Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The text of the New Testament

As I noted recently, Margaret and I are part of a book group whose most recent book was Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. Ehrman describes himself as a "happy agnostic," having gone from more or less fundamentalist belief in scriptural inerrancy earlier in his life through Christian belief (of a sort) that was more open to the realities of textual transmission.

I've been interested in this topic for 25 years or so, so a lot of this was not new to me. But I did learn some things and enjoyed Ehrman's readable style and pleasant personality. Still, I found myself frequently disagreeing with him, on matters of detail and on his interpretation of some of the data. And I found myself noticing, not with irritation but with a kind of amused recognition, some of the intellectual/discursive tics of the typical English major (which I think Ehrman may have been at one point): he seems eager to come up with something new and different and then bring out all his artillery to make his point; and though he starts some sections by acknowledging disagreement among scholars, by the time he gets to the end of the section he speaks with apparent certainty--"clearly" this and "obviously" that, etc. His tendency to overstate some of his claims will rub some people the wrong way. As someone in our book group put it, readers who encounter writers who don't acknowledge contrary views tend to be resistant and to supply the contrary argument on their own.

He gives much useful background, though especially when talking about dim antiquity he generalizes a lot and fails to acknowledge that specific people apparently had remarkable experiences that can't be explained away by "trends," "influences," "developments," etc. But his main task seems to be to show us that lots of familiar passages in the New Testament may not have been in the original documents. Of course, we don't have the original documents. But we have manuscripts dating from about AD 200 onward along with indirect evidence going even further back.

Ehrman discusses about 45 passages, but in many cases these are minor items he touches on quickly. I set aside 12 or 13 that didn't seem worth spending much time on, and of the remaining 32 I picked 17 that seemed to me most interesting and significant, including the ones he spends the most time with. The passages I looked at include all the items on the list found at the back of the book titled "Top Ten Verses That Were Not Originally in the New Testament." (I count them as 8 items, since some of them appear together as part of longer passages.) That "Top Ten" list is preceded by the following VERY misleading statement: "These scribal additions are often found in late medieval manuscripts of the New Testament, but not in the manuscripts of the earlier centuries." Though a lawyer could identify some loopholes in the sentence, it seems to be saying that the passages listed were NOT found in manuscripts earlier than the Middle Ages--that they are absent from any ancient manuscripts--but were added later, during the Middle Ages (i.e., after about AD 500, when the Middle Ages are usually said to have begun). Interpreted that way, the statement is blatantly false.

With the exception of one of the verses, 1 John 5:7 (which I acknowledge to have genuinely weak support--in fact, Erasmus originally left it out of his edition of the Greek New Testament), ALL of the items listed are found in manuscripts dating back to the 400s or earlier and most have even earlier indirect support. One example: the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:12), though probably not part of the original text of the Gospel of John, is a genuinely ancient story, and I think almost certainly a true one about Jesus. Far from being added in the Middle Ages, it is referred to by Christian writers as early as the 200s and is found in existing manuscripts of John as early as the 400s. It is likely the story was part of one or more collections dating to the early 100s or before. Jerome and Augustine, in the 300s, refer to its existence in manuscripts of John, Augustine speculating that some manuscripts lacked it because men were worried about the effect the story might have on their wives.

Other passages have even stronger support, and Ehrman's reasons for rejecting them are often weak, ESPECIALLY when his reasons derive from his interpretation of a gospel writer's style and intent. In a later post, I'll give an example from Luke--but it would take a mini-essay for me to make my point on that one.

Another thing Ehrman doesn't reveal is that in a few cases his views, presented with great confidence, contradict the conclusions of mainstream scholars. That's true of his proposals for changes in Mark 1:41, Hebrews 2:9, Luke 3:23, Luke 24:12, and to some extent Luke 22:19. That doesn't mean he couldn't possibly be right. It just means he is not, as he generally presents himself as doing, presenting the assured results of modern scholarship. In some cases, he's making an off-the-wall suggestions that most scholars don't accept.

Also, it's interesting that, despite his announced aim to show that many traditional readings should be rejected, in 7 or 8 of the 17 disputed passages I looked at, the traditional reading has reasonably good scholarly support, and in another couple of instances a good case could be made for the traditional reading, from a scholarly/textual point of view.

Attached are two handouts I've created that give what I've discovered about the 17 passages I tackled: (1) Handout 1 (click here) has two pages, "Passages Discussed in Ehrman" and "More Passages Discussed in Ehrman," presenting Ehrman's proposed reading, a standard scholarly consensus (and the degree of confidence the scholars in question had), the King James Version (which usually, but not always, differs from the previous two readings), the "score" of the traditional (KJV) reading according to a system I've devised, and then evidence FOR and AGAINST the traditional reading in ancient manuscripts and early Christian writers. (2) Handout 2 (click here) lists proposed dates for the composition of the four gospels along with a generally appreciative review of Ehrman's book by a Catholic writer.

I'll be revising handout 1 at some point since I took the evidence and so-called "scholarly consensus" from the 2nd ed. of the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament (1968), ed. by Kurt Aland, Bruce Metzger, and others. There is now a 4th edition, which I will soon get my hands on, that may lead me to modify a few details. By the way, Bruce Metzger was one of Ehrman's teachers; Ehrman dedicated his book to Metzger--making Ehrman's differences in judgment from his teacher of course perfectly acceptable but still slightly ironic.

1 comment:

bruce young said...

I'm a little embarrassed to be the first one to comment on my own post, but I've just run into an article about a talk Ehrman gave. You can find it at or by clicking here.

I wrote the following back to a friend who sent me the link:

"Since I just recently read Ehrman's book, this was mostly a review, except for the allusions to the Da Vince Code and a couple of short paragraphs on Mark 2 and John 3 bringing up issues that I don't think were touched on in the book. . . .

"One thing he's reported as saying at Stanford is clearly erroneous, unless he's using 'commentaries' in a very restricted sense. He's paraphrased as saying that 'no commentaries mention the incident [of the woman taken in adultery] before the 10th century.' I don't know what he means by 'commentaries,' but the Didascalia (AD 200s) refers to the incident, and both Jerome and Augustine in the 300s say that some manuscripts of John include the story. So it's at least misleading to imply that people didn't know about the story until the 900s.

"Of course, I hate to criticize a fellow academic (after all, if you have 'Professor' in front of your name and teach at a big name school, you've almost attained inerrancy yourself, right?). Seriously, I enjoyed his book, but since it is the only one some may ever read on New Testament textual studies, I wish he'd reined himself in at a few points and avoided his occasional misstatements and exaggerations. It would almost be like having a best-selling book on Shakespearean textual studies written by _______ (fill in the blank with whoever you disagree with on the subject)."