by Yuri Kuchinsky

[This article was posted to various discussion groups in Dec. 2003]

Greetings, all,

This is a well-known story that is found in all three Synoptic gospels. A rich young man comes to Jesus, and asks him, "What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" In reply, Jesus tells him to observe the commandments of the Law. And when the man says that he has done so already, Jesus adds one more commandment -- to give up his material possessions, and to follow him.

But the details of this story vary considerably in all three Synoptics (Mt 19:16/Mk 10:17/Lk 18:18). The textual problem of Mt 19:16-17 is particularly troublesome, and has been discussed at length by many commentators. As we shall soon see, there are big differences there between the mainstream Egyptian Greek text, and the Byzantine/KJV version of this story.

This is, of course, a very difficult passage to get into, because there are so many variants there between all sorts of versions, both Greek and in other ancient languages... We have the 3 differing Synoptic versions, plus a dozen of variants in all sorts of Greek MSS for each of them. And then we get the Aramaic, the Diatessaronic, the patristic, and various other versions... Before you know it, you might even get well over 100 renderings of this passage to play with (including the English translations for each of them)!

But in any case, in this article, I will only focus on the first two verses of this story, that serve as an introduction to it, and I will try to simplify my analysis as much as I can.

Basically, I believe that the earliest version of this passage was very simple and short, and such renditions are still preserved for us in some ancient sources.


It is interesting that, if one reads only the Markan and the Lukan versions of this story, it is not at all clear that this man is really "young". In Luke, he's identified as a "ruler" (arcwn; pronounced as "arkhon"), which is not really consistent with him being so very young. Also, in both Mark and Luke, the man says that he had observed the commandments "from his youth". Again, this seems to imply that he's of an older age.

Only in Matthew is this man specifically identified as "young", and this is done twice. So, assuming the mainstream theory of Markan priority (or assuming the Lukan priority, which happens to be my own preference), one may wonder if such an identification was really original to this story.

So let's look at the first two verses, that serve as an introduction to this story. Here's how they are found in Mark, according to the Revised Standard Version (there are no differences there at all between the Byz and the Egyptian versions of this Markan passage, which indicates that this text was pretty well settled by the 4th century),

(Mk 10:17 RSV) And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
(18) And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone."
And this is Matthew's version of this introduction, according to the RSV/Egyptian text (KJV/Byz version will be considered later on),
(Mt 19:16 RSV) And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?"
(17) And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments."
Thus, both the question that the man asked, and Jesus' reply are quite different in these two accounts. According to Mark, the man addresses Jesus as "Good Teacher" (didaskale agaqe), and Jesus objects to that because only God is good. But this objection doesn't really seem very cogent, since "Good Teacher" merely seems like a standard form of address (nevertheless, in the author's mind, such a reply was probably meant to underline Jesus' humility).

According to the RSV Matthew, on the other hand, Jesus is addressed as simply "teacher", and the man further asks, What _good deed_ must he do in order to obtain salvation. But, in reply, he still gets an objection from Jesus, and this time the objection seems even less reasonable and coherent.

After all, the man didn't really ask Jesus about the meaning of good in the abstract sense, but rather about what needs to be done to be saved -- two different things. So why the objection then?

This difficulty has been noted before by many commentators, of course, as we shall see below.

Meanwhile, the Byzantine/KJV version of this Matthean passage is quite different, and it is in fact a lot closer to the Markan version (the differences from the RSV Mt are underlined below).

(Mt 19:16 KJV) And, behold, one came and said unto him, _Good_ Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
(Mt 19:17 KJV) And he said unto him, Why _callest thou me good? [There is] none good but_ one, _[that is], God_: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
Indeed, there seems to be a substantial agreement between the KJV Matthew and Mark in the key elements of this passage.

And here are the Greek texts for Mt 19:17, with their differences underlined,

       Byzantine Majority
       o de eipen autw, ti me _legeis agaqon?
       oudeis agaqos ei mh_ eiV o _qeos_. ei
       de qeleiV eiselqein eiV thn zwhn,
       thrhson taV entolaV

       o de eipen autw, ti me _erwtas peri
       tou agaqou_? eiV _estin o agaqos_. ei de
       qeleiV eiV thn zwhn eiselqein,
       thrhson taV entolaV

So, basically, we already have here three different versions of the same story (or perhaps two versions, if it is accepted that the KJV Mt is very similar to Mk in this passage), and neither of them is very satisfying. Especially the RSV Mt version seems problematic, since it presents so many interpretative problems.


