Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Ehrman on 1 John 4.3

In the third chapter of his book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), Ehrman turns to "Anti-Separationist Corruptions of Scripture" (119–80). The structure of this chapter follows that of the previous chapter, beginning with a brief description of the proto-orthodox perception of the heterodoxy in question and then text-critical analyses of (potentially) relevant variant readings. As I mentioned in two previous posts, Ehrman needs to do a little more work to demonstrate that certain variants did participate in the christological polemics against which he interprets them, whether (i) to show that these variants were read the way Ehrman reads them, or (ii) that the scribe made the change in order for them to be read the way Ehrman reads them.1

So I really enjoyed the opening text-critical discussion in this chapter. Ehrman considers at length a variant at 1 John 4.3 that has recently (in the last hundred years or so) found favor among scholars from a wide range of idealogical and/or theological perspectives (125–35). In the majority of witnesses—including every extant Greek mss—the opening of 1 John 4.3 reads, "And every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God" [καὶ πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔστιν]. However, a number of Latin witnesses—with roots as far back as the late-second century—read, "every spirit that looses Jesus" [πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ λύει τὸν Ἰησοῦν]. Ehrman's discussion of the relevant documentary, linguistic, and theological issues (125–27; 127–30; 130–34) is excellent. Though I have a few minor quibbles here and there, Ehrman provides compelling explanations for all the relevant data.

Perhaps most significantly, the data Ehrman analyzes in the case of this variant provides exactly the kind of evidence I would like to have seen more of in the previous chapter. First, the Greek and Latin Fathers who quote 1 John 4.3 in terms of "loosing/separating" Jesus do so in polemical contexts. So even if we cannot identify the original change from "acknowledges" to "looses"—and so we cannot get at the motivations behind that change—here we clearly have a variant that did, in fact, participate in proto-orthodox debates with heterodox christological positions.

Second, Ehrman notes that a number of Fathers know and cite both readings of 1 John 4.3, including Origen, Tertullian, and Priscillian (128). The Fathers' apparent approval—simultaneously!—of both readings seems to minimize the difference between the two readings. That is, at least in some contexts, "not acknowledging" Jesus [μὴ ὁμολογεῖ] meant "loosing" Jesus [λύει]. I was very pleased to see Ehrman coming to pretty much the same conclusion:
In all likelihood [this variant] did not originate as a simple scribal error. In fact, it may well have not originated as a textual variant at all, but as a recapitulation of the text's "meaning" in the context of proto-orthodox christological polemics, that is as an interpretive paraphrase that was later incorporated as an orthodox corruption. "Not to confess Jesus" during the Gnostic controversies meant (for the proto-orthodox) to adopt a Gnostic Christology, a Christology that separated Jesus from the Christ. Anyone who accepted such a view was "not from God." (134; my emphasis)

This gets at the distinction I made in my previous post between "what the text says about Jesus," on the one hand, and "the words used to say what the text says about Jesus," on the other. Here we have a compelling glimpse of the important differences between our cultural perceptions of text as fixed sequences of words and ancient perceptions of text that allowed for significantly more fluidity. (See my discussion of the reproduction of Isa. 61.1–2, which interpolates a line from Isa. 58.6, at Luke 4.18–19 in chapter six of Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance, and Text.) Ehrman's analysis brings these important differences into clearer focus.

1 Of course, as I mentioned earlier, Ehrman balks at this second point precisely because of the difficulties in establishing a scribe's intentions (see pp. 28; 44, n. 110; 103, n. 55). This caveat seems to make Ehrman's work more rigorous, but in the end it allows him to include any variant he can interpret in terms of christological polemics as instances of "orthodox corruption of scripture" without having to demonstrate actual historical connections between those polemics and the variants at hand. I'm not unsympathetic to Ehrman's problem here. Since scribes never flag a reading in the NT mss they're copying and identify the reason for that reading, the evidence I would want to see likely never existed at all. Even so, given how tenuous the connection between some variants Ehrman discusses as "anti-adoptionistic" corruptions, some closer argumentation seems required.

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