Is their faith little or absent?

ὀλιγοπιστίαν (little faith) is found in Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, but ἀπιστίαν (lack of faith) is in the textus receptus and the majority text and goes back, as far as I can make out, to the 4th century (the same as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus).

Does ἀπιστίαν have the same negating quality to πιστίαν as, say, in English 'apolitical' has to 'political'? If so, it's not mearly a lack of faith (which might refer to degree), but an absence of it.

This phrase is immediately followed by one of Jesus' "faith like a mustard seed" sayings. The mustard seed is clearly indicating the smallest of things, and so implying that the disciples do not even have the smallest of faith. Do you think this is why ὀλιγοπιστίαν was changed to ἀπιστίαν? Or was ἀπιστίαν changed to ὀλιγοπιστίαν in order to reflect less badly on the disciples? As someone new to textual criticism, how do I weigh this up?

  • I hope I've phrased it better now so people don't go all systematic theology on us.
    – Paul Dean
    Mar 30, 2015 at 9:01
  • Ha, I didn't intend to add another question - was just trying to gloss it because not everybody reads Greek. But I was fudging on how to even do that, so I'm glad you added that. (FWIW, I intended "lack of" in the sense of "absence of" (though my sense of it's not probably the best indicator). The latter may have been a better choice....)
    – Susan
    Mar 30, 2015 at 16:22

1 Answer 1


The earliest extant manuscript to favour ἀπιστίαν include C (Ephraemie Rescriptus; 5th C.) and D (Bezae; 5th C.). C is considered a weak Byzantine text in Matthew's gospel1.

Textual critics tend to favour ὀλιγοπιστίαν over ἀπιστίαν for two reasons:

  1. ὀλιγοπιστίαν is the harder reading2. See for example Metzger who says:

    It is more likely that the evangelist used ὀλιγοπιστίαν, a rare word that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament (though ὀλιγόπιστος is used four times in Matthew), and that, in view of ἄπιστος in ver. 17, copyists substituted the more frequently used word ἀπιστία (which occurs eleven times in the New Testament), than that the reverse process took place.3

    Comfort agrees with this assessment, saying that ἀπιστίαν 'is a scribal substitution, carried over from 17:17. 4

  2. This is a theological reason, best summarised by Comfort.

    "...there is a difference between the faithless generation of Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah and the disciples who had faith but not enough, in this case, to cast out the demons."5

The general consensus of opinion seems to favour ὀλιγοπιστίαν (little faith).


1 See Text-type in Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus.

2 also known as Lectio difficilior potior (Latin for "the more difficult reading is the stronger") This is the principle of textual criticism that states that where different manuscripts differ the more unusual word/ phrase is more likely the original. The understaning is that scribes would more often replace odd words and hard sayings with more familiar and less controversial ones, than vice versa.

3 Metzger, B. M., United Bible Societies. (1994). A textual commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition a companion volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th rev. ed.) (p. 35). London; New York: United Bible Societies.

4 Comfort, P. W., Tyndale 2008, p51.

5 Comfort, P. W., Tyndale 2008, p51.

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