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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

"Son of God" Original to the Text of Mark 1:1

In a comment to my previous article on the first line of the Gospel of Mark and how it indicates Mark's belief Jesus was divine, Mr. Carr argued that the phrase "Son of God" is not original to the text (at least I think that was his point.

Here was his comment:

Important early witnesses, including Origen, and Codex Sinaiticus, the only Great Codex to contain the entire New Testament, omit the phrase, Son of God.

As Origen was exceptionally interested in textual matters, it is hard to believe he would make such a blunder as to omit such a phrase, from such a position in the Gospel.

In his widely regarded commentary on the Greek Text, however, Bruce Metzger concludes it is authentic and that the omission is due to accident. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, page 73. The phrase is only missing from a few manuscript traditions, though one of them – Codex Sinaiticus – is an early one. Origen also does not quote the phrase. The omission by Origen does not really add any weight to the challenge against authenticity. Even if it was missing from his manuscript (and not simply omitted by him in his own comments), Iraneus wrote decades before him and knew the phrase was in Mark 1:1. Also, “since the text of Codex Sinaiticus may be based upon that of papyri which Origen took with him from Alexandria to Palestine, the two chief witnesses for the omission are, perhaps, reduced to one.” William L. Lane, NIC, The Gospel of Mark, page 41. Apart from Siniaiticus, is there any other manuscript in favor of the exclusion of this phrase? There are, but they come much later than Siniaticus. “Apart from this lone fourth century MS, the rest of the Greek testimony is quite late, coming approximately 500 and 700 years later.” Daniel B. Wallace, Does Mark 1:1 Call Jesus ‘God’s Son’? A Brief Text-Critical Note, at

The phrase is, however, in Codex Vaticanus, Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis, Codex Regius, Codex Freenarius, as well as many others. It is also attested by Iraneus in Against Heresies, Book III. Thus, the vast majority of the textual evidence (and arguably the earliest and most unadulterated manuscript tradition) favors authenticity.

Additional factors also favor authenticity. Perhaps most important is that the omission very plausibly “can be attributed to scribal oversight due to the similar endings of the sacred names.” Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, page 70. The early Christian use of “sacred names” instead of using the actual “Jesus Christ” or “God” would render “Jesus Christ” and “Son of God” confusingly similar. Redundant even. According to Robert H. Gundry, “the longer reading IYXYYOY might easily have been shortened to IYXY by homoioteleuton.” Mark’s Apology for the Cross, page 33. Dr. Wallace adds:

Further, the reading in question is a compound nomen sacrum following immediately after another compound nomen sacrum. That the words could have been omitted by accident is quite likely, since the last four words of v 1, in uncial script, would have looked like this: iucruuuqu. With all the successive upsilons an accidental deletion is likely.

Dr. Wallace and Gundry add additional reasons that the hand of an omitting scribe is likely at issue here. Wallace is succinct (and can be cut and paste) so I will quote him:

But even more can be said: tou' eujaggelivou jIhsou' Cristou' uiJou' qeou' is one of only eighty-three places in the NT in which four or more words in a row end in –ou; of these, only twenty texts have five or more words in a row (besides Mark 1:1, cf. Matt 7:5; 9:20; 14:36; Mark 6:56; Luke 8:44; Acts 6:13; 12:12; Rom 1:3; 1 Cor 1:9; Gal 2:20; Phil 3:8; Col 2:2; 1 John 3:23; 2 John 3; Rev 9:13; 14:10; 15:7). There are only two texts in which as many words end in –ou as in Mark 1:1 (1 Cor 1:9 has seven in a row, while Rev 14:10 has nine in a row). To be sure, there are other places in which a string of genitives occur (e.g., Matt 1:1 [7]; Rom 1:29 [5]; Heb 11:32 [5]; 1 Pet 1:1 [5]), but these do not all end in –ou. An examination of the multiple –ou texts reveals the following textual variation statistics:1 ten of the twenty quintuple –ou texts—exactly half!—show omissions, substitutions, etc. that break up the multiple –ou construction. And of the 83 quadruple or more –ou texts, Sinaiticus breaks up the sequence ten times (cf., e.g., Acts 28:31; Col 2:2; Heb 12:2; Rev 12:14; 15:7; 22:1)—or twelve percent of the time! There is thus a significantly higher possibility of accidental scribal omission due to homoioteleuton (similar ending words) in such a MS.

Accordingly, there is very good reason to believe that a scribe or scribe in the Sinaiticus tradition accidently omitted the phrase “the Son of God.”

Finally, we must examine whether the phrase is intrusive to the text. Clearly it is not. Mark uses the phrase elsewhere (3:11; 5:7; 15:39) and often describes Jesus in terms of being God’s son (1:11; 9:7; 12:6; 13:32; 14:61). It is an important designation of Jesus Christ. Of particular interest is the use of the exact phrase “Son of God” in 15:39 – put on the lips of a Gentile --, very near the end of Mark’s gospel. As Witherington states, “‘Son of God’ is clearly a crucial title for Mark, perhaps even the crucial title that helps tie this Gospel together from start to finish for its largely Gentile audience (cf., e.g., Mark 15:39).” Witherington, op. cit., page 70 n. 8. This last point is particularly persuasive given my earlier post on how Gentiles would read Mark 1:1 given its similarities to imperial decrees.

So, “Son of God” appears in the vast majority of our early manuscripts. Its omission is easily explained as a scribal error. And it is not intrusive to the text. Indeed, it appears to be symmetrical and entirely consistent with Mark’s usage elsewhere. It appears, therefore, that the reasons for concluding that the “Son of God” is original to Mark 1:1 are very strong. The reasons for opposing it are not.

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