More on Variants

In my last post, I discussed the story behind the story of John 7:53, one of our New Testament’s two biggest variants. However, as I noted at the time, those two variants are the exceptions beyond the norm. In reality, some 99% of textual variants are immaterial, nor do they alter the meaning of the text. Moreover, in cases (less than 1%) where variants do affect the meaning of the text, it is about largely insignificant issues. For instance, in Mark 9:29 Jesus says you cannot cast out demons except “through prayer” and other manuscripts say “through prayer and fasting.” The meaning matters if you are going to cast out demons, but otherwise this is largely an insignificant issue. However, in this post, I would like to discuss one immaterial variant that strangely gets a lot of unfounded attention in some quarters. Specifically, there is a variant reading found in the opening line of the Gospel of Mark. The beginning of Mark’s Gospel reads as follows:

“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  (Mark 1:1)

However, there are a few manuscripts where the final words (Son of God) are missing. For some reason a few radical skeptics make a big deal of this omission (in some manuscripts) arguing it is an addition / corruption to Mark’s Gospel because Jesus was not originally known as the Son of God. Needless to say, this is an absurd claim and completely unfounded.

First, there is NOT a question on whether Mark believes or portrays Jesus as the Son of God. Apart from the verse in question, Mark very much affirms and portrays Jesus in precisely this manner. For instance, when Jesus is baptized, God declares: “This is my Son whom I love and am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Then again at the transfiguration, God says: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). Even when demons saw him, they cried out: “You are the Son of God.” (Mark 3:11). Likewise, at his crucifixion, a Roman soldier standing before the cross says: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). Therefore, whatever Mark 1:1 originally said; this variant is NOT some major revelation. Moreover, it is precisely because Mark firmly attests elsewhere in his Gospel that Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God, that the overwhelming majority of scholars are assured this variant is simply nothing more than an accidental omission and NOT an addition. Not that it would matter anyhow due to the aforementioned verses.

But wait! There’s more! There is an ancient custom that is very well-known to textual critics whereby scribes abbreviated sacred names in their manuscripts. Such names where these abbreviations would be used include: Lord, God, Father, Jesus, Christ, Son, Spirit, etc. According to scholars, these abbreviations would typically be illustrated by taking the first and last letter of the sacred name and drawing a line over the top of the letters. Now why is this important? For starters, the phrase “the Son of God” found in the opening of Mark’s Gospel is actually just two words in the original Greek (ΥΙΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ). Additionally, both are sacred names, so the phrase “the Son of God” in Mark 1:1 would actually be abbreviated to four Greek letters (ΥΥ ΘΥ) with a line over the top. Once more, the two words (Jesus Christ) just prior to “the Son of God” are also sacred names and would also be abbreviated in Greek, i.e. ΙΗΣΟΥ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ to ΙΗΥ ΧΥ. Moreover, another ancient custom found in ancient manuscripts was called “scriptio continua” meaning continuous script. In other words, the manuscripts did not separate the words from each other. Therefore, the opening verse of Mark 1:1 “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” would have been written in Greek as: ΑΡΧΗΤΟΥΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΟΥΙΗΥΧΥΥΥΘΥ. Furthermore, consider the transition to verse 1:2 and the text would have appeared in Greek as ΑΡΧΗΤΟΥΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΟΥΙΗΥΧΥΥΥΘΥΚΑΘΩΣΓΕΓΡΑΠΤΑΙ. Note, the words “the Son of God” are underlined. Therefore, one can plainly see how easily a scribe could miss these four letters. Especially when considering that the fourth letter “Y” of “the Son of God”  (ΥΥΘΥ) is the same letter at the end of the word just prior. Once more, both are sacred names and would have had a line drawn over the top of the letters. So a scribe having just written down the “Y” from the word “Christ” (XY), could easily pick up the “Y” at the end of the word “God” (ΘΥ) when their eyes returned to the page to resume writing, thinking that was the “Y” they had just copied over to the new manuscript.

Therefore, given how easy it was for a scribe to accidently skip over “the Son of God” in this passage, coupled with the fact that the vast majority of our earliest manuscripts have these words in Mark 1:1 than not: The conclusion of the majority of scholars is that this variant is an accidental omission, NOT an addition — and that the original text did indeed say: Son of God. Thus, when you read your bible it contains the words “Son of God” in the text of Mark 1:1, but notes there are some manuscripts that do not have it. Needless to say, this variant is completely insignificant. Nevertheless, radical skeptics will go on making mountains out of molehills for forever it seems. Although at least in this case, a real variant was involved. There are several skeptics, misled by a fringe group of cynical scholars (NS), who allege all kinds of “major” and “meaningful” variants that are of course either overstated (as Mark 1:1), or totally fabricated – as in bogus hypothetical assertions with NO manuscript evidence to support such claims. The latter I find most irritating.

In any event, for anyone that would like to read scholarly rebuttals to such erroneous claims, you may want to check out “Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture” by scholars J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace. Additionally, Journalist Lee Strobel, a former atheist turned Christian, has also published a book titled “The Case for the Real Jesus” in which he researched many modern challenges to Christianity (including alleged tampering w/the text) made by cynical scholars and non-scholars alike, then posed them to experts and scholars in the relevant fields to respond. The latter of which is more suited to a general audience.

That concludes this post. Thank you for reading, I hope some may have found this insightful.

JDN

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