Son of God in Mark 1:1

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About: this paper was delivered to Professor Peter Rodgers at Fuller Theological Seminary during my second year for a class on Exegetical Methods.

The long string of genitives in Mark 1:1 is quite intriguing. The textual variant in this verse regarding υἱοῦ θεοῦ is difficult to determine. The oldest and best manuscripts are divided; likewise, scholars are divided. It is not an easy task to determine whether or not υἱοῦ θεοῦ belongs in Mark 1:1, but if we are going to be responsible students of the text, we must tackle this task. We need to look at the evidence we have externally and internally in order to complete this task. First, what are all the significant alternative readings that are available for υἱοῦ θεοῦ in this verse, and what textual witnesses support them?

The phrase υἱοῦ θεοῦ is omitted by several key witnesses. Both the original writing of Codex Sinaiticus (א; A.D. Fourth Century) and Codex Koridethi (Θ; A.D. Ninth Century) omit υἱοῦ θεοῦ, as do some other manuscripts. Origen does not include υἱοῦ θεοῦ when he quotes from Mark 1:1 in the middle of the Third Century A.D. Several church fathers in addition to Origen omit this phrase, such as Cyril of Jerusalem, Asterius and Serapion during the Fourth Century A.D. According to the United Bible Society’s (UBS) The Greek New Testament in the fourth edition, a single Coptic manuscript from the Third Century A.D. also supports this omission, whereas Nesle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece in the 27th edition states that the entire Coptic tradition lends itself to a different reading. Even if we neglect the Coptic witnesses due to inconsistency, this alternative reading has enough early and strong support from that of Origen in the Third Century A.D. and א‭ ‬in the Fourth Century A.D. Furthermore, Both Irenaeus and Epiphanius omit “Jesus Christ Son of God.” This genitive string is omitted in the Greek quotation by Irenaeus in the Second Century A.D. Given his relatively early date it seems as though the omission of the shorter phrase υἱοῦ θεοῦ from the first reading we looked at is further supported by Irenaeus’ omission of the larger genitive string.

The omission of the phrase υἱοῦ θεοῦ is strongly supported by the Greek fathers Origen and Irenaeus. Furthermore, it is strongly supported by א‭ ‬in the original hand. However, there are two significant points to be made regarding these pieces of evidence. First, any omission in the quotes of the Greek fathers does not necessarily indicate that the original text did not include υἱοῦ θεοῦ (Cranfield 1959, 38). There is a possibility to consider that the original text included the phrase but the text they received had already been edited to omit it. Therefore, we cannot say with absolute certainty that the text did not include the phrase based on the absence of  υἱοῦ θεοῦ in their quotations. Second, since א‭ ‬was corrected early on, the support of the original hand does not necessarily indicate that the original text of Mark 1:1 did not include υἱοῦ θεοῦ. The original hand comes from the Fourth Century A.D., and the first corrector could have edited the text within that same century. If we accept that א‭ ‬was corrected fairly quickly to fix a mechanical error (France 2002, 49), then the best and earliest manuscript support for the omission of υἱοῦ θεοῦ falls out. Since there is some uncertainty, we cannot say with absolute assuredness that the omission is correct in the original hand of א. Although at first it appeared that the omission had strong support, it now seems that it lacks conclusive evidence.

There is much strong evidence for the inclusion of the phrase υἱοῦ θεοῦ in Mark 1:1. The first corrector of א‭ ‬contains this inclusion. Additionaly, Codex Vaticanus (B; A.D. Fourth Century), Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis (D; A.D. Fifth Century), Codex L (L; A.D. Eighth Century) and Codex W (W; late ninth or early tenth century A.D.) all support the inclusion of υἱοῦ θεοῦ. Furthermore, although they also include the article in front of θεοῦ, Codex Alexandrinus (A; A.D. Fifth Century), Codex Sangallensis (Δ; A.D. Ninth Century), the Majority Text, Family One and Family Thirteen all include the phrase. The entire Latin (as early as the Second Century A.D.) and Syriac (as early as the Fourth Century A.D.) traditions support the inclusion of this Greek phrase. Overall, this reading has a great deal of early support from the second, fourth, and fifth centuries. If we include the Coptic tradition according to Nesle-Aland, then we also have support from the Third Century A.D., which would make the evidence much more neat, so that we would have a consecutive series of support through the second through fifth centuries. It bares strong Alexandrian (B), Western (D) and Byzantine support (A). It is noteworthy that it is included by B, which is generally regarded as one of the best manuscripts (Metzger and Ehrman 2005, 67), and D, which is quite free and expansive, although sometimes it does omit (2005, 71). Likewise, it is significant that א‭ ‬was corrected to include υἱοῦ θεοῦ.

