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1 Timothy 3:16

Was “God” manifested in the flesh?

Published: 1/2/2012 by: Lesriv Spencer. Updated July 2016

(Bible translations quoted: 21st Century New Testament, 21st; Jerusalem Bible, JB; King James Version, KJV; New
American Bible Revised Edition, NABRE; New Century Version, NCV; New King James Version, NKJV; New Life
Version, NLV; New Living Translation, NLT; New Revised Standard Version, NRSV; Revised Standard Version, RSV;
Simple English Bible, SEB; The Clear Word, TCW)

When the subject of whether Christ is “God,” or the Trinity subject comes up, it is likely that one
scripture that will be cast into the discussion is 1 Timothy 3:16. This scripture says, according to
the New King James Version (The following versions read similarly: NKJV; The KJV; Tyndale; Coverdale;
Geneva; Bishops; Wesley; Webster; and Young's read similarly):

“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:

God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.”

It is the clause in bold letters above, “God was manifested in the flesh,” which I will focus on for
the next few minutes.

It is surprising that there are a good number of people who use this scripture as sort of a “proof”
text in defense of the doctrine of “the incarnation.” When reference is made to “incarnation,” it is
to be noted that the way the term is used to defend the doctrine of “incarnation” goes beyond
the basic meaning of the word which goes back to latin (incarnatio=incarno=in: caro, flesh, i.e. “to be
made flesh”). For instance, The Online Etimological Dictionary defines “incarnation” as the:
“embodiment of God in the person of Christ.” (

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines the doctrine as: “The Christian doctrine of
the Incarnation affirms that the eternal Son of God took human flesh from His human mother
and that the historical Christ is at once fully God and fully man.” (The Oxford Dictionary of the
Christian Church, 2nd Edition, by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Edited by F. L. Cross, p. 696. ©Oxford
University Press 1958, 1974, 1983)

Confirming this belief, is this statement from scholar Martin Hengel: “No greater thought has
been conceived than that of the one God who, for the salvation of all, became a human being in
Jesus of Nazareth.” (Studies in Early Christology, xviii. Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1995) Some, following Martin
Luther, call the crucified Jesus “the crucified God.” (Ibid, p. 383)

Although many today take the doctrine of the Incarnation for granted as biblical truth, there are
those who question whether the doctrine can be justified Scripturally in the first place. British
New Testament scholar, James D. G. Dunn, observed: “Since the Enlightenment the traditional
doctrine of the incarnation has come under increasing pressure to explain and justify itself.”
(Christology in the Making, A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, p. 2.
Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980)

In 1982, Anthony E. Harvey wrote: “In the last few years it has come to be questioned whether
the resultant construction of Jesus as ‘God Incarnate’ is either credible or intelligible ... the
earliest Christians were constrained to stop considerably short of this.” (Jesus and the Constraints of
History, page 173.) Thus, the classical doctrine of the incarnation has been seriously challenged in
modern times. (For further reading, see: The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology, by Brian
Hebblethwaite, Cambridge: University, 1987, and Jesus-God and Man, by W. Pannenberg, page 11. [1964]
2nd ed. Translated by Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977)

Traditionally, Scriptures such as John 1:14, Philippians 2:7, and 2 John 7 have often been used to
support the doctrine. I will address those later in the article. But first, let's take note that newer
Bible translations do not support the NKJV reading (and those which read likewise) that “God
was manifested in the flesh.” Instead of “God,” other Bibles present a different picture in
1Timothy 3:16 by saying: “He”; “He who”; “Which”; “Who”; “the one”; “Christ”; or “the Son of God.”
Why? The very same NKJV has a footnote disclosing that the “NU Text reads Who.” [NU=acronym
for the Nestle-Aland, 27th ed. - United Bible Societies, 4th ed.]” In simpler terms, the footnote means
that the translators who based their version on the traditional “Received Text” (used by the KJV and
NKJV), indicate there is some doubt regarding the authenticity of “God” in the text, and/or the
likelihood of textual corruption, which would warrant the replacement of “God” in the text by the
pronoun “Who,” as other versions have done. Thus, Bible versions who base their translations in
a Greek Text other than the Received Text confer that it was not “God” who was made flesh, but
his “Son,” either directly or by implication.

