I’ve started to show that scribes sometimes changed the New Testament texts they were copying in ways that certainly seem “intentional” (in addition to making many more simple, accidental, slips of the pen). I last gave an example from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel that appears to be a case where scribes altered a text because it seems to make a mistake.
Here I’ll give a second instance, this time from near the ending of Mark, a passage that is exceedingly interesting but for a comletley different reason.
One of the most intriguing variations in Mark’s Gospel comes in the Passion narrative, in the final words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel. Jesus is being crucified, and he says nothing on the cross until he cries out his final words, which Mark records in Aramaic: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” Mark then translates the words into Greek: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus then utters a loud cry and dies.
What is striking is that in one early Greek manuscript BREAK
(the fifth-century codex Bezae — an erratic manuscript that nonetheless on very rare occasions preserves an original reading when all other Greek manuscripts say something else) and several Latin manuscripts, that often agree with it, Jesus’ cry is translated into Greek as: “My God, my God, why have you mocked me?” Whoa. Mocked me? Could this be what Mark’s Gospel actually said?
One great scholar, Adolph von Harnack (arguably the greatest scholar of Christian antiquity of the 20th century), argued that this alternative reading was in fact original, that scribes changed it from “mocked me” to “forsaken me” because they did not approve of the theology involved with the idea of God mocking his son. Moreover, since this “cry of dereliction” (as it is called) is a quotation of Scripture (Psalm 22:1), and the Hebrew of Ps. 22:1 (as well as the Greek) is clearly “forsaken” instead of “mocked,” then it is likely that scribes would have changed the original “mocked” in order to improve its theology and into line with how the verse is found in the Old Testament itself (and into line with how Matthew records the cry).
In addition, as Harnack pointed out, the word “mocked” fits the literary context of Mark very well. In this scene, in Mark’s Gospel, everyone mocks Jesus: the people passing by his crucifixion, the Jewish leaders, and even both criminals being crucified with him (15:29-32). Now even God himself mocks him.
This was a very powerful argument by an unusually insightful and powerfully intelligent scholar. But it never won very many adherents. Most scholars simply were never convinced. And for several reasons. For one thing, if Matthew’s Gospel indicates that Jesus said “forsaken” and not “mocked” – his source for the passage was Mark! That would suggest that this word is also what Mark had. Moreover, Mark first cites the cry in the original Aramaic. The word in Aramaic for “mocked” is different for the word “forsaken.” The Aramaic word Mark uses is “forsaken.” So why would he even both giving the Aramaic if what he wanted to do was to have Jesus cry out “mocked”? He simply would have given the Greek form of the text.
Moreover, every single Greek manuscript (there are many hundreds) has “forsaken” rather than “mocked”, as does every manuscript in every other language (except the few Latin in support of codex Bezae) and every church father who quotes the verse. All of this is very hard to explain, especially in combination, if Mark originally said “mocked.”
So probably Mark’s version originally said “Why have you forsaken me?”
Why then would a scribe have changed it? I discuss this issue at some length in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. For now I’ll mention just a couple of the key points. On one hand, one could argue that a scribe changed the text to this somewhat more surprising reading precisely in order to make the words fit more closely with their context – everyone else mocks Jesus in the immediately preceding verses and now, so too, does even God. That was part of what it meant for Jesus to be crucified for the sake of others.
That would be a strong argument. Another would be that the text was changed because a scribe was not comfortable with what it might mean to say that God had “forsaken” Jesus. This, in my view, is an even stronger argument — and what I think is ultimately the answer to why the change was made (from the original “forsaken” to the altered text “mocked”)
Literally, the Greek word usually translated “forsaken” means “left behind.” Why would that be a problem? Because there were Christians in the second century (various “Gnostics”) who believed that on the cross, the divine element within Jesus – the god residing in him – left him to return to its heavenly realm whence it came.
In this Gnostic view, Jesus Christ was not one being who was both human and divine. He was two beings, one human and one divine. The man Jesus, for these Gnostics, was a real, pure, flesh-and-blood human being, a righteous man, born from the sexual union of his parents, who was more holy than all others and who was chosen by a divine being come from heaven, the Christ, to be his (Christ’s) dwelling place during Jesus’ public ministry up to the time until his death. The divine Christ came into the man Jesus at his baptism (when the Spirit came down from heaven and entered into Jesus) and left him at his death (since the divine cannot suffer or die).
And so, for some Gnostics, Jesus cried out, asking why the divine element had left him: “My God, my God, why have you left me behind?” We know that some Gnostics interpreted this passage that way, because of the surviving Gnostic Gospels. The Gospel of Philip, for example, a Valentinian Gnostic text, quotes the verse and explains that Jesus uttered these words because “it was at the cross that he was divided.” That is to say, the previously unified Jesus Christ again divided into two beings, when the Christ left Jesus.
The controversy over what these words might mean was raging in the second century. That is almost certainly when the text was changed in the ancestor to the text of codex Bezae (that’s widely believed for rather complicated reasons). Why was it then changed?
Possibly to make it fit better in its literary context in Mark (where everyone – and now even God – mocks Jesus). But possibly also because now it cannot be used as easily by Gnostics who want to argue that at the cross the divine element left Jesus behind to die alone. Now, in the changed text, Jesus does not wonder why he has been left behind. With the change, the verse is no longer usable for these Gnostic Christians.