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The Unusual Thesis of The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture

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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My Focus on Christology in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture
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  1. Avatar
    Hank_Z  September 12, 2015

    I’m loving this story!

  2. Avatar
    rivercrowman  September 12, 2015

    Bart, what year did you make your above-mentioned memorable visit with Bruce Metzger at his home in Princeton? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2015

      Probably 1987 or 1988. Why?

      • Avatar
        rivercrowman  September 14, 2015

        As a fan, I think the date has historical significance.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 15, 2015

          OK! Why’s that though?

          • Avatar
            rivercrowman  September 20, 2015

            Bart, I think that decisive turn in your life likely assured the publication of the book “Misquoting Jesus” in 2005. … I’m slowly (savoringly) reading it for the second time.

  3. Avatar
    pruffin  September 12, 2015

    This makes me wonder, and I’m sure you looked into it, whether “sweating blood” might be an idiom in any ancient language. It has become one in English from this passage, but was the writer thinking through one?

  4. Avatar
    Scott  September 12, 2015

    From a modern perspective, it seems odd that a scribe would feel the need to change Luke to have Jesus more “human” when Mark and Matthew already provide plenty of support for his human-nature. Would the need to “fix” Luke come out of the practice in early sects of selecting a single Gospel for use – such as the Ebionites embracing Matthew?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2015

      Not necessarily: the other Gospels are “fixed” in similar ways.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 12, 2015

    Am I right in thinking one problem would be in trying to establish *when* textual changes were made, so it could be determined whether they were correlated with theological disputes going on at the same times?

  6. Avatar
    shakespeare66  September 12, 2015

    Wow, what a great story. It is so wonderful that you did not take “no” for an answer. By that, it seems like Metzger’s comment implied that you would have nothing to say! ( probably because he thought there was nothing there, or at least not enough to merit a book). Bravo for your work! I have taken to other subjects before, but not quite with the passion I have for this area of learning. It is all because you make this so palpable! Professors range in their ability to communicate, either in writing or speaking. You are at the top of the heap! Thanks for making this knowledge accessible to us mere mortals! Still plugging away at The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

  7. Avatar
    captcrisis  September 12, 2015


    How about that gem from Matthew, “May his blood be upon us and upon our children!”. Can anyone imagine a crowd actually saying that?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 13, 2015

      I know of a lot of anti-semitic Christians over the centuries who have had no trouble imagining it!

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 13, 2015

    A very interesting and lonely path, especially since your respected teacher said it was going to be a rather “thin volume.” One of the problems with medical research is that it is very hard to get grant support for projects that don’t fit with the established views of the grant reviewers. One of many examples from the recent past would be wanting to study peptic ulcer disease as being secondary to bacteria rather than being secondary to psychosomatic issues. So, I admire your persistence.

  9. Avatar
    dragonfly  September 13, 2015

    I’m really enjoying this series of posts.

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