Conspiring with Truth

For skeptics like Bart Ehrman, the key to undermining the Christian faith is to undermine the Christian text. After all, faith “comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”[1] But what if we are not really hearing the word of Christ? What if we are really hearing the word of power-hungry men who conspired in later centuries to give us their particular spin on the person and nature of Jesus Christ?

Peter famously confessed that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”[2] Christians make that same confession today. In the greater context of the New Testament, we come to understand that Christ’s sonship is tied inextricably to His deity.[3] God the Father sent His Son into the world so that we could believe what Peter and the rest of the apostles believed.[4] But what, exactly, did Peter believe?

Ehrman speculates that the earliest Christians held to some form of adoptionism: the doctrine that God adopted Jesus as His son, either at his baptism or at his resurrection.[5] The “adoption” language is intended either to negate or diminish the co-equality and co-eternality of God the Father and God the Son.

A sect of ethnic Jews known as the Ebionites took the first version of this view. They followed the Torah and accepted Jesus as the messiah, but flatly denied his virgin birth and deity. As far as the Ebionites were concerned, God adopted Jesus at his baptism in much the same way He adopted David at his coronation.[6] And like David, Jesus was always and only ever a man.

Adoptionist views also emerged in Rome among a community of well-educated professionals led by Theodotus of Byzantium.[7] Theodotus held that Jesus was made God at His baptism.[8] Some of his followers thought He was made God after the resurrection or, like the Ebionites, denied the deity of Christ altogether.

The important point for Ehrman is that Christians of “various persuasions” throughout this period engaged in “constant discussion, dialogue, and debate.” [9] To brand adoptionism as “heresy” was just another way for the winning team to gloat and say “you lost.”

Clearly, confessing Christians would see it differently: to brand adoptionism as “heresy” is just another way to say “you’re wrong.” It had nothing to do with bishops marking their territories like egotistical alpha males. It had nothing to do with Roman emperors dictating the content of Christian doctrine. Adoptionism is wrong because it contradicts the plain teaching of Scripture.

Or does it? According to Ehrman, the winning team not only got to label their opponents with nasty words such as “heretic,” they also got to write, or re-write, the text of the Bible.

Take, for instance, the very first verse of Mark: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Ehrman contends that the last phrase—just two extra words in the Greek—is a later scribal addition. It is not an accident. It is not a slip of the pen. It was a deliberate attempt to undermine the adoptionist position by placing the acknowledgment of divine sonship before the discussion of Christ’s baptism, and so put Mark on what would later become the orthodox side of Christianity. Ehrman’s thesis fails on at least three counts.

1. Text

Ehrman’s star witness is the famous Codex Sinaiticus, generally recognized to be the oldest complete copy of the Greek New Testament (c. AD 350). Several later manuscripts also leave out “the Son of God,” as does Origen when he quotes this passage in the early 200s.

Sinaiticus is a wonderful resource, to be sure, but it was hardly the official Bible of the early church. The original scribe made quite a few mistakes, which were soon noticed by subsequent “correctors,” including the omission at Mark 1:1. In fact, the mistake in this case is quite understandable. By convention, early copyists used two-letter abbreviations for sacred names. The entire title, “Jesus Christ, son of God,” was just eight letters long, five of which were Υ’s (the Greek uppercase upsilon). For a not-so-careful scribe, it would have been easy to leave off some of these letters.[10]

Codex Sinaiticus - Mark 1:1 close up

Mark 1:1, shown in red, from the Codex Sinaiticus. Note the correction above the first few letters of verse 2. Note, also, the series of abbreviated sacred names (nomina sacra) at the end of the verse.

