Textual Problem Study: Matthew 18:15

 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Mat 18:15 ESV)

The Problem

Matthew 18:15 is one of the textual variants in the New Testament that is both viable and significant. A textual variant occurs when there is some degree of disagreement among the nearly six thousand extant (existing) manuscripts. While most scholars agree that none of the variants impact any major doctrine of the historical Christian faith, some are more important than others. For one of these variants to be worth discussion, it must be both 1) viable and 2) significant. For a variant to be “viable,” it has to have a legitimate shot of being the correct rendering of the text. In other words, there has to be some debate about what the original actually says. However, some variants are viable, but not significant. They may have a valid chance of representing the correct reading, but lack any meaningful consequence. For example, there may be some debate about whether a reading is “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ,” or “Peter” or “the Peter,” but normally, this would not be significant since it does not change the meaning of the text and could be unrecognizable when translated. To be significant means that a variant will change the meaning of the passage to some degree.

Matthew 18:15 reads in the NA27 (the standard Greek critical text of the New Testament):



I know…it’s Greek to you, right? Don’t worry. Here is what the text reads: “If your brother sins [against you] go and show him his fault in private. If he listens, you have won your brother.”

The variant is shown here in brackets: [eis se] “against you.” The earliest and most respected manuscripts (Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, and 0281) lack this addition, while the later Byzantine manuscripts include it. English translations are divided as to which reading best represents the original. Here is a list to show you which reading is preferred by various Bible translation committees and individual translators:

ESV “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

KJV “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.”

NAS “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

NET  “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother.”

NIV1984  “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”

NIV2011 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”

HCSB “If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

The Message “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend.”

NJB “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother.”

NLT “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.”

The Significance

The significance of this variant should be fairly obvious. If the shorter reading is preferred, then we are admonished to rebuke brothers and sisters who are involved in sin in general, whether or not it is a direct offense against you. So if you know of someone in the church who has an anger problem, is having an affair, or is cheating on his taxes, you are to follow the procedure of confrontation described in Matthew 18:15-20. However, if the longer reading is preferred, then the confrontation is only necessary when someone in the church sins against you. Cheating on taxes or an adulterous affair would not be a sin against you, so this passage would not be applicable to that situation. But if he or she lies, cheats, or acts arrogantly toward you, then confrontation is necessary.

I find this struggle very relevant in my life. There are people I know who are living in sin, but it is not necessarily affecting me. I debate endlessly how to handle each individual situation. If the shorter reading of this passage is, indeed, preferred, I have a biblical mandate to confront the person according to this method. I understand there are many other problems associated with this verse. Does the person have to be involved in your local assembly? What sins are serious enough to necessitate such a confrontation? There is a big difference in confronting someone about bad language, speeding down the highway while you are in the car, and smoking crack! However, how we handle these situations may rest heavily on what we decide about this variant. Frankly, I would like the longer reading to be correct, as it would take the burden of responsibility off my shoulders for most issues. In short, I don’t really like to confront people. I imagine most of you are like me.

The Solution

The differences among Bible translation committee members are evident. The solution is not easy. We must look at both external and internal evidence. External evidence has to do with the dating and distribution of the manuscripts. Internal evidence has to do with, among other things, the context of the passage, the viability of possible mistakes, and the character of the author.

Since the earliest and best manuscripts have the shorter reading, the external evidence leans in favor of this reading. The concept here is pretty simple. The closer we can get, time-wise, to the originals, the more likely the manuscript correctly represents the original, since there is less time for corruption.

However, there are some viable internal evidences which are persuasive enough to make translation committees favor the longer reading.  We have to ask the question, Why would a scribe have left out “against you”? If he did (hang with me!), it was either an intentional change or an unintentional change.

