“If a brother sins (against you)…”

This Sunday I’ll be looking at Matthew 18, spiraling outward from v. 20. If you look at v. 15, chances are your Bible, assuming it’s a modern translation, likely has a footnote about a textual variant. What’s a textual variant, and why does it matter?

The Bibles we read today in English (or some other modern language) are not translated from the New Testament as-a-whole-document-someone-wrote-down-all-at-once. What we know as the New Testament took at least a couple of centuries to come together as a single book (as we think of books). Though Christians were early promoters of the codex format (a codex is the format we today just call a book), the earliest texts were likely in scroll format.

The writers of the New Testament books wrote their books for particular audiences. Those audiences read the texts, and as they found them valuable, made copies for wider distribution. Because of the type of materials they were made of and their heavy usage, none of the autographs (autograph is a term referring to the actual manuscripts written by the original authors) survive. As you probably suspect, this is true not only for the books of the Bible, but for just about every other ancient writing. Paper (or papyrus, it’s older form) wears out. What scholars work from today as they identify what the authors originally wrote is a collection of thousands of ancient manuscripts that witness to the text. Many of these are Bible texts themselves. Others are quotations, lectionaries, references, and translations (translation is NOT a new phenomenon when it comes to the Bible).

Most of the texts are the same from copy to copy to copy: since the texts were highly valued, great care was put into the copying and transmission process. There are differences, however, in some places, from text to text. Matthew 18:15 has one of those differences. When you’re reading your handy-dandy Greek New Testament you see what is called the “textual apparatus” at the bottom of the page when there is a textual variant:

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You can see three variants listed here in Greek. The first two are simply matters of the tense of the verb “sin.” The third option has the same verb as the first but omits the “against you.” The difference between the first and third readings are, then, “sins against you” and “sins.”

You can see that there is more in this picture than just the Greek reading. The first thing you see is that the editors of the text have given it a grade of “C.” There are four possible grades, A, B, C, and D. These range from certain to less certain. In this case the C grade means that they are relatively uncertain that they’ve made the correct choice in identifying “sins against you” as the original reading.

Why are they uncertain? Well, look at what follows each of the bits of Greek. You see a list of letters, some in English, some in Greek, and, on the third, one in Hebrew, some numbers, and some names. To keep things simple (some of you may be wondering if any talk of textual criticism like this can be called simple!), the greatest number of ancient witnesses attests to the longer reading, “sins against you.” The oldest witnesses, however, (in this case Codices Aleph [Siniaticus] and B [Vaticanus]) have the shorter reading. Having the most witnesses counts for something, but so does having the oldest, since those are closest in time to the originals. An additional reason for the editors to choose the final reading is that it is shorter, on the assumption that texts usually (that’s a troublesome word, isn’t it?) get longer over time rather than shorter.

Now, I’m not only not a trained textual critic, but I’m also not a Bible scholar. My specialization is in philosophy and theology. For that reason, I’m mostly going through this to let you know what’s going on. In Sunday’s message I’ll not deal with these details. I may, however, briefly explore the consequences either way. My own analysis leans to the third (and shorter) reading. It’s the harder reading, of course. We all have heard that we’re supposed to forgive people when they sin against us. That’s even the clear message of the parable with which Jesus ends the chapter (one reason to stand against my analysis). But the broader message, that we’re supposed to seek the reconciliation of sinners, even when the sin of those sinners is not against us, is also clearly witnessed in the Bible, even if it is frequently ignored.

On Sunday we’ll glance at both options. See you then!

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