In my previous post I started to explain how the manuscripts of the New Testament can help us reconstruct not only the “original” texts that the author wrote but also, when looked at in a different way, what was happening in the worlds of the scribes who changed them.  In this post I deal with the one part of that context that is best known today, scribes changing the text for theological reasons.  In my next post I’ll get to the issue that started this small thread, changes of the text made in opposition to Jews and Judaism.  This again is from my essay “The Text as Window,” in the collection of essays Mike Holmes and I edited, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research.

(This post is a bit longer than usual; if you want to cut it in half, you have my permission, indeed, my suggestion, not to read the footnotes.  It was written for scholars, who like nothing better than footnotes….)


  1. The Internecine Struggles of Early Christianity

Arguably the most significant study of early Christianity in modern times is Walter Bauer’s 1934 classic, Rechtglaübigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum.[i] The book has forced a rethinking of the nature of ideological disputes in Christian antiquity, as even scholars not persuaded by Bauer’s view have had to contend with it. Bauer’s thesis is that, contrary to the traditional claims of Christian apologists, “orthodoxy” was not an original and universally dominant form of Christianity in the second and third centuries, with “heresy” (in its multiple configurations) a distant and derivative second. Instead, early Christianity comprised a number of competing forms of belief and practice, one of which eventually attained dominance for a variety of social, economic, and political reasons. The victorious “orthodoxy” then rewrote the history of the church in the light of its final triumph. This orthodoxy was the form of the religion embraced by the faithful in Rome.

While many of the details remain in serious dispute, and demurrals appear to be on the rise, Bauer’s overarching conception continues to exert a wide influence, as does his insistence on the centrality of these ideological disputes to the early history of Christianity.[ii] What, though, do they have to do with the MS tradition of the NT?

For many critics of the twentieth century the answer had been unequivocal: nothing at all. In part this view has been based on

Unlock 4,000+ Articles Like This!

Get access to Dr. Ehrman's library of 4,000+ articles plus five new articles per week about the New Testament and early Christianity. It costs as little as $2.99/mth and every cent goes to charity!

Learn More!
the authoritative pronouncement of Hort: “It will not be out of place to add here a distinct expression of our belief that even among the numerous unquestionably spurious readings of the New Testament there are no signs of deliberate falsification of the text for dogmatic purposes.”[iii] Consonant with this perception was A. Bludau’s detailed study of the charge leveled against Christian heretics of intentionally falsifying the texts of Scripture, a charge that he traced from apostolic times to the Monophysite controversy.[iv] Bludau argued that in many instances, the accusation was directed not against heretical alterations of the text but heretical misconstruals; moreover, he maintained, in most of the remaining instances, the charges cannot be sustained. He concluded that the MSS of the NT were not easily susceptible of deliberate falsification, given the vigilance exercised over their production by all concerned parties.[v]


Despite its popularity, this view has never held universal sway. Even before World War II, individual scholars had isolated and discussed instances of theologically motivated corruption, with such eminent names as Kirsopp Lake, J. Rendell Harris, Adolph von Harnack, Donald Riddle, and, most extensively, Walter Bauer himself (in another, less-read but equally impressive, monograph), topping the list.[vi]


Nonetheless, only since the 1960s have scholars begun to recognize the full extent to which early ideological conflicts affected the NT text. By all accounts, the impetus was provided by Eldon Jay Epp’s groundbreaking study, The Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis in Acts, a study whose particular conclusions relate more to Jewish-Christian relations (discussed below) than to the internecine conflicts of the early Christian movement.[vii] Nonetheless, Epp attacked the Hortian view head-on by pursuing the suggestion that some of the tendencies of the so-called Western text, as embedded in Codex Bezae, should be explained by the theological proclivities of its scribe.[viii] Through a detailed and exhaustive analysis, Epp concluded that some 40 percent of Codex Bezae’s variant readings in Acts point toward an anti-Judaic bias. The sensible inference is that the scribe himself, or his tradition, was anti-Jewish (in some way), and that this prejudice came to be embodied in the transcription of the text.[ix]


