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Did Jesus Pray “Father Forgive Them” from the Cross?

I recently received an important question about a highly significant textual variant in Luke 23:34, the one and only place in the NT where Jesus prays for those responsible for his death “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”  The verse is not found in the other Gospels, and interestingly, it is also not found in some of the important manuscripts even of Luke.  And so the question: is it a verse that some scribes inserted into Luke?  Or is it a verse that other scribes decided to take out?  It’s one or the other!

When I received the question I was sure I had dealt with it on the blog before.  But I’ve checked.  Nope.  Never have.  But I was even more sure I had written about it somewhere.  It took me a long time to track it down, but I’ve uncovered it in an article that I wrote called “The Text of the Gospels at the End of the Second Century,” now found in a collection of my more scholarly essays on textual criticism called Studies in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (published in 2006; the paper was originally written for a conference in 1993).

The paper was written for fellow scholars, but I’ve decided to go ahead and include it here verbatim.  BUT, I have added several explanatory comments in italics for technical terms and ideas that are not the sort of thing you hear your neighbor saying when raking the leaves.  Well, OK, you’re not going to be hearing any of this from your neighbor, but still….

Here’s the portion of the chapter on the verse.


If our literary sources are any guide at all (which is an ongoing and serious question, but at least among the literary elite—such as our anonymous scribes—they are surely of some significance), the end of the second century was a time of vitriolic polemic by Christians against the Jews and all they stood for. This was an age when literary attacks by Christians against Jews qua Jews had become de rigeur, when authors like “Barnabas” could claim that the Jews had professed a religion of error from the days of Moses, that they had always misinterpreted their own Scriptures and so had misconstrued their relationship with God, that the Old Testament was in fact not a Jewish book at all, but a Christian one; when polemicists like Justin could argue that circumcision was a sign not that God had chosen the Jews as his own people, but that he had set them apart for special punishment; and when preachers like Melito could devote entire sermons to inveighing against the Jews as killers of Christ, implicating them with the murder of God.

It was not, by and large, a happy time for Jewish-Christian relations. And the impact of the polemics made itself felt on the transcription of the early Christian texts.  The famous Codex Bezae (designated as manuscript D; even though it is from around 400 CE, it appears to embody a form of the text from at least the second century) is one of our earliest manuscripts to omit the prayer of Jesus from the cross in Luke 23:34: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” There are indeed compelling reasons for thinking that the verse was original to Luke and that its exclusion came as a result of second-century polemic against Jews (the shorter text is already found in the early third-century P75). The verse (found only in Luke) coincides perfectly with Luke’s own portrayal of Jesus as calm and in control in the face of his death, more concerned with the fate of others than himself;[i] it shows Jesus in prayer, a distinctive emphasis of Luke, long recognized; the prayer itself embodies the motif of “ignorance”, a notion used throughout Luke-Acts to account for Jesus’ unlawful execution.[ii] (This preceding argument is meant to show that it is likely that Luke himself wrote the verse, that it did not originate with a scribe inserting it into the text.)

Moreover, when one moves from intrinsic to transcriptional arguments, it becomes quite clear that here there is a nice coalescence of probabilities.  (Ah, this would take a bit of time to unpack.  Basic story: an “intrinsic probability” asks if a verse was likely or not to have been written by the author himself, based on its theology, vocabulary and style: I’ve just answer the question as YES.  So that means it is likely it comes from Luke, not a later scribe.  Possibly.   The next issue is transcriptional probability, which asks – independently of the question of whether an author is likely to have written it – is it more likely to have been *inserted*  or *omitted* by a scribe?  There you are looking to see what scribes would probably have wanted to do to the text.  If the evidence of both intrinsic and transcriptional probabilities point in the same direction, then you have a strong argument)  The question to be asked, of course, is whether the verse would have been more likely to be added or omitted by scribes of the third Gospel. Those who would argue for an addition might point to Acts 7:60 as a clue (this is where the first martyr Stephen prays to God for his executioners to be pardoned.  Since scribes would possibly not want Stephen to be more forgiving than Jesus himself, could scribes have inserted the verse into Luke in order to show that Jesus too prayed for forgiveness for his executioners?). Could not the verse have been interpolated by scribes wanting to provide a closer parallel between Jesus and Stephen, the first of his followers to be martyred for his sake?