“Few textual problems have occasioned so much stir and controversy as this one...”, says the
New Commentary on the Whole Bible, edited by J. D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort. This work
adds: “Many scholars entered the debate – and not without good reason, inasmuch as this verse
is related to the doctrine of incarnation.” They further explain: “The hand of the original scribes
of Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus, and Codex Ephraem Rescriptus wrote ‘[he] who,’ which
was then changed by later scribes, in all three manuscripts, to read ‘God’ … In the original text,
the subject of the verse is simply ‘who’ – which most translators render as ‘he’ and which most
commentators identify as Christ.” (Page 595. Based on the classic commentary of Jamieson, Fausset
and Brown. ©1990 Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois. Brackets theirs.)

The NET Bible further explains: “How then should we account for θεός [“god”]? It appears that
sometime after the 2nd century the θεός [god] reading came into existence, either via confusion
with ὅς [“who”] or as an intentional alteration to magnify Christ and clear up the syntax at the
same time. [...] The evidence, therefore, for ὅς [“who”] is quite compelling, both externally and
internally. As TCGNT 574 [*] notes, “no uncial (in the first hand) earlier than the eighth or ninth
century (Ψ [=Athous Laurae, a manuscript 044, which includes the Gospels, Acts, Paul's Epistles, and
written in capital letters]) supports θεός [god]; all ancient versions presuppose ὅς [“who”] or ὅ [a
neuter form of ὅς (hos) = “which”, “that”]; and no patristic writer prior to the last third of the
fourth century testifies to the reading θεός [god]. Thus, the cries of certain groups that θεός
[god] has to be original must be seen as special pleading in this case.” This work then adds:
“...The text is self-evidently about Christ, but it is not self-evidently a proclamation of his deity.”
(©1996 – 2009 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. Brackets added. *Stands for, A Textual Commentary on the
Greek New Testament, page 574. Second Edition. By Bruce M. Metzger.)

The American Standard Version translates this part of the verse: “He who was manifested in the
flesh.” A footnote explains: “The word God, in place of He who, rests on no sufficient ancient
evidence. Some ancient authorities read which.”

The NABRE* Bible renders the disputed word as: “Who was manifested in the flesh.” And their
footnote adds: “Who: the reference is to Christ, who is himself ‘the mystery of our devotion.’
Some predominantly Western manuscripts read ‘which,’ harmonizing the gender of the pronoun
with that of the Greek word for mystery; many later (eighth/ninth century on), predominantly
Byzantine manuscripts read ‘God,’ possibly for theological reasons.” (*New American Bible Revised
Edition, 2011)

Dr. J. N. D. Kelly (Oxford) asserts: “Unquestionably hos [“who”] has the best MSS [manuscript]
support and represents the true text, and there can in any case be no doubt that Christ, not God
must be the subject of the following verbs.” (A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles Timothy I & II,
and Titus, 89. In HNTC, 1960)

Textual critic Philip W. Comfort adds in his New Testament and Transmission Commentary:
“It is more likely that the change [by the scribes] was motivated by a desire to make the
text say that it was ‘God’ who was manifest in the flesh...All English versions since the
ASV (and ERV, its British predecessor) have reflected the superior text, and most show
the variant(s) in marginal notes.” (© 2008 by Philip W. Comfort. Tyndale Book Publishers, Inc., Carol
Stream, Illinois. Page 663.)

And professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary Daniel B. Wallace
alleges: “As attractive theologically as the reading θεός [god]” may be, it is spurious.” (Greek
Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 342. ©1996, Zondervan)

Thus, it is freely acknowledged by scholars that certain manuscripts of 1 Timothy 3:16 were
altered to say “God” in place of the original reading “who” or “which,” likely done “to manify
Christ.” When one considers the history of the early controversial “christological” debates that
went on for centuries after Christ's time, it is not surprising to find current scholars concluding
that various manuscripts were textually corrupted “for theological reasons.” Evidently, someone
was seeking to foist the doctrine of the Trinity within the biblical text, where the original reading
did not. This may be the reason why most Bible translations, even those produced by
Trinitarians, do not support the “God” reading at 1 Timothy 3:16 in the main text.
Notwithstanding, some of these versions certainly show evident eagerness in providing the
questionable variants in footnotes without disclosing their dubious nature.
Let's take a look at how various Bible versions render the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:16 (Ὃς
ἐφανερώθη ἐν σαρκί [hos ephanerōthē en sarkí]” SBLGNT):

“Which was manifested in the flesh” (Douay-Rheims)

