On Not Doing What Ehrman was Doing

Over the past year I’ve shared my interests and dissertation project with enough folks, and received enough push-back, to feel like maybe it’s time to clarify my aims. This post is intended to clarify what it is I’m doing in my research on early Christian scribes, both for my own thinking and for the (very) few others who are interested in how I’ve been spending my time in Denver.

The impetus for this post goes back at least to SBL last year in Atlanta. At one of the receptions, I struck up a conversation with a prof at one of the schools I’d like to teach at one day. He asked what I was working on and I told him: my project is broadly about reassessing the changes scribes made to the gospel traditions as they reproduced them in manuscript form. His almost instant follow-up question: “Is that like Bart Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture?”

My answer then was pretty fumbling. Kind of ‘yes,’ but mostly ‘no.’ I’ve had some time to reflect on it, hindsight being 20/20 and all, and here’s how I’d answer now: No. I work with the same pool of data (NT traditions, manuscripts, and literature on early Christian scribes) as Ehrman, but I have a totally different set of premises and aims.

Ehrman’s project in Orthodox Corruption was a really important one, and remains so to this day. It’s a watershed monograph in New Testament textual criticism for a reason, and his thesis that Christological controversies are reflected in scribal alterations in the NT manuscripts has stood the test of time. But his goal was to explain a certain kind of scribal change—theologically motivated alterations—whereas mine has been to reassess and redescribe all sorts of scribal changes, theological or otherwise. Furthermore, Ehrman located his contribution within an established paradigm in NT textual criticism that I don’t find particularly useful. My beef is with the language of “corruption” in his title and text.

Ehrman wasn’t the first to use the notion of “textual corruption” to describe the phenomenon of scribal change in the NT manuscript tradition, and he won’t be the last. Ehrman represents a pretty strong consensus when it comes to the use of this term, though, so I use him as my whipping boy. (I am a Christian pacifist, though, so whatever rhetorical whipping I do won’t draw any blood.) For Ehrman, textual “corruption” just means what most other NT text-critics take it to mean: an “alteration of text” (Orthodox Corruption, 31). That is to say: most text-critics assume that early Christianity prized the original text of, say, the Gospel of Mark in its pristine, unedited, unadulterated form and that any scribal change to Mark in its transmission, whether intentional or unintentional, amounts to a “corruption” of the original text. In my view, this says more about how we moderns conceive of the text of the NT than how ancient Christian scribes and audiences understood it.

Certainly we have some flagship examples of an ancient allergy to textual alteration (Rev 22:18–19 comes to mind, as does the scribe of Codex W). These folks certainly appear to have thought that alteration = corruption. But what about the scribe of Codex Bezae, that delightfully singular 5th century codex? What about the scribe who added to Mark’s ending at 16:8? Or the one who first introduced the story of the woman caught in adultery to John 7? Or all the other scribes who introduced all manner of finer-grained changes, like clarifications and synonymous phrasal replacements? Did these scribes think they were “corrupting” the text? Did their audiences? I tend to doubt it.

The language of textual “corruption” has a counterpart that also needs abandoning. In order for us to have a notion of “corruption” in antiquity, we need first to assume that scribes considered themselves to be “copyists.” This term is ubiquitous in the field to describe the work of early Christian scribes and, once again, it’s not just Ehrman that I’d like to put on the ropes. Another scholar that I similarly admire, the venerable St. Bruce Metzger of Princeton, spilled a lot of ink propping up this misguided paradigm.

Commenting on a scribe’s addition of ό Ίησοῦς (“Jesus”) to John 6:14, Metzger suggests that “[t]he addition…was made by copyists in the interest of clarity” (Metzger, Textual Commentary,  181). To belabor the point: in what sense are scribes acting as copyists if they are intentionally introducing changes for the sake of clarity, theological emphasis, or any other editorial aim? In what sense were the interpolators of Mark’s ending or John’s Pericope Adulterae copyists or their alterations corruptive? In what sense did their listening and reading audiences expect them to be? I suggest that maybe we’ve been operating under the wrong premises.

I saw a copyist today. A real, in-the-flesh copyist. She was sitting in the seat in front of me on the bus, balancing two papers on her lap. On her right was a notebook filled with what appeared to me to be very complex algebraic figures that she was working on. On her left was a sheet filled with the very same complex algebraic figures, written in a different hand. She was very clearly copying—line by line, digit by digit—from the exemplar to her own sheet. Any deviation from her exemplar would, I assume, amount to a “corruption.” You transpose one number, one variable, in your mathematical formula and it all falls apart. She appeared to be working with great care to avoid just such a corruption. That’s a copyist.

Is that what we imagine the early Christian scribal enterprise to be like? Does one iota of scribal change amount to a total corruption of the manuscript? Maybe for John of Patmos or the scribe of W. But I don’t think the same holds true for a great many scribes and audiences in early Christianity. We’ve got way too many manuscripts that deviate way too often in way too many interesting ways from the “original text” for that premise to be anything other than terrifically bad.

Part of my point ends up being that early Christians—committed, faithful Christians—simply had a different understanding of the NT traditions than we do. For many of them, certain levels of deviation from an exemplar or the original were OK. For many of us, on the other hand, such alterations are dangerously corruptive to the biblical text. Part of my goal, writing as a Christian scholar, is to reclaim these scribes and audiences as faithfully Christian scribes and audiences who made and accepted certain kinds of lesser and greater alterations to the NT traditions as they were reproduced in writing.

There were, and are, limits to the acceptability of scribal change. Marcion, the guy who edited a bunch of stuff out of Luke, is a parade example of scribal change far beyond the limits of acceptability. The scribes who interpolated endings to Mark or the Pericope Adulterae to John, though, were apparently within those limits. Their changes are now Scripture for Christians. In both cases, it was the listening and reading audience—the Church—who enforced the rules. If I do it well, my work will end up having something constructive, however small, to contribute to the Church’s theology of Scripture. But first we need to move beyond assuming all scribes were copyists and all alterations were corruptions.

So, no. I’m not really doing what Ehrman was doing in Orthodox Corruption. I’m trying to do something else.