The Problem of Luke 23:34


Introduction

Luke 23:34 is perhaps one of the most interesting verses in the New Testament narrative of Jesus, the son of Mary’s alleged crucifixion. It reads as follows[1]:

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[c] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

Our interest is primarily focused upon the prayer[2] of Jesus. The questions which are being asked are, why is Jesus praying for these men’s forgiveness? What purpose does it convey? What does it achieve? These questions need to be asked, as Jesus’ prayer in this case, occurs before his eventual death on the cross which is supposed to have ushered in a new covenant with God, a new doctrine of salvation. His death and resurrection which establishes itself as the pillar upholding the veracity and validity of the Christian faith as declared by Paul of Tarsus:

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.[3]

Summarily, we are seeking to establish the reasoning for this prayer of forgiveness, in regard to its timing of the slaying of the lamb[4] for the forgiveness of the sins of the world[5], inclusive of those of the Jews and Romans who were no doubt instrumental in the events leading to the crucifixion event.

New Testament Textual Criticism of Luke 23:34

It would be inane to discuss the consequences of the verse in question at length, before establishing its place in the New Testament canon. Most would be unaware that this verse’s place in the canon is one of disputation and doubt. It would be of note to mention that the verse is recorded in the following versions of the English Print Editions of the New Testament [6]:

  • New International Version
  • New Living Translation
  • English Standard Version
  • New American Standard Bible
  • King James Bible
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible
  • International Standard Version
  • NET Bible
  • Aramaic Bible in Plain English
  • GOD’S WORD® Translation
  • Jubilee Bible 2000
  • King James 2000 Bible
  • American King James Version
  • American Standard Version
  • Douay-Rheims Bible
  • Darby Bible Translation
  • English Revised Version
  • Webster’s Bible Translation
  • Weymouth New Testament
  • World English Bible
  • Young’s Literal Translation

It had become necessary to list the instances of its presence in the English translations, as it is the language in which this article is being written. It was also necessary, so as to demonstrate its undoubted and frequent presence in the most accessible New Testament print editions in the English language. A noted citation in the NIV[7] translation reads as follows:

c. Luke 23:34 Some early manuscripts do not have this sentence.

Its presence in most translations is due to the verse’s presence in the modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament. As of this writing, it remains in the critical editions as is demonstrated by the Nestle-Aland 28th Greek New Testament[8]:

ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔλεγεν· πάτερ, ἄφες αὐτοῖς, οὐ γὰρ οἴδασιν τί ποιοῦσιν. διαμεριζόμενοι δὲ τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἔβαλον κλήρους.

Codex Aleph  (א- Sinaiticus) does contain this verse[9], although atleast one of its suggested scribes or editors is thought to have edited or corrected the verse in question[10]. However Codices B (Vaticanus) and D (Bezae) do not contain this verse[11], thus explaining the citation in the NIV translation. At the time of this writing, I do not have access to the apparatus of the Nestle Aland 28th Edition Greek New Testament, therefore I was unable to attain the reasons or sources it outlines for the inclusion of the verse. However, in reading the erudite work of Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, we note that it states the following in regard to its intentional omission in other codices[12]:

…an omission that makes particular sense if Jesus is understood to be asking God to forgive the Jews responsible for his crucifixion.

Their understanding of the omission is in the context of Jewish-Christian relations, more specifically, anti-Jewish Christian scribes within the first centuries of Christianity and the consequential promulgation of their views in Christian literature. The omission was meant to remove the view that Jesus the Christ had prayed for the forgiveness of the Jews for their role in his crucifixion[13]. There is also a Textual Critical maxim, which reads as follows: “lectio difficilior potior” – the more difficult/nonsensical reading is more evidential. Given that their is a possibility of intentional omission, then their is great possibility it was included in the earlier copies of the Gospel.

Having explored its place in the canon and the evidences for its inclusion, there is now no doubt that at the time of this writing, New Testament Textual Critics adhere to its inclusion despite its omission from two important early sources.

