Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ehrman, Unitarians, and John 1:18

by Michael R. Burgos Jr.

Various cults have utilized textual variation within the New Testament to suit their respective theology. These groups have made textual decisions not based upon the canons of textual criticism, but a presupposed theology. One such variant is found at John 1:18. Both Oneness Pentecostals and ‘biblical’ unitarians have sought to reject the reading that is present in the current critical editions of the Greek New Testament. Below, I have provided an assessment of the text, it's exegesis, and implications.

θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε: μονογενὴς θεὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο. (John 1:18, NA28)

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:18, ESV)

While there are several variations among New Testament manuscripts, I will here deal with the two primary readings The reading μονογενὴς θεὸς (the only God) occurs within oldest extant manuscripts of John’s gospel. P66 is a late second century manuscript that was likely produced within a scriptorium. It and P75, another professionally made Alexandrian manuscript, constitute the two earliest witnesses of John 1:18. Both of these manuscripts possess the reading μονογενὴς θεὸς.[1] The reading is found in the earliest and best uncial codices, namely Siniaticus, Vaticanus, an early corrector of Ephraemi, and ancient Coptic and Syriac versions. Comfort has noted that the the reading was familiar to “many church fathers (Irenaeus, Clement, Origen, Eusebius, Serapion, Basil, Dydmus, Gregory-Nyssa, Epiphanius, Valentinians according to Irenaeus, and Clement.”[2] Even Ehrman, who rejects this reading primarily on internal grounds, has admitted, “It must be acknowledged at the outset that the Alexandrian reading is more commonly preferred by textual critics, in no small measure because of its external support.”[3]

The reading μονογενὴς υἱός (the only Son) is first present in codex Alexandrinus, which aside from having a Byzantine reading of the gospels, comes at least 200 years after the papyri.[4] Additionally, the reading is found in a ninth century corrector of Ephraemi, and a few other ninth century uncials. To its credit, this reading is found not merely in two textual traditions, as is μονογενὴς θεὸς, but has witnesses in every other text type. So too, this reading has extensive patristic support. However, if μονογενὴς θεὸς were the correct reading, one would expect as much since μονογενὴς υἱός occurs elsewhere in John.[5] That is, the occurrence of both readings among the fathers is clearly what one would expect if θεὸς were the correct reading.

Regarding internal considerations, the prologue is intended to be the lens through which the balance of the gospel is understood. John introduces us to God the Word, who is both God and distinct from God (i.e., πρὸς τὸν θεόν) before the beginning. This is the one who “became flesh and dwelt among us”—“the only Son (μονογενὴς υἱός) from the Father.” He is the light who gives men life and of whom John the Baptist testified. Verse 18 closes the prologue with an admittedly curious phrase, “No one has ever seen God.” Throughout Scripture men are said to have seen God, even seen God “face to face.” For instance, Genesis 15:1 states that “the Word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision.” And Abram responding calling this Word “O Lord God.” Hence, Abram saw God the Word. The second clause of 1:18 provides the resolution, “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Hence, Abram saw God, namely “the only God.” Everyone who has ever seen Yahweh, has in fact seen the “one and only God,”[6] as he is the one who exposits God to men (ἐξηγέομαι). It is he who is “image of the invisible God.”[7]

The above understanding of 1:18 makes good sense since it resolves the theological problem introduced by its first clause, and it brings together the key verses beautifully, namely 1:1 and 1:14. However, Ehrman has argued that the critical reading introduces “insurmountable” theological difficulties into the text. He wrote,

The problem, of course, is that Jesus can be the unique God only if there is no other God; but for the Fourth Gospel, the Father is God as well. Indeed, even in this passage the μονογενὴς is said to reside in the bosom of the Father. How can the μονογενὴς θεὸς, the unique God, stand in such a relationship to (another) God?[8]

In his entire treatment of John 1:18, Ehrman never mentioned the first half of the verse. If he had, then he might have considered the claim in light of both the Old Testaments many God-sightings and the balance of the prologue. One would think that an actual contextual consideration ought to play a role in an argument from internal evidence. The very objection Ehrman raises for John 1:18 ought to be equally raised for John 1:1, as both the Son and Father are identified as God. Moreover, the reason why Jesus is identified as the unique God is that he is relationally identified as the personally distinct revealer of God the Father. Therefore, Ehrman’s objections of the critical reading are vastly overrated.[9]

Because of the trinitarian implications of the critical reading, various non-trinitarians have attempted to usurp the reading. For example, arch-unitarian Anthony Buzzard has argued,

