Friday, March 23, 2018

‘Father Forgive Them’ – The Variant in Luke 23:34a

THGNT Blog: Variants in the Passion Narrative (6)

This is the last of a series of blog post [2018] on some of the textual variants found in the Passion narratives. The series discusses 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.

The previous variant that we discussed (Lk 22:43-44) was substantial and important. It makes quite a difference how Jesus is portrayed by Luke whether or not the episode of the strengthening angel and the sweat like drops of blood is present. The final variant of this series is, in my view, even more important and one with considerable theological ramifications. Come to think of it, I am not sure if there are many variants that have a bigger impact on New Testament Christology than Luke 23:34a.

It concerns the presence or absence of the following words

ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔλεγεν· πάτερ, ἄφες αὐτοῖς· οὐ γὰρ οἴδασιν τί ποιοῦσιν.
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

None of the other evangelists has any reference to Jesus prayer of forgiveness for those who are crucifying him; the presence of these words make a unique contribution, their omission changes Luke’s narrative considerably. And just to draw the modern battle lines: the THGNT has these words as part of the main text, though signalling the problems with a diamond in the apparatus. NA26-28 has these words in white square brackets, claiming that these words are certainly not part of the original text of the gospel but have been inserted at an early stage.

Here is the Greek evidence, and as far as the omission goes I believe it is complete:

omit P75 ℵ2a B D* W Θ 070 579 1241
text ℵ* ℵ2b A C D3 K L N Q Δ Ψ 0211 f1 f13 33 158 700 713 892 1071 l844 Maj

[IGNTP-Luke mentions 0124, but that witness is now combined with 070.]

There are at least two similarities between this textual variant and Lk 22:43-44, the angel and the sweat like drops of blood.
The first is found in the supporting evidence. This was the evidence for the omission of Lk 22:43-44

omit 22:43-44 P75 ℵ2a A B N R T W 0211 f13(but adds after Mt 26:39, as does a later corrector of C) 158 579 713 1071* l844.

The witnesses that omit at both places are P75 ℵ2a B W 579. The ones that omit in 22:43-44 and not at 23:34a are A N 0211 f13 158 713 1071 l844 (R and T are only extant at the first place) and those that omit 23:34a but not 22:43-44 are D Θ 1241 (070 only extant at 23:34a). The five witnesses that omit at both places form something of a solid core, it is not remarkable to see P75 B W 579 together (and on their combined testimony alone I am prepared to consider any reading quite seriously).

A second similarity is the nature of the longer reading. Neither in 23:43a or in 22:43-44 is there a clear source of influence. Yet there are plenty of thematic links with the Lukan corpus. Stephen’s words in Acts 7:60 (κύριε, μὴ στήσῃς αὐτοῖς ταύτην τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’) convey a similar sentiment as 23:34a but the wording is quite different. We have a shared theme rather than a source of harmonisation. The same is true for the shared notion of ‘not knowing what they are doing’ in 23:34a and Acts 3:17 (κατὰ ἄγνοιαν πράξατε ‘you acted in ignorance’). One could even argue that Acts 3:17 presupposes something like Luke 23:34a. Yet again, it seems unlikely that Acts 3:17 provided the wording that we find in our passage.

So what are the arguments for or against?
  • The main argument against the originality of 23:34a is that it is left out in a part of the earliest evidence.
  • If these words were original, there does not seem to be a good motivation for leaving it out.
  • A reconstructed background is that the words in question may be an agraphon (Metzger’s Commentary) which is subsequently made part of the gospel-tradition for numerological reasons as it brings the number of sayings on the cross up to seven (Whitlark and Parsons).
The arguments in favour of printing the passage are:
  • The shorter text can be explained as a harmonization, this time by omission. And there are parallels elsewhere in the early manuscripts, and especially so in the Passion narratives. We have seen harmonization in the early witnesses in Matthew 27:49, and harmonization by omission in the variants in Mark 14, and I believe also in the two earlier discussed variants in Luke 22. And for those who accept the reading ‘Jesus Barabbas’ in Matthew 27:16, 17 (which I don’t) there is another example of harmonization by omission.
  • Thematically and theologically it fits the Lukan writings.
  • Metzger in his Textual Commentary mentions the destruction of Jerusalem as an event that seems in contradiction to Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness. One could go one step further and suggest that the omission is an anti-Jewish variant (in the sense that they should not be forgiven). However, as with many attempts to find a social or theological background to a textual variant, such reconstruction is rather speculative and perhaps more indicative of our desire to have a story behind a textual variant than that it provides us with a real argument. Admittedly, anti-judaism is not a strange sentiment in early Christianity (see Eubank who unpacks this line of argument).
For these reasons the Tyndale House Edition presents the text ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ as part of the original text of Luke. There seems to be enough going on in the P75 B-03 group to throw some doubt over their testimony in the big variants in the Passion narratives. The omission has – what I would call – strong external support. But this is exactly why textual criticism cannot be reduced to choosing an algorithm or preferred group of manuscripts. The reality of historical transmission is more complex and messier than any simple solution.

