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What the Angelic Chorus Said…and other Notes on the Christmas Story

The Christmas Story (that is, the so-called Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke) is perhaps the most widely read and beloved portion of the entire Bible. Every year in the Christmas season, believers and non-believers alike hear and read those words, sing them in popular carols, present them visually in all manner of decoration, and so forth. In this article I will be discussing some notable textual variants, along with a few interesting critical and interpretive issues, from the Infancy Narratives (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2) and several additional passages related to the Birth of Jesus.

It is generally thought that the Infancy Narratives are among the latest portions of the Gospel tradition to develop, after the Passion and Resurrection Narratives, collections of Sayings of Jesus, accounts of the Miracles, etc. Only two of the canonical Gospels contain such narratives, and, somewhat surprisingly, the Birth of Jesus is hardly mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. However, that it quickly gained importance in the Early Church is clear from: (1) the Extra-canonical gospels from the second-century (and later), (2) its place in apologetic and polemical writings of the second and early third centuries (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen), and (3) variant readings in the New Testament MSS, most of which must have occurred in this same period (by the early third century).

As a matter of fact, the original text of the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives is reasonably well-established, with fewer substantive textual variants than in many other portions of the Gospels. However, in at least two areas scribes were prone to introduce variant readings:

1. The high density of Old Testament citations and allusions in these passages resulted in a range of variants. Besides the explicit quotations in Matthew, the annunciation and birth narratives clearly draw upon Old Testament forms and imagery to tell the story. Luke uses what has been called a highly “Semitized” Greek, especially in the canticles, patterned after Old Testament, and perhaps later Jewish(-Christian) poetry. Occasionally Greek-speaking scribes had difficulty understanding the language, and modified the text in the process. Of course, there was always a tendency to make OT quotations conform to the standard Greek version (LXX) as well.

2. An interest to clarify and safeguard the reality of Jesus’ birth and the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. These modifications—intentional, or at least purposeful—occur in several different contexts, and will be discussed below. Not surprisingly, in virtually every instance in the New Testament where Joseph is referred to as Jesus’ “father” (or Mary and Joseph as his “parents”), the text was altered by at least one scribe, in order to avoid any misunderstanding as to the nature of Jesus’ birth.

I will begin with the Matthean Narrative, then the Lukan, and will close with a few supplemental passages.

Matthean Infancy Narrative (Matt. 1-2 [includes the Genealogy, 1:1-17])

Matthew 1:16

For the majority of witnesses, this verse reads:  )Iakwb de e)ge/nnhsen ton  )Iwshf ton a&ndra Mari/a$, e)c h!$ e)gennh/qh  )Ihsou=$ o( lego/meno$ xristo/$ (“…and Jacob caused to be [born] Joseph the man/husband of Mary, out of whom came to be [born] Jesus, the [one] said/counted to be [the] Anointed”), and it is almost certainly original. Matthew’s alteration from the regular formula used in the genealogy seems specifically intended to avoid misunderstanding Joseph’s role in Jesus’ birth. However, a number of witnesses (Q f13 788 1346 l547, and some Old Latin MSS, etc) read:  )Iakwb de e)ge/nnhsen ton  )Iwshf w! mnhsteuqei=sa parqe/no$ Mari/a e)ge/nnhsen  )Ihsou=$ ton lego/menon Xristo/n (“…and Jacob caused to be [born] Joseph, to whom being betrothed Mary caused to be [born] Jesus the [one] said/counted to be [the] Anointed”). Here Mary is specifically called a virgin (parqe/no$) and her relationship to Joseph is stated more precisely (as “betrothed”).