In addition to the corrected Sinaiticus, several early manuscripts include “the Son of God” at Mark 1:1. Many of these are as old as, or older than, the textual witnesses cited by Ehrman. This includes the Codex Vaticanus, which is not as complete as Sinaiticus, but which dates to around the same time. Irenaeus, who precedes Origen by several decades, also includes “the Son of God” when quoting Mark 1:1. The overwhelming weight of manuscript evidence supports the longer reading.[11]

2. Context

Nor is the wording of this verse out of character for the Gospel as a whole. Mark refers to Jesus as the Son on several occasions. Notably, at the other end of the book, the centurion overseeing the crucifixion of Jesus confesses that the Man hanging on the cross is indeed “the Son of God.”[12]

Further, Mark 1:1 is not intended to declare the divine sonship of Jesus Christ prior to His baptism. This is not about chronology, but identity. The purpose of the verse is to introduce the Person of Christ and His Gospel to Mark’s readers. Sneaking “Son of God” into verse 1 at a much later date would have helped no one.

3. Pre-text

Outside the introduction to Mark, chronology really is the problem for critics and heretics alike. It always has been.

Even skeptics like Ehrman have to concede that the four Gospels, Acts, Romans, and a number of other New Testament writings were circulating widely by the opening decades of the 2nd century. The documents generated by divergent groups appear on the scene much later, and plagiarize or edit the existing texts of the early church.[13]

In other words, heretical groups of the period could not compete with the claims of Christianity without colluding with the texts of Christianity. The Gospel of the Ebionites dates to no earlier than the 2nd century, and draws primarily from the existing Gospel of Matthew.[14] By the early 3rd century, the adoptionism of Theodotus and his followers was still a “novel heresy.”[15] There was no need to retroactively corrupt the Gospels because the Gospels proactively established the church’s position on Christ.

Controversy was nothing new for the early church, but it was always possible to remind people of the one faith taught and held by the church since its inception.[16] The only way to teach a different gospel was to conspire with what was already there. What we certainly do not see in the New Testament, or in the works of Irenaeus and other early defenders of orthodoxy or, for that matter, in the works of their opponents, are any signs of a postmodern, everyone’s-a-winner religious pluralism.

Nonetheless, this is what Ehrman is gunning for. He wants to poke holes in the text and so allow his unsuspecting readers to make up their own fill-in-the-blanks version of Christianity. Complete unbelief will surely follow. Trouble is, there’s too much of the warp and woof left behind. The text is too old. It’s too well attested. And so Ehrman must conspire with the text. But the only way to conspire with the text is to admit that there is something there after all–something powerful that has to be faced on its own terms.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, September 2011, p. 7.]


[1] Romans 10:17.

[2] Matthew 16:16. See also John 20:28, Philippians 2:1, 1 John 4:15, etc.

[3] Colossians 1:15-20, 2:9; Hebrews 1:1-5.

[4] John 3:16-17; Romans 8:1-4.

[5] Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 47-48.

[6] Compare Matthew 3:17 (Mark 3:17; Luke 3:22) to Psalm 2:7. The Ebionite Gospel adds the rest of Psalm 2:7, “Today I have begotten you,” to Matthew 3:17. The point being, of course, that Jesus’ elevated relationship with God began in the Jordan, not in eternity.

[7] Peter Lampe and Marshall D. Johnson, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, pp. 344-348.

[8] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 7.23.

[9] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: HarperCollins, 2005, pp. 153-154.

[10] Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001, p. 69, fn. 8.

[11] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Society, 1971, pp. 219-222.

[12] Mark 15:39.

[13] Irenaeus makes this point forcefully in Against Heresies, 3.11.7.

[14] Richard Bauckham, “The Origin of the Ebionites,” in Peter J. Thomson and Doris Lambers-Petry, editors, The Image of the Judaeo-Christians in Ancient Jewish and Christian Literature. Mohr-Siebeck: Tübingen, 2003, pp. 172,175.

[15] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 7.23.

[16] E.g., 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. See also Luke 1:1-4; Romans 16:17; 2 Corinthians 11:12-13; Galatians 1:6-9; 4:4-6; 2 Timothy 3:1-9; Titus 1:4; 1 John 2:24; 2 John 4-6; Jude 3-4.

© 2011 – 2012, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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