This position has the appearance of plausibility, but it should be pointed out that Luke himself has gone out of his way to create parallels between Jesus in Luke and the apostles in Acts, as any careful literary analysis will show (i.e., the same author wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts; and he himself creates numerous literary parallels between what happens to Jesus in the Gospel and what happens to his followers in Acts).   Indeed, the remarkable similarities between Jesus and Stephen are themselves from Luke’s pen. What is particularly striking in this connection, and telling for the textual problem of Luke 23, is that when Luke creates parallels between Jesus in the Gospel and his apostles in Acts, he does so obliquely, without drawing undue attention to it (that is to say, he doesn’t simply repeat in Acts, verbatim, what he had already said about Jesus in the Gospels; he always states the literary parallels in different words). Contrast this with how scribes are known to work. Scribal harmonizations are rarely (ever?) oblique; they involve word for word, verbal agreements. The prayer in Luke 23:34, however, is no such thing. If a scribe created the text to harmonize it more closely with Acts 7:60, would not the correspondence be verbal?

If it is difficult to imagine the verse being invented by second-century scribes, can we posit reasons for them wanting to omit it? In its Lukan context, the prayer appears to refer (not to the Roman soldiers who have just done the deed but) to the Jewish leaders who in their ignorance have caused Jesus to be crucified.[iii] But the original meaning of the verse is of little importance for understanding the activities of scribes; the transcriptional question involves not what the text meant for Luke, but what it meant for the scribes who tampered with the text. And here we are on even better grounds. For we know from patristic discussions that the verse was normally taken to be Jesus’ prayer for the Jews. At least it is understood that way in the earliest accounts of its exposition that we have, already at the beginning of the third century by Origen and the author of the Didascalia.[iv]

Many Christians in the second century were convinced, however, that God had not forgiven the Jews for what they did to Jesus. This is evident, for instance, not only in the polemic of Melito mentioned above, but also in the widespread notion that the destruction of Jerusalem some forty years after Jesus’ death was a manifestation of God’s anger against them: the Jews’ rejection of Jesus led to their own rejection by God.[v] For scribes who shared this opinion, one can well imagine the puzzlement created by Jesus’ prayer in Luke 23:34. How could the Savior have possibly asked God to forgive the Jews? And if he had, why was he not heard? Much better to excise the verse—as Christian scribes appear to have done, beginning at least at the end of the second century.


[i] Cf. the portrayal of Jesus on the way to the cross in 23:28-31, and his words to the penitent robber soon thereafter (23:39-43).

[ii] Cf. Acts 3:17; 13:27-28. On this, see especially Eldon Jay Epp, “The Ignorance Motif in Acts and Anti-Judaic Tendencies in Codex Bezae”, HTR 55 (1962), 51-62.

[iii] Given the use of the ignorance motif throughout Acts. See Epp, “Ignorance Motif”.

[iv] I owe this information to my graduate student, Kim Haines-Eitzen. Origen, Peri Pascha 43. 33-36; Didascalia, ch. VI and especially ch. XV. See further, David Daube, “For They Know Not What They Do: Luke 23, 34”, Studia Patristica 4 (1961), 58-70.

[v] See, for example, Origen, Contra Celsum IV, 22.

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  1. Avatar
    JohnKesler  March 24, 2019

    Is there any way that the Greek could be read: “Father, forgive them not, for they know what they do”?

  2. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 24, 2019

    Miscellaneous comment: A fringe benefit of reading Bart’s books is that you’ll come across leads for continued personal reading. In his book Forged, for example, I learned the first to publicly question whether Paul wrote 1 Timothy was the German scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1807 (p. 95). I’ve just ordered several books about him. … I admire the pioneers with the backbone to question centuries of Christian belief.