A more peculiar reading is found in the Old Syriac (Sinaitic) MS, which reads, in conventional translation: “…and Jacob begot Joseph; Joseph, to whom was betrothed Mary the virgin, begot Jesus who is called the Anointed”, seemingly implying that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. Some slight additional Syriac and Arabic support has been attested for this reading, but, most likely it is a singular reading. Nevertheless, a few critical scholars have suggested that this represents the original text, which scandalized scribes subsequently altered—a scenario which is highly unlikely. More plausibly, the Sinai MS scribe was either careless, or sought to bring the text into conformity with Matthew’s overall genealogical formula. From the ancient Near Eastern (Semitic) perspective, in the context of a genealogy, the term “beget / cause to be [born]” could be understood to apply symbolically to legal (rather than biological) paternity. Cf. the ancient custom of “levirate” marriage, which is likewise a popular solution advanced for the discrepancies in the Matthean (1:1-17) and Lukan (3:23-38) genealogies. For a good, detailed discussion of this variant, see the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek NT (2d edition, pp. 2-6).

It worth mentioning one further sub-variant in this verse: a few witnesses (64 [d] k, the Curetonian Syriac, and the Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila) omit the participle (and article) o( lego/meno$. The Greek can be variously translated “the (one) counted/said/considered to be…” or, following the Semitic idiom “the (one) called…” Possibly these words fell out by accident; but, if omitted intentionally, it could be a product of the Christological climate in the 2nd-3rd centuries—scribes may have sought to avoid misunderstanding, by emphasizing that Mary truly bore the incarnate Son of God (Christ) rather than a man who was merely “called” Christ. For more on the idiom “to call / be called…” see on Luke 1:32, 35 below.

Matthew 1:18

There are two significant variants in this verse:

(1) The majority of manuscripts and witnesses read tou= de  )Ihsou= Xristou=, but a few Greek MSS and Church Fathers read tou= de Xristou=  )Ihsou= (B Origen Jerome) or tou= de  )Ihsou= (W), while tou= de Xristou= is read by a number of Church Fathers, Old Latin and Syriac MSS. The fact that Ihsou appears in different positions is an indication that it might be secondary, while the compound name Ihsou Xristou with the article is peculiar; therefore is possible that Xristou alone was present originally. Whichever way the alteration occurred, it is conceivable that there were doctrinal reasons involved. The compound name occasionally was emphasized against “Gnostics” who ‘separated’ the divine Christ from the man Jesus (there is a similar variant at Matt. 2:1 in a few MSS). On the other hand, the title “Christ/Anointed” (Xristo$) early on became a kind of shorthand for referring to the incarnate Son of God; so a change from the compound name to Xristo$ alone could help emphasize the idea that the Son of God was truly born in human flesh (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.16.2). In any case, there is much interchange and confusion between all these divine Names and titles of Christ in the manuscripts, which was only increased by the use of abbreviations (the so-called nomina sacra) to represent them.

(2) Many of the early and best manuscripts (Ë1 a B C P W D Q f1 syrh, pal copbo arm etc.)  read ge/nesi$, while the majority of witnesses read ge/nnhsi$. Now both Greek words—nearly identical in sound and spelling—ultimately derive from gi–g—nomai (prim. meaning “come to be, become”), with ge/nnhsi$ from the causative verb gennaw (lit. “cause to be”, primarily in the sense of “generate, engender, give birth”: to “beget” when a man is the subject, to “bear” when a woman). Both words could indicate a coming-to-be (i.e., a “birth”), but the latter word (ge/nnhsi$) more commonly was used for a biological birth. Ge/nesi$ can more broadly refer to something made, created, produced, or generally as the “beginning” of something. For this reason, apart from the solid textual evidence, it is more likely that ge/nesi$ was changed to ge/nnhsi$ than the other way around; and, while the change may have been accidental, or conventional, it is widespread enough to suggest a possible doctrinal motive or purpose. Two possibilities: (a) ge/nesi$ could be interpreted as a “beginning” for Christ (that he was created, or made), susceptible to an Arian point of view; (b) ge/nnhsi$, as the more common term for a human birth, would also make clear that the Christ was truly born.

