In this thread I am addressing the question several readers have asked me about: if I think that the Christ poem of Philippians 2:6-10 is not something Paul himself wrote (as I have argued; see for example https://ehrmanblog.org/how-ancient-is-the-idea-of-christs-incarnation/), but has been quoted by him from some other text, why not just think a scribe inserted it into Philippians? That is, maybe it wasn’t in the letter in the first place; why not thing a scribe stuck it in after the letter was placed in circulation?
It’s an extremely important issue. If the passage (or any other passage) was not originally in the letter, then we don’t know if it represents what Paul himself thought; moreover, we can’t know when the ideas of the inserted passage originally appeared — an important issue when trying to figure out how quickly Christians developed their theological views. Did Christians think of Jesus as a pre-existent divine being already in the 50s CE? Or was it not until 100 CE or so? Etc.
I have differentiated between “textual variants” and “interpolations.” A “textual variant” involves a passage, or a sentence, or a phrase, or even just a word that is different in our various surviving manuscripts. (QUICK refresher: we have over 5600 Greek manuscripts of the NT; they date from the 2nd to the 16th c.s; they all have differences among them; these differences are called textual variants; including all the really completely minor ones like misspelled words, there are hundreds of thousands of them; the “textual critic” tries to figure out the original wording at every point, seeing which variant is “original” and which is a later alteration). Interpolations are changes of a writing that do NOT have any manuscripts supporting them. That is to say, suppose every manuscript has a passage (say, Phil. 2:6-10); but scholars have good reason to think the passage was NOT what the author wrote, but was inserted by an editor or copyist later. They would then be calling the passage an interpolation rather than a textual variant (since there are no variants in any of our surviving texts: they all have the passage).
Having said that, to explain how a scholar would argue that a passage is in fact an interpolation requires me to explain how scholars argue about textual variants. This will take a few posts, and will have the merit of showing how “textual criticism” works (that’s a technical term for the attempt to establish what an author originally wrote when you have different manuscripts with different wording — an important enterprise not just for the NT but for all ancient literature, and even for Shakespeare and …. modern writers!). But it will also set up what I want to say about how / why we might suspect that in some places there are interpolations (before turning to see if Phil. 2:6-10 is one of them).
Suppose you have a verse that is worded in two very different ways in various ones of the surviving manuscripts. How do you decide which of the two ways is how the author originally wrote the verse, and which is a change committed by a scribe? Scholars appeal to all sorts of evidence, each one important. Here are some criteria that have been appealed to over the years. These criteria are typically divided into two categories: those dealing with external evidence (those look at which manuscripts support one reading over the other) and the other dealing with internal evidence (looking at which reading is inherently superior for one reason or another). I’ll deal with the former in this post, the latter in the two that follow.
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