Review: The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Part III)

Title: The Heresy of Orthodoxy

Editors: Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger

Bibliographic Info: 256 pp.

Publisher: Crossway, 2010.

Cover: Soft

ISBN: 9781433501432

Buy it at Amazon

Note: I read this book on my Kindle so any quotes I provide will not have the page numbers.

Read Part I of the review.

Read Part II of the review.

This third and final part of the review shall take a look at the final section of the book: Changing the Story – Manuscripts, Scribes, and Textual Transmission.

This section consists of two chapters, each of which is directly aimed against Bart Ehrman’s writings. I quite enjoyed this section of the book because the authors were spot on in many of their criticisms of Ehrman.

In the first chapter the authors discuss the question of early Christian scribes, specifically focusing on such things as, e.g., were they professional scribes? Ehrman has made the claim that the early scribes who copied the NT books were not professional scribes and so the manuscripts were haphazardly copied by Christians who probably intentionally altered them to suit a particular theological agenda. Kostenberger and Kruger, on the other hand, claim there was an adequate scribal infrastructure within early Christianity, thus implying that the NT text was faithfully passed down. Two main pieces of evidence the authors use to support this is the presence of nomina sacra and the use of the codex.

The phenomenon of nomina sacra is a well known feature of Christian manuscripts. Ever since the landmark study of Traube, the implications of the usage of nomina sacra have been speculated upon (e.g. with important work done recently by C.H. Roberts and L. Hurtado). As Kostenberger and Kruger pointed out, out of about a group of 15 words that are regularly abbreviated as nomina sacra, there are four key words which are the earliest attested and almost uniformly abbreviated in such a manner (kyrios, theos, christos, iesous). There is widespread agreement that the practice goes back very early in the manuscript tradition, and is probably a Christian innovation (though there are dissenting voices to this). The authors propose that the presence and relative consistency in the use of nomina sacra points towards early scribal conventions which reveal that the scribal structure of early Christianity was not as decentralized and individualistic as Ehrman and others would claim. Likewise, the authors argue that the preference for the codex amongst early Christians (compared to the dominant use of the roll in the Graeco-Roman world) is also indicative of organized and uniform scribal habits in early Christian communities.

The second chapter responds to Ehrman’s claim that there are so many scribal errors in the NT manuscript tradition that we can never have confidence that we have the original text. This is a recurring theme in a few of his most popular lay-level books. Kostenberger and Kruger astutely point out that Ehrman has effectively rigged the deck so that his standards could never be met, for no matter how many copies we possess of a text and no matter how early they are, Ehrman will still claim that we simply don’t know what the original text was unless we have the original autograph. Essentially, Ehrman would not be satisfied unless we could travel back in time and steal the original autograph of a text, or at least photocopy it and have the original author sign an affidavit that it was a copy of the original manuscript he wrote. This burden of proof, however, is not realistic nor reasonable to expect in order to ascertain what the autograph of a text of antiquity contained.

For the authors, the manuscript tradition taken as a whole “is reliable enough to transmit the essential message of the New Testament.” I can’t say I would agree with that, though, because prior to modern textual-criticism, who ever knew about the NT manuscript tradition? I mean, sure the NT manuscript tradition has always existed in the objective sense but whom in church history, up until the last five centuries or so, has ever been aware of it? So if the authors are going to say that the manuscript tradition “as a whole” is reliable enough to transmit the basic message of the NT, are they then also going to suggest that prior to the rise of Erasmus, etc., that no-one ever possessed a reliable witness to the message of the NT? Maybe I am just misunderstanding the authors, but that does seem to be what their argument implies.

The authors also point another way in which Ehrman will never be satisfied. He likes to point to the hundreds of thousands of errors in the manuscript tradition and use that as a springboard to claiming that we simply can not know what the original text said. (To be fair, he does also point out that many of these errors are simply spelling errors, etc). But of course there are so many errors! When we have over 5,000 Greek manuscripts attesting to the NT texts (and that is just the Greek witnesses!) there are bound to be that many scribal errors. Its just a fact: the more manuscripts you have, the more scribal errors there will be. The only way in which you would have minimal or no variations would be if you had minimal or no manuscripts. Yet, I can guarantee you that if we had only a few manuscripts with no variants, Ehrman would then complain that the paucity of manuscripts means we can not be certain about the original text. Ehrman rigs the deck so it is a win-win situation for himself.

The authors talk about the “stubborn quality” of the NT manuscript tradition (what the Alands have dubbed  the “tenacity” of the manuscript tradition). This is to say that even though scribes can deliberately or accidentally make an alteration to the text, they can not change the overall manuscript tradition, thus we can be fairly certain that the manuscript tradition contains the original reading of the text (or if not the original reading, then at least a very early reading of the text).