Well, my own solution to this whole conundrum is to say that neither of the above versions is really the original one. I suggest that, in the original version, this whole preamble was missing! After all, it only tends to distract from the main issue of this whole story, i.e. what needs to be done in order to attain salvation...

And I actually do have some good textual evidence to back me up. Here are two ancient versions of this introduction to the rich man's episode, that completely lack this seeming distraction.

1. Latin version of Origen's Commentary on Matthew (Commentaria in Matthaeum XV, 14; now called Pseudo-Origen).

"It is written in a certain Gospel which is called 'According to the Hebrews' (if at least any one care to accept it, not as authoritative, but to throw light on the question before us), as follows,

The second of the rich men said unto him: 'Master, what good thing can I do and live?' He said unto him: 'O man, fulfil (do) the law and the prophets. ...'"

Thus, we can see that that whole confusing preamble is missing from this Latin version of the story. Instead, we get straight to the point, i.e. what needs to be done in order to attain salvation.
(The citation above refers to this rich man as being "the second of the rich men". This is probably due to "the Gospel according to the Hebrews", from which this passage was quoted, being a gospel harmony, where the preceding story was the Parable of the Rich Fool [Lk 12:16-21]. So this would have been the first rich man in this group of stories. And there was also apparently the _third_ rich man in that sequence of stories, because the parable of Dives and Lazarus [Lk 16:19-31] seems to have concluded that sequence. Such grouping together of these three "rich man stories" is still found today in some of our Diatessaronic witnesses.)
2. A very similar short and concise version of this passage is also found in THE DEMONSTRATIONS, by the ancient Syriac commentator Aphrahat. This is how Aphrahat cites this text (I've translated this passage myself from the Aramaic),
"And again, regarding that rich [man] who came before our Lord, and said to him, 'What shall I do that I may inherit life eternal?'. Our Lord says to him, 'You shall not commit adultery ...'"
So this also supports my thesis that the earliest version of this pericope was considerably shorter and more concise.

And the Magdalene Gospel, Ch. 74, also contains a version of this story that is similarly short and concise, missing that rather awkward introductory dialogue between the rich man and Jesus. Based on these considerations, it seems like these were some later expansions in both Mk and Mt.

As to the Old Syriac versions of these passages, in my opinion, they are not really all that early, and betray considerable later editing. (Two Old Syriac versions of this story survive for both Mt and Lk, and one for Mk.) For Mt, for example, the two surviving versions differ substantially from each other, and neither seems very early. I will not deal with these Old Syriac texts further in this article; they would need to be analysed separately, and such an analysis would be rather complex.


As I mentioned already, there are maybe 100 different versions of this passage in various ancient manuscripts of the 3 Synoptic gospels, plus the Diatessaronic versions, and various patristic citations... So now, I will try to sort out this great mass of renderings, and to winnow it down to 5 basic editorial stages. This is of course a pretty rough analysis, but I think it makes good sense overall.

STAGE 1: similar to what is found in Aphrahat

A man came before Jesus, and asked him, "What must I do that I may inherit life eternal?". Jesus says to him, "You shall not commit adultery ..."
A minor variation of the above, with the difference underlined:
A man came before Jesus, and asked him, "_Master_, what must I do that I may inherit life eternal?". Jesus says to him, "You shall not commit adultery ..."

STAGE 2: intermediary (the address "Good Master" is introduced)

A man came before Jesus, and asked him, "_Good Master_, What must I do that I may inherit life eternal?". Jesus says to him, "You shall not commit adultery ..."

STAGE 3: similar to what is found in Justin (Jesus objects to being described as 'Good Master', which was meant to underline his humility)

A man came before Jesus, and asked him, "Good Master, What must I do that I may inherit life eternal?". Jesus says to him, _"Why do you call me Good? Only one is good, my Father who is in heaven."_
[The actual citation from Justin,
"He answered to one who addressed Him as 'Good Master': 'Why callest thou me good? One is good, my Father who is in heaven.'" (Justin Martyr, DIALOGUE WITH TRYPHO, 101)
A very similar citation from Irenaeus,
"And to the person who said to Him, 'Good Master,' He confessed that God who is truly good, saying, 'Why callest thou Me good: there is One who is good, the Father in the heavens;'" Irenaeus, AGAINST HERESIES, Book I, 20.2]

STAGE 4: canonical Mk, Lk, KJV Mt (Jesus' reply is shortened)

A man came before Jesus, and asked him, "Good Master, What must I do that I may inherit life eternal?". Jesus says to him, "Why do you call me Good? Only one is good, God."

