Re: Jason A. Whitlark & Mikael C. Parsons, 'The "Seven" Last Words: A Numerical Motivation for the Insertion of Luke 23.34a' New Testament Studies 52 (2006), 188-204.
In this article the authors argue that the saying 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do' (Luke 23.34a) was most likely not original to Luke; but was added, as the four Gospels were collected together, because of 'numerical motivation' - a desire that Jesus would speak seven rather than six last words from the cross.
They argue that the shorter reading (lacking the phrase) is attested in early representatives of the Alexandrian, Western and Byzantine text-types which also exhibit geographical diversity (there is a lack of detail in this argument, but it is not the original part of the study). The longer reading has early attestation 'almost exclusively' within Western witnesses, and only later (post 4th Cent) in other types of witness. This suggests an originally short text, which ambiguous internal evidence cannot over-rule: 'the logion is a secondary reading added to the text in the late second century' (p. 194).
The new argument developed here is that the foundational motivation for the secondary inclusion of this logion was 'a numerically symbolic one'. The basic idea being that (following Stanton and Hengel) 'by the mid-second century, the mainstream of Christendom was working with a four-gospel collection' (p. 195). Once collected together it would have been apparent that Jesus spoke six words from the cross, but the number six carried a negative connotation in early Christianity (e.g. Rev 13.18; John 2.6; 19.14; Luke 23.44), while seven was clearly positive and significant (various evidence cited on p. 198-201). Thus:
- 'When the four Gospels were formed into a single collection early on and the narratives read together, the problem of six sayings from the cross emerged and created the "need" for a seventh saying.' (p. 201)
To me this argument is interesting, even somewhat clever, but not actually convincing. To be fair I don't accept the starting point about the four-gospel collection, so never really get on board with the basic assumptions, but for me the whole approach seems a little problematic. Basically to accept this argument you have to be able to envisage a scribe in the mid-to-late second century, familiar with a four-gospel collection, interested in counting the sayings of Jesus, finding something problematic in the resultant numbr six, having access to a "floating" saying (perhaps through the Diatessaron) and adding this in order to make up the number to seven, not after the other six but at this point in Luke. I find most of these steps fairly problematic myself. They certainly haven't shown any evidence that a scribe is likely to count sayings like this.
The authors think that on this view the seventh word 'gives a gratifying sense of completion' when Jesus says 'It is finished' in John 19.30. But if Luke 23.34a was added first in the Western textual tradition then the order of the gospels would most likely have been Matt - John - Luke - Mark (as it is in Western witnesses)!
Am I being too harsh? Should 'scribal numerology' be added to our list of scribal habits
Up-date: the authors respond (ever so lightly edited):
We were given notice that our article was being discussed in this forum; we hope you don’t mind us joining the fray! It is, of course, all authors’ hope that their work will be read and discussed in the marketplace of ideas, and we are grateful to Peter Head for bringing our article to the attention of this group. It is not clear to us, however, that any of the other commentators have actually read the piece, and this is lamentable given the fact that the essay is relatively accessible for NTS subscribers here.
Furthermore, we think Dr Head has given a truncated and weakened version of our argument; this in and of itself is not unusual. In fact, it’s the way most of us score academic points, but such a truncated summary leads naturally, if not inevitably, to the judgment (by someone else) that what we have produced is “piffle” (we don’t know whether or not to be offended by this; we hear a LOT of words in Texas don't understand, but piffle is not one of them!). As we understand it, Dr Head’s objections to the argument consist in
- not accepting an early date for the four-fold collection of the gospels;
- finding it implausible that a scribe would be ‘numerically motivated’ to add a seventh saying to the collected cross sayings.
Perhaps we have truncated his objections, but surely Peter will rebut if we have! In response to #1, Peter simply asserts, without argumentation, that he doesn’t accept the Stanton (/Hengel) hypothesis for an early date for the collection. Fair enough since we assert, without argumentation, that we do accept the hypothesis. We can argue the merits of this thesis if one wishes, but we don’t think our argument rests solely, or even mostly, on this point. Equally, if not more, important is the Diatessaronic evidence, at least as we read it. We don’t wish to repeat the entire argument (again, we encourage commentators to read the piece in toto), but let us reiterate that evidence (201-203 , sans footnotes ).
Tatian’s Diatessaron is our earliest extant witness (c. 170) to the words of Jesus from the cross collected together in a single narrative, and it also attests to the secondary nature of Luke 23.34a. Tatian’s order of sayings reads: (1) Luke 23.43, (2) John 19.26-27, (3) Mark 15.34/Matt 27.46, (4) John 19.28, (5) John 19.30a, (6) Luke 23.34a, and (7) Luke 23.46a. What is notable about Tatian’s order (at least according to the Arabic witness) is that the sayings from John and the two undisputed sayings in Luke maintain their original canonical narrative order. Only Luke 23.34a is out of place:
23.43 (1) 19.26-27 (2)
23.34a (6) 19.28 (4)
23.46a (7) 19.30a (5)
Important witnesses to Diatessaronic readings, the Syriac versions c and s, also attest to the secondary nature of the logion in the Third Gospel. These manuscripts are believed to be from the fourth-fifth century. The texts, however, are thought to go back to the early second and third century. Syrs is thought to be older than syrc—even pre-Tatian. Interestingly, syrs does not contain the logion, ‘Father forgive them’ while, on the other hand, syrc, which is post-Tatian, has the logion (‘Father forgive them’) in its version of Luke. In these two Syriac versions we see the transition from the logion’s absence in the text of Luke in the early second century to its appearance in the text of Luke in the early third century. This is the same time frame suggested below for the logion’s addition to the Third Gospel.
