Readers of the blog will know that I’ve talked a lot about scribal changes in the writings of the New Testament, making it difficult to know what the author originally wrote. Which in turn makes it difficult to know what a translator should translate. Which words?? The ones in this manuscript, or in that manuscript, or some other manuscript??
Sometimes people say to me “Well, if you say that about the New Testament you’d have to say that about all ancient texts!” They say this as a rhetorical statement (even scholars have said this to me! Even New Testament scholars!!) — as if THAT would be the most ridiculous thing you can imagine. You can’t possibly think there are problems like that with Plato, or Euripides, or Cicero! What’s wrong with you?
Yeah, there ain’t anything wrong with me — at least in this respect. Of COURSE we have the same problems with all these authors. Often far worse than with the New Testament. The reason (some) NT scholars (including some NT manuscript scholars!!) don’t know it is because they focus so much on the NT they don’t realize there’s a bigger world out there. Oh boy is there a bigger world out there.
For now I won’t be dealing with, say, Homer’s Odyssey,but with the topic of the current thread, the Christian authors collectively known as the “Apostolic Fathers” (see my previous two posts). When I produced my edition of them (Greek/Latin texts and translations) I saw the problems up-close and personal: (a) we do not have the original texts of any of the Apostolic Fathers (just as we do not have the originals of any book of the New Testament, or of the Hebrew Bible, or, well, of any book from the ancient world) and (b) the copies we have all differ from one another. And so which copies do we trust?
For each of the apostolic fathers there are different sets of problems along these lines, because these writings were not circulated, before the 17th century, as a group, but separately, for the most part. And so, manuscripts that have the Letters of Ignatius do not also have the Martyrdom of Polycarp; and those that have the Didache do not have the epistle of Barnabas; and so on (with a few exceptions). Sometimes we have a good number of manuscripts to compare and contrast with one another, sometimes not.
The worst situation is with the letter to Diognetus, which was not known to exist until a 260 page manuscript was accidentally discovered by a young cleric in 1436 in a fish shop in Constantinople – apparently the manuscript was being used to wrap up fish for sale! And that solitary manuscript was later destroyed by a fire in 1870 when Strasbourg’s municipal library was destroyed by fire during the bombing of the city in the Franco-German war. Luckily it had been copied and studied before then!
Most of the textual problems in the Apostolic Fathers are like those found in the manuscripts of the New Testament – not really significant for much of anything. But sometimes the manuscript variations are interesting and important. In this post I’ll give just one intriguing example from the letters of Ignatius; in my next post I’ll give another from the Martyrdom of Polycarp; and then I’ll move on to other things. (There has never been an exhaustive study of the textual variants in the Apostolic Fathers; I was thinking about producing one once, but got sidetracked doing other things….)
Ignatius is an intriguing figure from the early second century. A bishop of Antioch in Syria, he was arrested, apparently for Christian activities, and sent (we’re not sure why) to Rome to face trial and be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. He wrote seven letters en route to his martyrdom, and those are the only writings we have from him. In one of them, to the Christians in Rome, he pleads with them not to intervene for him: he wants to be torn to shreds by the animals and die as a martyr so he can imitate Christ in his death. Ignatius makes for a very interesting study; I think I’ll talk more about him down the line on the blog.
For now I’m concerned with the textual problems in his surviving letters. One of the most interesting occurs in the Letter to the Magnesians 8:2. Interestingly enough, the corruption appears in all of the surviving Greek and Latin manuscripts. In these witnesses, Ignatius says: “There is one God who manifested himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his eternal word, which did not come forth out of silence” (IgnMagn. 8:2). But as scholars since the 19th century have noted, the Armenian version of Ignatius (i.e., the translation of his letters made in ancient Christian Armenia) reads differently: there Jesus Christ is said to be God’s “word which did come forth out of silence.” That would be, well, the opposite.
There are solid grounds for thinking that, in this instance, the Armenian text is original. It makes good sense in its context and that that it accords particularly well with how Ignatius speaks of the incarnation elsewhere. Most persuasive, though, is the fact, long noted, that the text as given in the Armenian, that Christ was the “Word which comes forth from Silence (the Greek word is SIGE),” would have been changed by scribes concerned about its Gnostic overtones. For there were Gnostics who maintained that Silence, “SIGE”, was one of the two primordial divine beings (i.e. one of the two principal archons of the Pleroma, along with Depth [Buthos]) and that the divine redeemer came forth from the Pleroma to earth for salvation. For these Gnostics, Christ really was the word that came forth from “Silence.” And so it would make good sense that his text was changed to avoid its misuse by Gnostics in support of their own doctrines.
That was argued by J. B. Lightfoot, a truly great scholar of the nineteenth century and arguably the most important scholar, ever, of the Apostolic Fathers. And today his views are widely accepted by specialists in the field.
But my bigger point is that someone producing an edition has to decide: which was the wording given to the text by the author himself, and which represents the change of this text? In this instance it matters a lot: the two readings are precisely contrary! Which way you gonna go?