Matthew 1:19, 20, 24, 25

In a few instances in the versional witnesses (Old Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Diatessaron), references to Mary as Joseph’s “wife” (1:20, 24) or Joseph as her “husband” (1:19) are altered, again to avoid any misunderstanding about the Virgin birth, but also most likely to safeguard the tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary. This belief was already well-established by the mid-second century (cf. the Protevangelium of James), as also seem clear from changes made to v. 25 in both the Old Latin and Old Syriac tradition—the Greek clause kai ou)k e)gi/nwsken au)thn e%w$… (“and he did not know her [i.e., have sexual relations with her] until…”) is omitted, probably to avoid the suggestion that Mary and Joseph did have sexual relations (and children) after the birth of Jesus. The Diatessaron reads “he lived with her purely [i.e., chastely] until…”. Virginity, celibacy, and encratite purity (celibacy in marriage) were especially emphasized in the Syrian Church.

 Matthew 1:23

The citation from Isaiah 7:14 is interesting because, like many quotations from the Old Testament, it does not correspond precisely to any known Greek version (or Hebrew text). Here Matthew is set parallel to the LXX (according to B [Vaticanus] and the Lucianic recension):

i)dou h( parqe/no$ e)n gastri e%cei kai te/cetai ui(o/n, kai kale/sousin to o&noma au)tou=  )Emmanouh/l i)dou h( parqe/no$ e)n gastri lh/–m—yetai kai te/cetai ui(o/n, kai kale/sei$ to o&noma au)tou= Emmanouhl

The differences (highlighted) are minor: Matthew has e)n gastri e%cei (“shall have in [the] womb”), the LXX e)n gastri lh/–m—yetai (“shall receive in [the] womb”). It should be noted that other LXX MSS (a A) also read e%cei, but these may be harmonizations (by Christian scribes) to Matthew.  Also Mt. reads “they will call his name…” instead of “you [sing.] will call his name…”, though a few manuscripts have harmonized the text to the LXX. Again, the Hebrew (MT) is not quite the same, among other differences, it reads “she will call his name…” (though this is not absolutely certain for the consonantal text, it is most likely). How are these differences to be explained? Generally there are four possibilities in such instances: (1) the NT author is working from a different Greek version, (2) the author is working (translating) from a different Hebrew text, (3) it is a free/faulty quotation (from memory?), or (4) the quotation has been adapted to the context in which he is writing. In nearly all instances, I believe this last is the best explanation, and is so here with the quotation from Isa 7:14. e)n gastri e%cei is the more common Greek (and LXX) idiom for conception, and was already used by Matthew in 1:18. For the second difference, the LXX is probably a (mis-)translation of the Hebrew, but there are also variants among the Dead Sea Scrolls including 1QIsa, which could be translated “he will call his name…” or “his name will be called…”, in which case it generally corresponds in meaning to Matthew’s Greek. More to the point, since the angelic announcement is to Joseph, who has just been told “…you will call his name Jesus” (1:20), it perhaps would have been confusing in context to hear “…you will call his name Immanuel”, as though it were being addressed to Joseph; the more generic form “…they will call…” fits better.  For a good discussion on all this, see R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, pp. 143-153.

Matthew 2:18

Quite a few MSS and witnesses have, it would seem, harmonized Matthew’s klauqmo$ kai o)durmo$ to the LXX (qrh=no$ kai klauqmo$ kai o)durmo$) in the quotation from Jer. 31:15 [38:15 LXX].  This sort of harmonization occurs quite often throughout the NT. It is sometimes difficult to determine which direction the change occurs, though more often than not, the reading that corresponds more closely with the LXX is secondary.

