A Variant of One Letter

Can one letter make a difference?

Over the years I have demonstrated various textual issues with the New Testament. One of the more common questions I am frequently asked is to what extent a variant of one letter can impact the reliability or lack thereof, of the New Testament. Today I’d like to answer this question with a simple example.

The letter η (eta) is a defining article.

Consider the case of saying “the boy” and “a boy”, in the case of the letter η (eta) it means “the”, which specifies a noun. The car, the boy, the house all refer to something specific and not something general. Thus, we read from John 5:1 (NIV) –

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.”

Some translations render the section in bold as “a feast”, however there is a variant in Codex Sinaiticus which renders the text as “the feast”, thus specifying this feast as not a general feast but as a specific feast. By inserting the letter η (eta) before the noun “feast” (ἑορτὴ), the context of this passages changes entirely. The NET Bible’s commentary explains:

“The textual variants ἑορτή or ἡ ἑορτή (Jeorth or Jh Jeorth, “a feast” or “the feast”) may not appear significant at first, but to read ἑορτή with the article would almost certainly demand a reference to the Jewish Passover.”

In other words, while at first it may not appear significant, by referring to the feast as “the feast”, it therefore indicates that this was the feast of Passover. This presents several problems. The initial problem is that if this feast refers to the Passover it would mean that Jesus preached for 4 years and not 2 1/2 years. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges states:

“He gives us three Passovers; to make this a fourth would be to put an extra year into our Lord’s ministry for which scarcely any events can be found, and of which there is no trace elsewhere.”

Thus, it would either mean that the timeline presented for Jesus’s ministry according to the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke exclude one year of Jesus’s ministry or that the Gospel attributed to John has created an additional 4th year (more than 3 years) which would stand against the testimony of the other Gospels. If the former is true it would mean that the authors of the synoptic Gospels chose to exclude and ignore an entire year’s worth of teaching by Jesus, thereby bringing into question the reliability of their collective testimony. Why would his followers want to exclude an entire year of his public ministry? Surely if he chose to preach at that time it must have been for a reason, therefore on what grounds can an author ignore or prevent other Christians from reading and learning from 25% of Jesus’s ministry?

However, if the latter is true, it would mean that the authors of the Gospel attributed to John created and attributed an additional year of preaching to Jesus’s ministry. This would then indicate that the Gospel attributed to John lies about Jesus and thus brings into question its authenticity, reliability and accuracy. The Pulpit Commentary expands on this issue a bit more:

“Now, “the feast” of the Jews could hardly be any other than the second Passover, while John 6:4 would indicate a third. “The feast” referred to in John 4:45 undoubtedly means the first Passover. “A feast” would leave the question open, though by no means excluding positively the second Passover, as the anarthrousness of the word might be chosen with a view to call special attention to it. However, the indefinite ἑορτη has been identified by commentators with every feast in the calendar, so there can be no final settlement of the problem.”

So far, commentators on this verse describe it as being “significant” and a “problem”, yet we need to keep in mind that this is the consequence of one letter being present in one manuscript. The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary explains to what extent this variant affects the harmony of the Gospels:

“1. a feast of the Jews—What feast? No question has more divided the Harmonists of the Gospels, and the duration of our Lord’s ministry may be said to hinge on it. For if, as the majority have thought (until of late years) it was a Passover, His ministry lasted three and a half years; if not, probably a year less. Those who are dissatisfied with the Passover-view all differ among themselves what other feast it was, and some of the most acute think there are no grounds for deciding. In our judgment the evidence is in favor of its being a Passover, but the reasons cannot be stated here.”

Addendum:

It should be noted that commentators have not randomly decided that the phrase “the feast” refers to the Passover, this is a conclusion drawn from the Church Father Irenaeus from the 2nd century who writes in Against Heresies (Book II, Chapter 22) the following:

But it is greatly to be wondered at, how it has come to pass that, while affirming that they have found out the mysteries of God, they have not examined the Gospels to ascertain how often after His baptism the Lord went up, at the time of the passover, to Jerusalem, in accordance with what was the practice of the Jews from every land, and every year, that they should assemble at this period in Jerusalem, and there celebrate the feast of the passover.

We can see the variant by comparing the same passage from Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus. In the image below, we see folio 249 (recto) from Codex Sinaiticus:

1

The variant can be seen here, it reads as “Η ΕΟΡΤΗ” (the letter Η [eta] is the capital letter equivalent of η) :

25

The image below is from Codex Alexandrinus, we see folio 69 (recto):

3

The variant can be seen here, it reads as “ΕΟΡΤΗ”:

4

6

What therefore, can we conclude from this difference?

If the Gospel attributed to John (from Codex Sinaiticus) is correct, it would mean that the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke excluded more than 25% of Jesus’s ministry from those Gospels, and thus brings their reliability into question.