Some literature

Nathan Eubank, “A Disconcerting Prayer: On the Originality of Luke 23:34a”, Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010): 521-36

Jason A. Whitlark, and Mikeal C. Parsons, “The ‘Seven’ Last Words: A Numerical Motivation for the Insertion of Luke 23.34a”, New Testament Studies 52 (2006): 188-204 (see a discussion of this article on the ETC blog here)


  1. For my analysis of the evidence pertaining to this variant-unit, see

    The patristic evidence deserves attention.

    I conclude that the passage is original, and was removed by an early scribe/editor out of a concern that readers would conclude, in light of the destruction of Jerusalem, that the Father had not forgiven those for whom Jesus had requested forgiveness. If the subject of Jesus' request is thought to be the leaders and residents of Jerusalem, inclusion is by far the more difficult reading.

    1. Thanks James, I considered your rebuttal and found it most helpful.

    2. Thank you, James. I read both parts. It was very thorough and removed my doubt about the passage.

  2. The problem is that the Romans are the most obvious referent in the immediate context. The prayer of James according to Hegesippus (via Irenaeus) is very curious and is the earliest reference to the prayer if Irenaeus is right.

    This raises the question as to who influnced whom.

  3. Peter Gurry,
    Tatian is as early as Hegesippus.
    Also, what may seem obvious to one reader isn't so obvious to others; see Eubank: "After examining early interpretations of Luke 23:34a, I have discovered no
    evidence suggesting that anyone ever understood Jesus’ prayer to be on behalf of the soldiers. Occasionally commentators universalized the sin of the crucifixion, claiming that Jesus was killed by the human race, but, if a specific culprit is mentioned, it is invariably the Jews. Indeed, Christians consistently read the verse as a prayer for the Jews beginning with the very earliest exegetes (e.g., in the second and third centuries, Hippolytus, Origen, Archelaus, and the Didascalia), and stretching on into late ancient Christianity (e.g., Ambrose)."

    It is better to take the time to observe what patristic writers did, than to assume what they "obviously" should have done.

  4. The evidence from Tatian is a bit muddle though as I remember whereas the Hegesippus quote is a verbatim agreement with Luke.

    The danger you mention, James, is real and it’s true that the Patristic writers didn’t see the Romans in the pronoun and that is significant. But then the Patristic writers aren’t scribes either and I don’t want to assume they all thought the same thing.

    My main problem with Eubank’s argument is that all his Patristic citations illustrate exactly why the verse did not need to be removed. The earliest readers were clearly able to explain the numerous difficulties this text presented to them. Commentary rather than emendation was the main way they did so.

    The longer reading is hard to explain without a ready source, and the shorter reading is very hard to imagine being removed because of theological problems (many other texts present much more serious problems). And, as Dirk notes, it fits quite well actually with both Stephen’s prayer and with Luke’s ignorance theme. It’s a tough one!

    1. Peter,
      So, you agree that the patristic evidence shows a strong tendency to connect Jesus' request for forgiveness to the Jews, rather than to the soldiers.

      << My main problem with Eubank’s argument is that all his Patristic citations illustrate exactly why the verse did not need to be removed. The earliest readers were clearly able to explain the numerous difficulties this text presented to them. >>

      Leapin' lizards; the patristic evidence does everyone thing one could reasonably ask it to do; it shows very plainly that the passage was problematic; by the standard you are using, nothing short of an author explicitly saying, "I excised this difficult passage" could be satisfactory.

