My recent post asking whether the Gospels can be seen as anti-Jewish generated a number of comments and questions, one of which was whether scribes who copied the texts of the New Testament ever made them *more* anti-Jewish than they originally were.  The answer to that is Yes.  I have a student just now who is writing a dissertation that deals with that topic.

It’s a question I’ve been intrigued with for years;  one of the first times I wrote about it was in an essay called “The Text as Window: New Testament Manuscripts and the Social History of Early Christianity,” in The New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, ed. Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes. Studies and Documents; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995, pp. 361-79.

The essay was about the wide range of ways that copies of the New Testament from long after the originals were circulated can help us do something other than figure out the original text of each book; when used in a different way, they can help us understand what was going on in the social world of the scribes who made their copies at one time and place or another.

My treatment of anti-Jewish changes were a small part of that discussion, but I thought it would be useful to set the context of my discussion of those changes for blog readers by giving the introduction to my essay.   Here it is.  (After this I’ll have a couple of related posts and then one entire post devoted to a particular anti-Jewish variant reading that you will possibly be familiar with — not knowing it involves a textual variant!)

The first footnote of this introduction, by the way, strikes me as particularly important

(for those of you who like to skip footnotes 🙂 ).


The ultimate goal of textual criticism, in the judgment of most of its practitioners, is to reconstruct the original text of the NT.[i] As the other essays in this volume make abundantly clear, we need the discipline because we lack the autographs (and perfectly accurate reproductions of them); all surviving MSS are filled with mistakes, and it is the task of the critic to get behind these mistakes to reconstruct the text as it was originally written. This conception of the discipline is exemplified in the work of Fenton John Anthony Hort, one of the greatest minds to approach the task, who focused his labors on a solitary objective: “to present exactly the original words of the New Testament, so far as they can now be determined from surviving documents.” Hort construed this task in entirely negative terms: “nothing more than the detection and rejection of error.”[ii]


No historian would deny the desirability of this objective; one must establish the words of an ancient author before they can be interpreted. At the same time, many textual critics have come to recognize that an exclusive concentration on the autographs can prove to be myopic, as it overlooks the value of variant forms of the text for historians interested in matters other than exegesis. Thus one of the significant breakthroughs of textual scholarship has been the recognition that the history of a text’s transmission can contribute to the history of its interpretation: early Christian exegetes occasionally disagreed on the interpretation of a passage because they knew the text in different forms.[iii]


Of yet greater interest to the present essay, some critics have come to recognize that variants in the textual tradition provide data for the social history of early Christianity, especially during the first three Christian centuries, when the majority of all textual corruptions were generated. Changes that scribes made in their texts frequently reflect their own socio-historical contexts. By examining these changes, one can, theoretically, reconstruct the contexts within which they were created, contexts that are otherwise sparsely attested in our surviving sources. When viewed in this way, variant readings are not merely chaff to be discarded en route to the original text, as they were for Hort; they are instead valuable evidence for the history of the early Christian movement. The NT MSS can thus serve as a window into the social world of early Christianity.


I. Textual Variants and the Social History of Early Christianity

Recent study of textual variation has contributed to our understanding of a wide range of significant issues, including the ideological conflicts of early Christianity (i.e., struggles between “heresy” and “orthodoxy”), Jewish-Christian relations and the rise of anti-Judaism, and the early Christian suppression of women. Moreover, as we shall see, other peculiarities of our surviving MSS – for instance, their provenance, dates, and formal features – have deepened our knowledge of such diverse topics as the use of magic and fortune-telling among early Christians, the character and extent of the Christian mission in the empire, the extent and function of literacy in the early church, and the special role that texts played in this religion. Given the limitations of this essay, I cannot discuss any of these issues in great depth; I will, however, enumerate some of the more fruitful and interesting lines of research, and make some suggestions for further inquiry.  [I will pick up here in my next post]


[i] I should emphasize at the outset that it is by no means self-evident that this ought to be the ultimate goal of the discipline, even though most critics have typically, and somewhat unreflectively, held it to be. In recent years, however, some scholars have recognized that it is important to know not only what an author wrote (i.e., in the autograph), but also what a reader read (i.e., in its later transcriptions). Indeed, the history of exegesis is the history of readers interpreting different forms of the text, since throughout this history, virtually no one read the NT in its original form. Thus it is important for the historian of Christianity to know which form of the text was available to Christians in different times and places. In addition, as I will argue throughout this essay, it is important for social historians and historians of doctrine to identify the social and theological movements that affected the texts, through the scribes who modified them. Given these historical concerns, there may indeed be scant reason to privilege the “original” text over forms of the text that developed subsequently.

[ii] B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, [2,] Introduction [and] Appendix (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882; 2d ed., 1896; reprinted Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988) 1.4. Hort was responsible for writing the Introduction.

[iii] See, e.g., my article “Heracleon, Origen, and the Text of the Fourth Gospel,” VC 47 (1993) 105-18. For a methodological discussion of this issue, see my contribution to the Karlfried Froehlich Festschrift, “The Text of Mark in the Hands of the Orthodox,” Biblical Hermeneutics in Historical Perspective (ed. Mark Burrows and Paul Rorem; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 19-31.

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2023-01-31T15:15:34-05:00February 5th, 2023|New Testament Manuscripts|

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