STAGE 5: RSV/Egyptian Mt (the gnostic/philosophical stage)

A man came before Jesus, and asked him, "Master, What _ good deed_ must I do that I may inherit life eternal?". Jesus says to him, "Why do you _ask me about what is good?_ Only one is good."
And so, only the Stage 2 above is hypothetical; I see it as an intermediary version, that may have had currency only for a short time, before being replaced by the more developed versions. The other 4 Stages are all well attested in various ancient manuscripts. The progression was from simple to the complicated -- quite a natural progression overall.


Clearly, from this new perspective that I'm now suggesting, the ongoing dispute re Mt 19:16-17 between the Byzantine text supporters, and the mainstream Egyptian text supporters can be seen as a dispute about the _final stages_ of editing for this passage. In other words, it is Stage 4 vs. Stage 5 -- which is to be preferred?

Nevertheless, it is still an interesting and valid dispute, and it can now be considered in some more detail.

The following analysis comes from "The King James Version Defended", by Dr. Edward F. Hills. He's a conservative KJV defender but, at least in this case, I agree with most of the things he says below.

The RSV and other "modern" translations follow the Egyptian Greek text of Matthew, of course, and, as has been noted by quite a few commentators, this text seems to have been influenced by Gnostic ideas. It sure looks to me like a late and corrupt text, compared to the Byzantine/KJV version of Mt 19:16-17.

There are only a couple of provisos that I need to make for what Hills says. To start with, he speaks about "Western and Alexandrian texts" together as if they were one and the same. But, actually, many of the Western texts do not agree with Alexandrian text in this passage. Some Western texts -- like the citation from Aphrahat that I've already given -- are quite different, and seem to preserve the earliest reading of all, which probably omitted this whole apparent distraction of Mt 19:16-17 and parallels.

Also, Hills mis-reports the reading of the Old Syriac Mt to some extent, because, as already noted above, the two surviving OS versions are different here; moreover, neither quite says what Hills implies them to say... The actual situation with these versions is a bit more complicated.

But I do agree with Hills that, early on, Mt 19:16-17 most likely did read quite similarly to Mk and Lk. The patristic evidence that he cites is very important. Clearly, the main point of this story has been, and still is, What needs to be done in order to ensure one's salvation? So that brief preamble that is found in all canonical texts (whatever version of it) really tends to distract from this main point.

This is how Hills puts it,


How could Jesus have reproved the young man for inviting Him to such a discussion [about the general meaning of the word "good"], when it was clear that the youth had in no wise done this, but had come to Him concerning an entirely different matter, namely, the obtaining of eternal life?

So, in general, this seems to me like a very good analysis overall. And Hills also cites some other important textual critics there to buttress his case.


CHAPTER SIX - The KJV Defended (Edward F. Hills)

1. Christ's Reply To The Rich Young Man
(Matt. 19:16-17)

[NOTES can be found here,
and I've added them at the end of Hills' text.]

As Tregelles (1854) observed long ago, (4) we have
in Matt. 19:16-17 a test passage in which the
relative merits of the Traditional Text on the one
side and the Western and Alexandrian texts on the
other can be evaluated. Here, according to the
Traditional Text. Matthew agrees with Mark and
Luke in stating that Jesus answered the rich man's
question, "What good thing shall I do that I may
have eternal life", with the counter-question, "Why
callest thou Me good". But according to Western and
Alexandrian texts, Matthew disagrees here with
Mark and Luke, affirming that Jesus'
counter-question was, "Why askest thou Me
concerning the good". It is this latter reading that is
found in Aleph B D and eight other Greek
manuscripts, in the Old Latin and Old Syriac
versions and in Origen, Eusebius, and Augustine.

