Review: Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (Part I)

Title: Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament

Series: Text and Canon of the New Testament

Editor: Daniel Wallace

Bibliographical Info: 266 + 17 (indices)

Cover: Soft

Publisher: Kregel, 2011

Purchase it at Amazon

With thanks to Kregel for the gratuitous review copy.

This book is the inaugural volume of the Text and Canon of the New Testament series published by Kregel, a series which is set on tackling the thorny questions of textual and canonical criticism that arise in New Testament studies, e.g., were the NT books genuinely written by their ascribed authors? Do the books of the NT contradict one another historically and theologically? And so forth. This present volume examines a foundational issue for NT studies, which is whether we can recover the original autographic text or whether this claim is nothing but a pipe-dream. This book contains six essays which approach this question from various angles.

Chapter 1 contains the essay, Lost in Transmission: How Badly Did the Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?, is by the editor of this volume, Daniel Wallace. This chapter is directly aimed at the works of Bart Ehrman. Wallace begins by noting his perplexity regarding Ehrman’s most popular work, Misquoting Jesus, which if read one way is not controversial, but if read another way then it directly contradicts the scholarly publications that Ehrman has published.

Wallace sets out three questions to answer in this chapter:

  1. What is the number of the textual variants.
  2. What is the nature of the textual variants.
  3. What theological issues are at stake.

On the first question, Wallace mentions the usual arguments against Ehrman’s presentation of the data, e.g., the connection between the number of manuscripts and the number of variants. In other words, the more manuscripts one possesses of a text, then the more scribal errors there will be. That is the nature of the beast. If one possessed only a mere handful of manuscripts of a text, then sure there would be fewer variants, but then one could just complain that the paucity of manuscripts means we can not be certain about the original text. Interestingly, Wallace also compares the transmissional history of the NT to the Qur’an and notes that what Erhman says about the NT is more accurately representative of the Qur’an.

In discussing the variant of 616 in Revelation for the number of the beast, Wallace humorously notes that:

This textual variant does not change any cardinal belief of Christians, but, if original, it would send about seven tons of dispensational literature to the flames! (43)

Amen to that!

This essay finishes with up a mention of seven meaningful and viable variants in the NT, with a particular focus on Matt 24.36 (“nor the Son”) which is Ehrman’s  “prime example of Orthodox Corruption”.

Having read quite a few books by Ehrman, I think there is an easily recognizable difference between Bart Ehrman the scholar and Bart Ehrman the populist writer; the former is responsible for such works as The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, whereas the latter is responsible for such works as  Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted.

I’ve said before that I consider Orthodox Corruption to be an important book for anyone interested in early Christianity to read. Even Ehrman’s populist works can be useful as, for example, Misquoting Jesus contains quite a good introduction to NT textual criticism. Irrespective of this, Ehrman seemingly gives a different presentation and interpretation of the data in his populist works than he does in his scholarly works.  In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman paints the picture that the original text of the NT is inaccessible to us and that we just cannot know what the original manuscripts said. But then in Orthodox Corruption, Ehrman conveys the opposite because he needs to be able to show what the original text said (and what it was changed to), in order to demonstrate the thesis of this book (i.e. that textual changes occurred due to theologically motivated scribes).

Chapter 2 contains an essay by Philip Miller titled, The Least Orthodox Reading is to be Preferred: A New-Canon for New Testament Textual Criticism? Like the last essay, this one is also directly aimed at the works of Bart Ehrman. Miller believes that an unstated, but implicit, canon exists in Ehrman’s text-critical methodology. This canon is, as the chapter title bears out, that when confronted with a textual variant, the reading which appears to be in-sync with “orthodoxy” is to be regarded as a possible alteration to the more “unorthodox” reading.

