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An Interesting Scribal Change at the Beginning of Mark

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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Jesus’ Teaching in Aramaic and the Books of the Canon: Mailbag February 24, 2017
How Variant Readings are Noted in the Greek New Testament



  1. Epicurus13
    Epicurus13  February 22, 2017

    A bit of an off topic question. A few posts back you mentioned your book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. Which reminded me of a question I have been wanting to ask for awhile. Since it is one of my favorite books of yours and I am on my 3rd reading of it even though the Greek is beyond me. For some strange reason I have a fascination with James White and his podcast show. I think your debate with him by the way is one my favorites you have done. Its the only time I can remember where I’ve seen him on the ropes sweating it and is cocky self confidence is breaking down. Sorry, I digress, my question. On one of his shows awhile back he was talking about your book Orthodox Corruption, and of course trying to tear it a part. One of his comments that is my question to you is that your Professor Bruce Metzger had issues with the book and I was just wondering if that is true and if so can you say anything about it ? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2017

      No, not true at all. He’s making that up. Metzger liked the book very much.

      • Epicurus13
        Epicurus13  February 24, 2017

        That’s amazing a Christian would willfully make something up when they profess such high standards and theological “consistency” which is his mantra. Wait ! Then again maybe its not so amazing. Humans are humans whether now or 2000 years ago. I’ll try to find where he made the comments and put up a link. As always, thanks for all the knowledge you have given me. Peace.

      • Epicurus13
        Epicurus13  March 6, 2017

        Well, after watching hours of his videos ranting about you and calling you an apostate I have to throw in the towel. I just can’t find the comment where he said your Professor Bruce Metzger had issues with your book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. I know I saw it so maybe one day I’ll stumble on it again. I take your word on it anyways. Thanks !

  2. James Harmon
    James Harmon  February 22, 2017

    Hate to beat the historicity horse to death, but do you accept a historical moses, and if you have a spare moment, Noah, as well. Thanks for you time my good Dr.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2017

      Noah I think is definitely legendary, and the Moses of the Bible is certainly legendary as well, even if he is based on *someone* in the hoary past (like King Arthur, e.g.)

  3. Avatar
    toejam  February 23, 2017

    Fascinating post. Slightly related: Mark 9:42-48 recalls Isaiah 66:24 when it says that in hell one’s “worm will never die and the fire is never quenched”. In Isaiah 66:24, this is said to happen to the dead bodies / carcasses (κῶλον) of the unrepentant. However Mark’s allusion to Isaiah 66:24 omits reference to the bodies / carcasses, which gives the impression that Jesus of Mark 9 is teaching some kind of conscious torment of the damned. Whereas in Isaiah 66, given the references to bodies / carcasses, it seems more likely to be a reference to annihilation rather than suffering. 1) Do you think this is another example of Mark misunderstanding / misrepresenting Isaiah? 2) Do you think there are any other verses in Isaiah which might imply conscious torment of the deceased unrepentant? 3) Do you think the reference to ‘worms’ is necessarily a reference to actual worms in the ground who feed off dead bodies? Or is it possibly some kind of allegorical reference to the remnant of the individual?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2017

      1. I would call it a reinterpretation of the text; 2. Not offhand. 3. Yup, real worms.

    • tompicard
      tompicard  March 1, 2017

      Dr Ehrman takes a lot of Jesus words at their literal face value.

      Now Jesus talked about a certain sower tossing seeds haphazardly all over the place. But this wasn’t really an agricultural lesson about random throwing around of seeds and accidentally getting a harvest of 10 fold or 100 fold or even greater.

      So given Jesus what I know of typical speech, I cannot be 100% certain whether Jesus/Mark meant real worms or as you maybe suspect something allegorical.

      Now, I personally dont have any opinion of what worms would be an allegory of

  4. Avatar
    mjt  February 23, 2017

    If I’ve remember properly, you are a textual critic, but not an interpreter…or maybe not nearly as skilled in interpreting as you are as a textual critic. Is that fair?

    If I am correct here, I want to ask a question that I have posed to you before, and see if I can understand your perspective. I think the question I originally asked was ‘Do we know what most of the NT means?’ And you said you thought that we don’t–that we are very unsure of a lot of what it means. I think I’m remembering that right.

    So, if you’re more a textual critic than an interpreter, does that affect your answer? In other words, if you don’t think we can know what a lot of the bible means, could that be because you don’t necessarily have the specialized skills that an interpreter has? I hope that doesn’t come across in any kind of an insulting way.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2017

      No, I do not consider myself principally a textual critic. Almost all of my Masters and PhD training was in interpretation. (Along with early Christian history). In my seven years of graduate school I took only one course devoted to textual criticism (and that was at the masters level and covered other topics as well.)