      << the shorter reading is very hard to imagine being removed because of theological problems >>

      It's not hard to imagine a bold copyist removing the passage at all. It's easy if you try.

  5. "NA26-28 has these words in white square brackets"

    White square brackets? My N-A has them in double brackets.

    ⟦ ⟧ Double brackets in the text (⟦ ⟧) indicate that the enclosed words, generally of some length, are known not to be a 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).

    Nestle, E., & Nestle, E. (2012). Nestle-Aland: NTG Apparatus Criticus. (B. Aland, K. Aland, J. Karavidopoulos, C. M. Martini, & B. M. Metzger, Eds.) (28. revidierte Auflage, p. 55). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.

  6. I don't have a dog in the fight, but I'll stir the pot a little.

    My struggle with seeing this verse as original is precisely because it doesn't seem to fit "Thematically and theologically...the Lukan writings" (which could also be used to argue for its originality).

    In Luke 17:1-4, forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance. Also, Luke 24:47, "repentance for forgiveness of sins." Again, Acts 2:38, "Repent and be baptized...for the forgiveness of your sins." In this text, we have Jesus granting forgiveness a part from repentance it seems to me.

    How do you all reconcile Jesus' saying with these other places in Lukan writings?

    1. Same way you do in Jonah, pot stirrer! ;)

      But seriously, that is a theological difficulty sometimes given to explain its removal.

    2. Ha!
      So the argument goes, the saying must be original because the later scribe would not introduce the difficulty? Interesting. The saying goes against the Lukan grain. Maybe a scribe added it for another reason, risking the inconsistency. It's a challenge for me to think Luke wrote both the saying and his teaching on repentance and forgiveness. But that's just me.

    3. I think the saying probably is meant to be read as “Father, offer them forgiveness,” that is, forgive them if they repent. The difficulty is that, if it’s not original, where did it come from? James is the only real possible source, I guess.

    4. John Meade,
      Sounds a bit like you're saying that the inclusion of Lk. 23:34a seems to be the more difficult reading.

    5. James, yeah, that's my thought. But I need to consider the experts' arguments more seriously. The question if it's not original, where did it come from? is a serious one.

    6. John, good point and this is my greatest struggle. I see in Scripture that forgiveness is extended when there is repentance. To be like God in forgiving others requires that they acknowledge their sin and repent. That's how God does it. If he unitlaterally forgave everyone without their ever being repentance then we'd all be universalists. Jesus asked the Father to forgive them (and I agree its like if they repent or could be lead them to repent and be saved) and Stephen asked the Father to forgive them (he did not forgive them himself). And if people ask us 70 x 7 for forgiveness we do when they repent. So with extreme enemies who do not repent and do not acknowledge any wrongdoing, I am left feeling guilty because I am not "forgiving them." What forgiveness to I offer someone who refuses to repent, refuses any communication, has refused Christ, refused all means of resolution? I can understand and do ask the Lord to save them, convict them, etc. If they ever came and asked for forgiveness I would forgive in a heartbeat. But am I, in order to be like Jesus, called to extend a blanket forgiveness to someone who has not repented?

    7. It says, Father, forgive them *for they know not what they do*. Some of them knew what they were doing, i.e. Judas, or the leaders who paid the guards to say that His disciples stole Jesus' body. But most did not know what they were doing. So they could receive forgiveness if they repent.
      There is a sin unto death, and this was not that for those that did it in ignorance. They still needed repentance.

    8. I know I am coming very late to this party. I've been meaning to read this post since it came out. Since I'm teaching the Gospel of Luke this semester, I'm making time for it. I'm inclined to think that this passage as original. I can explain its removal by the huge animosity against Jews that seems to have come up perhaps in the first century, but definitely in the second. That's my reading of Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho. Christians in the second century would not want Jesus to ask for the forgiveness of the Jews. Therefore, the passage needed to be removed from Jesus' mouth. That's my thought, but I don't claim the detailed knowledge of the data as many of you do. If anyone sees this, I'd be interested in your thoughts.

