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A Variant in Mark 1:1 — Accidental or Intentional?

I have been talking about different kinds of changes made in our surviving New Testament manuscripts, some of them accidental slips of the pen (that’s probably the vast majority of our textual variants) and others of them intentional alterations.  One of the points that I’ve been trying to stress is that at the end of the day it is, technically speaking, impossible to know what a scribe’s “intentions” were (or if he had any, other than the intention of copying a text).  None of the scribes is around to be interviewed, and so – as with a lot of history – there is a good bit of scholarly guess-work that has to be done.

This guess work is not simply shooting in the dark, however.   And it is dead easy for a highly trained expert to tell the difference between informed guesswork and just plain guesswork.   But at the end of the day we are always talking about historical probabilities, not historical certainties, when it comes to figuring out why a scribed decided to change a text.

And in some places it is very hard indeed to tell whether a change was made intentionally or not.

Let me give a prime example, again drawn from the Gospel of Mark.   This one occurs right off the bat.   In fact, it is in verse 1.

There is a significant variant in the opening line of Mark’s Gospel.   It may not seem significant at first, but in fact the more you study Mark’s Gospel, the more significant you realize it is.   The way Mark is said to begin in most manuscripts is this (these are the opening words):

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“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”   But in several manuscripts, the final words are missing, so that Jesus is not called “the Son of God” in the opening line.

Now for casual readers of the Gospel , that would make almost zero difference.  That’s because the question is NOT whether Mark ever portrays Jesus as the Son of God in his Gospel.   Quite apart from this verse, he very much does portray him that way.  When Jesus is baptized, the voice from heaven declares “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (1:11).   At his transfiguration, the voice comes again from heaven and says “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” (9:7).  At the crucifixion, the Roman soldier standing at the cross who has seen Jesus die declares, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (15:39).   So whatever 1:1 said originally, Mark does portray Jesus as the Son of God.   Then why does it matter if he began his Gospel by saying so?

It is hard to explain why it might matter without talking about the textual variant itself.   So holding in abeyance they question of why it might matter, let’s think about the textual problem.   Were the words “son of God” originally in 1:1 or not?

This is where life becomes very interesting for textual critics, because it is possible to explain the textual change on the grounds that it was an accident as well as on grounds that it was intentional, and it is very difficult to decide which one is right.

I won’t go into all the ins and outs here.  In my book Orthodox Corruption of Scripture I spend four whole pages of detailed argument condensing the issues.   You don’t need that.   Let me explain the two options, one in this post and one in the next.

Accident.   If the change was made by accident, then probably the text originally said “Son of God” and a scribe accidentally left the words out.   Scribes leave words out all the time.  And in this case, the four English words “the son of God” are actually just two words in the Greek:  UIOU THEOU.   But what makes this instance particularly interesting are a set of related phenomena.

First, these words are among those technical terms that scholars call the “nomina sacra.”   The nomina sacra were a group of words, about fifteen of them, that were commonly abbreviated by scribes copying them.   They are called nomina sacra (literally meaning “sacred names”) because most of these words were ones typically used of or related to God or Christ or the Spirit.   Thus, among the names were God, Christ, Lord, Spirit, Son, Father and so on.

The way these words were typically abbreviated was by giving only their first letter and their last letter, and drawing a line over the top.   It is often thought that this was a more reverential way to write the words.

Scribes were not entirely consistent in their renderings of the nomina sacra.  Sometimes they would forget to abbreviate them, sometimes they would abbreviate them, and in no instance did their decision affect what the text said or what it meant.   It made not the slightest bit of difference.

And so, the phrase “the Son of God” in this opening verse of mark would not have been made up of eight letters ΥΙΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ (in English UIOU THEOU) but of four letters ΥΥ ΘΥ (with a line drawn over the top).  And there are two other issues that make this yet more interesting.   Remember, as I pointed out a few posts ago, ancient manuscripts were written in scriptio continua – that is, they did not separate the words from one another.   So the four words in English would have been found as ΥΥΘΥ in Greek.   And second, notice that the two words *before* these words are also nomina Sacra “Jesus Christ.”   Those too would have been abbreviated, so instead of ΙΗΣΟΥ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ they would have been written as ΙΗΥΧΥ.

