Father, Forgive Them

The Conservative Bible Project claims that Jesus' famous line from the cross "Father forgive them, they don't know what they're doing" (in Luke 23:34) is a later addition and should not be included in a true translation of the Bible.  Is that true?

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It's complicated...and then there's James

t is true that some important copies of the Gospel of Luke do not include this verse. Missing from two of the very early manuscripts favored by contemporary text critics--P75, a third-century papyrus copy of Luke and John, and Codex Vaticanus (B), a fourth-century pandect Bible known for its pristine text--it was also excluded by the scribes of Codex Bezae (D), an early fifth-century Greek-Latin diglot, the fifth-century Freer Gospels (W), Codex Koridethi (Q), and various Old Latin and Syriac copies. Though initially present in the highly regarded Codex Siniaticus (Aleph), it was placed in brackets by an early corrector, only to be re-established in the fifth century by yet another editor.

Yet Jesus’ prayer on the cross can be found in other important manuscripts, including Codex Alexandrinus (A) and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (C), as well as manuscripts belonging to the textual groups Family 1 and Family 13. Such a divided record is puzzling, suggesting that some ancient Christians accepted the passage as an authentic, Gospel saying of the Lord, while others ignored it, or were unaware of its existence, or, perhaps, went so far as to delete it from their copies of Luke.

Patristic evidence is equally complex. Cited by Irenaeus of Lyons around 180 CE, Jesus’ prayer was also included within a popular second-century Gospel harmony, the Diatessaron and cited in the third- or fourth-century Pseudo-Clementine literature (Homily 11.20; Recognitions 6.5). The pseudo-Ignatian longer recension of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, perhaps dating from the fourth century, employs the prayer to urge Christians to love their enemies in imitation of the Lord, despite any persecutions they may face (Ephesians 10.3). Origen of Alexandria discusses the passage on at least three occasions, most prominently in his account of the Passover festival, which, he argues, prefigured the sufferings of Christ (Peri Pascha 2.43).

Interestingly, the prayer was attributed not only to Jesus but also to James, the brother of the Lord. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, a second-century Christian writer named Hegesippus recorded the last words of James as, “I beseech you, Lord God Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” an obvious parallel to Jesus’ prayer in Luke (Ecclesiastical History 2.23.16). Perhaps, then, a statement once associated with Jesus’ brother was later applied to Jesus himself, and added to the Gospel at an appropriate location. Alternatively, perhaps a prayer already known as Jesus’ own was applied to the martyrdom of his brother as well, lending further significance to James’ death by means of repetition and comparison.

Clearly there is no easy solution to the question of this passage’s place within the Gospel of Luke. Nevertheless, Jesus’ statement was familiar and appreciated, at least in some quarters, and many early Christians did believe that the verse belonged in Luke.

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Author: Jennifer Wright Knust
Quoting G.B. Caird

With regard to Luke 23:34a “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” what few commentaries I have here (and given the limited amount of time I have to devote to it) seem summed up pretty well by the late great Oxford NT scholar G.B.Caird who writes with regard to that verse: “The prayer of Jesus is omitted by Codex Vaticanus, Codex Bezae, and other important manuscripts, but it is well attested in other manuscripts, and most modern textual critics accept it as a genuine part of the text….In the light of Acts 3:17,19; 7:59f. it is probable that the sentence stood in the original text of Luke…” (GB.Caird, The Gospel of St Luke [Pelican New Testament Commentaries; Penguin, 1963, 1985], p. 251).


It's about translation theory, not ideology

What is interesting is that the argument that the Conservative Bible Project is making for Luke 23:34 is based on a methodology that is basic to contemporary textual criticism, but is rejected by many conservatives.  The Conservative Bible Project methodology for this verse is based on what is present in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts of the Bible.  This methodology is viewed  as "liberal" by those conservatives who follow the King James version tradition of relying on the tradition of manuscripts that were passed on through the Middle Ages. 

One can indeed make a legitimate argument against the presence in our Bibles of Luke 23:34.  Another principle of contemporary textual criticism methodology in looking at conflict in ancient texts on the presence of text is whether it is easier to see a scribe adding it or removing it.  My point is that the different approaches is not based on theological orientation, but on views of how to make choices among textual variants.

The absence of a theological bias also has to do with one's theory of how to translate the Bible.  The Conservative Bible Project holds that departure from a very literal approach comes from a theological bias.  Conservatives, however, differ widely among themselves on what is the best way to capture the original meaning. 

For example, the New Interpreters Bible, which was translated by Evangelicals, is more of a dynamic equivalence approach, i.e. less literal, than is the New Revised Standard Version, which some conservatives attack as "liberal" (although conservatives were involved in the translation and it is preferred by many Evangelicals).  Those who use the dynamic equivalence approach feel that it brings  the reader closer to the meaning of the original text. 

An even great departure from the literal text is Eugene Peterson with the Message, yet Peterson is a professor emeritus at Regent College, which is a transdenominational Evangelical institution.  His translation is also praised by dominant Evangelical leaders, such as the outstanding Evangelical theologian, J. I. Packer, who praises it for catching "the logical flow, personal energy, and imaginative overtones of the original very well indeed."  My point is simply that the differences in one's approach of what is the most effective way to capture the original meaning is a matter of translation theory and not theological orientation. 

This applies also to the use of gender inclusive language, which is also attacked by the Conservative Bible Project. Some hold that use of the masculine to represent people in general rather than only males, or of God, did not have the meaning in biblical times that it can have in contemporary understanding of intentionally excluding women or intentionally making males the representative of humanity. There are many Evangelicals who argue this.  Again it is a matter of translation theory not of theological orientation.

Those conservatives who rely on the textual tradition behind the King James Version and attack those who depart from it when it is not supported by the older manuscripts appear more like those in Catholic hiostory who were more controlled by tradition.  This is in contrast to the Protestant Reformers who rejected tradition when it was in conflict with the evidence of the early centuries.

Author: Stephen Charles Mott




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