The Bible is without error. It is completely true.
So why have some scribes tried to add verses to the Greek New Testament? Were they thinking they were being helpful? Whatever their reason, they tried to add to the Bible. Scribe or not, nobody should add to the Greek New Testament (even if they deem their idea to be completely agreeable to the teachings of Christ).
Some scribes did try to “help” the Word of God by adding some verses. This practice was not done often, but it happened (it is a fact of history, and accounts for some of the variations we have in the thousands of our Greek manuscripts). The good news is, we caught them. And the “help” they tried to give, was not really needed. When scribes did this, they were not so sly as they may have thought, for their additions to stand-alone manuscripts stand out in the sea of manuscripts (their changes are like little islands). Because we have so many manuscripts, we are able to see the additions, and with work, we are able to reconstruct the authentic Greek New Testament. That means that I can hold up my Greek New Testament (I use the UBS 4 edition, and its twin, the NA27) and say, “This is the very Word of God!”
One day, my daughter came and asked me, “Dad, what did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do’”? And the answer may give you pause, but if you will hear me out, I think you will see that the answer is actually from fidelity, not rebellion. I answered, “Jesus didn’t say that. Luke 23:34 is not an authentic saying of Jesus.”
I do not normally bear this news so matter-of-fact like (a lot of other things have to be said first, like an explanation of the science of manuscript collating), but in the case of my daughter, she is already well aware of the idea of manuscript evidence and the science of reconstructing the Greek New Testament (after all, we do not have the original manuscripts, but we have thousands of scribal copies). This does not shock her faith. In fact, it is because she understands the exacting science behind manuscript studies that I feel such confidence to tell her the truth. This truth is not to be feared, for it points back to the fact that we do have the Word of God preserved (and we can know what it is).
However, I know that what I am arguing here can sound like untruth trying to usurp the Bible. It can sound like the creaking of an opening door that makes the Bible vulnerable to all liberal agendas. I know that is how this sounds, but I mean it when I say: I reject liberalism and I affirm the inerrancy of Scripture — indeed, what I am saying here actually undermines liberalism. We have an infallible Greek New Testament preserved in the manuscript evidence. Therefor, knowing that this whole idea can be disconcerting to hear for the first time, let me point you to this shorter article that will help you straight-away, then let me back up a bit, and clarify two matters of Christian faith (after which I will direct you to two good books):
1. The Bible is True
I believe in the total inerrancy of the Bible, and a discussion of manuscript complexities is not subversive to this belief. The Bible is true through-and-through and completely without error, but not in the English translations and only in the originals; and, it is through the careful work of collating manuscripts that teams of scholars are able to reconstruct with great confidence the wording contained in the original manuscripts. That is, we can trust our Greek New Testament!
2. We Should Forgive
Stephen, when he was being stoned, did indeed ask that God would “not hold this sin against them,” Acts 7:60. That means that when we rethink the manuscript evidence of Luke 23, our theology is safe. There are manuscript issues related to Luke 23:34, but it is theologically sound to pray for our enemies (Matt 5:44)!
How did I came to conclude that Jesus did not say this?
How do I know there are manuscript discrepancies with Luke 23:34? Better: How could you yourself have known about the manuscript issues in Luke (without someone like me telling you over the internet)?
The answers to those questions relate directly to having access to the best manuscripts and the best resources so that an independent evaluation of the evidence can be conducted. That is, you or your pastor or his professors can check these things.
The way I was able to come to my conclusion was through my copies of the Greek New Testament; but more than that, I came to this conclusion through the critical notes at the bottom of my Greek New Testaments, and more specifically, through two resources I want to commend to every pastor.
We can’t close our eyes and wish all of this away. As hard as it is to deal with the fact that sometimes our English translations preserve inauthentic readings is a testimony to the power of the underlying manuscripts. That we can examine the manuscript evidence and perfect our English translations is something we should celebrate. This is good. Pastors need to be able to address these matters, so I list the following two books as Needful.
