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Luke 2:22 "their purification" or "her purification"? A Test-Case for Faith Vs. Reason

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In Luke 2:22 we read: “Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (NET Bible, preliminary draft). The King James Version here has: “And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord.” Most modern translations have “their purification” instead of “her purification.” This creates an exegetical problem, however. Mary’s purification was required by law forty days after the birth of a son (eighty days after the birth of a daughter). Leviticus 12:2-4 only has the woman in view, not her husband.

Preliminary Questions

What are we to make of this textual and exegetical problem? First of all, it is imperative to examine the textual evidence critically and honestly. But before we do this we need to address a preliminary matter. Some students of the Bible have put the cart before the horse by starting with their theological presupposition rather than with the evidence. One approach begins with a twofold assumption: the Bible is inerrant and our interpretations are inerrant. But this begs the question and, quite frankly, creates disdain for evangelical scholarship by those outside this flock. At some point all of us who wrestle with Holy Writ need to think through the relation of our theological presuppositions to the evidence.

On the one hand, we all start from a faith-stance (regardless of whether we are inerrantists or errantists, conservative or liberal, theists or atheists). All of us believe something about the text. No one is absolutely neutral and objective; none starts with a tabula rasa. On the other hand, God has not given us minds to be put on the shelf. Our brains are the most distinct thing about human anatomy; it is indeed arguable that a large part of the Imago Dei is that we are homo sapiens: we have been given knowledge and wisdom far superior to the animals. Why should we constantly fight against this gift of God as though it were evil?

Sometimes faith and reason stand in tension, even in contradiction. In such instances what are we to do? Two extremes are to be avoided: abandoning faith and abandoning reason. The former is done by extremists in liberal scholarship while the latter is done by many fundamentalist groups. Biblical faith is not a leap in the dark; rather, it is a reasonable conviction that something is true. As a supreme example, consider the resurrection of Christ and how this was communicated to the disciples. The stone in front of the tomb had been moved, allowing the disciples to examine for themselves that Jesus’ body was not there. The angel did not sit atop the stone still barring entrance to the tomb and say, “Although you can’t verify this for yourselves, you’ll just have to trust me! He has risen from the dead.” The stone was moved; the body was gone. Several implausible explanations are offered for the fact of the empty tomb. But the only truly reasonable view is to embrace the bodily resurrection of Christ as true; all else is a leap of faith. Jesus also appeared to the disciples on several occasions and even ate with them. When they finally believed (for all but John seemed to doubt initially), evidence made their faith reasonable.

Christ’s resurrection illustrates a divine principle: God’s normal modus operandi is to inculcate faith that has a foundation in time-space history. To be sure, faith is not the same as a necessary a posteriori conclusion, compelled as it is by the data. But faith is reasonable—if it is biblical faith. Biblical faith is a step, not a leap.

All of us hold at least some views that are in fact unreasonable. The thinking Christian—the one who is not afraid to pursue truth—is not conscious of his unreasonable views. And when he is confronted about them, he is willing to abandon unreasonable presuppositions in the light of evidence. The thinking Christian is not afraid to pursue truth. Unthinking dogma and the protection of cherished and unfounded presuppositions hardly comport with a religion that invites examination by the very time-space references in its sacred text.

This brings us back to our question of how to proceed. Methodological consistency coupled with an open mind to the data are indispensable in the pursuit of truth. My own approach (ideally at least1) as I examine scripture is to suspend my presuppositions while I employ a consistent and rigorous method. When the examination is completed, I then examine my presuppositions in light of the findings. If my views are “deeply ingressed,” as J. P. Moreland has put it, then one or two cases that seem to be contrary to them are hardly sufficient to overthrow such views. I don’t abandon my more central convictions on a whim. But if the view being challenged is more peripheral in my own doctrinal hierarchy, the evidence needed to change or soften my convictions is usually less; sometimes a small piece of evidence, like a missing piece of the puzzle, gives a refreshing perspective on the data. But the key to this approach is to highly prize truth without fear. This requires holding one’s beliefs in various levels of conviction, rather than embracing them all equally. And it requires a willingness to pro-actively examine the evidence when there is suspicion that one’s beliefs may be ill-founded.2 Unfortunately, much of my own evangelical-fundamentalist heritage clings to a fortress mentality and a “domino view of doctrine” (in which all doctrines are viewed as of equal worth). Although I have been critically examining my heritage for many years now (and, in the process, sacrificing many sacred cows), I am sure that I still have, subconsciously, more than a few unfounded views. But I now view the critical examination of such views more with joy than with fear.