The earliest extant evidence, however, favors the
Traditional reading, "Why callest thou Me good". It is
found in the following 2nd-century Fathers:

Justin Martyr (c. 150),

"He answered to one who addressed Him as Good Master, Why callest thou Me good?" (5)

Irenaeus (c. 180),

"And to the person who said to Him 'Good Master', He confessed that God who is truly good, saying, 'Why callest thou Me good?'" (6)

Hippolytus (c. 200),

"Why callest thou Me good? One is good, My Father who is in heaven." (7)

[NOTE: The above citations from Justin and Irenaeus are given by Hills in an abbreviated form; I've already supplied them in full earlier on. So Hippolytus actually agrees with both Justin and Irenaeus in adding the phrase "Father in heaven". Obviously, this is quite an important early variant, that I've described above as belonging to Stage 3 in my suggested reconstruction of the history of this passage. How else to explain this remarkable agreement in these early patristic citations? But such wide attestation of this earlier version of this passage tends to undermine Hills' argument for KJV priority at least to some extent -- Yuri.]
Modern critics attempt to evade this ancient
evidence for the Traditional reading, "Why callest
thou Me good", by claiming that these early Fathers
took this reading from Mark and Luke and not from
Matthew. But this is a very unnatural supposition. It
is very improbable that all three of these
2nd-century Fathers were quoting from Mark and
Luke rather than from Matthew, for Matthew was the
dominant Gospel and therefore much more likely to
be quoted from than the other two.

The internal evidence also clearly favors the
Traditional reading, "Why callest thou Me good". The
Western and Alexandrian reading, "Why askest thou
Me concerning the good", has a curiously unbiblical
ring. It does not savor of God but of men. It smacks
of the philosophy -- or pseudo-philosophy -- which was
common among the Hellenized gentiles, but was
probably little known in the strictly Jewish circles in
which these words are represented as having been
spoken. In short, the Western and Alexandrian
reading, "Why askest thou Me concerning the good",
reminds us strongly of the interminable discussions
of the philosophers concerning the _summum bonum_
(the highest good). How could Jesus have reproved
the young man for inviting Him to such a discussion,
when it was clear that the youth had in no wise done
this, but had come to Him concerning an entirely
different matter, namely, the obtaining of eternal

Modern critics agree that the Western and
Alexandrian reading, "Why askest thou Me
concerning the good", does not fit the context and is
not what Jesus really said. What Jesus really said,
critics admit, was, "Why callest thou Me good", the
reading recorded in Mark. Matthew altered this
reading, critics believe, to avoid theological
difficulties. W. C. Allen (1907), for example,
conjectures, "Matthew's changes are probably
intentional to avoid the rejection by Christ of the title
'good', and the apparent distinction made between
Himself and God." (8) B. C. Butler (1951), however,
has punctured this critical theory with the following
well placed objection. "If Matthew had wanted to
change the Marcan version, he could have found an
easier way of doing so (by simple omission of our
Lord's comment on the man's mode of speech)." (9)
This remark is very true, and to it we may add that if
Matthew had found difficulty with this word of Jesus,
it would hardly have occurred to him to seek to
solve the problem by bringing in considerations
taken from Greek philosophy.

Rendel Harris (1891) had this comment to make on
the reading, "Why askest thou Me concerning the

"A text of which we should certainly say a priori that it was a Gnostic depravation. Most assuredly this is a Western reading, for it is given by D a b c e ff g h. But it will be said that we have also to deal with Aleph B L and certain versions. Well, according to Westcott and Hort, Aleph and B were both written in the West, probably at Rome. Did Roman texts never influence one another?" (10)

[NOTE: I will add here that this theory by Westcott and Hort as to the Roman origin of the manuscripts Aleph (Sinaiticus) and B (Vaticanus), their favourite two MSS, is now completely without support from other scholars. Yet another failed theory of Westcott and Hort. -- Yuri.]
The unbiased student will agree with Harris'
diagnosis of the case. It is surely very likely that this
reading, redolent as it is of Greek wisdom,
originated among Gnostic heretics of a
pseudo-philosophic sort. The 2nd-century Gnostic
teacher Valentinus and his disciples Heracleon and
Ptolemaeus are known to have philosophized much
on Matt. 19:17, (11) and it could easily have been
one of these three who made this alteration in the
sacred text. Whoever it was, he no doubt devised
this reading in order to give the passage a more
philosophical appearance. Evidently he attempted to
model the conversation of Jesus with the rich young
man into a Socratic dialogue. The fact that this
change made Matthew disagree with Mark and Luke
did not bother him much, for, being a heretic, he was
not particularly interested in the harmony of the
Gospels with each other.

