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Mark 1:1 as an Intentional Alteration of the Text

In yesterday’s post I began to explore a textual variant in Mark 1:1 that could be explained either as an accidental slip of the pen or an intentional alteration of the text.   We’re plowing into some heavy waters here – I know some members of the blog like me to go deeper into serious scholarship on occasion, and others would rather prefer that I not.  But here I am, in the thick of it.

All of the posts in this thread are a lead up to answer the question from weeks ago now, about what led me to write The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.   I’ve found that I can’t really get to that without providing some substantial background on what it is the field of textual criticism actually does.

So where we are just now, by way of review:  there are thousands of textual witnesses to the NT (Greek manuscripts, manuscripts of the versions, writings of the church fathers who quote the text); these witnesses attests hundreds of thousands of variance among themselves; the vast majority of those differences are immaterial and insignificant and don’t matter for much of anything; some of them are highly significant indeed.   Most of the changes were made by accident.  Some were consciously made by scribes who wanted to change the text.   And in Mark 1:1 we have a variant where it is hard to tell which it is.

At issue are the words “Son of God.”  Did Mark begin his Gospel by announcing that it was about “Jesus Christ”?  Or about “Jesus Christ the Son of God”?  It is a difference of four letters in Greek (since “the Son of God” would have been abbreviated as one of the nomina sacra)

Yesterday I argued why the change could be seen as a slip of the pen.   The letters, it has been widely argued by textual experts, could simply have been skipped over – especially since the fourth letter is the same (upsilon) as the letter before the first.

In my book Orthodox Corruption I argued against that view.   My argument was…

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Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians
A Variant in Mark 1:1 — Accidental or Intentional?



  1. Avatar
    shakespeare66  August 4, 2015

    When one thinks about the amount of time between the death of Christ and the Gospel of Mark, there must have been many stories floating around about the life and teachings of Jesus. He has already made a huge transformation by the end of Mark. He does leaps and bounds by the end of the writing of John. Textual changes had to abound in order to make Jesus fit the orthodox view each of the early Christians were making, so changes were inevitable. I just got this book, so I will be reading it soon.

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    madmargie  August 4, 2015

    My own belief is that Jesus was fully a man and in no way a god. I believe God is a spirit..and is within each of us attempting to persuade us to the best path for our life. I realize that’s not traditional Christianity though. Did any of the early Christian sects believe that Jesus was strictly a man?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2015

      Yes indeed, notably a group of Jewish Christians known as Ebionites and a group of Roman (gentile) Christians known as the Theodotians (followers of Theodotus) in the second century.

      • Avatar
        madmargie  August 5, 2015

        So the very early Jewish Christians did not believe he was God. I had forgotten about the Ebionites and didn’t know about the 2nd century Roman group. Thanks for the information. .

      • Avatar
        JEffler  August 5, 2015

        Did these “Christian” sects (Ebionites, Theodotians) deny Jesus was crucified?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 6, 2015

          Absolutely not. The crucifixion was central to their beliefs.

          • Avatar
            prince  August 6, 2015

            Some of the Church Fathers mention that the Ebionites rejected many of the fundamentals of belief central to Nicene orthodoxy, such as Jesus’ pre-existence, divinity, atoning death, and physical resurrection. So not sure, as far as the Ebionites are concerned that the crucifixion was central to their beliefs…

          • Bart
            Bart  August 8, 2015

            What church fathers say that Ebionites reject JEsus’ atoning death adn resurrection? I believe I”ve read every reference to the Ebionites in all of our ancient sources, and I don’t recall ever seeing that.

      • Avatar
        prince  August 6, 2015

        Do we have any historical evidence to indicate during the persecutions of Jewish Christians in the first century, whether these Jewish Christians fled and migrated to Arabia where they had their own traditions of the gospel of Jesus? Pr. Samuel Zinner suggests that Jewish Christians may have have significantly influenced the Quranic traditions and conceptualization about the person of Jesus. The Islamic Hadith traditions mention Christians living in Arabia who express their conversion to Islam stories that indicate these Christians adhered to a form of Christianity that were strictly monotheists (non Trinitarian) and accepted the notion of Jesus as a Messenger, Messiah and Prophet of God similar to the Ebionites. Fascinating!

