Was Jesus' Body "Broken"–Or Not?
One of the fascinating incidents that occurred while Jesus hung on the cross is reported by John:
Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs.… For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, “Not one of His bones shall be broken” (John 19:31-36).
To account for the Roman soldiers excluding Jesus from the customary breaking of the leg bones of crucifixion victims,1 John quotes the words of David in Psalm 34:19-20—“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken.”
Despite this plain declaration regarding the bones of Jesus, in his directives to the Corinthians regarding the Lord’s Supper, Paul explained:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24).
Notice the tension, if not seemingly outright contradiction, that is created by the word “broken” when juxtaposed with John’s quotation of Psalm 34:20 in John 19:36. How are these disparate remarks to be reconciled?
This alleged contradiction is easily dispelled by taking into consideration the transmission of the New Testament text. “Textual criticism” is the science of ascertaining the original wording of a text.2 Since we do not have the original autographs that came from the hands of the inspired writers, we must examine the copies that have survived and “sort out” the differences between them. This pursuit has been in progress for centuries and has, in fact, accomplished its purpose. Abundant evidence exists by which one can know that the books of the Bible have been transmitted accurately through the centuries. We can be confident that the Bible has been adequately preserved from error and continues to serve the purpose God intends for it to serve.
It so happens that the term “broken” in 1 Corinthians 11:24 is a “textual variant”—an instance where manuscripts differ with each other. Some English translations include the word, while others do not. For example, those that keep “broken” include the KJV, NKJV, GNV, MEV, NLV, NMB, OJB, WEB, and YLT. Those that omit the word “broken” constitute the vast majority of English translations, including the ASV, ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, NIV, and many others. Why the difference?
Without going into technical detail, here are several observations that come from the manuscript evidence. First, while the external evidence for the inclusion of “broken” is varied and diverse, it is not as ancient as the evidence for omitting “broken.” Second, generally speaking, when textual critics pore over manuscripts and their textual variants, they have discovered that the shorter reading is typically the original. The exclusion of “broken” is the shorter reading. Third, they have observed that the more difficult reading (i.e., difficult for the scribe to understand or reconcile) is generally the original. In this case, insertion of the word “broken” could have been due to the scribe’s tendency to want to clarify, explain, or make sense of in what way Jesus’ body was “for you.”
Fourth, verbal dissidence exists between the words “for you” and “broke” earlier in the same verse, suggesting that a copyist was unduly influenced by the presence of the earlier form of the word for “broken.” We know that not one of Jesus’ bones was broken on the cross—as forthrightly affirmed by John’s inspired commentary on the actions of the Roman soldiers at the cross. If “broken” was originally included in Paul’s letter, one must resort to making sense of the term. Did Paul intend to refer to the breaking or tearing of Jesus’ skin? Or was he merely speaking metaphorically, using the concept of “broken” in the sense that Jesus was a broken man—having experienced extensive physical and mental torture? These possibilities—which arguably settle the issue of an alleged discrepancy—nevertheless seem unlikely.
Of course, nothing doctrinally significant is at stake with this textual variant—which is most certainly the case with the overwhelming majority of variants. But the external and internal manuscript evidence leans more to the conclusion that Paul originally wrote: “This is my body, which is for you.” No contradiction exists between the words of John and the words of Paul.
1 For more on this custom, see Dave Miller (2020), The Bible is From God: A Sampling of Proofs (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press), pp. 61ff.
2 See Bruce Metzger (1968), The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press).
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