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.

Stamps in Sinaiticus

While looking through the digital edition of Codex Sinaiticus, I’ve noticed at least two pages (so far) emblazoned with this stamp:

Q35 F1r

This screen-grab was taken from quire 35, folio 1 (recto), but I’ve seen the stamp also on the first page of Tobit in Sinaiticus. Since 43 of Sinaiticus’s leaves are housed at University of Leipzig, I take this to be an emblem of that university. Is there a better explanation for it?

Furthermore, what purpose does it serve? Does it simply show ownership? Was the physical alteration of antiquities to show ownership common practice in the 19th century? Did no one think that altering an ancient manuscript might not be ethical? With the Green Collection, its mummy masks, and the (still unpublished) putative first-century fragment of Mark, have handling practices changed all that much?[1]

If anyone adds to these words…

On a lark, I thought it would be fun to check whether a modern editor/handler of Sinaiticus added anything to the end of Revelation. Luckily, they did:

Q91 F2r with circle

On the page immediately following Rev 22:18-19 and it’s dire warning against adding to and taking away from the words of the prophecy (quire 91, folio 2 [recto]), a modern handler has penciled-in the number “334.” Perhaps the Almighty will be gracious with him or her, since s/he only used pencil and, furthermore, most of the page belongs to Barnabas rather than Revelation!

[1] See, for example, Josh McDowell’s explanation of Green Collection handling practices: “It was in here that we discovered Mark, the oldest ever: back to the first century. Before then it was 120-142, the John Ryland Papyri [sic]. Now, what you do, you take this mask [chuckles]…Scholars die when they hear it, but we own them so you can do it. You take these manuscripts, we soak them in water. There is a process we use with huge microwaves to do it but it’s not quite as good. We put it down into water at a certain temperature and you can only use Palmolive soap, the rest will start to destroy the manuscripts; Palmolive soap won’t. And you start massaging it for about 30-40 minutes you’ll pull it up and ring it out, literally ring it out, these are worth millions, and you’ll put it back in for 30-45 minutes.” Read more at http://www.bricecjones.com/blog/the-first-century-gospel-of-mark-josh-mcdowell-and-mummy-masks-what-they-all-have-in-common

Intentional Scribal Changes and Textual Threats

One of my current interests lies in an attempt to answer the question of why some ancient scribes felt free to make intentional changes to the NT traditions as they copied them, while other scribes conducted their work more conservatively and tried, to the best of their ability, to reproduce their exemplars perfectly. Answers have been offered for particular kinds of scribal editing (e.g. Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture), but I am wondering why, given the apparent fixity of text, such habits even existed in the first place. Leaving small editorial changes, like alterations to spelling, to one side, let’s think about a few examples of scribal changes—two of which are quite major and have become much-beloved by many Christian readers.

Mark’s Ending, Bezae’s Luke, and the Pericope Adulterae

Off the top of my head, I can think of three examples of the NT gospels growing through the additions of later scribes: the endings of Mark 16, Luke 6 in Codex Bezae, and the Pericope Adulterae in John 8:1-11. Of course, I am tipping my hand to some of my assumptions on these debated texts: I think Mark ends at 16:8, Bezae’s addition to Luke 6 (otherwise unattested) is not original, and that the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 is a much later addition to John’s text. But these contested texts are just some particularly good examples of the phenomenon I’m talking about; the so-called “free text” manuscripts of the gospels (e.g. P45) are more ho-hum examples of scribal freedom to alter the traditions being copied.

Mixed-Media Culture, Chirography, and Textual Threat

It’s interesting to me that the technology of chirography (handwriting) gave rise to a heightened system for fixing and securing traditions, even while some scribes persisted in editorial freedom. I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with the mixed media culture of antiquity. Early Kelber wasn’t so off-base; there is something to the shift in medium from oral to written that affects the shape of the tradition. Writing allows for some movement towards stability, if for no other reason than written documents are very concrete aids to memory. You don’t have to recall the tradition from memory; you can look at it. It’s right in front of you.

But still, some scribes persisted in making their changes; some of them smallish and relatively unobtrusive, others striking and and obvious. Is the freedom to alter a ‘hangover’ from a predominately oral media culture in which small changes were allowed, so long as the tradition remained largely intact? Might some scribes have been operating akin to oral performers, whose task was to retain the gist of the tradition, in the reproduction of their texts?

Chirography also affords authors some ability to secure the tradition by textual threat. Revelation 22:18-19 famously threatens any scribe who would add to or take away from the text with divine plagues and denial of the benefits of the tree of life. Such a textual showing of force is not unique. As R.H. Charles points out in his classic commentary on Revelation, there are more than a few examples of ancient authors of written texts proscribing the alteration of their text: Deut 4.2; 1 Enoch 104.10-11; Letter of Aristeas 310-311; 2 Enoch 48.7-8; Josephus, Contra Apion 1.8; Irenaeus in Eusebius HE 5.20.2; Rabbi Meir in Sota 20.[1]

As the reasoning goes for laws, I suppose you don’t threaten against what isn’t already happening. Are these textual threats evidence that relative levels of freedom in scribal activity were common in antiquity?