If the Gospel attributed to John (from Codex Sinaiticus) is wrong, it would mean that the authors of this Gospel invented an additional year of Jesus’s ministry, thus bringing into question the reliability, authenticity and accuracy of the Gospel itself.

If the authors of the New Testament’s Gospels cannot be reliable enough to determine whether Jesus preached for 3 years or 4 years, a simple number, how could we trust them otherwise to report on Jesus’s actions and teachings accurately? One letter can make a very big difference and this is but one example of such a case.

and God knows best.

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Categories: Bible, Biblical scholarship, Christianity

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28 replies

  1. An excellent and scholarly article. Well done Ijaz!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kmak’s comments from another thread are so relevant here

    “Random guys on the internet aren’t the measure of scholarship.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a scholarly response to the article.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Paulus is a demented troll. The only reason he is permitted to spew his silliness on Blogging Theology is to provide amusement to others. Otherwise he would be banned. Thanks for performing your role so well Paulus.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Funny that you get all upset over another Muslims relevant comment

      Unless you have some qualifications these days Ijaz?

      Everyone knows that there is no point trying to reason with you Ijaz. Not sure why you still pretend that there is?

      Like

    • Wouldn’t you like to know my personal details.

      Not sure why some random man from the internet thinks they can vet my details.

      Also not sure why you’re posting on my articles if there’s no point in reasoning with me. I ain’t the one pretending, you are!

      I’ll just make pretending easier for you by banning you from my articles, would mean you’d have to pretend less, Robert.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t ban him please! I need to laugh more in my life don’t take his amusing/low IQ based comments away from me. PLEASE!!!!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ijaz, we all know that if you had a relevant qualification, or were working toward one, you’d be far too proud not to share it. Your whole “career” has been based on boasting about how young you were, about what “mentors” you are working with, what team of “scholars” you are collaborating with. In other words, you’ve based yourself on your personal information.

      So spare us this pretense and self righteousness. And then go get qualified and someone might give a damn

      Like

    • My qualifications are for me to know. I’m not a Christian, I don’t need to blog about where I’m studying or with whom, all you need to know is in what I chose to make public.

      If you want, feel free to share your name and your credentials with us. Until such a time that you have the ability to receive any actual qualifications, you’re banned.

      Like

    • Someone might give a damn? Everyone here gives a damn except you. Grow up kid and start attempting to refute things instead of your usual ad hominem tactics. No one is forcing you to read what he wrote. What are you whining about all the time? If he is so bad then it must be child’s play for you to refute him and yet you NEVER put any arguments forward to defend your case. You cry, whine and act childish. Grow up already.

      Like

    • I’m not the one pretending to be a scholar
      Kinda ironic that you ban me but complain about others banning you. Pathetic

      Like

    • “it would mean that the authors of the synoptic Gospels chose to exclude and ignore an entire year’s worth of teaching by Jesus, thereby bringing into question the reliability of their collective testimony.”
      This is an argument from silence combined with a conclusion that is not drawn from a valid premise. Two fallacies in the space of one sentence.
      It’s not worth pointing out every fallacy Ijaz relies on. He is no scholar or logician.
      There you go believer- I refuted him easily in the space of a single breath. But you’re a lapdog and will just pretend like these types of articles actsually have some merit.

      Like

    • Idiot! You haven’t refuted ANYTHING! Wishful thinking as usual.
      3 years of Jesus his life he is preaching the Gospel and an entire year is missing. And all you can throw out is the ‘argument from silence’ argument.
      Are you stupid or acting like it?
      Btw you ignore a VERY important part. You left out the first few words of that sentence.
      IF THE FORMER IS TRUE it would mean …
      Can’t you read Paulus: IF THE FORMER IS TRUE.
      He is not even making the case that it’s true with certainty.

      Like

  3. Not all manuscripts were considered to be trustworthy anyway. Variants just prove that copying was sloppy or the manuscript was deliberately manipulated in the case of some manuscripts which was only to be expected with so many copies being made by different groups in different locations at different times.

    No translators of reformed bibles used either Sinaiticus, Vaticanus or Alexandrian texts, as far as I know.

    Like

    • Hi Madmanna,

      [[No translators of reformed bibles used either Sinaiticus, Vaticanus or Alexandrian texts, as far as I know.]]

      The four Uncials are used in every eclectic-critical edition, in fact, they’re the most quoted references when making textual decisions for the critical editions. Unless you’re referring to the KJV-Onlyists, I can’t seem to make sense of your comment otherwise, sorry.

      Like

  4. This post is an example of misdirection and arguing from silence. The synoptic gospels contain very few time markers. Therefore knowing exactly which time period they are covering is impossible. Christian still want some idea and so they try there best using other means. John has more time markers and so more can be known in this case. Therefore to say:

    > If the Gospel attributed to John (from Codex Sinaiticus) is correct, it would mean that the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke excluded more than 25% of Jesus’s ministry from those Gospels, and thus brings their reliability into question.

