Today we shall look into the question of whether or not the phrase “who is in heaven” was in the original text of John 3:13.
In two recently published translations of the New Testament – the Evangelical Heritage Version and the Modern English Version – John 3:13 ends with the phrase, “who is in heaven.” This is also the reading of the King James Version. It is supported by the vast majority (over 95%) of Greek manuscripts, as well as the Old Latin, the Vulgate, the Peshitta, the Ethiopic version, and a wide variety of early patristic writers.
|Manuscript 0141, in which the text of John is
interspersed with extracts from patristic commentaries, has
an unusual difficulty-relieving variant in John 3:13.
The NIV and ESV, however, do not include this phrase, following instead the shorter Alexandrian text that is displayed in Papyrus 66, Papyrus 75, Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, some Egyptian versions, and some patristic writers.
The late Bruce Metzger, in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, defended the decision of the compilers of the United Bible Societies’ printed Greek New Testament to reject this phrase: “The majority of the Committee, impressed by the quality of the external attestation supporting the shorter reading, regarded the words ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ as an interpretive gloss, reflecting later Christological development.”
Against this theory of “later” – but earlier than Hippolytus, who cited John 3:13 with the phrase “who is in heaven” in Against Noetus – expansion, Wieland Willker responded effectively: “Internally the longer reading is clearly the harder reading and there is no reason why the words should have been added. Metzger says it could be an “interpretive gloss, reflecting later Christological development”, but is this probable? It seems more probable that scribes omitted the difficult words or changed them as 0141, Sy-S [the Sinaitic Syriac] and e [Old Latin codex Palatinus, from the mid-400s], Sy-C [the Curetonian Syriac] did.”
Willker was referring to alterations in the text of Old Latin codex Palatinus (from the mid-400s) and the Curetonian Syriac that yield the meaning of “was in heaven” and in the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript that yields the meaning of “is from heaven.”
This textual variant overlaps with an interpretive question: writing in ancient Greek with no (or only minimal) punctuation, did John intend to report that Jesus told Nicodemus, at the time of their conversation, that the Son of Man was in heaven? Or, if the phrase is assumed to be original, was it intended to be understood, not as part of Jesus’ words, but as a parenthetical phrase made by John?
As Willker noticed, it is not hard to see why early copyists would consider the phrase puzzling: if the phrase is not understood as a parenthetical comment by John, then Jesus seems to say that the Son of Man is in heaven, while He is right there on the scene talking to Nicodemus. Internal considerations thus weigh in heavily against the shorter reading: to remove this phrase would be to reduce the risk of misinterpretation, whereas a copyist who added this phrase would be adding an interpretive difficulty where there previously was none.
The phrase “ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ” is far more likely to be part of the original text, excised in the Alexandrian text-stream by a copyist prone to relieve perceived difficulties, that it is to have originated as a scribal expansion. The absence of this phrase in the fifth edition of the UBS/Biblica Greek New Testament, and in the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testatementum Graece, is an echo of previous compilers’ reliance upon poorly represented data combined with a preference for manuscripts that happened to be stored in a dry climate. In the Sinaitic Syriac and the Curetonian Syriac and the Old Latin Codex Palatinus (and in the uncial 0141, in which the closing phrase states that the Son of Man is from heaven) we see copyists surrendering to the temptation to alter the text in order to resolve a perceived difficulty; the manuscripts that lack the phrase echo the work of an early scribe who took things a little further.
(Those who would object, “But we should follow the oldest manuscripts” are advised to notice that Papyrus 75 reads πιστεύετε (not πιστεύσετε) at the end of 3:12, and in nearby 3:31, the scribe of papyrus 66 initially omitted the word ἐρχόμενος, and also in 3:31, the scribes of Papyrus 75 and Sinaiticus both did not include the final phrase ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν; the compilers of the UBS/NA texts obviously felt no obligation to follow the oldest manuscripts unthinkingly. Nor should we.)
The recently published Tyndale House edition of the Greek New Testament likewise omits the phrase; the pitiable brevity of its apparatus prevents the reader from seeing the early patristic evidence. Had the editors accepted the judgment of Samuel Tregelles, the scholar from the 1800s whose work laid the foundation for the THEGNT, this phrase would have been retained. (But at least they mention the variant; the New American Standard does not even do that.)
Those who wish to read more about this variant-unit may wish to consult Dr. David Alan Black’s article (from Grace Theological Journal, 1985) on the subject.
P.S. A comparison of the treatment of John 3:13 in different editions of the UBS Greek New Testament does not build confidence in the reliability of the resources upon which the Committee-members depended, or in the consistency of their presentations of the evidence. In the first edition (1966), the Ethiopic version was listed as a witness for the non-inclusion of “who is in heaven.” The Arabic Diatessaron was listed as a witness for the inclusion of the phrase. The Georgian version was listed in support of the longer reading. Didymus was listed as a witness for both readings. In the fourth edition (1993), part of the Georgian evidence was listed as support for the shorter reading, the Diatessaron was only listed for the shorter reading, Didymus was listed only as support for the shorter reading, and the Ethiopic version switched sides, favoring the inclusion of the phrase. And the certainty-rate varied from A (“the text is certain”) to C (“the Committee had difficulty”) to B (“the text is almost certain”).
[Readers are invited to double-check the data in this post.]