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Textual Ambiguity in Acts of the Apostles

August 6, 2014

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my essay, “God or Jesus?  Textual Ambiguity and Textual Variants in Acts of the Apostles,” in the multi-author volume, Texts and Traditions:  Essays in Honour of J. Keith Elliott, edited by Peter Doble and Jeffrey Kloha (Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2014), pp. 239-54.   In the essay, I study an interesting phenomenon:  In Acts there are a number of places where we have variants that appear to reflect efforts to clarify whether Jesus or God is referred to, cases where the likely original reading was “kyrios” which in these places has a certain ambiguity as to who the referent is.

The phenomenon suggested itself in the course of researching and writing an earlier commissioned essay, “Christology in Acts:  Jesus in Early Christian Belief and Practice,” published in Issues in Luke-Acts:  Selected Essays,, eds. Sean A. Adams and Michael Pahl (Piscataway, NJ:  Gorgias Press, 2012), 217-38.

Here is the Abstract of my essay that has just appeared:

“The correlation of God and Jesus in Acts, in particular the use of κύριος/ὁ κύριος for both, produced a number of statements in which there can be a certain degree of ambiguity as to the referent. At these points we often find variants in the manuscripts, which reflect efforts of ancient readers to disambiguate the statements and clarify the text. They often seem to have drawn upon the immediate context to help them judge matters. So the variants are artefacts of this exegetical activity of these ancient readers of Acts.”

I’ve uploaded the pre-publication version of the essay under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog site.


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  1. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,
    The idea that readers/copiers interacted with the text that they read in a way that clarified or explained what the text meant is significant, particularly if such clarifications were for their own use and later entered the textual stream when unintentionally copied. This would mean that some Orthodox Corruptions were not made with specific controversies in mind but were a result of diligent attempts by individuals to better understand their sacred text. It seems to me, that Comfort’s ‘Theory of Reader Reception’ makes a similar point in relationship to Christian scribes, as they copied sacred texts they interacted with them in this same manner.


    • Tim: I don’t know Comfort’s proposal, but from your description there seems to be a difference. Copyists copied. In that early period at least, they copied, and then they corrected what they copied. But the sort of changes that I discuss in my Acts essay are the sort that requires the leisure to read forward and backward, ponder, and then make what is essentially an exegetical judgement. That’s what readers do, not copyists.
      But, yes, I see no evidence of any programmatic “orthodox corruption” of NT writings, and actually, if you read carefully Bart’s preface, you’ll see that he acknowledges this. But it made a great title for selling the book!

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    George Howard argued that YHWH stood in the original text of Acts and was later replaced by kyrios and theos, which accounts for the large number of variants involving those words. It would also explain why kyrios is used sometimes for God and sometimes for Jesus without apparent distinction, if the original text used YHWH for God and kyrios for Jesus then confusing ambiguities were only introduced after kyrios began to be used for both.

    • Yes, Donald, but (1) Howard has no, none, nada manuscript basis for his proposal, (2) it is clear that “kyrios” was in fact used among many Jews as the way of referring to God (as I’ve noted several times now!), so it would be entirely reasonable for it to have been used in early texts such as Acts, and (3) in Acts and other NT writings it’s clear that Jesus was ascribed OT texts and a status that aligned him closely with God. Howard took no account of this. His thesis, justifiably, now is regarded as failed.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        David Trobisch didn’t view Howard’s argument as failed, rather he used it as a key part of his own argument in his book The First Edition of the New Testament.

      • Well, Trobisch’s proposal hasn’t had much traction either.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        I was a bit surprised that you didn’t explore the significance of the textual variants in Acts 20:28 because this verse is perhaps key to The Lord/God variation in Acts, and is suggestive of its solution.

        Isn’t the textual variation and ambiguity in the meaning of kyrios in Acts really a peculiar phenomenon; one that corruption at an early stage of transmission in the treatment of sacred names may explain? The fact is that surviving copies of the LXX from the period before, during and after Acts was composed use either YHWH or IAW in the text for God. And the style of Acts does appear strongly to emulate that of the LXX. So put two and two together and you have a pretty reasonable hypothesis that Acts originally used the divine name, it was later replaced by kyrios (when the NT was first edited as a single volume around 130 C.E. as per Trobisch) which led to the ambiguity, confusion and textual variation evident in the history of its subsequent transmission.

        Otherwise you have to explain why any author would use the word in such a confusion and ambiguous way to start with.

      • Donald: First, the “facts” on the LXX. *Pre-Christian* copies of the Greek OT (i.e., from the Judean desert sites) have either YHWH (Heb characters) or IAO. But the LXX copies from thereafter have Kyrios. So, your claim that “before, during and after Acts” either YHWH or IAO appears is flatly wrong.
        Second, no, the variation-unit at Acts 20:28 isn’t any key to anything; it’s only a particularly interesting example of the 20 or so variation-units I analysed.
        Third, it is absolutely incorrect to claim (as did Trobisch) that a complete NT was edited by ca. 130 CE. Origen in the early 3rd century is still counting books treated as scripture by all, those so treated by some, and those rejected by most. We don’t have any evidence of a complete 27 book NT with wide acceptance before the late 4th century, and not universally accepted till much later.
        I must exhort you to study things more thoroughly before you sound off so stridently.
        Finally, it is clear that the author of Luke and Acts has deliberately used Kyrios with a dual referent, as does Paul well before him. The ambiguity involved, in short, simply reflects the religious development in which Jesus was linked with God so remarkably, as I’ve shown for some 25 yrs now. Read on.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        I was wrong, Trobisch actually states that the first edition of the New Testament was published by Polycarp between 156 and 168 C.E.