Orthodox Christians, we may well believe, would
scarcely have made so drastic a change in the text
of Matthew, but when once this new reading had
been invented by heretics, they would accept it very
readily, for theologically it would be quite agreeable
to them. Christ's question, "Why callest thou Me
good", had troubled them, for it seemed to imply that
He was not perfectly good. (Not that it actually does
imply this when rightly interpreted, but it seemed to.)
What a relief to reject this reading and receive in its
place the easier one, "Why askest thou Me
concerning the good". It is no wonder, therefore,
that this false reading had a wide circulation among
orthodox Christians of the 3rd century and later. But
the true reading, "Why callest thou Me good",
continued to be read and copied. It is found today in
the Sahidic version, in the Peshitta, and in the vast
majority of the Greek manuscripts, including W,
which is probably the third oldest uncial manuscript
of the New Testament in existence.

Thus, when the Traditional Text stands trial in a test
passage such as Matt. 19 17, it not only clears itself
of the charge of being spurious, but even secures
the conviction of its Western and Alexandrian rivals.
The reading found in these latter two texts, "Why
askest thou Me concerning the good", is seen to
possess all the earmarks of a "Gnostic
depravation." The R.V., A.S.V., R.S.V., N.E.B. and
other modern versions, therefore, are to be
censured for serving up to their readers this stale
crumb of Greek philosophy in place of the bread of

In his comment on this passage, Origen gives us a
specimen of the New Testament textual criticism
which was carried on at Alexandria about 225 A.D.
Origen reasons that Jesus could not have
concluded his list of God's commandments with the
comprehensive requirement, "Thou shalt love thy
neighbor as thyself". For the reply of the young man
was, "All these things have I kept from my youth up",
and Jesus evidently accepted this statement as
true. But if the young man had loved his neighbor as
himself, he would have been perfect, for Paul says
that the whole law is summed up in this saying,
"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself". But Jesus
answered, "If thou wilt be perfect, etc.", implying that
the young man was not yet perfect. Therefore,
Origen argued, the commandment, Thou shalt love
thy neighbor as thyself, could not have been
spoken by Jesus on this occasion and was not part
of the original text of Matthew. This clause, he
believed, was added by some tasteless scribe. (12)

Thus, it is clear that this renowned Father was not
content to abide by the text which he had received,
but freely engaged in the boldest sort of conjectural
emendation. And there were other critics at
Alexandria even less restrained than he who deleted
many readings of the original New Testament text,
and thus produced the abbreviated text found in the
papyri and in the manuscripts Aleph and B.


Note 4: An Account Of The Printed Text Of The New Testament, by S. P. Tregelles, London: Bagster, 1854, p. 133.

Note 5: MPG, vol. 6, col. 712.

Note 6: MPG, vol. 7, col. 653.

Note 7: S. Hippolyti Refutationis Omnium Haeresium, Goettingen, 1859, p. 42.

Note 8: Gospel According To Matthew, W. C. Allen, ICC, Scribners', 1907, p. 208.

Note 9: The Originality of St. Matthew, B. C. Butler, p. 133.

Note 10: "Codex Bezae," TS, vol. 2 (1891), p. 229.

Note 11: Valentinus, MPG, vol. 8, col.1057 (ap. Clem. Alex.). Heracleon, Orig., De LaRue, vol. 4, p. 139. Ptolemaeus, Berlin, Epiphanius, vol. 1, p. 456.

Note 12: Berlin, Origenes Werke, vol. 10, pp. 385-388.

[end quote]

Hills' comments above about Origen seem quite controversial but, still and all, they ring true to me. The point that Hills is trying to make, from his conservative position, is that Origen lacked the due reverence for the text of the gospels that was available to him and, hence, he could have changed it around. Well, this is certainly true that, at the time of Origen (and before), the text was changed around often enough (although, to be sure, we don't really have any solid evidence that Origen, himself, did so). Where I would disagree with Hills is that I certainly don't think that such activities were only confined to Alexandria.

In general, it seems like everywhere one looks, up to 250 CE, at least, the text of the gospels had still been quite fluid... But the textual changes that were made in Egypt certainly had a particular character of their own, that may well have been influenced at least to some extent by gnostic ideas.

All the best,


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