Christians have always felt the need to make Jesus a little bit more appealing than he actually was.
A little bit more miraculous.
A tad bit more relevant.
Just a tiny bit more interesting, or funny.
Adding To Jesus
We see this tendency at work all the way back to when the first Christians copied the Gospel of Mark and shared it with their non-believing friends.
The earliest authoritative manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark began,
(The) beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. – Mark 1:1
Unfortunately, some Christian in the early church felt that wasn’t a compelling enough opening line and added the phrase “the Son of God” to it:
(The) beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, [the Son of God]. – Mark 1:1
One reason is those who copied the earliest New Testament documents routinely expanded the first lines of New Testament books to make the content more readily apparent.* It was their way of creating titles for the Bible books.
For instance, the first line in earliest manuscripts of the Book of Revelation simply stated,
(The) Revelation of John – Revelation 1:1
Yet, when Christians copied The Book of Revelation and shared it with friends, they began adding words to that simple title, so much so that one title reached near comic proportions,
“The Revelation of the all-glorious Evangelist, bosom-friend [of Jesus], virgin, beloved to Christ, John the theologian, son of Salome and Zebedee, but adopted son of Mary the Mother of God, and son of Thunder.”**
How’s that for a title?
Fortunately, we have the ability to compare these later additions to the earliest authoritative manuscripts and have certainty regarding the trustworthiness of the originals.
Making Jesus More Appealing
Another reason early Christians added words to the first lines of the New Testament books is they felt the need to overstate the appeal of Jesus.
They felt the need to help make the God-inspired story of Jesus more culturally relevant. More understandable. More user-friendly.
We do the same.
Taking our cue from marketers, whenever we Christians try to talk to our friends about faith, our instinctive gut-level approach is to appeal to them on the basis of how Jesus can best meet their needs.
Are they intelligent? We present Jesus as the smartest guy that ever lived.
Are they sociable? We present Jesus as super-friendly and interested in deep friendships.
Are they a man? We present Jesus as a guy’s guy.
Are they in pain? He’s the one sent to make them whole.
Are they from a broken family? Jesus will give you a new family.
Are they a Roman citizen in the first century that was about to be handed a copy of the Gospel of Mark and believed that an ultimate ruler should be a son of a god (like Caesar)? Well, that’s easy, I’ll add a few words to let you know that Jesus is a son of God too.
The problem is while Jesus might be all of these things, and more, that’s not what non-believers really need – not then, not now.
They need an encounter with Jesus as presented in scripture, nothing more, nothing less.
For instance, the author of the Gospel of Mark didn’t want the reader to be handed his gospel and know at the beginning that Jesus was the son of God. He wanted the reader to come to that conclusion at the end of the story.
The author knew that being presented the idea of Jesus’ divinity before reading the story of who he was and what he did would actually keep people from believing it. It would have been too great an intellectual barrier. He wanted the reader to come to that conclusion after being drawn into the story.
Mark 15:39 tells us that as Jesus took his final breath on the cross, the Roman centurion standing there exclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
Mark wanted his reader to pick up his pamphlet, have no knowledge of who Jesus was, and by the end of the story come to the same conclusion as that centurion and proclaim Jesus as the Son of God.
Instead, some Christian that didn’t understand the basic rules of story-telling (and more importantly didn’t trust the Holy Spirit inspired document to do its job) preempted that from happening for some people by adding the phrase “son of God” at the beginning.
As Christians, we must resist this tendency.
We must strip away everything that stands in between us and Jesus as presented in scripture so that we can experience Jesus as he actually was and is.
That’s because it’s not until we free Jesus from centuries of ignorance, politics, theology, denominationalism, nationalism, liberalism, fundamentalism, skepticism, traditionalism, and the countless other “isms” that stand in between him and us, that we’ll be able to truly hear his frightfully comforting words,
“Come, follow me.”
*Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: United Bible Society, 1975), 73.
** Ibid, 729.