“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)
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 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 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!).