On 7/21/2004 15:07:24 -0700 Anne Sharp wrote:
Subject: TV Show: “Faith Under Fire”
I am writing to ask you for some feedback on who are the top scholars/experts in the field of debunking the Bible. I am a producer for a new nationwide, primetime TV show ³Faith Under Fire,² and I am seeking a guest for the segment entitled ³Is The Bible Bogus?² to be a proponent of the view that there are errors, contradictions, etc. in the Bible, and that it is not a valid religious document.
Faith Under Fire is a brand new hour-long talk/debate show that takes an unflinching look at the provocative issues of religion, spirituality and morality in the fast-paced, face-off format of “Hardball” or “The OʼReilly Factor.” Faith Under Fire will be an open forum for all points of view, with guests coming from all faith perspectives (e.g. Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Atheism, Scientology, Wicca, etc.) and from all arenas (e.g. politics, pop culture, academia, science, etc.). Topics to be discussed include a wide variety of compelling topics, including; ³Is God a Silly Superstition?²; ³Darwin vs. Design: No Middle Ground?² and ³Is Hollywood Anti-Faith?² We¹re encouraging guests to jump right into the heart of the issues for a lively discussion. And even though these are heady issues, we¹re trying to keep it at a very compelling popular level, so that the average American will be engaged.
We¹re producing 13 episodes of Faith Under Fire for its first season, with each episode having six 7-minute segments. Each topic presented will have one person each representing the ³pro² and ³con² sides. Lee Strobel, the host and moderator, is a former award-winning investigative journalist and former Legal Editor of the Chicago Tribune, as well as a New York Times best-selling author. As a former journalist, he will provide a fair and balanced platform for spirited point and counterpoint on compelling topical issues, all from a faith perspective or hook.
Faith Under Fire debuts this Fall 2004 on PAX TV, and each show will air twice weekly in primetime during its initial run. With PAX TV reaching 89% of U.S. television households via nationwide broadcast television, cable and satellite distribution systems, its programming reaches the majority of the country.
The topic ³Is The Bible Bogus?² will be taping on Wednesday, August 18th. We are having guests go to a studio near their home or work to participate via satellite uplink. As a result, participation would require no more than a couple (2) hours out of their day, as taping won¹t go longer than about 7 minutes.
In addition, Faith Under Fire has made a co-op marketing deal with the nationwide Barnes & Noble bookstore chain in which they will have highly visible posters in their stores nationwide that advertise books on topics covered by the show and by Faith Under Fire guests. This would be excellent publicity for any guest who was also an author.
For more information about Faith Under Fire, please visit
www.FaithUnderFire.com. To view clips from our original sales presentation that shows several topics being discussed as a preview of the format the show will take, please go to our site and click on ³Login,² and then use the Username and Password indicated below to log in:
I¹d love to hear if you have any suggestions for me in terms of a compelling guest who is really knowledgeable about the Bible and is good on their feet (even better if they are already media-savvy, but not absolutely necessary), and look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
“Faith Under Fire”
Islam: A Religion Of Peace Or Terror?
Join the debate with Lee Strobel this Fall on PAX! (Saturdays at 10pm P/E; 9pm C/M)
Reply To Anne Sharp Of “Faith Under Fire”
Dear Ms. Sharp,
Thanks so much for your email inquiry.
Please let me remind Mr. Strobel and the showʼs producers that “Bible Debunking” is not an isolated phenomena practiced only by atheist “Debunkers.” Christians have been “debunking” each otherʼs interpretations of the Bible for centuries.
And, “Bible Debunking” is relative to what is believed about the Bible in the first place. Exactly what does Mr. Strobel believe about the Bible? That it is inerrant? That it is inspired? Modern historical study of the Bible, like the historical study of all other ancient writings, assumes neither that such writings are inerrant, nor inspired. Therefore, all historical scholarship includes ingesting the “salt of agnosticism.”
Be that as it may, the names of three eminent scholars come to mind whom Mr. Strobel ought to interview on the topic of “debunking” conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible:
- Bart D. Ehrman
- James D. G. Dunn
- William G. Dever
Bart Ehrman would be the easiest of the three to contact, and the most liberal/agnostic as well. Dunn and Dever are both moderate Christians, but, as you will read below, their research and writings give little solace to the kind of conservative Biblical interpretation that Strobel (and the conservatives he interviews in his books) endorse. See below for information on all three scholars:
Dr. Ehrman apparently started out as a conservative Christian, graduating magna cum laude with a B.A. from Wheaton College, Illinois (an Evangelical Christian institution) before attending Princeton Seminary and obtaining his doctorate. His highly successful introduction to the New Testament, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford Univ. Press) is now in its third edition — “It approaches the New Testament from a consistently historical and comparative perspective, emphasizing the rich diversity of the earliest Christian literature. Rather than shying away from the critical problems presented by these books, Ehrman addresses the historical and literary challenges they pose and shows why scholars continue to argue over such significant issues as how the books of the New Testament came into being, what they mean, how they relate to contemporary Christian and non-Christian literature, and how they came to be collected into a canon of Scripture.”
Dr. Ehrmanʼs university lectures are also sold by The Great Courses that features tapes and CDs by outstanding educators:
James D.G. Dunn in his latest work, Jesus Remembered, argues that The Gospel of Johnʼs narrative is not reliable, nor the claims it makes for Jesusʼ quasi-divine status. (In his earlier work, Evidence for Jesus, Dunn didnʼt imagine that Jesus spoke even one word reported in John.) Dunn admits there is little to support the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, and little evidence that Jesus supported a mission to the gentiles, and no evidence that Jesus saw himself as any kind of messiah. (The term does not even appear in Q.) Nor is there much left of the “Son of Man,” except for a few uncertain eschatological allusions. Dunn argues that Jesus did not claim any title for himself. Jesus may have believed that he was going to die, but he did not believe he was dying to redeem the sins of the world. “If Jesus hoped for resurrection it was presumably to share in the general and final resurrection of the dead.” There is astonishingly little support for what Jesusʼ last words were. Dunn admits that Jesus believed in an imminent eschatological climax that, of course, did not happen. “Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events.” Dunnʼs account of the resurrection notes all of the weaknesses of the tradition: The link of Jesusʼ resurrection to a falsely imminent general resurrection, confusion as to what sort of Jesus the witnesses were seeing, a persistent theme of failure of the witnesses to recognize Jesus (in Matthew 28:17 the disciples are seeing him in Galilee yet “some doubted,” not just Thomas), confusion as to where they were seeing Jesus (in Jerusalem and Galilee? On earth or in heaven?).
Year ago, Dunn wrote, “The Authority of Scripture According to Scripture” [which appeared in two parts in The Churchman (London, England) 96.2 & 96.3, 1982] in which he argued that the verses in the Bible that spoke of its “inspiration” did not demand that all Scripture be taken as literally as modern day conservatives propose it must. Dunnʼs article was challenged in that same journal by Roger Nicole (a founder of the Evangelical Theological Society).
William G. Dever is the son of a fundamentalist preacher. After starting his education at a small Christian liberal arts college in Tennessee he went to a Protestant theological seminary that exposed him to critical study of the Bible, a study that at first he resisted. In 1960 it was on to Harvard and a doctorate in Biblical theology. For thirty-five years he worked as an archaeologist, excavating in the Near East, and he is now professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona. In his book, What Did the Bible Writers Know and When Did They Know It?, he writes, “While the Hebrew Bible in its present, heavily edited form cannot be taken at face value as history in the modern sense, it nevertheless contains much history.” He adds: “After a century of exhaustive investigation, all respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob credible ‘historical figures.’” He writes of archaeological investigations of Moses and the Exodus as having been “discarded as a fruitless pursuit.” He is not saying that the Biblical Moses was entirely mythical, though he does admit that “.the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness. A Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in southern Transjordan in the mid-late13th century B.C., where many scholars think the Biblical traditions concerning the god Yahweh arose. But archaeology can do nothing to confirm such a figure as a historical personage, much less prove that he was the founder of later Israelite region.” About Leviticus and Numbers he writes that these are “clearly additions to the ‘pre-history’ by very late Priestly editorial hands, preoccupied with notions of ritual purity, themes of the ‘promised land,’ and other literary motifs that most modern readers will scarcely find edifying much less historical.” Dever writes that “the whole ‘Exodus-Conquest’ cycle of stories must now be set aside as largely mythical, but in the proper sense of the term ‘myth’: perhaps ‘historical fiction,’ but tales told primarily to validate religious beliefs.”
Deverʼs conclusions about what archaeology tells us about the Bible are not very pleasing to fundamentalists or conservative Evangelicals, and I gather that Dever and his colleagues of high standing likewise dismiss fundamentalists and hard-core conservative Evangelicals who want to consider themselves scholars without accepting that which good scholars must do: engage in extensive critical analysis. Those testifying for Deverʼs book (on the back cover) are: Paul D. Hanson, Professor of Divinity and Old Testament at Harvard University; David Noel Freedman, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the University of Michigan; Philip M. King, Professor at Boston College and author of Jeremiah; William W. Hallo, Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature at Yale University; and Bernhard W. Anderson, Professor of Old Testament, Boston University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary. Like Dever, these are not a bunch of radical revisionists, but moderates in the field of Christian archeology. Deverʼs latest book is, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? Conservative and fundamentalist Christians who interpret the Bible literally will gain no encouragement after reading it.
Allow me to say that I congratulate Mr. Strobel for seeking to interview someone other than conservative orthodox Christian scholars for a change. His books were growing predictable, interviewing nothing but conservative orthodox Christian professors, and of course reaching nothing but conservative orthodox Christian conclusions regarding the origins of the Bibleʼs books and teachings.
It would also like to take this opportunity to point out to Mr. Strobel how heavily he relies in his books on interviews with scholars who teach at relatively young institutions of higher learning, mere cradles of scholarship. All of the older, adult, and far more prestigious institutions of higher learning have grown more moderate and liberal, including all of the colleges originally founded as highly conservative seminaries in past centuries, like Calvinʼs college at Geneva, or, Harvard, Yale and Princeton. In contrast, the most heavily “pro-inerrantist” institutions are all relatively young institutions, and you will find that even they evolve in a more moderate direction over time as their faculty and students interact with the wealth of knowledge in the field of Biblical studies. For instance, the college that Calvin founded as a strictly conservative institution, grew within 200 years, into an institution in which many of its professors agreed with many of the teachings of Deism rather than Calvinism. Yale was founded in reaction to the move toward moderation at Harvard. Westminster Theological Seminary was founded by Machen in reaction to the move toward moderation/liberalism at Princeton. Wheaton College (with which Billy Graham has been associated) eventually voted to no longer require professors to sign a statement of faith that insists they believe that Adam and Eve were created “directly from clay.” (In fact, a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton has recently agreed [see the NIV Application Commentary On Genesis] that the Biblical authors viewed the firmament as a solid dome, and that the “serpent” in the story of “the garden of Eden” was not “Satan” at all, and in fact, the word “satan” and its meanings evolved over time in the Old Testament.) Fuller Seminary also was founded as an Evangelical institution, but grew more moderate, even liberal. And a Dallas Theological Seminary student recently denied in his graduate paper the reality of the huge numbers in the Bible of the number of Hebrews who allegedly took part in the Exodus. Thus the most heavily “pro-conservative orthodox Christian and pro-inerrancy” institutions have continued to grow more moderate-liberal over time via interacting with the past 250 years* of unfettered Biblical research.
*NOTE* I mentioned “the past 250 years of unfettered Biblical scholarship” because that was approximately when Christian churches lost the political clout they previously employed to ban ideas that rationally questioned Christian doctrines and dogmas.
