A Response To Bart D. Ehrman’s
Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D.
Ehrman goes beyond simple selective reporting when he attempts to demonstrate that Lk. 2:33 is an instance of a deliberate anti-adoptionist alteration. The passage reads, καὶ ἦν ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἡ μήτηρ θαυμάζοντες ἐπὶ τοῖς λαλουμένοις περὶ αὐτοῦ.14 The variant concerns the fact that some manuscripts have the name ᾿Ιωσὴφ “Joseph” instead of ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ “the father of him.” Ehrman argues,
Other anti-adoptionistic changes took place in the manuscripts that record Jesus’s early life in the Gospel of Luke. In one place we are told that when Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple and the holy man Simeon blessed him, “his father and mother were marveling at what was said to him” (Luke 2:33). His Father? How could the text call Joseph Jesus’s father if Jesus had been born of a virgin? Not surprisingly, a large number of scribes changed the text to eliminate the potential problem, by saying “Joseph and his mother were marveling… .” Now the text could not he used by an adoptionist Christian in support of the claim that Joseph was the child’s father.
A similar phenomenon happens a few verses later in the account of Jesus as a twelve-year-old in the Temple. The story line is familiar: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus attend a festival in Jerusalem, but then when the rest of the family heads home in the caravan, Jesus remains behind, unbeknownst to them. As the text says, “his parents did not know about it.” But why does the text speak of his parents when Joseph is not really his father? A number of textual witnesses “correct” the problem by having the text read, “Joseph and his mother did not know it.” And again, some verses later, after they return to Jerusalem to hunt high and low for Jesus, Mary finds him, three days later, in the Temple. She upbraids him: “Your father and I have been looking for you!” Once again, some scribes solved the problem—this time by simply altering the text to read “We have been looking for you!”15
Once again Ehrman has misrepresented the case in order to further his agenda. If the variant in Lk. 2:33 had been a deliberate change to avoid an anti-adoptionist interpretation, why did not the same scribe of scribes also change Lk. 2:48: καὶ ἰδόντες αὐτὸν ἐξεπλάγησαν, καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ· τέκνον, τί ἐποίησας ἡμῖν οὕτως; ἰδοὺ ὁ πατήρ σου κἀγὼ ὀδυνώμενοι ἐζητοῦμέν σε.16 Reuben Swanson shows that there are no variants among the most important New Testament mss with respect to the presence of the word “father” in verse 48.17 
Figure 1: πατήρ in Lk. 2:48
Also, the fact is that words like “father” are not always indicative of a strict biological relation. Consider Jn. 19:27 in which Jesus says, “Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother [ἡ μήτηρ σου]!’”18 Here Jesus uses the term “mother (μήτηρ) with reference to “the disciple” who is certainly not her biological son. Just as we do today, in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry the terms ‘father’ and ‘mother’ could be used figuratively or in ways to indicate other kinds of relations than strictly biological relations. It seems to be the height of arrogance for Ehrman to claim that just because he does not know how the text could call Joseph Jesus’ father, it cannot be explained any other way. One such use is a legal relation in which a man adopts a child and legally, not biologically, becomes the child’s father. Is it reasonable to think that Ehrman is unaware of these kinds of uses? Either he is unaware of this kind of use, in which case his scholarship leaves something to be desired, or he is deliberately ignoring this possibility in order to make his case sound the more convincing, in which case this appears to be a deliberate attempt to mislead his readers.
Ehrman attempts to make a similar argument with reference to Lk. 2:43 and the use of the word “parents” (γονεῖς). However, he faces the same problem here. If the variant in verse 43 was an attempt to alter the text toward an anti-adoptionist perspective, then why did the scribe(s) let stand the other five instances in Luke’s gospel where this term is used of Joseph and Mary with relation to Jesus.19 This is particularly problematic since the word is used only two verses earlier, in 2:41: “Now His parents [οἱ γονεῖς αὐτου] went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.”20 There are other explanations that are just as reasonable, and perhaps more reasonable, than Ehrman’s. This passage could have been changed from “Joseph and his mother” to “the parents” in order to make it harmonize with the other instances in which ‘parents’ is used. Might this not explain why this one passage is different? Again this demonstrates that Ehrman presents the case as if there is no question that his interpretation of the situation is the only one that exists, or the only one that is possible. He does not present a balanced view, nor does he allow his readers to know that there are options and contrary opinions that are held by equally accomplished scholars.
14 “And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him” (Lk. 2:33).
15 Ehrman, 158.
16 “When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.’”
17 Reuben Swanson, ed., Luke, in New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 43.
Christian Apologetics Journal Volume 5. 2006 (vnp.5.2.7). Matthews, NC: Southern Evangelical Seminary.
18 εἶτα λέγει τῷ μαθητῇ· ἴδε ἡ μήτηρ σου. καὶ ἀπ ᾿ ἐκείνης τῆς ὥρας ἔλαβεν ὁ μαθητὴς αὐτὴν εἰς τὰ ἴδια.
19 Lk. 2:27 καὶ ἦλθεν ἐν τῷ πνεύματι εἰς τὸ ἱερον͂· καὶ ἐν τῷ εἰσαγαγεῖν τοὺς γονεῖς τὸ παιδίον ᾿Ιησοῦν τοῦ ποιῆσαι αὐτοὺς κατὰ τὸ εἰθισμένον τοῦ νόμου περὶ αὐτοῦ; 2:41 Καὶ ἐπορεύοντο οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ κατ ᾿ ἔτος εἰς ᾿Ιερουσαλὴμ τῇ ἑορτῇ τοῦ πάσχα; 2:43 καὶ τελειωσάντων τὰς ἡμέρας ἐν τῷ ὑποστρέρειν αὐτοὺς ὑπέμεινεν ᾿Ιησοῦς ὁ παῖς ἐν ᾿Ιερουσαλήμ καὶ οὐκ ἔγνωσαν οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ.; 8:56 καὶ ἐξέστησαν οἱ γονεῖς αὐτῆς· ὁ δὲ παρήγγειλεν αὐτοῖς μηδενὶ εἰπεῖν τὸ γεγονός.; 18:29 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐδείς ἐστιν ὃς ἀφῆκεν οἰκίαν ἢ γυναῖκα ἢ ἀδελφοὺς ἢ γονεῖς ἢ τέκνα ἕνεκεν τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ̀ 21:16 παραδοθήσεσθε δὲ καὶ ὑπὸ γονέων καὶ ἀδελφῶν καὶ συγγενῶν καὶ φίλων καὶ θανατώσουσιν ἐξ ὑμῶν.
20 Καὶ ἐπορεύοντο οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ κατ= ἔτος εἰς ᾿Ιερουσαλὴμ τῇ ἑορτῇ τοῦ πάσχα.
Christian Apologetics Journal Volume 5. 2006 (vnp.5.2.8). Matthews, NC: Southern Evangelical Seminary.