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How Can You Know A Scribe’s Intentions?

My next step in this thread about my  book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture will be to discuss the various Christological views known from the second century (Docetic Christologies, adoptionic Christologies, separationist Christologies; and Modalistic Christologies), and then I will try to show how textual changes made by scribes in the period reflect opposition to this, that or the other Christology, in support of the “Proto-orthodox” Christology that came to dominate the early Christian tradition.

Before doing that, I need to clear out one final piece of underbrush.  The argument of my book was that Christological changes of the text were “intentional” not simply accidental.  But that raises a very large question that I have not addressed on the blog, even though I have discussed intentional changes a number of times.  It is this:  how can we determine the “intention” of a scribe?

This is part of a much larger question that literary scholars have dealt with for many decades now, going back at least to the middle of the twentieth century, to what is called “New Criticism” in the field of literary theory.  In the good ole days, before New Criticism came along, a scholar would interpret a text by showing what it must have meant based on what the author was intending to do.  But the New Critics pointed out that we don’t have any access to an author’s intentions, only to his or her final product.  So how can you use something you don’t have access to in order to explain that which you do have access to?   (How can something you don’t know explain anything?)

The problem is even deeper.   Suppose

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Early Christian Docetism
How Consistent are Orthodox Corruptions of Scripture?



  1. Avatar
    Brian  September 25, 2015

    The position of the New Critics on this issue presupposes a rather naive Cartesian theory of mind in which the mind is transparent to itself and the agent has “privileged access” his intentions and other mental contents, which are taken to be essentially private. But that view is wholly untenable, and belied by our ability to correctly assess intentions of others with high accuracy in everyday life. How do we do this? By examining the action in its context.

  2. Avatar
    Jana  September 26, 2015

    I’m wondering if the procedural approach that you will be apply wouldn’t also be applicable to today’s news reporting as well 🙂 ! I am eager to read your next book. On another sad note, my pueblo is enduring the worst chikungunya epidemic ever .. almost all of my students are sick. It is very painful and life threatening and few here have enough money for mosquito repellent.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2015

      so sorry to hear it. Is there any way to get money to your community for nets and repellent?

      • Avatar
        Jana  September 29, 2015

        That’s very kind of you to ask and thank you … I’m not sure because I haven’t investigated. But my attorney is a recognized and licensed “Humanitarian” Attorney and I will ask him tomorrow (Tuesday Sept. 29). It would have to be done through his channels because this country is tracking almost every dollar sent from the US in its continual drug money laundering crack down. It’s awful here … there have been 20 chikungunyga related deaths in the past 2.5 weeks and this is a small pueblo. Everyone knows quickly. I’ve been advised not to even go outside because there is no remedy. Only prevention and a medication called periseptimal for pain … no other pain medications can be taken … but then few people here can even afford this. It’s the children affected that cause me the most sadness. Your next blog on suffering … a Creator God theology cannot explain nor justify suffering.

        • Avatar
          Jana  September 29, 2015

          Oh and my ethic is much like yours … not a cent will ever go to either me nor my attorney or anyone else directly involved. It’s 100% clarity.

          • Avatar
            Jana  September 29, 2015

            Good morning and again many thanks Dr. Ehrman. Would you prefer that I continue communication through email? I spoke with my attorney Lic Rodrigo Rodriguez, who is a very good unassuming man and helps everyone (including legalizing gay and lesbian weddings in Catholic Mexico) without bias. All of his legal work for the Maya is free as well. He once was a hot shot Mexico City attorney working for one of Mexico’s past presidents. He tells me it will take us two to three weeks to set up a non profit that will meet Mexico’s drug money laundering prevention guidelines.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 29, 2015

            Yes, do send me an email with information about how it can be done.

          • Avatar
            Jana  October 3, 2015

            Again I want to thank you so very very much Dr. Ehrman! It’s been so grim here with another death last night. I will dedicate my practices to you and your organization. My attorney and I are working on the pper work. We reached out to other all ready established non profits to possibly expedite but the hurdles are proving to be too great so we are continuing with our own. There isn’t any organized relief in this pueblo so your contribution is so welcomed. Thank you again!!

          • Bart
            Bart  October 5, 2015

            I’m so sorry to hear about the situation. Do let us know how/if we can send some resources.

  3. Avatar
    moose  September 27, 2015

    The only thing I find difficult to agree with is that a scribe could be set in such a position allowing only one man to make these textual changes. That I find hard to believe. This was, after all, considered very sacred texts. Some form of proofreading must have been both required by the Christian community, and desired by the scribe. How can we now that these textual changes was based on only one scribe’s intention, and not on the thoughts of a Christian community?

    (I enjoyed your discussion with Kyle Butt)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2015

      Ultimately the scribes *were* part of a community. But whether the community had any say in what a scribe wrote is another matter (manuscripts were usually not copied by committee)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 18, 2015

      “This was, after all, considered very sacred texts.” Within the first century the NT writings didn’t possess even remotely the level of sanctity that they do today, so altering them wouldn’t have been nearly as sacrilegious then as it would be today. Even the Masoretes who were copying the Tanakh well into the Common Era would, on occassion, “correct” the Hebrew text where they found an error, poor spelling or poor grammar (so-called plene). In one case, the Masoretes even bowlderized Hebrew words for human effluvia (we’re all adults here; they replaced Hebrew words for “shit” and “piss”) with more euphemistic words (2 Kings 18:26). You can see it today in the current Masoretic text, where you’ll see the original Hebrew word, without nikkudot (meaning they shouldn’t be read), next to the scribe’s correction or replacement word with nikkudot. And we’re talking about the Torah, here; the supposedly perfect word of the creator of the universe, being corrected. So…

  4. Avatar
    moose  September 29, 2015

    Heh heh. My grammatical mistake were certainly not intended – at least. I suppose foreign language is just not my strength.

  5. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  October 11, 2015

    You make it pretty clear how difficult it would be to know a scribe’s motivation behind this or that apparently deliberate change. But I would like to suggest that, when you use language like “in order to” (3rd par. from the end: ….’my book looked at changes of the text that functioned in order to make it more “orthodox” in its Christological views’….), it obscures obscures somewhat the clarity you’d established. Better perhaps to say “functioned so as to make it” or “functioned in a way that.” Alternative renderings such as these avoid any suggestion that you are referring to the scribe’s motivation or at least do not make the reader wonder if that is what you’re doing.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2015

      Yes, I’m using that language as a shorthand, in view of what I have explained I mean. I do think that scribes had motivations though, and that we can make intelligent surmises about them. You may want to look at my discussion of intention in the second edition of my book.

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