In yesterday’s post I discussed 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, but it involves some intriguing stuff that I can say with assurance you didn’t ever learn in Sunday School…
Just by way of basic review (basics not involving heavy waters, but that you *also* didn’t hear in Sunday School), 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 variants 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.
I think the answer is incredibly creative and possibly right. But probably *not* right. One reason for thinking so: this kind of accidental omission of words (or letters) typically happened when
scribes had grown tired and/or inattentive. 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), made some decorations at its conclusion (as in our oldest manuscripts) perhaps to celebrate his completion, and begun anew on the next book. It seems unlikely that this kind of rather significant error would have happened at that particular point in the copying process.
Moreover, it is worth noting that the manuscripts that attest the variation are not ones that are closely related to each other otherwise. That means that they all probably do not go back to the same mistaken copy, but that the omission would have been made in precisely the same way by more than one scribe. That increases the unlikelihood, given the fact that the change comes right at the beginning of the text. That the same accident would happen exactly the same way among different scribes seems unlikely (though not impossible).
When I first devoted myself to analyzing this textual variant, over twenty years ago, it made me think that the change was made intentionally. If the change was intentional, did a scribe remove the words from a text that had them, or add them to a text that lacked them?
I can’t think of any reason a scribe may have wanted to eliminate the words “Son of God” from the text on purpose. The words coincide perfectly with Mark’s view of Jesus otherwise, and the other references to Jesus being the Son of God are not omitted from the text in our manuscripts. So if the change was intentional, it is more likely that the words were *added*, by a scribe or scribes who wanted to make sure the readers knew that this Jesus Christ whose life was about to be described was in fact the son of God.
But I think there may have been more to it than that. Here’s what I argue in the Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: We know from the writings of the heresy-hunter Ireanaeus, toward the end of the second century, that there were groups of Gnostic Christians who preferred using the Gospel of Mark, because it provided them with support for their view that “divided Jesus from the Christ.” This is a view that I have described before on the blog. For these Gnostics, Jesus Christ was two things, a man Jesus who was completely human and a divine Christ who temporarily inhabited him to empower him for his ministry.
In this Gnostic view, the Christ from above came into the man Jesus at his baptism, allowing him to do his miracles and to deliver his spectacular teachings. And then, just before he died, the Christ left Jesus. That is why he cried out, at the end, “My God, my God, why have you left me behind?”
Mark’s Gospel was especially useful for people who had this view. You have these final words of Jesus in Mark (also in Matthew, but not in Luke or John). So, one could argue that the Christ leaves Jesus at this point. But also in Mark you are lacking a Virgin Birth story (contrast Matthew and Luke). The story begins not with Jesus being born as the Son of God. You have him … being baptized! And according to Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus is baptized, in 1:10-11, the Spirit of God comes down upon Jesus from heaven and enters into him.
And so this is perfect for a Gnostic view that divides the Jesus from the Christ, as Irenaeus says. The divine element comes into Jesus at his baptism as the first thing that happens to him (before he utters a word or does a deed); and Jesus cries out in despair that the divine element has left him at the end.
What, then, does this have to do with the textual variant in 1:1? What I argue in Orthodox Corruption is that since the words “the Son of God” do not appear to have been deleted by accident, they were more likely added on purpose. One needs to figure out the purpose. In my view, they were added by proto-orthodox scribes who had a very set purpose: they wanted to clarify that Jesus Christ was and always had been the Son of God. He is called the Son of God, with this addition, before the baptism. He doesn’t become the Son of God at the baptism. He is, and always has been, the Son of God.