In short, the current depth of Biblical knowledge being shared at universities round the world, and the recognition of historical uncertainties, naturally erodes belief in “inerrancy.” So debating “Bible Debunkers” on national TV is not going to do much to slow the advance of agnosticism in the world of Biblical studies.
Furthermore, as I pointed out earlier, even Evangelical Christians continue to “debunk” each otherʼs preferred interpretations of various teachings of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Evangelical Christian publishers have even produced whole series of books along those lines, the “viewpoints” series.
Books by InterVarsity Press:
Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialog
Four Views on Divine sovereignty and Human Freedom
Four Christian Views of Economics
Four Theologians Debate the Major Millennial Views
Women in Ministry: Four Views
Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views
Theologians and Philosophers Examine Four Approaches to War
Books by Zondervan Press, part of their Counterpoints Series:
Two Views on Women in Ministry
Three Views on the Rapture
Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond
Three Views on Creation and Evolution
Are Miraculous Gifts for Today: Four Views
Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide
Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World
Four Views on the Book of Revelation
Four Views on Eternal Security
Four Views on Hell
Five Views of Law and Gospel
Five Views on Sanctification
Five Views on Apologetics
The Society of Christian Philosophers has also published a debate book: Contemporary Debate in the Philosophy of Religion (Section III. features debates between Christian/theistic philosophers on questions such as “Can Only One Religion Be True?” “Does God Take Risks in Governing the World?” “Does God Respond to Petitionary Prayer?” “Is Eternal Damnation Compatible with the Christian Concept of God?” “Is Morality Based on Godʼs Commands?” “Should a Christian Be a Mind-Body Dualist?” Concerning such questions, none of the Christian/theistic philosophers were convinced by the othersʼ arguments.)
Edward T. Babinski (author of Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists, Prometheus Books, paperback 2003)
P.S. For some more information on my first choice, Dr. Bart Ehrman, visit the following website that features articles on textual criticism of the Bible by noted scholars in that field.
[Excerpts from the website]
Who, then, are the scribes? The central answer is, the users of the texts. That is, there was not a separate class of professional copyists in early Christianity…
This argument is supported by a range of evidence, and it is well argued. It is a very important argument text-critically, because it provides support for the thesis that in producing the texts, scribes were powerfully motivated by factors out of their religious and social context. That is, they were not professionals doing a job as competently and accurately and quickly as possible, but people who believed in the power of the words they were copying and who on other grounds have been shown to have produced the words they believed to be the right ones, even if their exemplar was somewhat different. In short, I suggest that this book may be taken as support for the arguments, advanced in quite different ways by scholars including B. D. Ehrman and myself, that the texts that were copied by early Christians were modified by them according to current debates and beliefs (Ehrman 1993; Parker 1997).
— Review by D. C. Parker (Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism and Palaeography, The University of Birmingham) of Kim Haines-Eitzen. Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000
Ehrman, Bart D. 1993. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Parker, D. C. 1997. The Living Text of the Gospels. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.
There is evidence already in the second century that Christians “corrected” the works they copied according to certain stylistic and theological criteria. Some writers accused the “heterodox” of corrupting their works, although Bart Ehrman has demonstrated convincingly that the “orthodox” engaged in similar practices (Ehrman 1993: passim) (Gamble points to the multiple endings of Mark, the addition of the Pastorals to the Pauline corpus, and harmonization among the Synoptic gospels as examples of “orthodox corruption”). The unregulated transmission of texts led to corruption, both intentional and unintentional, and, ironically, religious texts were especially vulnerable to intentional change. Even Marcionʼs treatment of the Pauline letters and the gospel of Luke was consistent with established Greco-Roman standards of criticism. Sometimes changes were made to texts by the authors themselves. Tertullian and Augustine both issued multiple editions of some of their works, and readings from various editions were undoubtedly sometimes mixed together.
All of these observations are of tremendous importance to anyone studying the transmission of the text of the New Testament or of other early Christian writings. The fact that Christian writings circulated by means of private copying of texts rather than by controlled copying in organized scriptoria for at least three hundred years raises important methodological questions for textual critics with regard to reconstructing the earliest possible form of the text. The more or less standardized forms of the text that arose first in Alexandria and later in and around Constantinople have less claim to originality if Gambleʼs observations are taken seriously, and more heed might need to be paid to early “wild” texts and to their “Western” allies. Certainly the possibility of primitive error” (à la Hort) must be considered in many cases of textual difficulty (not to mention places where no apparent difficulty is evident!). The identity of the “original text” is called into serious question when the author kept one copy and sent another one to a church, or, in the case of the Shepherd of Hermas, when there were apparently three “original texts.” The possibility of multiple editions, particularly in Acts, but also in the Pauline letters as a whole, also raises the possibility that there was no single original text of some books.
A couple of Gambleʼs assertions are not convincing. When he argues that Paul, like other contemporary authors, kept copies of his own correspondence (p. 100), several objections immediately come to mind. Are we to assume that Paul, who had no permanent address, carried copies of his epistles with him on his travels? If Paul had copies of all of his missives, why is correspondence referred to in his extant letters (e.g., the epistle to the Laodiceans) missing? Why are some letters apparently incomplete or fragmentary (his Corinthian correspondence)? Finally, how would pseudonymous epistles have been mixed in with genuine letters had Paulʼs collection been available? It is more likely on the basis of the evidence that Paulʼs collection, if there was one, never entered the transmission stream.
A second unconvincing argument is Gambleʼs claim that the existence of the catholic epistles, coupled with the wide circulation of Paulʼs letters, led to the idea that apostles wrote to the church as a whole. Thus, he says, authors who wrote homilies in epistolary form, especially catholic letters, must have intended their works for general circulation (p. 107). He cites Apolloniusʼ opposition to a certain Themiso, who presumed to write to the church at large “in imitation of the apostle.” It is evident, however, that Apolloniusʼ objection was not to the fact that Themiso wrote a catholic epistle but rather to the content of that letter, with which he disagreed. It is unclear, then, that the authors of books such as 1 John and Jude intended their works for circulation beyond a particular church or at least a particular, limited geographic region.
— Review by James R. Adair, Jr. of Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995
Editorʼs note: Bart Ehrman delivered the Kenneth W. Clark lectures at Duke Divinity School in 1997. This article, though slightly modified from the oral presentation, preserves the original flavor of the lecture. See also his second lecture.
Text and Tradition: The Role of New Testament Manuscripts in Early Christian Studies
The Kenneth W. Clark Lectures
Duke Divinity School
Lecture One: Text and Interpretation: The Exegetical Significance of the “Original” Text
Bart D. Ehrman
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Kenneth Clark was a real pioneer in the field of NT textual criticism; his collections and photographs of Greek MSS, his significant essays on major aspects of the discipline, his selfless leadership of the International Greek New Testament Project all served to make him a premier textual scholar and to elevate Duke to a place of prominence as one of the great institutions of learning in this field. I am honored and flattered to be asked to present the lectures that have been endowed in his name.
Interpreters of the NT are faced with a discomforting reality that many of them would like to ignore. In many instances, we donʼt know what the authors of the NT actually wrote. It often proves difficult enough to establish what the words of the NT mean; the fact that in some instances we donʼt know what the words actually were does more than a little to exacerbate the problem. I say that many interpreters would like to ignore this reality; but perhaps that isnʼt strong enough. In point of fact, many interpreters, possibly most, do ignore it, pretending that the textual basis of the Christian scriptures is secure, when unhappily, it is not.
When the individual authors of the NT released their works to the public, each book found a niche in one or another of the burgeoning Christian communities that were scattered, principally in large Greek-speaking urban areas, around the Mediterranean. Anyone within these communities who wanted a copy of these books, whether for private use, as community property, or for general distribution, was compelled to produce a copy by hand, or to acquire the services of someone else to do so.
During the course of their transmission, the original copies of these books were eventually lost, worn out, or destroyed; the early Christians evidently saw no need to preserve their original texts for antiquarian or other reasons. Had they been more fully cognizant of what happens to documents that are copied by hand, however, especially by hands that are not professionally trained for the job, they may have exercised greater caution in preserving the originals. As it is, for whatever historical reasons, the originals no longer survive. What do survive are copies of the originals, or, to be more precise, copies made from the copies of the copies of the originals, thousands of these subsequent copies, dating from the 2nd to the 16th centuries, some of them tiny fragments the size of a credit card, uncovered in garbage heaps buried in the sands of Egypt, others of them enormous and elegant tomes preserved in the great libraries and monasteries of Europe.
It is difficult to know what the authors of the Greek New Testament wrote, in many instances, because all of these surviving copies differ from one another, sometimes significantly. The severity of the problem was not recognized throughout the Middle Ages or even, for the most part, during the Renaissance. Indeed, biblical scholars were not forcefully confronted with the uncertainty of their texts until the early eighteenth century. In the year 1707, an Oxford scholar named John Mill published an edition of the Greek New Testament that contained a critical apparatus, systematically and graphically detailing the differences among the surviving witnesses of the NT. Mill had devoted some thirty years of his life to examining a hundred or so Greek MSS, several of the early versions of the NT, and the citations of the NT in the writings of the church fathers. His apparatus did not include all of the differences that he had uncovered in his investigation, but only the ones that he considered significant for the purposes of exegesis or textual reconstruction. These, however, were enough. To the shock and dismay of many of his contemporaries, Millʼs apparatus indicated some 30,000 places of variation, 30,000 places where the available witnesses to the NT text differed from one another.
Numerous representatives of traditional piety were immediately outraged, and promptly denounced Millʼs publication as a demonic attempt to render the text of the NT uncertain. Millʼs supporters, on the other hand, pointed out that he had not invented these 30,000 places of variation, but had simply noticed them. In any event, Millʼs publication launched a discipline committed to determining places of variation among our surviving NT witnesses, ascertaining which of these variations represent modifications of the text as it was first produced by its authors, and which represent the original text itself.
We have, of course, come a long way since Mill. Today we have over fifty times as many MSS as he had—at last count, there were upwards of 5300 complete or fragmentary Greek copies—not to mention the thousands of MSS attesting the early translations of the NT into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Old Slavonic, etc., and the many thousands of quotations of the NT by church authors of the first few hundred years. What is particularly striking is that among the 5300+ Greek copies of the NT, with the exception of the smallest fragments, there are no two that are exactly alike in all their particulars.
No one knows for sure how many differences there are among our surviving witnesses, simply because no one has yet been able to count them all. The best estimates put the number at around 300,000, but perhaps itʼs better to put this figure in comparative terms. There are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the NT.
As one might expect, however, these raw numbers are somewhat deceptive. For the vast majority of these textual differences are easily recognized as simple scribal mistakes, errors caused by carelessness, ineptitude, or fatigue. The single largest category of mistake is orthographic; an examination of almost any of our oldest Greek manuscripts will show that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today. Scribes can at least be excused on this score: they lived, after all, in a world that was for the most part without dictionaries, let alone spell check.
Other textual variants, however, are significant, both for the interpretation of the NT texts and for our understanding of the social world within which these texts were transmitted. The importance of establishing a hypothetically “original” text has always been fairly self-evident to historians; you canʼt know what an author meant if you donʼt know what he or she said. The importance of variant readings, however, has rarely been as self-evident to historians, although it is now becoming the most exciting area of study in this field. For once it is known what an author wrote, one can ask why the text came to be changed by later scribes living in different circumstances. Is it possible that Christian scribes in the second, third, and fourth centuries, for example, modified the texts they copied for reasons of their own, possibly to make them say what they were supposed to mean?
