From “Behold the Man” to “Jesus the God”: An Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism and the Corruption of the Bible

Ancient copies of the New Testament attest to the fact that humans, as always, exaggerate the deeds and actions of their loved ones. Just like George Washington became the man who would not tell a lie—remember, that fictional cherry tree story where George sawed down a tree and admitted it—so Jesus Christ became not just ‘Jesus the Anointed’ (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word we commonly translated “Messiah”)[1] but “[Jesus] Christ, namely God” (as one ancient Old Latin manuscript has it).[2] We went from Jesus the Man to Jesus the God.

You see, it is so difficult to understand this textual change when most of us have grown up in a nation that teaches us from day one that Jesus Christ is God (within the Holy Trinity). Most of us have been taught that Jesus is, in one way or another, God in the flesh. It is precisely because of this that we cannot totally appreciate, and see the impact of, a scribe who changes “Jesus the Messiah” to “Jesus the God.” Most of us would shrug and say, “So what? Big deal. There is no difference between Jesus the Son of God and Jesus the God.” The problem is that there is a difference. A huge difference. Imagine for a second that the biographer of George Washington’s life started his story a bit differently. Suppose, for a second, that Mason Locke Weems— Washington’s first biographer and inventor of the cherry tree fable—started off his biography by calling Washington “the King.” If Washington was Jewish and living in ancient Israel, he would have been labeled, as Cyrus the Great was before him (Isa. 45:1),[3] “Washington the Anointed One.” And no Jew would even flinch. George would be called King.

Let us further speculate, suppose that a later author edited the text of the biography to read “Washington the Son of God” or, even more simply, “Washington, namely God.” What would the effect be? Obviously, we are dealing with some highly problematic textual changes! It is one thing to call George a king (even an “anointed king” at best), but completely another to call him God!

I am not suggesting that Jesus Christ is to be put on par with Washington, far from it. I am only trying to get the reader to understand the significance of such textual changes. According to the textual evidence, Jesus Christ was certainly the greatest Man (if it be appropriate to call Him a Man) who ever lived. In similar words, Flavius Josephus can say, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ.”[4] I agree with Josephus on this point. The point that I am stressing here, however, has to do with what I call “progressive exaggeration.” Progressive exaggeration is a part of human nature—we have seen it with George Washington. Early Christians tried to edit the text of the New Testament by making simple statements about Christ cheesier. They would take something as simple as the common name Jesus (also known as “Joshua”) and turn it into “Jesus the Messiah our Lord and Savior.” There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it is most definitely elaborative. Christian scribes would constantly highlight the fact that Jesus was not just an ordinary Joshua, but actually “the Lord.” Where Hebrews 13:20 once read “our Lord Jesus” the Old Latin changed it to “our God Jesus.”[5] One may argue that this is insignificant, but the problem is that it happens throughout the entire New Testament! Almost any space where an additional “Lord” or “God” could be added, it was added. The scribes made sure of it.

The problem with Christian (and heretical) scribes was the fact that they did not just make Jesus sound better—they went the extra mile, as Jesus ironically commanded, and eliminated things that made Jesus look human. One interesting change has to do with the text of John 19:5, the text about Jesus prior to His crucifixion.

Jesus Christ is standing before Pilate all wet in tears, saliva, and deep red blood. He is soaked in His own bodily fluids and is wearing a purple robe. Bearing the sins of the world, this God-Man looks more like a carcass than a once-living human. Jesus is crowned with thorns. He is crowned. Pilate presents Jesus the Messiah to the Jewish crowd by saying, “Behold the man.” Some ancient manuscripts totally eradicate this sentence.[6] It is not in the text. What is wrong with the text? Can anyone guess? Jesus Christ was obviously more than a man, thought a scribe. So, he deleted the fact that Pilate ever said such a thing. Matter of fact, it never happened. One of our oldest Biblical authorities, Codex Vaticanus, reads, “Behold a man.” This appears to have been another reading—it never got a wide audience. Anyone’s guess is as good as mine.

It should be obvious to the reader that Jesus Christ was being shaped by the crowd of scribes. He was being recast, so to speak. A scribe placed his ideas into the biblical text; be it out of love and affection, or out of need for correction (or so he thought…). I want to take a closer look at more such changes in the NT. It is my purpose here to reveal the textual evidence and to try to come to a decent conclusion that can do justice to the text.

