Is Jesus Never Called "The" God...? Addendum on Heb 1:8

Remember how long the articles in this miniseries were? (Starting here?) Did you ever wish I could have just trimmed some discussion out and moved along?

Well... I did. Specifically on Hebrews 1:8, which I ranked at the top of the list of examples where Jesus is called {ho theos} in the New Testament. There's a mind-scrummingly dull textual transmission issue there which I tried to spare my readers from since (1) it would have been a digression of exceedingly minor importance, and (2) it would take me a lonnnng slogging way to demonstrate why and how it's an exceedingly minor digression. At the end of an already-lengthy entry, in the middle of other lengthy entries?? What would be the point?!

So of course, since it was the top of the list, someone quickly brought up the textual transmission issue.


Dr. BW, offsite, asks:

"Isn't there a textual variant with most translations providing the alternate, '...of the son, God is your throne... as the sceptor of His kingdom'? My inclination is that 'absolutely unambiguous' [as I called the grammatic argument there] exaggerates the case."

I assume he means "reported by most English translations", since the textual variant itself, while it has a few early respectable witnesses (including a papyrus), doesn't actually have any good text-critical argument in its favor on the basis of external attestation.

While it has three respectable early witnesses (Pap-46, "Aleph", and B), it only has those three textual witnesses at all, period, the end!

The other reading has equally early and respectable and monstrously wider attestation across categories and families, as well as backing by the Greek Septuagint Old Testament (by the way). If those three witnesses weren't respectably early and (in two cases) popular, there would be exactly no reason to go any further.

Unfortunately, they are. So this is only the beginning of the wicket we're going to be stuck chopping through in addressing this issue.

This super-minority textual variant, {autou}, "of him" (instead of {sou}, "of you"), doesn't make much grammatic sense there either. Translators of this variant's inclusion basically ignore it completely, and supply a "your" which isn't there anymore having actually been replaced by the super-minority {autou}!--which is why I'm willing to bet a Coke my reader won't find many translations trying to provide the alternate "God of him is your throne"!

You could take my word for it that this is the sum of the whole matter and move along; or if you insist on following out the details... remember, I did warn you!

The grammar in the vast majority of all surviving texts of Hebrews, including early copies, and across all language families (except for one sub-branch of the Syriac which reads as though it had no pronoun at all there either way), reads:

{ho thronos} the throne
{sou} of you
{ho theos} the God
{eis ton aio_na tou aio_nos} into the eon of the eon

There is no explicit verb, so a verb of being is implied somewhere.

This leads to the question of how someone distinguishes "the X, Oh Y, is blah de blah" (vocative like "the throne, O God, is into...") from "the X is the Y blah de blah" (predicative identity like "the throne is the God into...") The pronoun {sou} makes no difference here; and the subsequent phrase "into the eon of the eon" works either way.

Well, leaving a direct article off the predicate nominative would be one way, as in the subsequent clause which doesn't involve persons, therefore cannot be a personal address, but which still puts no direct article in front of "the rod" when it repeats as a predicate nominative without an explicit verb of being. (There is apparently a minor textual variation not reported in the apparatus for the UBS, witnessed by another less-well-sourced text compilation I possess, indicating there was still some confusion somewhere about which "rod" was supposed to be the predicate nominative and so not have a direct article; in this case the first one doesn't have it but the second one does!)

Unfortunately, the phrase under consideration doesn't leave off the direct article.

Another major way of distinguishing that a subject and a predicate nominative is intended would be to give an explicit verb of being. But there isn't one here either.

The two main clues for deciding against a vocative address being entirely missing (unlike the immediately subsequent clause, not incidentally, which has one of those clues even when strictly speaking it doesn't need to!), that means the author intends a vocative address. And since {theos} is personal and {thronos} isn't, that ends the grammatic analysis: "The throne of you, O the-God, is into..."

