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Were All Textual Changes Made by Scribes by 300 CE? Readers’ Mailbag November 5, 2017

For today’s Readers’ Mailbag I deal with an interesting and important question about the changes that scribes made in their manuscripts.

 

QUESTION

In several of your books you mention that most modifications in the NT manuscripts happened in first 3 centuries. If I’m correct we have no manuscript from 1st century and only few from the 2nd. That means we can say almost nothing about changes during this time. This is however more than half of the “greatest modifications” historical period.

 

RESPONSE

This comment is more of a statement than a question, but the question is clearly implied: how do we know (or why do we think) that almost all of the changes in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament as found in later manuscripts were made early in the history of the tradition, in the first three centuries, if we don’t have many manuscripts from that period to prove it?  Great question.   But with an answer that I think just about every textual scholar agrees with.

To begin with: when textual scholars say that virtually all the important textual changes were made by 300 CE or so, they are NOT talking about accidental changes made by scribal mistakes, such as misspelled words or accidentally deleted letters or words.  Surely some words were simply misspelled, for example, by scribes of the 12th century that had not been misspelled by the 3rd century – fair enough.   So we’re talking about changes that matter for something.

And another point is that there are a couple but only a couple of well-known exceptions to this rule, well-known precisely because they are so exceptional.  The famous “Johnannine comma” – the two verses found in older translations of 1 John 5:7-8, where the Trinity is explicitly affirmed (in the only explicit statement of the entire New Testament) first came into the tradition after 300 CE.  But this is a truly exceptional case.

Virtually all the other “significant” changes – that is, ones that affect the meaning of the text in one way or another – appear to have been made prior to 300.  But how do we know that, if we don’t have manuscripts from that period?

There are several points to note, the last of which is the most important.

First: ….

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  November 6, 2017

    Jesus only spake in Aramaic so if Jesus had said to his disciple, “go ye in to the world and preach the gospel” how does he expect them to preach the gospel considering the fact they only knew one language? There is no evidence that Jesus himself speak in other tongues.
    What was Jesus sense of the world then. The Mediterranean region or beyond? Cos even Paul thought the gospel has been preached through the world.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      I suppose the idea is that they would have interpreters/translators!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  November 6, 2017

      My conclusion is that Jesus never told his followers to “go ye in to the world and preach the gospel,” but I suppose that’s just my opinion. My hypothesis is that while Jesus was alive he believed the eschaton was coming within months, if not weeks or days, so any notion of sending people out to proclaim the “gospel” was borderline absurd. As I see it, Jesus was probably not all that concerned about spreading the “good news,” assuming that God would know the righteous amongst the Gentiles from the wicked. Jesus probably saw the limited time for dissemination within John the Baptist’s mission. And after John was arrested and killed, then that brief window was closed. The way I see it, Jesus’ main concern was establishing himself and his immediate disciples (The “Twelve”) into the upper eschalon of the post-eschaton hierarchy, which is why they were waiting on the Mount of Olives, the traditional place upon which the Messiah and God’s heavenly host would descend to make war against Satan and his demons. The concern for spreading Jesus’ message and the “good news” only came about AFTER he had died and his disciples realized that the eschaton wasn’t coming any time soon.

      • Avatar
        scissors  November 19, 2017

        Talmore

        Vermes argues that Jesus “came only for the lost sheep of Israel” I think there’s also a story where Jesus instructs the disciples to against preaching to the gentiles. Vermes cites the fact that as late as the council of Jerusalem (where this was hashed out between Paul and the Disciples) that the disciples still did not know what to do with gentiles. Also worth mentioning is that after receiving the Great Commission the
        Pillars are still in Jerusalem when Paul visits some 3 years after his conversion and then again some 14 years later. Only with Paul do we see someone in “the mission field” Almost certainly the GC is a later addition.

  2. Avatar
    dankoh  November 6, 2017

    On the 616/666 number of the beast: In Hebrew, Nero is usually called “Neron Kaysar”, which in gematria (assigning a numerical value to each Hebrew letter) adds up to 666. But he could also be called “Kaysar Nero” without the final nun, whose value was (usually) 50, and that gematria adds up to 616.

  3. Avatar
    dankoh  November 6, 2017

    Do you make this argument in a book somewhere? I could use a citation.

  4. Avatar
    gwayersdds  November 6, 2017

    So how or why did 616 become 666?

  5. Avatar
    turbopro  November 6, 2017

    616 doesn’t seem as evil as 666, does it.

    And, did anyone tell Iron Maiden about this?

  6. Avatar
    modelthry  November 9, 2017

    This all seems so complicated that I marvel at how scholars can keep it all straight. Question: after all these years living with the material, do you know things like “what’s in P 75” off the top of your head? Or do you have to look it up to recall?

    Edit: I just Googled P75 and it turns out it’s a major important find. That wasn’t intentional. I just picked a random number.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      P75 I can handle. But for most manuscripts I have to look it up.

  7. Avatar
    SARABLISSMORRIS  November 11, 2017

    Is the letter from Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan about Christians the earliest reference to Christians by a pagan author?

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