Friday, July 23, 2010

identifying "anti-adoptionistic" corruptions of scripture

The second chapter of Bart Ehrman's The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford University Press, 1993) sets out to examine "Anti-Adoptionistic Corruptions of Scripture" (47–118), or changes to manuscripts of the NT meant to ward off interpretations that Jesus "became" God's s/Son (or was "adopted") at some point, whether at his baptism, his resurrection, or whatever. Ehrman well knows that identifying the motivations (theological or otherwise) of any given variant is highly problematic (see pp. 28; 44, n. 110; 103, n. 55). He therefore focuses on the function of variants: "Some changes of the text . . . function to establish the orthodox character of the text, either by promoting more fully an orthodox understanding of Christ or by circumventing the heretical use of a text in support of an aberrant teaching" (28).

Even in light of this very important nuance, Ehrman's argument runs into problems precisely on the issue of identifying anti-adoptionistic variants (whether in terms of intention or function). For example, he assumes that references to Joseph as Jesus' father could be read as implying that Jesus was not (yet) God's son, and so changes to these references represent "anti-adoptionistic corruptions." But this assumption runs into problems very early on. In his brief discussion of a Syriac translation of Matthew, Ehrman points to the variants at 1.16 and 25:
The fifth-century scribe of this manuscript was either thoughtless in the extreme or somewhat inclined to see Joseph as Jesus' actual father, for he concludes Matthew's genealogy of Jesus with the words "Jacob begot Joseph; Joseph, to whom was betrothed the virgin Mary, begot Jesus, who is called the Christ" (Matt 1:16). Similarly, the following pericope ends not with the statement that Joseph "had no relations with her [Mary] until she bore a son," but with the curious observation that Mary "bore to him [i.e., Joseph] a son" (1:25). (54)

To be sure, Ehrman does not read this as an anti-adoptionistic corruption; instead, the variants at 1.16, 25 "were produced from carelessness rather than intent" (54). He concludes his discussion of this particular scribe's carelessness: "Since there is almost no reason to construe any of the manuscript's variant readings as original in these cases, once can only conclude that the scribe was simply inattentive to the doctrinal ramifications of some of his changes" (55; my emphasis).

Notice that Ehrman assumes here that variants "have" doctrinal ramifications; the readings in question, by themselves and (almost) ontologically, support a certain theological position even though Ehrman doesn't attribute this position to this particular scribe (remember, the scribe was careless rather than theologically motivated). After all, this same scribe apparently chose not to "eliminate the word 'virgin' (παρθένος, v. 23) or to modify the clear statements that Joseph had no sexual relations with Mary" (55). Since the variant readings at Matt. 1.16, 25 "have" their particular theological significances, the scribe responsible for these readings was either (i) advocating an adoptionist christology, or (ii) unaware of his changes' adoptionistic import. This scribe "appears to have understood his own formulation—if he understood it at all—in the sense that Joseph became Jesus' father (through adoption?), although he was not his actual father" (102, n. 48; my emphasis).

But there's a third option for understanding this scribe's admittedly peculiar transcription. (iii) Even a statement as seemingly clear as "Joseph . . . begot Jesus" do not mean what we think they mean, i.e., that Jesus was conceived via a sexual act between Joseph and Mary. Don't misunderstand; a moment of carelessness and conformity to a pattern (x begot y) may very well explain this particular text. But note that, even with the strange reading, "Joseph . . . begot Jesus," 1.16 still breaks with the regular pattern "x begot y" to explain that Joseph was betrothed to Mary. And in the very context of claiming "Joseph . . . begot Jesus," the text affirms Mary's virginal state at conception/begetting! For this scribe at least (and presumably he was not completely idiosyncratic!), Joseph "begtting" [γεννάω] Jesus did not preclude either the virgin birth or, by implication, Jesus' status as God's s/Son.

At other places Ehrman mentions variants that I simply do not see as directly relevant for the adoptionist controversy. Notice, for example, the following:
The text of Luke 3:23 would presumably have caused orthodox scribes few problems, since it explicitly states that Joseph was not Jesus' real father, but was only "supposed" to have been. Nonetheless it is striking that in two of our Greek witnesses (W 579) the genealogy of Joseph that follows is deleted altogether. It is difficult to judge what may have led scribes, either those of our manuscripts or those of their exemplars, to omit some fifteen verses from their text; but perhaps they recognized the incongruity of tracing Joseph's ancestry back to Adam in a story about Jesus, when Joseph was in fact not Jesus' father (as the text of v. 23 itself indicates).

