When dealing with New Testament criticism—textual criticism, in particular—an important area of study involves those passages with a strong Christological orientation. After all, since the Christian message is centered on the Gospel proclamation of who Jesus was and what he did, it stands to reason that a critical study of early Christian writings is at its most significant just where those aspects are being emphasized. With regard to the study of textual variants (variant readings), which lie at the heart of New Testament textual criticism, we may apply the principle that variants in a theologically significant passage are theologically significant. And there are perhaps no passages more theologically significant than those which are Christological in nature.
These Saturday Series studies this Fall will be taking a critical approach to a number of key New Testament passages, demonstrating especially how criticism relates to a sound interpretation of a passage, helping us to root our doctrine and theology in an accurate understanding of the text of Scripture. As noted above, such a critical study is arguably most important where the New Testament Scriptures are Christological in focus. It can also be a sensitive matter, dealing, for example, with variant readings when a vital point regarding the person of Christ is being made in the text. Here, textual criticism is at its finest, yet also, in many instances, its most controversial as well.
And, it must be said, Christological textual variants are more common than one may think (or wish to acknowledge)—indeed, there is a whole range of variants which came into existence precisely because of Christological concerns among early believers (including those who wrote and copied the Scriptures). By way of introduction, let us consider two relatively simple examples, in Mark 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:16. As it happens, both of these verses appear to evince a certain tension between the early strands of Christian tradition and later, more clearly developed Christological concerns.
Arch¢¡ tou euangelíou I¢soú Christoú huioú Theoú
“(The) beginning of the good message of Yeshua (the) Anointed, (the) Son of God”
This is the opening statement in the Markan Gospel, most likely the earliest of our surviving Gospels, according to the majority text—that is, the reading of the majority of manuscripts and witnesses. It is straightforward enough, functioning as the title of the work. However, in a number of key manuscripts and witnesses the text is shorter, reading simply:
Arch¢¡ tou euangelíou I¢soú Christoú
“(The) beginning of the good message of Yeshua (the) Anointed”
Here the words huioú theoú (ui(ou= qeou=, “Son of God”) are not present. This shorter text is the reading of the uncial manuscripts a* (Codex Sinaiticus) and Q, the minuscule manuscripts 28c and 1555, the Greek text underlying the Peshitta Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian versions; it is also attested by Origen, writing in the early-mid 3rd century (Commentary on John 1.13; 6.24; Against Celsus 2.4). When a minority reading is found in such a wide and diverse range of (early) witnesses, it must be taken seriously.
Is the shorter text original? It must be noted that the tendency among copyists was to add detail which enhanced the Christological portrait, and, in such instances, the longer text often must be regarded as secondary, following the general principle lectio brevior potior (“the shorter reading is preferred”). The shorter text here is sometimes explained as due to a copying error, where the eye skips over huioú theoú due the similarity of endings in the sacred names (nomina sacra). Mistakes of this kind were frequent, made easier because of the use of shorthand abbreviations for the nomina sacra. For example, Christoú (Xristou=) would appear in the manuscript as ++x+u, and similarly Theoú (Qeou=) as +q+u. However, in this case, a scribal mistake is unlikely, with the verse occurring as it does at the beginning of the book, prominently as a title; it is hard to see a copyist making such a blunder at the very start of a book. Moreover, the wide range of witnesses to the shorter text would seem to require that multiple copyists all made the same mistake at this point, independently of each other, which is not very likely.
If the shorter reading is original, as seems probable, it should not itself be taken as evidence of a ‘lesser’ Christology in Mark, as though the Gospel writer would eschew the title “Son of God” for Jesus. He clearly accepted the title (3:11; 5:7; 15:39); its relative rarity (compared with the other Gospels) and the way it is used in the narrative simply reflects an older/earlier stage of the (Synoptic) Gospel Tradition, which was developed considerably at many points in Matthew and Luke (for example, compare Mk 8:29 with Lk 9:20 and Matt 16:16). What it finally demonstrates was the power of early Christological belief, which made it so natural for scribes to add in titles such as “Lord” (Kýrios) and “Son of God” to the name Jesus. Such textual enhancement occurs throughout the manuscript tradition, and where better (and more appropriate) for it to occur than in the title of the Gospel? All believers at the time would have readily accepted and used “Son of God” as a title for Jesus, even if its precise meaning could be disputed (1 John 2:22-23; 4:2-3, 15, etc).
