Father, forgive them

This coming Sunday is the celebration of the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. In yesterday’s post we explored Luke’s sparse description of crucifixion and pointed to the scriptural evidence regarding the location of the execution. In today’s post, we consider Jesus’ famous words: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Based solely on ancient manuscript evidence, these words are missing in a number of early and diverse writings. Some scholars conclude that these words were probably a later addition. Yet, the internal evidence of Luke’s writings would support this forgiving prayer of Jesus. As Culpepper (Luke, 455) notes:

The prayer is consistent with both Luke’s characterization of Jesus and Luke’s style. Jesus has prayed to God as “Father” repeatedly in Luke (10:21; 11:2; 22:42; 23:46), and Jesus has taught his followers to forgive (5:20-24; 6:27-29; 7:47-49; 17:3-4). Indeed, Jesus’ prayer here echoes the petition for forgiveness in the model prayer (11:4). It is more likely that Jesus died a model death, praying for those who were killing him — and this motif was repeated in the death of Stephen (Acts 7:60), the first Christian martyr — than that a scribe later composed the prayer for Jesus imitating Luke’s style and theme.

After a detailed study of this verse, Raymond Brown (The Death of the Messiah, 971-981) concludes: “Overall, after surveying the pros and cons, I would deem it easier to posit that the passage was written by Luke and excised for theological reasons by a later copyist than that it was added to Luke by such a copyist who took the trouble to cast it in Lucan style and thought.” (980)

The arguments for taking “forgiveness” out of the passage may have been based on several possible factors, for instance:

  • The destruction of the temple might have convinced Gentile Christians that God had not forgiven the Jews who were involved with Jesus’ crucifixion.
  • ongoing conflict between the post-70 AD Jewish leadership and the Christian community
  • later Christian scribes could have the presumption of innocence morally unjustified
  • as the Romans were persecuting and killing the Christians, it’s understandable why a copyist might want to delete forgiveness for the Romans who crucified Jesus.
  • It could also be quite understandable why Luke would include such forgiveness for the Romans if “Most Excellent Theophilus,” to whom this writing is addressed (1:3) were a Roman official.

Even at this, there is still the question of who Jesus was praying for: the Jewish leaders, the Romans or both? The immediate context points to the Roman soldiers acting as executioners – they meet the intention of ignorance about their actions. Throughout Luke’s gospel there has been an emphasis on the Jewish leadership (22:1-6,52,66;23:4,10,13) and in the end the people are swayed to join in calling for Jesus’ death (23:18). If we look ahead to Acts of the Apostles (3:17, 13:27) Luke maintains that they also acted out of ignorance. Thus the answer is that the prayer is intended to ask forgiveness for all involved in Jesus’ death.

Still the soldiers go about their business, unaware of the larger eschatological consequences, and divide Jesus’ clothes among them.


Image credit: Christ the King, Krakow Poland, Pixabay, CC-BY-NC

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