Bart Ehrman on Luke 3:22 and Anti-Adoptionism

In this post, I will talk about Bart Ehrman’s discussion of Luke 3:22 in his book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.

The context of Luke 3:22 is Jesus’ baptism by John.  The King James Version for that verse reads: “And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.”  Ehrman’s argument is that “in you I am well pleased” is actually an attempt to theologically correct an earlier reading: “today I have begotten you.”  Why was this attempt made, according to Ehrman?  Essentially, there were adoptionists who believed that Jesus became the Son of God and Christ at his baptism, when God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit.  But there were Christians who disagreed with the adoptionists, believing instead that Jesus was God’s son before his baptism.  The Christian scribes who believed that Jesus was God’s son prior to his baptism changed the text to read “in you I am well pleased” instead of “today I have begotten you,” since the latter reading implied that Jesus became God’s son when he was baptized.  The change made Luke 3:22 say that God was acknowledging Jesus as his son, not making Jesus into his son at that time.

Ehrman offers text-critical grounds for his view that “today I have begotten you” was an earlier reading than “in you I am well pleased.”  In the second-third centuries C.E., Ehrman argues, “today I have begotten you” was the predominant (maybe even the only) reading.  Ehrman mentions such names as Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and others, but I’ll quote Justin Martyr.  Justin says the following in Dialogue with Trypho 88, when discussing Jesus’ baptism:

“but then the Holy Ghost, and for man’s sake, as I formerly stated, lighted on Him in the form of a dove, and there came at the same instant from the heavens a voice, which was uttered also by David when he spoke, personating Christ, what the Father would say to Him: ‘You are My Son: this day have I begotten You;’ [the Father] saying that His generation would take place for men, at the time when they would become acquainted with Him: ‘You are My Son; this day have I begotten you.'”  See here.

Notice that Justin not only presents God saying “this day have I begotten you” at Jesus’ baptism, but Justin also tries to interpret that in a non-adoptionistic fashion, applying it to the regeneration of Christians rather than to God begetting Jesus as God’s son when Jesus was baptized.  There is good reason to believe that “today I have begotten you” was the predominant reading of Luke 3:22 in Justin’s time, and that it was later changed to “in you I am well pleased.”

There are other arguments that Ehrman makes for “today I have begotten you” in Luke 3:22 being the earlier reading.  First, up to the sixth century, this particular reading is broadly attested, occurring in “witnesses as far-flung as Asia Minor, Palestine, Alexandria, North Africa, Rome, Gaul, and Spain” (page 63).  You may recall that the book, Reinventing Jesus, which criticizes Ehrman, says that broad attestation is a strong ground for authenticity when it comes to text critcism.  Second, changing “today I have begotten you” to “in you I am well pleased” may have been (at least in part) an attempt to harmonize Luke 3:22 with Mark 1:11, where we have “in whom I am well pleased.  There were Christian scribes who tried to harmonize the Gospels, as Reinventing Jesus acknowledges.  Third, within Luke-Acts, there seems to be a salient notion that something significant happened to Jesus at his baptism—-that God anointed Jesus and endowed him with power (cp, Luke 3:22 with 4:1, 14; Acts 10:37-38).  According to Ehrman, what happened in Luke 3:22 was “an election formula, in which a king is actually chosen by God upon his anointing” (page 67).  Ehrman offers other arguments for the priority of “today I have begotten you” in Luke 3:22, as well.

One might ask if “today I have begotten you” in Luke 3:22 contradicts Luke’s virgin birth story, in which Jesus is born as the Christ (Luke 2:11).  If that is the case, wouldn’t “in you I am well pleased” be the reading that makes more sense within Luke’s Gospel?  Ehrman’s response to that appears to be that Luke contradicts himself, or at least appears to do so.  On page 65, Ehrman states:

“According to Luke’s infancy narrative, Jesus was born the Christ (2:11).  But in at least one of the speeches of Acts he is understood to have become the Christ at his baptism (10:37-38; possibly 4:27); whereas in another Luke explicitly states that he became Christ at his resurrection (2:36).  It may be that in yet another speech (3:20) Jesus is thought to be the Christ only in his parousia.  Similarly ‘inconsistent’ are Luke’s predications of the titles Lord and Savior to Jesus.  Thus, Jesus is born the Lord in Luke 2:11, and in Luke 10:1 he is designated Lord while living; but in Acts 2:36 he is said to have been become Lord at his resurrection.  So too, in Luke 2:11 he is born Savior, and in Acts 13:23-24 he is designated Savior while living; but according to Acts 5:31 he is said to have been made Savior at the resurrection.  Nor does the title Son of God…escape this seemingly erratic kind of treatment: Jesus is born the Son of God in Luke 1:32-35, descended Son of God according to the genealogy of 3:23-28, and declared to be Son of God while living (e.g., Luke 8:28; 9:35); but Acts 13:33 states that he became the Son of God at his resurrection.”

What Ehrman says reminds me of John Meier’s claim that we see a grab-bag sort of Christology in the Gospels: that there were different ideas about who Jesus was, and the Gospel writers grabbed from these diverse ideas in their own depictions of Jesus (see here), incorporating low and high Christologies.  Perhaps one could also do source criticism with Luke-Acts to explain its diversity: some have posited that Jesus’ birth story in the Gospel of Luke was pre-Lukan (see here), and that the speeches within Acts are earlier than Luke’s Gospel.