Ephraim’s fourth-century commentary on the Diatessaron has some correspondence to the Arabic witness. Chapters 20-21 are an account of the passion narrative and death of Jesus. Ephraim cites all but the Johannine sayings in this account. He cites Luke 23.43 (20.24-25) first, then Mark 15.34/Matt 27.46 (20.30), Luke 23.46a (21.1) and only at the end in corollary discussions does he quote Luke 23.34a (21.3, 8). What is the significance of these observations? These witnesses attest to the fact that early on the logion, ‘Father, forgive them,’ was not fixed in the text of Third Gospel but was a ‘floating tradition.’ Either it was located in various places in the text or omitted altogether. Such floating traditions are sure indicators that the traditions we are dealing with are secondary to the earliest form of the text.
In addition, what do we find concerning the order of sayings in later Diatessaronic witnesses? The Middle-English Pepysian gospel harmony has the following order: (1) Luke 23.34a, (2) John 19.26-27, (3) Luke 23.43, (4) Mark 15.34/Matt 27:46, (5) John 19:28, (6) John 19.30, and (7) Luke 23.46a. In the ninth-century Saxon Heliand, songs 66-67 share an almost identical order minus John 19.30 (unless the end of song 67 is an allusion to this saying). The Persian Diatessaron records the sayings from the cross in the following order: Luke 23.34a, John 19.26-27, John 19.28, John 19.30, Luke 23.43, Mark 15.34/Matt 27.46, Luke 23.46a. Also, the common modern homiletical order of the sayings is (1) Luke 23.34a, (2) Luke 23.43, (3) John 19.26-27, (4) Mark 15.34/Matt 27:46, (5) John 19:28, (6) John 19.30, and (7) Luke 23.46a.
In all these later examples, after the logion had been fixed in the canonical text of Luke, the logion, ‘Father forgive them’, is the first logion and maintains the canonical narrative integrity of the sayings of Jesus from the cross in the Gospel of Luke. In fact, the preponderance for starting with Luke 23:34a in the later traditional homiletical order of the seven sayings as well as in other subsequent gospel harmonies makes sense after this logion finds its place in the Gospel of Luke. Putting it first maintains the canonical integrity of Luke’s order of sayings and maintains the logical chronological sequence when all the canonical Gospels’ cruicifixion accounts are read together since this saying is immediately given after the Roman soldiers nail Jesus to the cross.
All this suggests that at the time Tatian wrote his Distessaron (ca. 170 c.e.), this logion had not yet secured its place in the text of Luke. This logion was most likely added to a gospel harmony or harmonized collection of sayings of Jesus on the cross before it was added to the text of Luke.
With regard to point #2, namely that we “certainly haven't shown any evidence that a scribe is likely to count sayings like this”, we would beg to differ. In a later comment, Dr Head admits that we have some evidence for scribal interest in “seven.” In addition to the use of seven as a structural principle at the compositional level (see also François Bovon’s SNTS presidential address in NTS [‘Names and Numbers in Early Christianity’, NTS 47 (2001) 267-88.), we mentioned also the following (200-201):
These previous examples indicate the influence of seven at the compositional level of the New Testament writings and traditions. ‘Seven’ also influenced the post-publication editorial collection of some New Testament texts as well as some non-canonical collections of early Christian texts. The original collection of the letters of Ignatius, written as he was traveling to Rome to be martyred, is a collection of seven letters. When the catholic letters are finally collected together there are seven (1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; James; Jude). More important to our discussion are the various collections of Paul’s letters by the end of the first century. Likely the oldest collection of Paul’s letters was the seven churches edition when letters to the same communities were counted together (Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians). The significance of a collection of Paul’s letters addressed to seven churches was not lost upon the early church. The Muratorian fragment contains this interesting statement:
- Since the blessed apostle Paul himself, following the order of his predecessor John, but not naming him, writes to seven churches in the following order: first to the Corinthians, second to the Ephesians, . . . Philippians, . . . Colossians, . . .Galatians, . . . Romans. But although [the message] is repeated to the Corinthians and Thessalonians by way of reproof, yet one church is recognized as diffused throughout the world (emphasis added).
The Muratorian fragment reflects the significance attached to a seven-church edition of Paul’s letters, namely that the church universal was addressed through these occasional documents. Moreover, this collection of letters addressed to the seven churches presumably goes back to the earliest time (c. 100 C.E. or slightly earlier) when the letters were collected and edited together. Here, then, is evidence of post-publication shaping of a collection of materials by the earliest Christians according to the number seven. Additionally, when the letters to individuals were added to the collection of letters to the seven churches by 100, Hebrews is routinely added to this collection (e.g., p46, B, ) , D, 06). By so doing a thirteen-letter collection is made a fourteen-letter (7X2) corpus.
This argument tracks well with Mike Holmes’ comment in the blog of the Muratorian fragment and the need for evidence from the second century.
At any rate, thanks again to Peter for bringing attention to our article. We hope it will prompt more discussion (and perhaps even a few more actually to read). We look forward (we think!) to the continuing exchange.
Mikeal Parsons and Jason Whitlark