In my previous post I pointed out that scribes sometimes changed the manuscripts of the New Testament in order to make them more theologically “orthodox,” that is, more in line with theological views of (most of) the scribes who were copying the texts in the second and third centuries.  Five points I would like to emphasize about that phenomenon (if you want a fuller analysis, this is the topic of my study, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effects of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament).

  1. It would be a very big mistake to think that this was the main reason scribes changed their texts (as I’ve said my entire life, even if many people haven’t noticed!)
  2. These changes were never done consistently or throughly, at least in any of our surviving manuscripts, and that suggests it was an ad hoc affair, happening now and then as a scribe decided to modify a passage.  So far as we can tell it was never done on orders from on high.  That is, we don’t know of a bishop or other church leader requesting something like a cleansing / rewriting of the text.
  3. The changes could come in two major forms:

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    sometimes a text was changed because it could in theory (or was in practice!) used to argue a “false” theological view, and the change would help circumvent that “mis”reading; and sometimes a text was changed by adding a theological view to it that was otherwise lacking.
  4. When I say these changes were “intentional” I’m using the term cautiously.  Some of these changes almost certainly had to be made on purpose (they often couldn’t simply be slips of the pen).  But since we are obviously not able to read the minds of unknown scribes from many centuries ago, it is impossible to say “This is DEFINITELY why he changed the text.”  The changes I’m referring to DO affect the theology of the text in an orthodox way, but inferring intention is … inference!  That’s always the case when it comes to discerning intention, of course.  I can right now be inferring why you will be reading this post and you can be inferring why I’m writing it, and we both have a reasonably good chance of being right.  But there’s no way to know.  What we can know with greater certainty is that the changes I’m referring to certainly functioned to make the text more orthodox, and given the number of such changes we find in a period where the controversies over correct theology were HOT, to say the least, it’s not unreasonable to suspect the polemically-charged context of the scribes affected their polemically-useful textual changes.
  5. What I’m calling “intentional” changes of the text became less and less frequent in the fourth and later centuries, as scribes came to be better trained and the text come to be seen as more inviolable.   But as it turns out, we have very good reasons for thinking that most of the changes of the NT text occurred in the 2nd – 3rd centuries, even when our only surviving *evidence* of them comes to us from later manuscripts.

With all that said, I can move to the topic of this thread, the related question of whether scribes were also affected not only by the raging debates concerning theology at the time, but also by the increasing opposition to Judaism.  The evidence in this case is nowhere near as abundant, but I think the answer is nonetheless a clear yes.

Here’s the overview of the matter I give in my article “The Text as Window,” referenced in my previous two posts (and, as you’ll see, it is written for scholars).  After this I will do a post on one of the most intriguing examples.


  1. Jewish-Christian Relations and the Rise of Christian Anti-Judaism

One particularly fruitful area of research since the 1940s has been the study of early Jewish-Christian relations and the rise of Christian anti-Judaism. Rooted in the solid researches of Jules Isaac and Marcel Simon, and motivated in no small measure by the provocative thesis of Rosemary Ruether – that Christianity has by its very nature always been anti-Jewish – scholars of both the NT and later Christianity have produced a voluminous outpouring of literature that discusses the relation of Christianity to its Jewish matrix.[i]

How did the conflicts with Judaism that are evident throughout the first three Christian centuries affect scribes who reproduced the texts of Scripture? The question has regrettably not received the extended study it deserves. To be sure, even before World War II scholars had observed that some MSS preserve textual variants that are related to the conflicts. Particularly worthy of mention are Heinrich Joseph Vogels and J. Rendell Harris, both of whom argued that the anti-Judaic tendencies of Tatian’s Diatessaron had influenced several of the surviving witnesses.[ii] For instance, the Curetonian Syriac modifies the announcement that Jesus will save “his people” from their sins (Matt 1:21) to say that he will save “the world.” So too, some Syriac and Latin witnesses of the Fourth Gospel change Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:22 to indicate that salvation comes “from Judea” rather than “from the Jews.” Among the most intriguing of the nearly two dozen examples that these (and other) scholars have discussed is the omission in some MSS of Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) – an omission that makes particularly good sense if Jesus is understood to be asking God to forgive the Jews responsible for his crucifixion.[iii]

As already mentioned, the most significant study of anti-Jewish influences on the text of the NT has been Epp’s evaluation of Codex Bezae in Acts. Following earlier suggestions that the Western tradition may preserve an “anti-Judaic” bias, Epp made a compelling case that many of the Bezan variants in Acts stand over against non-Christian Judaism.[iv] Even though Epp did not pursue the question of Sitz im Leben for this kind of scribal activity [that is, the historical context that led to the changes], its social context in early Christian polemics against the Jews is nonetheless manifest. Future studies could profitably explore in greater detail the significance of this polemical milieu for the textual tradition of the NT.[v]



[i] The literature is too extensive to detail here. For bibliography and informed discussion see John Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) 11-34; and more briefly, idem, “Judaism as Seen by Outsiders,” in Early Judaism and Its Modern Interpreters (ed. Robert A. Kraft and George W. E. Nickelsburg; Philadelphia: Fortress; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986) 99-116. The foundational works include Jules Isaac, Jesus and Israel (trans. Sally Gran; ed. Claire Hachet Bishop; New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971; French original, 1948); Marcel Simon, Verus Israel: A Study of the Relations between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire (135-425) (trans. H. McKeating; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986; French original, 1964); and Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots ofAnti-Semitism (New York: Seabury, 1974).

[ii] Vogels, Handbuch der Textkritik des Neuen Testaments (2d ed.; Bonn: Hanstein, 1955; 1st ed., 1923) 178; Harris, “Was the Diatesseron Anti-Judaic?”

[iii] For recent discussion and bibliography, see Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV) (AB 28A; Garden City, NY. Doubleday, 1985) 1503-4.

[iv] For his predecessors, see Epp, Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae, 21-26; in particular, one might mention the study of Menoud, “Western Text.”

[v] On the positive effects of Judaism on the MS tradition of the NT (seen, e.g., in the predisposition among early Christians to dispose of texts rather than destroy them), see Colin H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society, and Belief in Early Christian Egypt (Schweich Lectures 1977; London: Oxford University Press, 1979).