The God Who Would Not Be

From the very beginning, if we are to take the Gospels as trustworthy literary accounts, Jesus denied the idea that He was God. The Gospel accounts do state in some places, or at least imply, that Jesus is, in fact, God, but even there we must go by mere implication. Because Jesus was such a radical figure, His image was distorted by the crowds and He was greatly misunderstood. Today, we have four Gospels that present us with slightly modified views of Jesus—Mark’s Jesus is human through and through; Matthew’s Jesus is Jewish and Law-abiding; Luke’s Jesus is a Mother Teresa figure out to help the poor; and John’s Jesus is the most divine figure of all time: his Jesus is none other than God Himself sometimes. But even with the most greatly divine Jesus—as He appears in the Gospel of John—Jesus denies the fact that He is God (the Father?). According to John’s gospel, Jesus tells the Jewish crowds, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30 ESV). But then He also tells them, “[T]he Father is greater than I” (14:28). Obviously, Jesus appears to have some sort of ‘schizophrenic’ existence in relation to God the Father. In no way am I being derogatory here—it, quite frankly, appears that Jesus wants His identity to remain sort of foggy and shrouded in mystery. Even in John’s gospel— which has the highest Christology in the entire NT—Jesus is still not completely and openly God. The text of John 5:18 clearly states that the Jews thought that Jesus was “making himself equal to God.” But even here, again, the disciples do not state openly that He is God; it’s almost as if they do not know exactly what He is—they know He has something divine about Him, but they cannot quite pinpoint it. In John 6:45, Jesus seems to imply that He may be God by stating, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (ESV). If Jesus is the so-called “Rabbi” and the so-called “Teacher,”[7] is He not, then, saying that He is God? (For they shall be taught by God—and He is the One doing the teaching!)

The problem is more magnified later in John’s gospel—after Jesus’ resurrection. In John 20:17, Jesus tells Mary, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (ESV). What is so ironic about this is that Thomas, a few verses later, worships Jesus and calls Him, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). Jesus either accepts the honorific titles or seems to shrug them off and ignore them—the text does not tell us what Jesus thought of Thomas’ statement. But, we must not quickly forget—in the air of such elaborate statements as Thomas’—that Jesus just called God the Father His God also!

In such an atmosphere of mystery and controversy, we come to the textual problem of John 1:18. The English Standard Version reads thus: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Clearly, in conjunction with John 1:1—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—John appears to tell us, on the surface, that Jesus (the Divine Word) is God. The text seems to differentiate between both God the Father and God the Son. Nevertheless, both are Gods. That is the keyword here: God. Both are God(s).

The problem that concerns us is that John 1:18 has suffered damage at the hands of the scribes. To be blunt, the majority of manuscripts read differently. They read: “No one has seen God at any time, but the unique Son who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has made him known.”[8] It is the Alexandrian text-type that the translators of the ESV (and other translations) are following. This is ironic, since many fierce inerrantists—who solely adhere to the Byzantine (Textus Receptus) text-type—follow the “corrupt” Alexandrian text-type when it suits their purposes! This textual variant appears to have been corrupted by later orthodox scribes. Of course, one could argue that it were the heretics who corrupted the “original” text—which read “God” in place of “Son”—but that is not entirely the point. The point is that scribes were modifying the Scriptures to suit their theological beliefs.

We can take a closer look at this passage in light of what we know about the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus and God the Father are sort-of like two Beings that are equal sometimes and at ends with one another at other times. If, according to the text, Jesus was the “unique God” how is it that the Father also existed? By “unique” (Greek: μονογενης) John is trying to say that “God the Son” is somehow unique. The problem is that if God the Son were “unique,” would not that imply that no other God exists? It makes more sense to have “unique Son” in the text because it implies that Jesus Christ is a “unique son”—in the sense that He is not like the other so-called “sons of God” (Rom. 8:14) or “gods” (John 10:34). Matter of fact, for John, then, Jesus is the unique Son of God. Thus, it appears that scribes were taking “Jesus the Son of God” and making Him into “Jesus the Unique God.” And, by the way, there is a world of difference.

