Sunday Morning Greek Blog

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 www.blueletterbible.org.

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

Eclectic Greek Text

Primary Ancient Witness

γίνομαι

Ἰωάννης

βαπτίζω

ἐν

ἔρημος

καὶ

κηρύσσω

UBS Text

א (Sinaiticus)

ἐγένετο

Ἰωάννης

ὁ*

βαπτίζων

ἐν

τῇ

ἐρήμῳ

καὶ

κηρύσσων

It was

John

the

one baptizing

in

the

wilderness

and

[the] one preaching

[none]

B (Vaticanus)

ἐγένετο

Ἰωάννης

βαπτίζων

ἐν

τῇ

ἐρήμῳ

κηρύσσων

was

John

the

Baptizer

in

the

wilderness

preaching

Stephen’s Textus Receptus

A (Alexandrinus)

ἐγένετο

Ἰωάννης

βαπτίζων

ἐν

τῇ

ἐρήμῳ

καὶ

κηρύσσων

was

John

baptizing

in

the

wilderness

and

preaching

*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.

or

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.

or

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.

Conclusion

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!

Peace

Scott Stocking

Appendix

Figure 1: Sentence Diagrams for Mark 1:4 Variants

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1 Comment »

  1. Another possibility for translating this passage occurred to me just now. The article could be with βαπτίζων because that is intended to be the subject of the sentence. If that is the case, the verse could be rendered, “The one baptizing… and preaching… was John.”

    Scott

    Comment by Scott Stocking — February 27, 2012 @ 10:48 pm | Reply


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