Sunday Morning Greek Blog

May 17, 2023

Life in the Spirit (John 14:15–21)

Message preached on Sixth Sunday of Easter 2023 (May 14) at Mt. View Presbyterian Church. I added some technical details about the text for the blog article that I did not cover in my sermon.

Acts 17 is perhaps the most significant event we have recorded from the life of Paul in terms of his ministry. No, that chapter doesn’t recount any of his appearances before Roman rulers in defense of his faith and ministry. Rather, Paul attends a meeting of philosophers at a place called the Areopagus in Athens. It is safe to say that the Areopagus represented the “melting pot,” as it were, of worldviews and ideas on the meaning of life and purpose of humankind. Two of the more prominent philosophies mentioned in Acts 17 are Epicureanism, which originally focused on pursuing happiness, and Stoicism, which originally focused on living according to nature and suppressing one’s desires. Now I say “originally,” because by Paul’s time, Epicureanism had become more focused on sensuality than happiness, and Stoicism had just made its adherents prideful.

But we also learn from Acts 17 that most of the Roman gods and goddesses, or at least the Roman versions of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses, were still quite popular still in the day, so much so that Paul comments on and is distressed by the number of idols and other symbols of pagan worship that fill the city. Apparently, the Athenians were even afraid of leaving out a forgotten deity, so they had a statue with the inscription: “to an unknown god” (Acts 17:23).

Paul would use that statue as an object lesson to introduce these philosophers to a God they knew virtually nothing about: the God of the Jews, Yahweh, the Lord of Hosts, the One True God. Paul spoke of the resurrection of Jesus, a truly foreign concept to them. He spoke of the Creator God who “does not live in temples built by human hands.” Paul’s message certainly stirred the philosophical pot of thought in Athens, as a several who’d heard him at that meeting wanted more information from him, and an even smaller group actually started following Paul.

In our gospel passage today, Jesus stirs the pot in his own way by talking about someone called “The Advocate.” Sounds like a John Grisham or James Patterson title, right? Jesus introduces his disciples to a familiar concept with an unfamiliar application: the concept of the Holy Spirit guiding each of us, not just the prophets. Let’s take a closer look at the passage, beginning in John 14:15.

Our reading printed in the bulletin is from the New Revised Standard Version. Depending on which version you read, you may see a few different English words in your translation, so I want to help clear that up a bit. These differences by themselves don’t mean that any one version is better than another. Translation committees often will have a certain audience in mind or a certain writing style or worldview that governs the words they choose, especially to translate complex concepts from the source language into English.

Verse 15 says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Sounds pretty straightforward, right? It seems that the last part of the sentence naturally follows from the first part. “If you love your kids, you’ll give them attention.” “If you love your mom, you’ll buy her flowers occasionally.” You get the idea, right? But if you were to read it in New International or King James Version, it sounds more like a command: “If you love me, keep my commands.” I won’t bore you with the technical details of why there is such a difference, but the end result is the same in Jesus’s mind: he wants us to obey his commandments. I do prefer the NRSV translation in our bulletin, because it’s closer to what the original language says, and it sounds less authoritarian.

[For my blog readers, I will give you some of the technical details here. First, verse 15 is a third-class conditional sentence. That means, according to Daniel Wallace in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (GGBB)[1], that often, “the condition [is] uncertain of fulfillment, but still likely” (emphasis in original). The third-class condition can take any mood-tense combination in the apodosis (the last part of an “if-then” or conditional statement), and therein lies the second technicality. There are three variant spellings of the verb in the phrase in question. The chosen reading is the future tense form of τηρέω (tēreō, “I keep”), τηρήσετε (“you will keep”), being found in its most prominent witness B. The Aleph (א) witness has τηρήσητε aorist subjunctive (“you would keep my commands”). The witnesses A and D have τηρήσατε imperative (“keep my commands”). Notice, for all three variants, there is a difference in spelling of one vowel, which could have easily been confused in a scriptorium where the copy was read aloud for scribes to transcribe. Metzger says the editorial committee for the UBS text felt the future tense reading best fit the context.[2]]

Verse 16 is where you really start seeing the different ways the description of the Holy Spirit is translated. In our text today, Jesus says “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [capital A], to be with you forever.” The current version of the NIV, which was updated in 2011, has “another advocate [lower case A] to help you and be with you.” So the NIV uses a phrase to translate the word to uncover a bit of the meaning behind what the role of the advocate is. Notice that the NIV doesn’t interpret it as a title like our current text in this verse, but later in the chapter, they do treat it as a title. Some other translations of this word you might see are “Comforter” (KJV); “Counselor” (older version of the NIV); or “Helper” (ESV, NASB).

If you’ve been in the church for a while, you’ve probably heard the Greek term that is behind these English translations: paraclete. The word is not used in the Greek version of the Old Testament, so we can’t make a connection to the “Wonderful Counselor” in Isaiah 9. In ancient Greece, it carried the idea of a helper or assistant in a court of law. John is the only NT writer who uses the word. He uses it of Jesus in 1 John 2:1–2 to speak of Jesus’s role in advocating for us before the Father: “If anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins[3]

But the Holy Spirit’s role as the Advocate in our lives is different than that of Jesus’s role before the Father. It opens the door to a new concept: that God’s Holy Spirit would soon be available to all his disciples, and indeed to all believers, once Jesus ascended to Heaven, not just to a select few as in the Old Testament. We see that in the promise of the prophet Joel that Peter cites in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit’s role really does seem to be best described by the word Advocate. The NIV I think does the best job of explaining the role when the translators added “to help you” as a gloss to “advocate.” The Holy Spirit’s role is twofold: First, he is the living representative of Christ and God in us. Verse 17 says “You know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” In verse 18, Jesus says, “I will not leave you as orphans.” The Holy Spirit’s presence will be a constant reminder that God loves us, just as he loves his one and only son. And it’s because of that love, as John indicates in vs. 15 above and reemphasizes in vs. 21. John also closes out this short section by saying Jesus will show himself to his disciples through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Beyond our passage, we see in 14:26 that our Advocate comes in the name of Jesus “will teach us all things and will remind us of everything [Jesus] said to us.” In saying this, Jesus also says he’ll leave us with peace and assurance that he will come and ultimately rescue us from the evil one himself.