We’ve already seen how scribes wanted to exalt Jesus from Man to God (and now to Unique God). This will become more evident as we look at a few more good examples. What is of importance here though is for us to look at how heresy and ‘orthodoxy’ were involved in these scribal changes. It is one thing to talk about changes in the text, but an entirely other thing to see them come to life when you discover the character of their very producer.

Docetic Gnostics and Textual Variants

Many Gnostics believed that Jesus Christ did not actually suffer and die. According to The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus Christ did not die on the cross. He merely “appeared” to die—the Greek word for “appear” is dokein (“to seem,” “to appear”). We call such Gnostics “docetists”—they are the Gnostics who believed in the absolute divinity of Jesus Christ. Not bad, right? Well, the orthodox did not think so. Christ could not be the human of the Ebionites nor the ultra-divine God of the Docetic Gnostics. Because of such reasons, The Second Treatise of the Great Seth could have Jesus explain His insignificant “death”:

And I did not die in reality but in appearance, lest I be put to shame by them because these are my kinsfolk. I removed the shame from me and I did not become fainthearted in the face of what happened to me at their hands. I was about to succumb to fear, and I (suffered) according to their sight and thought, in order that they may never find any word to speak about them. For my death, which they think happened, (happened) to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death. For their Ennoias did not see me, for they were deaf and blind. But in doing these things, they condemn themselves. Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was another upon Whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.[9]

Jesus is saying that He never really died. It was Simon of Cyrene who did! Because the Docetic Gnostics held to this belief relatively strongly, they could not allow Scripture to speak about a Jesus who “died.” More to the point, they could not speak about a Jesus the Christ who died. The Messiah, who was probably the Good God Himself, could not have been bloodily crucified by evil and murderous human beings. This was absolute blasphemy for the Docetic Gnostics.

The orthodox (the so-called “majority” opinion) held to the idea that Jesus died on the cross. They stressed the fact that Jesus not only died human, but He was both human and God. In John 19:40, Jesus’ body is taken from the cross in preparation for burial. According to one of our most ancient authorities, Codex Alexandrinus, Joseph of Arimathea no longer takes the body of Jesus but the “body of God.” Because in ancient manuscripts (1st to 3rd century) the sacred names were contracted, this textual variant may have resulted from an innocent mistake. The nomina sacra (as they are called) would have been a ΘΥ (contracted possessive name of God—theou, Θεοῦ). On the other hand, the nomen sacrum (singular for nomina sacra) for Jesus would have been ΙΥ (contracted possessive name for Jesus—Isou, Ἰησοῦ). Because of the similarities between God (ΘΥ) and Jesus (ΙΥ) this textual variant may have been a mistake, but it is definitely a good mistake; something that makes the text say something completely different! Mistake or no, we now have an authoritative Greek manuscript saying something that is rather radical.

A similar textual variant occurs in 1 Timothy 3:16. Modern translators translate it thus: “He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels…” (NIV). The “he” in the text is translated from the Greek word for “who.” What we have seen with the nomina sacra, we see here again. The “who” in Greek is OΣ (hos) it looks almost exactly like the nominative nomen sacrum for God (theos, contracted to ΘΣ). All that is missing is a “dot” in the center and a dash above the theta and sigma for the name of God. Thus, some manuscripts, most notably Codex Alexandrinus,[10] substitute “God” for “who.” Now, instead of Jesus appearing in the flesh, it is “God appeared in the flesh.” This is a relatively radical idea, once again.

In 1 John 3:21-23 we are told that if we have confidence before God anything we ask will be given us. That is, if we “believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” and love one another (v. 23). Some ancient manuscripts, like Codex Alexandrinus, lack the words for “son” (in Greek it would be tou uiou). Now the text simply tells us that we must believe in his name, Jesus Christ, and love one another in order to get what we want from God. The text makes Jesus’ name be equivalent to God’s name.[11] This, again, may be an innocent slip of the pen, but that is debatable.