“[Christ,] who was manifested in the flesh” (Laicester A. Sawyer NT, Brackets his)
“the one who appeared in human flesh” (J.B. Phillips N.T.)
“who was manifested in the flesh” (William Whiston New Testament)
“the Son of God became a man” (The Clear Word, Jack Blanco, Th.D)
“He who was manifested in the body” (New English Bible)
“He appeared in a body” (New International Version)
“Christ came as a human” (Contemporary English Version)
“Who was revealed in the flesh” (The Lexham English Bible)
“Christ appeared in a human body” (Simple English Bible)
“He who was manifested in the flesh” (English Standard Version)
“He who was revealed in the flesh” (New American Standard Bible)
“Jesus appeared in a body” (New International Reader's Version)
“He was made visible in the flesh” (Jerusalem Bible)
“He was manifested in the flesh” (Revised Standard Version)
“Christ appeared in the flesh” (New Living Translation)
“the One who appeared with a human body” (Julian G. Anderson NT)
“Who was manifested in the flesh” (New American Bible)

The translations above clearly state that it was not “God” who became flesh, so the
referent must be the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Now let’s examine three Scriptures often associated with the subject of “the incarnation,” John
1:14, Philippians 2:7, and 2 John 7.

John 1:14 tells us that “the Word was made [or, “became”] flesh.” Notice it was “the Word” that was
made flesh, not “God.” This scripture is in full agreement with the more ancient manuscripts
readings of 1 Timothy 3:16, but not with the “later” manuscripts which contradict it. There is a
big difference between saying that “the Word became flesh” and saying that “God became flesh.”
John 1:2 says that it was ‘the Word who was in the beginning with God.’ And John 1:18 tells us
that it is only ‘the only-begotten God’ [or, Son] who is ‘able to explain the invisible Father.’
Elsewhere in the first chapter of John, this “Word who became flesh” is depicted as, “the Lamb of
God”; the “Son of God”; and “the Son of man,” all descriptions befitting of someone other than
God. (Vv. 29, 34, 36, 49, 51)

Understandably, systematic theologian Louis Berkhof conceded: “It is better to say that
the Word became flesh than that God became man.” (Systematic Theology, 4th rev. ed.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939, 333.) And Swiss theologian Hans Küng thinks that
neither John 1:14 nor the entire Gospel of John identifies Jesus as God. He wrote: “The
man Jesus did not act as God’s double (‘second God’). Rather, he proclaimed, manifested
and revealed the word and will of the one God.” (Credo: The Apostles’ Creed Explained for
Today [1992], Repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003, pp. 60-61)

Exactly, nowhere does it say that this Word is identical with God, or that he is “God” almighty, not
even the frequently cited text of John 1:1, where the right understanding of this scripture does
not contradict the stated descriptions of Christ in chapter one. John 1:1 does say that ‘the Word
was with God in the beginning’, so logically, he could not be the God he was with. True, the last
clause of John 1:1 states in the traditional versions that “the Word was God.” What exactly is
meant by these words has been the cause of great debate for centuries. Even today, many
scholars who support the traditional rendering at John 1:1c, explain that it does not exactly
mean what people brought up in trinitarian doctrine believe it means.

For instance, scholar Murray J. Harris cautioned readers of John 1.1: “...Few will doubt
that this time-honored translation [“the Word was God”] needs careful exegesis... The
rendering cannot stand without explanation.” Hence, various scholars taking into
account both the context and grammar render John 1:1c differently: “the Word was divine”
(Moffatt); The Word was “a divine being” (McKenzie); “The Word was a God” (Kneeland);
“The Word had godlike nature” (Albrecht). Christ was according to Bible translator Ernst
Haenchen: “God of a kind.” These biblical sources are making a clear distinction in the
Johannine prologue between two individuals: One: The “Word” being described as
“divine,” “godlike,” “God of a kind”, and the other, the Supreme God he was in company
with. John 1:2 supports this view. Even if “God” is your reading of choice at John 1:1c, it should
not be understood within the trinitarian mold, but in an adjectival sense, that is, as a description
of the divine nature of the Logos, so Barclay. For a discussion of John 1:1c, see:

Philippians 2:6,7 is often cited as support for the doctrine of “the incarnation.” This is what it
says within its context, according to the Revised Standard Version:

“[5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form
of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but emptied himself, taking the form of
a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form he humbled himself and
became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. [9] Therefore God has highly exalted him and
bestowed on him the name which is above every name, [10] that at the name of Jesus every knee should
bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, [11] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

