What I Have Learned about Manuscript Evidence

Five years ago, I wrote a short paper on Luke 22:43-44 for my seminary textual criticism class. As far as I remember, I got a good mark. But my paper was not good at all. I mostly relied on the apparatus of Nestle Aland and textual commentaries by Metzger and Comfort. I am still wondering how I managed to confuse 0171 with 1071. While the sigla of these manuscripts are deceptively similar, their relative weight in this case is incomparable. 1071 is a 12th century codex of four gospels which omits verses 43-44 in the main text but supplies them in the margin.1 0171 is probably the oldest manuscript that contains these verses. It was even dated as early as late second or early third century.2 But this was not the only problem with my paper. This year I decided to give this passage another try and see if I can write a better essay after five years. In the process of writing I realised that the most important lesson I have acquired is to always take a closer look at the manuscript evidence and not assume that Metzger or any other authority got it right. 

What Metzger Says

Metzger in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament argues that verses 43-44 are not part of the original text but are a relatively early addition.3 He assigns to this problem a rank of A,  meaning that he is rather certain of his solution. In his brief entry there are three major arguments for the secondary nature of these verses: (1) they are absent from ancient and diverse witnesses such as papyrus 69, papyrus 75, first corrector of Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Alexandrinus, Washingtonianus, etc., (2) there is a group of manuscripts marking them as spurious with obeli or asterisks, (3) family 13 and several lectionaries transpose these verses after Matthew 26:39. It looks like a rather strong case, doesn’t it? It is hardly surprising that my five-years-younger self quickly concluded that Luke 22:43-44 was certainly absent from the original text of Luke. But today I am not so sure. A closer look at external evidence reveals that the picture one can get from the critical apparatus of NA or looking at Metzger’s commentary is rather simplistic.

Family 13

The family 13 is a group of manuscripts that exhibit similar features and are, therefore, often cited as a whole group rather than individually. Some of these manuscripts do indeed transpose Luke 22:43-44 after Matthew 26:39. But does the transposition indicate that they attest to a separate tradition that included these verses in Matthew? Not really. Some of them make marks in the margin of Matthew’s gospel at these verses,  clarifying that they belong to Luke’s. Two of the manuscripts leave the  first two words of verse 43 in Luke as an abbreviation for the whole. Some of them retain these verses in Luke but have a marginal note sending a reader to Matthew and others have them in both gospels. It looks like a conscious transfer from Luke to Matthew. Why did this happen? Claire Clivaz offers a persuasive explanation: Luke 22:43-44 was to be read in conjunction with Matthews 26:39 in accordance with a lectionary direction. Hence in this group of manuscripts the verses are transferred not because the scribes considered them Matthean but because they were read with Matthew in worship services.4

Weighting Other Evidence 

It does appear that the combination of two early papyri (69 and 75) with Codex Vaticanus is difficult to overturn. But there are some interesting questions. First, papyri 75 may not be as early as it was thought. Nongbri postulates that it is possible to date it even to the fourth century what would make it contemporary with Vaticanus.5 Second, papyrus 69 does not omit only verses 43-44 but also verse 42. It is, therefore, not a testimony of the omission of 43-44 as Vaticanus and other manuscripts, but of something different. Clivaz made an intriguing case that it may be the witness of Marcionite recension.6 Third, this picture ignores 0171, which may well be older than papyrus 75. It would be more fair to say that the evidence is fairly evenly split. Important witnesses (e.g. 0171, Sinaiticus, Regius, 892) attest to the presence while other strong witnesses (e.g. P75, Vaticanus, Alexandrinus) attest to the absence.

So What I Have Learned?

My essay for my MPhil programme was a much longer and more substantial assignment than the short paper I had to write five years ago so in a way comparing them would be like comparing apples and oranges. But there are a few things I have certainly learned: (1) It cannot be assumed that even as great a scholar as Metzger gives a satisfying description of evidence in his commentary. It is important to dig deeper and look at the manuscripts themselves; (2) Each manuscript has its own individual characteristics. So, for example, while it is true that papyrus 69 omits Luke 22:43-44, this is not the whole truth; (3) Liturgical preferences may stand behind some phenomena in manuscript evidence; (4) The relative weight of some manuscripts can be overstated (e.g. combination of P75 and Vaticanus) while some may be under-appreciated (e.g. 0171).


In the cover photo there is a picture of GA 0171 taken from from the Wikimedia Commons. This manuscript can be viewed on the CSNTM website.

  1. http://www.csntm.org/manuscript/View/GA_1071 Image no. 129.
  2. Willy Clarysse and Pasquale Orsini, ‘Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates. A Critique of Theological Palaeography’, Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 88, no. 4 (2012): 472.
  3. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Hendrickson, 1994), 151.
  4. Claire Clivaz, ‘The Angel and the Sweat Like Drops of Blood (Lk 22:4344): 69 and f 13’, Harvard Theological Review 98, no. 4 (2005): 435–36.
  5. Brent Nongbri, ‘Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV (P75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament’, Journal of Biblical Literature 135, no. 2 (2016): 405–37.
  6. Clivaz, ‘The Angel and the Sweat Like Drops of Blood’, 425–32.

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