The Holy Spirit’s first role, then, is ultimately to help us mature in our faith. As we spoke about a couple weeks ago when we looked at the “I am the door” passage, Jesus’s sheep know his voice. The Holy Spirit IS the voice of Jesus, the good shepherd, in our lives. The more we love God and Jesus, the more we will come to recognize the Holy Spirit’s voice speaking into our lives.

The second role of the Holy Spirit is to testify about Jesus through us, John 15:26–27. As we begin and continue to grow in our understanding of what life in the Holy Spirit means, we begin to recognize when the Holy Spirit is prompting us to act and to testify about who Jesus is. People will challenge us, and indeed are challenging us today, about our faith in God. According to Jesus in John 16, these challenges to our faith are not new and should not surprise us when they happen. Jesus reminds his disciples in John 16:7–11:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.[4]

John goes on to say that when persecution starts to come our way, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will guide us into all truth. We won’t have to worry about what we’ll say, because the Holy Spirit will be directing us straight from the heavenly throne.

How does this look in real life? I want to close by giving an example from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Five times in that letter, Paul emphasizes that believers on earth have a connection to “the heavenly realms.” In 1:3, Paul says we, that is, the corporate body of Christ, together, have been “blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” This comes from the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. I want to emphasize that this a corporate gift, that is, no one person has every spiritual blessing, but as a body of believers, in the aggregate, we have on earth everything God wants us to have to carry out the ministries he’s called us to.

We learn toward the end of chapter 1 that the heavenly realms are where Christ is seated at the right hand of God, and all things have been placed under the rule and authority of Christ for benefit of the body of Christ. A few verses later, in 2:6, we find out that when Christ calls us and saves us, we too already have the blessing of being raised up and seated with Christ “in the heavenly realms.” It is from that vantage point, our souls connected to heaven, and our feet touching the ground, that we can “do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

In chapter 3 vs. 10, Paul reveals that God’s intent was that as the corporate body of Christ, the church, “the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” Without getting too involved in the concept of spiritual warfare, this speaks to our role of testifying about Jesus to the world as we saw in John 14–16 above. That is our purpose: to speak forth the word of God in both action and deed. In the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul affirms who we are in Christ and what our exalted position is before him. In the last three chapters of Ephesians, he gives several examples of what it means to live in the heavenly realms, culminating with chapter 6 about putting on the armor of God, where we find his final reference to the heavenly realms:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then…”[5]

Paul goes on to describe the armor of God, for that is what it truly is. If you were to look up the references to each of the pieces of armor mentioned in the Old Testament, you would find that every one is mentioned in the context of God wearing it or wielding it. That armor isn’t a cheap imitation or a mass-produced copy. It’s the protection and strength of God himself. That’s what Jesus was affirming for us by speaking of our Advocate, the Holy Spirit, coming to dwell within us to teach us, empower us, and embolden us to speak his word.

It seems like the days of evil are fast encroaching on us. Don’t get left behind. Believe in Jesus if you don’t already. Commit yourself to loving him and receive the strength and power of the Advocate for our souls, the Holy Spirit. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! Amen!

[1] Wallace, Daniel B. 1996. Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan (Logos version).

[2] Metzger, Bruce M. 1971/1975 (corrected). A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Stuttgart: United Bible Societies.

[3] 1 John 2:1–2. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] John 16:7–11. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Ephesians 6:10–14a. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

April 13, 2023

Some Thoughts on Inerrancy

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[1]

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.[2]

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.[3]

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”[4]

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”[5]

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God p may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.[6]

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.[7]

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.[8]

The other night, just before I was ready to turn in, a long-time acquaintance and friend, Terry, IM’d me and asked me about biblical inerrancy. I hadn’t really given that much thought since seminary because I’ve been pretty settled on the issue for some time, but I thought I’d put down a few of my thoughts that came to mind as he and I briefly chatted.

  1. I believe 2 Timothy 3 that God’s word is inspired, that is, God-breathed. However, I also believe he speaks it both directly and through his fallible servants in a fallen world. He did this through his prophets in an authoritative way, but I don’t doubt that they may have added “local color” to their prophecies.
  2. I believe Jesus commissioned his apostles (and perhaps a few of their successors) with an ex cathedra authority, tempered by mutual accountability, to establish the primitive structure of the early Christian communities, the core doctrines of the faith, and vital practices to share and spread that faith. I do not believe this ex cathedra authority survived past the first or second generation of believers.
  3. I believe the historical books of the OT, from Genesis through Kings and Chronicles, were collated from extant copies of original writings and official journals. Some of these texts have obvious signs of an editor long after the recorded events took place (e.g., 2 Chronicles 20:26).
  4. I believe the Hebrews had in place a diligent process to copy their texts to ensure their accuracy and fidelity from one generation of texts to the next.
  5. I believe the NT autographs (original letters and Gospels) were without error doctrinally and textually. However, since we can be relatively certain that none of these have survived the ravagees of time, this statement has qualified significance. As the letters were copied in scriptoriums, human error inevitably made its way into the successive copies.
  6. I believe the science of the study of textual transmission is more than sufficient in most cases to identify when and where these errors entered into the text and which of the variant readings are the most reliable. I do not believe any of the disputed variations affect any doctrine of Scripture, especially since most doctrines do not rely solely on any one single text. The eclectic Greek text is the best modern version to use, as it takes into account the opinions and research of several qualified scholars.
  7. I believe “the Church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one”[9]; the differences we see among and within denominational traditions are reflections of the diversity of God’s kingdom. If we can appreciate the diversity in God’s creation, with hundreds of different varieties within each species, then why should we expect that the local manifestations of the church be copycats? I do not believe that such diversity, by itself, disqualifies the Scriptures in any way.
  8. I believe that anyone who can hear or read the Word of God translated into their own language, regardless of version, can understand and respond to the Gospel at its most basic level. The study of the Word of God in its original languages adds depth and color to the story and may convince some who think the principles taught therein are archaic, pedantic, or irrelevant.
  9. I believe that above all else, love for one another founded in the love God has shown and is still showing us is the highest virtue for the Christ-follower at least, and for all humanity generally, regardless of their belief. Love is necessary for the survival of the human race; faith and faithfulness are necessary for salvation; hope is necessary for our security in the faith and our strength to love one another. All other arguments pale in comparison to the power and testimony of faith, hope, and love.

