Since I’ve started saying something about how scribes altered the Gospel of Mark over the years as they copied it (yesterday I mentioned eight changes made by scribes in just the five verses, Mark 14:27-31) I would like to pursue this theme a bit, and talk about some of the more interesting changes.   In this post I’ll pick just one that occurs right at the beginning of the Gospel.  It’s an interesting change because scribes appear to have made it in order to eliminate a possible contradiction that was originally found in the Gospel – already in verse 2!

The first verse of Mark’s Gospel is often understood to be a kind of title for the entire account: “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  To that opening statement, most manuscripts add the words “the Son of God.”  I’ll talk about that textual variant in my next post, because it is complicated and interesting too – were those additional words originally found in v. 1 or not?   And why would it matter?  It turns out it does matter, but for reasons a casual reader would almost certainly not expect.  More on that later.

For now I’m interested in a variant reading in the next verse.   I want to focus on this one because it illustrates well how textual scholars go about deciding what the original author wrote and how scribes changed his words – and why.

If you know Mark’s Gospel well, you will remember that it does not contain an account of Jesus’ birth (e.g. of a virgin in Bethlehem) (you find that account in two different versions, one in Matthew and the other in Luke).  Mark’s account begins instead with Jesus as an adult, being baptized by John the Baptist.   John is introduced in Mark 1:2-3 with the claim that he had come as a fulfilment of the predictions of Scripture.  This is what the verses say in the Textus Receptus (the no-longer-followed older form of the Greek text that stood at the basis of such venerable translations as the King James Version):

2Just as is written in the prophets, “Behold I am sending my messenger before you who will prepare your way, 3a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

John the Baptist, then, is the one anticipated by the prophets.  It’s an auspicious beginning of this Gospel.  Jesus is preceded by the one who fulfills God’s plan.

The textual variant I want to consider occurs in its first words “Just as is written in the prophets.”  When older manuscripts than those used for the Textus Receptus were discovered, it was found that

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