  3. Avatar
    JohnKesler  March 24, 2019

    This page gives a nice overview about this passage: http://textus-receptus.com/wiki/Luke_23:34 I notice that your former teacher, Bruce Metzger, and NA27 both think the passage is not original. Your argument seems to be a) that the saying is consistent with what we know of Luke and b) if a scribe inserted it, he would have done so with more verbatim agreement with Acts 7:60. Any idea why Metzger, Eberhard Nestle, and Kurt Aland found this argument unpersuasive?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 25, 2019

      Not sure. Of course I hadn’t made the argument when they were working on the text (Nestle lived a very long time ago!); but I’m not sure how deeply they looked into the exegetical and historical issues. They tended to favor the external evidence, seeing which manuscripts supported one reading or another, rather than considering at great length the intrinsic and transcriptional probabilities, in detail.

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  March 25, 2019

        Yes, I should have phrased it as a hypothetical. To follow up, though, do most scholars think that the verse is original to Luke?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 26, 2019

          It’s debated, but my sense is that the majority of scholars thing that yes, it is original.

      • Avatar
        SScottb149  April 22, 2019

        Dr. Erhman,
        I have read some medical opinions on crucifixion and the possible consequences…And some have commented that Jesus (due to his many injuries) probably would not have been able to say much (if anything) because his tongue may have been too swollen to talk. Some people at the cross misunderstood Jesus calling for Elijah, for example, when he was saying the Galilean version of God’s name)…Do you think this is a plausible argument? It seems likely to me, in addition, that no one would have recorded any of Jesus words!!

        • Bart
          Bart  April 23, 2019

          I’m not sure we understand the physical trauma involved, since there were various ways of crucifying people. But it’s an intersting question. Presumably if the tongue swelled, it would be over time?

          • Avatar
            SScottb149  April 23, 2019

            Yes, I see your point. Thank you.

        • Avatar
          SScottb149  April 27, 2019

          I had a follow up to this question that I thought you might find humorous and could probably relate too. In my debates with conservative fundamentalists over just about everything (including the events and words of Jesus on the cross), I have tried in vain to show these dear people how differently one can read the gospels horizontally rather than vertically. The normal responses (after I am condemned to hell for the thousandth time) is that they have done this exercise and found no contradictions (which I find absurd) or they combine all of the sayings into a harmonization of sorts that smoothes over everything. Do you have any advice for me in trying to help them open their minds (I know this stuff can be fearful because I was once like them), or am I getting into a peeing contest with skunks?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 28, 2019

            You can’t make someone see what they don’t see! (I deal with roughly this topic in the post I’ll be making tomorrow)

  4. Avatar
    brenmcg  March 24, 2019

    If later christians had difficulty reconciling the verse with the destruction of Jerusalem can we take the inclusion of the verse in Luke as evidence it was written before 70AD?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 25, 2019

      No, not necessarily, since there were lots of Christians with lots and lots of different views, about most everything, both before and after 70 CE — not just one view.

  5. Avatar
    dankoh  March 24, 2019

    Interesting! I think that further evidence of the verse being in Luke from the start (“true Luke” if you will) is Luke-Acts’ treatment of the Pharisees; he is much more favorable to them than are the other gospels. I’ve always wondered why, since at this point the Pharisees and the Jesus Movement (soon to become Christianity) were the only organized Jewish groups left standing after the 66-73 war and were now in competition to become “normative” Judaism (a battle the Jesus Movement was bound to lose, since they lost most of their Jews in the war).

    • Bart
      Bart  March 25, 2019

      He definitley had problems with the Pharisees, but it wasn’t the same problem (hypocrisy) that Matthew had. For Luke they had a wrong way of thinking about what constitutes proper behavior toward God. And you’re right, he’s not nearly as vitriolic about it. Probably because, unlike Matthew, he wasn’t in serious dispute himself with Pharisaic types.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  March 24, 2019

    Luke is much less hostile to unconverted Jews than Matthew and John, and his Jesus is much less wrathful. So makes sense he’d write that. But no, I don’t think Jesus said it, because it’s just not a thing somebody would say in mortal agony.

    Also, he would never have thought in terms of collective guilt. That just isn’t something he believes in. Each individual is responsible only for his or her choices, and nothing else. Jesus would have agreed with Edmund Burke, that there is no indictment one can draw up against an entire people, regardless of what some of them have done.

