Textual Variants: Matthew 1:25

Matthew 1:25

“And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.” KJV

“But knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” ESV

“A son,” and “firstborn son” do not necessarily mean the same thing. “Firstborn” reveals that Mary had other children. The omission of “firstborn” from the English Standard Version (ESV) has the authority of only two Greek manuscript witnesses that come from the early fourth century. It is thought that this verse was an interpolation from Luke 2:7, which does render Jesus as the “firstborn” son in the ESV and most modern translations. This presupposition of interpolation is based upon an Enlightenment philosophy and theory adopted by textual critics in the 19th century, and now has been adjusted somewhat for our postmodern age. I find it highly unlikely that this was an addition to Matthew’s Gospel to introduce something foreign into the text for a few reasons. It is fairly common for seminary faculty and textual critics to teach and postulate that an effort in later years after the second and third centuries was made to harmonize the Gospels and other texts. The presumption is based upon the assumption that works like Tatian’s Diatessaron (160-175 A.D.), which were made to harmonize the Gospels into one text as a convenience for the church was the beginning of a trend to harmonize the four Gospels by early Theologians. The only problem I see with this presumption is that even though Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have more similarities in the King James Version, Geneva, and New King James Version, than most modern translations of the Bible due to the Greek texts that underlie their content, they also have a lot of dissimilarities. I figure if one were really trying to alter and modify the text, they would have done a better job. The interpretive difficulties in the Textus Receptus and Majority text between the Gospels alone really cause me to question this theory put forth by textual critics today. One example I see is the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4 in the KJV. Observe:

Matthew 6:9-13 KJV

9 After this manner therefore pray yeOur Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

10 Thy kingdom comeThy will be done in earthas [it is] in heaven.

11 Give us this day our daily bread.

12 And forgive us our debtsas we forgive our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptationbut deliver us from evilFor thine is   the kingdomand the powerand the gloryfor everAmen.


Luke 11:2-4 KJV

“2 And he said unto them, When ye pray , say , Our Father which art in  heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.

3 Give us day by day our daily bread. {day by day: or, for the day}

4 And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation;                                              but deliver us from evil.”


If you will notice, the traditional ending is missing in Luke. If an attempt at harmonization had been made, they did a terrible job. The Lord’s Prayer is a staple of Christian Liturgy and tradition. It is my humble opinion that this would have been one of the first places an effort would be made to start if they were going to “harmonize” the readings.


Other Sources

Textual critics tend also to have too narrow a scope when looking at these things in my opinion. The reading “firstborn”  in Matthew 1:25 shows up not only in the majority of Greek witnesses, but also in the Old Latin, and Syriac witnesses, which are older than the oldest Greek witnesses we have today. Firstborn in Matthew 1:25 also has a wider attestation not only numerically, but also geographically. Even the Latin Vulgate retains the phrase “firstborn” in Matthew 1:25, and the Vulgate does depart from the Traditional Greek at times. Aleph (Vatacanus) and B (Sinaiticus) is a reflection in my opinion on the tendency of the Egyptians to corrupt the text. The ambiguity of these manuscripts alone just between the two leave an open door for false doctrine. This is my conclusion after reading some of Hoskier’s work on Aleph and B.


An Example of an Old Heresy

While some tend to think that textual variants mean very little, I am not certain that is always the case. The first example I can think if is an old controversy that aronse long before our day. One of the reasons the church moved from the Septuagint (LXX or Greek translation) as a foundational text for the Old Testament is for this very reason. Arius (256-336 A.D.) falsely interpreted Proverbs 8:22 in the Septuagint, which reads: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his way.”  The Masoretic Hebrew rightly reads: “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way.” Arius, who is the father of modern-day Jehovah’s Witness Theology started a movement that almost overthrew orthodox Christianity in his day, and this was based upon one textual variant. Arianism taught that Jesus was a created being and not divine. Ironically the heresy of Arianism repackaged as Jehovah’s Witnesses arose not long after the publishing of Wescott and Hort’s Greek New Testament and the Revised Version of 1881 A.D. Arianism was eventually vanquished in its day. Thankfully, Athanasius, The Nicene Council, and the Cappadocian Fathers were instrumental in halting this tidal wave of heresy in the early church. Arianism possessed the eastern part of the Roman Empire for a time, and influenced the Visigoths, Nestorians, and other cultic groups that sprung out of Christianity later. This is one of the reasons Jerome got away from the Septuagint and preferred the Hebrew manuscripts over the Greek Septuagint. They provided more clarity.


