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The First Textual Variant in the Gospel of Mark

I have been talking about some of the textual variants in Mark, and wanted to address the very first one that can be found in our textual witnesses, one that occurs in the first verse of the Gospel.  I have decided to do so by showing how a relatively hard-core argument is made by textual scholars.  To do that I have copied in my discussion of the passage in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.  This was not a Barnes & Noble book, but was written for academics.  But I think it’s useful to get a sense for that kind of discourse on occasion (OK: rare occasion) on the blog.  So here it is.  As you’ll see, it presupposes some knowledge of adoptionistic Christologies, the topic of yesterday’s post.  (I have eliminated part of the discussion that gets particularly technical, involving the surviving manuscripts that evidence the textual variant) (And apologies for the odd spacing…)


The vast majority of manuscripts introduce the Gospel of Mark with the

words: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But the

final phrase, “the Son of God,” is lacking in several important witnesses.

This slate of witnesses is diverse both in terms of textual consanguinity

and geography. It is this diversity that poses the greatest difficulty for the normal

explanation of the problem. Most commonly it is explained that the

shorter reading was created by accident: because the words Xρ ι σ τ ο ῦ and

θ ε ο ῦ happen to terminate in the same letters (-ο υ ), a scribe’s eye inadvertently

skipped from one to the other, causing him to leave out the intervening

phrase. But since the change occurs in such a wide spread of the tradition,

it cannot very easily be explained as an accident. For then the omission would

have had to have been made independently by several scribes, in precisely the

same way. The explanation is rendered yet more difficult by the circumstance

that the same error,

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Moving to My Next Book
Christians Who Thought Jesus Was Adopted by God: A Blast From the Past



  1. Avatar
    Euler  February 27, 2017

    This blog has been the best investment I’ve made in quite a while. Just a quick question. In the world NT text criticism, is being 39/40 considered detrimental when applying to top Phd programs?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2017

      Not necessarily. The bigger problem is that most people who are 39-40 have not kept up with their languages, and if you are not proficient in Greek and a few other ancient and modern languages, you can’t really become a textual critic.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  February 27, 2017

    None of this explains why the begotten Son of God, born without sin, would need to be baptized for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus made it pretty clear he did not consider himself perfect, or anywhere near it. It’s hard to be objective about one’s deity, but if you believe someone is God, you should certainly believe his own words, as reported in your own holy books.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  March 3, 2017

      That’s a good point, godspell. Along similar lines, I’ve long wondered where John the Baptist got the authority to ‘baptize others for the remission of sin’.

      Bart, was such a concept known before John supposedly came along? Where did that idea come from?

      • Bart
        Bart  March 5, 2017

        The notion of baptism can be found in Jewish circles, but htere it was a repeated event, not a one-time thing. Maybe John himself devised the idea? Making it not about ritual impurity but about moral failings? And making it a one time event in anticipation of the coming end?

  3. Avatar
    crucker  February 27, 2017

    I am currently reading through Marcus Borg’s “Jesus”, and on the concept of Imminent Eschatology he is in the camp that believes verses saying the end was near were not sayings of the historical Jesus but rather “post-Easter” additions. He says, “We think it likely that Mark 9:1 and Mark 1:15 (and much of Mark 13, including 13:30) are the products of an intensified eschatological expectation generated by the Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE with its climax in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. This catastrophic event within a Jewish worldview shared by Mark and other early Christians intensified the sense that the ‘end’ must be near.”

    What are your thoughts on that? Are there any surviving manuscripts that exclude those verses? Or any other evidence pointing that way? Or would such changes occurring so early make it highly unlikely we could ever find manuscript that would preserve the earlier reading even if that were the case?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2017

      It’s certainly possible. But there are very big problems with it, as I explain in my book on Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet. For one thing, these apocalyptic sayings are not found only in Mark. The are also abundantly in Q and in M and L.

      • Avatar
        Euler  February 28, 2017

        Dr Ehrman,

        Are there any books you would recommend that are dedicated solely on giving the reasons why scholars are convinced there was a Q document?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 1, 2017

          YOu might try Robert Stein’s book on the Synoptic Problem.

  4. Avatar
    ask21771  February 27, 2017

    When did the author of 2 Thessalonians believe the end was coming

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2017

      Sometime soon, but not right away. Some other things have to happen first (see ch. 2).

  5. Avatar
    dragonfly  February 27, 2017

    How can we know it wasn’t omitted by adoptionists?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2017

      It’s possible. I tried to find instances of heretical corruptions of the text — thinking I would write an entire book on the Heretical Corruption of Scripture. And I simply couldn’t find reasonably unambiguous cases of it happening. The reason is almost certainly became the surviving manuscripts were produced by proto-orthodox and orthodox scribes. Aberrant manuscripts simply weren’t copied. So some heretical variants may have fallen through the cracks and survived, but it rarely if ever seems to happen.

  6. Avatar
    Habakuk  February 28, 2017

    I somehow recall that there is even a variant saying “This is the gospel of Jesus.” – even omitting the word “Christ”. Is that correct?

  7. Avatar
    davitako  February 28, 2017

    I just finished reading The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. It was a bit difficult to follow, but it is incredibly well written. The first impression I had was “just how much work and effort was put into this!”.

    Bart, is it likely that Mark was familiar with Paul’s letters? If yes, what passages of Mark indicate this?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2017

      It’s possible, but there’s no hard evidence. But their views of the significance of Jesus’ death seem very similar.