What are the Rules? Why Changes?

I’ll end with some questions, and would welcome your responses: Was there a sense that some texts, but not others, could be changed? Was there some kind of media-cultural rule set governing which was which? Or do the above examples give us the “default setting” for expectations of scribal activity? If so, why so many examples of intentional scribal changes?

[1] R.H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John, vol. 1, 2 vols. (New York: Scribner, 1920), 223–4.

Whether a Made-Up Text-Critical Problem Can Be Solved?: Mark 13:33 in the Manuscript Tradition, Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea, and Hilary of Poitiers’ De Trinitate

“Whenever a transcriber of a patristic treatise was copying a [biblical] quotation differing from the text to which he was accustomed, he had virtually two originals before him, one present to his eyes, the other to his mind; and if the difference struck him, he was not unlikely to treat the written exemplar as having blundered.”[1]
.J.A. Hort

* * *

Mark 13:33’s Variant Readings

I have an abiding interest in Mark 13:33 and the scribal addition therein that creates an interesting narrative parallel to 14:38. I’ve been reading a lot of NT text criticism lately and have been thinking, on and off, about Mark 13 for the better part of the last five years. Today the two came together in a way that has turned out to be pretty fun.

The text of Mark 13:33, in NA28 and the NRSV, reads as follows:

Βλέπετε, ἀγρυπνεῖτε· οὐκ οἴδατε γὰρ πότε ὁ καιρός ἐστιν (NA28).
Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come (NRSV).

In a slew of manuscripts (some quite weighty and important), however, it reads:

Βλέπετε, ἀγρυπνεῖτε, καὶ προσεύχεσθε· οὐκ οἴδατε γὰρ πότε ὁ καιρός ἐστιν.[2]
Beware, keep alert, and pray; for you do not know when the time will come.

The initial text of Mark 13:33 likely did not include the addition of καὶ προσεύχεσθε to Jesus’ exhortation but, as early as the fourth century (and likely earlier!), a competing tradition arose that included it. The addition likely reflects a change on the part of an early Christian scribe (whether intentional or unintentional) that brought Mark 13:33 into striking harmony with Mark 14:38, which reads:

γρηγορεῖτε καὶ προσεύχεσθε, ἵνα μὴ ἔλθητε εἰς πειρασμόν· τὸ μὲν πνεῦμα πρόθυμον ἡ δὲ σὰρξ ἀσθενής (NA28).
Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (NRSV).

Whether the change is likely intentional or unintentional is best left for another discussion. What matters here is that the tradition with the addition of καὶ προσεύχεσθε was widely adopted across many important manuscripts, notably in א A C K L W Γ Δ Θ and the Vulgate, among others. The reading that lacks καὶ προσεύχεσθε, however, is also widely attested—notably by Vaticanus (B) and Bezae (D). Thus two traditions split from one another and were used by different groups of Christians in various places.

Mark 13:33 and Hilary of Poitiers (and Matthew 25:13) in Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea

Interestingly, it was in the 13th century that the two readings met—sort of—on the writing desk of Thomas Aquinas as he compiled his Catena Aurea. Aquinas quotes the Latin form of Mark 13:33, which includes the addition of “and pray,” and, in typical fashion for a catena, cites various commentators beneath. In forging his chain of commentaries on Mark 13:33, Aquinas includes Hilary of Poitiers’s De Trinitate:

Denique, ne per infirmitatem ignorare dicatur, continuo subiecit videte, vigilate et orate: nescitis enim quando tempus sit.
Lastly, lest He should be said to be ignorant from weakness, He has immediately added, ‘Take ye heed, watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is.’ (Hilary, Trin., 9.65, as quoted in Aquinas’s Catena, Mark 13:33)

Hilary’s original text, however, differs markedly from its quotation in Aquinas’s Catena:

Denique ne per infirmitatem ignorare existimaretur, continuo Apostolis ita locutus est: ‘Vigilate itaque, quia nescitis diem neque horam.’
Hence, in order that we should not impute His ignorance to infirmity, He says immediately to the Apostles, Watch therefore, for ye know not the day nor the hour (Hilary, Trin. 9.65).[3]

Not only does Hilary’s text lack the addition of “and pray,” it appears to be quoting Matthew rather than Mark. Matthew 25:13 has “for you know neither the day nor the hour” (ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε τὴν ἡμέραν οὐδὲ τὴν ὥραν), while it is Mark who forms the phrase as “for you do not know when the time will come” (οὐκ οἴδατε γὰρ πότε ὁ καιρός ἐστιν) in 13:33.

Whether a Made-Up Text-Critical Problem Can Be Solved?