Shall it be thought credible that a text which calls Jesus “God” would have disappeared for 1,500 years and no Christian knew about it?...Shall this awkward sounding Gnostic and Arian-like text be now considered along with John 20:28 as one of the strongest proof-texts for the euhemeristic teaching that Jesus who was called “the Messiah” was/is also God? Call me doubting Thomas, if you will, on this one, but I cannot accept it. Either does the eminent textual critic and New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman.[10]

Unfortunately for Buzzard, incredulity due to one’s theological bent is not a sufficient means unto determining what the reading is original. Simply put, a presupposed doctrine is not a valid arbiter of what the Bible actually says. Rather, upon the basis of a sober analysis of both internal and external criteria, θεὸς wins out. Buzzard’s rejection is predicated upon his abject refusal to acknowledge that θεὸς in John 1:1c applies to the pre-existent Son. Thus, Buzzard has argued in a circle. Lastly, while it is true that Ehrman, the apostate, erroneously argued for υἱός, his believing teacher did not.[11]

The BiblicalUnitarian.com has an article that is intended to dissuade its readers from acknowledging the earliest reading. The article argues,

The two famous textual scholars, Westcott and Hort, known for their defense of the Alexandrian text type, consider John 1:18 to be one of the few places in the New Testament where it is not correct.[12]

This undocumented assertion is however, completely untrue. Westcott and Hort included θεὸς within their printed edition of the Greek New Testament.[13] Hort, without the knowledge of yet to be discovered papyri wrote, “On grounds of documentary evidence and probabilities of transcription alike, we are irresistibly led to conclude that μονογενὴς θεὸς was the original from which ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός and ὁ μονογενὴς θεὸς proceeded.”[14]

The writer argued further that “Virtually every other reading of the other textual traditions, including the Western, Byzantine, Caesarean and secondary Alexandrian texts, read huios.” This assertion however isn’t correct. Codex Siniaticus is the earliest Western manuscript containing John 1:18, and it reads θεὸς. Following this, the unitarian wrote, “A large number of the Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, Clement and Tertullian, quoted the verse with ‘Son,’ and not ‘God.’ This statement is too, completely incorrect. Irenaeus, Clement, and other fathers. Thereafter, upon the basis of these indefensible and faulty assertions, the ‘biblical’ unitarian writer concluded, “The reason that the text was changed from ‘Son’ to ‘God’ was to provide ‘extra evidence’ for the existence of the Trinity." Since many careless errors predicate this assertion, there is no good reason to countenance its claim.

John 1:18 is one of many texts within the gospel of John which explicitly teach the deity of the Son of God and his unique relationship with God the Father. Non-trinitarian apologists have sought to deflect the teaching of John 1:18 by arguing for textual variation, but they have done so upon the basis of a pre-existing doctrinal commitment.

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[1] P75 possesses an article before μονογενὴς. Not only so, but these witness and the uncials, utilize the nomen sacrum thereby indicating the divinity of Jesus. Comfort has noted, “In all the earliest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, the word theos is written as a nomen sacrum when the reference is to ‘God.’ There is not one New Testament manuscript that I know of where theos is written out in full when it designates ‘God.’” Comfort, Philip W., Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Pub., 2005), Kindle, loc. 5887.
[2] Comfort, Philip W., New Testament Text and Translation Commentary, (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Pub. 2008), 255.
[3] Ehrman, Bart D., The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), 79.
[4] Regarding the Byzantine text-type, Gordon Fee has stated, “Most of the reading peculiar to this text are generally recognized to be of a secondary nature. A great number of them smooth out grammar; remove ambiguity in word order; add nouns, pronouns, and prepositional phrases; and harmonize one passage with another.” Epp, Eldon J., Fee, Gordon D., Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 8.
[5] John 3:16; 3:18; and 1John 4:9.
[6] It is worth noting that the term μονογενὴς is defined as “pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only; only.” Bauer, W. F. W., Danker, W. F., Arndt, and F. W. Ginrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd Ed., (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 2000), 658.
[7] Col 1:15.
[8] Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 80.
[9] For another refutation of Ehrman’s assertions regarding John 1:18, see Wallace, Daniel B. Ed., Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocruphal Evidence, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2011), 72-77, 241-
[10] Buzzard, Anthony, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian: A Call to Return to the Creed of Jesus, (Morrow: Restoration Fellowship, 2007), 403.
[11] See Metzger, Bruce M., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Ed., (New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), 198.
[12] http://www.biblicalunitarian.com/videos/john-1-18.
[13] See Westcott, B. F., Hort, F. J. A., The Greek New Testament, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 262.
[14] Hort, F. J. A., Two Dissertations, (Cambridge: Macmillan and Co., 1876), 11.

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