In my two lectures I am going to be dealing with these two areas of significance. In this afternoonʼs talk, Iʼll be exploring three textual problems to show the importance of establishing the “original” text for its interpretation. In my lecture tomorrow, Iʼll show how modifications of the text by early scribes can help us understand something about the pressing social and theological problems in ancient Christianity, such as the emergence of Christian orthodoxy, the rise of anti-Semitism, and the oppression of women.
The three textual problems that Iʼve chosen for this lecture occur in three different books of the New Testament. Each of them relates to the way Jesus himself is portrayed by the bookʼs author; in each instance I will argue that the reading chosen by the United Bible Societies for their Greek New Testament, which is also the text of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, and the text on which most modern English translations are based, and which most interpreters simply assume is probably accurate, is in fact wrong, and that the understanding of the three books of Mark, Luke, and Hebrews is, as a result, significantly affected. These are not trivial and unknown problems for NT scholars; some of you among us, especially my New Testament colleagues, are already aware of the problems surrounding Mark 1:41, where Jesus becomes incensed at a leperʼs request for healing; Luke 22:43-44, where he allegedly sweats blood before his betrayal and arrest; and Hebrews 2:9, where he is said to have died apart from God.
Mark 1:41 and the Angry Jesus
The textual problem of Mark 1:41 occurs in the story of Jesusʼ healing a man with a skin disease. The surviving manuscripts preserve v. 41 in two different forms; Iʼve included both variant readings for you here, italicized:
39 And he came preaching in their synagogues in all of Galilee and casting out the demons. 40 And a leper came to him beseeching him and saying to him, “If you wish, you are able to cleanse me.” 41 And [feeling compassion (splagxnisqei\j)/becoming angry (o)rgisqei\j)], reaching out his hand, he touched him and said, “I wish, be cleansed.” 42 And immediately the leprosy went out from him, and he was cleansed. 43 And rebuking him severely, immediately he cast him out 44 and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing that which Moses commanded as a witness to them.” 45 But when he went out he began to preach many things and to spread the word, so that he [Jesus] was no longer able to enter publicly into a city.
Most English translations render the beginning of v. 41 so as to emphasize Jesusʼ compassion for this poor outcast leper, “moved with compassion/filled with pity.” In doing so, they are following the Greek text found in most of our manuscripts, splagxnisqei\j e)ktei/naj th\n xei=ra au)tou=, “feeling compassion, reaching out his hand.” It is certainly easy to see why compassion might be called for in the situation. We donʼt know the precise nature of the manʼs disease—many commentators prefer to think of it as a scaly skin disorder rather than the kind of rotting flesh that we commonly associate with leprosy. In any event, he may well have fallen under the injunctions of the Torah that forbad “lepers” of any sort to live normal lives; they were to be isolated, cut off from the public, considered unclean (Leviticus 13-14). Moved with pity for such a one, Jesus reaches out a tender hand, touches his diseased flesh, and heals him.
The simple pathos and unproblematic emotion of the scene may well account for translators and interpreters, as a rule, not considering the alternative text found in some of our manuscripts. For the wording of one of our oldest witnesses, Codex Bezae, which is supported by three Old Latin manuscripts, is at first puzzling and wrenching. Here, rather than saying that Jesus felt compassion for the man, the text indicates that he became angry. In Greek it is a difference between the words splagxnisqei/j and o)rgisqei/j. Because of its attestation in both Greek and Latin witnesses, this reading is generally conceded by textual specialists to go back at least to the second century. Is it possible, though, that this in fact is what Mark himself wrote?
In many instances of textual variation, possibly most, we are safe in saying that when the vast majority of manuscripts have one reading and only a couple have another, the majority are probably right. But this is not always the case. Sometimes a couple or a few manuscripts appear to be right even when all the others disagree. In part this is because the vast majority of our manuscripts were produced hundreds and hundreds of years after the originals, and they themselves were copied not from the originals but from other much later copies. Once a change made its way into the manuscript tradition, it could be perpetuated until it became more commonly transmitted than the original wording. Both readings we are considering here are very ancient. Which one is original?
If Christian readers today were given the choice between these two readings, virtually everyone, no doubt, would choose the one more commonly attested in our manuscripts: Jesus felt pity for this man, and so he healed him. The other reading is hard to construe: what would it mean to say that Jesus felt angry? Isnʼt this in itself sufficient ground for assuming that Mark must have written splagxnisqei\j feeling compassion?
On the contrary, and this may indeed seem backwards at first, the fact that one of the readings makes such good sense and is easy to understand is precisely what makes some scholars suspect that it is wrong. For scribes also would have preferred the text to be simple to understand and nonproblematic. Which is more likely, that a scribe copying this text would change it to say that Jesus became wrathful instead of compassionate, or to say that Jesus became compassionate instead wrathful? When seen from this perspective, the latter is obviously more likely. o)rgisqei/j, became angry, is the more difficult reading and therefore more likely to be “original.”
But there is even better evidence than this speculative question of which reading the scribes were likely to invent. As it turns out, we donʼt have any Greek manuscripts of Mark that contain this passage until the end of the fourth century, nearly 300 years after the book was produced. But we do have two authors that copied this story from within twenty years of its first production. Matthew and Luke have both taken this story over from Mark, their common source. It is striking that Matthew and Luke are virtually word for word the same as Mark in the leperʼs request and in Jesusʼ response in vv. 40-41. Which word, then, do they use to describe Jesusʼ reaction? Does he become compassionate or angry? Oddly enough, as has often been noted, Matthew and Luke both omit the word altogether.
If the text of Mark available to Matthew and Luke had used the term splagxnisqei\j, feeling compassion, why would each of them have omitted it? On only two other occasions in Markʼs Gospel is Jesus explicitly described as compassionate: Mark 6:34, at the feeding of the 5000, and Mark 8:2, the feeding of the 4000. Luke completely recasts the first story and does not include the second. Matthew, however, has both stories and retains Markʼs description of Jesus being compassionate on both occasions (14:14 [and 9:30]; 15:32). On three additional occasions in Matthew, and yet one other occasion in Luke, Jesus is explicitly described as compassionate, using this term (splagxni/zw). Itʼs hard to imagine, then, why they both, independently of one another, would have omitted the term from the present account if they had found it in Mark.
What about the other option? What if both Matthew and Luke read in Markʼs Gospel that Jesus became angry? Would they have been inclined to eliminate that emotion? There are in fact other occasions in which Jesus becomes angry in Mark. In each instance, Matthew and Luke have modified the accounts. In Mark 3:5 Jesus looks around “with anger” (met) o)rgh=j) at those in the synagogue who were watching to see if heʼd heal the man with the withered hand. Luke has the verse almost the same as Mark, but he removes the reference to Jesusʼ anger. Matthew completely rewrites this section of the story and says nothing of Jesusʼ wrath. Similarly, in Mark 10:14 Jesus is aggravated at his disciples (different word: h)gana/kthsen) for not allowing people to bring their children to be blessed. Both Matthew and Luke have the story, often verbally the same, but both delete the reference to Jesusʼ anger (Matt 19:14; Luke 18:16).
In sum, Matthew and Luke have no qualms about describing Jesus as compassionate. But they never describe him as angry. In fact, whenever one of their sources, Mark, did so, they both independently rewrite the term out of their stories. Thus itʼs hard to understand why they would have removed splagxnisqei\j from the account of Jesusʼ healing of the leper but altogether easy to see why they might have wanted to remove o)rgisqei/j. Combined with the circumstance that the term is attested in a very ancient stream of our manuscript tradition and that scribes would have been unlikely to have created it out of the much more readily comprehensible splagxnisqei\j, it is becoming increasingly evident that Mark in fact described Jesus as angry when approached by the leper to be healed.
But one other issue must be emphasized before moving on. Iʼve indicated that whereas Matthew and Luke have difficulty ascribing anger to Jesus, Mark has no problems at all doing so. I should point out that even in the present story, apart from the textual problem of v. 41, Jesus does not treat this poor leper with kid gloves. After he heals him, he “severely rebukes him” and “throws him out.” These are literal renderings of the Greek words that are usually softened in translation. But they are harsh terms, used elsewhere in Mark always in contexts of violent conflict and aggression (e.g., when Jesus casts out demons). Itʼs difficult to see why Jesus would harshly upbraid this person and cast him out if he feels compassion for him; but if he is angry, perhaps it makes better sense.
At what, though, would Jesus be angry? This is where the relationship of text and interpretation becomes critical. Some scholars who have preferred o)rgisqei/j (becoming angry) in this passage have come up with highly improbable interpretations, usually, in fact, with the goal of exonerating the emotion and making Jesus look compassionate when in fact they realize that the text says he became angry. And so one commentator argues that Jesus is angry with the state of the world that is full of disease; in other words, he loves the sick but hates the sickness. Thereʼs no textual basis for the interpretation, but it does have the virtue of making Jesus look good. Another interpreter argues that Jesus is angry because this leprous person had been alienated from society, overlooking the facts that the text doesnʼt say anything about the man being an outsider and that even if it assumes he was, it would not have been the fault of Jesusʼ society but of the Law of God (specifically the book of Leviticus). Another argues that in fact that is what Jesus is angry about, that the Law of Moses forces this kind of alienation. This interpretation ignores the fact that at the conclusion of the passage (v. 44) Jesus affirms the law of Moses and urges the former leper to observe it.
All of these interpretations have in common the desire to exonerate Jesusʼ anger and the decision to bypass the text in order to do so. Should we opt to do otherwise, what might we conclude? It seems to me there are two options, one that focuses more heavily on the immediate literary context of the passage and the other on its broader context.
First, in terms of the more immediate context. How is one struck by the portrayal of Jesus in the opening part of Markʼs Gospel? Bracketing for a moment our own pre-conceptions of who Jesus was and simply reading this particular text, one has to admit that Jesus does not come off as the meek and mild, soft-featured, good shepherd of the stain-glassed window. Mark begins his Gospel by portraying Jesus as a physically and charismatically powerful authority figure who is not to be messed with. He is introduced by a wildman prophet in the wilderness; he is cast out from society to do battle in the wilderness with Satan and the wild beasts; he returns to call for urgent repentance in the face of the imminent coming of the judgment of God; he rips his followers away from their families; he overwhelms his audiences with his authority; he rebukes and overpowers demonic forces that can completely subdue mere mortals; he refuses to accede to popular demand, ignoring people who plead to have an audience with him. The only story in this opening chapter of Mark that hints at personal compassion is the healing of the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, sick in bed. But even that compassionate interpretation may be open to question. Some observers have wryly noted that after Jesus dispels her fever, she rises to serve them, presumably bringing them their evening meal.
Is it possible that Jesus is being portrayed in the opening scenes of this Gospel as a powerful figure with a strong will and an agenda of his own, a charismatic authority who doesnʼt like to be disturbed? It would certainly make sense of his response to the healed leper, whom he harshly rebukes and then casts out.
There is another explanation, though. For as Iʼve indicated, Jesus does get angry elsewhere in this Gospel. The next time it happens is in chapter 3, which involves, strikingly, another healing story. Here Jesus is explicitly said to be angry at Pharisees, who think that he has no authority to heal the man with the crippled hand on the Sabbath.
In some ways an even closer parallel comes in a story in which Jesusʼ anger is not explicitly mentioned but is nonetheless evident. In Mark 9, when Jesus comes down from the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, he finds a crowd around his disciples and a desperate man in their midst, whose son is possessed by a demon, and who explains the situation to Jesus and then appeals to him: “If you are able, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus fires back an angry response, “If you are able? Everything is possible to the one who believes.” The man grows even more desperate and pleads, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Jesus then casts out the demon.