Although Epp’s study has been widely acclaimed and his conclusions widely accepted, his lead has been little followed.[x] Codex Bezae is singularly suited to this kind of study, given the extraordinary character of its text of Acts; most other MSS lack such distinctiveness.[xi] Subsequent analyses of theological tendencies have therefore moved from the study of a specific MS to a panoramic view of the surviving witnesses. Among recent scholars to pursue such a line are Alexander Globe, Mark A. Plunkett, Mikeal Parsons, and Peter Head.[xii] My own work in this area has eventuated in the first full-length analysis, entitled The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.[xiii] The study examines one area of ideological conflict – the christological controversies of the second and third centuries – and shows how it affected a number of textual witnesses produced in the period.[xiv] While no one would claim that theological controversies caused the majority of the hundreds of thousands of textual variants, they clearly engendered several hundred. Nor are these variant readings, taken as a whole, of little consequence. To the contrary, many prove to be critical for questions relating to NT exegesis and theology.[xv]


Of yet greater significance for the present essay, the study raises a number of issues concerning the relation of the MSS to the social world of the scribes who produced them, a world about which we are poorly informed by the other surviving sources.[xvi] For one thing, the textual data reveal the doctrinal proclivities of these scribes: their tendencies are uniformly proto-orthodox[xvii] — suggesting that the victors not only write the history but also reproduce (and preserve) the texts. Moreover, the proto-orthodox modifications of these texts demonstrate that the doctrinal and ideological issues involved were of concern not only to a handful of Christian intellectuals, the heresiological literati whose works happen to have outlived antiquity. They affected others as well — at least the scribes, who, while themselves among the intellectually advantaged (to the extent that they could read and write, unlike the vast majority of Christians; see below), were by no means at the top of the social scale even within Christian circles. These debates appear to have affected the rank and file as well as the Christian elite.


In addition, the textual data confirm that these struggles were, in part, directly related to divergent interpretations of early Christian texts, in an age before there was a hard-and-fast canon of Scripture – a finding that is significant not only for the nature of the emerging religion in se but also in its relation to other religions of the period: no other cult of the empire, with the partial exception of Judaism, shared this fixation on written texts and the doctrinal ideas they convey.[xviii] The theological modification of these documents thus further demonstrates the concern for literary texts that is attested generally throughout the second and third Christian centuries: “official” Christianity had already begun to attach special importance to the written word and to the propositional “truths” that it contains.


[i] Bauer, Rechtglaübigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum (BHT 10; Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck]). ET of the 2d ed. (1964, ed. Georg Strecker): Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, (trans. Paul J. Achtemeier et al.; ed. Robert Kraft and Gerhard Krodel; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971)

[ii] For a useful discussion of its initial reception, see Georg Strecker’s essay, “Die Aufnahme des Buches,” 288-306 in the 2d German ed., expanded and revised by Robert Kraft, “The Reception of the Book,” Appendix 2, pp. 286-316. The discussion was updated by Daniel Harrington, “The Reception of Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity During the Last Decade, ” HTR 73 (1980) 289-98. For additional bibliography, see the discussion in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) 33n.16.

[iii] Hort, Introduction, 282. Hort specifies Marcion as the one exception to this rule, and goes on to say that non-Marcionite instances of variation that appear to be doctrinally motivated are due to scribal carelessness or laxity, not to malicious intent.

[iv] Bludau, Die Schriftfälschungen der Häretiker: Ein Beitrag zur Textkritik der Bibel (NTAbh 11; Münster: Aschendorf, 1925).

[v] For an assessment, see my Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 43n.100.

[vi] See, e.g., Kirsopp Lake, The Influence of Textual Criticism on the Exegesis of the New Testament (Oxford: Parker & Son, 1904); J. Rendel Harris, “New Points of View in Textual Criticism,” Expositor, 8th ser., 7 (1914) 316-34; idem, “Was the Diatesseron Anti-Judaic?” HTR 18 (1925) 103-9; Adolph von Harnack, “Zur Textkritik und Christologie der Schriften Johannes,” in Studien zur Geschichte des Neuen Testaments und der alten Kirche, vol. 1: Zur neutestamentlichen Textkritik (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1931) 115-27; idem, “Zwei alte dogmatische Korrekturen im Hebräerbrief,” in Studien zur Geschichte des Neuen Testaments 1.235-52; Donald Wayne Riddle, “Textual Criticism as a Historical Discipline,” ATR 18 (1936) 220-33; and Walter Bauer, Das Leben Jesu im Zeitalter der neutestamentlichen Apokryphen (Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1907; reprinted, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1967).