Matthew 2:23

Matthew’s quotation here is not from a single Old Testament passage, but appears to be a combination of at least two verses:
1) Isaiah 4:3: “He will be called holy” (LXX: “They will be called holy”)
2) Judges 16:17 (of Samson): “I have been a Nazîr (Nazirite) of God”—but note especially the LXX variants:
LXX B: “I am a holy one of God”  LXX A: “I am a Nazirite (Nazirai=o$) of God”

The exact reference and meaning of Nazwrai=o$ here is still debated. The principal context clearly indicates that it refers to Nazareth (i.e., a “Nazarene”). There are two forms used in the NT: Nazwrai=o$ and Nazarh=no$. But it is also very possible that Matthew draws on the allusion to a N¹zîr (Nazirite)—not that Jesus was a Nazirite in the technical sense, but the idea of dedication to God, with the parallel to being “called holy” would make such an association appropriate. Also possible, but less likely, is that there is an echo of the term n¢ƒer (“branch”), which had become an important Messianic term (cf. the key passage Isaiah 11:1 ff). Several centuries later, Jerome (Epistle 57 to Pammachius) cites this verse in relation to Jesus (“…from his root will grow [the] Nazorean”). For a good overall discussion see Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 209-213, 223-225.

Lukan Infancy Narrative (Luke 1:5-2:52)

Luke 1:15, 17, 76

Here in the angelic announcement to Zechariah (1:15, 17) and in the canticle of Zechariah (the Benedictus) (1:76), it is prophesied of John that he will be e)nw/pion (“before”, lit., “in the sight of”, “in the face of”) the Lord (ku/rio$). The textual witnesses show some confusion here, and, in part, this is an interpretive question which remains for commentators today: who is the kurio$ (“Lord”) mentioned here—God the Father (Yahweh), Jesus Christ, or both? In the Old Testament passages alluded to (esp. Mal. 3:1, 23), it is clearly Yahweh whom the Messenger/Elijah “goes before”. However, in the Gospels, with the familiar role of John preceding and baptizing Jesus, Luke probably understood the “Lord” here as Jesus. Here are the three passages:

1:15: e&stai gar me/ga$ e)nw/pion [tou=] kuri/ou (“for he will be great before/in-the-sight-of [the] Lord”). This is the majority reading, and is most likely original. But a number of MSS (Q Y f13 157 700, etc.) read …e)nw/pion tou= qeou= (“…before/in-the-sight-of God”)

1:17: kai au)to$ pro[s]eleu/setai e)nw/pion au)tou= (“and he will go before him”, lit., “and he will go before in his face/sight”). In addition to a variant in the verb (proeleu/setai, “go before” is more likely original), at least one MS (D) specifies e)nw/pion kuri/ou (“before/in-the-sight-of [the] Lord”).

1:76: Kai su de/, paidi/on, profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh|: proporeu/sh| gar e)nw/pion kuri/ou e(toima/sai o(dou$ au)tou= (“And you, child, shall be called prophet of the Highest; for you shall go before in-the-sight-of the Lord to prepare his ways”). Again, in addition to a small variant (pro prosw/pou vs. e)nw/pion), at least one MS (Palestinian Syriac) reads “before your God” instead of “before the Lord”).

There are two possibilities for the change from kuri/ou to qeou= (assuming it is an intentional/purposeful change): (1) to make clear the OT context that the “Lord” is Yahweh (God); (2) to identify the “Lord” (Christ) with Yahweh (God). Only in v. 15 is there anything like solid textual support for the reading qeou=, and, given the commonplace confusion and interchange regarding these divine names/titles, the variants here may simply be accidental.

Luke 1:32, 35

In the angelic announcement (Annunciation) to Mary, at 1:35 the most reliable text reads dio kai to gennw/menon a%gion klhqh/setai ui(o$ qeou= (“and therefore the [child] coming to be [born] shall be called holy, [the] son of God”; or, alternatively, “and therefore the [child] coming to be [born] shall be holy, he will be called [the] son of God”). However, a number of MSS (C* Q f1 33 pc ita, c, e, r1 vgcl syrp, and various Church Fathers) have the variant to gennw/menon e)k sou (“the [child] coming to be [born] out of you”). While this variant may simply be a natural accretion to the text, a doctrinal motive for adding it is at least possible. Second-century apologists such as Irenaeus and Tertullian fought hard to define the reality of Christ’s birth against various Gnostic-Docetic beliefs; in numerous places in their writings they emphasize that Jesus Christ was born “from/out-of” (e)k) Mary’s flesh, and did not merely “pass through” (dia/) her (cf. especially Irenaeus Against Heresies I.7.2; V.1.2; also Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ 20).