What is striking in these stories is that Jesusʼ evident anger erupts when someone doubts his willingness, ability, or divine authority to heal. Maybe this in fact is what is involved in the story of the leper. As in the story of Mark 9, someone approaches Jesus gingerly to ask: “If you are willing you are able to heal me.” Jesus becomes angry. Of course heʼs willing, just as he is able and authorized. He heals the man and, still somewhat miffed, rebukes him sharply and throws him out.
Thereʼs a completely different feel to the story, given this way of construing it, a construal based on establishing the text as Mark appears to have written it. Mark, in places, portrays an angry Jesus.
Luke 22:43-44 and the Imperturbable Jesus
Unlike Mark, Luke never explicitly states that Jesus becomes angry. In fact, here Jesus never appears to become disturbed at all, in any way. Rather than the angry Jesus, Luke portrays an imperturbable Jesus. There is only one passage in this entire Gospel where Jesus appears to lose his composure. And that, interestingly enough, is a passage whose authenticity is hotly debated among textual scholars.
The passage occurs in the context of Jesusʼ prayer on the Mount of Olives prior to his betrayal and arrest (Luke 22:39-46). After enjoining his disciples to “pray, lest you enter into temptation,” Jesus leaves them, bows to his knees, and prays, “Father, if it be your will, remove this cup from me. Except not my will, but yours be done.” In a large number of manuscripts the prayer is followed by the account, found nowhere else among our Gospels, of Jesusʼ heightened agony and so-called “bloody sweat”: “And an angel from heaven 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” (vv. 43-44). The scene closes with Jesus rising from prayer and returning to his disciples to find them asleep. He then repeats his initial injunction for them to “pray, lest you enter into temptation.” Immediately Judas arrives with the crowds, and Jesus is arrested.
One of the intriguing features about the debate over this passage is the balance of arguments back and forth over whether the disputed verses were written by Luke or were instead inserted by a later scribe. The manuscripts that are known to be earliest and that are generally conceded to be the best do not, as a rule, include the verses. So perhaps they are a later scribal addition. On the other hand, they are found in several other early witnesses and are, on the whole, widely distributed throughout the entire manuscript tradition.
So, were they added by scribes who wanted them in or deleted by scribes who wanted them out? Itʼs hard to say on the basis of the manuscripts themselves.
Some scholars have proposed that we consider other features of the verses to help us decide. Adolph von Harnack, for example, claimed that the vocabulary and style of the verses are distinctively Lukan: e.g., appearances of angels are common in Luke, and several words and phrases found in the passage occur in Luke and nowhere else in the New Testament (such the verb for “strengthen”). The argument hasnʼt proved convincing to everyone, however, since most of these “characteristically Lukan” ideas, constructions, and phrases are either formulated in uncharacteristically Lukan ways (e.g., angels never appear without speaking in Luke) or are common in Jewish and Christian texts outside of the New Testament. Moreover, there is an inordinately high concentration of unusual words and phrases in these verses: three of its key words, for example (agony, sweat, and drops) occur nowhere else in Luke or Acts. At the end of the day, itʼs difficult to decide about these verses on the basis of their vocabulary and style.
And so we need to turn to other kinds of arguments. In the early 1980ʼs I wrote an article on the problem with Mark Plunkett, a friend of mine in graduate school. There we developed an argument that proved to be convincing, at least to the two of us. It has to do with the literary structure of the passage. In a nutshell, the passage appears to be deliberately structured as a kind of chiasmus:
- tells his disciples to “pray lest you enter into temptation” (v. 40). He then
- leaves them (v. 41a) and
- kneels to pray (v. 41b). The center of the pericope is
- Jesusʼ prayer itself, a prayer bracketed by his two requests that Godʼs will be done (v 42). Jesus then
- rises from prayer (v. 45a),
- returns to his disciples (v. 45b), and
- finding them asleep, once again addresses them in the same words, telling them to “pray lest you enter into temptation” (vv. 45c-46).
One of the reasons I like this argument, which, Iʼm sorry to admit, Plunkett came up with, is that, contrary to the claims of some scholars, chiasmus is a relatively rare phenomenon within the pages of the New Testament. This means that when a clear instance of its use does occur, one must do something with it — either deny its presence or its significance, or admit that an author has employed a literary device in order to contribute to his overall purpose. In this case the chiasmus is nearly impossible to overlook.
But the mere presence of this structure is not really the point. The point is how the chiasmus contributes to the meaning of the passage. The story is bracketed by the two injunctions to the disciples to pray so as to avoid entering into temptation. Prayer of course has long been recognized as a Lukan theme; here it comes into special prominence. For at the very center of the pericope is Jesusʼ own prayer, a prayer that expresses his desire, bracketed by his greater desire that the Fatherʼs will be done (vv. 41c-42). As the center of the chiastic structure, this prayer supplies the passageʼs point of focus and, correspondingly, its hermeneutical key. This is a lesson on the importance of prayer in the face of temptation. The disciples, despite Jesusʼ repeated injunction to pray, fall asleep instead. Immediately the crowd comes to arrest Jesus. And what happens? The disciples, who have failed to pray, do “enter into temptation”; they flee the scene, leaving Jesus to face his fate alone. What about Jesus, the one who has prayed before the coming of his trial? When the crowds arrive he calmly submits to his Fatherʼs will, yielding himself up to the martyrdom that has been prepared for him.
Lukeʼs Passion narrative, as has long been recognized, is a story of Jesusʼ martyrdom, a martyrdom that functions, as do many others, to set an example to the faithful of how to remain firm in the face of death. Lukeʼs martyrology shows that only prayer can prepare one to die.
What happens though when the disputed verses are injected into the pericope? On the literary level, the chiasmus that focuses the passage on Jesusʼ prayer is absolutely destroyed. Now the center of the passage, and hence its focus, shifts to Jesusʼ agony, an agony so terrible as to require a supernatural visitant for strength to bear it. It is significant that in this longer version of the story Jesusʼ prayer does not effect the calm assurance that he exudes throughout the rest of the account; indeed, it is after he prays “yet more fervently” that his sweat takes on the appearance of great drops of blood falling to the ground. The point is not simply that a nice literary structure has been lost, but that the entire focus of attention shifts to Jesus in deep and heart-rending agony and in need of miraculous intervention.
This in itself may not seem like an insurmountable problem, until one realizes that in fact nowhere else in Lukeʼs Gospel is Jesus portrayed in this way. In fact, quite to the contrary, Luke has gone to great lengths to counter precisely the view of Jesus that these verses embrace. Rather than entering his passion with fear and trembling, in anguish over his coming fate, the Jesus of Luke goes to his death calm and in control, confident of his Fatherʼs will until the very end. It is a striking fact, of particular relevance to our textual problem, that Luke could produce this image of Jesus only by eliminating traditions offensive to it from his sources (e.g., the Gospel according to Mark). Only the longer text of 22:43-44 stands out as anomalous.
A simple redactional comparison with Mark in the story at hand can prove instructive in this regard. For Luke has completely omitted Markʼs statement that Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated” (Mark 14:33), as well as Jesusʼ own comment to his disciples, “My soul is deeply troubled, even unto death” (Mark 14:34). Rather than falling to the ground in anguish (Mark 14:35), Lukeʼs Jesus bows to his knees (Luke 22:41). In Luke, Jesus does not ask that the hour might pass from him (cf. Mark 14:35); and rather than praying three times for the cup to be removed (Mark 14:36, 39, 41), he asks only once (Luke 22:42), prefacing his prayer, only in Luke, with the important condition, “If it be your will.” And so, while Lukeʼs source, the Gospel of Mark, portrays Jesus in anguish as he prays in the garden, Luke has completely remodeled the scene to show Jesus at peace in the face of death. The only exception is the account of Jesus “bloody sweat,” an account absent from our earliest and best witnesses. Why would Luke have gone to such lengths to eliminate Markʼs portrayal of an anguished Jesus if in fact Jesusʼ anguish were the point of his story?
Luke in fact does not share Markʼs understanding that Jesus was in anguish, bordering on despair. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in their subsequent accounts of Jesusʼ crucifixion. Mark portrays Jesus as silent on his path to Golgotha. His disciples have all fled; even the faithful women look on only “from a distance.” All those present deride him—passers by, Jewish leaders, and both robbers. Markʼs Jesus has been beaten, mocked, deserted, and forsaken, not just by his followers but finally by God himself. His only words in the entire proceeding come at the very end, when he cries aloud, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?).” He then utters a loud cry and dies.
This portrayal, again, stands in sharp contrast with what we find in Luke. For here, Jesus is far from silent, and when he speaks, he shows that he is still in control, trustful of God his Father, confident of his fate, concerned for the fate of others. En route to his crucifixion, seeing a group of women bewailing his misfortune, Jesus tells them not to weep for him, but for themselves and their children, because of the disaster that is soon to befall them (23:27-31). When being nailed to the cross, rather than being silent, he prays to God, “Father, forgive them, for they donʼt know what they are doing” (23:34). While on the cross, in the throes of his passion, Jesus engages in an intelligent conversation with one of the robbers crucified beside him, assuring him that they will be together that day in paradise. Most telling of all, rather than uttering his pathetic cry of dereliction at the end, Lukeʼs Jesus, in full confidence of his standing before God, commends his soul to his loving Father: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (24:46).
It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of these redactional changes for our textual problem. At no point in Lukeʼs passion narrative does Jesus lose control, never is he in deep and debilitating anguish over his fate. He is in charge of his own destiny, he knows what he must do and what will happen to him once he does it. This is a man who is at peace with himself and tranquil in the face of death.
What then shall we say about our disputed verses? These are the only verses in the entire Gospel that undermine this clear portrayal. Only here does Jesus agonize over his coming fate; only here does he appear out of control, unable to bear the burden of his destiny. Why would Luke have totally eliminated all remnants of Jesusʼ agony elsewhere if he meant to emphasize it in yet stronger terms here? Why remove compatible material from his source, both before and after the verses in question? It appears that the account of Jesusʼ “bloody-sweat” is a secondary incursion into his Gospel.
Why did a scribe add them to his copy of Luke? This is a topic I will take up in my next lecture. For the purpose of the present lecture, it is enough to note that Luke himself evidently didnʼt write them.
Heb. 2:9: The Forsaken Jesus
Lukeʼs portrayal of Jesus stands in contrast not only with that of Mark, but also of other NT authors, including the unknown author of the epistle to the Hebrews, who appears to presuppose knowledge of passion traditions in which Jesus was terrified in the face of death and died with no divine succor or support, as can be seen in the resolution of one of the most interesting textual problems of the NT.
The problem occurs in a context that describes the eventual subjugation of all things to Jesus, the Son of Man:
For when [God] subjects to him all things, he leaves nothing that is not subjected to him. But we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we do see Jesus, who, having been made for a little while lower than the angels, was crowned with glory and honor on account of his suffering of death, so that [by the grace of God/apart from God] he might taste death for everyone. [Heb 2:8-9]
Although almost all of the surviving manuscripts state that Jesus died for all people “by the grace of God” (xa/riti qeou=), a couple of others state, instead, that he died “apart from God” (xwri\j qeou=). There are good reasons for thinking that this, however, was the original reading of the epistle to the Hebrews.
I donʼt have time to go into the intricacies of the manuscript support of the reading, except to say that even though it occurs only in two documents of the tenth century (0121b 1739), one of these is known to have been produced from a copy that was at least as ancient as our earliest papyri. Of yet greater interest, the early 3rd century scholar Origen tell us that this was the reading of the majority of manuscripts of his own day. Other evidence also suggests its early popularity: it was found in manuscripts known to Ambrose and Jerome in the Latin West, and it is quoted by a range of ecclesiastical writers down to the eleventh century.
