As I started to point out in my previous post, the overarching idea behind my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture was that scribes copying their sacred texts in the early centuries of Christianity were not immune from the theological controversies raging in their day, but that they were, in some sense, participants in those disputes. In pursuing that idea, I had to bring together two fields of academic inquiry that were almost always kept distinct from each other – the study of the manuscripts of the New Testament and the investigation into the development of early Christian theology. The vast majority of scholars who worked on manuscripts were not informed about the social and doctrinal history of early Christianity (except in rather broad and basic terms) and the vast majority of scholars who worked on the theological controversies of the early church were almost completely ignorant of the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. I wanted to bring the two together.
Let me again say that I was not the first to come up with this idea. I certainly had predecessors, whom I discussed in my book. But their insights were never pursued very much, and no one had any idea about the extent of the problem, that early Christian disputes about doctrine affected scribes who were copying the texts that later became the New Testament.
Today it seems almost incredible that textual scholars did not realize this. But in large part it was an established dogma in the field that the scribes’ theological beliefs did not lead them to alter the texts they copied. This in no small measure because of the strongly worded opinion of one of the true giants in the field of New Testament textual research, one of my own personal idols, Fenton John Anthony Hort, who in 1881 published arguably the most significant study of the New Testament manuscript tradition ever produced, The New Testament in the Original Greek (along with his colleague Brooke Foss Westcott). Hort considered whether scribes ever changed the text for theological reasons, and he answered the question with a resounding NO. Here is what he said, in stark terms:
“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”
After Hort’s day, virtually everyone agreed. There were hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of variations in the New Testament, but they were almost never (with an isolated exception here and there) intentional changes of the text made because of a scribe’s own theological proclivities.
After I finished my dissertation in 1985, and started thinking about my next research project, I began to wonder if this was true.
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