Sunday Morning Greek Blog

February 21, 2011

Walking on Water

Filed under: Biblical Studies,Greek,Matthew Gospel of,New Testament — Scott Stocking @ 5:10 pm

 From January 23, 2011.

This note may be more appealing to my Greek-geek friends (sadly, there are so few of us), but those of you who are tagged may appreciate an insight into textual criticism and some of the considerations that go into trying to decide what the original text of Scripture was when two or more later copies have “variant” readings. Many things are considered in deciding between two or more variant readings, but in a nutshell, the top three considerations are as follows:

  1.  The more difficult reading is preferred (i.e., the one that presents the most problems theologically or historically, because later copyists tended to simplify a text rather than make it more difficult to understand).
  2. The shorter reading is preferred (this may seem to contradict the previous one, but “simplifying” a text may have involved the copyist adding an extra word or two to make the text make sense in his mind).
  3. The dissonant reading is preferred (i.e., the reading that varies from other parallel accounts; the tendency was to bring all accounts of a story into harmony).

Having said all that, I came across an interesting variant in Matthew 14:29 today. It’s not one that would force a major paradigm shift for most, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

The KJV renders the passage, “And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.”

The TNIV has, “‘Come,’ he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.”

At issue are the words in italics. The KJV states that Peter’s purpose (infinitive form) for walking on the water was to go to Jesus without implying that he completed the action, while the TNIV says Peter actually went (completed action form) to/toward Jesus and arrived at or very near his location on the water.

Ἐλθείν  (/el-THAIN/, infinitive meaning “to come” and often expressing purpose) is a well attested variant here. The difference in translation would be this: (a la TNIV, ἦλθεν /AIL-then/) “And he came to/toward” vs. (a la KJV) “in order to come to/toward” (I used my own translations here to emphasize the difference).
In the accepted reading (UBS4/NA27, the foundational Greek text for most modern Bible versions like the TNIV, and which in this verse follows the B text, Codex Vaticanus), depending on how the preposition is translated, Peter actually makes progress on the sea (or “water” as Matthew records Peter’s words) and gets close enough to Jesus for Jesus to reach out and save him.
The variant (textus receptus, which is the foundational Greek text for the KJV) only suggests Peter’s purpose for getting out onto the water, but it says nothing about his progress. Mark and John do not mention Peter’s attempt in the parallel accounts. The B reading is certainly more difficult, but the TR (which follows a correction of א, Codex Sinaitcus) reading is shorter, but in making it shorter, it also simplifies the more difficult concept that Peter walked on water just like Jesus. (The original א text has both Ἐλθείν and ἦλθεν.)
My heart would like to think that Peter actually did make some progress; the weight of the textual evidence in favor of the TR reading gives me pause, but the B reading is parallel to the verb for “walk” in the passage (also the same word used of Jesus walking on the water), so I’d have side with that. Peter does walk on the water, so he does make some progress toward Jesus, and perhaps even makes it all the way to Jesus before he begins to sink.

The bottom line is (and if you understood none of what I wrote above, please get this!), get out of the boat and come to Jesus. We may even get very close to Jesus and still find we lack faith, but all we need to do is cry out, and he will save us from the storms of life.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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