Chapter Two: The Copyist of the Early Christian Writings

        Dr. Ehrman begins the chapter by leveling a charge at the manuscripts and the copyist. He writes, “Those few that were produced in multiple copies were not all alike, for the scribes who copied texts inevitably made alterations in those texts-changing the words they copied either by accident (via a slip of the pen or other carelessness) or by design (when the scribe intentionally altered the words he copied).” (1)  He goes on to further describe how the church fathers Origen and Dionysius lamented the mistakes made to manuscripts.  Additionally, he adds that even a non-believer such as Celsus was aware of the problems with Christian manuscripts.  Furthermore, the early manuscripts were written in “scriptuo continua” in which the writings contained no punctuation.  Thus, this process generates problems in translation.  Taken on the surface, Ehrman paints a very bleak picture of having any hope at all of retaining the original meaning and intent of the New Testament authors.  Is this really the case?  To begin with, let’s discuss the mistakes themselves, the testimony of those early church fathers, and the issue of “scriptuo continua”, and see if we can salvage some hope for the scriptures.

     By his own admission, Ehrman writes, “In fact, most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology.  Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.” (2)  This is, in fact, is the case and Ehrman seems to downplay it.  Timothy Paul Jones writes, “Most of the 400,000 variations stem from differences in spelling, word order, or the relationship between nouns and definite articles—variants that are easily recognizable and, in most cases, virtually unnoticeable in translations…In the end, more than 99 percent of the 400,000 differences fall into this category of virtually unnoticeable variants.” (3)  As we can plainly see, none of the mistakes effect any changes in Christian doctrine but involve, for the most part, the definite article.  The definite article is simply “the” in English.  While English has simply one way to spell it, Greek has around 24 different spellings depending on the case, number, and gender of the nouns that it precedes.  Additionally, Greek doesn’t use the article like English does.  Dr. Mounce notes, “You will soon discover that the Greeks do not use the article the same way we do.  They use it when we never would, and they omit it when English demands it.  Languages are not codes, and there is not an exact word for word correspondence.  Therefore, we must be a little flexible at this point…Greek often uses the definite article before a proper name. You may omit the article in your translation of proper names…Greek often includes the article with abstract nous such as “the Truth” although English does not normally use the article.” (4)  As we can see, the article was used extensively, with multiple forms, and would be an easy oversight for untrained scribes.  However, this makes absolutely no difference in the main thesis of a text.  To reiterate, not one of these errors will affect one facet of Christian doctrine or belief.  The discrepancies or mistakes that fall into other categories we will address with subsequent posts later.  Here is another point regarding Greek to remember.

    Greek is a descriptive language.  I will list out here that there are actually sixteen ways to write, in Greek, the English phrase, “Jesus loves Paul.”

1. ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ Παῦλον                                                                                                                 2. ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ τὸν Παῦλον                                                                                                            3. ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ Παῦλον

4. ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ τὸν Παῦλον

5. Παῦλον ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ

6. τὸν Παῦλον ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ

7. Παῦλον ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ

8. τὸν Παῦλον ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ

9. ἀγαπᾷ ᾿Ιησοῦς Παῦλον

10. ἀγαπᾷ ᾿Ιησοῦς τὸν Παῦλον

11. ἀγαπᾷ ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς Παῦλον

12. ἀγαπᾷ ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς τὸν Παῦλον

13. ἀγαπᾷ Παῦλον ᾿Ιησοῦς

14. ἀγαπᾷ τὸν Παῦλον ᾿Ιησοῦς

15. ἀγαπᾷ Παῦλον ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς

16. ἀγαπᾷ τὸν Παῦλον ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς  (5)

 

     As we can see, all these phrases would constitute a variation in the text.  However, it wouldn’t change one thing about the statement that the phrase is making.  Discussing this in relation to “Misquoting Jesus”, Daniel Wallace writes, “The number of variants is as high as 400,000.  This is true enough, but by itself is misleading.  Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation is a distorted view.  Once it is revealed that the great majority of these variants are inconsequential—involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like—and that only a very small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus.  Indeed, only about 1% of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.” (6)  And again, it is noted that, “Indeed, once a person realizes that such changes are a normal part of the transmission of any historical document, then they cease to be relevant for the discussion of the New Testament’s reliability (lest all antiquity slip into obscurity).  Such variants should be expected in historical documents, not put for as scandalous. (7)

     The early church fathers did notice discrepancies as Ehrman has pointed out.  His point does stand.  However, Origen makes this statement as a side-note uttered out of frustration and not out of a scientific analysis.  Dionysisus appears to do the same.  As far as Celsus, there may be another translation available of what he was actually saying about Christians.  The alternate reading states, “Some believers, like persons who lay violent hand on themselves in drunken rage, have corrupted the gospel from its original wholeness, into threefold, fourfold, and manifold editions and have reworked it so that they can answer objections.’ (8)  In light of this translations, it would appear that Celsus is not discussing New Testament errors but subsequent divisions of the gospel into 3-4 divisions namely, Matthew, Mark , Luke, and John. 