  7. See Acts 7:60 and then ponder all the echoes of Jesus in Stephen's martyrdom.

  8. I would want to ponder the partial parallels in the stoning of Stephen. "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" and "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" correspond fairly closely to two of the Lukan words from the cross. Arguably, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" offers a less obvious (but still functional correspondence as a declaration of resurrection faith) to "Today you will be with me in paradise." Taken the two accounts together there is a certain mirroring, in which Jesus is the model of the martyr, and the martyr is imitating Jesus in his death. Reading the two books as a whole, despite the problematic textual evidence, I think the echoes of the gospel in the Acts narrative strengthen the argument that the "Father, forgive" text is part of Luke's composition.

  9. Great series of articles, Dirk

  10. This just confirms what has been noticeable from the first time I opened my THGNT; there is a clear propensity to accept the longer reading, even when the earliest witnesses omit. Yes, I have heard the ‘this just shows that no witness regardless of its age is followed slavishly’, the evidence argues for a commitment to the longer reading!
    Unlike NA 28, the diamond does not indicate equality of variants, it apparently just indicates that the evidence was greater for this variant than most, seems useless.


    1. Regarding "the earliest witnesses," here Aleph* shows the long reading to have existed about the same time as the short reading, so in the present case it seems to me difficult to maintain that age alone can decide the question. (Unless one goes for what I would call a "restricted majority" approach, i.e. "a majority of MSS dating to before the sixth century or so support a given reading, so it must be right.")

  11. I don`t think that this passage is original for following reasons: (a) the best textual evidence omit these passage (b) Jesus have the authority to forgive sins and don’t need to ask the father (Lk 5,24) (b) Only Jesus decide in his Father-Given Power for himself, who will believe and repent and will “see the Father” - and who will not (Lk 10,22) (c) There is only judgement to the killers of Jesus (Lk 20,14ff cf 1 Thes 2,15f) (d) The context of Ch.23 shows (cf Acts 4,27f), that the term “them” means not only the Romans, because all are involved in the killing of Jesus (also Stephen in Lk 7,60 prays for Jews). (e) Prayer for enemies (Lk 6,28) does not imply forgiveness of sins (cf 1 John 5,14-15) (f) Jesus pray only for his elect people and not for unbelievers (John 17,9). Blessings, Ron.

    1. Could you back up your claim (a)?

    2. Dude, your point b is ridiculously captivating. That’s a theological consideration that has never crossed my mind. Well done sir!

    3. Dude, your point b is ridiculously captivating! It’s a theological consideration that has never occurred to me before. Well done sir!

    4. Actually both the short and the long reading are found in every text type, including important Alexandrian witnesses. The short reading is supported by an important late-second-or early-third-century papyrus, but a good number of second- and third-century churchfathers testify to the long reading. Moreover, intrinsic probability suggests that the prayer belongs in the text of Luke: the prayer matches Luke’s preferred way of addressing God; its structure resembles that of the Lukan Lord’s Prayer; it resembles Stephen’s prayer for his killers without having a single word in common; and the link between ignorance and mitigated culpability matches a motif running throughout Luke-Acts.

      About the (B) actually the theology of Luke 23:34 is not beyond Luke theology, we are told to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44), and this can be found too in Luke 6:27-28 which said; "But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.". And it actually connect with Isaiah 53:12 (Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors). For further reading, I suggest:

  12. Where does it come from? Maybe from Acts 7:60. Someone in the early church maybe did want to show, that Stephen is not more merciful than Jesus himself. Only because we do not know exactly where this passage comes from, there is no reason to ignore the textual and theological (soteriological) evidence against it (cf Lk 5:24; 10:21-22; 20:15-16; Acts 4:27-28; cf John 17:9; 1 John 5:14-19). Greetings, Ron

  13. Pardon my intrusion into a discussion far beyond my credentials. But as I scour the internet listening to commentary on the passage in question, one phrase continues to stand out over and over but never gets discussed. "Some of the earliest manuscripts do not contain this passage." If I'm reading that right that would mean that among all the body of data known as "the earliest manuscripts" there is at best a disagreement on the inclusion of the text. If all the manuscripts are equal but some include and some do not, what then gives the exclusions greater authority?
    It seems that as long as we are willing to read the minds of the scribes, it is just as likely there was a desire to eliminate forgiveness for the Jews as to insert it considering the tendency to resent their unbelief and their persecutions.
    As opposed to the inclusive manuscripts going on trial, why aren't the exclusives brought into suspicion if all things are equal among the earliest manuscripts?
    Thank you in advance for indulging a simple layman.