The Prayer in Light of the New Covenant & its Soteriological Plan

The traditional Christian soteriological belief in this doctrine of salvation by the Christ’s crucifixion can be understood in the following quote[14]:

Christ upon the cross, is gracious like Christ upon the throne. Though he was in the greatest struggle and agony, yet he had pity for a poor penitent. By this act of grace we are to understand that Jesus Christ died to open the kingdom of heaven to all penitent, obedient believers.

With his sacrifice, the gates of heaven were opened to the world[15]. The Gospel accounts inform us that Jesus the Christ a priori knew that he had to be crucified, we read:

And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”[16]

The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!”[17]

‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ”[18]

The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”[19]

Since it is established in the narrative, as ascertained from the verses listed previously that his eventual crucifixion and death would lead to the payment of the sins of the world, then it is a strange occurrence that the Christ would pray for someone’s forgiveness. If he knew his death was imminent and with that, forgiveness would be brought upon the world, why would he beseech the Father for the forgiveness of others? Perhaps an analogy can demonstrate the peculiarity and absurdity of this event. It is as if I had a letter in my possession. Knowing that I’m about to use a photocopying machine to duplicate that letter, just before I use the photocopier, I choose to handwrite the letter on a sheet of blank paper and then photocopy the original letter. It’s redundant, anachronistic, futile. Jesus undoubtedly knows that the entire world, inclusive of those men before him; that he is about to pay for their sins, yet he prays to the Father just before his death that their sins should be forgiven. Regardless of someone’s theological, philosophical or personal views, the oddity of this occurrence is striking.

Such an understanding is noted by the exegete Matthew Henry, for he states[20]:

As soon as Christ was fastened to the cross, he prayed for those who crucified him. The great thing he died to purchase and procure for us, is the forgiveness of sin.

In essence, he prayed for the same thing that his death would achieve. Some might postulate that this is a sign of Jesus’ mercy and love for mankind, as is held by Stier et al; we read from the Pulpit Commentary the following[21]:

Then, as always, thinking of others, he utters this prayer, uttering it, too, as Stier well observes, with the same consciousness which had been formerly expressed, “Father, I know that thou hearest me always.” “His intercession has this for its ground, though in meekness it is not expressed: ‘Father, I will that thou forgive them.”

While such an apologetic exegesis would placate some, I do not find it to be sensible. For, if Jesus the Christ, who is also the Son; a deity capable of forgiving sin as is claimed from Luke 7:48[22], then why did the Son simply not forgive the sins of the world, or the sins of the Roman and Jewish persecutors? He clearly had the ability to do so, the authority to do so, so why would the Son choose not to do this? Instead, the Son as we are led to believe, chooses to beseech the Father! This prayer therefore leads to an even greater problem, (it implies) subordination and hierarchy within the Trinitarian dogma. Beliefs tantamount to heresy when tested against the proto-orthodoxical Nicaean creed[23], which establishes the Son as co-equal to God[24]:

Such is the genuine doctrine of Arius. Using Greek terms, it denies that the Son is of one essence, nature, or substance with God; He is not consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity, or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity.

Jesus the Christ, otherwise known to Christendom as the Son, had the ability to forgive sins, he did not need to request that the Father do this. If he prayed out of love, mercy, grace and compassion for the forgiveness of the sins of the Roman and Jewish persecutors, then why did he not use this love, mercy and grace to absolve them of their sins? He is in essence, praying for something he could already grant them, therefore this excuse is redundant and unremarkable, in clear contradiction of this fanciful idea of proposed love, mercy, grace and compassion.

Did They Need to be Forgiven?

Whether the prayer was uttered in reference to the Jews, the Romans, or some combination of those peoples; did they need to be forgiven? Forgiving them would readily imply that their actions were sinful, criminal, morally wrong. However as we are well aware, and as I have previously stated, the sacrificing of a sacrificial lamb is the purpose[25] of Christ’s earthly mission. This prayer for forgiveness would then have us believe that the sacrifice was morally wrong according to Jesus himself! The significance of such a prayer is now very telling, it is detrimental to the sacrificial imagery steadily enforced throughout the New Testament and as referenced previously[26]. Christians do not believe that Christ’s sacrifice was sinful or wrong, it is the very foundation of their faith as we had read from the Apostle Paul[27]!

