Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Not a Massive Reconstruction Project

I appreciated something that Bart Ehrman said on pages 98-99 of The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament:

"I have observed that the anti-adoptionist changes of the text occur sporadically throughout the tradition, not at all with the kind of consistency for which one might have hoped.  Given the character of our evidence, however, the uneven distribution and irregular attestation are not surprising.  The scribes of our surviving manuscripts more commonly preserved theological variations than created them, and none of these scribes appears to have made a concerted effort to adopt such readings with rigorous consistency.  Almost certainly there was no attempt to create an anti-adoptionistic recension of the New Testament.  Indeed, the Christians of the proto-orthodox camp did not, on one level, need to change their texts; they believed that the texts, in whatever form they came, already attested their christological views.  Most of the debates over Christology, then, centered on the correct interpretation of the texts rather than on their wording.  But to some degree the debates did impact the physical dimensions of the manuscripts, as scribes periodically----if not rigorously----modified the words of the New Testament to make them more serviceable for the orthodox cause, effecting thereby the orthodox corruption of Scripture."

Ehrman's overall argument in this book is that proto-orthodox Christian scribes in some cases altered the text of New Testament writings to conform passages to proto-orthodox ideas.  That may sound to some people like a conspiracy theory.  Some may even conclude that Ehrman is arguing that we can't trust the New Testament in our Bibles because we don't have the original text with us, and subsequent copies reflect alterations designed to serve the cause of the proto-orthodox in Christological debates.

Well, I've not read everything that Ehrman has ever written, so I don't know offhand how extreme he gets.  But what he says on pages 98-99 of The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture strikes me as quite reasonable and level-headed.  In that passage, I don't see some large-scale conspiracy to make the entire New Testament conform to proto-orthodoxy, as if certain ideas in the originals have been completely suppressed.  I also don't see a hyper-skepticism about scholars' ability to make conclusions about what the original text may have said.  Rather, what Ehrman is suggesting is that there were cases in which scribes altered the text----adding a word here, taking away a word there, changing this little phrase----out of a concern that a given passage was problematic for proto-orthodoxy.  They weren't taking a sledge-hammer to the text and undertaking massive reconstruction of it.  Actually, Ehrman acknowledges that the scribes were quite conservative in terms of their copying and transmission of the text, and so there were readings that they preserved that were arguably problematic in terms of proto-orthodox positions (though the scribes may not have seen them as overly problematic).  But Ehrman's point is that, on some occasions, scribes changed the wording of the text----changing a text that said that Joseph was Jesus' father, making the text explicitly say that Jesus was God, etc.  I agree with Ehrman that this occurred.

(UPDATE: Later in the book, however, Ehrman discusses what he considers to be larger interpolations of verses or units.)

Does that mean that the New Testament originally did not contain a belief in Jesus' divinity, until later scribes came along and conformed the text to that doctrine?  I can't make that blanket statement, and my impression is that Ehrman does not believe that, as well.  Ehrman seems to acknowledge that the Gospel of John has a high Christology, although he does not appear to think that the same can be said for (say) the Gospel of Luke.

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