     Another interesting point about Ehrmans logic regarding scribal activity and ancient testimony is here presented by Michael Kruger.  In his review of Ehrman’s book, he writes, “If the overall transmission of manuscripts in the ancient world is as Ehrman describes, then one wonders how all of ancient history is not thrown into obscurity and uncertainty.  Indeed, if manuscript production was such a ‘hit and miss’ affair, we have no grounds to think that any account of ancient events should be received with any confidence—not to mention the very ancient testimonies that Ehrman appeals to in order to show that scribal activity was uncertain (testimonies which themselves are preserved in manuscripts!)  Of course, Ehrman does not question the authenticity of those testimonies, because it is clear that he only desires to call into question the value of Christian manuscripts.” (9) 

     Oftentimes, as I read Dr. Ehrman’s writings, I notice that he seems to have a split personality something akin to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  It’s difficult to tease out if Mr. Bart “the happy agnostic” or Dr. Ehrman “the textual critic who has some remnants of faith” is writing.  A good example of this is the issue of “scriptura continua.”  In Misquoting Jesus, Mr. Bart, “the happy agnostic” writes, “One of the problems with ancient Greek texts (which include all the earliest Christian writings, including those of the New Testament) is that when they were copied, no marks of punctuation were used, not distinction made between lowercase and uppercase letters, and even more bizarre to modern readers, no spaces used to separate words.  This kind of continuous writing is called scriptuo continua, and it obviously could make it difficult at times to read, let alone understand, a text.” (10)  Meanwhile, in his book, “The Text of the New Testament, it Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration,” Dr. Ehrman the critical scholar with remnants of faith writes, “It must not be thought, however, that such ambiguities (those created by scriptuo continua) occur very often in Greek.  In that language it is the rule, with very few exceptions, that native words can end only in a vowel (or a dipthong) or in one of three consonants.  Furthermore, it should not be supposed that scriptio continua presented exceptional difficulties in reading, for apparently it was customary in antiquity to read aloud, even when one was alone.  Thus, despite the absence of spaces between words, by pronouncing to oneself what was read, syllable by syllable, one soon became used to reading scriptio continua…The experience of Hermas, who says he copied a little scroll of heavenly origin “letter by letter, for I could not make out the syllables, suggest that the normal method of copying books was by syllables.” (11 parenthetical note mine for clarity) Please note, that the data presented in Misquoting Jesus is the same data that is presented here.  What has changed?  Not the data, but Dr. Ehrman or Mr. Bart’s interpretation of this data.  What’s even more impressive is that the fourth edition of the “Text of the New Testament” was published the same year that Misquoting Jesus was published.  The explanation offered by Dr. Ehrman and Dr. Metzger in the “Text of the New Testament” seems to make the most scholarly sense.  The one offered in misquoting Jesus discounts the evidence that this issue was not really an issue at all.  Thus, even Dr. Ehrman doesn’t really believe what he is writing in Misquoting Jesus.

     In the conclusion of this chapter, Dr. Ehrman attacks two points of scripture.  First, the Marcan appendix, and secondly, the woman caught in adultery.  I will fully develop a defense for these passages in the future, but for brevity sake, I will post those later.  Suffice it to say that there is some evidence that may point to their original status.

     Again, it must be reiterated, that in a largely illiterate society, with scribes that were making theological and blunderous mistakes to manuscripts, and where writing utensils were very crude, to only have 90 percent of the errors to make absolutely no change in Christian doctrine points to inspiration.  Only God could do something like this and in fact, there is no other book from antiquity that compares to the accomplishments of either the New Testament or the Old for that matter.  This points to God being behind the text despite its errors. 

 

 

Endnotes

  1.  Ehrman, Bart, Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Harper Collins Pub, New York, NY, 2005, page 46.
  2. Ibid, page 55.
  3. Jones, Timothy Paul, Misquoting Truth, a Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.” Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2007, page 43-44.
  4. Mounce, William, Basics of Biblical Greek, Zondervan Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI, 1993, page 39.
  5. Wallace, Daniel, “The Gospel According to Bart” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, June 06, page 3.
  6. Ibid, page 4.
  7. Kruger, Micheal, “Review of Misquoting Jesus:  The Story of Who Changed the Bible and Why.”  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, 2006 page 1.
  8. Jones, page 40.
  9. Kruger, page 2.
  10. Ehrman, page 48.
  11. Metzger, Bruce, Ehrman, Bart, The Text of the New Testament, Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2005, page 22-23.
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