When the early Gospel manuscripts were being rapidly reproduced, mistakes were made. But did they change the message? David Instone-Brewer looks at omissions and additions in Mark 1.
The words of the Bible are the most valuable in the world. This is true even by commercial standards because it is the best-selling book ever. And for Christians its words have more value than diamonds or state secrets because they have eternal and universal significance. Despite this, one of the earliest copies of Mark has a mistake even in the first verse. It reads: ‘The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah’ and the translator either left out or added the words, ‘the Son of God’. These words are included in some early manuscripts and are missing in others. This means that they were either added or omitted to a copy of the original Gospel and, embarrassingly, we don’t know which it was. But once the mistake was made, it was copied over and over again. These words, ‘the Son of God,’ have special significance. Placed at the start of the Gospel, they signal that it is not just a story about a good man – it is about someone who claimed divinity. In Mark, the demons and even a centurion on duty at the cross recognised that Jesus was the Son of God (Mark 3:11; 5:7; 15:39). This description of Jesus was the most awesome in the Gospel, so how could a scribe have made such a big mistake? Conspiracy theorists say that it was deliberately omitted. Perhaps the scribe thought his Jewish friends would be put off reading the rest of the Gospel – Jews believed in only one God, so someone who claimed to be divine would immediately damn himself in their eyes. On the other hand, perhaps the scribe added these words on purpose in an effort to ‘promote’ Jesus from human to divine. This last theory led to the suspicion that the early Church ‘invented’ the idea that Jesus was equal to God and that Jesus never taught this himself. But the earliest copies of the New Testament weren’t official documents copied by professional scribes. People excitedly made their own copies, and others copied those copies – like fans passing on a new recording of their favourite band. They were copied by hand, and this resulted in errors. It isn’t surprising that people quickly making a copy for themselves or for friends occasionally made a mistake. Fortunately, there are thousands of early manuscripts of the New Testament, and although this also means that we have thousands of errors – because every scribe makes some errors – with so many copies available, most of these are fairly easy to sort out. There are a handful of texts where we cannot be sure about the exact words and we’ll look at them in the next few articles. (There’s nothing to get wound up about, by the way – they are not faithshattering, just very interesting!) Bart Ehrman, in Misquoting Jesus, argues that the Church deliberately added ‘the Son of God’. He couldn’t actually find quotes by Jesus to justify the title of his book, but indicates a few problem texts which talk about Jesus. As well as the ‘Son of God’ addition in Mark 1:1, he points out that some manuscripts say ‘one and only Son’ in John 1:18, while others say ‘one and only God’. And in Matthew 24:36, which says that no one, not even the angels, nor the Son know when his return will be, some manuscripts omit ‘nor the Son’. He concluded that the Church changed these texts in order to make Jesus divine. These examples don’t make a convincing case for conspiracy, because there are other references to Jesus as the Son of God which are in both early and late manuscripts. Adding or removing ‘Son of God’ from Mark 1:1 doesn’t make any difference to the overall theology of Mark because (as we saw above) it also occurs in three other places. Similarly, John’s reference to Jesus as God in John 1:18 doesn’t change that Gospel’s theology because he later uses phrases such as ‘one and only Son of God’ (see John 3:18). And if the Church had wanted to show that Jesus did know the date of Judgement Day by removing ‘nor the Son’ from Matthew 24:36, why didn’t they remove this phrase from the parallel verse in Mark 13:32? If early Church scribes were trying to change the doctrines of the Gospels by modifying these phrases, they made a very bad, half-hearted attempt. The ‘conspiracy’ theory just isn’t plausible, but the ‘scribal error’ theory is. This theory is supported by information we have about medieval scribes; New Testaments copied by them have been carefully scrutinised, and they contain the same type of mistakes as the ones made by the early scribes. All scribes were fallible – now and then they accidentally dropped a word or phrase, or added one which they remembered from elsewhere. It’s tempting to criticise those early Christians for making poor copies, but they did, at least, make them. Many of our earliest copies of New Testament texts were found in the rubbish heaps outside of the houses of ordinary believers who lived at Oxyrhynchus, a small town in the middle of Egypt. Fragments of the Gospels and Epistles were found among personal letters and sales receipts dated between the first and fourth centuries after Jesus, and there was even an arrest warrant for someone charged with being a Christian in AD 256. These early believers wanted to share their amazing news with as many people as possible. They didn’t have printing presses, and most of them couldn’t afford professional scribes, but they didn’t let such limitations stop them. A former church treasurer often gave me this warning: ‘The better is the enemy of the good.’ The problem was that I used to put off doing my expenses until I could do them ‘properly’, but he was keen to point out that although a scrappy note was not as good as a careful record, it was infinitely better than nothing. Often we give our friends no more than a quick mention of Jesus in a conversation but, even so, this is much better than nothing. And, often, that inadequate attempt to pass on the good news about Jesus is better than several excellent sermons, because it is real and immediate. For me, the occasional copying errors in the New Testament demonstrate how real and immediate the message was for early Christians. They weren’t always careful enough when copying because they were excited by the good news and in a hurry to tell others. If we wait for the ‘right time’ or try to compose the ‘perfect’ message about Jesus, we may well never get round to telling it to anyone.