    So he might have said something like this (in a less agonized frame of mind) regarding the people who had actually sought his death–no one else. But I don’t think so. Luke believes Jesus is a superman, and his pain is more spiritual than physical. As we all know (and Job most of all), physical suffering beats spiritual, any day of the weak.

  7. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 24, 2019

    I could understand most of this without help. Is this the level of difficulty planned for the ‘katabasis’ book, because that subject really interests me.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 25, 2019

      Yeah, about this level (without the parenthetic explanations!), but about a completely different subject, and so a different set of jargon and assumptions.

  8. Avatar
    Nichrob  March 24, 2019

    Small note: You discuss this verse in; Jesus Interrupted. I am currently (re) reading the book. Page 160… I just read this discussion… I thought it was pretty cool…..

    • Bart
      Bart  March 25, 2019

      Ah — I *thought* I had written about it for a popular audience, but couldn’t figure out where. Thanks!

  9. Ali Sharifli
    Ali Sharifli  March 25, 2019

    But I think that, absence of awareness by the 2nd century Christians that Jesus indeed had asked God to forgive the Jews who were going to cause his execution ( because Christians at that time were charging Jews by great sin for murdering of Jesus) is indeed an evidence for absence of “Father, forgive them!” in the Gospel of Luke. In my opinion in the 2nd century Christians wouldnt attribute the sin of murdering Jesus to Jews, if that verse was present in the Gospel of Luke.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 25, 2019

      I don’t know that I believe Luke’s Jesus is talking only about Jews here–the surrounding language seems to refer equally to Roman soldiers and Jewish leaders. I think he’s taking a somewhat loftier view, that everyone there (and by extension all humanity) is guilty of Jesus’ death, and Jesus is forgiving everyone for failing to understand what he was saying.

      That was, of course, the interpretation I was raised with–the modern church trying to wash its own hands of ages of persecution, though many past Christians certainly did take it in the way you mean. But Luke can hardly imagine all that future history from his own time. His Jesus is perfect–not really human. We’re supposed to see from his POV, up there on the cross, looking down on us all in pity and compassion. He’s sorry for US.

    • Avatar
      Leovigild  March 25, 2019

      You are assuming that 2nd-century Christians would have certainly known Luke. That can’t be taken for granted; there were many gospels circulating, and most Christians wouldn’t have known them all.

  10. Avatar
    dennislk1  March 25, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Previous Post: I believe most people just sit in the pews wondering what they will eat for lunch. However, the screenwriters look for a subject that will make a successful (horror) film, the politicians look for a topic that they believe in/will get them votes, pastors spend their time looking for the topic of next Sunday’s sermon, scholars look for the subject of their next book. Wondering who will be the next group to attack one’s village or what will be the next disease to ravage one’s village has been pondered by man since the existence of villages.

    This post: It is satisfying to see how logic can be used to come to logical conclusions concerning the books of the Bible as to whether something has been added or redacted (candidate for “word of the year” I think). Therefore, I find it illogical that scholars have decided that the Gospels came from an oral tradition?

    Paul was a prolific writer and his writings were in Greek (I believe), he was a Roman citizen that would have allowed him some protection from the Jews, and surely (logically speaking) he would have converted at least one or two Roman citizens (who could write) to Christianity who would also have been somewhat protected from the Jews. The Bible says that Paul met with Peter. Now if scholars expect me to believe that the most prolific writer of the new testament, a man who was blinded by Jesus Christ and then had his sight restored (allegedly [another good “word of the year” candidate]), was too incompetent to understand the importance of getting a written account from first-hand sources of the life of the man he was telling everyone he met about, well okay. But let us simply take logic, logical conclusions and intelligence out of the discussion and go back to the cave our ancestors used to shiver in.

    So, my question is: what has prevented scholars from arriving at the very logical conclusion that Paul had some of his disciples interview and write down the first-hand accounts of Jesus’ apostles, of Mary(s), Nicodemus, etc. and that the existing manuscripts are based on a second-hand written account (from first-hand sources)?