The inclusion of the phrase υἱοῦ θεοῦ is strongly supported, but a few comments must be made. It is important to note that Mark 1:1 functions as the title to the gospel. As such, there was a scribal tendency to expand titles or quasi-titles much like this one (Edwards 2002, 25). Furthermore, according to some scholars, since υἱοῦ θεοῦ is an important phrase or title throughout Mark, were it original it seems unlikely that a scribe would allow it to drop out (Edwards 2002, 25-6). Therefore, if we maintain that the original text included υἱοῦ θεοῦ, we will have a difficult challenge to explain how scribes omitted it early on, such as in the original hand of א. Nevertheless, scribes had a tendency to clean up the language of the text, and given the long string of genitives, it is a good possibility that a scribe decided to omit the phrase (Cranfield 1959, 38). Furthermore, since the Sonship of God was taken for granted early on in the history of the Church, it is very possible that a scribe would have had no problem omitting the phrase to clean it up (Cranfield 1959, 38). The phrase υἱοῦ θεοῦ is strongly supported by a fair amount of key textual witnesses, and although it is not without its own difficulties, it seems that it has the most conclusive evidence of the two possibilities for this variant.

If we are to consider υἱοῦ θεοῦ as original in Mark 1:1 according to the textual witnesses of B, D, W, L, A and the entire Latin and Syriac traditions over and against the original hand of א‭ ‬and the quotations from Origen and Irenaeus, we need to consider the context of the verse and also the larger narrative thread to make sure that it fits the passage and the gospel. The concept of Jesus as God’s Son is involved in Mark 1 at the baptism of Jesus. The language of the chapter allows for υἱοῦ θεοῦ as original. The english rendering, “Son of God,” occurs twice, and in two other locations it appears somewhat differently. In Mark 1:1 and in Mark 15:39 we read, “Son of God,” but in Mark 3:11 we read, “the Son of the God” (this translation is a literal rendering to reflect the difference in Greek between the verses) and in Mark 5:7 we read, “the Son of the Most High God.” It has been argued that the phrase, “Son of God,” is a key theme for Mark and it is therefore likely that it was original in Mark 1:1, but this argument is misleading in the way that it is worded. Four total instances throughout the gospel, if we include Mark 1:1 as original, does not seem to substantiate this claim. Furthermore, only twice is it rendered, “Son of God,” again, only if we include Mark 1:1. The sample is too small to make a decision based on this factor alone, which is based on instances of word choice. Instead it should be said the concept of Jesus as God’s Son is a key theme in Mark, so we do not need to question if υἱοῦ θεοῦ fits the context of Mark. Furthermore, this theme functions climactically in the gospel, and therefore it is a highlighted feature, even if the phrase “Son of God” does not occur often, but this does not necessarily indicate that υἱοῦ θεοῦ was original in Mark 1:1. Regardless if it were original to the first verse of the Gospel of Mark, “Son of God” still functions appropriately in Mark 15; there is no reason for υἱοῦ θεοῦ to be included in Mark 1:1 on the basis of one other instance albeit climactic and important. Notwithstanding the internal evidence for providing cause to include it, if it was original, it would fit the narrative story, so we are permitted to include it if we have strong support from textual witnesses.

Given that the phrase υἱοῦ θεοῦ is well-attested among the manuscripts early on, it can account for the other variants and it complements the function of “Son of God” later in Mark 15, it is very likely that it is in the original text of Mark 1:1, which is further indicated by its wide support in the Western, Alexandrian and Byzantine texts. It has support as early as the Second Century A.D. It is easy to see that a scribe could later omit the original words υἱοῦ θεοῦ due to the long string of genitives, and since there was no theological problem early on to address, it was not necessary to keep, which explains why we have early textual witnesses with the phrase and others without it. But because the phrase fits the later use in the Gospel of Mark, there is no problem with the inclusion, and so it is very likely that υἱοῦ θεοῦ is original to Mark 1:1. It does not seem to be quite as Craig Evans suggests, that the use of “Son of God” in Mark 15:39 proves the inclusion of the genitive form of “Son of God” in Mark 1:1, which he says anticipates what is to come at the cross (2006, 95), but what he implies supports the inclusion–υἱοῦ θεοῦ fits well with the narrative thread of the gospel. Was this phrase added in order to clarify any theological points? Bart Ehrman suggests that υἱοῦ θεοῦ was added in at a later time to make the assertion that Jesus is the Son of God before the baptism and much sooner than the cross event (1993, 75). But given its early support and the tendency for scribes to clean up texts, it is more likely that υἱοῦ θεοῦ was original and that it dropped out as scribes cleaned up the long string of genitives, which was not a problem since the Sonship of Jesus was not a theological debate early on, for how else could the inclusion of this phrase be explained since it is so early  and wide? The earliest and best supported reading that most sensibly accounts for the other alternatives and best fits the text is the most likely reading; in this case, υἱοῦ θεοῦ fits such a description. This reading must be original.

Reference List

Cranfield, C. E. 1959. The Gospel According to St. Mark. Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary. C. F. D. Moule, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Edwards, James. 2002. The Gospel According to Mark. Pillar New Testament Commentary. D. A. Carson, ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Ehrman, Bart. 1993. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Evans, Craig. 2006. Hearing the Old Testament in the New Testament. S. E. Porter, ed. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

France, R. T. 2002. The Gospel of Mark. New International Greek Testament Commentary. I. Howard Marshall, Donald Hagner, eds. Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Metzger, Bruce and Bart Ehrman. 2005. The Text of the New Testament: Its transmission, corruption, and restoration. 4th ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.