"God was manifest in the flesh" (1 Tim. 3:16)

Comments © 1998, 2003 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

1Tim 3:16 (KJV) And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.

The great Puritan John Owen comments on this verse:

"A mystery it is, and that a great mystery; and that confessedly so, by all that do believe. And this is, that 'God was manifested in the flesh.' That it is the Lord Christ who is spoken of, every one of the ensuing expressions do evince: 'Justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.' And this, also, is the substance of what we believe in this matter,--namely, that Christ is God manifest in the flesh; which we acknowledge, own, and believe to be true, but a great mystery,--yet no less great and sacred a truth notwithstanding." (--"Of the Person of Christ," in The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Person and Satisfaction of Christ.)

However, the Textus Receptus reading of "God" in this verse is, we are told by A.T. Robertson and Marvin R. Vincent, an error, and the correct reading is "who." Vincent has an interesting way of explaining the reason why this supposed superior reading connects the thought far less adequately than does "God": "the abruptness of its introduction may be explained by the fact that it and the words which follow were probably taken from an ancient credal hymn" (Word Studies, Vol. 4). (Behold the elevation of surmise ["were probably taken"] into certainty ["may be explained by the fact"] without any evidence!) And UBS-4 lists several witnesses against "God," including the original hand of Codex A, or Alexandrinus. However, Codex A's testimony is far from unambiguous; in fact, Bentley, Fell, Scrivener and many others insisted, after close inspection of the ms., that it actually read "theos" (God) in its original state (Burgon, The Revision Revised, pp. 431-7). The witness of Adam Clarke on this point, c. 1830, is as follows (emphasis added):

" . . . If, therefore, the middle stroke of the [theta], in ths, happened to be faint, or obliterated, and the dash above not very apparent, both of which I have observed in ancient MSS., then ths, the contraction for theos, 'God,' might be mistaken for os, 'which' or 'who'; and vice versa. This appears to have been the case in the Codex Alexandrinus, in this passage. To me there is ample reason to believe that the Codex Alexandrinus originally read ths, God, in this place; but the stroke becoming faint by length of time and injudicious handling, of which the MS. in this place has had a large proportion, some person has supplied the place, most reprehensibly, with a thick black line. This has destroyed the evidence of this MS., as now it can neither be quoted pro or con, though it is very likely that the person who supplied the ink line, did it from a conscientious conviction that ths was the original reading of this MS.. I examined this MS. about thirty years ago, and this was the conviction that rested then on my mind. I have seen the MS. several times since, and have not changed my opinion.

"The enemies of the Deity of Christ have been at as much pains to destroy the evidence afforded by the common reading in support of this doctrine as if this text were the only one by which it can be supported; they must be aware that John 1:1 and John 1:14 proclaim the same truth; and that in those verses there is no authority to doubt the genuineness of the reading. We read, therefore, God was manifested in the flesh, and I cannot see what good sense can be taken out of, the GOSPEL was manifested in the flesh; or, the mystery of godliness was manifested in the flesh. After seriously considering this subject in every point of light, I hold with the reading in the commonly received text."

Of course there is other evidence for this passage, such as the testimony of the church fathers Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, and Theodoret, and that of the majority of manuscripts; for an extensive and indeed exhaustive defense, see Burgon's Revision Revised, pp. 424-501. Indeed, despite the "A" level certainty of UBS-4 that "who" is the correct reading, even James White (King James Only Controversy, p. 207ff.) admits that "there is much to be said in defense of the KJV rendering," and that he "prefer[s] this reading, and feel[s] that it has more than sufficient support among the Greek manuscripts." Probably not least of concern to Dr. White was the superior theological position of "God was manifest" to "who was manifest"--the latter of which, as Clarke noted, making little sense.

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