A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Misquoting Jesus: Chapter Two (3 of 9)

The Copyists of the Early Christian Writings

In chapter two Ehrman discusses in typical erudite fashion the practice of copying manuscripts in the ancient world. While he focuses his attention on the copying of Christian documents, he sets the context with a brief discussion of the practice in the Greco-Roman World. The discipline of copying manuscripts was indeed a discipline. It was a long, slow, and meticulous process; and unlike today, where modern technology creates copies that are word-for-word and letter-for-letter identical to the original, copyists in the ancient world often made mistakes. Ehrman mentions two sources in particular (the Roman philosopher, Seneca and the Roman poet, Martial) where the problem of errant copies is mentioned. He notes, �Copying texts allowed for the possibilities of manual error; and the problem was widely recognized throughout antiquity� (p. 47).

As Ehrman turns his attention to the practice of copying in early Christian circles, he refers first to the second century Shepherd of Hermas where Hermas makes a copy of book given to him by an elderly woman in a vision. In 5.4, Hermas reveals two things: first, he may illiterate and thus is copying the text without the ability to read it, and second, the early Greek manuscripts of the New Testament contained no punctuation, and no distinction between upper and lower case letters. In addition, no spaces were used to separate words. In English, each line of the manuscript would look something like this: godisnowhere, which could be read in two different ways: �God is now here,� or �God is nowhere� (48). These two facts: illiterate persons copying manuscripts and words run together can multiply the mistakes made in copying a text.

Ehrman does note, however, that some Christian scribes were more skilled than others, but unlike the scribes outside the Christian communities who were typically professional or literate slaves not reproducing texts because they wanted them personally, it appears that many Christian scribes were copying texts because they wanted to have them; thus they were not typically professional. They were likely educated and would do the job because they were willing; nevertheless, they were not trained as scribes. It is because of this that Ehrman concludes, ��we can expect that in the earliest copies, especially, mistakes were commonly made in the transcription� (51). Citing several examples Ehrman shows that conscious changing of the text to suit one�s purposes was not necessarily uncommon, both by those considered �heretics� and by those in the �orthodox� tradition. Early Christians were obviously concerned about the problem, as Ehrman notes (52-54). We have several examples of early Christians (e.g. Origen, Irenaeus) making much ado about the practice.

Most changes in the text, however, did not happen intentionally, but were the result of mistakes: �slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another� (55). And when changes were made intentionally, it was not always for devious reasons. Sometimes a scribe changed a text because he thought the manuscript from which he was copying had been mistakenly copied, and therefore sought to correct it.

All this is to say, that, for Ehrman, it is quite a complicated thing to set about knowing the original text of any book of the New Testament. He writes, �In fact it is such an enormous problem that a number of textual critics have started to claim that we may as well suspend any discussion of the �original�� text, because it is inaccessible to us� (58).

Time for some thoughts:

1) Ehrman illustrates well the complex task of copying ancient manuscripts, particularly the documents of early Christianity. While he states that it may be going too far to claim that discussion of the original text should be suspended because of its inaccessibility (58), he clearly leans this way. The concern I am beginning to have with Ehrman�s argument is its lack of nuance. I realize that he intends for his work to be a readable introduction for those not trained in textual criticism, and clearly Ehrman has an expertise in this area that few New Testament scholars have, but if one is going to argue that the transmission of texts is a complex thing, then one needs to take into account that the complexity also involves more than simply comparing and contrasting manuscripts. For example, while Ehrman notes that many Christian scribes were not professional, thus increasing the possibility of copying errors, he also notes that these scribes copied the text precisely because they had a stake in their message, whereas the professional scribes in the Greco-Roman world did not necessarily have an interest in the texts they were copying (50). One could conclude from this that the Christians had the motivation to copy the text as accurately as possible, albeit untrained in the discipline. Clearly the early Christians were concerned over accuracy in the copying process, as Ehrman himself illustrates (51-55). So the issue at hand has much less to do with the training of those who copied the documents, but has everything to do with the specific examples of copying errors in reference to the overarching suggestion in the book, so far, that we cannot be certain of the original text of the New Testament. Do Ehrman�s examples actually confirm this?