Of course, this list is nowhere close to exhaustive, but I pray that it gets you, the reader, thinking about what you believe about Scripture and the testimony you bear as Christ-followers. Peace to all!

My thoughts are my own, and annotated when borrowed from elsewhere.

NOTE: If you have some other Scriptures you’d like to add on the reliability of God’s word, feel free to add them in the Comments section. I’d love to hear from you!


[1] Deuteronomy 8:3. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] Psalm 119:105. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Luke 21:33. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] John 20:21–23. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Romans 1:16–17. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6] 2 Timothy 3:16–17. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[7] Hebrews 4:12. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[8] 2 Peter 3:15–16. The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[9] Campbell, Thomas. Declaration and Address.

March 13, 2022

Temptations Lose Their Power (Luke 4:1‒13)

Author’s Note: This message was preached at Mt. View Presbyterian Church, Omaha, Nebraska, March 6, 2022. The text has been lightly edited with the addition of section headings.

It’s the oldest persistent and scariest challenge in the world, and one that very few have ever navigated with 100 percent success. Men and women who have done great things in their lives have lost it all because one time out of the hundreds or thousands of times they’ve dealt with this challenge, they failed horribly, miserably, and humiliatingly. Whether it was a moment of pride, lust, greed, or desperation, that one moment of failure was enough to erase and “cancel” all the good and great things someone ever accomplished.

The Roots of Temptation

By now, you’ve probably guessed what that oldest challenge is: temptation. We see it from the earliest chapters in the Bible, while Adam and Eve are still in a pristine paradise in the garden, clear through the Old Testament, and even into the New Testament story line. In Genesis 3, we see the primary elements of temptation in Eve’s encounter with the serpent: “the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.”[1] John confirms this definition in his first letter (1 John 2:16) in slightly different words: “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.[2]

Examples of Temptation

Old Testament

We could, unfortunately of course, provide several other examples of temptation in both testaments, but I want to highlight a couple other ones to clarify what temptation is and is not. For example, later in Genesis, not once, not twice, but three times the patriarchs mislead the king of a foreign country about the nature of their respective relationships with their wives. Abraham does it twice, and Isaac once. These failures ostensibly came about because the men had some measure of fear of what these foreign kings might do, but that was no excuse in God’s eyes. And let’s not forget about Joseph when Pharaoh’s wife pursues him. He put his own life at risk by fleeing the scene of temptation.

Fast forwarding to the kingdom era, we of course have the story of David and Bathsheba, where David goes out on the rooftop of his palace and sees a beautiful woman bathing. Not only does he have her brought to the palace to take advantage of her, but when he realizes he got her pregnant, he tries to “frame” her husband for the pregnancy. Of course, this utterly fails, as Uriah has more integrity than David, and David has him put on the front lines of battle to a certain death. One moral failing leads to another, which is ultimately exposed by Nathan the prophet.

New Testament

One final example of temptation is that of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts, the couple who misrepresented the money they earned from a property sale and both wound up dead for lying to the church about it. They could have given whatever they wanted to and kept whatever they wanted to, but they tried to fool church and paid the ultimate price.

I believe each of these stories represent each of the three elements of temptation individually that we saw in Eve’s thinking and John’s epistle. But before we get too much further into this, it’s important that we look at the words the Bible uses for “temptation” so we can get a better understanding of its meaning and application.

Temptation and Testing: The Word Study

[Professor's Tip: Normally, I would do a word study in the original language, but since there are only two related Greek words (noun and verb) and one Hebrew word dedicated to the concept, a study of translation principles is more in order.]

Now even though I gave several examples of temptation from the Old Testament, the verb “tempt” and its noun “temptation” are rarely if ever found in English translations of the OT. Neither the New International Version nor the English Standard Version nor the New Revised Standard Version have those English words at all in the OT. The New King James Version translates the Hebrew word (נסה nāsāh) as “tempt” or “tempted” in four verses, three of which are related to Jesus’s responses to the devil in the temptation narrative we’ll look at in a moment. The reason I bring this up is because by comparing the NKJV with the other three translations I mentioned, we see that the other way the Hebrew (and in the NT, the Greek) words are translated: “test.”

The Difference Between “Test” and “Tempt”

So why do three of the versions I mentioned use “test” instead of “temptation” for the same Greek or Hebrew word? Well, as I tell my students when they ask me questions like that, the answer is “context, context, context.” If you follow the use of the words in their respective story settings, you find that “testing” has to do with the relationship between God and humans. The general thrust of the verses in question goes one of three ways: either God is testing his people to see how they respond, or the people are testing God by NOT doing what he’s commanded them to do, or one person is testing another’s character. And consistent with the concept of testing, sometimes there’s a judgment or “grade” on how we responded to the test.

“Temptation” is a subset of testing. That is, all temptations are tests, but not all tests are temptations. The word “temptation” is used by these English translation committees to indicate a situation in which some personified evil power or influence is at work. James 1:13–15 clarifies this for us:

13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.[3]

Our own modern English dictionaries seem to confirm this distinction as well. Merriam-Webster says “tempt” means “to entice to do wrong by promise of pleasure or gain,” “to induce to do something,” or its synonym “provoke.”[4] However, the word gurus at Merriam-Webster tell us that the use of the word “tempt” to mean “to make trial of” or to “test” (i.e., how the word is used in the King James Version) is now obsolete.

So, to sum up where we’re at: testing happens between God and man or from man to man. Temptation happens when an evil one or evil desire holds our attention. I haven’t forgotten about my sermon title, “Temptations Lose Their Power”; we’ll get to that soon. And no, there will NOT be a quiz afterwards!

OT Background for Jesus’s Temptation Narrative

Let’s get back to Scripture, then, and look at the passages that set us up for passage about Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness.

In Exodus 17, not long after the Jews had crossed the Red Sea on dry land, one of many grumbling episodes broke out against Moses. This is the first time we see the Hebrew word for “test” in the OT, so it’s worth taking a quick look at the text:

The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”

3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

5 The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah  and Meribah  because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”[5]

Notice here that Moses, at least, passes the test. He’s commanded to strike the rock, and indeed he does. The people, however, not so much. Now if you’re scratching your head and saying, “Wait a minute, I thought Moses got in trouble for that one,” you might be thinking of the similar account toward the end of the wilderness wanderings in the book of Numbers, where Moses was commanded to SPEAK to the rock, but STRUCK it twice instead, and consequently lost his free pass to the Promised Land. Moses failed that one. So, let’s ask an obvious question at this point: If you’re stuck in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, which of these two stories of a Bible hero would you want on your mind to survive your time of testing?

