Luke 2:33, the Virgin Birth, and King James Onlyism

by Luke Wayne
08/01/2019
Return to King James Onlyism

For King James Onlyism to exist, the differences between the KJV and modern translations must be seen as extraordinarily significant and compromising to the text of scripture and/or to the Christian faith. Since, in reality, the differences are minor and of little import, there is a tendency among King James Onlyists to see even small variants through a flawed lens that blows them out of proportion and reads into them nefarious meanings or implications that simply aren't there. Luke 2:33 is a fantastic example of this. King James Only literature often claims that modern versions of this verse deny the virgin birth and undermine the Christian faith. The fact of the matter is that they do no such thing and that there is no real difference in the meaning of this passage between the KJV and modern versions.

The Verse

In the KJV, the verse in question reads:

"And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him," (Luke 2:33, KJV).

Most modern translations read more like:

"And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him," (Luke 2:33, NASB).

The only difference here is that the KJV (along with some modern versions like the NKJV and MEV) refers to Joseph by name while most modern translations simply call him Jesus' father. The King James Onlyist insists that this is a really big deal. To call Joseph Jesus' father, they say, is a denial of the virgin birth!  To them, this must be some modern plot to undermine Christians' faith in the virgin birth and perhaps in other fundamental doctrines like the deity of Christ. In reality, such an interpretation is forced and unreasonable, and no serious reader has ever come to the conclusion that the virgin birth is untrue by the wording of Luke 2:33 in modern versions.

Context and Consistency

If you pick up a modern translation like the NASB, for example, and just read it, will you find a denial of the virgin birth? Let's take a look. If you read the whole context instead of chopping Luke 2:33 out and talking about it abstractly in isolation, you get a very clear picture. In the previous chapter we read:

"Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, 'Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.' But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus,'" (Luke 1:26-31, NASB).

It is repeatedly emphasized that Mary is a virgin. When the angel delivers this promise, we then read of Mary's response:

"Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I am a virgin?' The angel answered and said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God," (Luke 1:34-35, NASB).

Thus, the virgin birth is very clearly and emphatically stated here (not to metnion in Matthew's gospel as well). By the time you get to Luke 2:33, no rational reader would take the word "father" in a biological sense. The gospel has been quite clear on the point. Joseph was the husband of Jesus' mother, was legally His father, and was the head of His earthly household and the man who raised Him. It would be accurate to call Joseph Jesus' father in a very real and practical sense, just not a biological one. I am an adoptive father myself. I have children who have no biological connection to me. I am still their father, and people rightly call me so, but that has nothing to do with their birth. So it is with Jesus' relationship to Joseph. Indeed, the KJV likewise identifies Joseph as Jesus' father! Note, for example, just a few verses later:

"Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover," (Luke 2:41, KJV).

This verse, even in the  KJV, speaks of Jesus having "parents." He did not have just one parent, Mary His Mother. He had two parents: Mary His mother and Joseph His father. It was both of them, both of Jesus' parents, who went to Jerusalem for Passover. Indeed, just after this, We read again:

"And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing," (Luke 2:48, KJV).

Mary was certainly aware of the Virgin birth, yet here she refers to "thy father and I" and obviously expects Jesus to know that she means herself and Joseph. The KJV has no problem with the idea that Joseph was Jesus' father. Of course he was not Jesus' biological father! The narrative makes that abundantly clear no matter what translation you are reading! Yet all translations, taken as a whole, refer to Joseph as Jesus' father.

So Why the Difference at 2:33?

So, if it is not a conspiracy to suppress the virgin birth, why do most modern versions differ in verse 33? The answer is that there is a simple textual variant here. At some point in the early transmission of the text, a scribe mistakenly wrote the verse in slightly different words. The new version meant the same thing, but was worded just a little bit differently. The translators behind the KJV assumed that "Joseph" was the original reading while modern scholars have concluded that "his father" was the original. Both are doing their best to translate the Bible as accurately as possible and, again, the meaning is not actually affected one way or the other.