  8. Avatar
    JoeWallack  February 28, 2017

    I always enjoy your Textual Criticism posts. I understand there’s only so much you can include in a post and a combination of a minimum of quality External evidence & The Difficult Reading Principle is usually decisive. Here though the Short Reading is actually favored by the External Evidence due to the Patristic Category. As documented at my Blog http://thenewporphyry.blogspot.com/2016/08/son-control-marks-2nd-amendment-was-son.html “Son Control – Mark’s 2nd Amendment. Was “son of God” Added Later to Mark 1:1? The Greek Patristic Evidence” the early Greek Patristic evidence is overwhelmingly Short with Tatian, Irenaeus, Origen, Basil, Cyril, Epiphanius, Asterius and Severian.

    Wasserman is currently championing the Long Reading and his main apology is that the Patristics above were abbreviating by omitting “son of god”. Strange/bizarre/macabre that when we get to the later Latin no one ever abbreviates any more. Add to this that the related context for most of these Patristics is exactly Jesus as the son of God. Professor Ehrman, what is your opinion of this Abbreviation Theory?

    A couple more observations:

    1) Specifically GMark never identifies Jesus as the son of God via editorial comment. It is always done via narrative.

    2) We have the CUMULATIVE pattern/connection of a relatively high percent of the most credentialed witnesses that evidence the Difficult Reading for some of the most sensitive readings. This makes accidental change unlikely.

    3) We have relatively few witnesses with the credentials of Sinaiticus & Vaticanus if you look at the Age gaps & Text types.


  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 28, 2017

    The argument that a scribe would be less likely to make an accidental mistake at the beginning of a text, when he is just starting a copying process, is a persuasive argument. The bigger question is what is meant by the “Son of God”? Just before I was baptized, as an adolescent, the preacher asked me “Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God”? I remember thinking, even as an adolescent, what the heck does that mean?

  10. Avatar
    rivercrowman  February 28, 2017

    I have your book “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” (2011) and made it to page 79 before setting it aside as too technical. Now I see in the post above that Mark 1:1 is first mentioned on page 85. It sure pays to read your regular blog entries. Thanks!

  11. Avatar
    roycecil  March 2, 2017

    Dear Dr. Bart, Are there any historical reasons for the three temptations mentioned in the Gospel ? Did Jews believe that the messiah will turn stone to bread and will jump from the top of the temple ?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      The three quotaitons on Jesus’ lips are from the stories of the wandering of faithless Israel in the Wilderness in the OT. The temptations are meant to show that Jesus succeeded where Israel failed.

  12. Avatar
    PeymanSalar  March 5, 2017

    Hi Prof,

    I rally interest to know what do you think about this new discovery. Have you seen this manuscript?
    would you comment on this?



    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2017

      Two things to notice: it was to be published in 2013 (still hasn’t happened) and it doesn’t change anything we already think (so is it *hugely* significant?)

  13. Avatar
    JamesSnappJr  April 2, 2017

    BE: “The explanation is rendered yet more difficult by the circumstance that the same error, so far as our evidence suggests, was not made by later scribes of the Byzantine tradition, many of whom are not known for their overly scrupulous habits of transcription.”

    Most Byzantine scribes copied their exemplars faithfully at this point, but if the data in Wieland Willker’s Textual Commentary on the Greek Gospels is correct, your statement may need adjustment: a smattering of Byzantine MSS of Mark also have the omission: 530, 582, 820*, 1021, 1436, 1555, 1692, 2430, 2533. And 28 is messed up in a couple of ways here too (as Habakkuk pointed out). 055 and four minuscules have “of God” but not “Son.”

    BE: “Since the change occurs in such a wide spread of the tradition, it cannot very easily be explained as an accident. For then the omission would have had to have been made independently by several scribes, in precisely the same way.”

    I dunno about the “in precisely the same way” bit — some scribes may have been in circumstances that others were not, using different exemplars and writing in different script, etc. — but it seems worth considering that what we have here is the written equivalent of a tongue-twister; if we watch different people stumble over the same group of words, the conclusion, “Those are hard words for some people to say” seems a more natural conclusion than “Those people all have the same great-grandfather.”

    Plus, in Sinaiticus, who made this correction? Was it Scribe D, the proofreader? The matter of whether Sinaiticus ever left the scriptorium with the shorter reading bears investigation.

  14. Avatar
    llamensdor  April 16, 2017

    The greatest non sequitur in bible literature, and a very high ranking one in all of literature is the Centurion saying “Truly this was the Son of God.” Where did he get that idea? Nothing in this gospel prepares the reader for this assertion by a Roman soldier. If there is anything in all the gospels that an author obviously invented, it is this statement.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2017

      Mark’s Gospel is all about how Jesus is the Son of God precisely because of his death. The centurion recognizes it. I’m not sure if you’ve read my posts, but I’ve explained recently how this passage not only fits into Mark’s Gospel but in fact provides the ending bracket for the one that started at the baptism, forming a literary inclusio.

  15. Avatar
    rburos  September 20, 2018

    Apologies I was looking for a better place to put this question but I couldn’t find one. You once recommended the Zurcher Bibel to me and I like it very much. There are some peculiarities, however, that I would like to ask you about, specifically the inconsistent use of tense in Mark. For example from chapter 1:

    37 Und sie fanden ihn, und sie sagen zu ihm: Alle suchen dich!

    38 Und er sagt zu ihnen:

    Is this something that comes through in the koine as well? I’m aware of the grammatical error in16:6 “ide” instead of “idete” ho topos, but alas I’m still working on achieving even a basic competence in Greek. I would hazard to think of the theological implications of the Holy Spirit making grammatical errors. . .



    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018

      Yes, this is a feature especially of Mark’s Gospel. It’s called the “historical present,” when a present tense is used to express an action in the past, in order to make it more vivid. We do it in English as well (“And so I say to this guy….”)

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