This is pretty meta stuff: Aquinas quotes Hilary quoting Scripture, but Aquinas misreads Hilary’s quotation of Matthew 25:13 as a quotation of Mark 13:33. As Aquinas misreads Hilary as quoting Mark instead of Matthew, he is faced with (read: has created) a text-critical problem. Which reading of Mark 13:33 is more likely correct: the one that includes et orate (καὶ προσεύχεσθε), or Hilary’s quotation of Matthew, which Aquinas apparently perceives as Mark, which lacks it?

For Aquinas, the perceived Hilarian quotation of Mark, which lacks both “and pray” as well as the Markan “when the time will come” is juxtaposed with the Vulgate and the commentary of Theophylactus, which Aquinas also includes in his catena, both of which include the addition (and, of course, the Markan formulation regarding unknown chronology). Faced with two variant readings, Aquinas made an editorial choice and did just what Hort suggested such an editor would do: he assumed that Hilary “had blundered.” Twice.

Since the Vulgate, Aquinas’ holy text, disagreed with Hilary’s quotation of Matthew 25:13 (which, again, Aquinas took to be a citation of Mark 13:33)—and was further supported by Theophylact’s commentary—I suggest that a heavily-edited quotation of Hilary’s De Trinitate was included in Aquinas’ Catena Aurea on Mark as the ‘fix’ for Aquinas’s perceived text-critical problem. Faced with a discrepancy between his Bible (and Theophylact) on one hand and the fourth century commentary of Hilary on the other (which Aquinas misread), it seems to me that Aquinas regarded Hilary’s quotation as faulty and emended it in his Catena to bring Hilary into agreement with the Markan text as it was known to him.

This is, of course, something he did not need to do, since Hilary was quoting Matthew just fine, but far be it from me, a graduate student, to finger-wag a Doctor of the Church.

Kidding aside: has Aquinas simply made a mistake, or is there another explanation for his quotation/emendation of Hilary?

[1] Westcott, B.F., and F.J.A. Hort. The New Testament in the Original Greek. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1896), 202.

[2] The addition is found in these manuscripts: א A C K L W Γ Δ Θ Ψ f13 28. 565. 579. 700. 892. 1241. 1424. 2542. {M} lat sy co

[3] http://www.clerus.org/bibliaclerusonline/it/ftf.htmhttps://books.google.co.uk/books?id=WSBAAQAAMAAJ&pg=PT2&dq=%22circumspicienti%20mihi%20proprium%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=RkOiVfzUG4X0UKf6vjg&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

CSNTM Makes Old Things New

I’ll be frank: the brand-spanking-new, high-resolution images of P45 on the CSNTM site are pretty cool. Frederic Kenyon’s 1933-34 images and text of P45 have been an enduring contribution to the field of NT textual criticism,[1] but it appears that the images provided by CSNTM are one clearer: in fact, these images go to eleven. They’re hi-res, zoom-able, and easily manipulated for students of NT textual criticism working in the digital age. They invite renewed study of our earliest Christian artifacts (Hurtado, 2006)—renewed study which may, in fact, help us see things we hadn’t noticed before.

In my limited dabblings on the CSNTM site, I’ve noticed something new in P45 that was not published in Kenyon’s editio princeps. In Mark 6:22 in P45, Kenyon notes a superscript addition of ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ above Ο ΗΡΩΔΗΣ. This addition is clear, even in the older images in Kenyon’s Fasciculus I. But with the clarity afforded us by these new images, I think there may be one small detail missing from Kenyon’s reading. When one adjusts the image to its highest magnification, the definite article (O) appears to be visible to the left of ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ. The definite article is not fully preserved and is partially worn off. But the ink matches the surrounding text and what otherwise might be considered a smudge under lower resolutions sure looks like an omicron upon further inspection. Here’s an image at moderate magnification which shows the superscription and (my suggested) definite article, with arrows comparing it to the already-established definite article accompanying Herod: Image

Here is another image, at highest magnification:


O B[…]
O H[…]

Now, the question: Do you see what I see? I welcome your responses in the comments.

If you’re interested in learning more about the new images from CSNTM, take a few minutes to watch this video and explore their site:

(Post-script disclaimer: I am but a lowly grad student with entirely limited interaction with NT textual criticism. The presence of the definite article in P45’s text of Mark 6:22 may have been noticed a long time ago by scholars much smarter than me. If so, I’ll gladly accept being the second [or third, or five-thousandth] person to notice it.)


[1] Frederic G. Kenyon, The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri: Descriptions and Texts of Twelve Manuscripts on Papyrus of the Greek Bible: Fasciculus II: The Gospels and Acts: Text (London: Emery Walker, 1933); Frederic G. Kenyon, The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri: Descriptions and Texts of Twelve Manuscripts on Papyrus of the Greek Bible: Fasciculus II: The Gospels and Acts: Plates (London: Emery Walker, 1934).