Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel logo

God’s Word for You

Luke 9:55b-56 a variant reading

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, June 6, 2018

He said, “You don’t know what kind of spirit is influencing you. 56 For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” * Then they went to another village.
* 9:55b-56a Some witnesses do not have these two sentences.

Everything here except the last sentence (“Then they went to another village”) is omitted from many Bibles and Bible manuscripts. Why is there a question about these words? How come some Bibles omit them?

We have to remember that published, printed Bibles have only been around for about five hundred years. Such a thing was brand new in Martin Luther’s day. Before that, Bibles were copied by hand. This was a process that took months for a New Testament, and a whole year for a whole Bible with Old and New Testaments to be completed.

For many centuries, each copy of the Bible was usually made by looking at a recent copy that was in good shape. We would have done the same thing. But if an error occurred, it might and probably would be transmitted to the next copy, and so on and on. The most common differences between copies were in the spelling of proper names, but a few other variations crept in.

Then about two hundred years ago, some scholars and one eccentric young German count began to seek out and collect ancient manuscripts. A manuscript’s age can be determined by the technology used to produce its writing surface (papyrus, vellum, paper, etc.), its ink, and the device used as a pen. The oldest manuscripts were made with pens cut from reeds, not from feathers, and so the look of the letters was different.

Some of the oldest Greek copies of Luke’s Gospel do not have the text of verses 55-56 from “He said…” to “to save them” as printed above. Almost all of these oldest copies are from Egypt, because the climate of Egypt is more favorable to preserving manuscripts. However, verses 55-56 are preserved in translations of Luke from the same period—some from Egypt (the Coptic, for example), from Gaul in Europe (the Gothic) and from western North Africa (the Old Latin). This passage was read as a regular lesson in some ancient churches, but not in others. Almost all later Greek texts and translations until the 20th Century include verses 55-56. A few modern translations include these words: the King James Version (if we can call it modern), the New King James Version, the New American Standard Bible (in italics), and the Evangelical Heritage Version. This passage is also quoted by Lutheran dogmaticians, most recently in Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics, Volume II, page 70 (published in 1951, but at the end of a list, and out of New Testament order).

Another question we need to ask is, does this sound like Jesus? Does it contradict anything else in the Bible? Could it be a malicious insertion, (in which case we would reject it immediately)?

Jesus says something similar in several places in the Bible. Note the following passages especially:

  • “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45).
  • “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).
  • “For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it” (John 12:47).

Our conclusion: This is the kind of thing Jesus said more than once. So, although this is a passage we would expect, there is still a question as to whether or not Jesus happened to say this at this time. If it doesn’t belong in the text, where did it come from? One proposed answer is that a copyist might have inserted these words based on something he heard, such as in a Bible study or in a sermon. In this case, that doesn’t seem like a satisfactory answer, and I can’t think of any alternative that would account for these words to be added. This passage doesn’t change our understanding of the context or of God’s plan of salvation. They reflect (but don’t really quote) things Jesus said in other places.

In my opinion, these words belong here, but I respect anyone who feels differently. I agree with the New American Standard Bible and the Evangelical Heritage Version that they should be included in the text, and I think that the EHV’s footnote is the correct way to handle things here: “Some witnesses to the text omit this quotation.”

The word for “lives” here is phychas (ψυχάς), “selves.” The EHV translates this as “souls,” and others (including my own translation above) have the plural noun “lives.” The idea is clear enough: Jesus didn’t come to kill people, but to rescue them from death and hell. He did this by forgiving our sins with his own blood on the cross. He also did this by teaching us to trust him, to follow him, and to put our faith in him.

I hope this answers questions about this passage. We can be certain that there is no question at all regarding our soul or our Savior.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

Browse Devotion Archive