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Matthew 16:20 among the Manuscripts: A Case Study in Scribal Habits

23 March 2003

“Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ” (Matt 16:20, NET Bible).

Immediately after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16), the Lord blesses Peter, telling him that his insight was not due to his own mental prowess but was brought to his consciousness by divine aid. Then, the Lord warns his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Christ. This is a common refrain in the Gospels, given especially to the disciples and demons (cf., e.g., Matt 12:16; Mark 1:34; 8:30; Luke 4:41; 9:21).

But there is a curious textual problem in v. 20. Most manuscripts (ͦlt;2 C W Ϡlat bo) have “Jesus, the Christ” (jIhsou'" oJ Cristov") here, while one (D) has “Christ Jesus” (oJ CristoV" jIhsou'"). On the one hand, this is a much harder reading than the mere Cristov", because the name Jesus was already well known for the disciples’ master—both to them and to others. And a standard principle of textual criticism is that, all other things being equal, the harder reading is to be preferred as most likely going back to the original wording. The question here is whether all other things are equal; that is, were there other forces at work that may have influenced scribes to add “Jesus” to “Christ”?


Whether he was the Messiah is the real focus of the passage. But the addition “Jesus” (either before or after “Christ”) is surely too hard a reading: there are no other texts in which the Lord tells his disciples not to disclose his personal name. And why would he? He was well known everywhere as “Jesus of Nazareth.” Frankly, the addition of “Jesus” here is so contrary to the context, both literary and historical, that it has nothing to commend it. Further, it is plainly a motivated reading in that scribes had the proclivity to add jIhsou'" to Cristov" or to kuvrio" (“Lord”), regardless of whether such was appropriate to the context. In this instance it clearly is not, and it only reveals that scribes sometimes, if not often, did not think about the larger interpretive consequences of their alterations to the text. Further, the shorter reading is well supported by ͦlt;* B L D Q ˦lt;1,13 565 700 1424 al it sa. These witnesses date from the early fourth century, and include representatives of all the early texttypes. Both externally and internally, the reading without “Jesus” is almost surely the original.


So, what lessons can be learned from this test passage? Three especially come to mind.

    1. The discipline of textual criticism simply cannot be done by a mere examination of manuscripts, regardless of what theory one adopts. An integration of the external data with internal considerations is absolutely necessary and vital if we are going to recover the original text.

    2. Both the literary context (one aspect of what is called intrinsic evidence) and known scribal habits (a.k.a. transcriptional evidence) are often at odds. Scribes did not always think through the macro-interpretive issues of their alterations. They often wrote in semi-conscious genuflective notations, especially when it came to descriptions of the Lord. And once these got into the text, they had a way pervading most manuscripts that would follow.

    3. Liturgical and devotional motivations had a much larger impact on the transmission of the text than some are willing to admit. This especially impacted the Byzantine manuscripts, but others were not immune. The Western text, and even to some degree, the Alexandrian, also suffered from liturgical pressure. The growth of the text was the natural result. Still, the New Testament is one of the most stable documents of the ancient world. Reading a manuscript from the fourth or fourteenth century reveals the same God and the same gospel. For this, all Christians can be truly grateful.

Related Topics: Textual Criticism

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