Note should also be made here of titles used of Jesus in the Annunciation, at v. 32 and 35: me/ga$ui(o$ u(yi/stou and ui(o$ qeou=, since they have appeared together in a fascinating text from Qumran—the so-called “Son of God” text (4Q246). Surviving only in a few fragments, it is an apocalyptic work, influenced by the book of Daniel or perhaps part of a wider (Pseudo-)Daniel tradition. Of a coming king or princely figure it is declared (in Column 1, line 7) “[…he shall be] great upon the earth”; (Column 1, line 9) “…he shall be called [the holy one] of the [G]reat [God/King], and by His name he shall be named”; then (in Column 2, line 1) “He shall be hailed Son of God, and they shall call him Son of the Most High” (modified translation from J. A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins, 2000, p. 45). Though it is sometimes questioned whether this is a “Messianic” figure (or a non-Messianic Jewish ruler, even a wicked anti-Messiah), the general context seems clear enough, for this person appears to parallel the rise “of the people of God… His kingdom (shall be) an everlasting kingdom, and all his ways (shall be) in truth” (see parallel in v. 33). It is doubtful that Luke borrowed from this text, rather the angelic announcement uses messianic language and imagery already current in Palestine in the first century.

Luke 1:46

Who spoke the famous canticle of Lk 1:46-55? In the vast majority of witnesses, it is Mary. However, in a few Old Latin MSS (a b l*) and Latin translations of the Fathers Irenaeus, Origen, and Nicetas of Remesiana (and the Armenian transl. of Irenaeus), the song is attributed to Elizabeth. Despite its meager textual support, this would seem to be the more difficult reading—would not later scribes be more likely to change the attribution to Mary, rather than the other way around? Scholars such as Loisy and Harnack defended such a view more than a hundred years ago, and others have followed suit. And yet the textual evidence for Mary is so overwhelming, that it really is hard to justify. More plausible, and tempting, is the idea that no name was originally present, but simply read kai ei@pen… (“and she said…”). It is perhaps worth mentioning in this regard, the growing critical view that the Lukan canticles (especially the Magnificat and Benedictus) were pre-existing (Jewish-Christian?) hymns which Luke inserted in context in the narrative to give expression to the thoughts and feelings of Zechariah, Mary, etc. The more traditional-conservative view, on the other hand, assumes the canticles are recorded more or less as actually spoken, the poetry being the product of an inspired utterance.

Luke 1:67

I should note in passing that here (in the context of Zechariah’s inspiration prior to the Benedictus), that the words “Holy Spirit” (pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou) are without the definite article. Similar anarthrous forms occur throughout the Infancy Narratives (Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25; and Matthew 1:18, [20]). Some commentators have sought to translate this as “a holy Spirit” rather than “the Holy Spirit”, prior to the development of the doctrine of the Spirit in the early Church. However, given the prominence of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts, it seems all but certain that Luke intends it here in the Infancy Narrative as well (similarly for Matthew). It is hard to imagine an early Christian understanding it any other way.