This passage serves no proof that “the incarnation” doctrine is a Christian one, as is normally
defined. Some view verse six as proof that Christ is God, because of the way some Bible
translations render the verse. But the verse does not say simply that Christ is God. All it says is
that Christ “was in the form of God,” which strangely, requires extra words, and is different.
Further, Christ (per RSV) “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [Greek: who in
form of God existing, not seizure considered the to be equal (things)* to God, by Paul R. McReynolds,
Interlinear]” (*The word “things” within parenthesis is implied by the Greek, thus added here.)
What does being “in the form of God” mean? Instead of “form of God” some Bible translations,
read: “like God in nature” (21st); “divine by nature” (SEB); “like God in everything” (NCV); “though
in form divine” (A. Gaus); “as God is” (NLV); “His state was divine” (JB) etc. These renderings fit
well with what is being described by Paul. At no time or place do these Scriptures say that “God
was made flesh.” The NABRE Bible cited earlier has the following footnote explaining verse 6:
“Either a reference to Christ’s preexistence and those aspects of divinity that he was willing to
give up in order to serve in human form, or to what the man Jesus refused to grasp at to attain
divinity. Many see an allusion to the Genesis story: unlike Adam, Jesus, though…in the form of
God (Gn 1:26-27), did not reach out for equality with God, in contrast with the first Adam in Gn

Various trinitarian versions suggest in Philippians 2:6 that Christ ‘being in the form of God did
not cling to his equality with God.’ (Douay Version; King James Version; Jerusalem Bible) That’s a gross
translation error. Such rendering is in direct conflict with Paul’s teaching. (1 Corinthians 11:3;
15:27,28) Rather, the idea brought out by Paul was that ‘Christ being in superlative divine form,
never considered seizing or grasping at equality with God.’ The New English Bible tells us: “For the
divine nature was his from the first; yet he did not think to snatch at equality with God.” Christ,
accordingly, was being presented as a model in humility for Christians to follow – not that
Christians should entertain ‘being equal with God.’ Jesus always directed others to worship the
Father, God. (Matthew 4:10; John 4:23) “I honor my Father.” “I seek not my own glory.” (John 8:49-
50. See: The Expositor ́s Greek Testament por W. Robertson Nicoll, Tomo III, pp. 436, 437)

The scripture adds that Christ (per RSV), “did not count equality with God a thing to be
grasped.” The Greek here reads literally according to Paul R. McReynolds: “Who in form
of God existing, not seizure considered the to be equal [things*] to God.” (Word Study
Greek-English New Testament) (* The word “things” [Greek: isa, Neuter, Plural] in brackets above, implied
by the Greek text, was added by translator Alfred Marshall in his Interlinear: The Zondervan Parallel New
Testament in Greek and English.)

The following expressions at Philippians 2:5-11 adds light to the matter: Jesus “humbled himself
and became obedient unto death”; “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name”; “Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” indicate that both
the RSV and the NABRE Version are on the right track in terms of understanding what Paul is
trying to communicate here: that Christians do well in imitating someone like Jesus, who unlike
Adam, recognized that submission to God was necessary for the ultimate salvation of mankind
and the resulting glorification of God the Father. The whole concept of “the incarnation” does
not make sense in view of the message that the Philippians writer was trying to convey. Are we
supposed to imitate a Jesus who left his heavenly position as Supreme God, and now, appearing
as “God - Man” with full knowledge and power walking around on earth ‘acting the part of a
servant’ as one Bible version puts it? (Philippians 2:7, The Clear Word) What kind of example
would that be for Christians to imitate? In contrast, the way RSV and the NABRE Version render
Philippians 2:5-11 makes us want to imitate Christ. There is an appeal to humility and obedience
for Christians.

2 John 7 is another scripture often cited in discussions of “the incarnation.” John warned
Christians: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, who do not confess Jesus Christ as
coming in the flesh [“came to earth as a human,” New Century Version]. This is a deceiver and an
antichrist.” (NKJV) As a Christian, I would never deny the truth that Jesus Christ (the Word of John
1:14) did become flesh. But I cannot accept the teaching of “the incarnation” as is commonly
taught, namely, that it was ‘God himself who became flesh,’ and that ‘he was fully God and man’
at the same time while on earth. None of the Scriptures discussed so far claim that.

2 John verse three makes a distinction between the Father God and Jesus Christ, the Son: “Grace,
mercy, and peace will be with you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of
the Father, in truth and love.” (NKJV) This same thought is carried throughout John's writings.
And in 1 John we find that it states (4:9) that “God sent his only-begotten Son into the world.”
Verse 14 of the same, further repeats this same idea: “The Father has sent his Son as Savior of
the world.” Verse 12 tells us that “No one has ever seen God.” Although people have seen Jesus
Christ in flesh, as a human, to this day, no one has ever seen God. John made that distinction.
We should too.

