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Saturday Series: John 1:34

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John 1:34

Today we will be looking at another example from the first chapter of John, which involves a key textual variant (or variant reading), much as we saw last week with verse 18. A bit later on in the chapter, at verse 34, we find the following declaration (by John the Baptist):

“And I have seen and have given witness that this (man) is the <…> of God

The textual unit involving the variant is marked in bold, while the specific variant is indicated by the placeholder with angle brackets. There are two main variant readings for this unit:

  1. “…the Elect/Chosen One of God” (ho eklektos tou theou)
  2. “…the Son of God” (ho huios tou theou)

The conflated reading “…the Elect/Chosen Son of God”, found in a few witnesses, is clearly secondary and can be disregarded; however, it does show that both readings above were familiar to certain copyists. If you followed the study on Jn 1:18 the past two Saturdays, you are aware of the importance of analyzing such variant readings, so that our examination of the Scripture is founded upon a clear understanding of the text. Let us follow the approach taken in that earlier study, beginning with the external (manuscript) evidence.

1. The External Evidence. The manuscript evidence clearly favors the second reading above (“the Son [huios] of God”). It is the reading of the vast majority of Greek manuscripts, versions, and other textual witnesses. By contrast, the first reading (“the Elect/Chosen One [eklektos] of God”) is found in only a couple of manuscripts (Papyrus 5, and the original copyist of Codex Sinaiticus [a]), along with a few early translations (Latin and Syriac versions). Normally, such overwhelming external evidence would decide the question; however, in this case, the matter is not quite so straightforward.

2. Transcriptional Probability. This refers to the tendencies of copyists—i.e., which reading was more likely to be changed/altered during the process of copying? Unlike the situation with Jn 1:18, there is no real indication that the reading in v. 34 would have been changed by accident; almost certainly, the alteration was conscious and/or intentional. But in which direction is the change more likely? From “Elect/Chosen One” to “Son”, or the other way around? Here it would seem that the evidence decisively favors the first reading above (“Elect/Chosen One”), on the principle difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is preferred”). In other words, scribes are more likely to have changed a difficult or less familiar reading to one which is easier/familiar. Both in the Gospel of John, and throughout the New Testament, “Son of God” is far more common than the title “Elect/Chosen One of God”, and would be more easily understood as a title of Jesus by early Christians. It also fits better the parallel with the Baptism scene in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:11 par).

3. Style and Usage of the Author. The adjective eklektos (e)klekto/$, “elect/chosen”) does not occur elsewhere in the Gospel of John, but the related verb eklegomai (e)klegomai, “choose”, literally “gather out”) is used five times, all by Jesus, and always in reference to the disciples, i.e. as those chosen by him (6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19). Indeed, throughout the New Testament, both the adjective (as a noun) and the verb are typically used of believers (Matt 13:20; 22:14; Lk 6:13; 18:7; Acts 1:2; Rom 8:33; 1 Cor 1:27-28; Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:1, etc), and only rarely of Jesus (Lk 9:35; 23:35; cf. below). By contrast, Jesus refers to himself as “the Son” many times in the Gospel of John. The title “Son of God” is less frequent, but still occurs 8 times, declared by others (Jn 1:49; 11:27; 19:7; 20:31) as often as by Jesus himself (3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4). It is also relative common (7 times) in 1 John (3:8; 4:15; 5:5, 10-13, 20). A consideration of style and vocabulary would thus tend to favor the reading “Son of God” in Jn 1:34.