Luke 1:78

The textual evidence is fairly evenly divided between the aorist (e)piske/yato) and future (e)piske/yetai) forms of the verb. Since elsewhere here aorist forms are regularly used, it is perhaps more likely that the future form was changed to the aorist. The preponderance of aorist verb forms in the Magnificat and Benedictus are perhaps deserving of comment, since to a large extent these canticles (particularly the Benedictus) are presented as prophecy. It would seem natural, in context, to take them as prophetic aorists (describing future events), or perhaps as gnomic (regular or timeless actions). However, two points should be noted: (1) If Luke is indeed utilizing pre-existing (Jewish Christian) hymns (see note on Luke 1:46 above), then there is no problem understanding these as ‘ordinary’ aorists—they give expression to things God has already done for believers in the person and work of Christ; (2) They may simply refer in a general way to God’s salvific work overall, which would primarily include all that he has done to help His people.

There is also a small interpretive crux in this verse: the word a)natolh/ (“rising”) seems in context to refer to the sun (or light) rising in the sky, coming to those who are in darkness. However, the word is also used in the LXX to translate jm^x# (ƒemaµ, “branch, shoot”), cf. Zech 3:8; 6:12. Parallel to the word rx#n@ (n¢ƒer, see the note on Matt. 2:23 above), both of which were already familiar Messianic terms at the time of Luke’s writing. Is it possible that Luke (or Zechariah as inspired speaker) is playing on both meanings?

Luke 2:4

The majority text reads that Joseph went to Bethlehem (with Mary) dio to ei@nai au)ton e)c oi@kou kai patria=$ Dau[e]i/d (“…because [of] his being out of the house and family of David”). However, at least two MSS (348 1216) instead read the pronoun au)tou$ (“they/their”), implying that Mary also was from the line of David (there is a similar reading “both” in the Old Syriac [Sinaitic] version). This came to be a common belief in the early Church, even though the Lukan narrative itself states that Mary’s relative Elizabeth was from the priestly line of Aaron (Lk. 1:5). Most likely the tradition of Mary as a Davidid developed as a way to strengthen Jesus’ own Davidic origin—Rom. 1:3, for example, would seem to suggest an actual biological (rather than a legal paternal) connection.

Luke 2:14

What did the Angelic Chorus say? The first line is uniform in the textual tradition:

Do/ca e)n u(yi/stoi$ qew=|
“Glory in the highest [places] to God”

However, there is a major variant in the second line:

kai e)pi gh=$ ei)rh/nh e)n a)nqrw/poi$ eu)doki/a[$]

Is the final word the genitive (eu)doki/a$) as read by many of the oldest and best witnesses (a* A B* D W pc vgst copsa etc), or is it the nominative form (eu)doki/a) as read by the majority of witnesses (ac B3 K L P D Q C Y f1, 13 et al.)? The former has traditionally been translated “and on earth peace among men of good will”, while the latter as the familiar “and on earth peace, good will to men”. The external textual evidence would tend slightly to lean toward the genitive, and so most modern commentaries and translations understand it, especially now that the argument in favor of it has more or less been clinched by the manuscript discoveries at Qumran. A similar phrase occurs (in Hebrew) in the Hodayot (Thanksgiving Hymns): wnwxr ynb (b§nê r§ƒônô, “sons of his favor” 1QH 4:32-33) and hknwxr ynb lwkl (l§kôl b§nê r§ƒôn§k¹, “for all [the] sons of your favor” 1QH 11:9), and more precisely in Aramaic [h]twur vwnab (be°§nôš r¢±ût[¢h], “in/among men of [his] favor” 4Q545 [Visions of Amramc] column II frag. 3,5). The Greek word eu)doki/a is virtually a product of the LXX, used to translate Hebrew /oxr* (r¹ƒôn, “favor, pleasure, acceptance, will”). Eu)doke/w literally means “to think well of” someone or something, and may have both emotional (“desire, pleasure, satisfaction”) and volitional (“accept, determine, decide, select, will”) connotations. However, it is clear from the Old Testament and Jewish examples, that it is not human beings, but God who is the subject of eu)doki/a//oxr*, and so here should be translated “…men of (His) favor”, as in the examples from Qumran above. And while onoxr= (“his favor”, with pronominal suffix) would properly be translated into Greek as eu)doki/a au)tou=, it can also be translated without the pronoun (as in Sirach 15:15; 39:18). The English translation “good will” is rather misleading, and is better rendered as “favor” or “(good) pleasure”—”men of his good pleasure” or “men of his favor” indicates those whom God favors or with whom he is pleased (lit. those he “thinks well of”), and, judging from the Qumran examples, probably carries the sense of gracious election. How did the textual change occur (from eu)doki/a$  to eu)doki/a)? Most likely the idiom with genitive came to be poorly understood by scribes, and was replaced early the history of transmission; however, it is also possible that the final sigma dropped out by accident, particularly if it occurred in the MS at the end of a line (see Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary, 2d ed. p. 111 for a visual demonstration).

