In a previous post I discussed “accidental” changes of the text by scribes who appear simply to have made a mistake. There are other changes that almost certainly were not made by a slip of the pen (as when an entire verse is added!) and it seems clear in these instances that scribes changed the text because they chose to do so, for one reason or another. You can never tell for certain, of course — the scribes aren’t around to interview about the matter; so it’s often a judgment call. And often the judgment is rather difficult to make and involves an interesting issue (or two).
I’ll be illustrating the issue (how to tell if a change was an accident or made on purpose) by dealing with three of the most interesting textual variants in the Gospel of Mark, one of which is an easy problem to solve, one that is a bit more difficult, and one that has generated a lot of discussion over the years and no firm consensus.
The one textual problem that seems fairly easy to resolve occurs almost right off the bat. Mark begins his Gospel by indicating that his book will be “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and then he launches into a Scriptural quotation (leading up to his introduction of John the Baptist):
“Just as was written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord”… And so on.
But in a lot of manuscripts, instead of saying that the Scripture quotation (“Behold I am sending,” etc.) comes from the writing of the prophet Isaiah, the quotation is said to be found “in the prophets.” So which is it? Did Mark say the quotation is from Isaiah or from the prophets? He almost certainly said one or the other, but scribes changed it. But which way did they change it, and why?
There are two reasons for being relatively certain about which text is the original and which is altered. The first may have occurred to you, if you have your entire Bibles memorized, as I’m sure so many of you do. The lines “Behold I am sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way” are not found in the writings of Isaiah. These words appear to be a kind of loose quotation of Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1 (the *second* part of the quotation, starting with “A voice crying in the wilderness” *does* come from Isaiah 40:3).
Now your first instinct might be to say that this would suggest that originally Mark wrote that the words came from “the prophets,” rather than from “Isaiah,” since in fact the words *don’t* come from Isaiah but from several books of the OT quoted together, so “in the prophets” would be correct and, technically speaking “in Isaiah” would be incorrect.
But your instinct is not shared by textual critics. In fact, it is precisely because “in the prophet Isaiah” is (technically) wrong, or could be seen as wrong, that critics are sure that it is what Mark originally wrote.
And why is that? It is because you have to ask yourself the question: which form of the text is the one that scribes might have found to be problematic and decided, therefore, to change? Is it one that makes perfectly good sense and is correct? Or is it one that doesn’t make good sense and seems to be incorrect? Suppose you were a scribe. Which of the two would you be more likely to want to change? Obviously the one that seems incorrect.
So text critics think that is the one that Mark originally wrote and the “improved” text is what scribes created. And their opinion is supported by one other compelling piece of evidence. It is *that* reading – the one that is harder to explain away and seems to be incorrect – that is found in all of our earliest and best manuscripts. It was only later, after the original reading had been in circulation, that a scribe (one whose change became widely accepted) altered it, so that instead of saying that a quotation that combines words from Exodus, Malachi, and Isaiah is taken from “Isaiah the prophet” it now says, unproblematically, that it is a quotation that comes from “the prophets.”
You will find this changed text (the one that is almost certainly not original) in the King James Version. You will find the other one in most of the modern translations.
Now you will have noticed that I have said that this original form of the text is “technically” speaking a mistake. Some interpreters would argue that it’s not really a mistake. In their view, the author, Mark, is simply indicating the most prominent of the three books as the source for a quotation that he has taken from parts of all of them. The textual critic – when she or he is working strictly as a textual critic – is not concerned about that question of whether the text is *really* a mistake or not.
The textual critic in a matter such as this is interested in two things and two things only:
- What is the oldest form of the text that we can establish? In this case, it is almost certainly “in Isaiah the prophet.”
- Why, when, and how was the text changed? In this case: it was changed because the original text could be perceived as a problem/mistake/error; it was changed by at least the year 400 or so, since that is the approximate date of the manuscripts that start having it; and it was changed by altering the words to say “in the prophets.”
Once the textual critic has established what the text actually *said* then interpreters can approach the text and explain what it *means* (in this case, explain why it is or is not an actual mistake). But they can’t do that until they know what words to interpret. That’s why textual criticism is such a foundational discipline within the field of New Testament studies. You can’t really do much of anything else without it.