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 23, 2017

    I look forward to the “son of God” post.

    For readers new to this blog, I highly recommend Dr. Ehrman’s “Jesus, Interrupted”” which is the best discussion that you are going to find about contradictions in the different Gospels.

    • Avatar
      jdub3125  February 26, 2017

      Thanks for the recommendation. I’m new to the blog and not a scholar by any means, but this seems like a good cause to donate to.

  6. Avatar
    turbopro  February 23, 2017

    It’s quite interesting to be given insights into how these texts are analysed. I have lots of popcorn and peanuts, so please do continue with the story.

    I have to ask though, and I suppose it has been discussed here, but barring this and other similar phrases, I dunno, how do we square that circle where Mark made no mention of the virgin birth!?

    I mean, he was supposed to be an eye witness to Jesus, right. Did he think that Jesus’ virgin birth was a given that everyone knew so no need to retell it? Or, perhaps it was his editor?

    I can see it. One cool fine day sometime between, let’s say, CE 33 and 93, Mark and his editor Jeffrey:

    Mark: “Hark, I say unto thee, it is well known by us, the chosen, that Mary knew no man ere she conceived the second one of the Triune Godhead (henceforth known as the Trinity, but denied by the ungodly and heretical Unitarians in the future). She thus was made with “The Child” as Luke declares in the KJV, 1:35, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee…’ And, I think Mathew said something similar too; but not John, the beloved of our Lord. So, perhaps for posterity’s sake, in order to make all things clear that our Christian progeny be one and in harmony with each other, I too should pen that Mary, herself immaculately conceived, thus conceived by the god of our fathers and forefathers. Then, my good news will synopticate with Mathew and Luke. Yes, yes, I know; but I’m not into John’s high Christology.”

    Jeffrey: “Wha?!! What does triun, treeun, treeune, mean? And who the Gehenna is Mathew? Nah!! Too wordy; don’t need no virgin birth story to confuse things.

    Mark: “Sigh! Ok. Todah rabah.

    Jeffrey: “Say what?”

    Mark: “Efcharistó”

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2017

      THe Gospel of Mark, of course, does not claim to be an eyewitness account, adn there is really no reason to think it is.

  7. Avatar
    Pegill7  February 23, 2017


    This is somewhat off the thread that you have been pursuing but I’ve often wondered why almost all of the very conservative Christian churches insist on using only the King James Version. I am aware of the apocryphal response that if it was good enough for St. Paul it’s good enough for me. And I understand that the beauty of the language appeals to many, but these very right wing Christians absolutely abhor any other version. I believe that Moodey uses other versions, however. Just curious.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2017

      People tend to think that the religion they have been raised in comes directly from God.

  8. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 24, 2017

    The fact that the Church Fathers said “Isaiah”, prior to when any of the existing manuscripts were written, strikes me as possibly even more important than it being the harder reading. It seems like a very strong indication that copyists did in fact change manuscripts to eliminate such problems. But I suppose there could have been an even earlier manuscript, now lost, that said “Prophets” and the Fathers used a copy that had subsequently been changed to Isiah. So it’s critical to consider both kinds of evidence.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2017

      Yes, any textual decision requires a full consideration of every possible view.

  9. Avatar
    Silver  February 24, 2017

    COMPLETELY off topic.
    I’ve just been catching up with your old posts about the Christmas Story. One comment asked about whether there was a dispute about the date of Herod’s death. You said you were unaware but asked for information about any such discussion. One such argument is presented across 3 posts by John Tors on his site Truthinmydays.com under the title ‘Is Luke wrong about the date of Jesus’ birth….?’ He certainly presents a very detailed case for redating Herod’s death to c1BC.
    I’d be fascinated to hear any comments from you.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2017

      Haven’t read it, I’m sorry to say, just glanced at it. But I’m not aware that there is any dispute among actual historians, as opposed to fundamentalists who have a religious reason for not wanting the text to be problematic..

  10. Avatar
    Gary  February 24, 2017

    Do you believe that the author of Mark was a professional writer?

    Conservative Christians, such as Richard Bauckham, insist that John Mark, the traveling companion of Simon Peter, was the author of the Gospel of Mark and that he used clever literary techniques such as the “inclusio” to indicate the source of his material. I find it hard to believe that the traveling companion of an itinerant preacher/part-time fisherman would be a professional writer. Would the typical educated first century person (who was not a professional writer), who is capable of writing letters, be knowledgeable enough about literary techniques to use the “inclusio” to indicate his sources, or, would ONLY a professional writer use this literary technique??

