Matthew 5:21-22

September 24, 2020, Larry G. Overton

I have heard more teachings and opinions on Matthew 5:21-22 than I can count. This passage came up again recently on Facebook, and so I decided to address an issue that deals with its translation.

Unfortunately, the Bible versions used to quote this passage are often inaccurate. Of course, this issue of accuracy impacts more than just this one passage. Yes, I know that there is no perfect Bible translation, but not all versions of the Bible are created equal. Some are outright paraphrases, which means you’re getting a large amount of interpretive opinion about the verse or verses in question, and not something focused on accuracy.

Other versions may be translations in the sense that a person or committee of persons consulted the original languages of the Bible. But the translation philosophy of said person or committee is still more to the paraphrase side of the spectrum, and so the resulting version still gives you a significant amount of interpretive opinion.

Coming back to the passage before us, the inaccuracy that I’m specifically thinking of involves not just the style of the version but the very content of verse 22 itself. Or, more to the point, what it does not contain. Bear with me as I quote Matthew 5:21-22 from a few versions to demonstrate the difference.

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” [New International Version, © 1973, 1978, 1984]

 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” [English Standard Version, © 2001, 2016]

21 You have heard that our fathers were told, “Do not murder,” and that anyone who commits murder will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you that anyone who nurses anger against his brother will be subject to judgment; that whoever calls his brother, “You good-for-nothing!” will be brought before the Sanhedrin; that whoever says, “Fool!” incurs the penalty of burning in the fire of Gei-Hinnom! [Complete Jewish Bible, by David H. Stern, © 1995]

Okay, this small sampling of just three versions still shows quite a bit of diversity in wording. This demonstrates what I said previously about translation philosophy impacting a version. Each of these three versions translated from essentially the same Greek text, and yet still managed to render words and phrases in distinctively different ways. It’s tempting to delve into this diversity in more detail, but I will keep my focus on the content of the verses, especially verse 22.

Now indulge me once more as I quote from another version, one that translated from a different edition of the Greek New Testament.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” [New King James Version, © 1982]

Once again, there is quite a bit of difference between this version and three I quoted previously. But there is one difference that should stand out from the rest, because it doesn’t just represent a wording difference, but a content difference. Did you see it? The above quote from the NKJV contains a phrase the other three do not have: “without a cause.”

Texdtual Criticism

This difference in translation is not just about translation philosophy, although that is also involved. It is an instance of the underlying Greek texts from which these three versions (as well as others) were translated omitting a word in the text of the Greek New Testament (hereafter, GNT). And that word translates into English as the phrase “without a cause.”

Translations (not just in English) typically contained the phrase before 1881.[1] Even in the last century or so, there have been a number of versions such as Young’s Literal Translation and the NKJV quoted above that contain the phrase.

So why would translation committees and individual translators choose to omit a phrase that was present in translations in English, Spanish, French, German, et al. for hundreds of years? The answer to that question requires us to discuss the topic of textual criticism.

Textual criticism is the process men employ to sort between differences found in copies of a text, particularly handwritten copies, or manuscripts. It has been applied to different textual readings of the works of classical Greek and Roman authors such as Homer, Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, Vergil, Ovid, et al. But it has famously been a tool for analyzing the manuscripts of the GNT.

The New Testament enjoys a wealth of manuscript evidence, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,800 manuscript copies in Greek. But not all 5,800 manuscripts are complete bound copies of all 27 books of the New Testament. In fact, most are not. It is common to have manuscripts of just particular books, or several books categorized together, such as the Gospels, Paul’s letters, etc. And even then, most of the manuscripts are fragmentary due to their age.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that there are differences in the readings found in the Greek text of said manuscripts. They were hand-copied by men of different backgrounds and in different countries for more than a thousand years prior to the advent of the printing press in Europe, so we should not be surprised that copying mistakes were made, resulting in the existence of variant readings. I will add here that the overwhelming majority of those variant readings are minor differences of spelling, tense of verbs, word order, that kind of thing. In some cases, as here, the differences involve the omission of words or phrases.

Without Just Cause?

