I’d like to address the issue of early Christology from a slightly different angle in this post. So far I have talked about how an “exaltation” Christology, in which Jesus, the man, is made the Son of God at some point of his existence can be found in various parts of the New Testament (Rom 1:3-4; speeches in Acts), and how different early Christians located that exaltation to different moments in Jesus’ existence (resurrection, baptism, birth, pre-existence). As it turns out, this view of Christology relates to an important textual variant in the Gospel of Luke.
So, by way of background for anyone new to this kind of discussion. We don’t have the original copy of Luke’s Gospel (or of any other NT book) (or, actually, of any book at all from the ancient world!). What we have are copies made from copies made from copies that were made from copies. We have thousands of copies of the NT from the centuries before the invention of printing. And these thousands of copies have hundreds of thousands of differences among themselves in how they word this, that, or the other passage. MOST of these differences – the vast majority – are insignificant, immaterial, and matter for nothing more than to show that ancient scribes could spell no better than people can today. But some of the differences actually matter, changing the meaning of a passage in a significant way.
One of those important differences is in the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Luke. Here, as in Mark, Jesus gets baptized, and as he comes out of the water the Spirit descends upon him and a voice comes from heaven. In most of our surviving manuscripts of Luke, the voice says “You are my son, in you I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:22) – exactly the same words that the voice says in Mark’s Gospel, Luke’s source for the story. BUT, in one ancient and important manuscript, the voice actually says something different (in Luke); in this fifth century manuscript the voice INSTEAD says “You are my son, today I have begotten you” (quoting Psalm 2:7).
This is obviously a very important difference. If the voice says “today” I have begotten you , then that would indicate that it was at the baptism that Jesus came to be adopted as the son of God – i.e., this would support an exaltation Christology that locates the moment of Jesus’ exaltation at the baptism.
I have devoted a long discussion to the textual variant in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, where I argue on numerous grounds that even though this alternate version of the voice is found in only one Greek manuscript, it is probably the reading originally found in Luke’s account. I’ll mention just a couple of reasons for thinking so here.
First, even though this reading is found in only one surviving manuscript of the fifth century (our oldest manuscripts of the passages are two Greek copies that come from the middle of the fourth), the passage is quoted by church fathers of the second through fourth centuries. These church fathers lived everywhere from Rome, to Alexandria Egypt, to North Africa, to Palestine, to Gaul and to Spain. And in every single instance the church fathers quotes the verse in this alternative version: “today I have begotten you” (from Psalm 2:7). That’s pretty important: this is the form of the text they were familiar with from the manuscripts available to them (manuscripts that no longer survive, obviously) in their time and place. The earliest form of the text is the one that later made it into only one manuscript.
Why in only one? Because later scribes didn’t like this reading. When deciding which reading is older, one has to ask the following question: if a scribe changed the passage (and obviously one or more scribes did, since we have the passage in two forms) which direction was he more likely to change it? Was he more likely to change “You are my son, today I have begotten you” to say “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” or the other way around?
There are compelling reasons to think it was the first option. First, scribes invariably tried to harmonize the Gospels when they copied them, so that they all sounded alike. The version of the saying in most Greek manuscripts is just like the Gospel of Mark – and so it could be seen as a harmonistic alteration of the text.
Second, and even more interesting: we know that in the second century when this passage got changed (whichever way the change went), there were Christians who had what we now call an “adoptionistic” Christology, which said that God “adopted” Jesus to be his son at his baptism (that is, this was the old exaltation Christology that was still hanging around in some circles). Most Christians thought this view was a heresy. And Christian scribes in the period were sometimes influenced by the “orthodox” views that saw the adoptionistic Christology as a heresy. So the question is: would a scribe be more likely to change the text in such a way as to make it amenable to a heretical Christology (by quoting Psalm 2:7 at the baptism), or would he be more likely to change it in order to keep it from being used to support a heretical Christology? The answer is: almost certainly the latter.
But that too indicates that the text originally said “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” In other words, the passage supported the older exaltation Christology.
If that’s our conclusion, though, we run into a problem. Luke’s Gospel indicates that Jesus was *born* the son of God, as we saw yesterday (see Luke 1:35). And in one of the speeches of the book of Acts, as we also have seen, we are told that God made Jesus his son at the resurrection in fulfillment of … Psalm 2:7 (“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”): Acts 13:33.
How could look have it all three ways? That Jesus became the Son of God at his birth. Then at his Baptism (“today”). And then at his resurrection (“today”)?
I’ll deal with that question next.