    Second question: Do you believe that the author of Mark even uses an “inclusio” as Bauckham asserts? After all, the first character mentioned in the Gospel of Mark is John the Baptist, not Simon Peter.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2017

      I’m not sure what you mean by “professional writer.” Mark certainly did not have a career of writing books for profit. Or do you mean to ask if he was a skilled author? Yes, I think he was. But Bauckham’s inclusio doesn’t work. The inclusio that does work involves what happens at Jesus’ baptism (first event narrated in Jesus’ life) and crucifixion (last event of his life). I’ll say someting about that in a later post.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  February 24, 2017

        What is “inclusio”?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 26, 2017

          It is when an episode or passage or wording at the beginning of a book (or longer passage) has a close parallel at the end, so that it brackets everything in between. I’ll be talking later on the blog about the inclusio in Mark between Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion.

      • Avatar
        turbopro  February 24, 2017

        Prof, if I may: since we got around to discussing Bauckham, who asserts that perhaps Mark was Peter’s steno–of sorts, how does he, Bauckham, explain Mark’s silence on the Virgin birth?

        My facetious and ersatz editor’s meeting above was just for a few yucks.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 26, 2017

          I don’t recall off hand. But there are various explanations people give: that Mark simply didn’t know about it yet; that he wanted to emphasize something else; that not mentioning something is not the same as mentioning it and rejecting it; etc.

        • Avatar
          Gary  February 26, 2017

          I just finished reading Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”. I don’t recall him saying anything about the absence of the Birth Narrative in Mark’s Gospel. His primary objective in this book is to prove that the Gospels are sources of eyewitness information.

          Bauckham believes that John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark simply because Papias said so. He believes that scholars should give Papias more credibility than they do and should ignore Eusebius’ bias against him. Bauckham believes that Simon Peter is John Mark’s source due to “literary clues” within the text: 1. An “inclusio”: Peter is the first and last disciple mentioned in the Gospel 2. Peter is mentioned more often than any other disciple in the Gospel 3. The speech pattern of the Gospel could easily be converted from a third person plural to the first person plural, indicating an eyewitness source.

          What I found most interesting about Bauckham’s book is that he does not believe that the Apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew found in our bibles today, nor does he believe that the Gospel of John was written by the Apostle John. I wonder how many conservative Christian apologists who love to quote Bauckham as an authority for the claim that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels are aware that he believes that only ONE of the Gospels was written by an eyewitness and that eyewitness was someone most Christians have never even heard of: John the Elder of Ephesus , who was NOT John, son of Zebedee, the Apostle, but who was the Beloved Disciple, the author of the Gospel of John.

          • Avatar
            turbopro  March 1, 2017

            Thanks for the summary. I suppose I should give his treatise a read. cheers.

  11. Avatar
    JamesSnappJr  April 2, 2017

    I offer a case for “in the prophets” at http://www.curtisvillechristianchurch.org/MarkOneTwo.htm . The same scribal tendency that Metzger focused on in “Names for the Nameless” applies in cases like this. There oughtta be a canon: prefer the less specific reading.

  12. Avatar
    Jhipolito  April 28, 2017

    I’m not sure if this question belongs here, but I wonder what the status is of the so-called “Secret Gospel of Mark”–do most scholars today consider it a hoax? Is it an open question?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2017

      The scholarly world is split on the question, with vehement support on both sides.

      • Avatar
        Jhipolito  April 29, 2017

        I’m curious where you come down on it–I’ve got great respect for your care in these matters!

  13. Avatar
    RG959  September 19, 2018


    I’m not gonna lie, Malachi 3:1 sounds a lot like John the Baptist before Jesus. If God is speaking here and he is gonna send someone to clear the way before him, can you please give me some context on this as far as who is he and him? It says in chapter 4 that Elijah will come. Is that who is being talked about here and is John the Baptist suposedly Elijah paving the way before him (Jesus)? I thought in Judaism god would never take human form. This is so confusing. Appreciate your help!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2018

      Yes, those Gospel authors who told us about John the Baptism painted his portrait with Malachi 3:1 in mind.

      • Avatar
        RG959  September 19, 2018


        Malachi 4:3-5 paints a very different picture about what’s gonna happen when Elijah comes as what John the Baptist did; if he actually was Elijah.

        3Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

        4“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. (Why would they need to remember Moses law if Jesus is gonna set up a new law?) makes no sense.

        5“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.

        How did the gospel writers think John the Baptist was a fulfillment of this prophecy? In your honest opinion Bart, do you believe the gospel writers took this out of context to try and prove John the Baptist was Elijah? It’s seems like Elijah was supposed to come for a day of judgement and God’s wrath would trample the wicked.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 20, 2018

          They knew that Jesus was linked to John, and so began to portray him as “the one who comes before,” so naturally “the one who must come first” came to mind, hence Elijah.

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