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Hebrews 2:9 – Separated by Grace (Part 4)

by Stephen Hebert on Monday - 3 August 2009

in Biblical Studies, New Testament

Part four of the series “Hebrews 2:9 – Separated by Grace.”

On the other hand, χωρίς has a claim to originality based on a number of internal criteria. While it is less common than χάρις in the New Testament, it is actually more common than χάρις in Hebrews. Discounting the verse in question, χάρις appears 154 times in the New Testament, while χωρίς appears 41 times; χάρις appears 107 times in the Pauline epistles (all “Pauline” letters, not just those considered “genuine” by modern scholars since at this early period Hebrews was most assuredly associated with Paul), whereas χωρίς appears only 29 times. In Hebrews, however, χάρις occurs 7 times, and χωρίς occurs 13 times. Therefore, the word χωρίς is also more in accord with the vocabulary of Hebrews than χάριτι. Further, the phrase χωρὶς θεοῦ appears nowhere else in the New Testament, while χάριτι θεοῦ appears some 20 times.1 It is more likely that a scribe would replace χωρίς with the more common χάριτι than the other way around. In addition, as we have mentioned before, the idea of Jesus dying separated from God is a much more difficult reading in terms of proto-orthodox christological ontology than dying by the grace of God. The orthodox scribe is more likely to have altered the phrase in an effort to dispel questions about the ontological nature of Jesus, thus inserting χάριτι for χωρίς.2 Bart Ehrman has argued that such an alteration of the text may well have been in reaction to so-called “heretical” doctrine running rampant during the second century about the humanity and divinity of Christ:

We know that the scribal alteration of the text of Heb 2:9 occurred precisely during the time that the controversy between proto-orthodox Christians and Gnostics was raging. It is not at all implausible to think that it was just this controversy then that led to the modification of this text, that proto-orthodox scribes, who shared the christological views of Irenaeus, modified the text so that Gnostics could not use it as a scriptural warrant for saying that Jesus died “apart from God,” since the divine Christ had already left him.3

For Ehrman, the christological debate of the second century, which was ultimately won by those whose theology would become the “orthodox” view, provides the theological motivation for overly pious scribes to alter the text in an effort to disallow the use of Scripture by those they deemed “heretics.” It is clear, then, that χωρίς is the lectio difficilior. It is also a word used more frequently in Hebrews than elsewhere, and its change to χάριτι can be explained both by scribal lapse (substituting the more common word for the less common, creating an easier phrase from something more complex) or by a theologically motivated scribe.4

Thus, the two readings conflict, creating a gulf between those who find the external evidence more persuasive, and those who find the internal evidence more persuasive. From the time of Tischendorf, the external evidence in this case has dictated the variant selected for inclusion in the majority of critical editions. However, this denies the relative ancientness of the alternative reading, χωρίς. For, while it is true that the weight of the manuscript evidence strongly favors χάριτι, it cannot be said to be more ancient than χωρίς—both readings originate extremely early, by the end of the second century. This is obvious for χάριτι, since it appears in P46, a manuscript dated to somewhere around 200 ce. However, the same can be shown to be true of χωρίς—Origen’s usage proves this point most aptly.


  1. Ehrman, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 147. J. K. Elliott discusses the use of these words together in terms of the usage of χωρίς with articular versus anarthrous nouns. His conclusion is that the use of χωρίς with an anarthrous noun is totally in accord with both New Testament usage and the usage of Hebrews. See James K. Elliott, “When Jesus Was Apart from God: An Examination of Hebrews 2:9,” ExpTim 83 (1972) 339.
  2. Patristic writers were fond of disproving another group’s heretical christological belief based on textual criticism—showing that they altered the text. Bruce Manning Metzger, “The Practice of Textual Criticism Among the Church Fathers,” Studia Patristica 12 (1975) 340–49. It is striking to me that until Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, little attention had been paid to the reverse—namely, the theologically motivated alteration of texts by proto-orthodox scribes in an effort to control the christological debate.
  3. Ehrman,“Text and Tradition.” I am a bit uncomfortable with Ehrman’s use of “Gnostic” as a kind of collective, as if there were only two groups waging this theological war—but the point is still valid. For more on “Gnosticism,” see Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  4. See also Paul Garnet, “Hebrews 2:9: Χαριτι or Χωρις?,” Studia Patristica 18 (1985) 324.

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