Well, Deuteronomy 6 answers that question for us, and these verses are the sources for two of Jesus’s three responses in the wilderness to the Devil”

13 Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. 14 Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; 15 for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. 16 Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.[6]

The Temptation Narrative

And so finally, we come to the story today of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted (πειράζω peirazō) by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written: “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; 11 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.[7]

Luke 4:1‒13

Now we can make an educated guess as to why the devil tried to pull this little stunt here of tempting God’s son. The devil knew Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and he couldn’t get to him on the spiritual side. The devil targeted Jesus’s human side with the three elements of temptation we talked about in the beginning: the lust of the flesh (turning stones into bread to assuage his hunger, a clear abuse of power to serve himself only); the lust of the eyes (the devil showing Jesus all the kingdoms and offering him to rule it all if he worshiped the devil, Jesus knew who the true ruler was and who deserved his worship); and the boastful pride of life (demonstrating superhuman strength and feats, again an abuse of power to serve himself and draw attention away from his teaching and example). If the devil could get Jesus to bite on just one of these, it would be all over for the rest of us.

How Temptations Lose Their Power


One of the main reasons we have this story is to demonstrate what Hebrews 4:15 says: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”[8] And why did he care enough to do that? The very next verse gives us the answer, and one of the biblical steps we can take to cause temptations to lose their power. “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”[9]

For any test, trial, or temptation we face, we can always turn to God in prayer. Joseph, even though he was imprisoned after fleeing Potiphar’s wife, stayed connected with God. He would eventually rise to power in Egypt because he maintained his integrity and continued to do the will of God. And we’re not alone in these times either. Hebrews 12 says we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Not only can we seek mercy and grace from Christ at the throne of God, but we can also seek it from the body of Christ here in our own communities. Some churches have a Celebrate Recovery program that helps people deal with addictions. Other churches sponsor Grief Care and Divorce Care groups to help people in those situations.

Living in the Will of God

This brings us to another strategy for cutting off the impact of temptation in our lives. Right after John gives his description of temptation I mentioned earlier, he says this: “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”[10] David, when he had a chance to kill King Saul in a cave, refused to lay a hand on God’s anointed. It must have been a huge temptation for him to have killed Saul then and there and complete his divinely appointed takeover of the kingdom, but David waited on God’s timing. Another episode where David succeeded was when he was bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. When he realized he wasn’t transporting it according to God’s instructions, and Uzzah died when touched the Ark to steady it on the cart, David left it at the home of Obed-Edom to keep it safe there until he could move it properly. He didn’t try to make excuses for doing it the wrong way, he just stopped doing it the wrong way.[11]

(Memorizing and) Quoting God’s Word

In addition to prayer and doing God’s will, Jesus shows us yet another way to address temptation and weaken its power in our lives: citing the word of God. The fact that Jesus cites two of his three verses from Deuteronomy 6 gives us some insight as to what Jesus had been thinking about and meditating on while he was in the wilderness. He was obviously thinking about how Moses had led a stiff-necked people through the wilderness for 40 years when he only had to survive it 40 days. He remembered Moses’s success at Massah as we read above from Exodus 17. We can always look to the Scriptures for help facing temptation. It’s good to memorize Scripture as well, so you can have it at the ready, especially when temptation may come at you out of nowhere. Study God’s word. Learn from the mistakes and successes of the heroes of faith. Make a plan.

A Personal Testimony

When I was a young Christian in high school, I was all too aware of what my hormones were doing to me. When I read the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, I embraced that as my power and plan to avoid that kind of temptation. Without going into any detail, twice I found myself in very similar situations to Joseph where I was outright given an opportunity I was not seeking to make the wrong decision with people I knew would be bad influences on me, and I followed Joseph’s plan as a young man. Run away! I am certain that those two events are watershed moments in my faith journey. I’d hate to think where I’d be today had I not made the right decisions in those early days of my faith.

The Promise of God

This brings me to my final Scripture, 1 Corinthians 10:13. I’m sure many of you are familiar with it: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”[12] Trust in God, his word, and the power of the Holy Spirit working in your lives to watch over you. The devil tried to convince Jesus he could jump off the top of the temple without being harmed by quoting Psalm 91:12. But that verse was never intended for us to do things to provoke God’s protection. That promise is there for us when we find ourselves in a place we were powerless to avoid. God will make a way to cause temptations to lose their power, and that’s one way he shows his great love for us.

Scott Stocking. My opinions are my own.

[1] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] Merriam-Webster, Inc. 1996. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

[5] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[7] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[8] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[9] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[10] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[11] 2 Samuel 6

[12] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

January 2, 2022

2021 Reflection and Summary

I wanted to take a moment and thank the readers of Sunday Morning Greek Blog (SMGB) for tripling the number of views from 2019 to 2021! I went from 2,856 views in 2019 to 9,130 views (across 130 countries) in 2021. The theme of my blog has always been “Dig deeper, read smarter, draw closer.” I hope that whichever one of those goals brought you to my site will continue to be something I am able to meet for you. And, if you ever have a request or a question about a biblical topic, I would be happy to research it for you. I’m always excited to dig deeper into God’s Word to help others understand it better.

Having said that, the blog was also a blessing to me as well this year. As 2021 kicked off and more churches started to resume in-person services, I was called to preach at a couple smaller churches that lost pastors during the pandemic through attrition (thankfully not to COVID). One is the (now) inner-city church I grew up in and which some of my family still attend, and the other is a rural country church in Iowa. For me, the blog turned out to be (way-in-advance) sermon prep! This blog was helpful in that I still have been working my full-time day job, so it was nice not to have to a lot of new research for sermons. What sermons I did write this past year wound up as new blog posts.

Top 5 Posts

My top post for 2021 surprised me, because it was a little more academically technical than my typical posts, but it must have struck a chord with some. I had written “Indignant Jesus: The Variant Reading of Mark 1:41” in January 2019 in part because I wanted to know for myself why the NIV translators had changed the translation from “compassion” to “indignant” The other reason is that I wanted to provide an example of how translators use internal and external clues to determine the quality or genuineness of a textual variant. I figured with all the NIV readers out there, many of them would be curious about an “indignant Jesus,” so I wanted to provide what I hope was an explanation of the thought process in layman’s terms.

