There is a discrepancy as to what the original text of John read in chapter one, verse 34. The debate has to do with what John the Baptist declared about Jesus on this occasion. Did he say, “This is the Son of God” (ou|tov" ejstin oJ uiJoV" tou' qeou'), or “This is the Chosen One of God” (ou|tov" ejstin oJ ejklektoV" tou' qeou')? The majority of the witnesses, impressive because of their diversity in age and locales, read “This is the Son of God” (so 66 75 B C L copbo aur c f l g et plu). Most scholars take this to be sufficient evidence so that they regard the issue as settled without much of a need to reflect on internal evidence. On the other hand, the earliest manuscript for this verse, 5 (third century), evidently read ou|tov" ejstin oJ ejklektoV" tou' qeou' . (There is a gap in the manuscript at the point of the disputed words; it is too large for uiJov" especially if written, as it surely would have been, as a nomen sacrum [us]. The term ejklektov" was not a nomen sacrum and would have therefore taken up much more space [eklektos]. Given these two variants, there is hardly any question as to what 5 read.) This papyrus has many affinities with *, which here also has oJ ejklektov". In addition to their combined testimony, there is significant versional testimony: b e ff2* syrs, c et alii also support this reading. A third reading combines these two: “the elect Son” (electus filius in ff2c copsa and a [with slight variation]). Although the evidence for ejklektov" is not nearly as impressive as that for uiJov", the reading is found in early Alexandrian and Western witnesses. This is important because it at least has the plausibility of being original.
Turning to the internal evidence, “the Chosen One” clearly comes out ahead. “Son of God” is a favorite expression of the evangelist (cf. 1:49; 3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4, 27; 19:7; 20:31); further, there are several other references to “his Son,” “the Son,” etc. Scribes would be naturally motivated to change ejklektov" to uiJov" since the latter is both a Johannism and is, on the surface, richer theologically in 1:34. On the other hand, there is not a sufficient reason for scribes to change uiJov" to ejklektov". The term nowhere else occurs in John; even its verbal cognate (ejklevgw) is never affirmed of Jesus in this gospel. ejklektov" clearly best explains the rise of uiJov". Further, the third reading (“Chosen Son of God”) is patently a conflation of the other two. It has all the earmarks of adding uiJov" to ejklektov". Thus, oJ uiJov" tou' qeou' is almost certainly a motivated reading. As Raymond Brown notes (John 1.57), “On the basis of theological tendency... it is difficult to imagine that Christian scribes would change ‘the Son of God’ to ‘God’s chosen one,’ while a change in the opposite direction would be quite plausible. Harmonization with the Synoptic accounts of the baptism (‘You are [This is] my beloved Son’) would also explain the introduction of ‘the Son of God’ into John; the same phenomenon occurs in vi 69. Despite the weaker textual evidence, therefore, it seems best—with Lagrange, Barrett, Boismard, and others [such as Gordon Fee and the Revised English Bible]—to accept ‘God’s chosen one’ as original.”
What is significant here is that scholars such as Brown and Fee are absolutely committed to the deity of Christ—thus there is no question as to their orthodoxy. This is also the case with the translators of the NET Bible. These scholars are also men and women of integrity. (Integrity and orthodoxy, unfortunately, do not always go hand in hand.) Their desire is first and foremost to pursue truth rather than to protect their presuppositions. To be sure, this reading in the NET Bible will be offensive to some—as though the deity of Christ has been compromised. If such were the case, then one would have to wonder why the NET Bible has not changed the text in John 1:49; 3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4, 27; 19:7; and 20:31—where ‘Son of God’ occurs each time. Or why the NET Bible has a very clear translation of John 1:1 and 20:28, along with lengthy notes on the deity of Christ. The conclusion to be made is that either these translators are singularly incompetent in their attempt to torpedo orthodoxy or else they are honest with the text of Holy Writ.1 Let the reader decide; but in making such a decision, he must also wrestle with one other factor: How is the reading “the Chosen one of God” to be explained? If the evangelist did not pen it, whence did it arise? And why did the same manuscripts that have this wording here not have it elsewhere in John?
All who study the scriptures—from the schoolboy to the scholar, from the King James Only fundamentalist to the flaming liberal—make subjective choices as a matter of course. The question is not whether our choices are subjective, but whether they are reasonable, based on the best historical and scientific evidence available, and whether they present a coherent picture of what the Bible affirms. Strange as it may seem, God has put us mortals in the position of having to make subjective choices about the meaning and even wording of scripture. Some rebel against this by railing against modern translations and clinging to tradition. But if we are to take seriously Jesus’ words to the Mosaic legal expert—“love the Lord your God with all your mind”—then we should welcome the opportunity to brave these waters, knowing that Jesus Christ is still the captain of our ship.
1 The presumption of integrity does not, of course, mean that they are correct in their assessment of the evidence. The UBS/Nestle texts, for example, have “Son of God” here (and the UBS rating is a strong ‘B’ [though there was some dissension among the editors]). The difference between the editors of these critical texts and the scholars who worked on the NET Bible in text-critical matters is essentially that, collectively speaking, the NET editors have given a higher priority to internal evidence than have the editors of the UBS/Nestle texts.