Was Matthew 18:11 removed from modern Bibles?

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

King James Only material often accuses modern translators of having "deleted" or "removed" Matthew 18:11. The assumption built into this kind of language, of course, is that this verse must be original and therefore it was willfully removed. Modern translators, however, point out that this verse is not present in the earliest manuscripts we possess. They argue that they have not deleted the verse but rather the verse was added by later scribes. They were not a part of what Matthew originally wrote. Thus, when we find a verse that is present in some translations and absent in others, it may be that modern translators have not removed the verse, but rather that Scribes inserted the words and the KJV translators kept the inserted words in without realizing it. We must go to the manuscripts and examine the evidence.

The Verse in Question

The verse under discussion here traditionally reads in older English translations:

"For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost," (Matthew 18:11, KJV).

Some modern translations, such as the MEV, still contain this verse with the same confidence as the KJV. Others, like the NASB, NKJV, and HCSB, include the verse in their main text and simply note the manuscript differences through brackets and/or a footnote. Thus, this is not really a King James Only argument. Even if one is convinced that this verse is original, there are plenty of translations to choose from besides the KJV. Still, most modern translations lack this sentence in the main text (though they all note it in the footnotes). On what basis is this verse called into question by so many?

The Evidence For the Verse

To begin, let's look at the external evidence in favor of Matthew 18:11. In other words, what manuscripts and sources do contain this verse? Codex W (late fourth or early fifth century) is an early manuscript which contains the verse, as do Codex D (fifth century), Codex N and Σ (both sixth century), Codex E (eighth century), and Codex F, H, K, and Δ (all ninth century). Uncial 078 (sixth century) is damaged where this verse would be, but based on the available space and the size of the letters, it is believed that this manuscript probably once contained the verse as well. The verse is also present in the majority of medieval Greek manuscripts. The majority of Old Latin and Vulgate manuscripts contain the verse, including some that date back to the fourth and fifth centuries. The fifth-century Syriac Curetonian Gospels affirm the reading, as do the later Syriac Peshitta manuscripts. It is also found in the Armenian and Georgian texts. So, this verse certainly existed in some copies in the fourth century (at least in Latin and possibly in Greek, depending on how one dates Codex W). It was fairly widely attested by the fifth century and increasingly afterward. By the time we reach the middle ages, it is the dominant reading in both the Greek east and the Latin west.

The Evidence Against the Verse

So, what then leads scholars to question whether this verse is really original to Matthew? First of all, the verse is absent in Codex B and Codex א. These early fourth-century manuscripts are the oldest copies we have of this passage. The verse was also absent in Codex L (eighth century), Codex Θ (ninth century), and minuscule 892 (ninth century), though it was later added into these copies by a different scribe. It is additionally lacking in minuscule 33 (ninth century), and other later Greek manuscripts on through the middle ages. While the vast majority of the Latin tradition favors the verse, there are two Old Latin manuscripts that do not contain it: ite (fifth century) and itff1 (eighth century). Likewise, though the majority of the Syriac tradition favors some form of the verse, the oldest manuscript (the fourth century Sinaitic Palimpsest) does not contain it, nor do the Palestinian Syriac manuscripts. Most of the Coptic manuscripts lack the verse, spanning across all dialects and including the earliest copies which date back to the fourth and fifth centuries. Thus, while the verse is lacking in only a small minority of the manuscripts, it seems to be missing in the earliest examples of many major streams of transmission and is certainly absent in our earliest copies. Scholars also find it hard to explain, if these words were original to Matthew, why early scribes would have removed them, especially while universally leaving the same words in Luke 19:10.

Parallel Influence

The concept of "parallel influence" is where a verse in one passage is accidentally or intentionally written into a different passage, usually because of similarities between the two passages. We especially see examples of this in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), where there is so much similar material. Interestingly, modern scholars and informed King James Onlyists would actually agree that parallel influence has sometimes occurred in Matthew 18:11. You see, Matthew 18:11 is very similar to Luke 19:10:

"For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost," (Matthew 18:11, KJV).

"For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost," (Luke 19:10).