Here Ehrman reads the alteration of a useful text for anti-adoptionistic readings as (potentially) an anti-adoptionistic corruption. This strikes me as having his cake and eating it, too; if Luke 3.23 did not equivocate on Jesus' relation to Joseph [ὢν υἱός, ὡς νομίζετο, Ἰωσὴφ], and if these two Greek witnesses excised Joseph's genealogy, then this would clearly be an anti-adoptionistic corruption. The fact, then, that "some modern scholars have seen in the genealogy an implicit challenge to the notion that Jesus had no earthly father" (56–57) does not justify reading W and 579 as anti-adoptionist corruptions. So "some modern scholars" read the Lukan genealogy as potentially adoptionistic; did anyone int he ancient world ever read Luke 3 this way? For his argument to work, Ehrman needs to adduce evidence that specific variants did function anti-adoptionistically (e.g., see Luke 2.33), not merely that specific variants can so function.

Finally, this brings up a second methodological problem with Ehrman's argument. Ehrman focuses so clearly and so intensely on individual variants that he does not address whether a particular manuscript exhibits anti-adoptionistic tendencies.1 It's one thing to show that a given manuscript makes a change at Luke 2.33 and/or 2.48 (see pp. 55–56); it's another to show that that manuscript consistently clarifies ambiguous readings in anti-adoptionistic ways. This, apparently, is a problem for Ehrman's thesis, because he acknowledges that the scribes do not seem "to have been thoroughly consistent or rigorous in their attempts to rid the text of latent ambiguities and so to eliminate the possiblity [sic] of interpreting these texts in adoptionistic terms" (58). But Ehrman's thesis is precisely that scribes were motivated to clarify scripture, to make it say what it already meant. I, at least, find it unsatisfying that now he's willing to concede a lack of motivation in this direction. If a scribe didn't consistently change his text in a particular direction, then how can we with any confidence suppose that any specific change was meant to move the tradition in that direction?

Ironically, at this point where his thesis is the thinnest, I think Ehrman gets it the most right. Notice that he's conceding a point that undermines his larger thesis while trying to paint that point as congruent with his thesis.
[T]he majority of orthodox Christians, and presumably orthodox scribes, could live perfectly well with the text as originally written, interpreting it, that is, according to orthodox criteria and beliefs. Furthermore, the very process of transmitting texts was itself a radically conservative process. These scribes understood that they were conserving rather than creating tradition. (58)

Indeed. And however clearly Ehrman sees this, I think we can all accept that the reception of Ehrman's work—both among academics and in the popular media—has neglected this aspect of his work. That is, does anyone think of Ehrman as "that guy who thinks Christian scribes conserved rather than created the text of the NT"? Colbert could be forgiven for overlooking this aspect of his work.

1 Let me stress that I am dealing with Ehrman's argument up to this point (viz., p. 61); it may be that Ehrman addresses this issue at some later point. He does provide some response on p. 58, though I find his discussion there inadequate.

[Postscript: I also note the following humorous (but petty) "transcriptional" error. I appreciate how difficult it is to write and edit a book; it's impossible to spot and correct every mistake. Even so, I laughed out loud at Starbucks when I read the reference to "Revelations 2:2" on p. 36, n. 26. I'm sure Ehrman knows the actual name of John's ΑΠΟΚΑΛΥΨΙΣ, but it's especially funny since every academic hates this particular error.]

Thursday, July 22, 2010

how little things have changed

I've assigned Steve Mason's helpful book, Josephus and the New Testament (Second edition; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), for my World of the New Testament course. Mason offers a fascinating précis of the interpretation of Josephus in early Christian writers as part of his explanation of the preservation of Josephus's writings (9–19). That interpretation exhibits a special fascination with Josephus's account of a mother who ate her infant son due to starvation during the final stages of the siege of Jerusalem (War 6.201–13). Mason briefly chronicles how early Christians writers read Josephus's description of Jerusalem's destruction apologetically, and how this reading distorted Josephus' actual account. For these writers, "Josephus's account of the war could be used as apparent proof of the Christian belief that the Jews had become God's enemies by rejecting Jesus and the claims of his followers" (19; original emphasis).

