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Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament Oxford University Press. 1993.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


For a long time textual critics have assured the rest of us that most of the many traceable corruptions in the text of the New Testament were either inadvertent slips of the pen or the eye, or else injudicious attempts to supply or restore what they thought missing, or to smooth out rough readings. And no doubt they are correct. This consensus conclusion Bart D. Ehrman in his fascinating new text-critical study does not challenge. But he does urge a re-opening of the traditional claim that there were only negligible and sparse attempts to adjust the text to the theological preferences of the scribes. Ehrman spotlights a surprising number (though still, as he admits, proportionately rather small) of corruptions of the text that would make new sense if viewed as the product of an orthodox Tendenz to safeguard the holy texts from the possible depredations of various heretical parties including Adoptionists, Docetists, Separationists (those who distinguished the human Jesus from the Christ Spirit or Angel who descended upon him at the baptism and departed again at the crucifixion), and Patripassians. Ehrman sets his inquiry against each variant reading: how might this textual change have served to fend off the supposed eisegeses of the heretics? Many of them make surprising sense as anti-heretical paraphrases and rewrites.  Previously text critics had been content to dismiss these variants casually as mere harmonizations or meaningless substitutions, e.g., of the title "Christ" for the name "Jesus." But Ehrman asks concerning these readings the same question Freud asked of verbal slips in speech: why just this slip and not another? The principle of concrescence in each case may be conscious or unconscious, but either way it is meaningful, not random.

Early on Ehrman informs the reader that he is operating within Walter Bauer's paradigm of the study of Christian origins. A helpful sketch of scholarly reactions to and revisions of the Bauer thesis suggests that if anything early Christianity was even more diverse than Bauer supposed, that often the taxonomy of so-called heresy and orthodoxy were thin to the vanishing point and were borders often redrawn. He admits, as Bauer did, that the terms "orthodoxy" and "heresy" are anachronistic and loaded terms. Ehrman, like Bauer, continues to use both terms, however, "under erasure."

Similarly, the word "corruption" Ehrman maintains for the irony of it, since in the cases he discusses, the scribes were trying to improve the text, not to degrade it or confuse it. This insight affords the opportunity for Ehrman to explain the utility of contemporary Reader Response critical categories for his study: every reader upon every reading creates a new textual entity in his mind by construing the signifiers differently, by filling in the blanks differently each time. Every rereading of the text is to some extent a rewriting of the text. And therefore, just as biblical Targums (whether the ancient Onkelos or the modern Living Bible) afford a unique insight as to how the paraphraser read his text, so do the variants produced by ancient scribes show us what they thought the text said, i.e., what it really meant. Either they simply assumed they knew what the next words were and substituted the gist according to their own accustomed exegesis, or they actually took the liberty of building a hedge around the Torah, rewriting the text at points so as to preempt the attempts of the heretics to twist the texts to their own destruction. "Sure the scripture says Christ had a phantom body! Just look at passage A... Wait a minute, where is it?" Heh heh.

Much of Ehrman's study is illuminating simply for the light it throws on otherwise uninteresting minority readings by reconstructing a plausible scribal Sitz-im-Leben for them. But there are broader implications which he does not fail to notice. Once he has established the probability that scribes pursued redactional tendencies in producing certain variants that no text critic takes very seriously, he follows the trajectory thus plotted into the debates over certain readings commonly accepted as being the original text. One of these is the reading "the only begotten (or unique) God" instead of "only begotten Son" in John 1:18. Once one recognizes an anti-Adoptionist Tendenz among scribal corruptions, it is hard not to see this as the single greatest example of it.

The pericope of the bloody sweat in Luke 22:43-44, though just possibly authentic on other grounds, fails the shibboleth test once one notices how it contravenes Luke's larger picture of a mighty Christ who strides confidently to his fate. All that later scribes were likely to notice, however, was that such a portrayal seemed to give aid and comfort to Docetic exegesis, where Jesus had nothing to fear, since he would suffer no pain in any case. Hence the interpolation of the bloody sweat: a Jesus is produced who has not only anxiety but sweat and blood, too. For the same reason, some scribe has borrowed the Johannine spear thrust, with its similar emission of blood and water, and inserted it into Matthew 27:49 in some manuscripts. (More about this last in a moment.)