“Indignant Jesus” had 86 views that year. In 2020, it saw a 360% increase to 310 views. In 2021, it nearly had another 360% increase to 1,106 views! That was over 12% of total blog post views for 2021. Judging from the access peaks, I’d say it wound up on a few recommended reading lists for college syllabi. If you happen to know who used it on a syllabus, I’d love to thank them. I don’t want any royalties; I’d just like to know what they found redeeming about it, or even if they thought it needed some work.

The second most popular post was “Seer” in the Old Testament. This has been a perennial favorite, having been the number one article for at least 6 years through 2018, again, most likely because it appeared on someone’s college syllabus. Obviously, it’s not a Greek word study, but a Hebrew word study, and it was one I had sent out in an e-mail thread long before blogs were a thing. I never expected much from it on the blog, primarily because I had been looking for something different to post and pulled that one out of the archives. I’m both surprised and pleased that it continues to generate great interest.

My third most popular post (just 23 views behind #2) was 2020’s top post: “Take Heart!” That had slowly been growing in popularity, but it really caught hold in 2020, most likely due to the pandemic. I got one comment from a reader who said they had shared it with several health care workers at the time. They of all people had and continue to have a need for encouragement and endurance in the face of COVID and (if I may) the current lack of gratitude and sympathy from those at the highest levels of government for those hardworking heroes.

Number 4 is one that has steadily grown in popularity, but really began to take off in 2019, having three times the views in 2017. “Falling Away” tackles the difficult section of Hebrews 6 that at first glance seems to address the concept of losing your salvation. But a closer look at the text, grammar, and sentence structure (yes, there’s a classic sentence diagram attached; also an epilog post) shows the passage has quite a different meaning that isn’t so harsh theologically. Monthly views jumped dramatically in beginning in mid 2020, which makes me think the article also wound up on someone’s syllabus. I recently had a lively exchange with one reader who was asking for some clarification on a couple points, which also helped me sharpen my thinking and conclusions on the passage.

The fifth one was a total shocker to me. “Speaking in Tongues” averaged 49 views per year in the first 10 years it was online. In 2021, the post had 691 views, averaging over 57 views per month! Again, I’m not sure what sparked the sudden interest, but as with the other posts, the only thing I can think of is someone put it on their syllabus or perhaps cited it in a widely read paper.

Looking Forward

For 2022, I anticipate preaching about once every month, so I’ll continue to post sermon texts to the blog. I’d also like to break into the podcast sphere and start posting some videos or audios that can generate some ad revenue for me. I’m not really set up for that yet, and I’ll have to seek out some technical help most likely, but I’m pretty sure that won’t be a difficult learning curve.

I also have a blog called “Sustainable America,” which is my outlet for the intersection of politics, ethics, and faith in my life. That has never really taken off, although it has seen some modest growth. I’ve had just over 100 views the last two years, and 2020’s views (106) were a little more than double 2019’s views. Although it hasn’t really had many views, I do find it personally therapeutic as an outlet for what I’m thinking and feeling on such subjects. The founding fathers didn’t put “separation of Church and State” in the Constitution because they understood instinctively people’s politics derive from their religious and moral convictions (or lack thereof). The purpose of Sustainable America, however, is to analyze cultural and political issues and apply Scripture to them, while SMGB is all about analyzing the biblical text and discerning how it should affect and inform our lives all around, not just in the political or cultural spheres.

My most-viewed post on Sustainable America was “Why I’d Rather Not Work from Home Full Time.” After having spent much of my early career either working from home or working in a ministry setting where I was the only staff member, I found it quite enjoyable to transition to working in an office setting with lots of interesting people around. When the pandemic hit, all of that was defenestrated. I do miss working around other people. Somewhere along the way, I lost my introversion.

As such, one final goal for me for 2022 is to get back into the adjunct professor space, or full-time college instruction nearby, if someone wants to take a chance on my M.Div. degree with OT & NT concentrations. I found it ironic that, in 2020, the third-party supplier through whom I had been teaching Biblical Studies courses at St. Louis Christian College was bought out, and the acquiring company dropped the online adjunct service at a time when everything was moving online. Teaching Biblical Studies is really my first love, but it’s been tough landing positions without a Ph.D.

I wish you, my readers and blog followers, a happy and prosperous new year. Thank you for continuing to read, interact with, and spread the word about Sunday Morning Greek Blog!

Scott Stocking

My opinions are my own.

January 20, 2019

Indignant Jesus: The Variant Reading of Mark 1:41 (NIV & TNIV)

Filed under: Greek,Life of Christ,Mark Gospel of,New Testament,Textual Criticism — Scott Stocking @ 6:40 am

[Author’s Note: Thank you to all who’ve made this the #1 post for 2021 through June. I trust you’re finding it helpful. I’m always curious to know how my posts are used and how you were referred to them, especially if they’re used as an assigned reading in a college class. I’m not seeking any compensation for such use; I’m trying to collect some data I can use to show potential employers my articles have academic value.]

I was rather surprised the other day when I read Mark 1:41 in the NIV (2011 edition). A man with leprosy came to Jesus and asked him to heal him. The NIV text says “Jesus was indignant,” but he still “reached out his hand and touched the man.” The obvious question here is, “Why was Jesus indignant?” After all, most other English translations of the Bible, as well as the eclectic Greek text, say “Jesus had compassion.” So how did the NIV committee arrive at the “indignant” translation?

The Variant Reading: External Evidence

In Mark 1:41, the editors of the United Bible Societies (UBS) Greek New Testament (GNT; Third and Fourth editions) have settled on σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splanchnistheis, from σπλαγχνίζομαι splanchnizomai, “I have compassion on”) for the original text. All but one Greek manuscript uses this word. The only Greek manuscript that doesn’t is Fifth Century Codex Bezae (identified as “D” in the UBS apparatus), which uses ὀργισθεὶς (orgistheis, from ὀργίζομαι orgizomai, “I am angry”). The parallel Latin text on the opposing page has iratus (pp. 557–8).

In the third edition, the editors were unsure they had restored the original text, and gave it the lowest certainty rating possible: D (not to be confused with the apparatus designation of the same letter). In the fourth edition, however, the editors upgraded their certainty of σπλαγχνισθεὶς to B.

