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)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Misquoting Jesus: Chapter Seven (8 of 9)

The Social World of the Texts

In chapter seven Ehrman begins with the claim that the copying of New Testament manuscripts was, for the most part, was a process whose motivation was to conserve the textual tradition. Thus most of the mistakes scribes made were accidental, but “on occasion they changed the text deliberately, making a ‘correction’ to the text, which in fact turned out to be an alteration of what the text’s author had originally written” (177-178). With that in mind Ehrman sets out to examine the deliberate alterations of the New Testament manuscripts in reference to one internal dispute, the role of women in the church, and two external disputes with non-Christian Jews and hostile pagans.

Ehrman rightly points out that the disagreements over the role of women in the early church took place specifically because women were prominent in the early church. The fact that the twelve disciples were all male is not surprising, what is noteworthy is the uncharacteristic way Jesus interacted with women as well as the fact that women did accompany him and his disciples as they traveled. He states, “It is intriguing to ask what it was about Jesus’ message that particularly attracted women. Most scholars remain convinced that Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God, in which there would be no more injustice, suffering, or evil, in which all people, rich and poor, slave and free, men and women, would be on equal footing” (179).

The earliest Christian writers of the New Testament bear witness to the prominent place of women in the early church, although Paul has an “ambivalent attitude” allowing women to participate in the church, but as women, not men. It is deutero-Paul in 1 Timothy who reduces women to second class status. By the second century some Christian communities that allow for women to be in leadership roles and others that do not.

Textual alterations that concern women’s roles almost exclusively attempt to limit the role of women in the church. Ehrman analyzes three alterations in particular: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which Ehrman classifies as a scribal addition; Romans 16:7, where the feminine name “Junia” is changed to the male name “Junias,” because Junias is referred to as an apostle; and Acts 17:4, “with a large number of prominent women” is altered to “with a large number of wives of prominent men.”

In reference to the church’s early conflict with non-Christian Jews, Ehrman recounts the irony of the Jewish nature of the early Christian movement, with it not too much later anti-semitism. This kind of anti-Judaism beings with Paul himself (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15). It is the second century that Judaism and Christianity clearly emerge as two distinct religions with Christians “castigating Jews in the harshest terms possible for rejecting Jesus as the messiah…” (190).

The anti-Jewish textual alterations examined are Luke 23:34 where Jesus’ prayer, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” is omitted in some manuscripts; Matthew 27:26, “Pilate handed him over to be crucified,” is altered in some manuscripts to “Pilate handed him over to them [i.e. to the Jews] in order that they might crucify him;” Matthew 1:21, “”he will save his people from their sins,” to “he will save the world from its sins;” John 4:22, “salvation comes from the Jews,” is changed to “salvation comes from Judea;” and Luke 6:1-4 an addition in one manuscript where Jesus says, “O man, if you know what you are doing, you are blessed, but if you do not know, you are cursed, and a transgressor of the Law.”

Ehrman then deals with the conflict the early Christian had with Gentiles outside the church. He surveys the nature of the dispute referring to pagan sources. While Ehrman does not spend time on the Christian response to pagan criticism, he notes that Christians did indeed respond to the charges.

Ehrman notes several “apologetical alterations:” Mark 6:3 where the reference to Jesus being a carpenter is omitted since such a menial job was viewed by Gentiles as an argument against the claim that Jesus was the Son of God; Luke 23:32, “Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him,” is changed by some scribes to read “Two others, who were also criminals, were led away to be put to death with him;” Matthew 27:34, where Jesus is given wine to drink n the cross is altered to vinegar to keep true is prediction at the Last Supper that he would not drink wine again until in his Father’s Kingdom; and Mark 14:62, “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven” is altered to “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power with the clouds of heaven.”

Some Thoughts

Ehrman’s survey of these three important aspects of the social worlds of the early Christians is nicely done. He highlights in clear fashion the nature of the conflict in reference to women’s roles, non-Christian Jews, and Gentile critique.

But the telling comment comes at the end of the chapter when Ehrman states, “Just as with the theological conflicts in the early church, the question of the role of women, and the controversies with Jews, so too with the disputes raging between Christians and their cultured despisers among the pagans: all of these controversies came to affect the texts that were eventually to become part of the book that we now call the New Testament, as this book—or rather this set of books—was copied by nonprofessional scribes in the second and third centuries, and occasionally (my emphasis) came to be altered in light of the contexts of their day” (205).

Once again, we see that there is nothing earth shattering in Ehrman’s account. We have a handful of examples of where it appears that scribes altered a select few texts. We know where those alterations are, and frankly, they do nothing to cast doubt upon the integrity of the New Testament documents as we have them. Even if all of Ehrman’s conclusion are correct concerning the particular alterations, he has not made his case, which is, I continue to presume, that our current form of the New Testament is somehow quite different from what was originally written.

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