Wednesday, August 04, 2021

A Modern-Day Scribe


A beautiful story in Christianity Today here: "Nine Years, 782,000 Words Later, South Carolina Woman Completes Handwritten Bible."


  1. Well worth reading this story.

  2. That was a great story.

    I also write the bible, the nt anyway, out by hand.

    I do it in greek, just following my na27.

    It started as a lark about 10 years ago when I thought it would be interesting to get a (small) taste of what scribes experienced. I was interested in what kinds of mistakes I would make, and how it would feel to make them.

    It slowly morphed into a daily practice of just a few verses, if for no other reason than to keep up my Greek when the rest of my life was focused on other interests.

    Over the years I found it turned into a devotional exercise. I write the verse out in greek, then do a new translation into english, the sit for a moment to reflect and pray on the verse. I try to make that personal. I have a history of thinking I have all the answers, so I usually make a point of wrestling with the verse until i'm forced to admit "I dont know" . Then I pray.

    I do that most mornings, though i've only managed to complete a handful of books of the NT now (in fairness, I did James a few times).

    So i'm very impressed that this woman made it through the entire bible in less time!

  3. This story was worth readng. I once sent an email asking a well-known textual criticism scholar whether there has ever been a project in which ordinary people are asked to transcribe different books of the NT. The purpose for such a thing would be to have different generations of copies and find patterns of change and other things that textual criticism canons presupose.

    Since I don't even know whether this scholar recieved my mail (I never received his reply), I'm taking the oporrtunity to ask the scholars in this blog the same question. Wouldn't it be useful to replicate, somehow, the process of copying by hand the NT text in order to "test" the theories behind today's Textual Criticism? Hasn't that been done yet?

    I hope I am not asking a foolish question,

    Best regards,

    Eduardo Prado

    1. I’m not a scholar and I don’t know, but I seem to remember reading something like Daniel Wallace had some of his students do this. But I might be misremembering. I hope someone who knows answers your question.

    2. Eduardo,

      I am not sure how helpful the experiment would be, to be honest. It seems to me that while it would prove how easily mistakes can be made, and that might have some value to the people doing the copying, the differences might be too great to compare to the work of New Testament copyists. For one, how many ordinary people are trained, experienced copyists? How many find themselves in a church setting in which they attend services for hours a day hearing the Scriptures read? How many have huge portions of the Scriptures memorized? More than that, there are huge theological differences between modern Protestants and the people who wrote the manuscripts we use—a modern Protestant bibliology vs. an Eastern Orthodox bibliology. If the church is given equal authority to the Scriptures, that might affect how one approaches copying. How rigorously would ordinary people correct their mistakes? The way that we occasionally see a higher frequency of corrections in the first part of a manuscript that falls off later in the manuscript suggests to me that to those particular scribes, having a correct text was something that was desired but that was not pursued vigorously. Would we approach the text with the same mindset?

      To move from those questions to practice: One modern textual 'theory' (though it is something that has been observed again and again in the hard data) is that copyists often harmonize the text, whether that be to the immediate context, a more distant context, or to parallel passages. That will look very different in how it works out between a 6th-century Scribe who has memorized the whole Gospel of Mark and sets out to copy Matthew and a modern person who has not memorized even a whole chapter of a Gospel—for the modern person, the exact wording of the parallel isn't right there in the scribe's head like it is for the ancient scribe, so I wouldn't expect to see the same kind of harmonization happening now as we see happening back then.

      Hope that helps,


    3. I think I agree and disagree, Elijah.

      On the one hand, surely all the points you make are correct, and the differences between the experience of the early scribes and the manufacured experiences of modern "scribes" can probably be overstated only with great difficulty.

      Still, I think there is definite value in a modern scribal experience.

      You could compare it to a history buff retracing hannibal's route crossing the alps. For sure, the assistance of modern technology, gear, food and supplies, etc, will render the trip so different from what hannibal's men faced that it's almost incomparable. But in walking that route yourself - retracing the same steps, even if in modern boots - you sure do get a lot more intimate understanding of the experience than you ever could by just sitting in the library reading about it in books.

    4. Ryan,

      Thanks for this. I don't think we disagree (or if we do, not that much). I agree completely with what you said. I just think that the differences are too stark to provide any definitive tests of text-critical theories, as Eduardo was asking. But it's absolutely a good idea to illustrate how easily errors can happen and even what kinds of errors can happen, even if the frequencies are too 'off' to use the the results of such experiments to test theories. There's definitely value in the experience.

    5. Thank you, Elijah, for taking the time to answer my questions. Taking into account what you said, I would propose to modify my original proposal so that we had modern-day monks do the copies, for example, instead of ordinary protestant church-goers.

      Maybe an experiment like this will not test most text-critical theories, but there is one interesting (and very important thing) thing that could be tested: how close can one get to an original “autograph” by analysing and comparing hadwritten copies several generations apart form that “autograph”? following text-critical theories?

      I hope my modified version of my original idea makes sense.

      Just in case anybody finds it worth it commenting,

      Eduardo Prado

  4. It is interesting that it psychological studies of memory and reproduction of texts have begun to be integrated into studies of the synoptic problem and the transmission of the Jesus tradition. (E.g. for synoptic problem this JBL article in 2002:; and it is everywhere in memory studies)