Ehrman dismisses the still-influential attempts of Jeremias and others to defend the long text of the Lukan Last Supper, containing the words of institution, or more to the point, a clear reference to the true flesh of Jesus. Again, Ehrman shows how alien such verses would be to Luke in view of his well-known redactional tendency to eliminate a cross-soteriology elsewhere in Luke-Acts. On the same bases, an ill-fit with Lukan theology and style and the sense the texts would make as anti-heretical "corrections," Ehrman defends Westcott and Hort's preference of the "Western non-interpolations," i.e., the shorter readings, in Luke 24. The longer readings Ehrman views as non-Western interpolations, Christologically motivated.

Though Ehrman considers relevant evidence and considerations of every kind, he more than once pauses to note with surprise that text critics do not lend more weight than they do to factors such as authorial style and theology, which he judges must be invoked to decide the case where manuscript evidence is inconclusive.  Even where manuscript evidence is rather strong, Ehrman, recognizing the fragmentary nature of the evidence even in such cases, falls back on theological and stylistic criteria. Why are conventional text critics more hesitant to do so? One must suspect that they fear thus to let the camel's nose slip under the tent flap. They do not want to wind up joining William O. Walker and others who seek by similar arguments to pinpoint very early interpolations for which no manuscript evidence at all survives (pro or con, let it be noted).

Ehrman himself sometimes seems reticent to tread the trail he has blazed. While he recognizes the secondary, tendentious character of the spear-thrust in some copies of Matthew 27:49, he voices no suspicion that the Johannine prototype (John 19:34-35) might itself be an anti-Docetic insertion. Ehrman notes how Acts 20:28 has accumulated variants: whose blood redeemed the Church? That of "his own," of God, or of the Lord? Here Ehrman recognizes wranglings over Patripassianism and Docetism, but he leaves intact an original reading in which the church was purchased by means of blood. Having already noted Luke's seeming distaste for blood-redemption soteriology, Ehrman must undertake an elaborate argument in order to make the verse seem to say something else. He tries to drive a wedge between the notions of purchasing and redeeming, holding that the text speaks only of the former, not of the latter, as if there were any real distinction. It doesn't seem to wash. Why not instead simply follow Ehrman's own trajectory a short step further and make the whole phrase an anti-Docetic interpolation?

On of the many strengths of Ehrman's book is that it is able to demonstrate how in case after case that we find apparent Christological "corrections" in just the texts over which the Patristic and heresiologist writers are known to have fought. This provides something of an external corroboration for his proposed textual Sitz-im-Leben. One of the most interesting of these is to be found in Tertullian, when he accuses the Valentinians of having corrupted the text of John 1:13 to serve their own blasphemous theology. Actually it appears that his foes did have the original text ("who were born"), while his own had been tailored to fit orthodoxy ("who was born," producing a Johannine mention of the Virgin Birth), whether by himself or by a predecessor. Perhaps historians of the text ought to grow a bit more suspicious of other Patristic claims that their opponents sabotaged the text. Perhaps the shoe ought to go on the other foot in some of those cases, too. Most admit that Augustine was mistaken in making Mark the abridger of Matthew. It would be good to see more scholars taking seriously the compelling arguments of John Knox (Marcion and the New Testament) that neither was Marcion the abridger of Luke that he has been made out by Tertullian and others. Unlike many of the scholars on whose work Knox builds, he does not make Marcion's gospel identical to the original Luke. Instead he sees Marcion as having slightly edited an early, shorter "Luke," while much of the Lukan text he lacked were post-Marcionite and anti-Marcionite redactions and additions. In fact, Knox's careful textual, redactional, and stylistic scrutiny of these passages reminds one of Ehrman's own weighing of the merits of the Western non-interpolations. Perhaps we will one day recognize a whole set of "Marcionite non-interpolations" in canonical Luke as well. At any rate, should we not drop the Patristic polemical value-judgments and speak of Marcion's texts, as well the attested readings in the texts of other "heretics," simply as attested variants and then judge them, too, by their own merits?

