Words and Things December 2023—Acts 20:28

Our story begins in the dining room where Dr. and Mrs. Clark recently hosted my wife and I during our recent visit to Westminster Seminary California for a short teaching stint. Since we never want to pass up an opportunity to be instructed by Dr. Clark on issues of systematic and historical theology, we were peppering him with questions regarding the incarnation of our Lord when he referenced Acts 20:28 from memory with what turns out to be a common translation of a key phrase there. I have done some work on that verse and mentioned an alternative way to translate the phrase suggested in some of our reference literature. Well, the outcome is that now I am writing this article on the verse. It is the least I can do for Scott Clark’s many acts of kindness to me over the years. You know him as an intrepid and bold internet theologian. I know him as a warm-hearted pastor and dear friend.

One of our main English translations of Acts 20:28 reads: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (ESV). Hidden behind this version are two issues of note: (1) many early and good Greek manuscripts read “the church of the Lord” instead of “the church of God” here; (2) there is an alternative rendering of the Greek phrase behind “his own blood.”

The first of these issues (the reading, “the church of God/the Lord”) is actually pretty straightforward. While the manuscript evidence for “of the Lord” is quite good, the evidence for “of God” is just as good and extensive. We even have a lot of manuscripts that conflate the two by saying, “the church of the Lord and of God,” which is a typical result when scribes copying manuscripts know of both readings and do not want to lose either one. The thing that may not be evident to us is that from the earliest days, ancient scribes of the New Testament typically abbreviated God and Lord. This means that the difference in the two readings turns out to be just one character in Greek—ΤΟΥΘΥ (“of God”) and ΤΟΥΚΥ (“of the Lord”)—making a scribal error quite understandable, especially when you when you consider that our earliest biblical texts were written in all capital letters with no spacing between words.

This first issue is normally settled by a common principle of text criticism. The principle is known as lectio difficilior (i.e., the more difficult reading). It is actually easier to think of this principle positively as: the reading that is easier to imagine a scribe changing, either intentionally or unintentionally, is probably original. The more difficult reading from the scribe’s perspective is probably original because it would not sit well with him. For a scribe, looking at God having blood would most certainly be difficult!

The second issue is the real sticking point. God has obtained his church “with his own blood”? God in such a context normally refers to the Father, not to the Son. We have no trouble affirming the genuine divinity of the incarnate Son of God. And, as one person, he “is both God and man, equally” with no “blending of his essence” (Athanasian Creed). Therefore, it would be wrong to say that Christ’s divine nature shed his blood, but correct to say that he shed blood because of his genuine human nature. Thus, this is a very unusual thing for Paul to say and for Luke to write in Acts 20:28.

There is an attractive solution to this in Greek though. It turns out that the phrase, “with his own blood,” can also legitimately be translated and understood to mean, “with the blood of his own [family member].” The word order allows this, and the word translated as “his own” can refer to members of one’s family, which is seen both in the NT and in extra-biblical Greek texts.

Take, for instance, John 1:11, which reads: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (ESV). The first use of “his own” is neuter in Greek and refers to his own possessions, or better, his “estates,” for “the world was made through him” (John 1:10). He came to his own estate of Israel which he established (e.g., Ezek 16:1–14). The second instance (“his own people”) is masculine, which is how you refer to both men and women together in ancient Greek. The ESV has added “people” here to “his own,” though the ESV translators could just as legitimately have said “his own family” here in John 1:11, which they more or less do in 1 Timothy 5:8 (“if anyone does not provide for his relatives”) where the Greek reads merely “for his own.”

The conclusion then, is that Acts 20:28 may well be a Trinitarian reference: “The Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God [the Father], which he obtained with the blood of his own [Son].” This makes good sense and fits Greek usage quite well.

You can find the whole series here.


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