Separationist Gnostics and Textual Variants

In early Christianity there were the “separationists” who believed that Jesus was just a regular born-of-a-woman man and that He was thoroughly fleshly. Some such separationist Christians were found amongst the Gnostic schools of thought. These Gnostics believed that some divine Spirit entered Jesus at His baptism. The spirit was actually a piece of the divine Godhead. It could have been in the form of a dove but, because of the textual variants, no one really knows for sure. The real “christ,” according to the separationists, actually used Jesus’ body only as a vessel—He was not really born or raised human. This “christ,” then, left Jesus prior to His death—that is why Christ said with His dying breath, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” According to the separationists, Jesus (the human) only said that because the “christ” (or that piece of the Godhead) left Jesus right before His death. The Spirit/“christ” that entered Jesus at His baptism had now left Him because the “christ” could not die. Since the separationist “christ” was a piece of the divine Godhead, it was impossible for a piece of God to die.

The reason the separationists stressed this is relatively simple to understand. For them, the Creator was actually a demiurge or lesser/inferior deity[12] who trapped pieces of divine sparks in only some human bodies (carcasses). Some fleshly carcasses contained this divine spark, and the humans that had this spark needed to be saved and freed from this fleshly prison. All the while, a greater god was planning to save us: a piece of this “good god” was someone known as “christ.” The “christ” was here to save the “chosen few” who had remnants of these divine sparks. Therefore, Jesus’ body was only used as a vessel to pass on secret and special divine gnosis to the few elect. The elect would respond positively to Jesus’ message (it was actually the Gnostic “christ” speaking through Jesus). They would respond and in turn be saved from this world and flesh.

It is no wonder that Christ could not have come in the flesh. Yes, He could have been a phantom (as the Docetic Gnostics held) but a Christ who separated Himself from the flesh appeared to be most logical for the separationists—He came and went, so to speak.

The majority of manuscripts for 1 John 4:3 read “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” Some ancient witnesses read something vastly different. In these texts, it is “every spirit that looses Jesus is not from God.” The difference in Greek is striking, too—the words are either may homologei ton Iasoun (“not confess Jesus”) or luei ton Iasoun (“looses Jesus”). This is most obviously not a slip of the pen. The problem is that this text which speaks about false spirits “loosing Jesus” is not found in our best manuscripts. It appears to have been corrupted by some proto-orthodox scribes in the second century; Origen, Irenaeus, and Clement all know of this text. But what was the point of the change? It appears that “loosing Jesus” meant something like “separating Jesus.” This is probably a text that was changed in order to attack more openly the separationist claim that Christ entered Jesus, and before His death “separated” from Him.[13]

Another interesting variant is Luke 1:35. According to most ancient authorities, Luke’s gospel reads thus: “the child to be born will be called the Son of God” (NIV). On the other hand, according to some other manuscripts, the text inserts two words ek sou (“from you”). We get our word “exit” from the Greek root word ek (which means “out” or “from”). Now, with this addition, the text reads thus: “the child to be born from you will be called the Son of God.” But why would the text need to be changed to read “from you”? It should be obvious: Jesus was born not “of” Mary, but actually from Mary. Jesus was a flesh and blood human. Because this longer text hardly features in the textual tradition, it is virtually always condemned as addition by the scholarly community.[14]

The orthodox Christians were obviously having a field day with the text of the New Testament. Although such variants may appear to be a burden, they are not much so. Most such variants are quickly recognized as additions and quickly dismissed. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge these changes and come to terms with them.

The God That Did Not Know

One professor would always begin his lectures by telling his eager conservative students that Jesus was ignorant. He would quote Mark 13:32, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He would then grin and emphasize how ignorant Jesus was, according to the very Word of God![15] In Matthew 24:36 this phrase is repeated. The textual problem with this verse is rather self-evident: how could Jesus, the very God of orthodox Christianity, not know about the end of the world? Well, the orthodox scribes had a solution: make Jesus more knowledgeable concerning “the times.” Most of our most ancient authorities—Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean traditions—include the phrase “nor the Son” (in Greek that would be oude ho uios). In these most ancient manuscripts, Jesus apparently does not know all things, like the omnipotent god(s) of Greek philosophy. For many Christians, raised in the Greek tradition, this did not, and could not, make any sense. If Jesus was God, even a lesser god, how could He not know something? Greek philosophical presuppositions would not allow such a god to exist. Therefore, orthodox scribes went into the text and changed it—they erased three words: “nor the Son.” This time, no heretic could claim that Jesus was not entirely God by using Matthew 24:36. A good amount of (later) manuscripts do not have this phrase. Even the so-called “inspired” text of the fundamentalist inerrantists—namely, Textus Receptus (almost identical to the Byzantine text-type)—has this phrase, “nor the Son,” omitted. Most of the Byzantine manuscripts lack the phrase, along with most of the Syriac and Coptic texts, including the Latin Vulgate.[16]

