Thursday, March 1, 2007

Misquoting Jesus - Chapter 3

Part of a continuing series of reactions to the Mind on Fire reading group's reaction to Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. You can also read my entries on the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2.

It isn't my goal to summarize the chapter, grade-school book report style, but to highlight the information which I found striking and worthwhile to remember, along with some of my reactions.

Texts of the New Testament

I believe the goals of this chapter were to
  • show the practical consequences of previously discussed issues with early copyists of the New Testament
  • highlight and give back-story to the historically and scholarly significant Bible editions
  • give an overview on the types of changes to the Bible made by copyists
An interesting opening point was the idea of regional differences in copies of the Bible. Before the rise of the professional scribe, books were copied by individuals with less than perfect literacy skills (again, as highlighted in the previous chapter). Since copies of books were more difficult to produce in these pre-scribal times, one can imagine that an individual copying a book on his own would introduce unique mistakes to his copy. Then if that copy was taken to an area which didn't have copies of the book, then copyists in that area would base all the area's copies on the uniquely mistaken copy. Thus the idea of errors or variations in texts unique to an area. I wonder whether it's possible to create an early family tree of book copies based on the variations within the text. Or even identify the region a book came from based on the errors contained within it, like a fingerprint. Perhaps the transposition of two key words shows up in a certain city's copies. I hope that idea gets addressed later on.

After the rise of the professional scribal class, copies of manuscripts became more uniform. Because of their uniformity, they were presumptively superior, but of course the manuscripts were based upon flawed copies of flawed copies of flawed copies of manuscripts. So we need to question the source of these professionally copied manuscripts.

Byzantine manuscripts are the scholarly jargon for manuscripts in Greek made in the area formerly known as the Byzantine Empire.

The Latin Vulgate (4th century) was motivated by the multitude of varying Latin translations of Greek manuscripts. The Pope commissioned an official translation, which was based upon the best available translations as well as Greek sources. Vulgate is Latin for "common."

After the invention of the printing press, the Vulgate was the translation use for the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be print-published (1450's). After being standardized upon over 1000 years before, it was thought of as the source manuscript, though of course it wasn't even the source language. The Complutensian Polyglot was a project to produce Latin, Greek, and (for the Old Testament) Hebrew translations side by side. Started over 50 years after the first print publishing of the Vulgate, it was the first time a Greek manuscript would be printed.

After the project started, Dutch scholar Erasmus raced to get his own Greek printed edition published, actually beating out the Complutensian Polyglot with his edition, Textus Receptus. Erasmus was less than thorough in getting multiple sources for the Textus Receptus, using a single 12th century source for Acts and Epistles and translating some of the Vulgate back to Greek for missing pages of Revelation. Ehrman makes a nicely snarky point that the Textus Receptus is based on a few Greek manuscripts at best to few or none (Revelation) at it's worst. The quality of the source manuscripts wasn't the best, and included the "woman taken in adultery" story and the last 12 verses of Mark, both mentioned in chapter 2 as problematic. It didn't originally include the Johanine Comma (only source reference for the idea of Trinity), as Erasmus couldn't find a Greek manuscript which included it. In a revised edition, he did include it after some contemporaries manufactured a Greek manuscript including the Johanine Comma! With all these problems, the Textus Receptus is the basis for 500 years of Greek manuscripts of the Bible, including the source for the King James translation. That's pretty mind-blowing to me, though I'm probably just a guilty of uncritical reading as the next guy. For example, I haven't read any of the source material referenced by Ehrman. I've just accepted his expertise... It's pretty disturbing that hundreds of years of Biblical tradition can be inspired by a rush-job, though.

Mill's Apparatus (1707) was a 30 year effort by John Mill which was based on a 1550 Greek edition by Stephanus (itself based on the Textus Receptus). It included "variant readings" from 100 Greek sources, and noted thirty-thousand places of variation, leaving out most word-order variations.

Today, there are 5,700 known Greek manuscripts from the 2nd to 16th centuries, ten-thousand Vulgate manuscripts, and all-in between 200-thousand and 400-thousand variants.

The chapter closes with a section on the types of changes which occurred during copying from accidental (misreading, misunderstanding abbreviations, and line skipping) to intentional (correcting factual errors, interpretive errors, circumventing misunderstanding, adding doctrinal emphasis, synchronizing texts with oral traditions).

For me, the chapter really shatters the idea of the literal, inerrant word of God being preserved in the Bible. Of course, that doesn't mean much, as that was my bias. However, I found it fascinating at the quantity and quality of the scholarly work which has gone into clarifying the details of the variants, yet how little is spoken of it in contemporary spiritual life.

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