It’s interesting to me how Paul himself appears to have diverse Christologies in his writings: Paul may arguably be saying in Romans 1:4 that Jesus was appointed to be the Son of God at his resurrection, yet Paul says in Romans 8:3 that God sent his son in the likeness of sinful flesh, which seems to imply that Jesus was God’s Son long before God raised Jesus from the dead.  Ehrman, like many scholars, holds that Paul in Romans 1:4 is drawing from an earlier source, while adding a little of his own two-cents.  For some reason, Paul has no problem including an allusion that appears to contradict what he says elsewhere.  Perhaps Paul had his own way of explaining away Romans 1:4 to himself so that it would cohere with his stance, and thus (like many Christian fundamentalists) he did not acknowledge a contradiction.  But, according to Ehrman, there were later scribes who would have issues with how Romans 1:4 was phrased!

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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5 Responses to Bart Ehrman on Luke 3:22 and Anti-Adoptionism

  1. Kevin says:

    I doubt there is any chance I’ll get a response on this, but I really would like the input of someone who understands these things better. I think there is a lot about Ehrman’s reading that is tenuous, but one fault seems so glaring to me that I think I must just be misunderstanding something. That is, Ehrman seems to say at one point that we shouldn’t assume that Luke’s Chrisology is consistent. But then, his entire argument about “Today I have begotten you” turns on the premise that it more aligns with Luke’s use of the word “elect” or variations thereof in various places as indicating an Adoptionist Christology. Isn’t that a contradiction?

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Hi Kevin! It could be, or maybe there is some way to get around that. Perhaps one would have to do work on what is from Luke, and what is from Luke’s sources.

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  3. Kevin says:

    I’m not sure, though, that it really matters to Ehrman’s claim. First, the says there is a Luke shows a distinct lack of consistency, “in his use of christological titles and conceptions”. He then goes on to say:

    An obvious example comes in Luke’s depiction of Jesus as the Messiah. According to Luke’s infancy narrative, Jesus was born to Christ (2:11). But in at least one of the speeches of Acts he is understood to have become the Christ at his baptism (10:37-38; possibly 4:27); whereas in another Luke explicitly states that he became the Christ at his resurrection (2:38). It may be that in yet another speech (3:20) Jesus is thought to be the Christ only in his parousia. Similarly “inconsistent” are Luke’s predications of the titles Lord and Savior to Jesus. Thus, Jesus is born the Lord in Luke 2:11, and in Luke 10:1 he is designated Lord while living; but in Acts 2:38 he is said to have been become Lord at his resurrection. So too, and Luke 2:11 he is born Savior, and in Acts 13:23-24 he is designated Savior while living; but according to Acts 5:31 he is said to have been made Savior at the resurrection. Nor does the title Son of God, the title that is directly germane to our present deliberation, escape this seemingly erratic kind of treatment: Jesus is born the son of God in Luke 1:32-35, descended son of God according to the genealogy of 3: 23-38, and declared to be son of God while living (e.g., Luke 8:28; 9:35); but Acts 13:33 states that he became the son of God and his resurrection. This kind of titular ambiguity does not inspire confidence in claims that certain readings cannot be Lukan because they stand in tension with Luke’s use of christological titles elsewhere.

    So far, I see what he’s saying. But then he says:

    This is not mean that the broad scope of Luke’s narrative is irrelevant to the textual problem of 3:22. It is relevant, but not through an appeal to a consistent used of christological notions. More fruitful is an assessment of the other references to Jesus’ baptism throughout Luke’s work, “backward glances,” as it were, that provide clues concerning what happened at that point of the narrative.

    After which he proceeds to discuss various Lukan passages using the concept of “election”. I don’t have the scholarly aptitude to know whether he what he is saying about the use of “election” (like Christ being the said to be God’s “chosen one” which to Ehrman implies an Adoptionist reading) is right or not, but it seems like, in the first passage he is affirming the claim “Luke was not particularly consistent in his use of Christological terminology or concepts” in order to dispel the notion that scholars can’t come to a conclusion about whether or not Luke 3:22 was altered to harmonize with with Mark’s account of the baptism. But then he goes on to say that “Certain backward glances toward the Baptism scene in Luke make it more likely that the Bezae reading should be preferred on intrinsic grounds”. But those “backward glances” – the stuff about election – should all rightly be called “Christological terminology and concepts” (which Ehrman believes are Adoptionist), which he has just previously claimed and indeed shown were inconsistent throughout Luke. How can he both say “Luke inconsistently applies Christological concepts” and “We should prefer the Bezae reading because it is more consistent with Luke’s Christological concepts.” Again, I know next to nothing about textual criticism save what I gleaned as a Latin minor undergraduate, but I do teach Freshman Composition and it seems like there is a glaring contradiction. But since this was published in such an influential book that received almost universally positive reviews, I can’t help but think there’s just something I’m missing because I don’t understand the field well enough or maybe I’m just not smart enough all together.

    Thank you for so much for responding to a comment on such an old post. I feel like all I have been able to get from investigating Ehrman so far is uncritical praise on the one hand or vitriol on the other. I just want to understand the way things really are.

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  4. Jarek S. says:

    When you put Acts 2:38 it should be Acts 2:36

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  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I changed it. I noticed that was in a quote of Ehrman, so I do not know if the mistake was mine in quoting Ehrman, or Ehrman’s in citing the wrong text. Since he meant Acts 2:36, I changed it.

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