The two lines of the Gospel then  (“The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.  Just as is written in ….”  then would have appeared like this (I have underlined the words “Son of God”):

ΑΡΧΗΤΟΥΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΟΥΙΗΥΧΥΥΥΘΥΚΑΘΩΣΓΕΓΡΑΠΤΑΙ

You can see how easy it would have been for a scribe simply to miss those four letters.  And that’s especially the case because the fourth of those letters is the SAME letter as the letter before the four (both are upsilons).   A scribe could very easily have written down the upsilon from the world “Christ,” returned his eye to the page, picked up the upsilon at the end of the word “God” and that that *that* was the upsilon he had just copied, and continued on from there (they both would have had a line drawn over the top, so they would have looked just the same).

If that’s what happened, the scribe would have accidentally dropped the words “Son of God.”  And that would explain why the words are found in most manuscripts, but not in others.   But is there a better explanation?   I’ll explore that question in the next post.

 


Mark 1:1 as an Intentional Alteration of the Text
An Intentional Change in Mark 15:34

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 3, 2015

    I took a college course in New Testament Greek, but have never heard of “nomina sacra.” How interesting. Sounds like abbreviations now used in “text messages.”

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  August 3, 2015

    Has a manuscript ever been found where a scribe does something in between the extremes of including or leaving out the four letters by leaving out just some of them? If I write theta as O since I don’t know the ascii code then I mean something like, instead of YYOY:

    YY or YO or OY or YYO or YOY or maybe even a misspelling such as OYY

    if so, then it seems like one could lean more towards the opinion of the omission of all 4 letters being more of an accident that intentional.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2015

      Not that I know of; there is one manuscript (known as 28, from the eleventh century) that has something slightly different by way of omission, but I’m not sure what it is)

  3. Avatar
    Jana  August 3, 2015

    Another question out of blog context as I continue to watch your videos. Where did the concept of someone whether God, SemiGod or Human having the capacity or power et al to take on another’s sins not to mention the sins of the world originate? It is not in Buddhism or yoga. Have you written about this aspect. If so please suggest ! Totally intriguing.

    • Avatar
      Jana  August 3, 2015

      I find this concept alone extraordinary but again historically where did it originate?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2015

      I suppose the idea of a substitutionary death can be found in most sacrificial cultures (not to mention ones that practice human sacrifice!)

      • Avatar
        Jana  August 11, 2015

        You know that I live in a culture where human sacrifice was prevalent until the Spanish conquest and was still practiced among the Mayan Lacondones of Chiapas until the mid 1970s (the then Mexican president told them to stop it/it was bad for tourism:) and of course the neighboring Toltecs and later Aztecs practiced on a horrific scale … but within these cultures sacrifice had nothing to do with transference or substitution of sin. A little known book by the late Jungian Dr. John W. Perry The Kingship Cycle talks about human sacrifice comparatively and again unconnected with sin but more with fertility. Was the Jewish purpose of lamb sacrifice in the temple then a substitutionary act for sins?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 11, 2015

          Not the Passover sacrifice, but other sacrifices appear to have been atoning. Biblical scholars have long and protracted debates about the meaning and function of Jewish sacrifice, since the sources that *describe* the sacrifices almost never tell you what they were *for* or what they were supposed to *mean*!

          • Avatar
            Jana  August 15, 2015

            Then I really don’t get how the concept of Christ assuming the sins of the WORLD came about nor what John accomplished by making Christ the lamb in a parallel structure? I’m unclear. Again I find the concept of anyone having or given the capacity to assume the sins of others extraordinary.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 17, 2015

            It’s probalby because you don’t live in a world that practices cultic sacrifices.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  August 3, 2015

    My understanding is that in that time, ‘Son of God’ was an honorific that might be applied to any devout Jewish man. While I’m guessing stories of the Virgin Birth were already in circulation by then, the author of Mark doesn’t make any reference to them, and of course neither did Paul, decades earlier. Meaning that they were still controversial, and a source of division within the larger Christian community. As the generation that knew Jesus as a man died out, and more and more pagans converted, it became less and less controversial to tell that story of divine propagation.

