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The Epistles of John (Part 18): 1 John 2:20

by Stephen Hebert on Tuesday - 19 June 2007

in Biblical Studies, New Testament

This is the 18th part in an ongoing series on the Epistles of John.

English Standard Version Nestle-Aland 27
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. καὶ ὑμεῖς χρῖσμα ἔχετε ἀπὸ τοῦ ἁγίου καὶ οἶδατε πάντες.

Now John begins to differentiate his group from the group of antichrists/anti-christians.

John’s group has been anointed by the Holy One. Here it is almost certain that the Holy One refers to God, and not some pontiff or church official. However, I would guess that this anointing is not just feel-good stuff, it is probably ritualistic or sacramental. My guess would be that this anointing refers to baptism.

Second, our text says that John’s group “all have knowledge.” Some manuscripts do not have this, others have καὶ οἶδατε πάντα which means “you all know everything,” and still others have our text. What do we go with here? When we apply standard rules of textual criticism to the variants, it is a difficult choice.

Is There A Point To This Endeavor?

Whenever I begin investigating text-critical variants, I always start by asking myself: “Is there a purpose here?” Essentially, I’m wanting to know whether or not the variants are dissimilar enough that they warrant an investigation.

If we have three readings for a given phrase, but they are only minutely different and don’t substantially change the meaning, then there is little point in spending any kind of time and effort on it (unless, of course, I am a text-critical scholar, or just someone with an axe to grind).

In this case the three variants are different. We have mentioned how this verse begins to differentiate John’s group from the group of antichrists that “went out” from them. So, First, John describes his group as having been anointed by the Holy One. Then John has something else to say about his group:

  • Nothing. Some manuscripts only have the bit about being anointed, nothing else.
  • Some. Some manuscripts have John’s group knowing some stuff.
  • All. Some manuscripts have John’s group knowing everything.

To me, these are significantly different. We should look further.

Manuscript Evidence

In looking at the manuscript evidence, we are simply hoping to ascertain which manuscripts support which variant reading. If we know something about a given manuscript or group of manuscripts, that might give us some clue as to how trustworthy their readings are.

For the first option, which cuts out the second portion of the verse, there is only weak manuscript evidence (though Codex Vaticanus has this particular reading). It seems likely to me that this is either a mistake, or the work of someone trying to get rid of this phrase. Why might a scribe cut the phrase? Plenty of reasons. Perhaps they were running out of papyrus. Perhaps they knew of both readings and didn’t want to choose. Perhaps they had a theological issue with this particular statement. Here’s the reality: prior to the invention of the printing press, scribes had tremendous power to alter texts however they saw fit. When texts are produced on a text-by-text basis, rather than in a rapid fire process, there are bound to be mistakes, differences, and tamperings.

For the second option, the one found in our text, that John’s group knows some stuff, there is a bit more support with some really strong manuscripts (such as Codex Sinaiticus). I won’t go into the various manuscripts or anything like that, but looking at the apparatus criticus of my Nestle-Aland, I can tell you that this variant has some weight on its side.

For the final option, that John’s people know everything there appears to also be strong support. A couple of examples would be Codex Alexandrinus and manuscripts #33 and #1739—all considered to be pretty darn good.

OK, so we’ve admitted that both Option 2 and Option 3 have some good external evidence. They appear in some weighty manuscripts. Ok, what now?

Internal Evidence…where it all breaks down…

Now, we must apply some principles to the readings to discover which we think is most original. These principles, unlike the previous section, deal more with the internal evidence. That is: “Which reading works best?”

Those in favor of Option 1, that this part of the verse didn’t originally exist, might appeal to lectio brevior, a principle which states that the shortest reading is probably the most original. Set down by Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745–1812), the idea is that scribes are more likely to add a bunch of material than subtract a bunch of material.

Those in favor of Option 2, might argue that the other two options are mistakes. Option 1 could simply have been a lapse on the part of the scribe, who forgot to write down that last chunk of the verse. Option 2 could simply have been a scribe who copied the word παντες in the wrong case for a variety of reasons.

Those in favor of Option 3, that John’s group knew everything, might appeal to lectio difficilior, a principle which states that the most difficult reading is probably the most original. This was the idea of Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687–1752). Essentially, Bengel was saying that the most difficult reading was original, and that subsequent readings could be explained as attempts by scribes to get rid of difficulties. Certainly, the idea that John’s group knew everything is difficult to explain, when Jesus himself says that it is not for us to know the times and the seasons.

Which do we go with?

All of the options are tantalizingly interesting. I would personally eliminate Option 1 because it doesn’t have a lot of external/manuscript evidence to support it.

Now what? Option 2 or Option 3?

What do you think?

Article Series - The Epistles of John

  1. The Epistles of John (Part 1): 1 John 1:1–4
  2. The Epistles of John (Part 2): 1 John 1:5
  3. The Epistles of John (Part 3): 1 John 1:6–7
  4. The Epistles of John (Part 4): 1 John 1:8–10
  5. The Epistles of John (Part 5): 1 John 2:1
  6. The Epistles of John (Part 6): 1 John 2:2
  7. The Epistles of John (Part 7): 1 John 2:3–6
  8. The Epistles of John (Part 8): 1 John 2:7–8
  9. The Epistles of John (Part 9): 1 John 2:9–11
  10. The Epistles of John (Part 10): 1 John 2:12
  11. The Epistles of John (Part 11): 1 John 2:13
  12. The Epistles of John (Part 12): 1 John 2:14
  13. The Epistles of John (Part 13): 1 John 2:15
  14. The Epistles of John (Part 14): 1 John 2:16
  15. The Epistles of John (Part 15): 1 John 2:17
  16. The Epistles of John (Part 16): 1 John 2:18
  17. The Epistles of John (Part 17): 1 John 2:19
  18. The Epistles of John (Part 18): 1 John 2:20
  19. The Epistles of John (Part 19): 1 John 2:21
  20. The Epistles of John (Part 20): 1 John 2:22
  21. The Epistles of John (Part 21): 1 John 2:23–25
  22. The Epistles of John (Part 22): 1 John 2:26–27
  23. The Epistles of John (Part 23): 1 John 2:28
  24. The Epistles of John (Part 24): 1 John 2:29
  25. The Epistles of John (Part 25): 1 John 3:1–3
  26. The Epistles of John (Part 26): 1 John 3:4–6
  27. The Epistles of John (Part 27): 1 John 3:7–10
  28. The Epistles of John (Part 28): 1 John 3:11–12
  29. The Epistles of John (Part 29): 1 John 3:13
  30. The Epistles of John (Part 30): 1 John 3:14-18
  31. The Epistles of John (Part 31): 1 John 3:19–22
  32. The Epistles of John (Part 32): 1 John 3:23–24
  33. The Epistles of John (Part 33): 1 John 4:1–3
  34. The Epistles of John (Part 34): 1 John 4:4–6
  35. The Epistles of John (Part 35): 1 John 4:7-8
  36. The Epistles of John (Part 36): 1 John 4:9
  37. The Epistles of John (Part 37): 1 John 4:10
  38. The Epistles of John (Part 38): 1 John 4:11-12
  39. The Epistles of John (Part 39): 1 John 4:13–14
  40. The Epistles of John (Part 40): 1 John 4:15
  41. The Epistles of John (Part 41): 1 John 4:16–17
  42. The Epistles of John (Part 42): 1 John 4:18–19
  43. The Epistles of John (Part 43): 1 John 4:20–21
  44. The Epistles of John (Part 44): 1 John 5:1
  45. The Epistles of John (Part 45): 1 John 5:2-3

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