Which brings me back to the verse we are considering, Matthew 5:22. There are some manuscripts containing this verse that do not have the “without cause” phrase. Or, more accurately put, the variant reading in these minority of manuscripts leaves out the Greek adverb εἰκῆ, which translates into English by the phrase without purpose, without just cause.[2] And the first three versions quoted above each translated from an edited form of the GNT that leaves out the Greek adverb εἰκῆ.[3]

And they are by no means alone in their choice of this type of edited Greek text. Since 1881, most Bible versions have favored editions of the GNT that omit the adverb εἰκῆ. As a result, those versions have translated Matthew 5:22 from a textform that omits the qualifying adverb.[4]

Some of these versions include a footnote that references the difference in the reading in the text. The footnote reads, “Some manuscripts insert without cause.” Others of these versions make no mention of the differences of the Greek text at all.

Sadly, these footnotes are consistently inaccurate and leading. If those footnotes reported the textual evidence truthfully and without bias, they would read,

“The great majority of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament that contain Matthew 5:22 have the adverb εἰκῆ in the text of this verse. But we choose to omit it based on our speculations of how the differences in the reading came into existence. And those speculations are based upon a philosophy of textual criticism that we have adopted, which is itself based less on manuscript evidence and more on speculations and human reasoning.”

The reading of the Greek text with the adverb εἰκῆ present is even admitted by some textual critics and editors of the text to be “widespread.” Here is a quote from Bruce M. Metzger on this passage.

“Although the reading with εἰκῆ is widespread from the second century onwards, it is much more likely that the word was added by copyists in order to soften the rigor of the precept, than omitted as unnecessary.”[5]

This quote becomes all the more significant when you consider just who Bruce Metzger was. Metzger was a Princeton trained Presbyterian clergyman, later a professor of Greek at Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1952 he was a contributor to the New Testament portion of the Revised Standard Version, and later chaired the Bible Translation Committee for the New Revised Standard Version, published in 1989. He was also an editor of the UBS text from its inception in 1966 through the fourth edition published in 1993.[6]

So, Metzger, a Bible translator, textual critic and editor of an edition of the GNT that has been used by clergymen, missionaries, Bible translators and professors for more than half a century went on record as saying “the reading with εἰκῆ is widespread from the second century onwards.”

He even documented a significant amount of the manuscript evidence for this verse in his work. On page 13 of the fourth edition of the UBS text (UBS4), Metzger and the other editors chose the reading of the text without the adverb εἰκῆ. But then in a footnote, the critical apparatus supplied a list of 27 specific manuscripts that contain it, in addition to citing a body of manuscripts known to contain the Byzantine textform, and the body of manuscripts comprising ancient lectionary evidence in support of the reading. By contrast, the evidence in the same footnote lists a mere four manuscripts that support the omission of the adverb.[7]

What it all comes down to is the evidence of the Greek manuscripts themselves does not support the omission of the adverb εἰκῆ in Matthew 5:22. Why, then, would a scholar of Metzger’s caliber admit that fact, but then still go on to say “it is much more likely that the word was added by copyists in order to soften the rigor of the precept”?

What it boils down to is the adoption by Metzger and others of a philosophy of textual criticism that has been popular for more than a century. And several of the “canons” or rules of that philosophy could have been applied to this verse: the shorter reading is best; or, the hardest reading is best; or, the reading that is contrary to the habits of the scribe is best.

While these “rules” of criticism are not entirely without merit, it must be remembered that they are not authoritative. Textual criticism is not an inspired doctrine of Scripture; it is the result of the collective thinking of fallible human beings on the subject. And it is just as important to realize that these “rules” of criticism are subjectively assessed and applied, according to the philosophies and experiences of the critics.

Ask yourself regarding this verse: why is it “much more likely that the word was added by copyists”? How can they know the motives of the copyist from well over a thousand years ago? Applying their rules of criticism is in essence just subjective opinion and supposition as a means of explaining variants. Yes, the scholars that have made these assessments are typically learned men. But a man can be thoroughly educated on a subject that is still false.

I choose to look at the text itself in the light of the tangible evidence, of Greek manuscript evidence, as opposed to focusing on the subjective opinions and suppositions of fallible men following man-made rules.