A few scribes managed to also delete this phrase from Mark’s gospel (at least two manuscripts have it removed: X and pc). It is almost self-evident that scribes were taking liberties when working with the text of the New Testament. That this phrase “nor the Son” created problems for later (orthodox) theologian-like scribes is more magnified by the textual history of one of our oldest biblical manuscripts: Codex Sinaiticus. The original writer of Matthew’s text in Codex Sinaiticus included this phrase, a second scribe (“Corrector #1”) erased it, and a third scribe restored it (he was “Corrector # 2”). To say that this phrase was not problematic for some Christians would be utterly misleading. In fact, it is still, to this day, extremely problematic—most of us would rather worship a Jesus that did know.

The Heretical Scribe’s Pen

It was not just the orthodox scribes that were focused on correcting and modifying the Scriptures. The heretic had much to offer too. The deletion between Luke 22:42 and 22:45 is still viciously being disputed by scholars today as to whether it is the original text of Luke or not. Bart D. Ehrman argues that it is an addition while von Harnack argues that it is the original text of Luke.[17] To me it appears to be original to the gospel of Luke—it was later edited out early in its textual history due to its portrayal of a human Jesus. Luke 22:43-44 reads, “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (NIV). Because Jesus was seen as being in anguish and sweating (human) blood, some scribes felt it necessary to edit out such descriptions of Jesus. For example, a Docetic Gnostic would never accept such a portrait of Jesus; this was impossible. And so, just like Marcion of Pontus, the Docetic Christians deleted verses that appeared to be problematic for them. Nay, they were correcting a mistake that orthodox scribes (obviously) added to the text! (Ehrman argues that Luke 22:43-44 was fabricated by the orthodox in response to Docetic heresy.)

Since Alexandria, Egypt was the breeding ground for Gnostic Christians, it is significant that this deletion features almost solely in the Alexandrian text-type! Clement and Origen, along with some early Greek manuscripts, eradicate this passage. Nevertheless, some very famous ancient manuscripts have the addition (Codex Bezae, for example). What should concern us here is that this passage is not found in the Alexandrian Church Fathers and the Alexandrian manuscript family. Since Gnosticism was the form of Christianity in Alexandria, it is almost certain that the Gnostics of Alexandria edited this passage and made it conform to their ideologies. In the middle of the second-century, both Justin Martyr and Irenaeus were already familiar with this passage.

Nonetheless, because Luke edits his Markan source in a few key places, some scholars believe that Luke could not have envisaged an agonized Jesus. For, where Mark has Jesus praying in agony and distress in Gethsemane, Luke silently omits that. Mark 14:33-34 reads, “He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’” (NIV). Luke only mentions Jesus leaving the disciples to pray (22:41). Where Mark has Jesus “falling” (14:35) to the ground, Luke has Jesus solemnly “kneeling” (22:41) to the ground. Where Mark has Jesus praying that the “hour might pass” (14:36), Luke, again, has nothing—he simply omits this phrase when copying Mark. When Jesus utters the godless, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” phrase in Mark 15:34, Luke simply has Jesus say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:46 NIV). Because of such variations, and there are many more, some scholars have decided that Luke 22:33-34 is an addition—Luke constantly makes Jesus appear calm and under control, how could he have included a bleeding, agonized, sweating Jesus? These scholars, nevertheless, stress a “relaxed” Jesus where there certainly is no relaxed Jesus. We know that Jesus’ death is horrible and that He does, even in Luke’s narrative, pray to have the cup taken from Him (22:42). Thus, I conclude, somewhat tentatively, that Luke 22:43-44 is a deletion made by the Gnostics of Alexandria.