In agreement with 2 John 3 and verse 7, 1 John 4:2 says: “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus
Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” (NKJV) This is what Christians need to preach, that Jesus
Christ has come to earth as a human to save the world, not that “God was made flesh.”
Interestingly, the most translated verse in the Bible is that of John 3:16, and it may well be the
most read scripture of all. Here it is: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten
Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16,
KJV) This scripture fully harmonizes with other statements found in John's letters. All of this
confirms the same truth, that it was not God who came down to earth, it was his Son. His Son
was made flesh, as Savior of the world. The doctrine of “the incarnation” does not conform to
Bible doctrine. It may appear to, but under scrutiny, it crumbles.

Jesus openly told everyone of his subordinate status while on earth: “The Son can do nothing on
his own.” ( John 5:19, New Revised Standard Version) “The Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28) There
were things Jesus did not know about. (Mark 13:32; Revelation 1:1) And in his future Kingdom,
Jesus is not depicted as “almighty,” he will have some limitations. (1 Corinthians 15:28) He
declared he had no right to assign seats in His Kingdom for others to sit next to him. Matthew
20:20-23 says: “Then the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus with her
sons. She knelt respectfully to ask a favor. ‘What is your request?’ he asked. She replied, ‘In your
Kingdom, will you let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one at your right and the
other at your left?’ … But Jesus told them ... ‘But I have no right to say who will sit on the thrones
next to mine. My Father has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.’ ” (New Living
Translation) Furthermore, the resurrected and glorified Christ appears on record as calling his
Father, “my God.” (John 20:17; Revelation 3:12) That is no small matter. Hence, it was ‘God's Son’
who became flesh.

The Message Bible puts it plain and simple for us all (2 John 7): “There are a lot of smooth-talking
charlatans loose in the world who refuse to believe that Jesus Christ was truly human, a flesh
and blood human being. Give them their true title: Deceiver! Antichrist!” I fully accept this
statement. If we go with the flow in religious circles and teach that “God was made flesh,” we risk
finding ourselves doing the work of a ‘deceiver,’ of an “antichrist,” because John taught the
opposite. John only said that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), and “that Jesus Christ has come
in the flesh” (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7) Everything else is just human philosophy, masquerading as

Where then, did the concept of “the Incarnation” come from? A reliable source says:

“The doctrine, which took classical shape under the influence of the controversies of the 4th-5th
cents...was formally defined at the Council of Chalcedon of 451 (q.v.) It was largely moulded by
the diversity of tradition in the schools of Antioch and Alexandria, the one stressing esp. the
human aspects of the Incarnate Christ, the other, under the influence of a Platonizing
philosophy, esp. His Divinity […] Yet, the Definition was scarcely a solution; it only determined
the limits of orthodoxy. Within these limits further refinements were added in the later Patristic
and Medieval periods.” (Oxford… Cross & Livingstone. ©1983. op.cit., p. 696)

And emeritus professor Hans Küng at the University of Tübingen stated:

“Certainly the category [of God] ‘becoming man’ is alien to Jewish and originally Jewish-Christian
thought and derives from the Hellenistic world.... The Greek conceptual model of ‘incarnation’
must to some degree be buried.” (Credo, pp. 60-61)

– End –

Other subjects dealt with:

Exodus 2:25 (Does God care?):
For a full consideration of John 1:1, click the following link:
For a briefer consideration of John 1:1, but with additional citations, click:
For John 8:58, click:
For John 17:3 (taking in knowledge), click the following link:
For “grace” in John 1:14, see:
Acts 20:28, Whose blood?:
Colossians 1:16 (“all other things”):
Hebrews 1:6,8:
Does the NWT Committee know Greek?:
The Trinity subject:
Was Jesus Created First:

For a consideration of, Translation Differences-Questions and Answers:

Para una consideración de otros temas, considere los siguientes enlaces:

Para una consideración de Juan 1:1, vea el siguiente enlace:
Para Juan 8:58 (“yo soy”):
Para Juan 17:3 (‘adquirir conocimiento’):
Colosenses 1:16, “todas las otras cosas”:

Para 1 Timoteo 3:16:

Hebreos 1:6,8: s
¿Sabía griego el Comité de la Traducción del Nuevo Mundo?:

¿Acaso tiene sentido la Trinidad?:

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