Miller begins by showing that the reality of theologically motivated textual alterations is nothing new to the field of textual criticism. This is followed by a look at Ehrman’s book, The Orthodox Corruption of the Scripture, which lays out his view as to the nature and scope of scribes deliberately altering the text to make it more patently orthodox. While I agree that deliberate textual alteration of the NT writings occurred on occasion, I disagree that it was some sort of large-scale programmatic phenomenon as Ehrman seemingly envisages it.

Miller then examines how Ehrman deals with some textual variants by looking at Ehrman’s methodology in light of the internal and external evidence. The main variants that Miller investigates are Matt 24.36, John 1.18, and Heb 2.9 (strangely enough, I actually tentatively agree with Ehrman on all three of these variants). Miller also lists another dozen or so variants that feature prominently in Orthodox Corruption, compares Ehrman’s conclusions to those of the NA/UBS text, and draws the conclusion that:

Ehrman’s application of the canon of unorthodoxy not only estranges him from the widely accepted NA27/UBS4 text but also fails to prove his thesis. … For Ehrman, it appears that the least orthodox reading is to be preferred and that this presupposed canon often results in textual decisions that are at odds with the mainstream reconstruction of the text. (83-4)

Miller then lists four criterion that needs to be proved before the canon of unorthodoxy can be demonstrated as valid. This is then followed with a five point critique of the canon of unorthodoxy. All in all, I think this essay does a good job at showing that Bart Ehrman, despite his protests to the contrary, is using the canon of orthodoxy (and in the process is effectively presupposing his conclusions by doing so).

Chapter 3, by Matthew Morgan, contains the essay The Legacy of a Letter: Sabellianism or Scribal Blunder in John 1.1c? Morgan discusses the reading of found John 1:1c that is found in two eight-century manuscripts – 019 and 032-S  – which both contain the reading και ο θεος ην ο λογος (the variant being the presence of the article before theos). Morgan says that,

If correct, this reading threatens the assertion that evangelical doctrine is unaffected by any variant. (92)

What follows is a brief look at the rise of Sabellianism, the reaction of “orthodox” church fathers against it, and an assessment on the historical viability that there was a Sabellian influence on the textual transmission of the NT. The meat of the chapter is next up. Here Morgan examines the scribal habits to be found in the two codices which possess the extra definite article – Regius (019, L) and Freerianus (032-S, Ws). He also provides a grammatical analysis of the variant using Colwell’s rule, and concludes that “the notion that the article with θεος supports an earlier Sabellian reading is an unsightly myth.” (124)

To be continued in Part II..

2 responses

  1. I think you misrepresent “Misquoting Jesus” when you say, “Ehrman paints the picture that the original text of the NT is inaccessible to us and that we just cannot know what the original manuscripts said.”

    That’s not incorrect, but you seem to be implying that he is throwing the entire Bible up for grabs as inaccessable. Reading the book I didn’t get that impression. I think he was clear that the vast majority of changes were typos and the number of truly important changes is small in number.

    However, small in number is not the same thing as insignificant. The importance of the book is that it introduces a concept (the bible was edited) that scholars have known and debated for centuries but is totally foreign to the typical layperson. Whether you agree or not with the alleged edits to a particular passage, it’s a book that needed to be written 100 years ago. Ignorance of the bible abd especially its origins by people who claim to know it is palpable. I think a lot of people react strongly to Ehrman and accuse him of “going too far” or bad faith because he hits a nerve.

    • In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman did explicitly state something along the lines of that most NT textual variants are insignificant. But in that same book he also argues that due to the fact the NT manuscript tradition is so riddled with errors, there is no way we can have certainty about the original text.

      I would agree that a lot of people react so strongly to Ehrman. I think some do so simply because they are bibliolaters. I have seen quite a few Christians like this. If you say anything remotely critical about the Bible (and in their mind, “critical” is an all encompassing term), they equate that with you spitting on God. Others, however, react strongly to Ehrman because they just feel he doesn’t give a thoroughly fair presentation of NT textual criticism in his popular works.

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