Undeniably great is the mystery of devotion,
Who was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed to the Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory. – 1 Timothy 3.16
This is a fascinating passage, worthy of focused study and reflection.
Unseen to most of us who read this passage in our bible or daily lectionary reader, is the fact that just a few early Greek manuscripts also include the Greek word for God (θεός), in addition to the pronoun “who” or “which”, in an attempt to help articulate the verse’s meaning.
However, most early manuscripts do not include the word “God”, and scholars tend to see this as an instance where a scribe probably inserted the word “God” to help clarify what or who was manifested in the flesh. One can hear echoes in this passage of the Gospel of John’s famous prologue: “In the beginning was the logos…and the logos became flesh…”
The scripture version above is taken from the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE), which I think is a very good, literal translation of the Greek. Here’s one reason I think that. For example, notice the contrast to how the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates the same verse: “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels,proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.”
While that makes total sense, do you see how the translators of the NRSV sneak in the masculine pronoun “he” to help clarify the meaning? The problem is that the pronoun “he” doesn’t really clarify anything, because we have no idea what “he” they are referring to! Is it God? Is it Christ? Is it Jesus? Is it the Logos?
Notice also how the NRSV, translates the first phrase as “the mystery of our religion“, rather than “devotion.” How does this shift the meaning for you?
For me, it’s a significant shift in nuance. The Greek word here conveys at its core the sense of godliness, piety and devotion as it relates to our orientation toward God, which in a word, is our “religion.”
However, what I like about the word devotion in contrast to the word religion is that devotion is more inclusive of our participation, whereas the word religion can ossify and separate the mystery as something independent of us. It seems to me that the essence of what is being said is this: great is the mystery of our faith that we experience and express with deep devotion.
Theologically, to my limited mind-view, this verse in First Timothy is trying to say this:
“Undeniably great is the mystery of devotion,
The LOGOS was manifested in the flesh…”
And that which was manifested in the flesh was given the name “Jesus” and this Jesus was revealed as the historical Christ, and after death the historical Christ became the resurrected Christ, and then was “taken up in glory.”
Understood through John’s prologue, God Almighty did not take flesh. The Logos of God did.
And Jesus did not take flesh. That would be like saying flesh took flesh. Why? Because Jesus did not exist as Jesus before Jesus was born! Jesus was the result of the Logos’ infusion into human form through Mary. There was a time when the historical Jesus was NOT. There was never a time when the Son/Logos was NOT.
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