In light of how early Christians removed Josephus from his Jewish milieu and "domesticated [him] to Christian use" (16), and given the distortions that resulted from this domestication, I wonder what effects our reading of NT texts outside their Jewish milieux (and subsequent domestications?) have had on our interpretations of those texts. From our perspective, which takes Josephus's Jewishness at face value, the early Christians' ways of reading Josephus appears strange, even falsified. Might our ways of reading of NT texts eventually seem strange, even falsified?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

yes, but no: reading Bart Ehrman

I'm reading Bart D. Ehrman's book (Is it a classic yet? I suspect it is.), 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), which I've assigned to my History of New Testament Interpretation students. My interest in Ehrman's work stems primarily in his careful reading of actual ancient texts (rather than modern critical editions of ancient texts), though in my exposure to Ehrman thus far I can't help but think he moves too quickly and too easily from the data to his conclusions.

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It's taking me a long time to work through this book, precisely because it takes so much effort to disentangle the helpful bits from the problematic bits. Usually I wouldn't think the effort was worth it, but when Ehrman is insightful I typically think he's very insightful. Here, for starters, are some of the points I find especially helpful, with my comments interspersed.
The documents of this new canon could be circulated, of course, only to the extent that they were copied. And they were copied by warm-blooded scribes who were intimately familiar with the debates over doctrine that made their scribal labors a desideratum. It was within this milieu of controversy that scribes sometimes changed their scriptural texts to make them say what they were already known to mean. (xii; Ehrman's emphases)

New Testament critics have become accustomed over the last two centuries or so asking how the social, historical, and rhetorical situations in which authors wrote and readers read affected the texts in question. Ehrman reminds us that, prior to Gutenberg's revolution in book-making, every stage of book-production (especially the stage[s] of scribal transmission) was subject to socio-historical and -rhetorical processes. As my subsequent comments on Ehrman's argument will bear out, I think "changed" is perhaps too strong a term (at least in the way Ehrman uses it). But certainly copying a manuscript involved clarifying the text's wording in service of its meaning. For those of us who privilege a text's wording over its meaning (which is a distinctly post-Enlightenment development; at least, this is a working assumption I bring to the table and am interested in testing throughout the course of my career), this seems a very foreign perspective on the task of "copying" a written manuscript.

A little further on, Ehrman writes about the task that "intellectual historians" (and let's be wary of the exclusionary value of the adjective here) set for themselves:
Intellectual historians may be able to adjudicate some of the historical claims of the various Christian groups—their claims, that is, to stand in basic continuity with earlier forms of Christian belief. But by their very nature the historical disciplines do not allow for judgments in any ultimate sense concerning who was "right" and who was "wrong." (12)

I think Ehrman has a rather clear sense of what history can offer us here. Historians can investigate the historical contexts and dynamics of the Christian faith, but they cannot validate (or falsify) that faith. I admit I'm a little skeptical of how he will "adjudicate some of the historical claims of the various Christian groups" precisely because Ehrman, in the words of the Washington Post's Neely Tucker, "peered so hard into the origins of Christianity that he lost his faith altogether" ("The Book of Bart," March 5, 2006). That's nonsense, not because history can only confirm Christianity's truth but because historians, qua historians, aren't looking for their faith. They're looking for the realia of life in the past, and the Gospel of Thomas is as much a historical artifact as are Paul's letters (even if some of us don't look for our faith in Thomas like we do in Romans or Philippians).1 In my experience, it's hard for both historians and theologians (including Ehrman; including also myself) to respect the boundaries that distinguish the various disciplines.

So I appreciate what Ehrman's doing, even if I'm taking a critical stance toward his book from the very beginning. And there's lots to give us pause. As one example, in Ehrman's apologia for continuing to use the labels orthodoxy and heresy, he says:
For it is a historical fact that, owing to a variety of reasons, one group within early Christianity achieved social dominance and enforced its views on other groups that had supported divergent opinions. Looked at in sociohistorical terms, orthodoxy and heresy are concerned as much with struggles over power as with debates over ideas. (12; my emphasis)

This is hardly a historical fact. At what point in Christian history (even up to the twenty-first century, let alone before the fifth) did a single, monolithic group ever come to dominate the entire Christian church? Certainly ecclesial centers tried—with varying levels of success—to exercise control over other groups; Rome was never the only church to flex its muscles when a church somewhere else began to teach or do something someone found unnerving. Rome also wasn't the only church to find its efforts to control churches in other areas successful sometimes and at other times ineffectual. My point is that not just Christianity (broadly conceived) but orthodoxy itself exhibits a surprising measure of diversity. And if so, I'm just not sure how Ehrman's thesis will pan out.