1 Timothy 3:16
Whatever one’s view regarding the authorship of the Pastoral Letters (and 1 Timothy in particular), commentators are generally in agreement that 1 Timothy 3:16 preserves an early creedal formula, marked by its terse, abbreviated syntax, with a series of parallel lines consisting of a verb + prepositional expression using en (“in”):
“…made to shine forth in (the) flesh,
made right in [i.e. through] (the) Spirit,
seen (among) (the) Messengers,
proclaimed in [i.e. among] (the) nations,
trusted in the world,
taken up in honor/glory”
Paul (or the author) made use of this formula as a way of summarizing what he calls the “secret of (our) good reverence (toward God)” (to t¢s eusebeías myst¢¡rion). It is at the point of the transition between the noun myst¢¡rion and the introduction of the creedal formula that there is a notable variant reading in the text, with some witnesses reading the noun theós (qeo/$, “God”), while others read the relative pronoun hós (o%$, “who, which”).
The manuscript evidence is rather evenly divided, though the earlier and better witnesses tend to support the relative pronoun. It is the original reading of the major uncial manuscripts a A C, the minuscules 33 365 442 2127, important segments of the Syriac tradition, as well as a number of Church Fathers writing in the 3rd-5th centuries (e.g., Origen, Jerome, Cyril, Epiphanius). The reading with the noun theós is found throughout the Byzantine manuscript tradition, a range of important uncials and minuscules (614 1739 al), and most of the later Fathers, from which it came to be the “Textus Receptus” reading. It is worth noting, however, that no uncial (in the first) hand prior to the 8th or 9th century has this reading, nor is it found in any Church Father prior to the late 4th century; the occurrence of theós in the MSS a A C D is a ‘correction’ coming from a second scribal hand (Metzger, p. 574). Support for the relative pronoun (hós) is increased when one considers the manuscripts (D* etc) which read the neuter form hó (o%), presumably as a grammatical ‘correction’ of the masculine hós (to agree with the noun myst¢¡rion, which is neuter).
Two factors make it all but certain that the reading with the (masculine) relative pronoun is original. The first involves what we call “transcriptional probability”; that is, which reading was more likely to be changed, giving rise to the others. Here we note how the uncial form of the relative pronoun os could be mistaken for the sacred-name abbreviation (nomina sacra) of the word theos (qs). Given the way the nomina sacra are rendered, with special demarcation (+q+s), it is highly unlikely that a similar change would have taken place in the opposite direction.
The second factor involves the poetic syntax of the creedal formula itself, in which the lines all depend on an initial relative pronoun. Examples are readily to be found, in Philippians 2:6 and Colossians 1:15 (both thought to introduce early Christological creed/hymns), which likewise begin with the relative pronoun hós (o%$). For additional detail, see J. Sanders, The New Testament Christological Hymns (Cambridge: 1971), pp. 15-17 (cited by Ehrman, pp. 77, 111).
How or why was the relative pronoun changed to the noun theos? Was it simply the result of a copying mistake (see above), or was it intentional? Whether or not intentional, the change is certainly purposeful, in that it serves a Christological purpose—namely, identifying and affirming Jesus Christ as the incarnation of deity, the (pre-existent) Son of God who came to earth in human flesh. As in the case of Mark 1:1 (discussed above), such a change was a natural addition for devout scribes to make to the text, since it reflected unquestionably the sort of pre-existence Christology that been developing throughout the late-first and early-second centuries. Such explicit identification of the pre-existent deity of Christ was especially useful in combating those segments of early Christianity which denied such a Christology, or held alternate, heterodox views.
In many instances, such Christological variants can be recognized as clearly secondary additions or alterations to the text. The situation is not always so simple, as the case of John 1:18 demonstrates, where commentators and textual critics continue to debate whether monogen¢¡s theós or monogen¢¡s huiós is the most likely original reading (I discuss this passage in detail in an earlier study). Whatever else one may say about them, such textual variants are far from trivial; they are imbued with the utmost theological and doctrinal significance, and cannot be ignored.
We shall encounter more of these fascinating Christological variants as we proceed through our weekly studies this Fall. You may also wish to follow along on a series of daily notes I am beginning this week, to run through the remainder of October, in which I will be presenting a detailed critical and exegetical study on the two “Christ hymns” noted above—Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20.
References above marked “Ehrman” are to Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford University Press: 1993).
Those marked “Metzger” are to the UBS/Metzger A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: 1994).