When one turns from external to internal evidence, there can be no doubt concerning the superiority of this poorly attested variant. We have already seen that scribes were far more likely to make a reading that was hard to understand easier, rather than to make an easy reading harder. This variant provides a textbook case of the phenomenon. Christians in the early centuries commonly regarded Jesusʼ death as the supreme manifestation of Godʼs grace. But to say that Jesus died “apart from God” could be taken to mean any number of things, most of them unpalatable. Since scribes must have created one of these readings out of the other, there is little question concerning which of the two is more likely the corruption.
But was the corruption deliberate? Advocates of the more common text (xa/riti qeou=) have naturally had to claim that the change was not made on purpose (otherwise their favored text would almost certainly be the modification). By virtue of necessity, then, they have devised alternative scenarios to explain the origin of the more difficult reading. Most commonly itʼs simply supposed that since the words in question are so similar in appearance (xariti / xwris), a scribe inadvertently mistook the word “grace” for the preposition “apart from.”
This view, though, seems a shade unlikely. Is a negligent or absent-minded scribe likely to have changed his text by writing a word used less frequently in the New Testament (“apart from”) or one used more frequently (“grace,” four times as common)? Is he likely to have created a phrase that never occurs elsewhere in the New Testament (“apart from God”) or one that occurs over twenty times (“by the grace of God”)? Is he likely to produce a statement, even by accident, that is bizarre and troubling or one that is familiar and easy? Surely itʼs the latter: readers typically confuse unusual words for common ones and make simple what is complex, especially when their minds have partially strayed. Thus even a theory of carelessness supports the less attested reading.
The most popular theory for those who think that the phrase xwri\j qeou=, apart from God, is not original is that the reading was created as a marginal note: a scribe read in Heb. 2:8 that “all things” are to be subjected to the lordship of Christ, but he wanted it to be clear, based on his knowledge of 1 Cor 15:27, that this did not include God the Father. To protect the text from misconstrual, the scribe then inserted an explanatory note in the margin, pointing out that nothing is left unsubjected to Christ, “except for God” (xwri\j qeou=). This note was subsequently transferred into the text of a manuscript.
Despite the popularity of the solution, it strikes me as too clever by half, and requires too many dubious steps to work. There is no manuscript that attests both readings in the text (i.e., the correction in the margin or text of v. 8, where it would belongs, and the original text of v. 9). Moreover, if a scribe thought that the note was a marginal correction, why did he find it in the margin next to v. 8 rather than v. 9? Finally, if the scribe who created the note had done so in reference to 1 Corinthians, would he not have written e)kto\j qeou=?
In sum, it is extremely difficult to account for xwri\j qeou= if xa/riti qeou= was the original reading of Heb. 2:9. At the same time, while a scribe could scarcely be expected to have said that Christ died “apart from God,” there is every reason to think that this is precisely what the author of Hebrews said. For this less attested reading is also more consistent with the theology of Hebrews. Never in this entire epistle does the word grace (xa/rij) refer to Jesusʼ death or to the salvific benefits that accrue as a result of it. Instead, it is consistently connected with the gift of salvation that is yet to be bestowed upon the believer by the goodness of God (see esp. Heb. 4:16; also 10:29; 12:15; 13:25). To be sure, Christians historically have been more influenced by other New Testament authors, notably Paul, who saw Jesusʼ sacrifice on the cross as the supreme manifestation of the grace of God. But Hebrews does not use the term in this way, even though scribes who identified this author as Paul may not have realized it.
On the other hand, the statement that Jesus died “apart from God”—enigmatic when made in isolation—makes compelling sense in its broader literary context. Whereas this author never refers to Jesusʼ death as a manifestation of divine “grace,” he repeatedly emphasizes that Jesus died a fully human, shameful death, totally removed from the realm whence he came, the realm of God; his sacrifice, as a result, was accepted as the perfect expiation for sin. Moreover, God did not intervene in his passion and did nothing to minimize his pain. Thus, for example, Heb. 5:7 speaks of Jesus, in the face of death, beseeching God with loud cries and tears. In 12:2 he is said to endure the “shame” of his death, not because God sustained him, but because he hoped for vindication. Throughout this epistle, Jesus is said to experience human pain and death, like other humans “in every respect.” His was not an agony attenuated by special dispensation.
Yet more significantly, this is a major theme of the immediate context of Heb. 2:9, which emphasizes that Christ lowered himself below the angels to share fully in blood and flesh, experience human sufferings, and die a human death. To be sure, his death is known to bring salvation, but the passage says not a word about Godʼs grace as manifest in Christʼs work of atonement. It focuses instead on christology, on Christʼs condescension into the transitory realm of suffering and death. It is as a full human that Jesus experienced his passion, apart from any succor that might have been his as an exalted being. The work he began at his condescension he completes in his death, a death that had to be “apart from God.”
How is it that the reading xwri\j qeou=, which can scarcely be explained as a scribal corruption, conforms to the linguistic preferences, style, and theology of the epistle to the Hebrews, while the alternative reading xa/riti qeou=, which would have caused scribes no difficulties at all, stands at odds both with what Hebrews says about the death of Christ and with the ways it says it? Heb. 2:9 appears originally to have said that Jesus died “apart from God,” forsaken, much as he is portrayed in the passion narrative of Markʼs Gospel.
Let me take just one minute and 24 seconds to sum up what we have discovered. Establishing what an author wrote is an indispensible first step to determining what he or she meant. Within the pages of the New Testament there are textual variations that have not yet been satisfactorily resolved and that have profound effects, not just on a word here or there, but on the entire meaning of entire books and their portrayals of Jesus, e.g., the angry Jesus of Mark, the imperturbable Jesus of Luke, and the forsaken Jesus of Hebrews. These textual problems cannot simply be swept under the table and ignored. Commentators, interpreters, preachers, and general readers of the Bible must recognize their existence and realize the stakes involved in solving them.
But there is far more to the textual tradition of the New Testament than merely establishing what its authors actually wrote. There is also the question of why these words came to be changed, and how these changes affect the meanings of their writings. This question of the modification of Scripture in the early Christian church will be the subject of my next lecture, as I try to show how scribes who were not altogether satisfied with what the New Testament books said modified their words, to make them more clearly support orthodox Christianity and more vigorously oppose Jews, pagans, heretics, and women.
© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 2000.
Text and Tradition: The Role of New Testament Manuscripts in Early Christian Studies
The Kenneth W. Clark Lectures
Duke Divinity School, 1997
Lecture Two: Text and Transmission: The Historical Significance of the “Altered” Text
Bart D. Ehrman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
For most of its practitioners, the ultimate goal of textual criticism has been to reconstruct the original text of the New Testament. This conception of the field was exemplified in the work of Fenton John Anthony Hort, arguably the most brilliant mind to apply himself to the task, who focused his labors on a solitary objective: “to present exactly the original words of the New Testament, so far as they can now be determined from surviving documents.” Hort construed this task in entirely negative terms: “nothing more than the detection and rejection of error.”
No historian or exegete would deny the desirability of this objective; the words of an ancient author must be established before they can be interpreted. This became clear, I hope, in my last lecture, as I showed how the resolution of a textual problem can significantly affect exegesis, for example, by highlighting Markʼs portrayal of Jesus as an angry man, Lukeʼs portrayal of him as imperturbable, and the epistle to the Hebrewsʼ portrayal of him as forsaken.
Nonetheless, for textual scholars a century after Hort to continue being obsessed exclusively with the “original” text is, in my judgment, completely myopic. For the manuscript tradition of the New Testament provides us with much more than remnants of the New Testament autographs; it also gives us scribal changes of the text—changes that may be of significance in and of themselves for what they can tell us about the theological and social investments of the scribes who made them and, correspondingly, about the theological and socio-historical contexts within which they worked. When viewed in this way, variant readings are not merely chaff to be discarded en route to the original text—as they were for Hort; they are instead valuable evidence for the history of the early Christian movement.
The historian of early Christianity shares a fundamental problem with all other historians of antiquity: our sources are frustratingly sparse. Moreover, the sources that have survived tend to be the literary remains of the cultured elite, which may or may not tell us what other, non-elites were thinking or experiencing. Our New Testament manuscripts were themselves, of course, produced by literate persons; but these anonymous scribes were not necessarily, or even probably, literary, in the sense of being among the most highly educated and cultured in their societies. If the changes that these unnamed copyists made in their reproductions are studied with sufficient care and with the right questions, they may provide a gold mine of information about the thoughts and experiences of late antique Christians who were not among the literary elite. Remarkably, this is a gold mine that has rarely been tapped.
Let me begin to illustrate the potential of this kind of approach to our textual tradition by picking up on the three variant readings that I examined in my previous lecture. I will start with the ones found in Luke and Hebrews, as these illustrate well the ways in which the theological controversies of early Christianity made an impact on the scriptural texts that were being used by various sides in the debates.
Theological Modifications of the Text
We saw last time that Luke 22:43-44, verses found in some manuscripts but not others, present the familiar story of Jesus in agony before his arrest, sweating great drops as if of blood, and being strengthened by an angel from heaven. I showed that these verses did not originally belong to Lukeʼs Gospel but were inserted by a scribe or scribes in the second century. But why were they inserted? Was it simply because scribes found the story interesting or edifying? While this is, of course, possible, there may have been something far more significant going on. In fact, there are reasons to think that the verses were interpolated into the Gospel precisely because they portray so well a human Jesus, one who agonizes over his coming fate to the point of needing supernatural succor, an agony so deep as to cause him to sweat great drops as if of blood.
In the second century, there were a number of Christians who maintained that since Jesus was fully divine, he could not be human. Included in their number were Marcion and members of several groups of Gnostics. Their opponents called these “heretics” docetists, from the Greek word doke/w (to seem or to appear), since these persons maintained that Jesus only “seemed” or “appeared” to be human.
This was a serious and heated controversy in the second century, as it affected profoundly the churchʼs entire understanding of the nature of Christ. If the solution to that question seems obvious today, we should surely reflect on the fact that one side eventually won the debate and then wrote the history of the conflict. In any event, in view of this controversy, it is worth observing how the verses in question were used in the sources that first attest them. They occur three times in the writings of anti-heretical, proto-orthodox church fathers of the second century: Justin, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus. Remarkably, in all three cases they are cited to the same end, to counter any notion Jesus was not a real flesh and blood human being. Justin, for example, argues that Jesusʼ bloody sweat shows “that the Father wished His Son really to undergo such sufferings for our sakes, so that we “may not say that He, being the Son of God, did not feel what was happening to Him and inflicted on Him” (Dial. 103). What is interesting in this case is that we do not need to hypothesize the usefulness of these verses for an anti-docetic polemic; we know that the verses were put to precisely this use during the second-century and that that is when the account came to be inserted into the third Gospel; scribes who did so may well have been reflecting the anti-docetic concerns of their own communities.
We might hypothesize a somewhat different motivation behind the modification of Hebrews 2:9. If you recall, in that passage Jesus was said to have died “apart from God.” Early in the second century, however, scribes began to change the word “apart” (xwri\j in Greek) to a word similar in appearance xa/riti, “grace,” so that now Jesus is said to have died “by the grace” of God. Even though this change may have been made by accident, it carries such a significantly different meaning that one might suspect that scribes knew full well what they were doing when they made it. On the one hand, one could probably argue that these anonymous copyists simply couldnʼt understand what it might mean to say that Jesus died “apart from God” and so changed it to say something that made better sense; but, on the other hand, it may be that they knew full well what the text meant and that they knew how some Christians were interpreting it. If this is so, then the offending parties would not have been groups of docetists, but, possibly, other kinds of Gnostics who had a different view of Jesus.
