"Jesus and his disciples"

by Yuri Kuchinsky

(This article was posted originally to the Johannine Literature mailing list
on Jul 27, 2002. Later it was corrected and updated.)

Dear friends,

I'm proposing that there's a certain primitive layer -- as contained in some gospel texts -- where Jesus is portrayed as a lot nicer and kinder to the people around him than in the standard canonical text. While, in the canonical texts, Jesus is often portrayed as rather imperious and arrogant, in these earlier texts he seems to emerge as very warm, kind, and human. This is what may be described as the image of "a Gentle Jesus".

At this time, I'm actually finding quite a lot of textual evidence, including in the Old Syriac Gospels, to substantiate this theory.

[Does anybody know if anything like this has ever been proposed before by any biblical scholar? If not, then it looks like this theory is all mine.]

Part of this "Gentle Jesus" textual layer will certainly be the attitude Jesus shows to his disciples. The relationship between Jesus and his disciples seems to be a lot closer in this earlier textual layer, and the disciples are also portrayed in a more positive light.

Now, I would like to cite a passage in GJohn where this older textual layer seems to be showing itself.

According to the standard Alexandrian text of Jn 6:11, during the Multiplication of the Loaves scene, Jesus distributes the food directly to the people.

(Jn 6:11) "Jesus therefore took the loaves; and having given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated..."

Thus, unlike in all 3 Synoptic versions, in Jn the disciples are omitted from the picture here. (It must have taken hours for the food to be distributed in such a way to 5000 people!)

Here, for comparison, is Mark's version,

(Mk 6:41) "And he took the five loaves and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake the loaves; and he gave to the disciples to set before them..."

So which of these two basic versions is the earliest, the Synoptic or the Johannine? Well, most NT scholars will probably say the Synoptic, since Jn is believed to have been written rather later than Mk. So it stands to reason that a later Johannine editor omitted the disciples from this very important verse. (Of course, alternatively, some might say that Jn is using an early source here, so then it's the Synoptic editors who added the disciples to the distribution process. But, I suppose, this would be a minority view.)

But now, let's look at the King James version of this text,

(Jn 6:11 KJV) "And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down..."

Thus, here we see that the clause "to the disciples, and the disciples" _is_ included in the text of Jn. But isn't KJV supposed to be a later version of John's text? Well, let's take a look in Aland's Synopsis. And it turns out that, according to the Apparatus, this clause /tois maqhtais oi de maqhtai/ is not only found in the Byzantine text, but also in both the Codex Bezae, and in the Old Latin versions b e j. And, very importantly, as Aland's Synopsis notes, this variant is also present in Jn 6:11 in the Old Syriac Sinaiticus MS. (And this clause is also found in many other assorted MSS.)

And so, this reading is a Western text reading and, generally speaking, Western manuscripts are at least as old as the Alexandrian MSS. And, moreover, this is also one of those "Syro-Latin agreements", that, in the opinion of many experts, should be seen as prior to our Greek texts.

So what's going on here? It does look, after all, like the disciples' presence in this Johannine verse was very early.

I will just state my view on this very plainly. In any passage where both the Byzantine and Western texts agree against the Alexandrian, Alexandrian version is most likely late and corrupt. I really can see no rational objection against such a general rule.

So, on the whole, it does look like the earliest version of Jn was closer to the Synoptic texts, but then it was abridged very selectively in Egypt, in order to distance Jesus from his disciples. And most Christians today still have to rely on this late and corrupt text, because they don't know any better.


Now, speaking about Jesus and _his_ disciples, there's another item in Mk 6:41 that is quite relevant. Here's this passage in its KJV version,

(Mk 6:41 KJV) "And when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave [them] to his disciples to set before them..."

As we can see, in the KJV, Jesus gives the loaves to _his_ disciples, while in the RSV passage (as cited above) he gives them to _the_ disciples. Of course this difference springs from the underlying Byzantine Greek text, which reads /tois maqhtais autou/. But in the standard Alexandrian text /autou/ is omitted, thus producing the RSV English translation of this passage which happens to sound rather impersonal. So it looks like this was yet another way to distance Jesus from his disciples...

And so, in their Alexandrian versions, all 3 Synoptic gospels have "the disciples" in this passage. In contrast, in the Byzantine/KJV versions, Mt and Mk have "his disciples", while KJV Lk does agree with the Alexandrian text. But in the Old Syriac gospels, all three versions, including Lk 9:16, happen to feature "his disciples"!


Now, to come back to Jn 6:11,

1. In the Alexandrian version, of course, not only "his" but also the disciples, themselves, are omitted from this verse.

2. In the Byzantine/KJV version, we find simply "the disciples", just like in Lk 9:16, that is parallel.

3. And in the Old Syriac Sinaiticus GJohn, we actually find "and divided to his disciples", according to Burkitt's 1904 edition.

Sure looks like some sort of a pattern is beginning to emerge here... Thus, in my view, the Old Syriac happens to preserve here the earliest version of the Gospel of John, where the relationship between Jesus and his disciples is portrayed as somewhat stronger.

Admittedly, featuring "his" instead of "the" may be a relatively small detail, but such details do tend to add up. Indeed, the very same pattern is also found elsewhere in the Old Syriac Aramaic gospels, which are written in the language that is very close to what the Historical Jesus probably spoke. I find it very curious that so few NT scholars are currently interested in these ancient Aramaic texts.

All the best,


(Some additional info on the subject)

I have now found 12 passages in the Gospel of John where the Old Syriac Aramaic text reads "his disciples", meaning the disciples of Jesus. But the Revised Standard Version (based on the Alexandrian text) reads "the disciples" in these passages, which sounds quite a bit more distant and impersonal. Seven of these passages are John 4:31, 11:7, 11:8, 11:12, 11:54, 20:30, and 21:14.

In some of these cases, also the KJV/Byzantine text agrees with the Old
Syriac, which seems to be introducing a bit of a complication here. But
the fact is that, because these passages are in the Old Syriac, as well
as in some other very ancient texts, this means they are very early. So
here we have the KJV preserving an earlier tradition, or at least this
is how it looks to me. But even this conclusion tends to infuriate the
biblical specialists, who are generally strongly biased against the King
James Version of the Bible.

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