Text Criticism and Matthew 27:34

I recently had a discussion in an online group with a Textus Receptus (TR) advocate regarding Matthew 27:34. The nature of the discussion was a textual variant. The passage reads as follows:

they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. (ESV)

They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink. (KJV)

I’ve quoted both the ESV and the KJV in order to demonstrate the difference in English (I’ve placed the word in question in bold).

The Greek words in question is οἶνον which I will transliterated as oinos (Critical Text) as opposed to ὄξος which I will transliterated as oxos (Textus Receptus).

Now, it should be said here that I am not a Textual Scholar. I have very limited training in Text Criticism, having only had a basic introduction as part of my Greek studies. That said, I do have some training in how to read the Critical Apparatus for the NA27 Greek New Testament, as well as some training in the methodology used by Text Critics.

I’m not going to get into the history of everything, but here is a brief (and not comprehensive) listing of the manuscript evidence for each reading. I’m summarizing the information provided in the Apparatus of the NA27. To my knowledge, this information was not changed in the NA28.

oxos – Alexandrinus (5th century), W Fragment (4th or 5th century) 0250 Fragment (8th Century), 0281 (7th or 8th Century), the Byzantine text (the majority of texts, but generally from the 12th century and on), Latin fragments from the 12th, 8th, 5th, and 7th centuries, Philoxeniana (a Syriac text from the early 6th century), a Boharic manuscript (a Coptic text from the 3rd century), and a Middle Egyptian manuscript (a Coptic text from the 3rd century)

oinos – Sinaiticus (4th century), Vaticanus (4th century), Bezae Cantabrigiensis (5th Century), K Fragment (9th Century), L Fragment (8th or 9th century), Theta Fragment (6th century), all Latin manuscripts besides the ones mentioned above as well as the Vulgate (4th and 5th centuries) and the Old Latin Translation (4th Century), as well as some Boharic manuscripts (3rd century), Harklensis (a Syriac text from AD 616), and the Sahadic (a Coptic text from the 3rd Century)

Now, Text criticism is not as simple as picking the oldest manuscript, or even looking at the average age of a manuscript with a given reading and picking the oldest. Likewise, it is not as simple as simply counting the number of manuscripts and picking that. There are many factors which play into the decision which text critics make. A helpful guide toward understanding how and why a given reading was selected for the NA27 or UBS4 texts is Omanson, Roger. A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006. It provides a narrative explanation for why a given reading was chosen, as well as a very helpful introduction which lists common reasons why a scribe may have copied a given word incorrectly.

However, this doesn’t help us too much here, because the committee assembling the UBS4 did not include this variant in their apparatus and no such companion exists for the NA27. However, just at a surface level and with a relatively untrained eye… what we see is that the Greek testimony for oinos are on average earlier, as is the Latin testimony, the Syriac text, and the Coptic text. So generally speaking, both when looking at the totality of the manuscripts, as well as within each language group of texts, the earliest reading is oinos.

Beyond just the manuscript information, Text Critics also look at what is called internal evidence. This includes the immediate context, in the case of parallels in the Gospels how the two readings compare, as well as additional factors. They also look at other external evidence, such as how the text is quoted throughout the ages. The apparatus for the NA27 does not include the Church Fathers, and the apparatus for the UBS4 does not include this verse… so we get no help there.

However, as far as the internal evidence goes, we get a pretty significant help from Mark. Both Matthew and Mark recount the crucifixion account and include two distinct times that Christ was offered something to drink. The only variant is in the verse in Matthew that is in question.

Christ is first offered some kind of drink, mixed with a bitter agent (called gall in Matthew, and myrrh in Mark). Christ refuses this drink. Later, Christ is offered some kind of drink which he accepts.

In the Critical text, this first drink is called oinos in both Matthew and Mark. The second is called oxos in both Matthew and Mark.

In the Textus Receptus, the first drink is called oxos by Matthew, but oinos by Mark. The second is called oinos by both Matthew and Mark.

Now, just prima facie, it makes more sense to think that Matthew and Mark use the same word to describe the same thing. That would be a standard assumption. To argue that they use a different word to describe the same thing would require some kind of explanation (I won’t get into it here, but the difference between gall and myrrh in this passage is an example. Why did Matthew use gall, and Mark use myrrh?). However, to assume they used the same word to describe the same thing requires no explanation.

Second, the proximity of similar words and concepts in Mark seems to lend itself to a sort of contrast. The wine mixed with a bitter agent being refused by Christ contrasted with the unmixed vinegar which Christ accepted. Christ would not drink the oinos, but he would drink the oxos. What exactly that contrast means is a different discussion, but it provides a reasonable explanation for the use of two different words which may (or may not) describe the same substance. Matthew, telling the same account —according to the Textus Receptus— uses the word oxos to describe both the drink that Christ refused, as well as the drink which Christ accepted. Textus Receptus advocates have postulated that in Mark’s account it was regular oinos mixed with myrrh which Christ refused, but then it becomes oxos (sour wine or vinegar) because the souring agent was mixed with it, making it sour wine instead of just wine. This may explain why Mark used different words, but it does not account for why —on their reading— Matthew did not.

However, if we understand that Matthew and Mark are both recounting the same events, and likely were making the same contrast (oinos mixed with a bitter agent in the former, oxos in the later… as the Critical Text reads in both Matthew and Mark) then we have no confusion or conflation.

To wrap it all up, the oldest manuscripts of every language group testify to oinos. The use of oinos first then oxos second requires no significant explanation as the different words are describing different things, and this explanation can be applied to both Matthew and Mark (as opposed to just Mark in the Textus Receptus reading), and it represents a clear literary function in both Matthew and Mark which may have theological significance (Especially in light of Matthew’s preceding chapter).

At the end of the day, this textual variant bears little or no difference on the body of Christian doctrine as a whole, however it does serve as a useful and relatively simple example of Text Criticism.