The Text of John 3:13 – The One Who Is in Heaven

An interesting discussion arose via a comment to my post on last week’s discussion of the Gospel of John. This relates to a textual variant in John 3:13. The verse ends in most versions, and in the UBS4 Greek NT that I use regularly, with “the son of man.” But there is another reasonably well attested variant which adds “who is in heaven” following “son of man.”

Dave Black, who posted the question, has written a journal article about this. In the comments I said I’d like to get a copy of that article, but it was only moments later that I located it. You can read it here. On this computer I’m having trouble with the Greek text, probably due to font issues, but I was able to follow it well enough as is. [Update: Dave sent me another link, this one to a PDF, and the Greek text is good in it.]

Prior to reading Dave’s article, I had come to the conclusion that I preferred to include this phrase rather than leave it out. I did not make use of this in my study, as it has little impact, as I see it, on what I said. I always dither over how much time to spend discussing textual variants. This is a very interesting variant, however. Please read Dave’s article first. While my reasoning is a bit different, and my interpretation considerably so, he covers the facts of the case, and I’ll just note those differences here.

  1. Please read with a caveat: I’m not a NT textual critic. My last class in NT textual criticism was as an undergraduate. All my graduate work was on the Hebrew scriptures.
  2. Of the canons of textual criticism, the one I consider to be the most useful is this: Favor the reading that best explains the others. I find that choosing the most difficult reading involves so much debate that it adds little weight to the result. I do think it’s valid, i.e., a difficult (but workable) reading is more likely to produce variants through correction, simple misunderstanding, or hearing/seeing what you know is there. But that also feeds into determining which reading best explains the others. In this case, I find it very difficult to see an explanation for the other variants if “who is in heaven” is not the original text. In fact, as Dave notes, Metzger (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament) presents this as the argument of the committee minority, while the majority was swayed by the quality of the witnesses to the shorter text.
  3. I would not necessarily accept the variety of the external evidence if the reading did not also so clearly explain all other variants. In combination, I find them convincing. Of course, one should always remember that textual criticism is not an exact science. There’s plenty of room for valid disagreement. I would note, for example, that the UBS4 rates this reading a B, while my edition of the Textual Commentary, based on UBS3, rates it a C. I’m not sure what happened to increase their certainty. I don’t share it.
  4. At first blush, this reading seems difficult. Here’s the son of man on earth, and he’s also being affirmed in heaven. Either this is a very high christology, or we have a problem. That very problem contributes to the probability that the reading is original. There’s plenty of reason for someone to remove it, thinking it’s an error, but little to add it. But on further reflection, I think it’s very possible we are here, as in vs 11 & 12 (at least) hearing the voice of the author/community, with the affirmation that Jesus has ascended. Though I see a few difficulties with it, I would be unsurprised if everything after John 3:10 through the end of the chapter represented further comment by the author and is not intended as a quote attributed to Jesus.

That said, I will pursue further christological heresies this coming Thursday! Or not … as the case may be.

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One Comment

  1. Dave Black says:

    Thanks for the response Henry. I prefer to begin with the external evidence, which I believe alone is probative. But I’m glad we came up with the same conclusion!

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