Wednesday, November 28, 2012

“Misquoting Manuscripts? The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture Revisited”

I have published a new essay, “Misquoting Manuscripts? The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture Revisited” in the following volume:

Magnus Zetterholm and Samuel Byrskog, eds., The Making of Christianity: Conflicts, Contacts, and Constructions: Essays in Honor of Bengt Holmberg (Coniectanea Biblica: New Testament Series 47; Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns, 2012), pp. 325-50.

This volume is available with a 30% conference discount ($33.25) by using the SBL/AAR order form available here. From the webpage of the book you can see table of contents and further details.

I make available an excerpt of the nine first pages here. And here is the conclusion (without footnotes):
We have analysed seventeen selected examples of orthodox corruption, brought forth by Bart Ehrman in his influential work on the orthodox corruption of Scripture. Ehrman’s optimism regarding the ability of modern textual criticism, not only to identify corruption, but to reconstruct the initial text in these passages may come as a surprise. As we have seen, Ehrman accepts the initial text as adopted in NA27 with very few exceptions (Mark 1:1; Luke 3:22; John 1:18; 1 Cor 10:9).75 My examination, however, has demonstrated several problems with his procedure as he identifies various variant readings as examples of “orthodox corruption.”

The first problem with Ehrman’s text-critical analysis is the mixed nature of the sample that he uses. It seems to me that he has harvested the entire textual tradition in order to find data to support his preconceived thesis, without crossexamining the possible tendencies of individual witnesses. It will become clear that, on the level of the individual witness, it is very difficult to detect any consistent theological tendency. On the contrary, individual witnesses will often reflect directly opposite tendencies (e.g., adoptionistic/anti-adoptionistic).

The second and more serious problem with Ehrman’s procedure is the mechanical character of his treatment of individual passages. Whenever there is textual variation in a passage that somehow relates to Christology, Ehrman too easily identifies one reading as the original and another as “orthodox corruption.” Ehrman’s philological and text-critical groundwork is unsatisfactory, in that he lacks a sensitivity to the particular context and nature of the variation in the individual passage.

In a classic essay on “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism,” Alfred E. Housman proposed that “every problem which presents itself to the textual critic must be regarded as possibly unique.” This sound view of textual criticism excludes every mechanical application of a single canon of criticism to a passage, e.g., to prefer the least orthodox reading whenever there is a grain of suspicion that a passage may have been tampered with for doctrinal reasons. Instead, the textual critic should attempt at each point to seek the most plausible explanation for the textual variation, weighing external and internal evidence and utilizing whatever principles that may apply to the individual problem.

If the criteria are found to be in conflict, which is often the case, the textual critic has to decide when to give greater consideration to one criterion and less to another. As I have attempted to demonstrate in my treatment of these examples, a balanced judgment will often require knowledge of the pecularities of individual manuscripts and their scribe(s), the citation habits of church fathers, and a familiarity with the character of a particular version and its limitations in representing the Vorlage from which it was translated.

Indeed, this close examination of a significant number of passages has confirmed the judgment of Gordon Fee who in a review of Ehrman’s work points out that, “too often [Ehrman] turns mere possibility into probability, and probability into certainty, where other equally viable reasons for corruption exist.”
My monograph The Epistle of Jude: Its Text and Transmission is available from the same publisher for an SBL supersale price – $25 – thru 31 December here.


  1. Tommy
    Is there any information about when we could expect your book if we ordered it through the link you posted here? The website says "out of stock". Also, do you know how much shipping to the US usually costs?


  2. Hi,

    Interesting discussion.

    Allow me to first note the fine paper from Tony Costa on this question of Bart Ehrman presupposition and inconsistency.

    Was Adoptionism the Earliest Christology - A response to Bart Ehrman -
    Tony Costa

    And Tommie Wasserman, it sounds like you addressed partly one major dubious idea of Ehrman, that the actual early church was adoptionist and ebionite. While going more into his techie aspects.

    On the textualcriticism forum this was brought up to Bart Ehrman and he acknowledged that adoptionism was his belief/presupposition. And unsuccessfully tried to handwave the significance to his textual theories. See posts 6730, 6731 and 6737

    [textualcriticism] Bart Ehrman's textual theory foundational presupposition - adoptionism is the early Christianity - least orthodox reading

    And the John 1:18 dance of Bart Ehrman has been worthy of special note.

    Yours in Jesus,
    Steven Avery
    Bayside, NY