    1. Thank you, Mark. I was thinking the same thing.

  14. Pardon the intrusion of a person with no credentials in textual criticism. But among the earliest manuscripts what makes the exclusive texts more authoritative that the inclusive ones? I keep reading the phrase "Most of the earliest manuscripts do not include". Then that means some do? If they are virtually contemporary why are they on trial instead of the other?

  15. ....NOΔΕΙ......................................ΝΔΙΑ

    I've always wondered why the possiblity of a parableptic skip hasn't been taken more seriously (if even mentioned) when discussing this variant unit. If the longer reading is original (which the evidence strongly suggests in my view), then I see no better explanation for the initial cause of omission. FWIW.

    1. In which case the resulting text would be what exactly? ὃν μὲν ἐκ δεξιῶν ὃν δὲ ἐξ ἀριστερῶν ὁ δὲ Ἰ μεριζόμενοι κτλ?

    2. Sorry I wasn't more clear; the Nu is the primary culprit, and the Delta (and to a lesser degree the Iota) plays second fiddle.

      In short: NΔΙΑ is being written for NOΔΕΙ — and therefore it's (1-letter variety "Nu") with some similarities in the immediate vicinity, viz. Delta, Iota. More plainly, the scribe skipped from NOΔ to NΔ, wrote NΔ, and then continued copying (skipping a line or two in the process). I simply added the peripheral similarities, and (on second thought) probably should have bracketed the (theoretical) omission for clarity.


      X/033, (for one) gives a fair picture of what I'm trying to explain.

    3. Ok. That would explain why this explanation hasn’t been taken more seriously. A skip involving a single letter is not very convincing. If all the letters were involved you say, we might expect the result I gave above. Scribes don’t usually skip from similar uncopied letters (ΔΕΙ) to then copy the similar letters later in the line (ΔΙΑ). And they’re not very similar.

    4. I too have had many struggles accepting and/or being convinced of one letter HT possibilities/probabilities; especially when dealing with longer omissions. (Indeed, I've struggled with them for years, as well as noticed others also shy away from such explanations.) The problem is, there are many hundreds (likely thousands) of examples of one letter HT and/or HA within the MS tradition. That is, weakly attested (many singular and sub-singular) omissions that share a single letter on both sides of the omission. Are we to take all/most of these as simple coincidence? Obviously not. Secondly, there are thousands of obvious omissions within the very same MS tradition that have absolutely no identical matching letters on either side of the omission, and yet a word, a phrase, a line — or even two lines have been dropped/skipped (here and there) for no apparent reason. thinking is, what's the stretch in believing that a scribe could mistake NOΔ with NΔ when they're on top of each other, and subsequently skip a line (or perhaps two) in the process?



      You certainly aren't of the opinion that multiple consecutive identical letters must be present at the beginning, or end of a line to cause a parableptic skip, are you? It certainly only takes one or two to do the trick, doesn't it? In that case, I'd say two out of three ain't bad.

      Thanks for your input and pushback, it's appreciated.

    5. One point of clarification: when I speak of the "many hundreds (likely thousands) of examples of one letter HT and/or HA within the MS tradition" — I'm referring to examples that have actually seen the light of day, and been documented and put into print (regardless of whether they have been identified or not), viz. in a critical edition, apparatus, handbook, collation, etc. Now, if the entire NT Greek MS tradition was exhaustively sifted for every obvious instance of one letter HT/HA, that number would reach well into the thousands, and perhaps even into ten thousands.

  16. Reviewing these posts as part of Easter, reminded me that the THGNT for all its claims; prefers the longer reading most often, thus preferring 01 over 03 when they split.
    Additionally, since theology is mentioned, if one accepts the longer reading here, who exactly did Jesus forgive? Everyone? The Roman Soldiers, the crowd, the Jewish Leaders, Pilate? How does this verse fit with Jesus’ words in verses 27-31?