We are at an unfortunate dilemma, Christ’s prayer now seems to be undermining the very pillars of proto-orthodox Christian belief. If it was God’s will that the world be saved from their sins by the hands of the Romans and Jews, then it is absurd that we should consider the persons responsible for the crucifixion as sinful individuals. Rather, if the Christian world is to be consistent with their beliefs, these men should be celebrated, just as the cross is celebrated. However, if it is the case that Jesus considered his persecutors that led to his crucifixion as criminals, as murderers, then the possibility of Jesus’ death being labeled as a crime and an injustice done to him is significantly more appropriate and honest. Such a view would be in blatant violation of the Christian world view on salvation. Perhaps what is more troubling is the position of those who perform the Passover sacrifice, we read the following[28]:

“Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”

If Jesus the Christ is to be considered the sacrificial lamb, then those who perform the sacrifice for Passover have been atoned of their sins as is clearly stipulated in the Pentateuch[29]:

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

If we are to believe that Luke 23:34 is in relation to the Jews, then Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness for them is troubling, for it would then imply that the very God of the Jews, did not know that the sacrificing of the Passover lamb was not a crime, but an act of atonement for the Jews.

Conclusion

There are very few cases in which we can understand the purpose of this prayer. One scenario is that Jesus did not expect his death to open the gates of forgiveness and that he did not have the ability to forgive sins by his own will and authority, therefore his prayer to God was one in sincerity. However, if he did know that his eventual death would lead to the world’s forgiveness and that he had the ability to forgive sins without any sacrifice, then his prayer to God seems out of place and problematic to the narrative, rendering his prayer to be completely redundant and meaningless.

Another case in which we can perhaps derive some closure on the issue, is that if Jesus was in fact the sacrificial Passover lamb, then his prayer for forgiveness for the Jews, would mean that he either did not know the laws of the Pentateuch, or that he did not consider himself to be a sacrificial Passover lamb; the latter belief would then render Paul a liar and would cause the Christian faith to be false as per his declaration in 1 Corinthians 15:14.  The former argument would then have us believe that Jesus could not be a deity as he is ignorant of the very law which he would have instructed the Jews himself.

Whichever way the prayer is examined, as I have aptly demonstrated it is of grave detriment to the Christian faith and without a doubt its place in the Biblical canon is of service to those who which to prove that Jesus the Son of Mary, is not and has never been a deity.

and Allaah knows best.

Sources (APA Style):

[1] –  Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. (2011). Luke 23:34. Retrieved from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2023&version=NIV

[2] – Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible by Matthew Henry. (2003). Luke 23:34. Retrieved from http://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhc/luke/23.htm

[3] – Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. (2011). 1 Corinthians 15:14. Retrieved from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+corinthians+15%3A14&version=NIV

[4] – Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. (2011). Revelation 5:12. Retrieved from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+5%3A12&version=NIV

[5] – Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. (2011). John 3:16. Retrieved
from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+3%3A16&version=NIV

[6] – Bible Hub’s Parallel Verses. (2014). Luke 23:34. Retrieved from http://biblehub.com/luke/23-34.htm

[7] – See: [1]

Note: The Pulpit Commentary, Ibid, relates the same conclusion as I have written:

” These words are missing in some of the oldest authorities. They are found, however, in the majority of the most ancient manuscripts and in the most trustworthy of the old versions, and are undoubtedly genuine.”

[8] – Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece. (2013). Luke 23:34. Retrieved
from http://www.nestle-aland.com/en/read-na28-online/text/bibeltext/lesen/stelle/52/230001/239999/

[9] – Codex Sinaiticus. (2009). Luke 23:34. Retrieved
from  http://codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx?book=35&chapter=23&lid=en&side=r&verse=34&zoomSlider=0

[10] – Ibid. See the transcription notes, Editor cb2.

[11] – Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. (1891). Luke 23:34. Retrieved from http://biblehub.com/commentaries/cambridge/luke/23.htm

[12] – Ehrman, B., & Metzger, B. (Eds.). (2005). The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (4th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[13] – Ibid.

