Monday, June 4, 2012

The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Repentance, Luke 5:32 vs. Matthew 9:13

In every English translation of which I am aware, Luke 5:27-32 reads something like this:

27 After these things he went out, and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and said to him, “Follow me!” 28 He left everything, and rose up and followed him. 29 Levi made a great feast for him in his house. There was a great crowd of tax collectors and others who were reclining with them. 30 Their scribes and the Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered them, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Luke 5:27-32 (WEB). All Greek texts of which I am aware also agree in their inclusion of the last two words, eis metanoian, “to repentance.” This is, again, repentance in the strong sense of changed life and behavior.

The mystery arises because an important group of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament—those commonly called the Alexandrian texttype because of their common origin in copies made by scribes in Egypt (primarily Alexandria)—omit the words eis metanoian from Jesus’ statement in the parallel text in Matthew 9:13. Most of the modern English translations of Matthew 9:9-13 follow the Alexandrian texts and read somewhat like the NIV:

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up abd followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners.’” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:9-13 (NIV). The whole concept of repentance is mysteriously missing from this report of what Jesus said on this occasion.

However, not all Greek texts, and not all English translations, omit the concept of repentance from the passage in Matthew. The KJV, for example, renders Matthew 9:13 as follows: “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” On this point, the KJV follows an early scholarly New Testament text that relied upon multiple ancient manuscripts, Stephanus’ 1550 revision of Erasmus’ Textus Receptus. Both Erasmus and Stephanus compiled Greek texts that were in the Byzantine texttype tradition rather than the Alexandrian text tradition (a tradition which had not yet been discovered in Europe in the Sixteenth Century). Matthew 9:13 in Stephanus’ text ends with the words eis metanoian.

However, more recent scholars find the Textus Receptus to be unreliable, both because of the very limited number of ancient texts available to Erasmus and Stephanus and because of transcriptional errors and back translations from the Latin Vulgate introduced by Erasmus and not corrected by Stephanus. Therefore, no modern translation I am aware of follows the Textus Receptus exclusively.

This does not imply, however, that no modern scholarly Greek text contains the words eis metanioan in Matthew 9:13, or that no modern English translation of the verse contains the words “to repentance.” In the world of modern scholarly compilations of the Greek New Testament, those scholars who favor the Alexandrian texts over the Byzantine texts generally omit repentance from Matthew 9:13, whereas those that favor the Byzantine texts (of which texts now many more are known than in Erasmus’ day) generally include it. Professor Robinson has stated the case for giving priority to the larger and historically deeper set of manuscripts that constitute the Byzantine textform in the lengthy Appendix to his 2005 compilation of the Greek New Testament (1). Besides the Robinson and Pierpont Greek New Testament edition, the words eis metanioan are also found in Matthew 9:13 in the 1894 Scrivener Greek text, and the words “to repentance” are found in the English renderings in the 1901 American Standard Version and the World English Bible. I personally believe the Byzantine texts correctly included repentance in Matthew 9:13, and this not just because of my respect for the late Bill Pierpont (who was my first Greek teacher). I will explain.

There is no evidence that Jesus called Matthew away from his tax booth, and dined at his house that day, on more than one occasion. Indeed, it would appear quite unlikely that he did so. Thus, Matthew 9:9-13 and Luke 5:25-32 describe the same incident.

There is no question that the description of this incident in Luke attributes to Jesus the statement that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. All Greek texts and English translations of the Luke passage make the objective of Jesus’ call to sinners the repentance of those sinners. This is in keeping with the meaning of the entire passage. Jesus had initiated this chain of events by calling Levi (Matthew) away from his tax booth to follow him. Levi had demonstrated his repentance by immediately leaving his business and following Jesus. Levi never looked back—he continued to follow Jesus and became one of the twelve disciples into which Jesus poured his life over the next few years. But, immediately after he was called, Levi invited Jesus, his other disciples, and Levi’s own tax collector and “sinner” friends, to a dinner with Jesus.

During this dinner at Levi’s house, some Pharisees insinuated to Jesus’ disciples that their Master was doing wrong when he associated with these blatant “sinners.” Jesus took this opportunity to contrast the Pharisees with the “sinners” to whom he was ministering at the dinner. The Pharisees believed they were spiritually “healthy,” not sinners but zealous for the Law (compare the description the Apostle Paul, an ex-Pharisee, gives of himself in Philippians 3:4-6). The believed they had no need of any physician to heal their spiritual condition, and had nothing of which to repent. By contrast, the need of the tax collectors and “sinners” for repentance was obvious. Jesus came to bring healing to those who knew they had a need. This healing started with their repentance.