4. The Context (1:19-51). Jn 1:19-51 is the first main section of the Gospel after the Prologue (vv. 1-18). It is comprised of four smaller sections, or narrative episodes, which are joined together, using the literary device of setting the four episodes on four successive days. This may be outlined as follows:

  • Day 1—The testimony of John the Baptist regarding his own identity (1:19-28)
  • Day 2—The testimony of John regarding the identity of Jesus (1:29-34)
  • Day 3—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of John’s witness (1:35-42)
  • Day 4—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of his (and other disciples’) witness (1:43-51)

The first “Day” involves the question of John the Baptist’s identity. He specifically denies any identification with three figures or titles—”the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah), “Elijah”, and “the Prophet”. The last two relate to a Messianic Prophet figure-type, drawn from the Old Testament figures of Elijah and Moses (Deut 18:15-20); for more on this subject, see Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. It is not entirely clear whether “the Anointed One” refers to a Messiah generally, a Messianic Prophet, or the traditional Messianic ruler from the line of David; based on the overall context of vv. 29-51, the latter is more likely.

The second and third “Days” follow a similar pattern; each begin with John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (vv. 29, 36). Each ends with a distinct declaration regarding Jesus’ identity. The declaration of the second day is that of verse 34; that of the third day again involves the title Messiah—”We have found the Messiah!” (v. 41), where the Hebrew word M¹šîaµ is transliterated as Messias (before being translated, “Anointed One” [Christos]). This common Messianic theme would perhaps suggest that the reading “Chosen/Elect One” is to be preferred, since this title (presumably derived from Isa 42:1) is more directly Messianic than is “Son of God”. This is certainly the case with its use in Lk 9:35 and 23:35, the only other occurrences in the New Testament where the title is applied to Jesus.

However, a careful examination of the fourth “Day” (vv. 43-51) points in the opposite direction. Here the declaration regarding Jesus’ identity, made by Nathanael (v. 49), is two-fold:

“You are the the Son of God, you are the King of Israel

The thematic and narrative structure suggests that these two titles are parallel to those in the declarations of the 2nd and 3rd days:

  • “Son of God” = “<Chosen | Son> of God” (v. 34)
  • “King of Israel” = “Messiah” (v. 41)

The parallelism would tend to favor “Son” in v. 34, if only slightly. This, along with the overwhelming external manuscript evidence (in favor of “Son”), makes it the preferred reading. Still, the matter is far from decisive, and it is worth keeping the variant “Elect/Chosen One” well in mind whenever you read this passage. Consider how the two titles (and concepts) are closely intertwined in Luke’s version of the Transfiguration scene, in which the voice from Heaven declares (according to the best manuscripts):

“This is my Son, the Elect/Chosen One [ho eklelegmenos]…” (9:35)

The Transfiguration scene, of course, parallels the earlier Baptism scene in the Synoptic Gospels, in which the voice from Heaven makes a similar declaration (in Matthew they are identical). Now, the Gospel of John only narrates the Baptism indirectly (vv. 29-34), through the testimony of John the Baptist, who witnesses the visionary phenomena. His declaration is in the same climactic position as the Divine/Heavenly voice in the Synoptics:

Yet consider, too, a comparison with the variant reading from John—

  • “You are My Son…” / “This is My Son…”
  • “This is the Chosen One of God” (Jn 1:34 v.l.)

which matches the words of the heavenly voice in Lk 9:35:

“You are my Son, the Chosen One”

This declaration, in turn, is an echo of Isaiah 42:1, where God speaks of “My Servant [±e»ed]…my Chosen (One) [baµîr]…”. In Greek, ±e»ed is translated by pais, which can also mean “child”—”my Child” is obviously close in meaning to “my Son“. At the same time, baµîr is translated by eklektos, the same word used in Jn 1:34 v.l. (and related to that in Lk 9:35).

By carelessly choosing one variant reading, and ignoring the other, we risk missing out on an important aspect of the text, and the historical (Gospel) traditions which underlie it. Next Saturday, I will be examining an even more difficult verse from the first chapter of John. It does not involve a variant reading; however, it, even more than verse 34, requires a careful study of the Greek words as they are used in context, in order to decipher its meaning. I recommend that you read and study the entire first chapter again, all the way through to verse 51. Think and meditate upon all that you find, and begin to ask yourself what Jesus’ enigmatic saying in verse 51 could mean…

…and I will see you next Saturday.