Was Luke 23:17 removed from modern Bibles?

by Luke Wayne
10/08/2019
Return to King James Onlyism

King James Onlyists often complain that there are "missing verses" in modern translations. Among the passages which they claim have been "deleted" or "removed" is Luke 23:17. It is quite true that this verse is present in the KJV while many modern translations do not have this verse in the main text (though they all provide it in a footnote). The problem with the King James Only argument, however, is that it assumes that the KJV is automatically correct, that the verse is supposed to be there, and that modern translators have therefore "taken it out." But the opposite might well be the case. The verse is not present in the earliest manuscripts, and many modern scholars believe that it was mistakenly added in by later scribes and was not originally part of Luke's gospel. 

The Verse in Question

The verse we are discussing here traditionally reads:

"For of necessity he must release one unto them at the feast," (Luke 23:17, KJV).

Now, it should be noted that this is not really a King James Only issue at all. Some modern translations, like the NKJV and MEV, contain this verse as well, so no matter what conclusion one arrives at, this still would not compel you to embrace King James Onlyism. What's more, every translation agrees that the Bible teaches this fact about Pilate releasing someone at the feast! The question is only if Luke originally reported this fact or not. In the other gospels, we find in every translation:

"Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the people any one prisoner whom they wanted," (Matthew 27:15, NASB).

"Now at the feast he used to release for them any one prisoner whom they requested," (Mark 15:6, NASB).

Thus, absolutely nothing hangs on the question of Luke 23:17. It is a minor variant in the manuscripts, and translators simply disagree as to which manuscripts better represent the original in this place. There is no conspiracy to alter the biblical narrative here. That said, let's take a look at the evidence:

The Manuscript Evidence

There is actually an impressive body of evidence in favor of the KJV's inclusion of this verse. Ironically, the early fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus (or Codex ‭א), a manuscript which King James Onlyists especially despise, actually contains the verse and thus supports the KJV. The verse is also found in Codex W (late fourth/early fifth century), Codex N (sixth century), Codex E (eighth century), Codex F, G, H, Δ and Uncial 063 (ninth century), and the vast majority of the Greek minuscule texts. Most of the Old Latin copies also contain the verse, including several as early as the fifth century. The majority of the Syriac copies contain it as well, as do a few Coptic manuscripts and some later ancient translations like the Slavonic and Ethiopic. Thus, the evidence favoring the verse is both early and diverse. One would be quite reasonable to conclude that this was something Luke originally wrote.

So, then, why do most modern scholars think that it is a later addition? First of all, while the evidence for the verse is early, the evidence against the verse is even earlier. A century before Codex ‭א, the verse is not present in P75 (early third century). It is also absent in Codex B (early fourth century), as well as other copies like Codex A and T (fifth century), Uncial 070 (sixth Century), Codex L (eighth Century), Codex K, Π, Minuscule 892 (ninth Century), and others on through the middle ages. The verse is also absent in a particularly early Old Latin manuscript as well, ita (fourth century). The vast majority of the Coptic manuscripts, including all the earliest, likewise lack the verse.

Yet there is still more to the picture. Other Greek manuscripts have a similar verse but in variant forms, as do the Armenian and Georgian translations. Even more peculiar, the fifth-century Codex D (in both its Greek and Latin text), as well as the two earliest Syriac manuscripts (fourth and fifth century, respectively), do contain the verse, but in a different place in the chapter! This variation both in the wording and in the location of the verse, along with the early witnesses that do not contain it at all, leads many modern scholars to suspect that this verse was inserted in the margins by early scribes as a note supplying information from Matthew and/or Mark's account to explain the context of the crowd's demand for Barabbas' release in Luke 23:18. Later scribes mistakenly inserted the marginal note into the main body of the text believing it was supposed to be there. If true, this would explain why the verse appears in different parts of the chapter since different scribes might have copied the marginal note into different places. Also, since similar explanatory notes might have been created by different early scribes in different manuscripts, it would also explain why the variant forms of the verse exist. Thus, most scholars believe that this is the best explanation of all the available evidence.

Conclusion

This verse has early and widespread support, so Christians who use the KJV, NKJV, MEV, or other such translations are quite justified in their confidence in the verse. On the other hand, a very early and diverse body of evidence does not contain the verse, and there are other anomalies in the manuscript tradition that seem to indicate that the verse was not originally there. Thus, Christians who use the ESV, NIV, NET, or other such translations are likewise justified in their opinions, especially since those versions do contain footnotes that let the reader know the verse is present in many manuscripts. The fact that this verse merely echoes what every reader of any translation already knows from Matthew and Mark should allow us to disagree on the matter as brothers without accusations of heresy. Perhaps the best option for translators is the way chosen by the NASB, which includes the verse in the main body of the text while drawing the reader's attention to the question by placing it in brackets. At any rate, a minor variant such as this should not call any solid Christian translation into question.