For in fact, most Gnostics did not maintain that Jesus was fully God and not human (the docetic view); they instead claimed that Jesus Christ was two separate beings, one human (the man Jesus) and the other divine (the heavenly Christ). As the heretic-fighter Irenaeus explains, these Gnostics maintained that when Jesus was baptized, the Christ descended upon him as a dove and entered into him, empowering him for his ministry. Then, at some point prior to his death, the Christ, who could not suffer, departed from him. Thatʼs why, according to some Gnostics, Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you left me behind?” For them, thatʼs exactly what had happened, when the divine Christ made his exit. For these gnostic Christians, Jesus literally did die “apart from God.”
We know that the scribal alteration of the text of Heb 2:9 occurred precisely during the time that the controversy between proto-orthodox Christians and Gnostics was raging. It is not at all implausible to think that it was just this controversy then that led to the modification of this text, that proto-orthodox scribes, who shared the christological views of Irenaeus, modified the text so that Gnostics could not use it as a scriptural warrant for saying that Jesus died “apart from God,” since the divine Christ had already left him.
This would not be the only verse that was altered out of anti-gnostic concerns. Just to take one other similar example before moving on to other kinds of scribal changes, we might consider the cry of dereliction that Iʼve just mentioned from Mark 15:34, where Jesus breaks the silence he has maintained throughout the entire crucifixion scene by crying out, in Aramaic: elwi elwi lema sabaxqani, a quotation of Ps 22:2, for which the author supplies the Greek translation of the LXX, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
As Iʼve already intimated, at stake in the Gnostic controversy was the meaning of the Greek verb in this verse, e)gkate/lipej, literally, “left behind.” The proto-orthodox took it to mean “forsake” and argued that because Christ had taken the sins of the world upon himself, he felt forsaken by God; the Gnostics, on the other hand, understood the word in its more literal sense, so that for them, Jesus was lamenting the departure of the divine Christ: “My God, my God, why have you left me behind?”
This is clearly the interpretation given by the gnostic Gospel of Philip, which quotes the verse before explaining that “It was on the cross that Jesus said these words, for it was there that he was divided.” The words appear to be construed similarly in their reformulation in the Gospel of Peter, where on the cross Jesus cries out, “My power, O power, you have left me.”
Until recently, scholars have failed to recognize how this controversy over the meaning of Jesusʼ last words in Mark relates to a famous textual problem of the verse. For in some manuscripts, rather than crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the dying Jesus cries “My God, my God, why have you reviled me?”
The witnesses that support this reading indicate that it was in wide circulation already in the second century. But it has proved very difficult for scholars to imagine that it was the original reading of Mark, for lots of reasons that I donʼt need to go into here. Assuming that Markʼs Jesus cried out “why have you forsaken me,” why would some scribes have changed it to “why have you reviled me”? Surely itʼs not unrelated to fact that Gnostics were using the verse to support their separationist christology. For them, Jesusʼ despair at being “left behind” by God demonstrated that the Christ had separated from him and returned into the Pleroma, leaving him to die alone. The change, then, may have been made to circumvent the “misuse” of the text, and naturally suggested itself from the context. Just as Jesus was reviled by his opponents, those for whom he died, so too he bore the reproach of God himself, for whose sake he went to the cross in the first place.
Variations such as this, that relate in one way or another to the early christological controversies, have been studied at some length in recent years. The same cannot be said about variants that relate to other kinds of issues confronting Christian scribes of the second and third centuries. There are a number of fruitful avenues of exploration, just begging for intelligent attention. We can begin by looking at variants involving the apologetic concerns of early Christianity.
To do so, we should return to the third variant that I considered in my previous lecture, Mark 1:41, where Mark indicates that Jesus became angry when approached by a leper who wanted to be healed. Scribes changed the text so that Jesus was no longer said to become angry, but was moved by compassion. This kind of change is also, roughly speaking, christological, in that it pertains to the portrayal of Jesus. But it is hard to understand the change in relation to any of the christological controversies known to be raging during the time it was made, the second century. So perhaps we should look for some other context within which to situate it.
Again, itʼs possible that scribes simply couldnʼt figure out why Jesus would get angry at this poor fellow and so changed the text to make his response more appropriate. But could something else have motivated the change? To my knowledge, no one has considered the possibility that the change was made in light of another kind of controversy second-century Christians were embroiled in, this time not with “heretics,” that is, Christians who took different theological positions, but with pagan opponents of Christianity.
In the second half of the second century, when this text appears to have been altered, pagan critics started to take notice of the burgeoning Christian movement and began to write vitriolic attacks on it, labeling it a mindless superstition comprised of uneducated bumpkins, who followed the teachings of a rural nobody who was executed for crimes against the state. This was also the time when Christianity began to find real intellectuals among its converts, who began to write scholarly defenses, or apologies, on behalf of the faith.
None of the early pagan critics of Christianity was as thorough and penetrating as the late-second century Celsus, and none of its defenders was as brilliant as Celsusʼs posthumous opponent, Origen. In the five books of his work, Against Celsus, Origen quotes at length from the attack of Celsus on Christianity and defends the religion and its founder against the charges leveled against it.
I do not wish to say that this particular verse, Mark 1:41, figured prominently in Celsusʼ attack or in Origenʼs defense. But the issues involved are perhaps of relevance. Celsus maintained that Jesus was not the Son of God but was a poor, lower-class, uneducated peasant who did his miracles through the power of magic. Origen, writing 70 years later, tried to show that Jesus was not a purveyor of the magical arts but was the son of God himself come to earth for the betterment of the human race. To mount his defense, Origen establishes some common ground with Celsus: anyone who is a true son of God will do what he does for the common good,to improve the lot of humanity, to resolve suffering, and to work for moral reformation. Both the goals of Jesusʼ miraculous deeds and the character of his person are at stake here, as they evidently were for other pagan opponents and Christian apologists.
In a context in which pagan critics are maligning the person of Jesus, what might one think of a scribe who modifies the scriptural accounts that describe his character? If we find a text in which Jesus, for no obvious reason, becomes angry at someone in desperate need, and see that scribes have changed it so that he reacts in a way more appropriate for the kindly divine presence on earth, being moved by compassion instead of filled with wrath, is it not possible that the alteration has been motivated precisely by the pagan attacks on Jesusʼ character? At this stage I throw it out merely as a suggestion; it is at least worth further investigation.
And other variants in our tradition may be worth considering in a similar light. Take, for example, the well known description of Jesus in Mark 6:3. In this passage, Jesus has returned to his hometown with his disciples, and preaches in the synagogue with a brilliance that astounds his hearers, who say, “What is the wisdom given to this one, and such powers have come through his hands. Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Juda, and Simon?”
This is the only passage in the New Testament that describes Jesus as a carpenter. The word, in fact, may not actually signify what we think of as a carpenter; it is true that in the second century author, Justin, Jesus was said to have made yokes and gates (?), but the Greek word tektwn can refer to a number of different occupations, including metal smiths and stone masons. In any event, the term typically refers to a person who works with the hands, a lower-class blue-collar worker; we possibly get a comparable “feel” from our term “construction worker.”
No where else is Jesus called a tektwn in the New Testament; the other Synoptics independently change the passage; in Matthew the crowd asks, “is this not the son of the tektwn,” and in Luke, somewhat similarly, “Is this not the son of Joseph.” In both Gospels a particularly acute irony is thereby created, since Matthew and Luke each explicitly indicate that Jesusʼ mother was a virgin at his birth so that Joseph is not his father; the crowd obviously doesnʼt really know the first thing about him, despite their presumed familiarity, and the reader notes their ignorance. The irony is not possible in Mark, however, which says not a word about Jesusʼ virginal conception.
What is of particular interest for our purposes here is that this description of Jesus as a tektwn in Mark has been changed by some scribes, so that now, as in Matthew, Jesus is said to be the son of the tektwn rather than the tektwn himself. Some scholars have argued that this was in fact the original text in Mark, and that it got changed by scribes who were afraid that it might be taken to indicate that Jesus really was the son of Joseph, i.e., that he was not born of a virgin. This seems unlikely to me for a variety of reasons; for one thing, it doesnʼt explain why the explicit statements of Matthew and Luke, in which the crowds do say precisely this, were not also changed (and a change in those cases would have had the added benefit of resolving the apparent contradiction of the claim that he was Josephʼs son, when in fact he was not).
For this, and other reasons, it looks like Mark probably did describe Jesus as a tektwn. But why then did some copyists change it to say that he was the son of the tektwn? It may may be that they did so simply to bring Markʼs Gospel into closer harmony with the more commonly read Gospel of Matthew; but whenever a harmonistic change like this has occurred, we are well served in asking whether there is anything in particular that might have influenced a scribe to harmonize the texts, especially if no explicit contradiction occurs between them.
In this case it is particularly worth noting that the pagan critic Celsus does attack Jesusʼ character precisely because of his blue-collar associations, making fun of the Christiansʼ notion that a lowly day-laborer (tektwn) could be the Son of God himself [Cels. 6.36]. It is hard to tell whether Origenʼs reply to this charge is disingenuous, for he claims that in fact Jesus is never called a tektwn in the Gospels. Either Origen overlooked this passage (which is a bit hard to imagine, given his exhaustive knowledge of the Gospels) or the manuscripts available to him had themselves been changed. But why changed? Could it have been in order to circumvent precisely the problem that Celsus raises, that it describes Jesus, whom Christians acknowledge as the divine son of God, as a low-class construction worker?
Other changes in the text of the New Testament may be closely related to the apologetic concerns of second-century Christians, even though they have never been examined in this vein. Throughout the Mediterranean world at this time, for example, it was widely and naturally thought that anyone claiming to be divine could foretell the future, and that those who made errors in their predictions were, more or less obviously, somewhat wanting in their divine skills. Could this kind of “common-sense” have motivated scribes occasionally to modify passages that appear to compromise Jesusʼ omniscience?
The most famous instance comes in Matthew 24:36, where Jesus explicitly states that no one knows the day or the hour in which the end will come, not even the angels of heaven nor the son, but the father alone. A significant number of our manuscripts omit the phrase “not even the son.” The reason is not hard to postulate; if Jesus does not know the future, the Christian claim that he is divine is more than a little compromised.
A less obvious example comes three chapters later in Matthewʼs crucifixion scene. Weʼre told in Matt 27:34 that while on the cross Jesus was given wine to drink, mixed with gall, which he tasted. A large number of manuscripts, though, indicate that it was not wine that he was given, but vinegar. The change may have been made to conform the text more closely with the prooftext that was used to explain the action, Psalm 69:22; but one might wonder if something else is motivating the scribes as well. It is interesting to note that at his last supper, in 26:29, after distributing the cup of wine to his disciples, Jesus explicitly states that he will not drink wine again until he does so in the kingdom of the father. Is the change of 27:34 from wine to vinegar meant to safeguard that prediction?
Or consider the alteration to Jesusʼ prediction to the high priest at the Sanhedrin trial of Mark 14:62. When asked whether he is the Christ, the Son of the Blessed, Jesus replies, “I am, and you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Widely considered by modern scholars to embody or approximate an authentic saying of Jesus, these words have proved discomforting for many Christians since near the end of the first century. The son of man never did arrive on the clouds of heaven. Why then did Jesus predict that the high priest would himself see him come?