Now one might think the volume of the “external” evidence (that is, all of the documents that have σπλαγχνισθεὶς, and the relative age of those documents) might be enough to convince translators that Mark 1:41 should be translated “Jesus had compassion,” but external evidence does not always have the final word. Translators must also consider the “internal” evidence in support of a particular reading. Internal evidence considers such things as the surrounding context, parallel or similar passages, and any structural considerations.

Internal Evidence

Bill Mounce has a summary of the external issues in this passage, but he did not delve very deep into internal issues that may have influenced the Mark 1:41 NIV translation. In fact, I’m a bit surprised that Mounce himself was surprised to find the NIV had “Jesus was indignant,” because he was on the NIV translation committee! He may not have translated Mark, though, so I can’t be too hard on him, and the intermediate TNIV translation had already switched to “indignant” from the original NIV’s “compassion” before Mounce joined the NIV committee. One of the principles of determining the original reading (a process called “textual criticism”) is that the translator prefer the most difficult reading of the text. “Jesus was indignant” certainly fits that given the immediate situation in the verses. Add to that that it would have been very tempting for a copyist to “soften the blow” of ὀργισθεὶς by substituting σπλαγχνισθεὶς, since that is exactly what Jesus does in this situation.

According to Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (the GNT editorial committee’s explanation of choices made among variant readings), they thought that Jesus’ “strong warning” in vs. 43 might be one piece of internal evidence to support ὀργισθεὶς. The editors also cite similar statements in Mark 3:5 and 10:14. I would add to this that the broader context of the passage would seem to hint that Jesus may indeed be indignant. In 35–37, Jesus goes off to a solitary place to pray, but his disciples come looking for him because everyone else is looking for Jesus. Jesus’s response in vs. 38 is telling: “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” And so he went out preaching and driving out demons. Verse 39 says nothing of Jesus healing people. In other words, it seems that Jesus wanted a break from the healing, because that wasn’t his main purpose while on Earth.

And so we come to the scene with the man with leprosy. Could it be that Jesus is indignant because he knows what will happen if he heals another person? It’s not that Jesus does not want to heal the man: it’s clear he’s willing to. But the man fails to heed Jesus’s “strong warning” not to tell anyone, and v. 45 says, “As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places.” He wanted to preach, but the crowds he was attracting with his healing were hindering that mission. I can see how that would make him indignant.

One other point that Mounce makes is that the BAGD lexicon does not list “indignant” as a meaning for ὀργισθεὶς. However, a couple other Scriptures outside of Mark may imply “indignation” more so than “anger.” The most significant of the 8 other occurrences of ὀργίζομαι is found in Luke 15:28, at the end of the story of the Prodigal Son. The older brother is “angry” for sure, to the point of “righteous indignation” for how his prodigal brother is treated. Luke 14:21 seems to carry the idea of indignation as well, where the master of the banquet brings in the commoners after his invited guests have turned down his generous invitation. Another Greek word, ἀγανακτέω (aganakteō), usually carries the sense of “indignant.”

Weighing the Evidence

Although between Metzger, the NIV translation, and my own contributions here, I think I’ve made a pretty solid case for choosing the less common variant ὀργισθεὶς, it is difficult to overlook the preponderance of external evidence for σπλαγχνισθεὶς. The most prominent uncial manuscripts are all contemporary with or earlier than D, so that is a significant strike against the argument from internal evidence. It is also possible that, if this was copied as someone read the text to roomful of scribes, the copyist of D misheard the person who was reading the text and used the wrong word. It’s possible the copyist still had in his mind words like ERCHetai and pARAKalōn from vs. 40 and prefixed the wrong, but similar sounding, root (ORG) to the istheis ending he heard. The parallel passages in Mt 8:2–4 and Lk 5:12–14 say nothing of Jesus’s attitude toward the situation, so there is no reason the copyist would have tried to change the word to harmonize the passage with parallel accounts.


As such, as much as I like the NIV and respect those I’ve read and have met on the translation committee, I must disagree with the translation “Jesus was indignant.” I think the weight and character of the external evidence outweighs the logic of the internal evidence. If we had more Greek manuscripts that had ὀργισθεὶς in that verse, it might be more compelling to accept “indignant.” But as it stands, I think the solid tradition of most English translations accepting the settled text of the GNT wins the day. Mark 1:41 should be translated “Jesus, having compassion, stretched out his hand….”


My opinions are my own.

February 27, 2012

Deciphering the Mark 1:4 Variants

Details matter. Acts 28:13 and 1 Corinthians 13:3 each have variant readings that differ by only one letter each. Those differences make a huge difference in how the respective passages should be translated. Mark 1:4 is a little more complicated than that. Two small words are part of the variant readings for this passage: the one-letter definite article and a three-letter conjunction. Such small words only seem small, however. In reality, there is a big difference in how the passage is translated. Do we call John “the Baptizer” or just John in this passage?

Illustrating the Issue

I have listed the variant readings in Table 1 (only up to the word after the variant), with literal translations below each word. I put it in table form so those of you not familiar with what “variants” are can visualize the issue. The lexical forms of the individual words are the column headings for the verse, and each is linked the Strong’s entry on

Table 1: Three Best-Attested Variant Readings of Mark 1:4a (as ordered in the UBS 3 apparatus)

Eclectic Greek Text

Primary Ancient Witness








UBS Text

א (Sinaiticus)










It was



one baptizing





[the] one preaching


B (Vaticanus)
















Stephen’s Textus Receptus

A (Alexandrinus)

















*This is in the ancient text (Sinaiticus), but the UBS 3rd/4th editions have it in brackets with a grade of C indicating uncertainty it was in the autograph.

At the end of this post, I have included sentence diagrams (Figure 1) illustrating these variant readings.

The two main issues are:

  1. Was the definite article (ὁ) originally in the text before the participle βαπτίζων?
  2. Was the conjunction καὶ originally in the text before the participle κηρύσσων?

