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An Important and Relevant Textual Variant in Luke 2

I’d like to address the issue of early Christology from a slightly different angle in this post. So far I have talked about how an “exaltation” Christology, in which Jesus, the man, is made the Son of God at some point of his existence can be found in various parts of the New Testament (Rom 1:3-4; speeches in Acts), and how different early Christians located that exaltation to different moments in Jesus’ existence (resurrection, baptism, birth, pre-existence). As it turns out, this view of Christology relates to an important textual variant in the Gospel of Luke.

So, by way of background for anyone new to this kind of discussion. We don’t have the original copy of Luke’s Gospel (or of any other NT book) (or, actually, of any book at all from the ancient world!). What we have are copies made from copies made from copies that were made from copies. We have thousands of copies of the NT from the centuries before the invention of printing. And these thousands of copies have hundreds of thousands of differences among themselves, in how they word this, that, or the other passage. MOST of these differences – the vast majority – are insignificant, immaterial, and matter for nothing more than to show that ancient scribes could spell no better than people can today. But some of the differences actually matter, changing the meaning of a passage in a significant way.

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Incarnation Christology, Angels, and Paul
Pushing Back the Exaltation



  1. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  February 14, 2013

    When I read of the intricate Christologies and the seemingly minute, but actually meaningful changes, and undue influence on scribes, I wonder how many people had the power to facilitate corruptions. I think it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out if the dating is accurate. Power corrupts, you know.

  2. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  February 14, 2013

    When did these “adoptionist,” or the Ebionites, start to fade away? I think they were around near the end of the third century. But how much longer?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 14, 2013

      I think they were fading already by the end of the first century. They were a small minority by the late second. But traces have continued on to today.

  3. Avatar
    fred  February 14, 2013

    “if a scribe changed the passage (and obviously one or more scribes did, since we have the passage in two forms) which direction was he more likely to change it? Was he more likely to change “You are my son, today I have begotten you” to say “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” or the other way around?”

    If the scribe were an adoptionist, he might very well have changed it to conform to that view. Despite that one issue, I think your argument is compelling.

    Regarding Luke’s nativity narrative, don’t some scholars suggest that was not part of the original composition of Luke?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 14, 2013

      Yes indeed: adoptionist scribes may well have altered their texts!! I tried to find every instance of this that I could in the surviving manuscript tradition, and found about one possible example….

  4. Avatar
    bobnaumann  February 14, 2013

    I am confused. Yesterday you said, “These people argued that Jesus became the son of God at the baptism.  That is the view of the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus’ first appearance in the Gospel is at the baptism, the Spirit comes upon him (showing that he is anointed by God), and the voice declares “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  And then he begins his ministry.” But today you say that the passage in Luke, “You are my son, today I have begotten you” indicates that Jesus was adopted as the Son of God at his baptism, whereas the passage in Mark would imply that he was the Son of God at birth. So how can say that Mark believed tha Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2013

      I think either that you have misread what I said or that I said something wrong! I don’t think Mark considered Jesus to be Son of God from his birth (since he doesn’t mention Jesus’ birth).

  5. Avatar
    Lee  February 15, 2013

    In your title for this posting did you mean say Luke 3 rather than Luke 2? Also, in the last paragraph first sentence: Is “look” actually “Luke”? I am sure these were just innocent “scribe” errors…. Lee

  6. Avatar
    z8000783  February 17, 2013

    “First, even though this reading is found in only one surviving manuscript of the fifth century (our oldest manuscripts of the passages are two Greek copies that come from the middle of the fourth), the passage is quoted by church fathers of the second through fourth centuries. These church fathers lived everywhere from Rome, to Alexandria Egypt, to North Africa, to Palestine, to Gaul and to Spain. And in every single instance the church father – writing in most instances *before* our earliest manuscripts (so that they are telling us what *their* no longer surviving manuscripts said) – quotes the verse in this alternative version: “today I have begotten you” (from Psalm 2:7). That’s pretty important. The early and widespread text that is best attested is the one that later made it into only one manuscript.”

    Hi Bart, can I ask a favour? Do you have a reference document for the Church Father saying this please. I have looked in your book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture but I can’t find one.

    Many thanks


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 18, 2013

      The references are the first thing I discuss under external evidence. In the 2nd edition it’s p. 73 (with endnotes).

  7. Avatar
    Ron  February 19, 2013

    Dr. Bruce Metzger in his Texual Commentary on the Greek NT agrees that “This day I have begotten thee” was widely current during the first three centuries, but it “appears to be secondary,” he says, not the original form, as you suspect is the case. The initial form, Metzger says, is an obvious adaptation to the Matthean form of the saying (Matt. 3:17). Metzger doesn’t say that Matthew borrowed it from Mark 1:11. So, it looks like you differ with Metzger on two points.

    I’m thinking with you, however, that the original form was “Today, I have begotten thee,” just as Psalms has it, and that it was changed to the other form to combat “heretical” Christology. How could it be heretical if Jesus was already proclaimed as the “Son of God”? (Luke 1:32,35) – only because of the word “today”? And, if this is the reasoning, would not Luke’s announcement at Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 13:33) promote the same “heresy”?

    I maintain that Luke would have been consistent in all three instances, and that the early use of the form by the Church Fathers carries more weight than Metzger and the Committee has agreed. But, this leads me to express also that Jesus was considered even *before* his birth as the “Son of God” (Luke 1:32,35), so that identity wouldn’t change at his baptism or even at his death/resurrection. In fact, it’s more likely that he was considered by Luke as “thrice-born,” just as Dionysus was described in myth.

    In what I would refer to as the original myth of Dionysus, it was Zeus, King of the gods, who rips open his immortal thigh and carries Dionysus to rebirth, after being viciously murdered by the Titans. See the parallel with the resurrection of Jesus, in which his Father in heaven is solely in charge of rebirthing him a “third” time?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 19, 2013

      Yes, Bruce Metzger and I disagreed on this; he did like my argument though! I don’t know if it changed his mind (my book came out after his)

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