The first book you’ll want is Philip Comforts, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary. When dealing with textual issues (i.e. where the underlying Greek manuscripts are variant in their readings), the minister turns to his textual notes found at the bottom of his Greek New Testament (either the United Bible Society, Greek New Testament, 4th edition, UBS4, or the German Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graceae 27th edition, NA27) and quickly realizes that the notes are necessarily sparse. In the case of Luke 23:34, one will find a list of the manuscripts that do not contain the verse, and a list of manuscripts that do. The UBS4 goes beyond that and gives the verse an ‘A’ rating — meaning “the text is certain”, even though it is not in Codex Vaticanus nor in Papyrus 75 (Papyrus 75 is the oldest surviving papyrus manuscript that contains this chapter of Luke). A pastor could stop here and look no further. But if one turns to Luke 23:34 in Comfort’s book, one finds a whole page of discussion and explanation around the issues involved with this variant. And that is why I recommend this resource. It goes far beyond the sparse notes one finds in NA27 or UBS4.
If you are really of a mind to investigate the matter, you may want to see Papyrus 75 for yourself and all the earliest manuscripts. And that is a lot easier than it sounds, and to that end, I highly recommend another important work that ought to be in every minister’s library (or they ought to have a resource that is its equivalent), The Complete Text of the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts.
With The Complete Text of the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts, Philip Comfort again gives the pastor a mind-boggling resource. With this book, one can look up any manuscript and any verse and examine the textual evidence. Comfort has reproduced all the earliest papyrus manuscripts in one volume, so it is reasonable to do a thorough investigation of Luke 23:34. To begin, one will turn to the front list and see which manuscripts contain that text in question. Only Papyrus 75 contains Luke 23. That is powerful information in and of itself. From there, one can look up the manuscripts and read the actual text.
So, back to our verse, Luke 23:24. It is missing from the best papyrus manuscript (the exact place one would expect to find it if it were an authentic saying of Christ), and it is missing from the important codex Vaticanus. Codex means book, and Comfort only reproduces the early papyri, not complete codices, but UBS4 and NA27 both note that Codex Vaticanus does not contain the verse. So, off we go to check out the important Codex evidence, of which, three of the most prominent ones are Codex Sinaitics (which can be accessed by following that link), Codex Vaticanus (a.k.a., B) and Codex Alexandrinus.
Regarding the Gospels, Comfort writes this about the manuscript evidence, “Unquestionably, Papyrus 75 (containing Luke and John) and B constitute the best witnesses for the Gospels,” xvi., New Testament Text and Translation Commentary, then he gives an analysis of the evidence to bolster this conclusion.
Did Jesus Say, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do?”
Based on the evidence, no. And UBS4 giving the variant an ‘A’ rating can now be challenged by the minister who is equipped with access to the evidence. Regarding the manuscript evidence for Luke 23:34, Comfort in New Testament Text and Translation Commentary (p239f.) writes:
The omission of these words in early and diverse manuscripts (the earliest being Papyrus 75) cannot be explained as a scribal blunder. But were the words purposely excised? … It is easier to explain that the words were not written by Luke but were added later (as early as the second century–for it is attested to by Hegesippus [who ascribes the saying to James in Acts] and the Diatessaron)… My guess is that the words were added to make Jesus the model for Christian Martyrs–of offering forgiveness to one’s executioners…. Contrary to the external evidence and good internal arguments, the words appear in the three Greek editions (TR WH NU) and in all the English translations because they have become so much a part of the traditional gospel text that editors of the Greek texts and Bible translators alike are not willing to excise the classical statement from the text. The first known person to excise the sentence from the text was the first diorthotes of Codex Sinaiticus (corrector 1), who worked on the manuscript before it left the scriptorium. Evidently, this diorthotes used a different exemplar (which must have antedated the fourth century) that did not have these words. A second corrector, several centuries later, expunged the first corrector’s deletion marks.”
Comfort is not speaking from nothing, but from a well of scientific research. His analysis matches the evidence. Note also, that through careful examination, one sees the various levels of correction applied to Codex Sinaiticus, all of which has been doubly confirmed through x-ray technology and multi-spectural imaging.
This is all very hard work indeed, but tools exist to bring this research right into the pastor’s office, and the results are necessary as we must handle rightly the Word of Truth as we seek to preach Christ rightly.
Old Testament Manuscript Studies
For a similar discussion regarding Old Testament manuscripts, see the list of online resources I have compiled in the article, Old Testament Manuscripts and 18 Tiqqune Sopherim