Series · Summa Saturdays

Does 1 Timothy 3:16 teach that Jesus was revealed by another divine Person? (Argument Archive)

This post is part of the Summa Saturdays series.

And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory. (KJV)

And we all agree, our religion contains amazing revelation:

He was revealed in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory. (NET)

Argument 1. This Scripture says that “God was manifest in the flesh” (KJV). If God was manifest in the flesh, and the Father alone is God, then Jesus is the Father incarnate. So Jesus was not revealed by another divine Person.

Objection 1.1. At best, this is a summary of the Oneness view of this scripture rather than an argument from its exegesis that Jesus was not revealed by another divine Person. That’s because this “argument” relies on two premises that must be established by the exegesis of other texts. Namely, it relies on the claim that God is one Person (hence, “the Father alone is God”) and that Jesus is the Father incarnate (hence, “Jesus is the same as the Father”). Those claims must be established elsewhere, and so this cannot be an exegetical argument from this scripture to the conclusion that Jesus was not revealed by another divine Person.

Objection 1.2. Clearly the textual witness about this verse disagrees, as the translations from the KJV and NET indicate. Suppose that the text originally read “God” rather than “he,” and that “was manifest/revealed” (Gr. ἐφανερώθη [ephanerōthē]) is an aorist passive verb. If this is the case, then this is all the worst for the Oneness view. That’s because “God” here clearly refers to Jesus in the context of this verse. But if Jesus as God receives the action of the verb (which is what a passive verb would seem to indicate here), then some other person is the one revealing Jesus. In the context of this epistle, the only other this could be is another called God: namely, the Father. If the Jesus the Son is God, as the KJV reading would have it, and if Jesus received the action of the verb from the Father, then there are two divine Persons in the Godhead and Jesus was revealed by another divine Person.

Objection 1.3. But it probably isn’t the case that this verse originally read “God” for at least two reasons. First, the reading “he” (the masculine relative pronoun ὅς, or ΟC/OΣ in all capitals) is the reading given by the earliest and best uncials, such as Codex Sinaiticus (א). (An uncial is a manuscript that is written in all capital letters.) Second, the reading “he” explains two other variations in the manuscript tradition, including the reading “God.” The first variation is the neuter relative pronoun (, or O in an uncial). It’s plausible that a scribe chose to correct the masculine relative pronoun (ὅς/ΟC/OΣ) to a neuter relative pronoun (ὅ/O) because the masculine doesn’t have a masculine antecedent. But the neuter does: the word “mystery” (μυστήριον) which is a neuter noun in Greek. The masculine relative pronoun also explains later manuscripts that have “God” as the reading. This is because early scribes shortened “divine names” early on—a convention called nomina sacra. The two readings look incredibly similar in uncial text: ΟC or OΣ (relative pronoun) vs. ΘC or ΘΣ (nomen sacrum for “God” [θεός/ΘΕΟC/ΘΕΟΣ]).  That being the case, a scribe could have changed the masculine relative pronoun for a nomen sacrum for God, either due to careless reading or by making a conjecture that the original text had faded (i.e., the line in the theta and the line above the nomen sacrum).[1]

Argument 2. The Greek verb “was manifest/revealed” (Gr. ἐφανερώθη [ephanerōthē]) uses the morpheme -θη-, traditionally marked as a passive morpheme. But as Conrad and Pennington have argued, this morpheme can be used for either the aorist middle or the aorist passive.[2] We can therefore understand “was manifest” as an aorist middle verb. As a result, this verse means that “he/God” manifested himself in the flesh, which is consistent with the Oneness claim that the Father manifested himself in the flesh. Therefore, Jesus—the Father manifest in the flesh—was not revealed by another divine Person.

Objection 2.1. Even if we grant Conrad and Pennington’s claim, there are at least four reasons to think that “was manifest/revealed” (Gr. ἐφανερώθη [ephanerōthē]) is a passive verb in this verse. First, the other verbs appearing in the brief hymn or poem in this verse are all clearly passive verbs. It seems out of place for the first of six consecutive verbs to be a middle verb while the rest are passive. Second, each verb is accompanied by an instrumental dative, which is a common occurrence with passive verbs.[3]  Third, omicron-contract verbs can indicate that a cause is in view. This is relevant because ἐφανερώθη is derived from the verb φανερόω. If a cause is present, then we would expect a passive verb.[4] Fourth, when a direct middle verb occurs and the subject of the verb is performing the action on itself, typically we can expect a reflexive pronoun (myself, he/she/itself, yourself) to be present.[5]

Objection 2.2. If we grant the claim that “was manifest/revealed” is a middle verb here, is it a misunderstanding to infer from this fact alone that the Father manifested himself in the flesh. That’s because the understanding of the middle voice expressed in this kind of argument assumes that only direct middle could be in view here. There are other nuances of the middle voice—such as the causative and permissive—that are consistent with Jesus being revealed by another divine Person.[6] We must be given some additional reason, then, to think that a middle verb in this verse must be a direct middle.

More content for this post is planned for 1/20/18.

Additional Resources:

1. “Revealed in the Flesh: 1 Timothy 3:16 and Oneness Pentecostalism” by Michael R. Burgos, Jr.


[1] It’s interesting to me that the UBS5 grades the masculine relative pronoun (ὅς) reading as an “A.”

[2] Larry Perkins, The Pastoral Letters: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017), ix-xi. (see also BDAG 1048, 1.a.β).

[3] “Passive verb constructions also sometimes indicate an impersonal means which is communicated by ἐν + dative . . . or with a simple dative with no preposition” (Plummer, et. al., Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, 198). This is precisely what we have in 1 Timothy 3:16.

[4] Perkins, The Pastoral Letters, 73.

[5] I understand this fourth reason to be the weakest reason given in this objection. One might argue that we could expect extra language to be removed from hymnic/poetic material. Still, this point raises the inductive probability that the verb is passive rather than middle, and thereby helps place the burden of proof on anybody who wants to claim that the verb is in the middle voice.

[6] On the causative and permissive middle, see Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 423-427.

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