But there's still lots of book to go, and we'll have to encounter his arguments as he makes them. Hopefully we'll find much to learn from Ehrman. And where we find his argument unconvincing, hopefully we'll sharpen and refine our own argument.

1 Indeed, most graduate students in a program such as the one in which I teach need to realize the difference between historical and theological investigations—the different questions and modes of inquiry relevant to each, the variant traditions of thought constraining each, and the different rhetorical postures relevant (and appropriate) to each.

Monday, July 12, 2010

welcome to BIBL 5203

[This is a slightly modified re-posting from July, 2008 (the original post is available here).]

I'd like to welcome all the students enrolled in my online course, The History of New Testament Interpretation. Students can find posts specifically relevant for this course by clicking on the label, BIBL 5203, available below.

In the previous version of this course, students found the following comment regarding the concomitant dangers of biblical interpretation:
Bernard Ramm reminds us that biblical interpretation is a demanding task, since our approach and procedures must be made explicit. Quite simply, we must avoid the error of making interpretations on the basis of speculation and we must avoid making them arbitrarily and dogmatically. Proper interpretation requires allowing the text to challenge and modify our prior assumptions about its meaning. Interpretation requires a courageous commitment to pursue the truth wherever it may lead.

I would like to take a moment to make this point a bit more forcefully.

For the last few years I have been thinking on-and-off about the idea that the Bible is a "dangerous," or even "offensive" text. I don't mean "offensive" in the same sense that Don Imus or Jesse Jackson are offensive; I mean "offensive" in the way Peyton Manning or LeBron James are offensive. The biblical text moves forward; it advances; it makes claims on the lives of those who read it, and if we're not careful (and especially if we are!), we will find the text calling us into question. Though I hesitate to cite Tolkien here, Frodo's recollection of Bilbo's caution seems apt here:
Remember what Bilbo used to say: "It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Reading the Bible is similarly dangerous; studying the Bible only compounds the risk. For those of us who define ourselves in terms of our reading of biblical texts and who believe that problems attend not only to the wide world around us but also the hidden world inside us, the voice of God we strive to hear from the inscribed page continually threatens the safe and stable identities and identifications we have made for ourselves. Though "Protestant" does not define my attachment to Christianity (except to the extent that I am not "Catholic")—still less does the label "Reformed"—I have strong sympathies with the Reformation cry Reformata Semper Reformanda ("reformed yet always reforming" [in this context I intentionally elide Ecclesia, though I do not espouse an individualistic conception of Christianity]). I have been transformed/reformed, yes; but that transformation has not neutered the Bible or rendered me any less prone to its discipline, rebuke, and chastisement.

Surrendering to this offensive movement of the biblical text is (or ought to be) at the heart of what it means to be a confessing Christian, and especially (if not uniquely) an evangelical Christian. In this vein I was pleased to read Donna Freitas's observation, in a vastly different context, regarding students at evangelical institutions of higher education [nb: Freitas herself does not self-identify as an evangelical]:
When I tell friends and colleagues about the different groups of students who participated in this study, antievangelical prejudices surface over and over. Many people believe that evangelical Christians are not intellectual, that there is little nuance to their beliefs, and that they are not capable of sustaining a well-reasoned argument. But there is nearly as much diversity inside evangelical culture as there is outside of it. And time after time during my interviews, these stereotypes were shattered. [Two female students] epitomize the complexity of personal and religious identities common among the evangelical students I interviewed — perfect examples of the committed Christian who grows intellectually and learns to push boundaries and think hard about her place in the world because of her own and her college's intense faith commitments, not in spite of them. Although, to be sure, I met stereotypical Religious Right types, I also encountered a wide range of political persuasions. (Freitas, Sex and the Soul, 62–63; original emphasis)

Freitas may be focusing on political or ideological diversity among evangelicals, but I would like to draw attention to her comment about "the committed Christian who grows . . . because of her" faith. This is, of course, a romantic and backward-looking description of evangelical Christians, told from the perspective of their ultimate (if still ongoing) success in negotiating their identity and location within the wider world.

But from the forward-looking perspective at the beginning of biblical research (remember, this is only the beginning of the semester!) we need to realize that things look very different indeed. Researching and (hopefully) understanding the biblical text with greater clarity and sophistication does not bring comfort and succor. Rather, it augments the intensity with which the text calls us to account, highlights the situatedness of ourselves at the center of our lives as God looks on from outside, and warns ever more clearly that all that is chaff will be burned in his purifying judgment. Certainly the Bible comforts us, but the Bible's comfort is precisely that all this discomfort comes from the hands of a loving and merciful God.