        Click to access 20071226%20FreeInquiry%20Who%20Published%20Christian%20Bible%20BW.pdf

        As far as I am aware there are no surviving copies of the LXX/OG earlier than the middle of the second century C.E. that use kyrios rather YHWH/IAW. To say those were only Jewish copies appears to ignore the fact that as a sect of Judaism early Christians would have been using Jewish copies to start with. And when Christians made their own copies, did they replace IAW/YHWH with kyrios immediately? Origen said that the most accurate copies contained the divine name in his day. Whichever way you put it, the fact is that Luke copied the style of the LXX, and the extant evidence indicates that copies available to Luke used YHWH/IAW rather than kyrios.

        If Luke was merely reflecting Chritian practice in using one word for both Jesus and God, then it’s strange to say the least that so many of his readership were so clearly perplexed by it in the way you describe in your article. A more plausible explanation is that the ambiguity had been introduced by the an editior of the text when IAW/YHWH was removed and the convention of nomina sacra introduced.

      • Donald: My Lord, you really must read carefully, esp. those with whom you seek to argue! I referred to the unambiguously Jewish/pre-Christian copies of the Greek OT from Judean desert sites. I said that those from the 2nd century CE and later typically use Kyrios. Those are the facts, and that’s what I wrote.
        Moreover, your argument about what the author of Acts likely wrote holds no water. I have no idea what you mean by “Luke copied the style of the LXX.” In any case, whatever may have been in his copies of the Greek scriptures, it’s clear that he bought the early Christian belief that Jesus had been given to share in the divine name and glory, and that it was right to apply OT texts to him (as David Capes has shown was done already by Paul decades earlier).
        If you actually read my essay, you’ll see that in the great majority of cases it’s quite clear when the author refers to God or Jesus by “kyrios”. It’s only about 20 times where we have indication that SOME ancient readers found ambiguities.
        Finally, it’s most implausible that ambiguities would be introduced! Readers and users tended to reduce difficulties, not create them. Which you’d know if you spent some time studying the textual tradition.
        I’ve been patient with your strident but ill-informed comments, Donald. But I think it’s time for you to do some serious studies of matters before you parade your misjudgements further. We’re done here.

  3. Larry: What, then, are we to make of the oft-said idea that the title kurios is being transferred to Jesus in NT writings? I mean, if the article/no-article distinction was so clear to the author/readers, how do verses like Acts 2.21 and 2.36 work, where anarthrous kurios seems to refer to Jesus? Of course, your general observation is right. What I’m unsure about is what conclusions we can draw as to the whole issue of ambiguity or the expectations of readers? If the writer was capable of sometimes reversing his normal patterns of usage, then can we ever be sure what was meant without relying entirely on the context?. Maybe we are just as unsure what Luke originally meant as were the readers/scribes who emended D!

    • Daniel: First, understand what is now a major principle of linguistics: Sentences are the major carriers of meaning, not words. Words acquire their meaning when used in sentences.
      So, yes, like ancients, we have no choice but to read words in context to determine referents. If we do so, as I note, in the great majority of cases the referent is clear. But in a number of other cases there is ambiguity, and I think perhaps deliberately so. In these cases especially we can only judge in context.

  4. Dr. Hurtado,

    In footnote 3 of the essay you write, “I have been persuaded that we should view most intentional changes to the text as more likely made by readers, not copyists (‘scribes’).” I’m not clear on what you mean by “readers”. Do you mean readers of the scribe’s copy who then attempt to ‘correct’ or disambiguate the context? If so, isn’t it possible that a subsequent scribe then accepted some of these ‘corrections’/disambiguations, thus making an intentional change to their own copy of the exemplar? But then, would this be why you state that it’s the readers who’ve intentionally changed the text, with the subsequent copyists merely replicating the altered text without an intent of changing the text per se, assuming the previous ‘corrector’ was, in fact, correct?

    I don’t have access to the two works you cited in that footnote in order to follow you.

    • Craig: Your next-to-final sentence basically captures what I mean. (1) A reader notices an ambiguity and (2) having studied the immediate context, decides to “disambiguate” the statement (e.g., crossing out one reading and writing the preferred reading above it), and then (3) at some point that manuscript is copied, the change perhaps taken as a correction, but in any case the change get copied into the textual tradition.
      This could have happened independently any number of times, as various readers might have noted and been puzzled by the ambiguities of the passages in Acts that I treat.

  5. Thanks for the helpful article (and great that you can make public these pre pub versions). One question if I may: you seem generally to assume that the arthrous/anarthrous kurios equates to a God/Jesus distinction respectively in the majority of cases, and that when a reader/scribe wants to clarify a referent he can use this distinction to do so (e.g. by adding the article to specify jesus), which assumes that most readers were functioning with this default distinction. Is this a fair summary of your considered position? I noticed recently that Gordon Fee dismisses this grammatical criterion, at least in the Pauline corpus (Fee, Pauline Christology, p.35). I would be interested to hear your judgement on this matter.

    • Daniel: I don’t “assume” anything. I’ve simply noted that in Acts in the great majority of cases of the “arthrous” ο κυριος the referent is quite clearly Jesus, and in the majority of uses of the “anarthrous” κυριος it’s God, with exceptions noted to each expression also. That’s just the observable pattern of Acts. It’s likewise the dominant pattern of LXX usage: i.e., YHWH represented by an anarthrous κυριος (with variations and exceptions to this dominant pattern). We’d have to do the same exact analysis for each NT writing before making any generalized judgment.

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