“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” (1 Timothy 3:16, RSV)
“Without a doubt, great is the mystery of godliness: God was revealed in the flesh, vindicated in [the] spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, and received up in glory.” (1 Timothy 3:16, Eastern Orthodox Bible)
This verse comes up quite often in discussions with King James Only advocates as a reason we should not accept new translations based on older manuscripts as well as with skeptics and Muslim apologists. The former argue that “who was manifest” takes the Deity of Christ out of the passage while the latter argue that “God was manifest” adds the belief that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate to the passage. Bart Ehrman argues this at some length in Misquoting Jesus and while showing that the change from “who” to “God” (in the Greek uncials from “ΟΣ” to “Θ̅Σ̅”) could easily have been an innocent scribal error due to someone misreading the word in question because of bleedthrough on the manuscript in chapter four, he seems to much prefer the argument in chapter six of Misquoting Jesus that it was a deliberate alteration by proto-orthodox scribes arguing against the Adoptionists who believed Jesus was just a holy man God adopted as the Son of God.
I agree with those who say the original reading of 1 Tim. 3:16 is “He who was manifest in the flesh” while also agreeing with those saying “God was manifest in the flesh” is the intent behind the words.
Arguing that if the passage says “He who was manifest” counts as an argument against the early Christian belief in the Deity of Christ simply ignores the concentric circles of context making it obvious that the doctrine of the Incarnation is what we Christians have always believed, namely, that God was manifest in the flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. They are simply removing the verse from all its relevant contexts and treating it like it existed in a vacuum.
Here are some of the concentric circles of context:
I.First Concentric Circle- The co-text itself identifies Jesus as God :
* Scholars have long recognized that this is part of an early Christian hymn- a sacred song about God- that they chanted about Jesus during worship. The hymn runs from “He was manifest in the flesh” through the rest of the verse.
*The co-text of the hymn begins at v. 14 which states that St. Paul is discussing the Church of the Living God. Which God? “He who was manifest in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”
*That this whole passage is meant to hang together is further evidenced by the fact that this whole passage from v. 14-16 is chanted together in the Orthodox Catholic Church to this day. Our Lectionary was completed in the early fourth century even before the full NT canon was settled (which is a major reason why the Apocalypse is not included in our liturgical readings, btw).
And when do we chant this passage? On the Saturday before Theophany (a word meaning “God’s manifestation”). This fact from the liturgical life of the ancient Church is instructive as to how the early Christians understood the passage.
II. Second Concentric Circle- The context of the rest of the epistle identifies Jesus as God:
*1 Timothy 1:16,17 “And yet for this reason I found mercy, in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
*1 Timothy 6:14-16 “that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He will bring about at the proper time-He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords; who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.”
III. Third Concentric Circle- The context of St. Paul in his writings elsewhere identifies Jesus as God (not an exhaustive list):
*Titus 2:13-14 “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.” The phrase “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” reflects the Granville-Sharp rule in Koine Greek discovered after the KJV came out. The KJV follows a Latinism from the Vulgate that obscures Christ’s deity reading, “the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ”. Readers of the Vulgate knew it meant the verse was saying Jesus is God but this is obscured pretty badly when rendered so literally into English. The New King James, incidentally corrects the Latinism in verses where this grammatical construction occurs. For a more thorough discussion of the Granville-Sharp rule see here.
*Colossians 2:9 “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily”
IV. Fourth Concentric Circle- The context of the other NT authors, co-founders of the Church with St. Paul, identify Jesus as God (not an exhaustive list):
*Heb 1:8 (possibly Paul writing) The Father addresses son as God: “But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.”
*Jn 1:1 “The word was God”
*John 1:18 “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
*Phil 2:6-8 The famous Carmen Christi passage. Jesus existed in the form of God (the NIV2011 gets this verse more accurately than older translations thanks to recent discoveries in Koine Greek usage: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage”. For a more detailed explanation of this see this discussion of the Greek.
*Jn 20:28 ‘My Lord and My God’ is the confession of faith by the apostle St. Thomas.
*2 Peter 1:1 “Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” Another example of the Granville-Sharp rule clarifying what older translations obscure with their Latinisms. Once again, the link for a more thorough discussion of this important rule is here.
V. Fifth Concentric Circle- the earliest Christians identify Jesus as God (not an exhaustive list by a long shot):
*”He is Lord of all the world, to whom God said at the foundation of the world, “Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness.” Barnabas (c. 70– 130 AD)
*”God Himself was manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life.” St. Ignatius of Antioch (a disciple of the Apostle John) (c. 105 AD)
*”Continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ, our God.” Ignatius (c. 105 AD).
*”I pray for your happiness forever in our God, Jesus Christ.” Ignatius (c. 105)
*”The Christians trace the beginning of their religion to Jesus the Messiah. He is called the Son of the Most High God. It is said that God came down from heaven. He assumed flesh and clothed Himself with it from a Hebrew virgin. And the Son of God lived in a daughter of man. Aristides (c. 125 AD)
*”Brethren, it is fitting that you should think of Jesus Christ as of God— as the Judge of the living and the dead.” Second Clement (c. 150)
*”We reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place.” Justin Martyr (c. 160 AD)
*”The Father of the universe has a Son. And He, being the First-Begotten Word of God, is even God.” Justin Martyr (c. 160 AD)
There are many, many more illustrations of the orthodox Christian belief that Jesus is God Incarnate. This was no deviation from an earlier teaching but it is an indispensable part of ” the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)
So how did we get from an original reading of “He who was manifest in the flesh” to “God was manifest in the flesh” as the majority reading?
Simple- The normal way illiterate Christians (the Empire was only about 10% literate and books were very expensive for those who could read) encountered the Scriptures was to hear the assigned portions for the service chanted.
The pericope of 1 Timothy 3:14-16 was assigned to the Saturday before Theophany (the Feast of God’s Manifestation). In order to make the text more instructive for the people the nomen sacrum was increasingly employed from the end of the second century by simply drawing a line through the omicron of “ΟΣ” in the Uncial Greek manuscripts and making it a theta changing the word to “Θ̅Σ̅”. The word may have changed but the intended meaning, as evidenced by the five concentric circles of context given earlier, was retained and made clearer for those listening to the passage chanted in church.