Textus Receptus (A Alexandrinus)

I will start with the Textus Receptus reading, because that seems to be the easiest to explain to English readers. A participle in English is a verb that usually adds –ing for the present participle or –ed for the past participle. They are usually used with a helping verb in the perfect tense (I have waited; I have been waiting) or passive voice (I was waited on by the butler; I am being waited on by the butler). Essentially in this reading, Mark uses the long form of the perfect tense (called periphrastic) instead of using a perfect tense verb. Here is how the King James renders the passage from the Textus Receptus:

John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

Notice that without the definite article, the participles are seen to function as verbs that complete the past-tense helping verb ἐγένετο. The helping verb is translated various ways in English depending on context. The KJV phrasing sounds a bit archaic to 21st-century ears, but a more contemporary way to put it might be “John was baptizing…and preaching.” In other words, the translators don’t see this as a title for John. It’s neither “John the Baptist” nor “John the Baptizer”; it’s just “John” with a double predicate. Two of the three “preferences” used when deciding between two or more variants are prefer the shorter reading and prefer the more difficult reading. This passage is shorter than the UBS text, but is not as difficult as that text or the B text. Another poorly attested variant based on the D text is similar to A but changes the order of the text. I don’t detail that in the text of this post. It is diagrammed in Figure 1, however.

B (Vaticanus)

The B (Vaticanus) text has the definite article with βαπτίζων, and the passage can then be read like “John the Baptizer” is a title, especially without the καὶ (“and”; I will cover why that is important in the discussion of the א [Sinaiticus] text). The lack of a καὶ suggests that the two participles should not be taken as a compound predicate, as in the A text. The second participle describes what John was doing in the wilderness and functions very much like an adverb, as anarthrous (=without the definite article) participles often do. So the B passage could be translated like this:

John the Baptizer was in the wilderness preaching baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.


In the wilderness, John the Baptizer was preaching baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

This would be an acceptable translation if the B variant were not so poorly attested.

א (Sinaiticus)

I think that the reading of the א (Sinaiticus) text is the more difficult reading, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. For the most part, the καὶ is accepted as original to the text. If this is so, then it makes perfect sense to have the definite article before βαπτίζων. How are the two words related? It’s a rule I’ve discussed before in the blog, the Granville Sharp rule. If two singular, personal, non-proper nouns or substantives (words that can function as nouns; in this case βαπτίζων and κηρύσσων) are joined by καὶ, and only the first noun has the definite article, then the two nouns refer to the same person. This reading is slightly more difficult than the A text reading, because the construction is a bit more sophisticated. Since the two participles refer to the same person, the definite article would not be out of place. That doesn’t negate the reading of the A text necessarily, but since adding the definite article would not have been necessary to make sense of the text, it would seem to me that someone removed it somewhere along the way to make it a little easier to understand. In this case, the difficult passage is preferred over the shorter passage.

Given Mark’s penchant for shorter statements more to the point, the passage could be rendered like this:

There was John, the one baptizing in the wilderness and preaching baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.


There was John, the Baptizer in the wilderness, the Preacher of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

The former option isn’t much different from the A text reading above, but instead of just doing a straight noun/verb translation, I assumed Mark was using the participles to explain which John he intended (“There was John, you know, the guy who baptizing and preaching”). Note that the last option, for consistency, treats both “Baptizer” and “Preacher” as titles, because the definite article before βαπτίζων governs κηρύσσων as well. Mark does use the phrase Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτίζων in 6:14 as well, so there is precedence for the phrase as a title. My translation of 1:4 with the titles sounds a little bit awkward to our English ears, but Greek speakers would have understood the construction immediately.

Nominative Absolute?

On a more technical note, it is entirely possible that the entire verse was intended as a nominative absolute. That’s basically a phrase in the subject case that stands apart as a separate clause and serves as the antecedent for a pronoun. The first four words of vs. 5 give the verb and the pronoun for John (καὶ ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν “and [everyone] went out to him”) before Mark states the subjects of the verb, so that’s a good clue that 1:4 might be functioning as a nominative absolute. If that is so, the editors of the Greek New Testament should put a comma instead of a period at the end of verse 4. This would further support the reading of the א text.


Talking about textual variants may not be the most exciting topic in the world for a blog, but I think it is important that people understand the care scholars take to restore the original text of Scripture. I hope that I have made this understandable for most audiences, but if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me through the comments or e-mail link. Thank you for reading!


Scott Stocking


Figure 1: Sentence Diagrams for Mark 1:4 Variants

December 14, 2011

The Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7–8) and the Reliability of Modern Greek Texts

Filed under: 1 John,Authorship,Biblical Studies,Greek,New Testament,Textual Criticism — Scott Stocking @ 7:29 pm

Note: Some of the information herein is taken from Bruce Manning Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (2nd ed., New York: Oxford, 1968) pp. 95–106, 209–10.


One of the most fascinating things to me about the history of the transmission of the New Testament is the diligent scientific method developed by scholars to judge not only the quality of a particular manuscript (MS, plural MSS), but also to trace the historical influences on and predecessors to a MS. With over 5000 MSS of the Greek NT (in whole or in part), it was inevitable that scholars would develop a system for classifying and dating them. The process is called textual criticism, but don’t be turned off by the word criticism. Don’t think of this as negative assessment (e.g. “Her criticism was insulting”), but as scholarly judgment (e.g., “Her initial critique provided valuable insight”).

The modern Greek texts like the United Bible Society’s 4th edition and the Nestle-Aland 27th edition are sometimes called critical texts, because they weigh the value and quality of all MSS and make a judgment when MSS conflict about what the original text was. When MSS have different text in the same chapter and verse, these differences are called variants, or variant readings, (sometimes abbreviated v.l. for Latin varia lectio), or spurious. The science is not exact (there are four levels of certainty with which they weigh variants), but we can be fairly certain that modern critical texts are extremely accurate descendants of the autographs, the versions originally penned by the biblical authors.

The Johannine Comma

One familiar passage that exemplifies the importance of textual criticism is 1 John 5:7–8, known also as the Johannine Comma or Comma Johanneum. If you grew up reading the King James Version (or its various successors), you may know the passage as:

7 For there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth], the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one (1769 Authorized Version, italics mine).