Why would a scribe intentionally leave this out? It could be that he wanted to make this prescription more universal in its application. However, the shorter reading is normally preferred, since it was characteristic of scribes to add to, rather than to take away from, the Scripture. Heading in this direction, this may have been one of those instances where a scribe added to the text. He may have been like me and not liked the idea of having to confront so many people (there are a lot of us out there who need to be confronted!). Therefore, he added “against you” to make it a little more “doable.” Or it could be that the scribe was influenced by Matt 18:21, where Peter specifically asks Christ how many times a brother can sin “against me.” Considering this, it could be the case that the context of the passage suggests the meaning of the longer reading; therefore, the scribe felt justified in clarifying the intended meaning.

An unintentional change would be more likely if the longer reading is preferred. As Metzger’s Commentary on the Greek New Testament (the standard “go to” in these cases) says, “[I]n later Greek the pronunciation of h( h|, and eiv was similar.” As well, the NET Bible notes have a related solution, citing the similar sound of the end verb hamatese and the prepositional phrase eis se. These seem unlikely, since both solutions suppose that the scribe was copying by voice rather than by sight (i.e., someone was reading the manuscript to him) and this type of mistake is not what we would expect in such a situation.

Though I don’t want to, I prefer the shorter reading which teaches a more universal application. Externally, the evidence is stronger. Internally, it makes more sense to think that the scribe added the “against you,” rather than taking it away. The shorter reading is the harder reading and, generally speaking, the harder reading is preferred (i.e., it’s easy to see how someone might want to make this verse more “doable”). Nevertheless, it may very well be that Peter’s comments in Matt 15:21 do imply that the context is limited, even if the shorter reading is preferred.

While Metzger does prefer the same reading as me, he grades it with a “C.” Translation: he is not that sure. As well, there are some pretty smart guys who are behind the NLT, HCSB, NIV1984, and the ESV, so it is far from conclusive.

I hope you enjoy this type of post. I am trying to share a different, yet important, part of the world of biblical studies, so that perspectives and knowledge can be gained concerning these types of issues. Let me know if you enjoyed it, and I will continue to write about other viable and significant variants in the Bible (although my fellow blogger, Dan Wallace, whom I sat under, is much more qualified to write on these issues!).

32 Responses to “Textual Problem Study: Matthew 18:15”

  1. Michael, a possibility is that the shorter reading stands but the context implies the longer reading which was added. Jesus is speaking high context.

    We see this elsewhere where the synoptics differ. If Jesus made one statement and he is recorded as saying the shorter comment by one author (which is likely verbatim to Greek) and a longer comment which explains Jesus words to a lower context author.

    So perhaps the shorter reading is correct with the understanding of the hearers being that of sins against them. A scribe could have added the longer ending because some people were reading a broader understanding that the scribe know was unjustified.

    Consider the context: Peter then asks about his brother sinning against him after this comment (Mat 18:21), suggesting that he may have understood the comment from Jesus to mean sin against brothers, even if those words were absent.

  2. okay edit is not working. I meant to say

    and a longer comment which explains Jesus words to a lower context audience.

  3. Beth,

    You bring up a very good option that I forgot about. I got so entrinched in the particular verse and textual commentaries, I forgot about this. Thank you very much for bringing this up quickly. I edited the post to include this information.

  4. Thank you for this post. I am new to Biblical studies and very interested in examples of textual variants. This was very informative.


  5. Reconciliation with God and not the man centered “me” is the right and obvious goal. The “me” oriented option takes reconciliation with God out of the center. As king David rightly pointed out “all sin” is against God and only God.

    Psalm 51:4
    Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,
    so that you may be justified in your words
    and blameless in your judgment.

  6. IMHO I see the issue of taking the shorter reading as relying strictly on visible sin or what may appear to be a visible sin. Things in life from our perspective are not always so cut and dry and we may not be privy to some important additional information. Thus if we were to use the longer reading the “Sin” would be obviously more relevant as we have first hand information as it involves us. As well we get into the whole notion of people confronting one another based solely on outer appearances and not the internal heart condition which one can hide from each other but not from God. If you get my drift. I am bringing Matt 18 up for discussion in our adult class, thanks for sharing Michael

  7. Yes, more articles on this theme please Michael. Thank you!

    Michael wrote: This may have been one of those instances where a scribe added to the text. He may have been like me and not liked the idea of having to confront so many people … Therefore, he added “against you” to make it a little more “doable”.