The Textual Evidence

The translation of Luke 2:22 given above follows most manuscripts, including early and important ones (א A B L W f1 f13 33 565 700 copsa Byz ). Some copyists, aware that the purification law applied to women only, produced manuscripts (76 itpt vg [though the Latin word eius could be either masculine or feminine) that read “her purification.” But the extant evidence for an unambiguous “her” is shut up to one late minuscule (codex 76) and a couple of patristic citations of dubious worth (Pseudo-Athanasius whose date is unknown, and the Catenae in euangelia Lucae et Joannis [ed. J. A. Cramer, Oxford, 1841]. The Catenae is a work of collected patristic sayings whose exact source is unknown [thus, it could come from a period covering hundreds of years]). A few other witnesses (D pc) read “his purification.” The KJV has “her purification,” following Beza’s Greek text (essentially a revision of Erasmus’). Erasmus did not have it in any of his five editions. Most likely Beza put in the feminine form αὐτῆς because, recognizing that the eius found in several Latin manuscripts could be read either as a masculine or a feminine, he made the contextually more satisfying choice of the feminine. Perhaps it crept into one or two late Greek witnesses via this interpretive Latin back-translation. In sum, the evidence for the feminine singular is virtually non-existent, while the masculine singular αὐτοῦ was a clear scribal blunder. There can be no doubt that “their purification” is the authentic reading.

The Exegetical Issues

As we noted at the beginning of this brief essay, Mary’s purification was required by law, not Joseph’s (Lev 12:2-4). That Luke wrote “their purification” is overwhelmingly likely. Hence, this problem cannot be solved by a blind fideism—by the adoption of the highly unlikely reading of “her.” Just two of our interpretive choices are as follows: (1) Joseph may have shared in a need to be purified by having to help with the birth (though one has to wonder why midwives were apparently not so required). This possibility is strengthened by the likely contact of Joseph with Mary’s blood in the process of delivering the child (but again, one has to wonder why Lev 12 speaks only of the woman’s need for purification and not the child’s, since the child would also have touched the blood). (2) Joseph and Mary dedicated the child as their first-born son (Exod 13:2, 13; 22:29; 34:20), a consecration that would require Joseph to bring a sacrifice. The problem with this is that such a consecration is nowhere called a purification (טהרה), the term used in Lev 12. However, it may be that Luke regarded purification as a broad concept, incorporating or at least overlapping with the concept of consecration. The Greek terms for “purify” and “purification” are καθαρίζω and καθαρισμός respectively (the noun is used in Luke 2:22). Both in the LXX and the NT this word-group is used more broadly than the Hebrew root טהר. For example, in Exod 29:37 the verb קדשׁ (“consecrate, dedicate”) is translated as καθαρίζω in the LXX. Similar parallels3 can be found in Lev 8:15; 16:20; Num 12:15; 30:6. Elsewhere the cognate Hebrew noun קדשׁ is converted to the Greek verb καθαρίζω (cf. Exod 30:10).4 Luke may well have thought that καθαρισμός was the best term to use since the law he was initially thinking of was Lev 12:4-6. That καθαρισμός could be used in a broader sense was most likely known to him. If so there really is little difficulty with his speaking of “their purification,” for in Luke’s understanding this phrase was an acceptable choice to encompass both the dedication of the first-born child and Mary’s purification.

In conclusion, we should note that we have not exhausted all the possible interpretations. But we have seen that the overly facile solution of appealing to the wording of the King James at this point—especially as it is often an emotional reaction to what is perceived to be an error in the text—bears no resemblance to an honest pursuit of truth and therefore no resemblance to a biblical faith. Although we cannot be certain of Luke’s meaning, it is better to be uncertain in the pursuit of truth than certain in the defense of a falsehood.

1 This is easier to articulate than to practice. I can’t create for myself a tabula rasa any more than anyone else can (cf. Bultmann’s fine essay in one of the volumes of Glauben und Verstehen [which one escapes me] about the impossibility of presuppositionless exegesis). What I can do, however, is raise my own presuppositions to a conscious level so that they can undergo a proper examination and validation. And I can dialogue with others of various positions to gain their perspectives and input.

2 This second criterion (viz., the pro-active examination of the evidence) has not always been embraced by those who embrace the first. Indeed, in biblical scholarship on both sides of the theological spectrum are folks who refuse to look at the evidence when such evidence looks to be contradictory to their convictions.

3 In many of these parallels καθαρίζω translates קדשׁ; in some of them καθαρίζω is the translation for some other Hebrew word.

4 As well, טהרis translated by other Greek terms such as λούω, ἁγνίζω, ἀφαγνίζω (cf. Lev 14:9; 17:15; Num 8:7, 21; 19:12, 19), illustrating further that the semantic ranges of טהרand καθαρίζω do not entirely overlap.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Regeneration, Justification, Textual Criticism