Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ehrman in proper context

As we wrap up Bart Ehrman's The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, it would be helpful to make a couple of points in closing to make sure we properly apprehend the value of this provocative book while being ever aware of its shortcomings. The following are given in no particular order:
  • The word corruption in Ehrman's title is misleading, probably intentionally so. This is a technical term within the field of text criticism, and Ehrman uses it in line with its technical usage. Or at least he claims to.
    The term "corruption" derives from traditional text-critical discourse, in which the "original" text (i.e., as it was actually penned by an author) is the dominant concern, with changes of that text—whether accidental or intentional—representing contaminations of that original. Not everyone, however, assigns a pejorative sense to the term. This neutral usage is found particularly among critics who recognize the problem of privileging the original text over forms of the text created during the course of transmission. . . . This takes me now to a different theoretical understanding of the significance of textual variation in the New Testament manuscripts, an understanding that derives less from traditional categories of originals and corruptions than from modern literary theories that call these categories into question. Because scribes occasionally changed their texts in "meaningful" ways, it is possible to conceptualize their activities as a kind of hermeneutical process. Reproducing a text is in some ways analogous to interpreting it. (29)

    Corruption, as Ehrman uses it, signifies no more than "change from an 'original' text" without any pejorative sense, and in fact only means that the process of transmitting a handwritten text (a manuscript) also involved processes of interpreting the text. This is very good; I have no problems here. But Ehrman well knows that corruption—as in corruption of scripture—means something entirely different and that those who judge a book by its cover (and we all do, even if some of us reserve the right to revise our judgment) will take his title to mean the falsification, degradation, et cetera of the Bible. Ehrman is too media-savy not to know this, and his many appearances in popular fora (not least the Colbert Report and the Daily Show) bank on this misconception. Ehrman is having his cake and eating it, too.
  • The vast majority of examples Ehrman adduces as examples of "the orthodox corruption of scripture" express or clarify the meaning of the reading Ehrman supports as the original reading. That is, few of the changes he discusses alters the meaning of the text to make it say something it didn't or couldn't have said before the corruption. That is, we are very often talking about appending Christ to the name Jesus, or Joseph for his father, and such like. Very few of the variants Ehrman analyzes take the text in a different direction, for example naming another Christ (say, "Brian") or a substantively different portrayal of Jesus. (See his discussion of Heb. 2.9 [146–50] for one variant that does present a substantive alteration of the original reading.) In fact, many of the changes Ehrman chalks up to orthodox corruption—meant to ward off heterodox interpretations—were just as liable to being read differently by proto-orthodox and Gnostics, or docetics, or whoever as were the uncorrupted (or pre-corrupted) texts. Notice, for example, the following cautionary note:
    We do well to recall that Gnostics were notorious among the orthodox for overlooking the "straightforward" meaning of the words of the biblical text (straightforward, that is, to the orthodox). Among other things, this means that even were a scribe to make such a corruption in light of the heretical position, the Gnostics (as least according to the heresiologists) would have remained undisturbed, because for them the words of the text were ultimately unimportant on the literal level. (173–74, n. 104)