So, coming back to Matthew 5:22, the manuscript evidence itself overwhelmingly supports the presence of the adverb εἰκῆ in this verse. Furthermore, its presence in the text qualifies the word ὀργιζόμενος, “being provoked to anger.” If the verse is read without the qualifying adverb, then anger itself is condemned by Jesus in this verse. We must ask the question, “Is Jesus actually saying here that being provoked to anger is in and of itself a sin?”

In a word, “No.” The word for “anger” here in Matthew 5:22, ὀργιζόμενος (the present passive participle of the verb ὀργίζω) is defined as to provoke, arouse to anger; found only in the passive voice in the GNT, to be provoked to anger, be angry.[8] The passive participial form here means it should be translated as “being provoked to anger.” The same verb ὀργίζω is used in Ephesians 4:26, which tells us to “be angry and do not sin.”

Obviously, then, being angry or provoked to anger isn’t a sin in and of itself. In that light, the Greek text of Matthew 5:22 containing the adverb εἰκῆ makes perfect sense; ὀργιζόμενος should be qualified by εἰκῆ. The Lord Jesus was saying that we should not be provoked to anger without just cause.

I have not written this in order to justify every expression of contempt on Facebook. I simply wanted to present an accurate account of the text and meaning of Matthew 5:22. What Jesus said here is hard enough to live up to. We are judged by what is in our hearts and held accountable before God for every word spoken (see also Matthew 12:34, 36). Verse 22 of chapter five does not need to be made all the harder by intimating that being provoked to anger is a sin. There is at times just cause for being provoked to anger. It is possible to be angry about evil in the world and not be guilty of sin in our response to it. And that is the challenge for every Bible believing Christian.

[1] A committee of British scholars completed their revision of the “Authorised” (i.e., King James) Version, published as the Revised Version in 1881.

[2] Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti, Translated Revised and Enlarged, Corrected Edition, 1886, 1889. Page 174. Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich & Frederick W. Danker [BAGD], A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 1957, 1979. Pages 221f.

[3] The New International Version referred in its translation Preface to the Greek text used simply as “an eclectic one.” But in truth, according to Kenneth L. Barker, former Executive Director, NIV Translation Center, in his book The Making of the NIV, that “eclectic text” was basically the edition of the Greek text found in the editions of the United Bible Societies’ printed text and the Nestle/Aland text current at the time, which were the second UBS text from 1968 (UBS2) and the 25th edition Nestle/Aland (N/A25). As for the English Standard Version (ESV), the Greek texts used were the editions of the UBS and the N/A available in 1993, which were UBS4 and N/A27. As for the CJB, according to Stern’s Introduction, page xxi, he used primarily the UBS’ third edition (UBS3). From 1966 up to the present there have been a total of five editions of the UBS text. I have editions 1-4 in my library. I also have four editions of the Nestle/Aland. The Greek text of both printed texts have very closely resembled one another over the decades, and since 1979, they are the exact same text.

[4] Not including private translations and paraphrases, the Bible versions omitting the “without cause” phrase include the Revised Version, American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, New American Standard Bible, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, English Standard Version and Holman Christian Standard Bible. The editions of the GNT used in these versions include: the Westcott/Hort text used by the English committee behind the Revised Version; various editions of the UBS text; and the Novum Testamentum Graece, first published by German textual critic Eberhard Nestle before the turn of the 20th century, followed by his son Erwin Nestle after his death, then by Erwin Nestle and fellow German textual critic Kurt Aland, then by Aland and his wife. This latter text is generally referred to as the Nestle/Aland text, or N/A, and is in its 28th edition.

[5] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Third Edition), page 13. 1975. Metzger published a second edition of this textual commentary in 2002. The quote on this passage is verbatim the same, found on page 11 in that volume. I have both copies in my library.

[6] I presume he continued to work on the fifth edition until his death at age 93. Metzger died in 2007; UBS5 was published in 2014.

[7] In fairness, other evidence was presented in that footnote, on both sides of the argument. Namely, the readings found in ancient translations from the Greek into Latin, Ethiopic, etc., and in the writings of ancient Christian authors such as Origen, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Eusebius, etc. I’m focusing my comments in this article on the evidence of Greek manuscripts themselves. How a particular verse is worded in ancient translations or in author’s quotes (which are not always known to be precise) I consider as secondary/corroborating evidence.

[8] Thayer, op. cit., p. 452; BAGD, op. cit., p. 579.