The answer may well be that Jesus actually thought that the high priest would see it, i.e., that it would happen within his lifetime. But, obviously, in the context of second-century apologetics, this could be taken as a false prediction. No wonder that one of our earliest witnesses to Mark modifies the verse by eliminating the offending words, so that now Jesus simply says that the high priest will see the son of man seated at the right hand of power with the clouds of heaven. No mention here, of an imminent parousia.
Jesus omniscience is safeguarded in other ways in yet other passages. A fairly obvious example occurs in Mark 2:26, in which Jesus wrongly claims that Abiathar was the high priest when David entered into the temple with his companions to eat the showbread. The incident as recorded in 1 Sam 21, and it is quite clear that it was not Abiathar, but his father Ahimelech, who was the high priest at the time. As one might expect, scribes have modified the text to remove Jesusʼ mistake; the reference to Abiathar is excised in several of our earlier manuscripts.
It is at least possible that these changes, and others like them, have been influenced by the apologetic concerns of early Christians. How many others are there? I have no idea and, Iʼm sorry to report, to my knowledge neither does anyone else. No one has undertaken a systematic investigation of the problem. But now we move on to another area of interest.
A Christian living in the second century would find him or herself almost automatically embroiled in a situation of conflict with non-Christian Jews, a conflict that involved different understandings of the role that Jesus played in the divine plan for the world and of the meaning of the Jewish Scriptures. I should point out that by no means was this conflict an even match; by around the year 100, the Christian church was still only a tiny fraction of the population of the Empire, unheard of by most of its other inhabitants, outnumbered by non-Christian Jews something like ten to one.
It was perhaps their threatened and defensive position that led Christians of the second century to use such vitriolic polemic in their discussions of their Jewish opponents. From the first half of the century, for example, we find the epistle of Barnabas claiming that Judaism is and always has been a false religion. The author argues that Israel had irrevocably broken Godʼs covenant, smashed it to bits, as shown, quite literally, by the story of the giving of the Law in the Old Testament itself, for when Moses comes down from Mount Sinai he sees the children of Israel engaged in wild and lawless activities and smashes to smithereens the two tablets of stone containing the ten commandments. And the covenant never was restored. That is why, he maintains, Israel misunderstood all of its own laws subsequently given to Moses. For in fact, the laws of circumcision and kosher foods and all the rest were never meant to be taken literally, but were symbolic expressions of Godʼs will, as has now been revealed in Christ.
Later in the second and third centuries we find other authors moving along a similar anti-Judaic path, authors like Justin in Rome who maintained that God commanded Jewish males to be circumcised not as a sign of his special favor, but in order to mark them off from the rest of the human race for special punishment; and authors like Tertullian and Origen, who claimed that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans at Godʼs own initiative, as a punishment upon the Jews for rejecting their own messiah. And we find the elegant if terrifying rhetoric of Melito of Sardis, whose Passover sermon provided an occasion to vent his own animosity towards the Jews.
Pay attention all families of the nations and observe! An extraordinary murder has taken place in the center of Jerusalem, in the city devoted to Godʼs law, in the city of the Hebrews, in the city of the prophets, in the city thought of as just. And who has been murdered? And who is the murderer? I am ashamed to give the answer, but give it I must… The one who hung the earth in space, is himself hanged; the one who fixed the heavens in place is himself impaled; the one who firmly fixed all things is himself firmly fixed to the tree. The Lord is insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been destroyed by the right hand of Israel (Paschal Homily, 94-96).
To my knowledge, this is the first instance in which a Christian author explicitly accuses the Jewish people of deicide in the death of Jesus.
How did the opposition to Jews and Judaism affect Christian scribes who were reproducing the texts of the New Testament? Many of the passages involved stood at the heart of the conflict, New Testament passages that detailed the Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus. Here I can do little more than cite a couple of instances.
As I pointed out in my first lecture, Markʼs powerful portrayal of Jesus going to his death in silence is modified by Luke, where, as he is being nailed to the cross, Jesus utters the memorable prayer, “Father forgive them, for they donʼt know what theyʼre doing.” Interestingly enough, Jesusʼ prayer is not found in every manuscript of Lukeʼs Gospel. Of the manuscripts that lack the verse some can be dated to about the year 200. In these witnesses, Jesus does not ask his father to forgive those who are doing this cruel thing to him.
The verse appears to be clearly Lukan, as it portrays Jesus calm and in control of his own destiny, concerned about the welfare and fate of others more than himself. At the same time, and perhaps yet more significantly, the verse contains a perspective that proved discomforting to early scribes. Many people today understand Jesusʼ prayer to be for those who were in the act of crucifying him, that is, the Roman soldiers. But throughout the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, written by the same author, those who are blamed for Jesusʼ crucifixion are consistently the Jewish people. Furthermore, and this is the really important point, we know from later writings of the church fathers that Jesusʼ prayer of forgiveness was typically understood to refer to the Jews who were to blame for his death.
This makes our textual situation very interesting. A verse that gives every indication of having come from the hand of the author of the Gospel is occasionally being deleted by scribes of the late second or early third century. During this time the verse is being construed as Jesusʼ prayer that God forgive the Jewish people. Moreover, it is precisely at this time that anti-Judaic sentiment is rising to a kind of crescendo, when Jews are being accused as Christ killers, as murderers of God, when Christians are claiming that the destruction of the holy city Jerusalem was Godʼs punishment of the Jews for the death of Jesus. For many Christians, God had not forgiven Jews for their rejection of Jesus. How then could Jesus have asked him to forgive them; and why would he have done so? Some Christian scribes evidently solved the problem of Jesusʼ prayer simply by excising it.
Other instances of this sort of scribal activity occur in modifications that heighten Jewish culpability for Jesusʼ death. As but one example, in the famous scene of Jesusʼ trial in Matthewʼs Gospel, we are told that Pilate washed his hands before the crowds and proclaimed that he was innocent of Jesusʼ blood. The crowds then replied, “His blood be on us and our children.” Pilate then had Jesus scourged and “delivered him up to be crucified.”
The passage has served as an incentive for anti-semitic sentiments and activities over the years, since the Jewish crowds here are said not only to have borne the responsibility for Jesusʼ death but also to have made their succeeding generations accountable for it. Whether Matthew intended a kind of anti-Judaic reading is much debated among exegetes. In any event, the textual history of the passage is quite interesting in light of its subsequent usage by anti-Jewish Christians. Whereas in the oldest available form of the text, Pilate hands Jesus over to his Roman guard for crucifixion, in some of our early manuscripts, after hearing the Jewish crowd accept responsibility for Jesusʼ death, Pilate “delivered Jesus over to them so that they might crucify him.” In these manuscripts, the Jews are fully responsible for Jesusʼ death.
Not only the guilt associated with Jesusʼ death, but also its salvific effect came to be modified in the hands of early Christian scribes. As but one quick example, we are told in the birth narrative of Matthewʼs Gospel that the newborn savior was to be called Jesus, a name that comes from the Hebrew word, Joshua, which means salvation, because he would “save his people from their sins.” Interestingly enough, at least one ancient scribe appears to have had difficulty with this notion of Jews being saved and so modified the angelic explication of Jesusʼ name. In this Syriac manuscript, Jesus is said to “save the world,” not his people, “from their sins.”
Other examples of such possibly anti-Judaic alterations of the text could be multiplied. How many such instances are there? Again, itʼs impossible to say; no one has rigorously pursued the question. Variants Involving the Oppression of Women
Over the course of the past twenty years or so, feminist historians have offered a number of compelling reconstructions of the history of early Christianity. In contrast, the historical narratives produced by white men have typically downplayed the role of women in the church, or more commonly, simply ignored their role altogether. It is certainly understandable how those trained in the standard European models of historiography may have overlooked the evidence for womenʼs actual, if not recorded, prominence in the early years of the Christian movement. The ancient records were themselves written almost entirely by men who no less than we were driven by ideological concerns in preserving descriptions of how things happened and at whose hands. By all counts, women are seriously under-represented in these ancient records.
And yet there are firm indications that women were quite active in the early Christian movement, that they were instrumental in its early development as a religion, that they probably comprised the majority of Christians in the early centuries, that at the outset they were widely granted positions of status and authority equal to that of men, and that only with the passing of time and the expansion of the movement did their voices come to be silenced. The evidence of the early prominence of women from the New Testament, especially the writings of Paul (e.g., Rom 16), is familiar to most of my audience, or at least easily accessible, and so I wonʼt recount it for you now. Perhaps I should emphasize, though, that womenʼs continuing prominence in some of the churches associated with Paul is attested in a number of places, such as the second-century apocryphal tales like the Acts of Thecla, in gnostic groups that claimed allegiance to Paul and that were known to have women as their leaders and spokespersons, and in such sectarian groups as that associated with the prophet Montanus and his two women colleagues Prisca and Maximillia—women who had evidently forsaken their marriages in order to live ascetic lives, insisting that the end of the age was near.
As is well known, not everyone in the early Christian movement was pleased with the important roles women played in the churches or the ideology that allowed them to do so. On the contrary, a good deal of the history of Christianity, including its early history, involved a movement to oppress women and to take away their voices, a movement spearheaded by those who believed that women should be in complete submission to men. The movement is already in evidence in the pseudonymous letters of Timothy and Titus that made it into the New Testament, letters allegedly written by Paul to male leaders of two of his churches, urging them to tend to the problems of their communities, including the problem of women, who were to be brought under subjection. Christian women were to be silent and submissive and sexually active with their spouses; those who wanted to enjoy the benefits of salvation were to recognize the superiority of their husbands, to keep quiet, and to produce babies (1 Tim 2:11-13).
How did the debates over the status of women affect the scribes who reproduced our texts? The first place to turn is a familiar passage that continues to play a prominent role in modern Christian debates over women in the church, 1 Cor. 14:35-36. Indeed, this is another passage commonly thought to show Paulʼs true misogynist colors, for here Paul appears to urge a view that is anything but egalitarian:
Let the women be silent in the churches For they are not permitted to speak but must be subordinate, just as the law says. But if they wish to learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
Iʼm sorry to say, especially for my fellow neutestamentlers, that I really have nothing new to say about this much worked over passage, except that the discussion over whether Paul actually wrote it ought to be situated in the context Iʼve just sketched of the early Christian oppression of women, rather than left in vacuous isolation as is more commonly done.
For those of you not as familiar with the problem, let me summarize the issues briefly. There are good reasons for thinking that a scribe inserted this passage into 1 Corinthians after it had already left Paulʼs hand and been in circulation for a time.
The evidence is not as compelling as some of the other cases we have examined, for the passage is found in all of our manuscripts of 1 Corinthians. Nonetheless, some of our Latin manuscripts situate these verses in a different location, placing them at the end of the chapter, after v. 40. One way to explain this kind of transposition is to assume that the passage originated as a marginal note that scribes later incorporated into the text itself, some scribes inserting it in one place and others in another. And indeed, there are strong arguments for thinking that this is exactly what happened in the present instance, for the verses appear intrusive in their immediate literary context and completely at odds with what Paul says about women elsewhere—including within 1 Corinthians itself.
In terms of the immediate context, this entire chapter addresses the issue of prophecy in the church. This is the topic of discussion up to v. 33, immediately before these verses, and the topic beginning again with vv. 36-37, immediately afterwards. The verses in question, however, go off on a different tangent, making them look intrusive.