2) I am quite skeptical that Ehrman�s examples confirm his argument. One case in point is where he spends a fair amount of time discussing the transmission of the book of Galatians, in which he speaks of the complicated process of Paul using a secretarial scribe who might have, at certain places, written the wrong words even in the original (assuming of course, that Paul would not have approved the finished product before it was sent), followed by copies that get copied that get copied with mistakes and more mistakes. He states, ��it is very complicated business talking about the original' text of Galatians. We don�t have it. The best we can do is to get back to an early stage of its transmission, and simply hope that what we reconstruct about the copies made at this stage�reasonably reflects what Paul himself actually wrote, or at least what he intended to write when he dictated the letter" (60).

But what does the manuscript evidence actually reveal? Are the copies that we have of Galatians so very different in so many places that we cannot hope to know what Paul originally stated? I am no expert in textual criticism, but when I look at the variant readings in my Greek New Testament, the transmission of the text appears to come out quite well. The variants we have are not significant, and if it is possible, as Ehrman suggests, to reconstruct the text to get back to an early state of transmission, that means the various manuscripts are consistent enough to do so. Why is it unreasonable to think, then, that the earlier manuscripts which are no longer extant fail to reflect the same consistent transmission?

3) I suggested in the previous post that Ehrman should take more account of the apostolic theological tradition swirling in the background, which significantly figures into the whole discussion. What variants can Ehrman highlight that seriously call into question the �orthodox� claims of the New Testament, particularly about Jesus?

He refers to the variant reading found in Hebrews 1:3. Most manuscripts read that, �Christ bears (Greek: pherōn) all things by the word of his power.� There is a variant in some manuscripts that states, �Christ manifests (Greek: phanerōn) all things by the word of his power.� Why is this variant reading a significant problem? Ehrman states, �It matters because the only way to understand what an author wants to say is to know what his words�actually were. (Think of all the sermons preached on the basis of a single word in a text: what if the word is one the author didn�t actually write?) Saying that Christ reveals all things by his word of power is quite different from saying that he keeps the universe together by his word!� (56).

Again, here is where we see Ehrman�s lack of nuance. First, in the case of Hebrews 1:3, scholars are fairly certain of what the older reading is (�bears;� pherōn). Second, both readings confirm the high Christology of Hebrews. While revealing all things and keeping the universe together are two separate things, they are not mutually exclusive or contradictory claims. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that the variant reading was accidentally produced in the first place, not only because of the similarity between the two words in Greek, but also because neither term raised a theological problem. (In this particular instance, the scribe who first produced the variant had to be literate.) Any sermon preached on Christ as revealer of all things or the bearer of all things would be quite in keeping with the theology of Hebrews. (I could raise the same points in reference to Ehrman�s discussion of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:12, but I am already waxing on too long.)

4) Rigorous arguments require rigorous opponents. This is not to suggest that Ehrman cannot mount such an argument. Indeed, he is quite informed and able to articulate his views well. But no information on manuscripts and variants Ehrman has written about so far would surprise any evangelical New Testament scholar, except for his clear suggestion that the evidence undermines the trustworthiness of Scripture. One can get the impression from his book thus far, that more conservative scholars have either ignored the manuscript evidence or are simply in denial about what it reveals. This, of course, is not the case.


Ted M. Gossard said...


Well stated here. I find Ehrman's concern over departure from the original intent of the human author, to be of no significance as to our belief in the trustworthiness of Scripture. Since our confidence in this belief, I think, does not reside in our faith in Scripture itself- first, but first and foundationally our faith in God, who so promises. And then, because of that, we have faith in Scripture, his Word.

Thanks for the good work and thought here.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Good point. I have hestitated to say this because I do not want to be unfair to Ehrman, but it seems to me that like fundamentalists, he is focused exclusively on the text itself. Whereas fundamentlists argue that the original texts are inerrant which takes the notion of biblical authority out of the realm of ecclesiology, so Ehrman does the same thing, focusing exclusively on the variants without regard to larger theological matters.

Moreover, I have still to see how the variants he highlights raise concerns over the trustworthiness of the originals we do not have.