God’s Word for You
(Luke 17:36, variant reading)
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, November 29, 2018
36 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.
Most translations do not have this verse here in Luke. A very similar passage is found in Matthew (Matthew 24:40). What’s going on? Does it belong here, or not?
THE INTERNAL (TEXT AND CONTEXT) EVIDENCE
AGAINST: Many scholars judge that this sentence, almost identical to Matthew 24:40, is a duplication inserted by scribes or copyists because of the similarity of the passages.
FOR: In Matthew 24:40, the verbs are present passive: “One is taken and the other is left.” Here in Luke, the manuscripts present verbs that are future passive: “One will be taken and the other left.” This discrepancy is one of the more compelling reasons for even talking about the passage as belonging here in Luke. A simple transfer of a verse like this from one Gospel to another is a mistake we should expect, but to change the forms of the verbs is unusual.
THE EXTERNAL (MANUSCRIPT) EVIDENCE
Ancient Bible manuscripts come from six regions of the old world. Working clockwise from Egypt, they are: Egypt, North Africa, Gaul (Germany, France, Britain, and Italy), Asia Minor (including Greece), Syria (the northern part of the Holy Land), and Palestine itself. When we judge a questionable passage of the Bible, especially in the New Testament, it helps to discover whether a particular verse or reading is not only ancient (dating back to the 4th, 3rd, 2nd, or, if possible, even 1st Century AD), but also widespread, coming from most if not all of the six regions.
Witnesses to the text of the New Testament come from five or six sources. The first of these are Greek manuscripts written in the older style, with all capital letters. These are called Uncials, the oldest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Next come the later Greek copies, written in a faster lower-case style known as Minuscules. A third group of Greek manuscripts is made up of the Lectionaries. These are not really Bibles, but books written with just the lessons for worship services, with the Gospels and sometimes the Epistles written out in chunks for the lessons read during church services.
There are other witnesses besides these. There are the Versions, which we would also call translations. The Bible was translated very early into an Italian dialect called Old Latin or Itala. This was later updated into the Latin version known as the Vulgate. Other ancient languages into which the Bible was translated included Coptic (an Egyptian dialect), Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic (an ancestor of German and English), Slavonic, and Ethiopic.
Another group of ancient witnesses comes from pastors and teachers who wrote about the Bible in sermons, commentaries, histories, letters, and other documents. These men are known as the Church Fathers.
Finally, there are a couple of other witnesses that don’t fit well into any of these groups, but they are often grouped with the Church Fathers. One Father known as Tatian the Syrian wrote out a harmony of the four Gospels that’s called the Diatesseron (“Through the Four [Gospels]”). Another group of documents was produced by the church councils like the Council of Nicea. Sometimes these include passages of Scripture which certainly count as ancient witnesses. Finally, there is a very ancient church manual known as the Didache, written in the Second Century, which quotes many passages of the Bible including the oldest version of the Lord’s Prayer to include the doxology.
What do these witnesses say about Luke 17:36?
AGAINST: A great many, indeed, the vast majority of manuscripts that include this part of Luke, hundreds of them, do not have this verse. It is not even in most representatives of the so-called Textus Receptus.
FOR: A large number of the surviving manuscripts are from Egypt. Egyptian manuscripts are often suspect, because they show evidence of being smoothed over or “cleaned up” by scribes. There is a tendency among the Egyptian documents to omit passages just like this one. Uncial D (often at odds with other manuscripts), several Minuscules (700, 1071 and five others, and also Family 13), and Lectionaries L185 and L1579 have it. Also, the Old Latin version, the Vulgate, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian all have it. The Diatesseron of Tatian the Syrian has it, and at least two Church Fathers, Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo. These witnesses represent every one of the six ancient regions, and the Diatesseron is very ancient (before 150 AD).
My conclusion is that this verse should, at the very least, be included as a footnote in all our translations. It’s presence in some of the very earliest witnesses such as the Old Latin and Syriac (3rd Century) and the Diatesseron (early 2nd Century) show that it was known to the earliest Christians. The fact that it is found in all six of the ancient regions* shows that it was also a widespread reading, while its absence in such overwhelming numbers of witnesses is a strike against it. Since it is also found in a similar if not identical form in Matthew, we should also accept its message as thoroughly Scriptural.
As with verses 34 and 35, we apply this verse to being prepared, because we do not know when the Last Day will come. Trust in Jesus, and you will have everlasting life.
* For the sake of readers who would like the list of manuscripts which have this reading by region: By region: Egypt (Coptic and Ethiopic), North Africa (Augustine and some Old Latin), Gaul (Codex D, Old Latin, Vulgate and Ambrose), Asia Minor (the Byzantine minuscules and Lectionaries), Syria (The Diatesseron, Syriac and Armenian), and Palestine (Georgian).
Pastor Timothy Smith
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