Though Ehrman is consistently cogent and convincing in his suggestions as to the redactional intentions behind variants, one might take issue with him here and there, at least suggest other possibilities. For instance, He joins most scholarship in rejecting Harnack's suggestion that the Markan cry of dereliction originally read as we find it in several Western textual witnesses: "My God, my God, why have you reviled me?" But where, pray tell, did this odd and striking variant come from? Ehrman proposes that it was an orthodox change intended to prevent the text ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") from seeming to abet the Gnostic Separationist doctrine that Jesus' "God," the Christ-Aion, had abandoned him on the cross as Basilides taught. But surely "Why have you reviled me?" is a peculiar option if one is trying to render the text theologically innocuous! Instead may we not suspect that the Western variant is precisely a Gnostic (either Docetic or Separationist) alteration in accord with the various Nag Hammadi texts which have the Christ-Spirit standing invisibly at some distance from the cross and laughing in derision at the foolish mortals who belief the crucified form to be his own, perhaps even at the crucified one himself?

Again, when it comes to 1 John 5:6, Ehrman sides with Schnackenburg and against de Boer in denying that Cerinthian Separationism is in view, since "no Cerinthian would say that 'Jesus Christ' came in water, for this confession would entail a denial of their standard claim that Jesus and Christ were distinct entities" (132). Yet throughout the rest of the book Ehrman is careful to distinguish what the "heretics" may have actually said from what their detractors attributed to them. He should have been as careful here, for he himself has already quoted Irenaeus as attributing precisely this view to the Gnostics: "Jesus, by being begotten of a virgin through the agency of God, was wiser, purer, and more righteous than all other human beings. The anointed (Christ) in combination with wisdom (Sophia) descended into him, and thus was made Jesus Christ," i.e., apparently, in context, at the baptism, which is just what Ehrman cannot imagine any self-respecting Separationist saying. Maybe none would have, but that, again, is not to say that a confused Irenaeus or a careless Johannine Elder might not.

Ehrman rightly sees in 1 John 4:2 a reference to Docetic phantom-Christology (as against the quibbling of Raymond Brown), but for some reason he thinks he must pigeon-hole the Johannine opponents as either consistent Docetics or thoroughgoing Separationists. Since he has marked them as the former, then what is he to make of 1 John 2:22, 4:15, etc.? Here we would seem to have warnings against Separationism, condemnations of those who deny that Jesus is the Christ or the Son of God, Jesus being merely the earthly "channeler," as we would say today, of the Christ/Son of God. But for Ehrman it cannot be so. His eyes must be deceiving him: "The emphasis of the Johannine homology, then, falls either on the predicate noun, that the Son of God is Jesus" (the man), or perhaps on the verb itself, that the "Son of God ­is­ Jesus" (since in the secessionists' view the Son of God only appears to be the man Jesus)" (133). But is not this the sort of strained exegesis to which one resorts only when in a tight spot? Why must Ehrman so straightjacket himself and the text? I suspect he is too closely bound to the popular view that in the supposed Johannine schism we are witnessing the beginning of the proto-Gnostic trajectory. In this case we cannot yet have two different and sophisticated Gnosticizing Christological models, only a heretical tendency marking a group of dissidents. But there is nothing to force us to read the text this way. Since the case for reading 1 John 2:22 and 4:15 as anti-Separationist is quite as good as that for reading 4:2 as anti-Docetic, should we not rather conclude that the Elder has both heresies in view, and that he writes sufficiently late to be able to do so? 1 John 1:19 need not mean that the writer's own personal colleagues or disciples have broken with him. It need imply no more than that the Separationist and Docetist Gnostics long ago showed their true colors by splitting off the main Christian body--in short, the classic Eusebian etiology of heresy. Many scholars, one suspects, would like either to date 1 John early for the sake of its supposed "apostolicity" or to date developed Gnostic Christology late so as to maintain some semblance of the Eusebian apologetical paradigm whereby orthodoxy preceded heresy. To be consistent, Ehrman, elsewhere an adherent of the Bauer thesis, might better reject exegeses which are merely functions of this hidden agenda.

Textual, or "Lower," criticism has often served as a safe haven for those desiring to employ their scholarly gifts in biblical study without venturing into the perceived dangers of Higher Criticism. Thus it is no surprise that the strictures of conservative conventionalism have often governed text criticism, even tended toward using text criticism as a form of apologetics assuring us that we have "exactly what the apostles wrote." It is well past time for someone to do what Ehrman has done so well, to apply both modern literary theory and the Bauer paradigm to textual criticism, in the process blurring much of the line separating Lower Criticism from Higher Criticism.



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