    Thank you,

    Dennis Keister

    • Bart
      Bart  March 25, 2019

      It’s because we have no evidence in any source of interviews being done, and some suggestoins they just weren’t interested in it (read Acts and Galatians — no suggestions of interviews). But there is lots and lots of evidence of oral tradition — masses of evidence. Paul indicates he heard things from oral traditions. So does Luke. And independent attestation from various sources demonstrates traditions are passed along orally. If you haven’t read my book Jesus Before the Gospels, that would be one place to start.

  11. Avatar
    Alexandre Ferreira  March 25, 2019

    Very, very, interesting. I’m delighted all the time that I come here. It is great. I have my doubt, it clarify it. Althought, If Jesus was who he was, it is an another question, just what, about what has been written about him, has being intriging.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 25, 2019

    A little on the technical side, but it gives us a glimpse of the way textual critics work. So, the next question becomes why did the other Gospel authors leave it out? Thanks

  13. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 27, 2019

    I like the explanation that some scribes left the story out because of their personal prejudices against the Jews. I really WANT Jesus to have forgiven those he thought responsible for his crucifixion, whether these were Jews, Romans or all of mankind collectively. As to whether he REALLY said anything he’s recorded to have said from the Cross, who really knows? The story reminds me of another episode in Jesus’ life that I hope actually happened even though early manuscripts don’t contain it — namely his refusing approve the stoning of the woman taken in adultery.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 3, 2019

      Jesus believed in forgiveness, but I know that in the final agonies of what was in some ways an even more unpleasant death than that of Jesus (definitely much slower), St. Francis himself was not always charitable and forgiving to fellow monks he believed in his delirium to have been untrue to him. The Book of Job tells a grim truth–when we are in deep physical suffering, we tend to lash out–even at God.

      To forgive when one is wracked by physical and spiritual torment, caused by others for no reasons other than jealousy, intolerance, suspicion, fear, and rigid authoritarianism–that is hard–truly hard. If Jesus could do that, maybe he really was God.

      Jesus did not believe in collective guilt, so if he condemned anyone, it was those who had personally acted against him. It does, however, say much for him that his followers could not attribute wrath to him in his final moments, even if they were themselves often wrathful. They needed to believe he was more than that, and aspired, however imperfectly, to emulate the image of him they had in their heads. Some did better than others.

  14. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  March 29, 2019

    how do we know that the historical jesus even said the words, “father forgive them….” ?

    What would you as investigator ask to verify if jesus said this?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2019

      Are the words found in multiple sources, independently of one another? (No) Can you imagine a reason why the author of Luke, or the Christian story tellers may themselves have come up with the words and placed them on Jesus’ lips (Yes and Yes). Is it *historically plausible* that someone from Jesus’ own followers would be standing close enough to the cross to hear his last words and record them for posterity (Probably not). On these grounds, I don’t think Jesus said them.

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 29, 2019

        Me neither, but I do believe he said something, and I also think it highly likely that a few of his followers were there–women. Women would have been in little danger of being apprehended as insurrectionists, would have been largely ignored by both the Romans and the temple authorities hostile to Jesus.

        It would have taken courage, but I think we can agree they had that.

        Women are exceptionally prominent in the stories immediately after the crucifixion. There’s ample reason to believe that most of what we know about what happened in those days comes from women. And much of what came to be believed about that time, as well.

        I do believe he cried out from the cross, probably said a number of things, most of not all of which were misunderstood by the witnesses (there’s even a gospel reference to that–“he is calling for Elijah.”)

        But “Father forgive them,” while consistent with Jesus’ nature and beliefs, is inconsistent with what he was going through at the time, and isn’t something he would have cried out at the top of his tormented lungs. If he murmured a prayer to himself, nobody would have heard that.

        Still, I don’t doubt that the women would have gotten as close as possible, to offer what little solace they could. And what they heard, they would have remembered. Not the kind of thing anyone would forget.

  15. Avatar
    SScottb149  May 18, 2019

    Dr. Erhman,
    Would you say it was fair to assume that Jesus may have had a general idea that he was in trouble with the Jewish high priests (for example as MLK Jr did leading up to his death), but specifically never foresaw Judas’ betrayal, let alone crucifixion as the form of his execution (despite the various attempts that he allegedly claimed to know in the gospels)?

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