Getting beaten up: speculation on textual variants

A textual problem appears in Acts 18:17, in which the ruler of the synagogue, Sosthenes, is taken hold of and beaten.  There are three significant variants that I hadn’t taken time to notice until these were pointed out in our group study.  (Several reputable English versions—including RSV, ESV, REB, and NASB—don’t even point out this variant, and that may be the result of editorial decisions to ignore certain text “families” in translation and/or printing processes.)  Here are the three possibilities, roughly rendered in English:

  1. They all took hold of Sosthenes…
  2. All the Greeks took hold of Sosthenes …
  3. All the Jews took hold of Sosthenes …

Which is correct?

The three oldest, most complete manuscripts and one significant papyrus support the first reading.

Four significant Eastern-tradition texts and many minuscules support the second.

Two relatively insignificant minuscules support the third.

So, the crowd that beat Sosthenes (the second synagogue chief in this story) could be Jewish or Greek Corinthians, or some combination; the text isn’t clear on this point.

According to the textual apparatus contained in the UBS Greek text printed in 1983 and based in part on the Nestle Aland 26the edition text, this is a relatively uncertain textual situation, being graded with a {C}, whereas {A} or {B} would indicate that one option was considerably more likely than the other(s).

Here, my knowledge of textual apparatus and criticism grinds to a crawl…. In my previous experience of instances in which Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus agree, as they do in Acts 18:17, the level of certainty tends to be higher.  Since the certainty level is a {C}, I assume that the particular combination of manuscripts and papyri that support #2 indicates an equally strong textual tradition (at least to some scholars … academic bias can kick in on points like this).

Both Metzger’s Textual Commentary and Omanson’s Textual Guide to the NT prefer reading #1 with a {B} certainty level but support the idea that the Greeks did the beating.  The latter also resource recognizes a joint possibility expressed in Barrett’s commentary:  “that the Jews beat Sosthenes for his inefficiency, the Greeks because he was a Jew and out of favour with the authorities.”

The long & short is that this matter is uncertain; any preference involves speculation.  (The third textual variant is unlikely, although it could indicate a later school of thought that sought to clarify the identity of the “all.”)

Favoring the “Greek posse” understanding:  the Roman government official Gallio might have wanted to quell the ruckus if it were all-Jewish, especially given the history, mentioned earlier in Acts 18, of the Jews’ having been kicked out of Rome.  But he did not stop the beating, according to the text, so perhaps it was the Greeks.  In that case, the pax had been disturbed that day by those Jews, so letting the Greeks teach them a lesson might have been palatable to the governor.  On the other hand, the general Roman stance on Jewish affairs was indifference, so it’s easy to imagine that Gallio would have let a an all-Jewish fight go unchecked.

I slightly favor the view that says it was Jews who beat Sosthenes.  I figure the beating could have been a sort of preemptive strike to make sure this newer synagogue chief wasn’t “lost” to the Christ-followers, as the converted Crispus had been a few months (and verses) before. Moreover, the Jews might have been miffed enough over Gallio’s apathy to try to irritate him by causing a flap.

Originally, I’d been ignorant of the fact that there even was another possibility, textually speaking.  Having taken another week and a half to consider this, I still lean, but with a little less tilt.  Now, it’s more because of my sense of the overall narrative, as Paul moves from Jew to Gentile.  I’m not sure that Luke would have bothered to mention Greeks beating Sosthenes, whereas he is often interested in negative Jewish reactions to the spread of the Christian message.¹

Either way, it seems likely that this Sosthenes was later converted:  it’s an unusual name, and Paul refers to a Sosthenes when writing the first letter to the Corinthians about 3-4 years later.

¹In one light or another, this negative reaction factor is seen, for example, in chapters 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, and more.


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