In a recent blog, I outlined the story of the earliest New Testament manuscripts. Because no original text (autograph) has survived the ravages of time, scholars are attempting to reconstruct the texts through examining more than 5,700 Greek manuscripts (not copies of the original autographs and not even copies of copies of the originals). I also highlighted the fact that some material found in the King James Version (1611) came from manuscripts dating from a very late period (the best available at the time). Since 1611, much earlier copies of the New Testament manuscripts have been discovered, shedding important light on the transmission of the text, including insights on the corruption of the text (deletions and additions).
Regarding a famous passage in Luke 22, Bart D. Ehrman, author of The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), argues that scribes added the detail that the Savior’s “sweat was as it were great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). Ehrman states, “This image of Jesus ‘sweating blood’ . . . can be found in only one passage of the New Testament, Luke 22:43-44, and this passage is not present in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke.” He continues, “It appears, in fact, to have been added to Luke’s account by scribes who wanted to emphasize Jesus’ full humanity and great human suffering. For these scribes, Jesus was not merely a divine being who could rise above the trials and tribulations of this life: he was human in every way and suffered the kind of agony any of us might suffer if we knew that we were soon to be subjected to a humiliating and excruciating death by crucifixion. While this appears to have been the scribes’ view of the suffering Jesus, it is not Luke’s” (491). Ehrman and other scholars speculate that this verse was introduced into the New Testament around the fifth century AD.
Latter-day Saints, like many other conservative New Testament readers, continue to accept Luke’s poignant account of the suffering in Gethsemane and have been unwilling to delete this material from their readings of Jesus’ last twenty-four hours. Additionally, Restoration scriptures confirm Luke’s account, providing them additional reasons to hold on to this story (see Mosiah 3:7; Doctrine and Covenants 19:18).
Recently, a bright, articulate New Testament scholar has raised questions about Ehrman’s claim. Thomas A. Wayment, my BYU colleague, published a groundbreaking study in one of the world’s premier journals on the New Testament regarding a third-century papyrus fragment (P69). He argues, “The fragment was subject to subsequent scribal correction in at least two instances” (“A New Transcription of P. Oxy. 2383 (P69),” Novum Testamentum 50 , 351). He discovered through multispectral imaging (a technology developed by NASA and first applied to ancient manuscripts by BYU) that a third-century scribe copying from another manuscript began writing the account of Jesus’ suffering as in Luke 22 but then corrected himself. This implies that the account of Jesus’ suffering was well known as early as the third century. As a result of Wayment’s careful work, we now must reevaluate the proposal that a later fifth-century scribe added these verses for theological reasons.
This article is significant. First, it signals a new day in Latter-day Saint scholarship. With well-trained Mormon New Testament scholars like Wayment, we can now completely engage in wider scholarly dialogue about the New Testament. Second, this article highlights the importance of multispectral imaging technology in New Testament studies. Finally, it raises a serious question about dogmatic assertions by some scholars about how the original text of the New Testament read. Of course, ongoing discoveries and studies of Greek New Testament manuscripts and fragments may yield more insights into the story of Jesus in Gethsemane.