Dr. Ehrman, I am an enormous fan of you and your work. Truly. But some of the recent claims you’ve made in your blog posts seem rather grandiose. You’re saying that the field of textual criticism was all but dead before you showed up and imparted your uncommon wisdom?
WHOA!!! That’s not what I’ve been saying (or *trying* to say) (evidently unsuccessfully!) at all! I’m not claiming that I myself am personally responsible for turning around the discipline. I’m glad this reader has made this comment, because others might be thinking the same thing, and so I need to clarify.
What I *am* saying is that when I got into the field it was moribund. And now it’s vibrant. I was very lucky to get in when I did, as it was at the beginning of a resurgence of interesting and a new direction that the field has since taken. If it had kept on going the way it had, it may well have died out. But things have happened that have changed the entire scene.
Just one sign of that. At the Society of Biblical Literature meetings 30 years ago, there might typically have been a dozen or fifteen (older) people in attendance at each of the two sessions. About 10 years ago, we had sessions where there were over a hundred people, and we were running at least three sessions. Something had clearly happened in the interim.
There were, to be sure, signs of life already 30 years ago (I’m speaking now of the American scene, although the same could be said about England; scholars Germany had been continuing, all along, their rigorous work in the field). Just to name two prominent examples, my since-then-colleagues, Eldon Epp and Gordon Fee.
It was Eldon – who is now rightly considered the “dean” of textual criticism in America — who had written his famous (infamous?) article which he described as a “Requiem” for the discipline of New Testament textual criticism in America. That, obviously, wasn’t hopeful. But years before that he had written a dissertation at Harvard which ended up (he would not have anticipating this) being the harbinger of very big things yet to come. The title is not one that you would normally find in Barnes & Noble: The Theological Tendency of Codex Cantabrigiensis in Acts. So, uh, what’s that?
Codex Cantabrigiensis (otherwise simply called D) is one of the oldest and most unusual manuscripts of the New Testament. Dating from around 400 CE or so, it is magnificent in appearance, but the form of its text is quite different in many places from the form of the Greek text that scholars tend to think is original. Epp’s analysis showed that in many places in the book of Acts, the scribe of the codex (or the scribes that produced the manuscripts that this scribe was copying), changed the text in order to make it more anti-Jewish, in one way or another.
In other words – even though this was not an avenue that Epp at the time explored – it was precisely he Christian opposition to Judaism at the time in which this text was being produced that affected the scribe who produced it. That is important for several reasons (which again, Epp for the purposes of the dissertation, did not delve into): it means that these variant readings opposing Jews and Judaism were probably not original; they were instead incorporated into the text at a later time; and it was precisely the milieu of the Christian scribes copying the text that was affecting the alterations he made in the text.
That was a ball that I later grabbed and ran with. I didn’t invent the ball though!
Gordon Fee had been Epp’s student for his PhD work, which he did on one of the most significant early manuscripts of the New Testament, known as P66. Gordon is an unusual scholar for lots of reasons, but one of them is that he is not interested only in textual criticism (as most textual critics of his time were), but in broader areas of New Testament studies, especially exegesis (interpretation) and theology. Over the course of his long and distinguished career, he has written numerous commentaries on the various letters of Paul, and works exploring the theology of the different authors of the New Testament
As a result, he was wide ranging in a way that proved to be highly important. For Fee, you can’t do any work on the New Testament until you know what its words are. That is, you can’t interpret what Paul *meant* (in, say, his letter to the Romans or his letter to the Galatians) if you don’t know what he *said*. And you can’t discuss the theology of Paul until you have a full understanding of the meaning of Paul’s individual letters.
And so, textual criticism is absolutely fundamental for being able to do any scholarly work on the New Testament. It is not a secondary matter but a primary matter. Thus, even if someone is principally interested, say, in the theology of Paul’s letter to the Romans, that requires a detailed and intimate understanding of the manuscripts (and versions, and quotations of the church fathers) of Romans.
At the same time, an intimate familiarity with all the ins and outs of the exegesis of Paul’s letters and a deep understanding of Pauline theology can assist in deciding what his text said at any given point. It is a two-way street between textual studies and exegesis/theology.
Both of these scholars emphasized points that later ended up changing the field at the point when I joined the scholarly community. Textual criticism is indeed important, critically important, but it is not important simply in and of itself. It is important, even more, because it is vitally related to other things: the interpretation of the New Testament and the history of the early Christian church.
I was quickly convinced of this, so that when I got into the field, it was precisely the relevant and significant connects to other fields of discourse in New Testament studies that became my focus (after my dissertation). Along with others at about the same time, I came to see that relevance and significance alone would be able to turn the field around and make it a thriving discipline again.
Eldon J. Epp is the author of The Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis in Acts, and The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, among other books.
Gordon Fee is also the author of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth and Discovering Biblical Equality, among other works.