Codex W, and Luke 2:7

The addition of “firstborn” to our text suggests not just that our Lord Jesus had brothers and sisters, but also that he is a true human being. Codex W, which is an Alexandrian or Egyptian text like Aleph and B omits “firstborn” in the text of Luke 2:7. So what the omission here tells us is that in the Egyptian region, there was a group that really didn’t like the Greek word behind the translation, “firstborn.”  That is all we know. We don’t have an explanation, and the theories are plethora. We see that the tampering with the word behind “firstborn” in Matthew 1:25 and Luke 2:7 was early, and Eusebius (260-340 A.D.) even states in his church history that tampering of the text by Gnostics and other groups were early, so we cannot suppose that just because a Greek manuscript is older that it is the best.


Tradition Should Have Been Left Alone in My Opinion

My suggestion is that we stay with tradition on this one. I have felt for years that the way textual critics have been playing around with the text since the 1800’s has been the equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster being built in the basement. Most conservative theologians that I admire like Wayne Grudem will repudiate Liberal Theology on every level because mainly it takes a naturalistic and not a supernatural approach to Christian Theology. I agree, but for some reason when it comes to the texts of the New and Old Testament, we make an exception. I find that strange and inconsistent. The facts do not dictate the conclusions the scholars have necessarily come to. Also, even the scholars disagree on the facts, and that should tell us something. One thing that is usually forgotten is that one cannot determine authenticity based on the material evidence alone. Many times, you will see the footnote: “The oldest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain this verse.” Or something of the sort. What is not said is, “It is our opinion that the oldest and what we think are the most reliable manuscripts do not contain this verse.” That would be a more honest and reliable footnote. Since we do not possess the originals, we can suspect and use our hypothetical leanings to our hearts content. However, we will not know 100% through the material evidence. The Bible itself says: “we walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7). If Wescott, Hort, Tichendorf, and others involved in the confusion that has ensued since the 1800’s would have just accepted what we had by faith, then there is no telling what would have happened. Nevertheless, they didn’t, and like most things of this nature, there is always some fallout.


If Erasmus, KJV Translators, and Early Church Fathers Only Knew

Erasmus knew about Vatacanus (Aleph) when compiling his Greek New Testament. Sinaiticus (B) had not been discovered by Westerners, but wasn’t being used at all in the East. Many apologists and scholars act as if Erasmus didn’t know about either of these manuscripts. I suppose it is fair to say he didn’t know about one of them (B). H.J. DeJonge, an Erasmian scholar quoted Erasmus who said that he wouldn’t use Vatacanus (Aleph) because: “It was a Latinized text.” Basically, it was in his thinking the text wasn’t genuine, and had been tampered with. What we don’t know are the details as to why he thought such a thing. The idea gets thrown out there often that if Erasmus, the Reformers, and Puritans knew what we know now, they would have accepted the tenets of modern and post-modern textual criticism. I’m not so sure, and De Jonge’s quote from his research is just one example why I do not share confidence in that view. The KJV translators get quoted often as saying: “...nothing is begun and perfected at the same time, and the latter thoughts are thought to be the wiser”. One thing for sure is that there is information the KJV translators had in their possession in their day that we do not have today. The London fires incinerated much of that information. We cannot be certain they would be in agreement with modern scholarship and their conclusions, and to assume this is pure conjecture. Many will say that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. I suppose in some ways that is true, however, to go with the obscure Egyptian witnesses and prefer that reading over the majority of manuscripts and patristic evidence seems irresponsible to me. This is not really standing on the shoulders of giants, but rather kicking the stool out from under them and starting a new tradition that was rejected 1,500 years ago. A perusal of the early church fathers and teachers immediately reveals that many of the readings deleted in most modern translations were used and known by them, and some of them were closer to the original manuscripts than the oldest Greek witnesses we possess today some 2,000 years after the fact. Scholars today also treat the Bible as something to be trifled with and not necessarily as something sacred. Now I am not against a modern translation, nor do I presume nothing is lost in translation. However, if it is done rightly, little would be lost, and I think little has been lost in the Traditional text of the New Testament and the Masoretic Hebrew. As I plan to display in future posts with future variants, the popular thinking on this is not necessarily the best view in my opinion. I certainly do not think that I am absolutely right about everything, and I am open to the fact I could be wrong. But, there just isn’t enough evidence to convince me that breaking from the traditional readings here is necessary in Matthew 1:25 and many other places elsewhere. I have heard Dr. James White say that he wants to know what the Apostles wrote. Well, good luck with that! Sure, he and I both believe that we have what they wrote, but have come to two different conclusions regarding how we determine what is and what isn’t authentic. We both take our view on faith and not scientific fact. The evidence will take you to a point, but there is an element of mystery here, and what we don’t know 100% according to science, we will just have to take on faith.