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Special Textual Note on John 1:18

This note is supplemental to the current Saturday Series study on John 1:18. There I mentioned the possibility that the main variant readings—monogen¢s theos (“only [born] God”) vs. monogen¢s huios (“only [born] Son”)—could have been the result of a scribal mistake, an accident. At first glance, this might seem unlikely. Yet, even if you do not read Greek, I suspect you may have already noticed the general similarity of form between the nouns qeo$ (theos, “God”) and ui(o$ (huios, “Son”). It is not out of the question that a careless scribe might copy one in place of the other, especially if he has the terminology (and Christology) of Jn 1:1-18 in mind (esp. verse 1).

This becomes more likely when one considers the special scribal practice of using abbreviations to render the word qeo$ (theos), the name Ihsou=$ (I¢sous, “Jesus”), along with “divine names” and titles such as kurio$ (kyrios, “Lord”), ui(o$ (huios, “Son”), xristo$ (christos, “Anointed One / Christ”), and the like. This was typically done by shortening the word to include only the first and last letter, and marking it with a horizontal line or ‘bar’ over the top. For example, in the uncial manuscripts (i.e. those written in “capital” Greek letters) where this practice was used, the word kurio$ (kyrios, “Lord”) in capitals is KURIOS, which, in the uncial lettering looks like kurios. When it is abbreviated using the “sacred names” (nomina sacra) scribal technique, it becomes +k+s.

Now, using this same technique, in the manuscripts, in a verse such as John 1:18, qeo$ (theos, “God”) and ui(o$ (huios, “Son”) would look like +q+s and +u+s, respectively. While this technique protected the divine names/titles from being confused with other common words, it resulted in no small amount of scribal confusion between the different abbreviations themselves. Differences between names and titles—such as between “Christ/Christos” (+c+s) and “Lord/Kyrios” (+k+s)—appear quite frequently in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. Thus there is the distinct possibility that the change between “God” and “Son” (or vice versa) in Jn 1:18 could be the result of a copyists’ error, and may represent a primitive corruption at that level.

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