Stephens 1551 version of the Greek text, the primary text of the 1611 King James and a predecessor to the Elzevir (official) textus
receptus of 1633 (more about that later), has the following Greek text (italics mine):

7 οτι τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες [εν τω ουρανω ο πατηρ ο λογος και το αγιον πνευμα και ουτοι οι τρεις εν εισιν

8 και τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τη γη]
το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν

But most modern English translation reject the outright statement of the trinity here, because there are no early Greek MSS (sometimes called witnesses) that have the phrase represented in brackets and italics. In fact, the earliest witness to the spurious passage is not even a biblical text. It is found in a fourth-century treatise, and it is believed to have been a commentary on the shorter passage, by way of analogy, that somehow made its way into the text. The earliest biblical text inclusion of the passage is an eighth-century copy of the Latin Vulgate, that is, it’s not even Greek.

When Erasmus was preparing his Greek text in the early sixteenth century, which would eventually lay the foundation for the Stephens text, he was not going to include the variant reading in 1 John 5:7–8 (and didn’t in his first two editions), because he could find no Greek texts that had the reading. However, according to the history Metzger relates, Erasmus promised to include the passage if a Greek text could be found that had the variant reading. Sure enough, one was “produced” for him, but Erasmus suspected it was a forged copy. (In fact, no Greek text prior to the fourteenth century has the variant.) True to his word, he included the variant passage, but with numerous footnotes and disclaimers questioning the authenticity of the passage. Nonetheless, it survived into the Stephens text and the textus receptus, and it was included in most Greek texts up to the late 19th century until modern-day critical texts began to gain prominence. Even though the stewards of the King James tradition know the passage is not original, they still to this day include the words in the main text in the New King James Version.

How Do Scholars Decide which Variant Reading Is the Best?

I may have mentioned the premises for textual criticism before in my blog, but they bear repeating, especially for my new blog readers. Scholars look at two types of evidence when examining the quality and accuracy of a MS—external and internal.

External Evidence

One piece of external evidence includes the date of the MS and the style of writing it uses. MSS that use lower case letters (minuscules) are thought to be more reliable than those that use all capital letters (uncials), even if the latter is older. MSS are also classified by geographical distribution. Without going into too much detail, there are three main “families” of MSS based on this distribution: Byzantine, Western, and Alexandrian. The Alexandrian family of MSS is generally considered to be the most reliable, and includes the fourth-century Aleph (א) text discovered at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai and the fourth-century Vaticanus (B) text.

One final piece of external evidence is that the relationships of the MSS to one another can often be traced as well. Some scholars count the number of variant readings and simply select the reading with the most “votes” among the witnesses. This results in what some call the “Majority Text.” The problem with this is that later MSS tend to be more common, and they are copies of copies. Consider the following analogy. Which would you consider more accurate: a handwritten reproduction of the Declaration of Independence by someone for whom English is a first language, or twenty copies made by those for whom English is not their first language who only hear the Declaration of Independence and write down what they hear? That is essentially the difference between how ancient scrolls were copied. Some were reproduced by careful editors, while others were mass produced by those who only knew the correspondence of sounds to letters. In the latter case, often only one copy of the text was available to read, so there was not much double-checking of the scribes’ work.

With respect to the Johannine Comma, the external evidence is pretty clear that the passage was never part of the original text penned by the apostle. But internal evidence is also weighed in deciding on the authenticity of a variant, so I turn now to that.

Internal Evidence

The evaluation of internal evidence takes two forms, that which relates to the words on the page (transcriptional) and that which relates to the broader contexts in which the text is found (intrinsic). The latter concern, context, is something that every Bible college student learns early on. Those of us who teach hermeneutics often joke with our students that if we call on them in their lifestyle-induced, classroom slumber to answer a question, they have a 50 percent chance of being right if they answer “Context!” In addition to the immediate context of the passage and the larger context of the book or the author’s collection of writings, historical considerations such as the Aramaic background of Jesus’ teaching and the influence of the Christian community on the transmission of the text play a role in the decision to accept or reject a variant.

Transcriptional considerations can be just as tricky, especially when some seem on the surface to contradict each other. Scribes had a tendency to simplify difficult passages by adding or changing words, so on the one hand, the most difficult reading of a passage is preferred as the original, while on the other hand, the shorter passage is preferred on the assumption that the longer passage contains more explanation. Especially relevant to the Gospels is another tendency of the scribe to consciously or unconsciously bring parallel passages into harmony. The scribe may be familiar with Luke’s version of a parable, so when he comes to that parable in Matthew, he assumes it needs to be corrected, so he “fixes” the text. But this involves much speculation, so the passage that has a greater verbal difference with parallels is preferred. Occasionally, a scribe may have inadvertently skipped a line based on seeing similar words or endings in successive lines of a Greek text. If you’re a wordsmith, this phenomenon is called homoioteleuton (also homeoteleuton, lit. “similar ending”) or parablepsis (lit. “see alongside”). Homoioarchton happens when text is skipped because of words with similar beginnings. We’ve all done those things when reading, so it shouldn’t surprise us that it happened with ancient texts.

Again, returning to the Johannine Comma, we see that the shorter passage is indeed preferred, and there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the longer variant was indeed an attempt by a scribe to explain or allegorize a passage that was, perhaps, a little more difficult to comprehend. One final note: if you look at a copy of a United Bible Society Greek NT, you will see that the critical apparatus (essentially the catalog of where all the variants are found) weighs the certainty with which the Greek NT committee felt they had restored the original text. The shorter reading of 1 John 5:7–8 gets an A, because the committee was certain the original text had been restored. By contrast, the choice between “weigh anchor” (περιελόντες) and “circle around” (περιελθόντες) in Acts 28:13, a difference of one letter, gets the worst grade, D.


And so concludes my brief foray into the world of textual criticism. I hope you found it fascinating to discover that scholars have taken great care throughout history to maintain the integrity of God’s word, especially the New Testament. Talking about how the Jews preserved the Hebrew text is another blog post of its own.

I started in Revelation this week, so I’m in the home stretch of finishing up my read-through of the Greek NT. I’m toying with reading through the Hebrew Bible, but I may have to give myself three years to do that, and I’m not sure that would be the most profitable for me. I have been boning up on my Hebrew vocabulary, so it’s still a possibility, but I might return to my first-year Hebrew textbook and read through Esther to refresh and sharpen my Hebrew before tackling the whole OT. My other idea is to read through the Greek NT again, focusing a little more on vocabulary development personally and writing on topics I didn’t cover this year.

As always, if you have a topic you’d like to see me cover, don’t hesitate to ask. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you. Peace on earth and good will to all humanity.

Scott Stocking

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