    Don't miss what he's saying. Irrespective of how accurately this depicts actual Gnostic hermeneutical practices, Ehrman claims here that orthodox polemicists (i) made subtle changes to the NT manuscripts they transcribed in order to shore up their own particular interpretations and/or to stave off heretical readings even as (ii) they knew that heretical exegetes "would have remained undisturbed." Having cake; eating cake.
  • These criticisms notwithstanding, Ehrman has demonstrated, I think, that scribes who copied NT manuscripts were also inhabitants of their social worlds, and that inhabitation included the polemical contexts of the early church. Anyone at all acquainted with text criticism knows that scribes mistakenly made changes to their texts; just as uncontroversial is that scribes also made intentional changes from their exemplars. Ehrman establishes what we maybe should have suspected all along: That sometimes scribes' intentional changes were motivated by the debates and controversies that provided the contexts in which Christians of all stripes read the NT texts. But this may make the previous point all the more noteworthy: Given the fact that scribes modified scripture in response to how others [mis]read the texts, we should perhaps be impressed with how rarely those changes actually changed the text's meaning and significance. Stated another way, the Church Fathers certainly could engage in some fantastic, even outlandish, exegetical practice, no less than their heterodox counterparts. But Ehrman doesn't produce any examples of an orthodox exegete supporting an incredible interpretation by means of emendation.
  • Even so, we should recognize how limited in scope are the consequences of Ehrman's analyses (despite his claims to the contrary in the conclusion [274–83]). At numerous points Ehrman has rightly recognized a lack of consistency in [proto-]orthodox scribes' textual alterations. But this inconsistency stands in tension with the overall thesis of Ehrman's book, that scribes altered the text to make it say what it already meant. The fact is, sometimes they didn't. And given the historical situation Ehrman wants us to envision, inconsistency = a lack of willingness/motivation to expunge potentially difficult or ambiguous texts from scripture. Two other observations mitigate the force of Ehrman's thesis. First, many (though certainly not all) of the variants Ehrman adduces as "orthodox corruptions of scripture" simply do not bear the weight Ehrman puts upon them. For example, on pp. 237–38 he argues that, in some instances, "scribes have simply interpolated references to Jesus' 'humanness' into passages that otherwise say nothing directly about it." As an example he offers the variant at John 7.46 in \mathfrak{P}66, which changes οὐδέποτε ἐλάλησεν οὕτως ἄνθρωπος ["No one has ever spoken in this way"] to οὐδέποτε οὕτως ἄνθρωπος ἐλάλησεν ὡς οὗτος λάλει ὁ ἄνθρωπος ["No one has ever spoken the way this man speaks"]. I can readily see why Ehrman reads this variant as an anti-docetic corruption, but the supposed ambiguity of the original text, along with the "improvement" offered by the variant, do not make it so. Without any evidence that the reading in \mathfrak{P}66 actually did stave off docetic christological formulations, formulations which were sustained precisely by a certain reading of John 7.46, Ehrman's case is circumstantial at best. Second, with few exceptions Ehrman was only able to document changes within individual manuscripts and/or families of manuscripts. The larger tradition itself—what was embodied within and expressed through the surviving manuscripts—was able to absorb these corruptions without losing every trace of the original reading. Again, in a few cases the corruption (nearly) thoroughly replaced the original reading, and in a few other cases determining conclusively which reading was original and which the corruption was impossible. But for the vast majority of variants Ehrman puts forward, we could clearly differentiate earlier and later readings. In other words, the consequence of the "orthodox corruption of scripture" was fairly limited in scope.
All in all, Ehrman's book well deserves the attention we give it. He reminds us on every page that real texts were handwritten, physical objects produced by real people with real temperaments and, sometimes, real strong opinions on the debates of their day. The cold, dispassionate, objective copy of the UBS Greek New Testament or the NA27that sit on my desk—still less the modern English translations developed from them—are not the text of the New Testament transmitted through the centuries. In fact, the stable texts that give me comfort depend upon the handwritten manuscripts, with all their vagaries, not the other way around.


webulite.com said...

Ehrman does seem to one of the few folks in the field that is doing interesting work.

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Anonymous said...

The fact is that the bible books have been altered. We know of many cases. We don't know who did it and we can only guess why the text was changed, and there are probably many, many more corruptions of the text that are still unknown because it occured before the earliest recovered manuscripts.

In the face of all this, there is the attitude, "well, it's no big deal." Those who ascribe to that philosophy avoid having to deal with the hard questions, and they can pretend that christianity passes along a single unbroken set of teachings. But the truth is much more complicated.


Richard Fellows said...

Ehrman's work is of variable quality, but I was impressed with this arguments that misogynist copyist altered the tests at various points. I discussed this on my blog.

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