps attempts at reconciliation (like the Henotican) stimulated interest in such traditions. I think it's fair to characterize the Byzantine literary overall as having an above average interest in antiquity as such, so it could also think it's quite possible that one or more ancient MSS with this reading were discovered and esteemed. In this latter scenario, the readings adopted were likely only the most striking ones.

  9. It is interesting to note among Irish insular Vetus Latina mss. VL28 Garland of Howth and VL35 Book of Mulling that the longer version of Mt 27:49 exists, but I have not found it in any others.

    Andrew Sperlin

  10. Well, problem is you won't get "blood and water" coming out of a live person. The victim has to be dead for about an hour for the blood to separate into plasma and red blood cells. The passage in John is proof of an eye witness account, and in fact you can see the plasma stain around the wound image on the Shroud.

    The line in Matthew is borrowed from John, reason unknown. If Jesus had been stabbed while alive only whole blood would have gushed out.

    If the Gospel had been made up, it also would probably have said only blood gushed out, as only modern forensics knows about blood separating.