Luke 2:22

Here the majority text reads kai o%te e)plh/sqhsan h(me/rai tou= kaqarismou= au)tw=n… (“and when the days of their cleansing were filled up [i.e. fulfilled]”), and is likely original. Note the plural pronoun (au)tw=n), which is certainly peculiar, since it would indicate that the purification ritual applied to both Mary and Joseph (or Mary and the child Jesus). Many critical scholars attest this as one (of a number) of Lukan inaccuracies, since the rite of purification following childbirth (both in the Mosaic covenant and later Jewish tradition) only applies to the mother, not to the husband or child. However, the plural pronoun here may simply be grammatical (not strictly factual), since the plural is used in the following clause to indicate that both parents “brought him [Jesus] up into Jerusalem…”. In any event, some confusion seems to have prompted several scribes to modify the text: a few MS (D 2174* syrs copsa ms) read au)tou= (“his” – Jesus? Joseph?), at least one MS (76) reads au)th=$ (“her”), while the Old Latin and Vulgate could read “his” or “her”.

Luke 2:27, 33, 41, 43, 48

As indicated earlier, scribes variously modified instances where Joseph is referred to as Jesus’ “father” or where Joseph and Mary are called Jesus’ “parents”. Most of these occur in the Lukan Infancy Narratives 2:21-40 and 2:41-52 — the Presentation at the Temple and the Episode of the Boy Jesus in the Temple.

2:27: kai h@lqen e)n tw=| pneu/mati ei)$ to i(ero/n: kai e)n tw=| ei)sagagei=n tou$ gonei=$ to paidi/on  )Ihsou=n tou= poih=sai au)tou$ kata to ei)qisme/non tou= no/mou peri au)tou= (“and he [Simeon] came in the Spirit into the temple; and (as) the parents brought in the child Jesus, for them to do according to that which is customary of the law about him…”)
This passage was modified far less frequently, perhaps because they are not specifically called “his parents”. Still “the parents” was omitted in a few MSS (245 1347 1510 2643 ?), and altered (to “Joseph and Mary” or simply “they”) in minor versions of the Diatessaron.

2:33: kai h@n o( pathr au)tou= kai h( mh/thr qauma/zonte$ e)pi toi=$ laloume/noi$ peri au)tou= (“and his father and mother were wondering/marvelling upon the [things] said about him”)
In the majority of MSS and versions o( pathr au)tou= was modified to [o(]  )Iwsh/f (A K X D Q P Y 053 f13 23 33 565 892 et al.). Despite the strong attestation, this reading is most likely secondary, as o( pathr au)tou= is by far the more difficult reading, as it could easily be (mis)understood to imply that Joseph was Jesus’ biological father. A few Vulgate MS instead read oi( gonei=$ au)tou= (“his parents”).

2:41: kai e)poreu/onto oi(  gonei=$ au)tou= kat’ e&to$ ei)$  )Ierousalhm th=| e(orth=| tou= pa/sxa (“and his parents would go up according to [the] year into Jerusalem, to the feast of the Pascha [Passover]”)
One Greek MS (1012) and a few Old Latin (a b c ff2 g1 l r1) read, with some variation, o(  )Iwshf kai h( Maria/m, “Joseph and Mary” instead of oi( gonei=$ au)tou=.