Note that had the author intended to vocatively address only "a" god, it still wouldn't have really helped to leave off the direct article, since that could also be otherwise taken for a sign that the author meant "the throne of you is the god", with "the god" in the predicate nominative slot. Similarly, the author a moment later doesn't certainly mean only "a rod" when he leaves off the direct article of the predicate nominative; he definitely means the same "the rod" again.

This is why most exegetes prefer the vocative as a translation for this ultra-majority and early variant.

The super-minority (although also respectably early) variant with only three existent texts, on the other hand, reads

{ho thronos} the throne
{autou} of him
{ho theos} the god
and then "into the eon of the eon" like before (with the same next clause as before regarding the rod, except with "of him" again instead "of you" at the end)

All the factors from before are still in play, the pronoun being irrelevant for this purpose, so the translation still ought to be vocative "The throne of him, O God, is into the eon of the eon". This would still leave the one being addressed being called {ho theos}!

But now the preceding phrase comes into play, because the author says the Father is speaking this (whatever it is) "toward the Son", {pros ton theon}. (There is a transitional {de}, too, included as a minor conjunction in post-positive position after the {pros}, but it is irrelevant for our current purpose so I am omitting it.)

If the Father is saying to the Son, "the throne of you is into the eon of the eon", it's entirely clear whose throne He is speaking about: the Son's. It's still entirely clear even if He says that the Son is {ho theos} along the way!

But if the Father is saying to the Son, "the throne of him is into the eon of the eon"--who the heck is the Father talking about?? Even when "the God" is included back in, it would have to be about the throne of someone other than the Son. (Similarly in the previous verse the author represents the Father speaking to the angels about "the angels of him", meaning the angels belong to someone other than themselves. This is often a little obscured in English translations which don't always translate {pros} accurately but rather that the Father is speaking about the angels instead of to them. That's also true enough but textually inaccurate.)

Who else's throne goes into the eon of the eon?! It isn't one of the angels!--the whole point of the Hebraist, by anyone's reckoning anywhere, is to show that the Son exceeds everyone except the Father! The Holy Spirit sure isn't being mentioned, and I don't recall the Spirit per se ever being spoken of (in some manner personally distinct from the Son not to say the Father) as having the ongoing throne anyway.

There is a plausible candidate left over, fortunately: the Father.

That would mean the Father was speaking of Himself to the Son in the third person here, but that actually isn't a problem because the author goes on immediately afterward in verse 9 to represent the Father doing just that while calling Himself {ho theos}.

Thus we have two interpretative options for this super-minority textual reading.

Option 1: the Father is calling the Son {ho theos} but talking about His own throne which will be to the eon of the eon (and his own rod by the way).

(The interpretation could be "the throne, O the-God of Him, is into...", but now we have the Father talking about the Son being the-God of someone else who disappears out of the author's topical account altogether. The attempt to go back to "the throne is the god" should be avoided on prior grounds anyway, but the options can be disposed of here, too: "the throne of him is the god into..." or "the throne is the god of him into..." leaves us with no idea who the Father is speaking to the Son about.)

Or option 2: we aren't looking at a vocative address or at a hidden nominative identity comparison, but rather at {ho theos} as clarifying for us who the Father is talking about when He refers to "him", namely "the God". Thus, "the throne of him, [the one who is] the God, is into..."

That would work grammatically (as far as I can tell anyway--although there might also be a serious problem since {ho theos} isn't in genitive form to match {autou}!) And it synchs with the Father speaking of Himself in the third person as {ho theos} right afterward. And hey, it avoids having to acknowledge that the author means for us to understand the Father as {ho theos} also calling the Son {ho theos}! Who cares if it only has three existent texts?!?

Well, aside from it only having three existent texts, there's still a problem:

Now the statement makes no sense for the author to be including for his purpose here.

The Hebraist in his introduction is trying to talk about the superiority of the Son to any angels. This is acknowledged by everyone--the question is what kind of superiority. The author also along the way is making it clear that the Son has some kind of inferiority to the Father. This is also acknowledged by everyone (except modalist interpreters maybe, who don't distinguish between the Persons of the Father and the Son. I don't want to think about the nightmarish interpretative task they have here...)--the question is what kind of inferiority.