  5. Avatar
    Jana  August 3, 2015

    If there is a different venue that you would prefer my asking questions unrelated to the current blog, please tell me… another question from again your videos … Can Christianity with its primary theological emphasis on Christ’s death and resurrection be categorized as a Death Cult? (using the world “cult” as you’ve defined it in one of your videos)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2015

      Some have indeed thought of it this way.

      • Avatar
        Jana  August 11, 2015

        I had just finished watching a downloaded BBC documentary that included the decimation of the South American Indigenous by their Spanish conquerors and Catholic priests before continuing with your videos … the combination left me thinking that Christianity is a death cult.

  6. Avatar
    J--B  August 3, 2015

    Greetings Dr. Ehrman,

    Did you “intentionally” use 3 “that”s in the 6th line from the bottom of your post or was that first “that” an “error” for “thought”?

  7. Avatar
    GStevenson  August 3, 2015

    ‘that that *that*’. Is this this this accidental or a deliberate insertion by the author who *intended* to demonstrate how easily the eye can skip words without meaning to? If it’s the latter then I’m ready to claim my prize…

  8. Avatar
    Philbert  August 4, 2015

    Great Post Thank You!

  9. Avatar
    JoeWallack  August 4, 2015

    “ΑΡΧΗΤΟΥΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΟΥΙΗΥΧΥΥΥΘΥΚΑΘΩΣΓΕΓΡΑΠΤΑΙ
    You can see how easy it would have been for a scribe simply to miss those four letters.”

    No I can’t. Not a native Greek speaker. Let’s try that in English:

    THEBEGINNINGOFTHEGOSPELOFJSTCTSNGD

    What is does look like to me is an apology for trying to explain accidental omission.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2015

      Yeah, it’s even worse in Greek since JSTCTSNGD has five letters, three of which are all the same

  10. Avatar
    James  August 8, 2015

    I almost find your argument persuasive for the shorter reading. The thing that I find troubling in the manuscript evidence is that there are nine Byzantine minuscules that also have the shorter reading (530 582* 820* 1021 1436 1555* 1692 2430 2533), and as far as I know these don’t form any kind of textual cluster. I just don’t see how the shorter reading can have gotten into such a miscellaneous collection of rather bad manuscripts unless it had arisen on several occasions.

    As a bit of an aside, the thing that most puzzles me about this variant is that the long form generally quoted (because thus saith Aland) – Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ Θεοῦ – looks and feels like an article error, the likeliest explanation being harmonization to Mt 1.1 where Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ Δαυὶδ υἱοῦ Ἀβραάμ is secure without articles. The support for omitting the article in Mark is very thin: ℵc1 B D L W and a couple of Byzantine minuscules. What we know about these witnesses does not make it any better: D omits the very next article as well (v2); W makes a nearly identical omission at 5.7; B D wrench the word order at Mt 27.54 to get υἱὸς θεοῦ (do they like this phrase or something?); and I would suggest that the similar variant at Lk 20.36 (where the support is only B L 892 for Aland et al’s text; their citation of A is misleading) also needs some re-examination. The version with the article Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ Θεοῦ is supported by good Alexandrian (Δ 33 579 892 1342) and Caesarean (f1 f13 565 700) witnesses as well as the Byzantine majority, and better explains the readings of 055 (Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ Θεοῦ) and 1241 (Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ Κυρίου).

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2015

      YEs, interesting point about the Byzantine textual cluster — although these are long after the fact of original change. I tend not to think that harmonization is at work where we’re dealing with the presence or absence of an article.

  11. Avatar
    Elisabeth  August 20, 2015

    “The way these words were typically abbreviated was by giving only their first letter and their last letter, and drawing a line over the top. It is often thought that this was a more reverential way to write the words.”

    Does the Jewish practice of writing “G-d” stem from this, or does it predate it?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2015

      That’s an English convention (and so modern), but it is based on a much older view, that hte name of God was so holy that it was not to be pronounced (or, eventually, written)

      • Avatar
        Elisabeth  August 20, 2015

        Ah I didn’t realize that – I’d just assumed they’d done that for a long time even in Hebrew.

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