Summarizing Textual Corruptions

There is no doubt that the New Testament has been corrupted with the passage of time. There is also no doubt that the NT has also suffered negative restoration (a scribe alters a passage because of an assumed previous mistake, which ends up being a mistake nonetheless!). There were scribes altering the text due to their integrity. They firmly believed that some previous scribe made mistakes in the manuscript. They were dead-set on “correcting” those mistakes. If a Gnostic scribe came across the passage in Luke 22:43-44, he clearly knew what happened here (!)—it was the orthodox scribe next door who added that passage into the text! It was that filthy orthodox scribe who wanted to make Jesus look human; as if He really did come in the human flesh! Imagine what the Gnostic scribe would think to himself, “Aha! I got him! That rascal, he must have added this passage. He must have. Jesus could not possibly have bled and sweated. No way!”

But then we must picture the worldview of the so-called orthodox scribe.[18] He, too, must have reacted in similar terms. He must have eyed every “divine,” anti-human passage with utter suspicion. If Jesus appeared to be the “invisible God,” that must have been an addition. If Jesus is called “man,” that must be an addition. The orthodox scribe had a most difficult task, in comparison to the heretical Gnostic scribe. The orthodox had to strike a balance between a divine Jesus and a human Jesus. How do you do that? Do you eliminate a passage that makes Jesus God? No? Maybe? What about a Jesus that is a bit too human? No? Maybe? The questions must have haunted the scribes even in their sleep.

We have already seen the additions. The next question that should be answered is How do we make sense of this data? Should we trust the New Testament? Do we continue to believe that somehow this entire process had been guided by the very Hands of God? Do we believe that the scribes were guided by God? Or do we just lift our hands in surrender and say that we do not know anything? Is it even possible to believe in the unifying Spirit of God when such a mess exists? Do we simply dismiss these textual variants? Do we simply close our eyes and wish that they would disappear? I suppose. Nevertheless, we must remind ourselves that most variants are not entirely important to our faith. In fact, most obnoxious variants can be properly eliminated via textual criticism. I believe that textual variants such as these must have needed to occur. What would we think of a perfect Bible? Would not we just discard it on the grounds that it was “recently compiled”? Would not a coherent text reveal its own youthfulness? I think it would. Had the New Testament been so detached from the fierce theological battles of past eras, it would have been viewed as a “text of recent composition.” Had it not suffered at the hands of human scribes, it would have become quickly disposed of. But because the New Testament was so powerful, so entrenched in history, it suffered. Because the New Testament was written by humans, for humans, and through humans, it suffered. Had the NT come from God directly, it would have been irrelevant to us humans. (I do not mean to say that God is irrelevant.) Much of the NT text can be restored with great certainty—there are those few scattered verses that have been tampered with. In spite of it all, the NT remains God’s Word. In a very real and human sense. In a historical sense.

Because Jesus was seen as super-God by some early Christians and super-human by others, it makes sense for us to allow some room for simple diversity. Maybe this exercise will allow us to be more loving towards other denominations. Maybe we can now understand the difficulty of establishing precisely who Christ was and is. In fact, according to Mark’s “messianic secret,” Jesus wanted His identity to remain a secret. Maybe it is fitting to end a discussion on Jesus identity by simply stating that it is still a secret/parable. “He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables’” (Mark 4:11 NIV).

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] מָשִׁיחַ (Māšîaḥ). We transliterate the word into the English “messiah.” In Greek, it was translated as Χριστός (Khristós), which means “annointed one.” The Greek is correct in the sense that the Hebrew originally meant “one who is anointed” (i.e., a king). Later, as some Jews awaited the coming of some King and High Priest that would save them, the term “anointed one” (and Jewish kings were anointed at the “induction ceremony”) came to mean more than just “anointed one” or even “king,” but “messiah” and “savior.”

[2] See Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effects of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (New York, NY: Oxford University P, 1993), 85. The Old Latin manuscript ff2 for Luke 2:26 has Simeon being told that he will see “Christ, namely God” before his death.

[3] Cyrus the Great was called “anointed” many times by Isaiah the prophet. He was a gentile king who was viewed favorably by most peoples; being democratic and peaceful in spirit.

[4] Antiquities of the Jews, 18.63.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 87.

[6] Ibid., 94.