[14] – See: [2]

[15] – See: [5]

[16] – Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. (2011). Luke 9:22. Retrieved
from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+9%3A22&version=NIV

[17] – Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. (2011). Luke 22:22. Retrieved
from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+22%3A22&version=NIV

[18] – Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. (2011). Luke 24:7. Retrieved
from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+24%3A7&version=NIV

[19] – Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. (2011). Matthew 26:24. Retrieved
from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+26%3A24&version=NIV

[20] – See: [2]

[21] – The Pulpit Commentary. (2010). Luke 23:34. Retrieved from http://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/luke/23.htm

[22] – Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. (2011). Luke 7:48. Retrieved
from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke+7%3A48&version=NIV

[23] – The Nicaean Creed. (n.d.). The Nicaean Creed. Retrieved from http://www.creeds.net/ancient/nicene.htm

[24] – Barry, W. (1907). Arianism. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 11, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01707c.htm

[25] – See: [16], [17], [18], [19]

[26] – See: [4]

[27] – See: [3]

[28] – Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. (2011). 1 Corinthians 5:7. Retrieved
from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Corinthians%205:7&version=NIV

[29] – Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. (2011). Leviticus 17:11. Retrieved
from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Leviticus%2017:11&version=NIV

 

6 comments

  • Luke 23:34
    “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”is bracketed by Ne, questioned in the margins of the NIV, NKJV, RSV, GN and double bracketed by the NWT.

  • This is very interesting and should make Christians who insist that Jesus died for them think about that belief of theirs a little more.
    What I think sometimes about Luke 23:34 is that it is not Jesus speaking. The Quran says Jesus was neither killed NOR crucified and that someone else was placed on the cross for him.
    Who that is we don’t know but the fact that the person on the cross says “for they know not what they do” makes me think that he is asking God to forgive them for they think that they crucified Jesus but really they know not what they are really doing because the man on the cross is someone else.
    Just a thought.

  • Hi Sam,

    Thanks for your contribution but neither link responds to the soteriological problems posed in my essay. The link by my personal friend, Br. Shibli more or less focused on the authenticity of the passage and a word study, both of which I disagree with. If you read my article, you’d have seen that I agree with its inclusion in the critical editions, despite missing from 2 of the Uncials. In that regard, I don’t see what we differ on. As for word studies, my teachers discourage this and thus, I do not find it profitable to argue over the definition of one Greek word, please see Prof. William D. Barrick’s, “Exegetical Fallacies” which speaks at lengths on this topic.

    As for your article in response to Osama, he too argues over the authenticity of the verse, of which you and I hold the opinion in opposition to his. That being, as I stated previously that it does belong in the critical editions. As for the rest of Osama’s arguments, he focuses on the Christological impact of the verse, which you addressed, but which has nothing to do with my essay. Thanks for the links, they were a pleasant read, however they do not respond to any of the soteriological issues which my essay refers to. I hope that when you said “more to come”, that this means you’d actually have something relevant to the essay.

    Regards,
    Br. Ijaz.

  • Hi Ijaz
    I have the Diatessaron of Tatian which is 2nd century and it has the verse in it.

    Why not consider the verse in Isaiah….
    Isa 53:12    Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

    He made intercession for the transgressors…fulfilling prophecy.

    I don’t know why you are doing all this writing you are wasting your time trying to prove what the bible and Christians have been saying for years as false.

  • “He made intercession for the transgressors…fulfilling prophecy.”

    you can’t ask for forgiveness for VIOLENT actions when you believe it is god himself NAILING god to the cross to appease/please himself.

    “they don’t know what they are doing”
    if they did know , they would still have to crucify him because preventing the murder of jesus = sin/disobedience to god.

    was jesus praying for a people who did not KNOW that they were doing a good thing ?

    how can one pray forgiveness for something good?

    Jeremiah
    27:5. Build houses and dwell [therein], and plant gardens and eat their produce.
    6. Take wives and beget sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men, and they shall bear sons and daughters, and multiply there and be not diminished.
    7. And seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray for it to the Lord, for in its peace you shall have peace.

    “and for the transgressors he prayed”

    are they praying for them because they are DOING good by killing and oppressing ?

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