Since the author presents the superiority of the Father as being assumed without question, he doesn't have to go to a lot of trouble to establish this in regard to the Son, but he's going to a lot of trouble to talk about the Son's superiority to any angel. (And not to any other angel, by the way!) The author is smack in the middle of throwing out a bunch of scriptural references in a rhetorical contrast, as follows:

To which angel did the Father ever say this or that concerning a specially superior excellence regarding someone other than the Father? (Expected answer: none.) Yet to the angels He instead says this-other-scripture about the Firstborn (Son) having superiority over the angels. And indeed to the angels the Father is saying this scripture, about the angels belonging to someone else and even being created by someone else; yet to the Son instead the Father says this scripture about...

...about the Father being supremely awesome?

And also to the Son the Father says this scripture (the longest one cited) about... the Father being supremely awesome again?

Yet (finishing out the Hebraist's opening spiel), to which of the angels has the Father at any time declared this last scripture clearly about someone else other than the Father?

The topical sequence is broken if the Father is explaining to the Son that the Father is greater than the angels (as if the Son is a rebel angel of the sort the Father expects, per the author's previous citation, to quit rebelling and get in line when the Father brings the Son back!) Of course the Father is greater than the angels! Whoever in Judaism ever doubted that?!?? Certainly not the loyal Son!

And so now, at long last, we have arrived at why translators, when they consider those three lone (if admirably early) copies of Hebrews that read "of Him" here, don't go with the obvious translation of the Father saying to the Son "the throne of Him, Who is the God, is into the eon of the eon". Because it simply doesn't fit.

But then they're left with trying to figure out what the author of this variant meant by using {autou} instead of {sou}.

Well... um.... ........ uh........

well, maybe "throne of him" refers back to the Son, to whom the Father is speaking this...?

But that would be no different than having a {sou} there! Also, it doesn't make much sense grammatically to talk to the Son about the Son as if speaking about someone ("of him") other than the Son. (Although admittedly the author's second scriptural reference back at verse 5 kind-of involves speaking to the Son about himself as "him" anyway. But not in such a bluntly direct fashion.)

At this point I suspect translators simply give up, punt {autou} into the ether, pretend {sou} is still there anyway, and since {sou} already is being used for the far more grammatically reasonable translation "the throne of you O God is into...", assign this variant with the grammatically much less probable but not strictly impossible predicate nominative option: "the throne of you is the God into..." or "the God is the throne of you into...", even though no "of you" is left anymore. What the heck, it isn't like there are more than three texts that read {autou} anyway.

Which of course is what Dr. B correctly reports as being the typical translation into English of this ultra-minority (but respectably early) text. (Ditto Metzger in his notes for the UBS 4th edition, by the way.)

It's all very much ado about nothing, though. Three and only three admittedly early texts read something that makes so little immediate contextual sense that wild guesses have to be made about what it's really supposed to mean, resulting in a translation that only amounts to the vastly more improbable alternate translation of the ultra-majority and equally early textual reading. The three textual witnesses otherwise might as well not even be mentioned; the opponent to the majority exegetical translation might as well try to make the case for an alternate translation from the ultra-majority external textual tradition like everyone else, and skip a step.

But the grammatic case for that is also so poor, it might as well not be worth mentioning either.

So (in the words of Mark Twain), not having conceived a spite against my readers, I didn't.

But yay, now I have had an excuse to prattle on about it after all! {g!}

(Readers can thank Dr. B for giving me the opportunity.)


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.
Jason Pratt said…
Yes, from 7 to 13 times, including Heb 1:8. {g}

Jason Pratt said…
I could stand to add at least one more addendum explaining why I'm not appealing to the Granville Sharpe rule per se in several of those examples. But yeesh, I haven't even posted a Christmas article yet! {lol!}


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