While it is clear that Jesus’ words in Luke’s account include “to repentance,” it is not as clear that Matthew’s account contains these words. Some texts contain the words, others don’t . Assuming the underlying historicity of the accounts, there are, speaking broadly, only four possible ways this could have happened:

1. Jesus perhaps responded to the same objection to his keeping of bad company twice during the meal at Matthew’s house, once in the form reported in Luke, the other time as reported in the Alexandrian texts of Matthew.

2. Jesus only responded once, and his actual saying included the words “to repentance,” as reported in Luke, but Matthew omitted these words to emphasize a different aspect of the saying than Luke emphasized. In this case, the occurrence of the words in some Greek texts of Matthew would, once again, have to be explained by the activity of Byzantine redactors.

3. Jesus only responded once, and his actual saying on this occasion did not include the words “to repentance” at all. Luke added them for reasons of his own, and scribes or, more correctly, redactors (if this hypothesis is true) in the Byzantine text tradition added them to some texts of Matthew to make the text harmonize with Luke.

4. Jesus only responded once, using the words “to repentance” as reported in Luke and in most Byzantine texts of Matthew. The Alexandrian texts of Matthew omitted these words either as the result of a deliberate redaction or, more likely, a scribal error early in the transmission of the Egyptian exemplars.

I will admit that the first two possibilities cannot be entirely excluded. Jesus may have answered the same objection twice during the same meal, and have given a somewhat different answer both times. Further, Matthew and Luke were writing to different constituencies—Matthew mostly to Jewish believers, Luke to Gentiles—and certainly had different emphases. Even if the words “to repentance” are included in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ remarks, those remarks differ from Luke’s account in that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words includes an allusion to Hosea that is not included in Luke’s account at all (“but go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”) Matthew 6:13a, compare Hosea 6:6. An allusion to a Hebrew prophet would be lost on Luke’s Gentile audience, but is exactly what Jesus likely would have used to explain himself to Jewish leaders (and to the Jews in Matthew’s audience as well).

The problem is that the difference in emphasis between these two Evangelists does not explain the omission of the words “to repentance” from Matthew’s account of this incident. If Jesus’ declaration that his purpose in associating with and calling sinners is to bring them to repentance has a natural place in this context, it is in Matthew’s account, written for Jewish consumption. In preaching to Jews, Jewish believers would certainly want to be able to reassure their hearers that a significant purpose of the Gospel, now extended to gentiles and “sinners,” is to bring them out of their sin. If the message of repentance is going to be de-emphasized, one would expect to see this in Luke, written to Gentiles. But, assuming Matthew’s text originally did not include the words “to repentance,” exactly the opposite pattern is seen. Matthew de-emphasizes repentance for the Jews, and Luke emphasizes it for the Gentiles!

Moreover, Matthew’s inclusion of Jesus’ allusion to Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13a does not support the removal of the words “to repentance” later in the verse. The message of the verse before is the same in Matthew and in Luke: it is those who know they have a need who need a doctor. Matthew then places an emphasis on mercy—because sinners need healing, going to them to call them is an act of mercy, which is what God desires. Then, the message of Matthew 9:13b is also parallel to that of Luke 5:32, I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. The reason emphasized for this call in Luke is the sinners’ need itself, in Matthew it is mercy (which Jesus tells the Pharisees to emulate). But in both cases Jesus call to sinners meets them where their need is—at the point of their sin. In both cases it is necessarily a call to repent. Thus, Jesus’ slightly different emphasis in Matthew 9:13a does not explain the absence of the words “to repentance” in 9:13b.

The third possible reason for the difference—i.e, that Luke deliberately added to Jesus’ words—accuses Luke of dishonesty and can be disregarded.

That leaves the fourth possibility as the most likely: the autograph of Matthew included the words translated “to repentance” in Matthew 9:13, but they were subsequently lost from the Alexandrian text tradition through scribal error or (less likely) deliberate alteration. Jesus actually said on this occasion that he had not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.


Endnotes:

(1) Robinson, Maurice A., “Appendix: The Case for Byzantine Priority,” in Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont, The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform (Scarborough, MA: Chilton Book Publishing 2005), 533-586.