Thursday, October 20, 2005

‘Western Non-Interpolation’ in Luke 24:51-52 as haplography

We’re a bit short on discussion of readings in this blog so far...

In Nestle-Aland 27 it is suggested that in Luke 24:51 και ανεφερετο εις τον ουρανον is omitted by two major uncials, Old Latin witnesses and the Sinaitic Syriac. This is significant since it is the only clear indication of a vertical element in the ascension within Luke. This is also one of the many cases where Old Latin and Syriac witnesses are supposed to agree. In fact the Syriac does not omit και ανεφερετο since it has a verb involving vertical elevation that would not be used just to translate διεστη.

What to me is more interesting is the misleading way the information is presented. Immediately before και ανεφερετο εις τον ουρανον is αυτων ending with ν. The sequence of letters at the initial boundary of the phrase is thus νκαια. This is also the sequence that occurs at the final boundary of the phrase when the final ν of ουρανον is taken with the following και αυτοι. Thus the omission of the phrase can be explained as a parablepsis from νκαια to νκαια. Nestle-Aland inevitably put the omission marks round a whole grammatical unit. While I can see that as editors they had little choice about this, it is misleading if this is taken as an indication of what unit might actually have been omitted within a manuscript.

What is fascinating about this variant is that the omission is so readily explained by mechanical means. It seems to me that whole swathes of textual criticism work on the assumption that if there is a mechanical explanation for a variant and a theological explanation for a variant then the theological one is preferable. This assumption sometimes combines with a predisposition to see doctrinal development in early variants and results in a preference for readings that have no compelling reason to be taken as original.

This raises a wider question: how many of the variants that are alleged to arise from theological Tendenz could be explained as merely mechanical? The theory that says that theology is the predominant cause of variation would surely predict that there would be many variations for which a theological explanation was possible but for which no mechanical explanation was possible.

Over to you guys.


  1. This is an excellent question true not only for the Scriptures, but also a key questions for their versions. Have you read, and what do you make of, Bart Erhman's, "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture"?

  2. Ehrman wrote: 'My thesis can be stated simply: scribes occasionally altered the words of their sacred texts to make them more patently orthodox and to prevent their misuse by Christians who espoused aberrant views' (p. xi). I agree with the phrase 'scribes occasionally altered the words of their sacred texts', but don't know as much about the scribes and their motivations as he knows. It seems also that he and I would understand different things by 'occasionally' :-). Of course the attempt to define theology on the basis of variants is not unique to Ehrman. One particular scholar who strikes me as pursuing this route in a major way is Epp.

  3. I would think that a sensible approach involves weighing up all the possible/potential factors in the light of known scribal habits.
    A 'mechanical' explanation MAY help explain the origin of a reading (say this one), but one would definitely also need to factor in the theological/rhetorical/canonical issues involved in it.
    Since there are a whole group of readings with broadly similar support in the final chapters of Luke a global theory would also be useful.


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  5. I agree with Peter - the mechanical explanation MAY be the issue in Lk 24:51-2, and I want to add another well-known point: Things are different in the letters of the NT. In my daily reading, I am just in 1Corinthians, and it seems quite easy to recognize the "orthodox corruption" in passages like 1Cor 11:24-34. Passages which underwent a lively discussion in the early church history seem to have been "guarded" by scribes or church fathers or whatever against the "wrong" understanding or misuse. Also, the letters of the NT were not copied and circulated that much as the gospels, so that mechanical errors are more apt to be found in the latter ones.

  6. Peter is right that a global theory is needed to deal with the similarity of witnesses for the various 'Western Non-Interpolations'. Specific mechanical explanations do not suggest themselves for most. However in Luke 24:52 we can explain the omission of PROSJUNHSANTES AUTON by parablepsis from AUTO to AUTO. Note that the first AUTO is followed by I, and the second by N (whose first upright stroke looks lik I). In hearing people read modern texts I note that parablepsis sometimes occurs without any specific letter repetitions, i.e. without a specific mechanical explanation. I guess this also occurred in antiquity, though I'd be at a loss to know how often.