[7] John 1:38; 3:2;8:4; 11:28; Matt. 8:19;26:25 Mk 9: 5,17; Lk 20:39. These verses, and many more, clearly demonstrate that Jesus was known as the “Rabbi” and “Teacher” by both the disciples and His own enemies. It is also interesting to note that in the gentile Gospel of Luke, the name “Rabbi” never occurs—this reveals Luke’s bias.

[8] Ibid., 78-82. This entire exercise is dealt with in-depth by major commentaries and by Bart D. Ehrman. My text closely follows Ehrman.

[9] Selection taken from James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, revised edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), 193.

[10] I will admit that the evidence that Codex Alexandrinus originally read theos instead of hos is relatively poor. If one examines the manuscript closely, one sees that a later scribe used a more modern ink and turned the hos into theos. Nevertheless, this is still relevant to my argument that scribes changed Scripture to suit their purposes—be it in the fourth or fifteenth century.

[11] Ibid., 83-84.

[12] For other Gnostics, the angels were the ones who created us. This view was espoused by Simon Magus, according to most of our ancient sources.

[13] Ibid., 125-135.

[14] Ibid., 139-140.

[15] This anecdote I got from reading Thom Stark’s excellent book on biblical inspiration, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011), 160.

[16] This entire argument is more detailed in Ehrman’s, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 91-92.

[17] Cf. Bart D. Ehrmann and Mark A. Plunkett, “The Angel and the Agony: the Textual Problem of Luke

22:43-44”, CBQ 45 (1983/3): 401-416. Also Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 187-194.

[18] I speak with natural human limitations—there is simply no evidence for a coherent form of Christianity in the first two centuries. No reputable historian should make the claim that “orthodox” Christianity was easily separable from “heretical” Christianity. The NT is evidence itself of the diversity of “unified” Christianity. Paul’s words in Romans 14 must constantly remind us that there will always be those “weak” Christians. Not to mention the fact that 1 Corinthians 12-14 clearly demonstrates the fact that each member had different functions and possibly even beliefs (Rom. 14). I only use the words “orthodox” and “heretic” in extremely vague and general terms. Paul admired diversity, remember the battles between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Here “orthodox” just means what is most likely the “correct” view, and what was eventually considered by the majority the correct view. Thus, “orthodox” is synonymous with “majority opinion.”

4 thoughts on “From “Behold the Man” to “Jesus the God”: An Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism and the Corruption of the Bible

  1. I am glad to see this complex analysis that does justice to the complexity of the subject matter. When time permits, I want to make a thoughtful response from the position of an ordained minister who has tried to keep up with NT scholarship since graduation. But let me introduce a lighter note right now, which may indeed sound somewhat silly.

    The song “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar, in a strange, haunting way, addresses for me the humanity/divinity of Jesus, or however you might want to characterize his sameness with us and his otherness from us, much more effectively than any ancient creed.

    I invite all interested parties to pull the old song up on Youtube and listen to the original version (the others aren’t bad, either). More later.

  2. When I was in seminary during the 1970s, and form criticism was being supplemented by redaction criticism, almost every mainline NT scholar had a similar picture in mind: Jesus, a Jewish prophet, who became a divine through reinterpretation when his followers took his message into the wider world of the Roman Empire, which was full of divine-savior mystery religions, worshiped the Emperor himself as a god, and thought in Greek rather than Hebrew categories. That’s a gross oversimplification, but essentially accurate.

    But there was a huge problem lurking in the background of this scholarly consensus, perhaps best exemplified in Philippians 2:6-11, apparently an early church hymn recited by Paul in one of his letters predating the gospels by several decades. That hymn of the early church, earlier than the missionary work of Paul, has an extremely high Christology. Indeed, one might argue that it’s Christology is higher than that of Paul and the later epistles, because it is not a matter of God the Father sending Jesus to us so that our sins might be forgiven, but rather a matter of Jesus choosing to empty himself out of love for us without any quid pro quo being involved.

    And yes, I couldn’t agree more that there was and will always be something sublimely mysterious about who Jesus was, how to describe him, what to call him, etc. More later as time permits and my thoughts congeal. What you’ve written here is a wonderful demonstration of the difficulties in coming to firm conclusions about an inherently illusive subject.

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