Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text
The thesis of the sixth chapter of Ehrman’s book is “that sometimes the texts of the New Testament were modified for theological reasons” (151). Ehrman begins his discussion by noting the rather extensive knowledge we have of Christianity in the second and third centuries. This period of time was theologically rich and diverse. In the midst of this diversity many Christian groups that today are not considered Christian, insisted in their day that “their views were the true teachings of Jesus and his apostles. Other groups, for example, of Gnostic Christians, insisted that there were not just two gods, but twelve. Others said thirty. Still others said 365. All these groups claimed to be Christian, insisting that their views were true and had been taught by Jesus and his followers” (152).
One group, however, won the theological debates. This would become the orthodox position. In the midst of the attempt to refute other now considered false theological points of view, scribes in copying manuscripts sometimes altered the text to exclude interpretations now considered heretical. While these alterations touch upon more than one dispute of a doctrinal nature, Ehrman restricts himself to variants that have to do with the question of the person of Christ. More specifically he considers three questions in christological dispute: Was Jesus human? Was Jesus divine? Was he both? (154).
Ehrman first discusses antiadoptionistic alterations of the text. The adoptionists of the second and third centuries did not believe Jesus to be divine, but only a human being whom God adopted at his baptism to be is Son. He surveys the textual variants of 1 Timothy 3:16 (earlier adoptionist reading Christ “who was made manifest in the flesh” contrasted with the later antiadoptionist reading Christ as “God made manifest in the flesh”); Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:23 (adoptionist reading “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” contrasted with the antiadoptionist variant, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”); and John 1:18 (adoptionist reading “The unique Son in the bosom of the Father” contrasted with the antiadoptionist variant “The unique God in the bosom of the Father”).
Ehrman next focuses his attention on antidocetic textual alterations. The docetics were at the opposite end of the adoptionists in that they believed Jesus was only divine and not human. He only “appeared” (Greek; dokeō, hence “docetism”) to be flesh and blood. Ehrman examines four textual variants in the latter chapters of the Gospel of Luke: 22:43-44 (antidocetic addition, “And an angel appeared to him, strengthening him. And being in agony he began to pray yet more fervently, and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground”); Luke 22:17-19 (antidocetic addition, “This is my body which has been given for you; do this in remembrance of me,” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you”); 24:12 (antidocetic addition, “But Peter, rising up, ran to the tomb and stooping down he saw the linen cloths alone, and he returned home marveling at what had happened.”); and 24:51 (antidocetic addition, “and he was taken up into heaven”).
Finally Ehrman deals with antiseparationist variants. The separationists believed that Jesus had two natures, one human and the other divine, but unlike the orthodox view that the two natures were found in one person, the separationists believed that each nature was inhabited by a separate being. “According to most proponents of this view, the man Jesus was temporarily indwelt by the divine being, Christ, enabling him to perform his miracles and deliver his teachings; but before Jesus’s death, the Christ abandoned him forcing him to face his crucifixion alone” (170). Antiseparationist variants include Hebrews 2:9 (antiseparationist variant, Christ died “by the grace of God” contrasted with the separationist reading, Christ died “apart from God”); Mark 15:34 (antiseparationist reading, “My God, my God, why have you mocked me” contrasted with the separationist reading, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”); and 1 John 42-3, (antiseparationist variant “Every spirit that does not loose Jesus is not from God” contrasted with the separationist reading “Every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God”).
It is this evidence that leads Ehrman to conclude that scribes “occasionally altered their texts” (175) to clarify and bolster the theology of orthodoxy and once they altered these texts they were interpreted differently by later readers.
One of the helpful aspects of Ehrman’s analysis of these variant readings is that he not only contrasts manuscripts but he examines some of the writings of the church fathers who quote from these passages in which it is obvious that they know these texts by their variants.
Nevertheless, I come back once again to the point that his argument is ultimately insignificant. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Ehrman is right in preferring the variants he argues for in the chapter. What major orthodox doctrines are seriously called into question? If John 1:18 does not specifically affirm the deity of Jesus, the Gospel of John in general does. If Luke 24:21 and 51 are later scribal additions, how does Ehrman know that motivation for the additions concerns theology? Could it not be that the scribe(s) simply added these details to fill out the story?
The truth of the matter is that even if Ehrman’s analysis of these variants is correct, the larger theological picture that emerges as one reads the entire New Testament affirms a christology that makes the affirmations of Nicea the logical conclusion. Ehrman rejects the larger picture for some small and ultimately insignificant variant readings; and I suspect that the emphasis he places on the theological motivations for textual alterations is overstated. Indeed his theological reflections continue to lack theological sophistication and nuance (e.g. 160).
Also overdone is the impression Ehrman gives that the so-called “heretical” groups (Gnostics, etc.) were as equally influential as orthodoxy, but were pushed out of the way. In actuality, their significance never mounted to what might even remotely be called “mainstream.”
As I continue to work through Ehrman’s book, I keep asking him, “OK, so what’s your point?”