    If scribes were cavalier enough to edit the NT text according to their whimsical theological prejudices (and not just because they were aiming to purge the text of perceived transmission errors and restore it to its original wording), can we be confident about the accuracy of the NT we now use? If cavalier scribes handled the NT text during the making of the 1st generation of copies, and if all subsequent transcriptions were based on that generation of copies because by the autographs had been lost/damaged, it would now be impossible to reconstruct the autographs exactly because the true text no longer exists in any of the variants.

  8. Love this post !

    Hope to see more on disputed texts.

    God bless

  9. Phil, I don’t believe it is so hopeless as it is many times very easy to identify the issue. It normally depends on the type of scribe we are talking about. These are not to hard to identify so long as we have enough of the text represented. This eventually forms a “text-type” which becomes adopted.

    You can read my Textual Criticism in a Nutshell to help you see what I mean:

    The most encouraging thing about it is that we have so many manuscripts and many are very early. For the most part we believe we have the original represented somewhere…it just comes to thinking through the problems like we just did.

    While there are a lot of differences in the manuscripts, their is not a lot when we put it in perspective of the number of manuscripts. And almost all the variants are neither viable or significant. This is one of the dozens of rare cases where their is meaningful viability. If I continue this series, I will try to look at the most significant.

  10. Michael wrote: For the most part we believe we have the original represented somewhere.

    Yes, but although that is comforting, it can take only one missing word or one added word to radically alter an important doctrine. So if we only have 99% of the original represented in the extant manuscripts, that could be very significant if the 1% deviation affects key texts. And if an error crept in during the making of the first copy of an autograph and all subsequent copies were based on that first copy, we would be oblivious of what part of the text is suspect. But maybe this is a case where the good point you made in another post applies – we accept most things in life on the basis of reasonable probability without waiting for 100% proof?

  11. Michael, in a variant such as this, how much if any weight is given to God’s view of sin within the bride of Christ when considering what is viable and/or significant in the different readings?

  12. @Phil — that 1% variant doesn’t affect key texts, that’s the point. It’s also, IMO, less likely that the scribe would insert in an effort to change the point to make it more “doable” than is is he attempted to clarify the passage in light of verse 21, as Michael stated. I would guess it could even have started out as a note made in the margin that got incorporated into the text.

    Even here, I’m not sure how significant it is in light of overall scripture. Michael, doesn’t Galatians 6:1 give us the same biblical mandate as the shorter reading of this verse: to gently point out our brothers sin where we see it, regardless of if it affects us directly, in an effort to “restore” him?

  13. Sorry, can’t edit for some reason. I meant to elaborate…Isn’t it only “significant” if the intent of the passage in question isn’t mentioned in other passages of the Bible? Which brings me to the Galatians 6:1 passage and my question to you.

  14. Yes, please keep writing this kind of article. They are very interesting and practical.

  15. I think the answer is farily simple, regardless of which varient is correct we are told elsewhere: Galatians 6:1
    Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (ESV)

    If you know a member of the body is living in sin it is your obligation to speak to that person. See also Mt. 5:7 and 1 jn 5:16

  16. Let me clarify just in case, I think wrestling with textual variants is extremely important, but this one become less so (and may in fact exist) in light of clear teaching elsewhere.

  17. Michael, while I enjoyed this post from the technical standpoint and think you make some good points, I would be more interested in discussion about the practical application of this and surrounding verses. D.A. Carson wrote a brief article covering these verses in Themelios and raised some interesting ideas.

    I do believe that ‘against you’ is implied if not explicit in this particular verse.

    Of course, today’s situation with so many ‘church choices’ complicates the entire passage and makes its application and practice more difficult.