2:43: ...u(pe/meinen  )Ihsou=$ o( pai=$ e)n  )Ierousalhm, kai ou)k e&gnwsan oi( gonei=$ au)tou= (“…Jesus the child remained in Jerusalem, and his parents did not know”)
A wide range of witnesses (A C E P Y 0130 565 f13, along with the majority Byzantine MSS, Old Latin, syrp, h, copbo pt) read  )Iwshf kai h( mh/thr au)tou= (“Joseph and his mother”), instead of oi( gonei=$ au)tou=.

2:48: …i)dou= o( path/r sou ka)gw o)dunw/menoi e)zhtou=me/n se (“…see, your father and I, [being] in pain, search for you [i.e., anxiously search for you]”)
A few MSS have altered o( path/r sou ka)gw/ similarly to oi( suggenei=$ sou ka)gw/ (“your relatives and I”), while the Old Latin (a b ff2 g1 l r1) and the Curetonian Syriac read simply h(mei=$ (“we”).

Additional Passages

In conclusion, I will very briefly mention a few other New Testament passages related to the birth of Jesus:

Romans 1:3; Galatians 4:4

These two verses are among the only references to the birth of Jesus outside of the Infancy Narratives. They both use the aorist middle participle of gi/–g—nomai (“come to be, become”), in the sense of “being born“.

Rom 1:3: peri tou= ui(ou= au)tou= tou= genome/nou e)k spe/rmato$ Dauid kata sa/rka, (“…about his son the [one] coming to be out of the seed of David according to the flesh…”)
Gal 4:4: o%te de h@lqen to plh/rwma tou= xro/nou, e)cape/steilen o( qeo$ ton ui(on au)tou=, geno/menon e)k gunaiko$, geno/menon u(po no/mou (“but when the fulness of the time came, God sent his son, coming to be out of [a] woman, coming to be under [the] law”)

For both of these verses, a few witness (61* pc syrp, and apparently some Old Latin MSS, for Rom 1:3) and (K f1 etc. for Gal 4:4) read the (passive) participle of genna/w (causative stem derived from gi/[g]nomai), which is the more common verb for bearing/begetting a child. See the discussion under Matthew 1:18 above, and the references to Irenaeus and Tertullian (both of whom specifically cite these verses).

Luke 3:22

At the baptism of Jesus, instead of the majority text (su ei@ o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaphto/$, e)n soi eu)do/khsa, “you are my son, in you I have [good] pleasure”), some Western witnesses (D a b c d ff2 l r1) and quite a few early Church Fathers read ui(o$ mou ei@ su/, e)gw gege/nnhka/ se (“you are my son, today I have caused you to be [born] [i.e., begotten you]”). The first reading generally harmonizes with the account in Mark (and Matthew), while the latter reading quotes the second Psalm (Ps. 2:7). While this passage in Luke does not relate to the Virgin Birth as such, it is important in terms of understanding how the early church viewed the ‘birth’ of Jesus as the Son of God. I will be providing a more detailed discussion in a later note.

John 1:13

The majority text reads: oi^ ou)k e)c ai(ma/twn ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ sarko$ ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ a)ndro$ a)ll’ e)k qeou= e)gennh/qhsan (…”the [ones] not out of blood[s] nor out of the will of the flesh nor out of the will of man—but out of God—have come to be [born]”), and this reading is almost certainly original. However, an interesting variant developed in the early Church, found in the Old Latin MS b and in a number of early (Western) Church Fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Ambrose, Augustine, etc): here there is a singular relative pronoun (o^$) instead of plural, with a corresponding change in the final verb (to e)gennh/qh)—”…the [one] not out of…but out of God has come to be [born]”. Instead of referring to the spiritual birth of believers, this Western reading apparently refers to the (supernatural) birth of Jesus. I have discussed this variant in more detail in a separate post.


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