As we examine how the church has read and utilized the NT texts throughout the last two millennia, we ought to be prepared to find ourselves in the highs and lows of the church's history. This finding, I hope, will add depth to our readings of the texts and resonance to the voice we hear speaking from the page and summoning us to incline our ear to his counsel.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

What is a Ioudaios?

BDAG, the standard Greek-English lexicon for NT and early Christian scholarship, gives the following two extended definitions for Ἰουδαῖος, αία, αῖον:
  • pert. to being Judean (Jewish), with focus on adherence to Mosaic tradition, Judean;

  • one who is Judean (Jewish), with focus on adherence to Mosaic tradition, a Judean

The question of how to translate Ἰουδαῖος is a tricky one. Does it primarily delimit a set of religious and/or idealogical persuasions, and so mean Jew/Jewish? Or is it rather a geographical and/or ethnic marker, and so mean Judean? BDAG's extended definitions of Ἰουδαῖος recognize the difficulty inasmuch as give "Jewish" in parentheses, but in its glosses BDAG clearly prefers Judean to Jew (which it doesn't offer). This is, in my impression, in line with the current standard position among scholars of Second Temple Judaism, Christian origins, and the New Testament.

Even so, the preference for a geographical/ethnic referent cannot quite shake the religious/idealogical connotations. After the second definition, given above, BDAG offers the following:
Since Jerusalem sets the standard for fidelity to Israel's tradition, and since Jerusalem is located in Judea, Ἰ. frequently suggests conformity to Israel's ancestral belief and practice. in turn, the geographical name provided outsiders with a term that applied to all, including followers of Jesus, who practiced customs variously associated with Judea (note the Roman perception Ac 18:15 ['Judeans' at Corinth]; 23:28).

In his book Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), Daniel Boyarin argues that "Judaism," as a religion, didn't exist before it was invented by early Christian heresiologists (beginning with Justin Martyr) as a foil against which "Christianity" could be defined. In other words, "Christianity" ≠ "Judaism," but before there was a "Christianity" there was no "Judaism." In yet other words, whereas today we think of "Jew" [Ἰουδαῖος] as a belonging to the same class as words like "Christian," "Muslim," "Buddhist," "Hindu," etc. (all of these are examples of religious adherents), before the rise of Christianity "Jew" [Ἰουδαῖος] belonged to a different class, other examples of which include "Roman," "Greek," "Persian," "Egyptian," "Asian," "Syrian," etc.

There's a lot of insight here, but we still need to exercise an inordinate amount of caution. Whereas geographical/ethnic markers today don't necessarily connote religious identity (what do "Europeans" or "Asians" or "Africans" think about God/god/the transcendent?), they clearly did in the ancient world. Being "Roman" or "Egyptian" meant something about your religious beliefs in addition to your national/ethnic identity; if you were "Roman" ethnically but not religiously, that was something to comment on (cp. the complaint against Paul and Silas in Acts 16.20–21). For example, note the description of Dositheus in 3 Maccabees 1.3:
But Ptolemy was taken out of harm's way by Dositheus, called the son of Drimylus, a Judean by race [τὸ γένος Ἰουδαῖος] who later changed his customs [μεταβαλὼν τὰ νόμιμα] and became estranged from his ancestral beliefs [τῶν πατρίων δογμάτων ἀπηλλοτριωμένος].

Surely it's significant, given the questions we've been asking about Ἰουδαῖος for over two decades, that Dositheus's status as a Ἰουδαῖος required qualification (it was "by race" only) because he wasn't a Ἰουδαῖος as the term was normally understood. He may have been a Judean, but he was no longer a Jew.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

another great turn of phrase

In his discussion of the Son of Man in Luke's gospel, Benjamin Reynolds uses the following phrase (in italics). I'm not sure if this was intentional:
Also, the Son of Man's appearance on that day will be like lightning (17.24; cf. Matt 24.27), and as noted above, lightning is commonly associated with the appearance of God (Exod 19.16; 2 Sam 22.15//Ps 18.14; Ps 77.17–18; 97.4; Ezek 1.13; Hab 3.11; Zech 9.14). Strikingly, the Messiah in 2 Baruch is also depicted as lightning (53.8–9; 70.9–10). (emphasis added)1

1 Benjamin E. Reynolds, The Apocalyptic Son of Man in the Gospel of John (WUNT II 249; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 75.

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