[vii] Epp, The Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis in Acts (SNTSMS 3; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966). For Epp’s predecessors, see his discussion on pp. 12-26.

[viii] A suggestion made earlier, for example, by P. H. Menoud, “The Western Text and the Theology of Acts,” Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas Bulletin 2 (1951) 27-28.

[ix] A conclusion that Epp himself does not draw, as pointed out below.

[x] That is, for other MSS. On Codex Bezae itself, see, among the many studies, the unpublished dissertations by George E. Rice (“The Alteration of Luke’s Tradition by the Textual Variants in Codex Bezae,” Case Western Reserve University, 1974) and Michael W. Holmes (“Early Editorial Activity and the Text of Codex Bezae in Matthew,” Princeton Theological Seminary, 1984). For a reappraisal of the matter with respect to Acts, see C. K. Barrett, “Is There a Theological Tendency in Codex Bezae?” in Text and Interpretation: Studies in the New Testament Presented to Matthew Black (ed. Ernest Best and R. McL. Wilson; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979) 15-27.

[xi] As is commonly observed, the text of Acts in Codex Bezae is approximately 8 1/2% longer than that found among the Alexandrian witnesses.

[xii] Alexander Globe, “Some Doctrinal Variants in Matthew 1 and Luke 2 and the Authority of the Neutral Text,” CBQ 42 (1980) 52-72; Bart D. Ehrman and Mark A. Plunkett, “The Angel and the Agony: The Textual Problem of Luke 22:43-44,” CBQ 45 (1983) 401-16; Mikeal Parsons, “A Christological Tendency in P75, JBL 105 (1986) 463-79; Peter M. Head, “Christology and Textual Transmission: Reverential Alterations in the Synoptic Gospels,” NovT 35 (1993) 107-29.

[xiii] See n. 5 above. Among my briefer studies of individual passages are the following: “1 John 4.3 and the Orthodox Corruption of Scripture,” ZNW 79 (1988) 221-43; “The Cup, the Bread, and the Salvific Effect of Jesus’ Death in Luke-Acts,” SBLSP (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991) 576-91; “Text of Mark”; and (with Mark A. Plunkett), “The Angel and the Agony.” Of book-length treatments that take a slightly different tack, in addition to Bauer, Leben Jesu, reference should esp. be made to Eric Fascher, Textgeschichte als hermeneutische Problem (Halle: Niemeyer, 1953).

[xiv] I did not, of course, restrict myself to documents produced in this period, of which few remain, but to readings that could be shown to have been generated then, even when these survive only in later witnesses. For my rationale, see Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 28-29.

[xv] The interpretation of significant passages is sometimes affected by the textual decision. Just within the Gospels, reference can be made to the prologue of John (e.g., 1: 18), the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke (e.g., Matt 1: 16, 18; Luke 1:35), the baptism accounts (e.g., Mark 1: 10; Luke 3:22; John 1:34), and the various passion narratives (e.g., Mark 15:34; Luke 22:43-44; John 19:36). Moreover, a number of variants affect a range of issues that continue to interest historians and exegetes of the NT, including such questions as whether the Gospels could have been used to support either an “adoptionistic” Christology (e.g., Mark 1:1; Luke 3:22; John 1:34) or one that was “antidocetic” (e.g., the Western noninterpolations), whether Luke has a doctrine of the atonement (e.g., Luke 22:19-20), whether members of the Johannine community embraced a gnostic Christology (e.g., I John 4:3), and whether any of the authors of the NT characterizes Jesus as “God” (e.g., Heb 1:8).

[xvi] See the fuller discussion in my Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 274-83.

[xvii] I use the term “proto-orthodox” to designate Christians of the ante-Nicene age who advocated views similar to those that at a later period came to dominate Christendom at large. These second- and third-century Christians were embraced by the “orthodox” of the 4th century as their own theological forebears and as reliable tradents of the apostolic tradition. See my fuller discussion in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 12-13.

[xviii] See my Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 279.