The only difference between the two are the words "to seek and." In fact, in some manuscripts, those words are found in Matthew as well! Matthew 18:11 has a longer form in some copies where it reads "For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost," (literally identical to Luke 19:10). This form is found in Codex G and M (both 9th century), in a number of medieval Greek manuscripts, and in most of the lectionaries. It's also found in one late Old Latin manuscript, in most of the Syriac tradition, some of the Coptic Bohairic manuscripts, and the Ethiopic and Slavonic translations. Thus, though this longer reading shows up later than our main two options, it is surprisingly widely attested! The only explanation for this longer version that everyone agrees is not the original reading would be that at least one and possibly several different scribes who were writing out Matthew 18:11 but were familiar with Luke 19:10 added in the words "to seek and," probably by accident without even thinking about it! Thus, that this kind of scribal mistake happened at times is indisputable.

Matthew 18:11 as Parallel Influence

Most modern scholars are convinced that, just as the words "to seek and" later landed into Matthew 18:11 by parallel influence, so too did Matthew 18:11 itself arise in that way. Some scribe (or scribes) of the fourth century or earlier who was familiar with Luke 19:10 reproduced the content of that verse in Matthew 18. Now, such a scribe would not have had a copy of Matthew and a copy of Luke both open in front of him and carefully copied a verse from one into the other. Instead, just as in our example above, it would have happened from memory, possibly even by mistake. This might explain why the initial version was slightly shorter than Luke 19:10. It was the central thrust of the verse rather than a word-for-word replication of it, which we are all prone to do with content that is longer than just a few words. Thus, on this theory, Matthew 18:11 is not original, but came into Matthew by parallel influence. Since it was not a perfect replication of the verse, it is not surprising that another scribe might have later "fixed" it by adding the additional "missing" words from Luke, whether intentionally or absentmindedly due to familiarity with Luke's form. Just as the later, longer form became quite widely attested after coming into existence, so too did the shorter form spread widely after the initial scribal error.

The biggest problem with this theory is that, while it makes very easy sense why a scribe might mistakenly add Luke 19:10's "to seek and" into Matthew 18:11 because they are essentially identical verses, it is not immediately obvious to us why a scribe might have accidentally added the whole verse from Luke into Matthew 18. Luke 19:10 comes at the close of the story of Zaccheus, a story that does not occur at all in Matthew's gospel. The verse is immediately followed by the parable about a group of slaves each trusted with a sum of money while their master is away, a parable found in Matthew 25, not in Matthew 18. So, why would a scribe add the verse here? If the surrounding context is not similar, what would cause someone to add the verse from Luke into Matthew 18? If intentional, what would be the motivation? If accidental, what would be the cause? For the answer, we have to look just a little closer at scribal practices.

Notes in the Margins

Sometimes, a scribe accidentally skipped something when copying a manuscript. If he afterword realized he had done so, what was he then to do? One common option was to write the missing words in the margin so that the reader could still find them and the next scribe could copy them back into the next manuscript. This was a reasonable solution, but it had some problems. One of those problems was that other sorts of notes were also written in the margins by scribes. Thus, a later scribe might have trouble telling if the words in the margins were missing words that needed to be copied back in or whether they were some other kind of marginal note. In this way, sometimes extra material got copied into later manuscripts that was not meant to be there. A scribe occasionally mistook an explanatory note, cross reference, or some other kind of gloss for omitted words that needed to be put back into the text.

Now, when we look at the context of Matthew 18, it is actually not difficult to see why a scribe might have put Luke 19:10 as a helpful cross-reference next to Matthew 18:12. Note what is said in the following verses:

"How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish," (Matthew 18:12-14).

The theme here is that Jesus seeks out and saves the lost. It may well be that a scribe wrote Luke 19:10 in the margins as a cross-reference here. A later scribe, recognizing these biblical words, assumed that they belonged in the text and added them in. Such a scenario fits well with known scribal practices. It is additionally possible that the words were originally used as a section heading or to mark the beginning of a unit for liturgical readings at Sunday gatherings. The point is, it is easy to imagine, if these words are not original to Matthew, why a scribe might have innocently placed them in the margin next to this text. Most scholars today believe that such a scenario is much more likely than the idea that a scribe would delete these words from Matthews gospel (especially while leaving them intact in Luke, where all manuscripts agree). Paired with the fact that our earliest copies lack the reading and that Matthew 18 without verse 11 is attested in multiple streams of transmission from the earliest possible date for this passage, they conclude that the reading without verse 11 seems to be the original.

Conclusion

There are good reasons to suspect, based on the early evidence and our knowledge of scribal practices, that Matthew 18:11 was not originally a part of Matthew's gospel. Still, there are enough fairly early and diverse sources that do contain the verse, so we should be careful not to write it off too easily either. It seems, then, that translations like the NASB and NKJV take the best course by including the verse in the main text but providing the reader with a footnote to explain the situation.