An ‘Ass’ or a ‘Son’?

By Martin A. Shue

Several years ago when I began to write articles on the Bible translation issue I only had intentions of writing a ‘few’ articles to e-mail out to my friends. After most showed interest in the subject I soon found myself writing and sending out one article every week. Shortly thereafter it dawned on me that I might soon run out of things to write about so I started sending out the articles every other week. Well, that was over 6 years ago and I have yet to scratch the surface regarding this important subject.

Over the last several hundred years much has been made of two ancient Greek manuscripts (mss.), viz. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. They are idolized and practically worshipped by most members of modern scholarship. Invariably these two mss. will be appealed to in some manner in every Bible translation, dissertation, website, footnote or book produced by any individual that seeks to attack our Authorized Version. We are constantly told that these two mss. are the ‘oldest and best’ codices extant. But is this true? I will not presently get sidetracked on this matter but suffice it to say this statement is not accurate.

We have before us today an interesting verse where these two ancient witnesses are at variance. Sinaiticus reads, "ass or ox" while Vaticanus reads, "son or ox". Because of this the modern versions have found themselves in a bit of a quandary. Not knowing which ‘oldest and best’ mss. to follow some go with Sinaiticus and others follow Vaticanus. For example:

New World Translation- And he said to them: "Who of you, if his son or bull falls into a well, will not immediately pull him out on the sabbath day?"

NIV-"If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?"

ASV-And he said unto them, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a well, and will not straightway draw him up on a sabbath day?

NRSV- Then he said to them, "If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?"

Bible in Basic English-And he said to them, Which of you, whose ox or ass has got into a water-hole, will not straight away get him out on the Sabbath?

NASV-And He said to them, "Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?"

World English Version-Jesus said to them, `If your horse or cow falls into a hole, which one of you will not pull him out right away on the Sabbath day?'

New Life Version- Then Jesus said to the leaders, 'If one of you had a cow or donkey that fell into a hole, would you not go at once and pull it out on the Day of Rest?'

New Living Translation-Then he turned to them and asked, "Which of you doesn't work on the Sabbath? If your son or your cow falls into a pit, don't you proceed at once to get him out?"

NKJV- Then He answered them, saying, "Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?"

Amplified Bible- And He said to them, Which of you, having a son or a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not at once pull him out on the Sabbath day?

As can be expected, the Received Text reads, "ass or ox" while the Westcott/Hort (Nestle/Aland) text reads, "son or ox". It is little wonder that W/H followed the reading of B considering they cherished it above all other manuscripts. In fact, Canon Cook stated that, "They [Westcott/Hort] have produced a Greek text….with exceedingly few and unimportant exception, it virtually reproduces the text of the Vatican manuscript. In fact, had they given us a revised edition of the Vatican, merely correcting the itacisms, and other manifest blunders of the copyist---neither small in number, nor unimportant in their bearings---it would have scarcely been distinguishable from that which now stands before us on their authority. (Cook, The Revised Version, p. 149)" So their text, and that of Nestle/Aland/UBS, has very little relevance when trying to ascertain the correct reading since they blindly follow B in most variant readings.

In the readings before us the textual evidence is of little help. Both readings receive substantial support from the uncials. ‘Son’ has the support of B, W, E, G, H, Delta and Gamma along with a few others. ‘Ass’ has the support of Aleph, K, L, X, Pi and Psi. The cursives, however, are in favor of ‘ass’ with the prominent mss. (e.g. Family 1, Family 13, 33 (the queen of cursives), 579, 1241 al) [note: al = others] supporting the Received Text.

The ancient versions, while favoring the Received reading, are not conclusive in their testimony either. The Vulgate and majority of Old Latin mss. read "ass". So does the Bohairic, Sinaitic Syriac, Palestinian Syriac, the Armenian, the Ethiopic, the Coptic and Harklean version. However, agreeing with the reading "son" is the Peshitta, Sahidic, and three Old Latin manuscripts.

Canon Cook wrote that, "In questions where external authorities are divided all critics agree as to the propriety of inquiring into internal evidence. (Revised Version, p. 39)" It is very rare for the external evidence to be as uncertain as we find in this verse. This fact indicates that both readings are very ancient and that both readings received wide spread acceptance. It is also a fact that both readings cannot be correct. Either Luke wrote ‘son’ or he wrote ‘ass’. It is against common sense to suggest that both readings are the word of God.

Bruce Metzger quotes Mill as suggesting that ‘son’, which is ‘uios’ in Greek, is "a corruption of the old Greek word ois ("a sheep")." However, this doesn’t seem likely since no extant Greek ms. reads ‘ois’. And only one ms. (i.e. D) reads ‘sheep’ (It should be noted that D reads ‘probaton’ and not ‘ois’) If the original reading was ‘ois’ then we would have to believe that this part of God’s word has passed away since there is absolutely no record of this reading.

When we look further at the internal evidence it becomes apparent which is the original reading. There is no mention in the Bible of a ‘son’ ever falling into a pit and being rescued from the dreadful fate that would surely await him. However, there is mention of an ‘ass’ falling into a pit and what to do if this happens. Not only does it mention an ‘ass’ but it specifically says ‘his ox or his ass’. Here is the reference: Ex. 21: 33 "And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit, and not cover it, and an ox or an ass fall therein;". It is my contention that Jesus was making direct reference to this passage of scripture when answering the Pharisees. Further, just a short time before this Jesus had also rebuked the ruler of the synagogue for his comments about healing on the sabbath. Luke records, (13:5) "The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering?"

Alfred Edersheim makes a startling discovery regarding this very passage of scripture. Edersheim reveals that the actual Sabbath law was altered due to Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders of His day. Edersheim writes, "For there is evidence that the Sabbath-law has become stricter than it had been, since, for instance, the practice of taking an ox or an ass out of a pit, to which our Savior alludes (Luke 14:5) as uncontroverted, would now no longer be lawful, unless, indeed, the animal were in actual danger of life; otherwise, it is to receive food and water in the pit. (The Temple Its Ministry and Services, p. 116)" Here we have an unexpected witness to the words of our Saviour’s but a most joyous one nonetheless.

I thank God that He has preserved His words for us in our Authorized Version. He has not allowed His words to pass away but has been faithful to preserve them for us today. I trust that this short article has increased your confidence and faith in God’s promises and in our Authorized Version. Selah!