  18. Yes, Michael. Textual criticism is an important discipline and field of study. Keep the examples coming.

  19. J.R.

    From a purely text critic stand point we must not let our broader systematic theology (or even nt theology) influence our decisions. However, as we will see in my next the character and theology if the author do make a difference. I think I will cover Romans 5:1 next.

    In short, we cannot let broader theological commitments influence our decisions.

  20. I believe that the shorter would suffice, but if the longer is required the shorter is implied in other Scriptures.

  21. SteveZ, I am not convinced Galatians argues for the shorter interpretation (though am happy with the shorter text). Paul qualifies the person as being spiritual which I think is unlikely to mean just Christian.

    Synthesising the passages would imply that we confront sins our brothers (Christians) commit against us, but that sins committed by Christians in general are confronted by a subset, eg. mature Christians close to the person, or elders in the church.

  22. Yes do continues this sort of post.

    BTW you introduced a new textual variant yourself:

    hamatese for hamartese.

  23. I like this type of post as well!

  24. @bethyada, I’d disagree. Paul spends the majority of Galatians emphasizing that Christians are filled with the Spirit and are to live by the Spirit, i.e. to be “spiritual”, and contrasting it to living by desires of the “flesh”. In fact, in the last verse of chapter 5 Paul exhorts all the Galatians to “walk by the Spirit”, immediately prior to the 6:1 verse calling on all those who are spiritual, those who are “walking by the Spirit” and not mired in sin, to help restore their brothers who have fallen into sin, i.e. fallen into walking by the flesh (Galatians 5:16-25)

  25. Michael,

    Its true that Gal 6:1 shouldn’t influence our decisions about the text and interpretation of Matt 5:18. However, while that textual variant is significant in that the meaning of Matt 5:18 depends on it, the teaching of the NT does not depend on it given Gal 6:1 already teaches both principles.

    I’d like to see discussion on variants that potentially affect NT teaching, not just the interpretation of one passage.

  26. rvturnage Paul spends the majority of Galatians emphasizing that Christians are filled with the Spirit and are to live by the Spirit, i.e. to be “spiritual”, and contrasting it to living by desires of the “flesh”. In fact, in the last verse of chapter 5 Paul exhorts all the Galatians to “walk by the Spirit”,

    That Paul exhorts them to suggests that they fail to at times. Thus his command for spiritual Christians to correct those in transgression. Paul is advocating what should be while acknowledging what currently is. Even Jesus tells us to remove our logs before addressing others specks. I am less than convinced that every Christian should be telling every other Christian they know about every sin they identify in him.

    But when someone consciously sins significantly against you, then it is appropriate to address it if he considers himself a fellow Christian.

  27. Daniel B. Wallace August 14, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Garrett Mathis wrote his master’s thesis on this verse, doing an excellent job. He uncovered some more internal evidence for the shorter reading (Garrett Mathis, “Matthew 18:15: Sin Against Whom?” ThM thesis, Dallas Seminary, 2008).

  28. Daniel B. Wallace August 14, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    A correction to your external evidence: Alexandrinus does not read here, but Vaticanus does. Alexandrinus is Byzantine in the Gospels, too. Vaticanus is probably the most important NT manuscript. And it is joined by Aleph, Coptic-Sahidic, 0281, family 1, 579, and Origen. This is impressive evidence.

  29. Dan, thanks for the correction. This was an unintentional mistake caused by the copy and paste mechanism used by modern transcribers. It is a common mistake and, normally, easy to detect. I made the change to the above manuscript. While the change will not be able to be detected by modern ultriviolet lights, it will be represented in some 10,000 feeds. It may have already been reproduced 100,000 times by the time we read this. :)

  30. C Michael Patton,

    You wrote:
    “While Metzger does prefer the same reading as me, he grades it with a “C.””

    Metzger did not prefer the shorter reading in Mt. 18:15, at least not in his Textual Commentary. Writing on behalf of the committee, he hesitantly advocated the text with EIS SE. It’s single-bracketed — disputed, but still in the text.


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