Seeing how the text of Luke 23:34 has been called into question by Christian apologists who pass themselves off as scholars, especially in respect to the text and transmission of the NT, I have decided to quote noted NT scholar Dr. Bart D. Ehrman’s defense of the textual veracity of this Lukan passage. What makes this rather interesting is that Ehrman is a hostile critic of Christianity, particularly evangelical Christianity, which makes his defense of the authenticity of Luke 23:34 all the more ironic seeing that you have so-called conservative Christian scholars and apologists calling the text’s veracity into question.
Here is how Luke 23:34 reads in the Authorized King James Version (AV):
“Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.”
According to some evangelical and reformed apologists, this prayer of Jesus may actually be inauthentic since they claim that the manuscript evidence strongly suggests that this is a verse which a later scribe (or scribes) may have inserted into the Gospel. As such, it is highly unlikely that Luke wrote these words by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
In light of this assertion I have decided to quote the following portion from Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why [HarperOne, 2005], 7. The Social Worlds of the Text, pp. 190-193, since he does an excellent job of refuting these arguments.
Anti-Jewish Alterations of the Text
The anti-Jewishness of some second- and third-century Christian scribes played a role in how the texts of scripture were transmitted. One of the clearest is found in Luke’s account of the crucifixion, in which Jesus is said to have uttered a prayer for those responsible:
And when they came to the place that is called “The Skull,” they crucified him there, along with criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:33-34)
As it turns out, however, this prayer of Jesus cannot be found in all our manuscripts; it is missing from our earliest Greek witness (a papyrus called P75, which dates to about 200 C.E.) and several other high-quality witnesses of the fourth and later centuries; at the same time, the prayer can be found in Codex Sinaiticus and a large range of manuscripts, including most of those produced in the Middle Ages. And so the question is, Did a scribe (or a number of scribes) delete the prayer from a manuscript that originally included it? Or did a scribe (or scribes) add it to a manuscript that originally lacked it?
Scholarly opinion has long been divided on the question. Because the prayer is missing from several early and high-quality witnesses, there has been no shortage of scholars to claim that it did not originally belong to the text. Sometimes they appeal to an argument based on internal evidence. As I have pointed out, the author of the Gospel of Luke also produced the Acts of the Apostles, and a passage similar to this one can be found in Acts in the account of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, the only person whose execution is described at any length in Acts. Because Stephen was charged with blasphemy, he was stoned to death by a crowd of angry Jews; and before he expired he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
Some scholars have argued that a scribe who did not want Jesus to look any less forgiving than his first martyr, Stephen, added the prayer to Luke’s Gospel, so that Jesus also asks that his executioners be forgiven. This is a clever argument, but it is not altogether convincing, for several reasons. The most compelling is this: whenever scribes try to bring texts into harmony with each other, they tend to do so by repeating the same words in both passages. In this case, however, we do not find identical wording, merely a similar kind of prayer. This is not the kind of “harmonization” that scribes typically make.
Also striking in conjunction with this point is that Luke, the author himself, on a number of occasions goes out of his way to show the similarities between what happened to Jesus in the Gospel and what happened to his followers in Acts: both Jesus and his followers are baptized, they both receive the Spirit at that point, they both proclaim the good news, they both come to be rejected for it, they both suffer at the hands of the Jewish leadership, and so on. What happens to Jesus in the Gospel happens to his followers in Acts. And so it would be no surprise–but rather expected–that one of Jesus’ followers, who like him is executed by angry authorities, should also pray that God forgive his executioners.
There are other reasons for suspecting that Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness is original to Luke 23. Throughout both Luke and Acts, for example, it is emphasized that even though Jesus was innocent (as were his followers), those who acted against him did so in ignorance. As Peter says in Acts 3: “I know that you acted in ignorance” (v. 17); or as Paul says in Acts 17: “God has overlooked the times of ignorance” (v. 27). And that is precisely the note struck in Jesus’ prayer: “for they don’t know what they are doing.”
It appears, then, that Luke 23:34 was part of Luke’s original text. Why, though, would a scribe (or a number of scribes) have wanted to delete it? Here is where understanding something about the historical context within which scribes were working becomes crucial. Readers today may wonder for whom Jesus is praying. Is it for the Romans who are executing him in ignorance? Or is it for the Jews who are responsible for turning him over to the Romans in the first place? However we might answer that question in trying to interpret the passage today, it is clear how it was interpreted in the early church. In almost every instance in which the prayer is discussed in the writings of the church fathers, it is clear that they interpreted the prayer as being uttered not on behalf of the Romans but on behalf of the Jews.10 Jesus was asking God to forgive the Jewish people (or the Jewish leaders) who were responsible for his death.
Now it becomes clear why some scribes would have wanted to omit the verse. Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of the Jews? How could that be? For early Christians there were, in fact, two problems with the verse, taken in this way. First, they reasoned, why would Jesus pray for forgiveness for this recalcitrant people who had willfully rejected God himself? That was scarcely conceivable to many Christians. Even more telling, by the second century many Christians were convinced that God had not forgiven the Jews because, as mentioned earlier, they believed that he had allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed as a punishment for the Jews in killing Jesus. As the church father Origen said: “It was right that the city in which Jesus underwent such sufferings should be completely destroyed, and that the Jewish nation be overthrown” (Against Celsus, 4, 22).11
The Jews knew full well what they were doing, and God obviously had not forgiven them. From this point of view, it made little sense for Jesus to ask for forgiveness for them, when no forgiveness was forthcoming. What were scribes to do with this text, then, in which Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing?” They dealt with the problem simply by excising the text, so that Jesus no longer asked that they be forgiven.