Moreover, what the verses actually say stands in tension with Paulʼs own views—not only Gal 3:28, where he maintains that in Christ there is neither male nor female, but more puzzling still, even within the letter of 1 Corinthians itself. The present passage insists that women be silent, that they not be allowed to speak in church. But just three chapters earlier Paul endorsed the practice of women praying and prophesying in church, activities always done aloud in antiquity. How could he affirm the right of women to speak in chapter eleven and then deny them that right in chapter 14?
It could well be that he didnʼt deny them that right, but that a later author did so, a scribe who penned a marginal note in his manuscript of this letter, whose comments were later made part of the text itself. The note is remarkably close in tenor to the comments preserved pseudonymously in Paulʼs name by the author of the Pastoral epistles. It may well, then, represent a scribal attempt to understand Paul in light of the oppressive views advocated by the proto-orthodox Christians of a later generation.
Other passages of the New Testament are affected by this same tendency, although rarely in so striking a fashion. Here I might mention Rom 16:7, which identifies the woman Junia as one of the apostles: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and fellow prisoners, who are eminent among the apostles.” English Bible translators have gone out of their way to perform a sex change on Junia, by transforming her name into a masculine name that didnʼt exist in ancient Greek, Junias. These modern scholars may find solace in the precedent set by two of our earliest scribes, who by adding an article to the text allow it to be read differently: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives; and also greet my fellow prisoners who are eminent among the apostles.”
Two other quick examples from the book of Acts. In chapter 17, Paul is said to have converted several socially prominent women to the faith. One ancient copy of the passage, however, preserves a modification that celebrates the people who really count: now rather than calling these converts “women of prominence” they are unambiguously labeled “wives of prominent men.” A similar tendency is at work in the regular scribal tendency to transpose the names of two of the noteworthy companions of Paul, Priscilla and her husband Aquila, so that the husbandʼs name, in these modified manuscripts of the book of Acts, appears in its appropriately prior position.
There are other kinds of scribal modifications that we could look at along similar lines, if we chose—e.g., changes that reflect theological issues other than christology or alterations that appear to be related to the ascetic practices emerging in the early Christian movement. Like scribal changes related to apologetic, anti-Jewish, and anti-women views that were sweeping through many of the Christian churches of the second century, these kinds of modifications have been left virtually untouched by textual scholars.
My time is running rather short, however, and rather than pursue these lines of inquiry here, I would like to conclude by reflecting for a moment on a somewhat broader issue. I have been trying to make a couple of basic points in these two lectures; one of my major theses, though, has remained more or less hidden as a kind of subtext for them both. In my conclusion I would like to raise it to the level of consciousness. To some extent Iʼve wanted these lectures to show that even though itʼs not generally perceived this way, the study of the NT manuscripts can be both interesting and important for early Christian studies more generally.
I say that itʼs not generally perceived this way, and thatʼs perhaps a bit of an understatement. Most people, even most NT scholars, typically consider textual criticism to be an arcane subdiscipline of little interest to anyone residing outside the rare and occasionally endangered species of textual critics themselves. A lot of the fault for this perception lies with my colleagues in the field, who in fact are among the worst youʼll find anywhere at explaining why it is that what they do matters for anything, for example, for exegesis or historical reconstruction, let alone for the study of NT theology, the history of doctrine, or the social world of early Christianity.
No wonder that most of todayʼs NT scholars, by their own admission, are not capable of rendering independent judgments concerning textual variants preserved in the tradition (I except my NT colleagues here, by the way; and they will for the most part agree, I think, with my opinion on this point). It strikes me as a pity that most doctoral candidates in New Testament are not trained even to use the apparatus of the standard Greek text, the Nestle-Aland 27th ed., that most divinity school students are not taught the fundamental problems of the textual tradition that they are expected to teach or preach, and that most of the laypersons in the churches to which the graduates of divinity school go are left completely unaware of the problems of the texts of the books that they themselves revere as Scripture.
In any event, I hope Iʼve made a case for the fundamental importance of this kind of knowledge, and for why its continued neglect is not in anyoneʼs best interest. It shouldnʼt be left to a small coterie of specialists. Significant issues surrounding NT exegesis, the development of early Christian theology, and the social history of the early church are intricately connected with decisions concerning the texts of the books that came to be considered by Christians as sacred scripture. The oldest form of the text must be established before it can be interpreted, and the later alterations of this text reveal significant moments in the use of these texts during the theological and social conflicts of the first three or four centuries of the Christian church.
© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 2000.
Bart Ehrman, “The Use and Significance of Patristic Evidence for NT Textual Criticism.” In this article, Ehrman discusses the importance of patristic citations in various goals of textual criticism, some of which overlap with other disciplines.
Ehrman begins by talking about the value of patristic evidence in the effort to recover the original text. Though the evidence of the papyri is early (second and third centuries), it is limited to Egypt, he notes, whereas the fathers, many of whom are equally early, are much more diverse geographically, covering the entirety of the Roman Empire. He chooses Lk 3:22 as an example of the importance of looking at patristic evidence when making text-critical decisions. Many of the fathers substitute “today I have begotten you” for “in whom I am well pleased” in the words of the voice from heaven at Jesusʼ baptism. Ehrman points out that this reading of the fathers is both older and more geographically widespread that the other reading; furthermore, part of the motivation for the change might have been the desire to avoid the apparently adoptionistic statement of the text. Thus, patristic evidence provides strong support for what might very well be the original reading of a passage.
Patristic evidence also has much to contribute to the reconstruction of the history of the transmission of the New Testament text. Whereas early manuscripts can be neither dated nor located geographically with great precision (and the same is also true of the versions), the writings of particular church fathers can often be dated quite precisely, and their provenance can generally be narrowed down to a single city. It is informative, then, to see what kind of text the fathers cited. The prevalence of the Western text among the early fathers is particularly striking, Ehrman notes. For example, the text of the Gnostic Heracleon, as preserved in Origen (who himself usually presents an Alexandrian text), is often western, similar to Codex Bezae. Surveying the patristic evidence, Ehrman finds that the Western textual tradition, which was apparently strongly represented in Rome, was coterminous with the generally Alexandrian Egyptian papyri.
Ehrman, like Delobel, points out that textual evidence and the history of exegesis overlap, particularly, Ehrman notes, in the fathers. He makes the interesting and important point that almost no one read the texts in their original form. “The history of exegesis is the history of readers interpreting different forms of the text. For the historian of Christianity, it is important to know which form of the text was available to Christians in different times and places” (p. 127). Drawing again on Origenʼs commentary on John and his differences with Heracleonʼs interpretation, Ehrman says that many of Origenʼs disagreements with his opponent reflect a different text rather than merely a difference of interpretation (cf. Jn 1:3, 18, 21).
A fourth way in which patristic testimony can assist the text critic is by illuminating the causes of textual corruption. The writings of a particular father taken as a whole (i.e., not just scriptural quotations) often provide a context for some of the variant readings that occur in the manuscript tradition. For example, in the light of a strong anti-Judaic bias evident in several church fathers, Eldon Epp points out that forty percent of the variants in Codex Bezae can be attributed to the same bias, as can other variants in the New Testament, Ehrman says (e.g., Mt 1:21; Jn 4:22; Lk 23:34). Other causes of disturbance in the textual tradition that appear as major themes in patristic writings include Christian apologetics against pagan attacks and inter-Christian conflicts, such as the opposition by certain early fathers to the prominent role of women in some churches (cf. Gordon Feeʼs analysis of 1 Cor 14:34-35).
Ehrmanʼs article, which builds on some of his earlier works and especially on his book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, is a welcome contribution in at least two regards. First, it illustrates the light that textual criticism can shed on other areas of scholarly endeavor, including exegesis and the history of interpretation. Second, it counteracts to some extent the negative evaluation of some in the Münster school concerning the worth of the fathers as witnesses to the “original text” of the New Testament.
Without a doubt the most provocative article in the present book is the final one by William Petersen, “What Text Can New Testament Textual Criticism Ultimately Reach?” Petersen begins by pointing out that the definition of the “original text” is elusive, particularly in a book like Mark, which quite possibly underwent some type of development before it began to be disseminated widely. Not only is the concept of the “original text” hard to define, but the sheer number of witnesses to the New Testament text makes it hard to determine even the oldest reading in many cases.
Petersen points out several weaknesses in the way textual criticism is usually practiced. First of all, he says, text critics must beware of the danger of “falling in love” with a particular manuscript or recension: “A textual critic evaluates individual readings, and, as everyone knows, the most ancient readings are scattered through the sources” (p. 138, italics original). It is debatable whether everyone really knows or accepts this contention, but Petersen provides evidence to support his claim in the rest of the article.
Another weakness in the typical practice of textual criticism is the “profound ambivalence” that most text critics have toward early evidence: “It is eagerly sought, but when it confounds the prevailing wisdom then it is viewed with suspicion” (p. 138), as, for example, in the cases of the papyri and patristic citations. Although early readings that conflict with the modern notion of the “standard text” (a largely Alexandrian text) are often rejected on the grounds that they are isolated or spontaneous creations of a patristic witness, Petersen shows that many early readings found either exclusively or primarily in the fathers are both widespread and traditional.
For example, Justin Martyrʼs citation of Mt 19:17 as “one is good, my Father in the heavens” is also reflected in seven other early witnesses: Tatianʼs Diatessaron (as preserved in the commentary of Ephrem Syrus), Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, and the Old Latin manuscripts d and e. This form of the text, Petersen argues, is the earliest attested form, and it has a place in the reconstructed text of the New Testament. Other examples which Petersen presents include the reading “bodiless phantom” rather than “spirit” in Lk 24:39 (reflected in Ignatius, Origen, Jerome, Tertullian, and others) and the two-fold Shema in Justin Martyr, the Old Latin manuscript k, and the Curetonian Syriac.
Even Westcott recognized that certain combinations of early witnesses, such as syrsin and k, should be preferred even over the combined testimony of and B, Petersen says. Thus, rather than relying on the testimony of a particular text-type, the textual critic in many cases has an alternative. Petersen says, “By using multiple sources we can both readily and reliably triangulate readings from the second century” (p. 148). Several comments may be offered regarding this statement. First, many scholars will argue that versional evidence and especially patristic testimony are unreliable because of the problems surrounding retroversion into Greek, loose citations of scripture, and conflicting citations in the same father. Second, since the eight witnesses to the variant Petersen mentions in Mt 19:17 do not have identical texts, one must question whether the method of triangulation can yield the definitive text that lies behind all of the readings rather than suggest that a reading similar to all of them, but not conclusively determined, must be presupposed. Petersen anticipates some of these objections, and he argues his case convincingly.
Finally, it is important to note what Petersen is not saying. He is not saying that the original text can be reconstructed reliably in the manner he proposes. In fact, he says that scholars lack the evidence to retrieve even the entire mid-second century text of the New Testament, and that if his method is followed, then the resulting text will be uneven both stylistically and theologically, since some parts will be older than others. However, this text will be as close as possible to the original, based on the extant evidence.
Petersen concludes his article by answering the question posed by his title: textual critics can construct a text that in places reaches back to the first decades of the second century. The real question, however, is not “How far back can we go?” but rather “How far back do we wish to go?” (p. 151). The older the reconstructed text is, Petersen argues, the more likely it is to contain elements of Christian theology such as adoptionism or subordinationism that were rejected by the ecumenical councils of the fourth century and beyond. Be that as it may, if the goal of New Testament textual criticism is really to reach the earliest text possible, then theological concerns should not influence the text criticʼs judgment, Petersen says.
— Review by James R. Adair, Jr. of Barbara Aland and Joël Delobel, eds., New Testament Textual Criticism, Exegesis and Church History: A Discussion of Methods. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis & Theology, no. 7. Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1994