The data backing the contemporary versions that read "his father" is quite early and diverse. This reading is found in the earliest manuscripts of the passage, such as the fourth-century codices like א, B, and W.1 It is found also in fifth-century copies like Codex D and other later copies as well. It is the reading of the oldest Syriac Manuscript, the fourth-century Codex syrs. It is likewise the reading found in most of the Coptic copies, including all of the earliest ones. It is the reading of the Latin Vulgate and most of the later ancient translations such as the Armenian, Georgian, and Slavonic. It is the version cited in early Christian writings, such as those of Augustine,2 Cyril of Jerusalem,3 and Jerome.4 Later in church history, "his father" was also the reading used by the leaders of the Protestant reformation like Martin Luther,5 John Calvin,6 and William Tyndale.7

It is interesting to note that the reading "his father" was also the most prominent reading in English Bibles before the King James Version. The 10th-century West Saxon Gospels, the 14th-century Wycliffe Bible, and the translations of Tyndale, Coverdale, the Matthew Bible, and the Great Bible all read "his father" just like modern translations do. It was not until the Geneva Bible that the reading of "Joseph" was adopted by English Bible translators, and later Bibles like the Bishops Bible and the KJV followed suit. Thus, we can see from all of this that the reading of "his father" is ancient, widespread, and has been used by God's people throughout the generations without it ever calling the virgin birth into question. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made from the earliest copies and the wide diversity of attestation (as well is internal evidence) that "his father" is the original reading.

Lest we leave the impression that the KJV has no evidence on its side, however, it is worth noting that the "Joseph" reading also has its share of witnesses. The fifth-century Greek Codex A says Joseph in this verse, as do all of the Old Latin copies (including some dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries). The majority of the later Greek manuscripts favor the Joseph reading, as do the majority of the later Syriac copies and even a few late Coptic manuscripts. Some later ancient translations, like the Gothic and Ethiopic, likewise favor the Joseph reading. Thus, while not quite as early nor quite as diverse as the evidence for the "his father" reading, the "Joseph" reading certainly has its witnesses and some of them quite early. One could make a rational case for this version of the verse.

The most important point here is that both versions are ancient and widespread and neither has led anyone to question the virgin birth. They teach the same thing. This is an extremely insignificant difference.

Conclusion

The small difference between the KJV and modern translations at Luke 2:33 has absolutely no impact on the meaning of the text. No honest reader would call the virgin birth into question based on this verse any more than they would from the verses in the KJV that likewise call Joseph Jesus' parent or father. Joseph was rightly called Jesus' father legally and practically, just not biologically. As one early church writer noted: 

"For David is called His father as touching the prerogative of time and age, and Joseph is designated His father as concerning the law of upbringing; but God Himself is His only Father by nature," (Archelaus, Disputations with the Heresiarch Manes, Chapter 34).

Likewise, John Chrysostom said:

"He suffered a slave to be father to Him, that He might make the Lord Father to thee, a slave," (John Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew 1:1, Section 3).

The idea that Joseph is, in a real (though not biological) sense the "father" of Jesus in no way conflicts with the virgin birth or the deity of Christ. It is plainly true and found in multiple verses, even in the KJV. There is simply no real conflict or controversy here, and the fact that King James Onlyists need to create one shows you just how insignificant the differences between translations really are.

  • 1. Codex W is either late fourth or early fifth century
  • 2. Augustine, The Harmony of the Gospels, Book 2, Chapter 1; On Marriage and Concupiscence, Chapter 12
  • 3. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 7, Section 9
  • 4. Jerome, Treatise on the Virginity of Mary, Section 8
  • 5. See Luther's Translation, Luke 2:33
  • 6. John Calvin's Commentary on Luke 33-39
  • 7. See Tyndale's New Testament, Luke 2:33