I’m continuing my chapter by chapter response to Misquoting Jesus with a discussion of chapter 2, “The Copyists of the Early Christian Writers.” I continue to see this book as a basic introduction to New Testament Criticism (in agreement with Elgin Husbheck, Jr.), though the hype connected with it tries to make it sound more controversial than it is.
The second chapter starts with the basic problem for texts in early Christianity–Christians were heavily oriented to texts, but they lacked professional scribes in general and a tradition or standards for proper copying. Thus manuscripts were copied generally by whoever needed them, or by whoever was literate and could do the job. As a result, there are numerous errors in the manuscripts. We can verify this assumption by observing the manuscripts we have and the tens of thousands of variants they display.
Here we get started on one of the key scholarly issues that lies behind this book. How many variants are the result of errors in copying and how many are the result of scribes trying to improve the text? On this issue Ehrman in his scholarly writing is an advocate of the view that there is a high proportion of variants that result from intentional changes. Those changes may have generally resulted from good motivations, but they nonetheless changed the text.
Ehrman continues with the issue of precisely what should be considered the “original text” of a document, using Galatians and the gospel of John as examples. Since Paul dictated the letter to the Galatians to a scribe, and then the letter was sent to more than one church, which probably necessitated copying that original, what precisely should be considered the “autograph?” There is room for error even in the dictation process (pp. 58-60). Add to that the fact that our earliest copy of Galatians comes from 150 years after the letter was written, and one begins to get an idea of the difficulties involved in textual criticism.
I would note in addition that the issue of finding just what we should call the “original” starts to cross the line into what is known as higher criticism, involving source and redaction criticism. Ehrman uses the gospel of John, but what about the synoptic gospels? In general, no matter which theory one assumes for authorship, at least two, and probably all three of the gospels largely consist of source material edited into a new form. Why should this new form be regarded as an autograph? Would not the earlier versions be more authoritative?
Ehrman tends to favor the work of the original author, as illustrated by this quote:
. . . As we saw in chapter 1, Christianity from the outset was a bookish religion that stressed certain texts as authoritative scripture. As we have seen in this chapter, however, we don’t actually have these authoritative texts. This is a textually oriented religion whose texts have been changed, surviving only in copies that vary from one another, sometimes in highly significant ways. The task of the textual critic is to try to recover the oldest form of these texts.
Modern Christians inclined to a conservative evangelical or fundamentalist position will certainly find Ehrman’s stated goal appropriate. What other option could there be? But I think it is not nearly so obvious as that. In fact, by the time the texts were officially designated as authoritative, they were already somewhat altered. In fact, due to the fact that early manuscripts were copied without standards by non-professionals, the greatest number of variants would occur early in the process, thus it would be a somewhat easier task to discover the text of the New Testament at the time when a document was finally designated as canonical. How God might act in the formation of a text is also not a finally settled matter.
I don’t intend to try to settle these questions, but rather simply to raise them. The boundary between higher and lower criticism is not as precisely defined as many would like to think.