  3. Avatar
    Judith  August 4, 2015

    When you go into “some heavy waters”, you make sure we’re all right there with you. I appreciate that!

  4. Avatar
    JEffler  August 4, 2015

    If we didn’t have the writings of Iranaeus, how would this effect history and what we know today? Particularly, Against Heresies.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2015

      He is our principal source (for good or ill) of a number of “heretical” groups of the second century.

  5. Avatar
    Scott  August 4, 2015

    Just about the time I am asking myself, “Why didn’t the scribe add those words the the beginning of the other Gospels?”, you swoop in with the explanation. That is one thing I enjoy about your writing, my questions are almost always answered just as they arise. You have a real talent, Dr Ehrman.

  6. Avatar
    Jim  August 4, 2015

    Your statement: “But the striking thing is that this particular alteration happens at the very *beginning* of the book, when the scribe would have started afresh, *after having completed the copying of another book (Matthew) * ….”, led me to wonder; approximately when is the earliest evidence for the gospels being paired together into a single codex/scroll/book for circulation? Are there any very early fragments with a bit of the end of one gospel and a bit of the beginning of another? And if so, what are their approximate dates (i.e, 2nd or 3rd century)?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2015

      The earliest *hard* evidence would be around the year 200.

  7. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 5, 2015

    Hmmm. Well, I think it makes more sense that Mark wrote Jesus as an ordinary man. Since Mark started out with Jesus’s baptism, it could mean that nothing before that particular moment mattered. The baptism shows a new beginning or the moment we take responsibility for our part in this world. We start out ordinary, have the ability change and live an exemplary life, and then die ordinary.
    I was thinking earlier today about Bruce Metzger spending so many years of his life studying biblical texts, knowing they are so problematic, yet still maintaining a strong belief in God. At least, that’s what I’ve read about him. He was intelligent enough to know there was truth in them.

  8. Robert
    Robert  August 5, 2015

    If the accidental omission occurred very early in a single text, it should not be surprising that it would appear in otherwise unrelated manuscripts that are centuries older. It need not have happened multiple times to appear in otherwise unrelated much later manuscripts. Likewise an accidental omission at an early date would have occurred prior to the practice of decorating the end of a previous text.

    It is a difficult textual variant. It fits so well Mark’s whole story that if Mark did not write them, he should have.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 6, 2015

    It may seem “deep,” but you explain it quite well. The whole idea that scripture was continually altered both by accident and intentionally is fascinating and important Thanks.

  10. Avatar
    Hficher  August 8, 2015

    If the title “son of God” was an intentional addition in Mark 1:1, could it be that it was also added in all the other instances in Mark? In other words, could this be evidence of a gradual transition from Jesus the man to Jesus the son of God in early Christology?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2015

      Yes, that’s certainly worth considering. But the other instances are so firmly woven into the structure of the book that it would be hard to imagine how the narrative would have held together without them (unlike 1:1).

  11. Avatar
    JEffler  August 10, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Did Basilides deny the crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ? If so, why did he?

  12. Avatar
    JEffler  August 12, 2015

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    Regarding Mark 1:1, what are your thoughts on Mark 1:3? which says,

    ‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’ (Isaiah 40:3)

    Couldn’t this be teaching Christ’s deity since, after all, Isaiah 40:3 (quoted above) is literally talking about YHWY?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2015

      Some scribes certainly took it this way. (They changed “him” to “our God”)

      • Avatar
        JEffler  August 13, 2015

        I guess what I am asking is that since the quoted verse in Isaiah 40:3 is about YWHY coming, doesn’t it logically follow that the author of Mark is using this quote, from Isaiah, to teach the deity of Christ (even though there is no virgin birth narrative)?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 14, 2015

          No, not necessarily. Mark doesn’t quote the Hebrew but the Greek OT, which says KURIOS (not YHWH); and the Kurios could be God Almighty or the Son of God (or even your master or employer)

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