Matthew 27:49 Was Jesus Pierced before His Death?

Variants in the Passion Narrative (2)

This post is part of a series [2018] on some of the textual variants found in the Passion narratives. We will discuss the rationale behind the text adopted in the Greek New Testament as Produced at Tyndale House in (1) Mt 27:16,17, (2) Mt 27:49, (3) Mk 14:30, 49, 72a, 72b, (4) Lk 22:31, (5) Lk 22:43-44, (6) Lk 23:34.

In many ways the following variant is salutary, as it will correct any slavish tendency to think about the ‘earliest and best’ attested reading as an almost pleonastic collocation. The ‘best’ reading is not always the ‘earliest’, there may be good reasons not to follow the earliest manuscripts, and our variant is a good example. And, yes, we could, and probably should have mentioned the variant in the Tyndale House Edition, but we did not.

Mt 27:49
οἱ δὲ λοιποὶ ἔλεγον· ἄφες, ἴδωμεν εἰ ἔρχεται Ἠλίας σώσων αὐτόν.
But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him” (ESV).

The early variant ἔλεγον / εἶπαν should not distract us here, what is interesting is the addition we find after the final word of this verse:

ἄλλος δὲ λαβὼν λόγχην ἔνυξεν αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ὕδωρ καὶ αἷμα.
And someone else, taking a spear, pierced his side and there came out water and blood.

Those who know their gospels will suspect that we might have influence from one of the other gospels, and indeed, in John 19:34 we have (without relevant variation):

Jn 19:34
ἀλλ᾽ εἷς τῶν στρατιωτῶν λόγχῃ αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν ἔνυξεν, καὶ ἐξῆλθεν εὐθὺς αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ.
But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. (ESV)

The addition in Mt 27:49 and the undisputed text in Jn 19:34 are not identical, but they share the same vocabulary: ‘spear’, ‘to pierce’ (same form), ‘his side’ (same word order), ‘to come out’ (same form), ‘water and blood’ (reversed word order).
The differences in the first words of the addition in Matthew are explained by the immediate context of Matthew. The non-specific ‘someone else’ (ἄλλος) is in line with the equally non-specific designations in Mt 27:47 ‘some’ (τινές), 27:48 ‘one of them’ (εἷς ἐξ αὐτῶν), and 27:49 ‘the others’ (οἱ λοιποί). The participle λαβών in the phrase λαβὼν λόγχην comes from the earlier Mt 27:48 λαβὼν σπόγγον. However, in Jn 19:34 this piercing happens after Jesus’ death, whilst in Matthew the death occurs only in the next verse.

On transcriptional grounds (influence of parallel account) and internal grounds (unlikely that Matthew would associate the loud cry of Jesus with the piercing) the addition in Matthew 27:49 is clearly secondary, but what about the external testimony? Happily, this is one of the Teststellen in the Matthew volume of Text und Textwert (no. 63, volume 2.2). There are some minor variants (addition of ευθεως before εξηλθεν and the order of ‘water and blood).

With the addition in Mt 27:49:
the majuscules ℵ B C L U Γ,
the minuscules 5 26* 48 67 115 127* 160 364 782 871 1010 1011 1057 1300c 1392 1416 1448 1555 1566 1701* 1780* 2117* 2126 2139 2283 2328T 2437* 2585 2586 2622L 2680 2766* 2787,
and NA28 adds some Vulgate mss, and the middle Egyptian, and there is the CPA and Ethiopic.

Without the addition: everyone else (including 15 witnesses that leave out the whole of the verse).
[Incidentally, Text und Textwert did not pick up the majuscule U-030 in support for the addition. It ought to have listed U-030 under a new variant, 3D, with ευθεως and the order ‘blood and water’.]

On external evidence, the addition has definitely a very good shout. Or, to put it in the short-hand principles behind the THGNT, “In light of the external evidence, do we have good reason not to print the reading of the ‘earliest and best manuscripts’?” And indeed, this is one of those high-profile cases where I think that the transcriptional and internal reasons outweigh the external evidence. We should beware of treating any group of manuscripts as so reliable that we ignore what stares us in the face.

However, is there any way we can bolster the argument for the inclusion of the addition? Obviously, if original, the removal of the extra words may solve a problem in the sequence of events in comparison to the other gospels: Jesus did not die because of the spear thrust and neither should the text give any suggestion as such. Therefore, the shorter text provides a less difficult reading.
And then there is Dan Gurtner, in the recent Holmes Festschrift (who does an excellent job of discussing the versional evidence). He is also bold enough to put the suggestion forward that it is perhaps John who is editing the original text of Matthew and places it at a different, more appropriate location in his narrative. However, ultimately this possibility (I don’t think Dan proposes the originality of the longer text of 27:49) raises so many other problems that the simpler conclusion of influence of parallel accounts is preferable over any complex, redactional theory. We may wish the combined cluster of ℵ-01 B-03 C-04 L-019 Γ-036 to be infallible, but it is not. The ‘best and earliest manuscripts’ do not always present us with the ‘best and earliest readings’.

Incidentally, a comparable variant happens at Matthew 27:35, where we have another intrusion inspired by the gospel of John. It concerns the added fulfillment of Psalm 22:19 as found in John 19:24. In the variant we see a similar adaptation of the Johanine language (ἵνα ἡ γραφὴ πληρωθῇ ἡ λέγουσα) towards Matthean style (ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τοῦ προφήτου), just as happened in the longer text of 27:49. The difference is that the external evidence for the addition in 27:35 is less impressive, but it is a good illustration of the same phenomenon as in Matthew 27:49. As far as I can see almost every transmissional strand suffered these harmonisations.

Gurtner, Daniel M. “Water and Blood and Matthew 27:49: A Johannine Reading in the Matthean Passion Narrative?” In Studies on the Text of the New Testament and Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Michael W. Holmes On the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, edited by Daniel M. Gurtner, Juan Hernandez and Paul Foster (New Testament Tools, Studies and Documents 50. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015), 134-50.