    This is completely baseless and conjecture because there are no time markers to prove this. It is an argument from silence.

    > If the Gospel attributed to John (from Codex Sinaiticus) is wrong, it would mean that the authors of this Gospel invented an additional year of Jesus’s ministry, thus bringing into question the reliability, authenticity and accuracy of the Gospel itself.

    Again, this is completely baseless and conjecture because there are no time markers to prove this. It is an argument from silence.

    If you want your argument to work then you need to provide a timeline for the synoptics then compare this to John. You have provided none.

    Like

    • @Samuel Green,

      [[This post is an example of misdirection and arguing from silence.]]

      I think this is a dishonest comment, if you bothered to read the article, you’d see that it’s an issue that Christians scholars have wrestled with and written extensively about, if it’s “misdirection”, then what exactly is being “misdirected”? Also…I’m not arguing from silence, I’m using the same comparison that all scholars accept, that John’s Gospel has a different timeline and different calendar to begin with, I’m not using the absence of something as an evidence, but the inclusion of something as an evidence.

      [[The synoptic gospels contain very few time markers.]]

      They do contain them nonetheless, which allows timelines to be drawn up in the first place.

      [[Therefore knowing exactly which time period they are covering is impossible.]]

      It’s easier to write fiction with less specific information, I agree, however it isn’t impossible to determine where and when things happened, that’s a straw man in and of itself.

      [[Christian still want some idea and so they try there best using other means. John has more time markers and so more can be known in this case. Therefore to say:

      > If the Gospel attributed to John (from Codex Sinaiticus) is correct, it would mean that the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke excluded more than 25% of Jesus’s ministry from those Gospels, and thus brings their reliability into question.

      This is completely baseless and conjecture because there are no time markers to prove this. It is an argument from silence.]]

      Well to begin with, shouldn’t the Holy Spirit guide you about the understanding of scripture? Seems like it hasn’t worked out that well on your behalf. On the other hand, you contradict yourself, in the space of three paragraphs you went from “few” time markers to “none”. If you can’t be trusted to remain consistent within a single coherent thought, why should it matter what your understanding of scripture is in the first place? Lastly, you seem to be foregoing that the events in John’s Gospel are mentioned in the synoptics, and so we can place them in a timeline that makes sense, unless you’re saying either or is ahistorical and one does not fit in with the other, which in that case with mean you’re defending, meaningless fiction. Well done.

      [[Again, this is completely baseless and conjecture because there are no time markers to prove this. It is an argument from silence.]]

      Few, now none, please get your story right and also read what I actually wrote, as I responded to this comment in the paragraph above.

      [[If you want your argument to work then you need to provide a timeline for the synoptics then compare this to John. You have provided none.]]

      I don’t need to, the scholars I’m quoting have already done so and found it to be incongruous, which is why they find it to be a problem and therefore holding to one variant over another. Please try to read before commenting, and I also kindly ask, please try to respond responsibly and intelligently, this isn’t Facebook on AM.

      Kindly try again.

      Like

    • Salaam Ijaz,
      Great article, as usual!!! I think that your study and argument are sound, especially since it is based on the comments and scholarship of Christian authors on the same subject. You seem to be simply pointing the issue out, and then taking it to the logical conclusion….that we cannot trust the Gospels if they cannot get a simple fact straight.

      Thanks for the information and example, and we appreciate your workt!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Off topic, but to answer Mr. Faiz:

    “So what does it mean when your KJV says that a woman has been “humbled”? Still waiting for an answer. 🙂”

    It means she has lost her virginity:

    23 If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; 24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you.

    28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; 29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

    Like

    • Madman is truly mad!

      Leave it to you deceivers to try to change the meaning of your own KJV, even though you give it such as aura of authority. Verses 28-29 that you refer to above are in reference to RAPE. The woman who is “humbled” in this case loses her virginity through rape. Consequently, a captive woman who is “humbled” is thus also a victim of rape:

      “And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her.”

      Like

  6. Hi CallingChristians,

    You said: “The four Uncials are used in every eclectic-critical edition, in fact, they’re the most quoted references when making textual decisions for the critical editions.”

    Yes, I am kjv only. I believe that the kjv translators had sufficient reliable texts preserved in the providence of God to be confident that their translation was the same as the inspired original.

    I would be suprised if any of the manuscripts they had at hand, textus receptus, had the same reading as Sinaiticus at John 5 v 1.

    I’ll go with the Dean Burgon Society against the eclectical-critical texts.

    Like

  7. @Faiz

    “Madman is truly mad!”

    “Leave it to you deceivers to try to change the meaning of your own KJV, even though you give it such as aura of authority. Verses 28-29 that you refer to above are in reference to RAPE. ”

    Obviously you are the one who is mad in your desperate obsession to find sex slaves in the bible to bring it down to your level.

    Like

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