This reminds me of a debate I listened to about three(?) years ago between Bart Ehrman and James White of AOMin regarding textual variation and the inspiration of the NT. I remember that while I was listening to the debate, I was thinking that Ehrman and White were basically talking past one another on the issue. It seemed that White was talking about the tenacity of the manuscript tradition and how that gives us confidence the original readings of the texts are still there, whereas Ehrman was talking about how we just don’t know that one of the first scribes to copy to one of the NT documents didn’t just introduce a lot of textual variants (with the idea being that this faulty copy was then the basis of the entire manuscript tradition).

Anyway, back to the book. I loved how they showed that Ehrman wants to have his text-critical cake and eat it too:

On the one hand, in Misquoting Jesus he wants the ‘original’ text of the New Testament to remain inaccessible and obscure, forcing him to argue that text-critical methodologies cannot really produce any certain conclusions.  On the other hand, in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture he needs to argue that text-critical methodologies are reliable and can show you what was original and what was not; otherwise he would not be able to demonstrate that changes have been made for theological reasons.

I don’t mean to paint Ehrman as the evangelical boogeyman, because he is not, and I do think he is a great NT textual-critical scholar. I have said before that his volume The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is a necessary read for anyone interested in the field of NT textual criticism, the NT canon, or even just for those with a healthy interest in early Christianity. Yet his more popular books that have been published, the ones for a less academic crowd, are not so useful  in my opinion. For instance, Misquoting Jesus contains a nice primer on NT textual criticism, but apart from that I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants a balanced look at the subject.

I would agree with Ehrman that there are definitely instances where certain scribes altered the text due to theological reasons (which is what he argues for in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture). But he seems to portray it as some sort of large-scale programmatic phenomenon. That is, in my opinion, a highly erroneous representation of the data.

The Heresy of Orthodoxy ends with a chapter providing an overall summary of the authors’ findings. They say that Bauer’s thesis has influenced the paradigm of how everyone thinks about early Christianity (which it certainly has). Yet they obviously believe Bauer was in error and that the influence of his thesis in the study of early Christianity (e.g. in textual criticism, canon formation, etc) is due to the emergence of post-modernism. Their conclusion is best summed up in this paragraph:

The Bauer-Ehrman thesis is invalid. Earliest Christianity was not infested with a plethora of competing heresies (or “Christianities”, as Ehrman and other Bauer paragons prefer to call them); it was a largely unified movement that had coalesced around the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah and exalted Lord predicted in the Old Testament.

I think they are partly correct. The early Christian movement did arise from the conviction that this crucified criminal had been resurrected and vindicated by God. Furthermore, the earliest followers looked to the Old Testament scriptures to explain this. Apart from this, was it a “largely unified movement”? Perhaps for a very short time, but I think diversity came upon the scene soon thereafter and spread rapidly. Figuring out which stream of Christianity bests represents Jesus’ teachings is, in my opinion, something best left for theologians, not historians.

Even though they don’t directly state it, the authors (particularly in their appeal to the providence of the Holy Spirit) seemingly imply that the orthodoxy of second, third, fourth-century Christianity, right up to modern times, can be directly traced back to the orthodoxy of the earliest followers of Jesus, and Jesus himself. That is where I would definitely have to disagree with them. Perhaps from a theological perspective you could argue for an unbroken chain of orthodoxy, but I don’t think you could argue for it on historical grounds.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this book. It is a spirited attempt at overturning the influential Bauer-Ehrman paradigm on the study of early Christianity. Though, I was not persuaded by their arguments against it, nor for their arguments in favor of a rigid infrastructure and mechanisms that were in place by which orthodox Christianity was preserved and passed on down throughout the generations.

One response

  1. A very good review, well done.

    I found some of the arguments in this book very weak on certain subjects. For instance, the application of the ‘rule of faith’ as an evidence of a rigid orthodoxy was a very weak argument. The ‘rule of faith’ certainly helped to influence the method of interpretation of the infant church, and to also steer the early church away from fanciful and wayward speculations (as the gnostics had done). The rule of faith was successful toward this goal, but not completely… only by degree. The early church still adopted many platonic influences and garnished the rule of faith with many speculations of another sort (as in the creeds), but it was assisted not to fully adopt the gnostic alternative during these critical stages of development. There certainly was no orthodoxy as we understand orthodoxy today, but the rule of faith gave the early church an intelligent direction and “trajectory” that was important for its growth and security. Anyway, thank you for a very thoughtful and spot on review. Steve

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