Ehrman on I Timothy 3:16

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I've been reading through Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. The best short evaluation of the book (as opposed to the several good book-length responses) is Craig Blomberg's review. My general sense so far is that it's a weird mix of:

1. a very readable and helpful overview of the history of textual criticism of the New Testament
2. an excellent guide to standard contemporary textual criticism
3. some particular views along that way that I find too critical for reasons that I find unmotivating (but Ehrman doesn't always admit when his conclusions are controversial, so it might sometimes be hard for a beginner, who will be the typical reader of the book, to separate out claims that derive from standard text-critical consensus and views that Ehrman holds idiosyncratically)
4. the occasional strange argument for a smaller claim that doesn't seem at all to support what he says it supports

I noticed a couple examples in the last category in the last chapter I read, and I wanted to blog about one of them now. The other will probably follow on another occasion.

Chapter 6 of the book deals with textual variants in the manuscript tradition that involve changes that copyists made in New Testament texts for ideological reasons. He highlights three controversies in the early church, and for each controversy he finds instances of changes in the manuscript tradition that were motivated by ideology, usually to prevent an original reading from possibly being misunderstood to teach the opposing view. I have no interest in denying that this happened, but one of the examples he gives seems to me to be very unlikely to have been ideologically motivated.

In I Timothy 3:16, one difference occurs in the manuscript traditions between "Christ, who was made manifest in the flesh" and "Christ, God made manifest in the flesh". Ehrman suggests that the change from the former to the latter was motivated by anti-adoptionist ideology. Adoptionists took Christ to be merely human but adopted by God as his Son due to his being sinless. Such a change would support the anti-adoptionist agenda of those Ehrman calls proto-orthodox. However, it's completely bizarre for him to say this particular change was "made to counter a claim that Jesus was fully human but not himself divine" (p,158), and the reason I say this is because what Ehrman himself says about the case two chapters earlier, a discussion he does refer to in the section at hand.

In chapter 4, Ehrman gives this example in his discussion of early textual critic Johann Wettstein, who apparently was the first modern textual critic to recognize it. What Wettstein observed is that the difference between the texts is a matter of two small marks. The 'hos' is an omicron followed by a sigma, with a rough breather mark before the omicron. The 'theos' is actually abbreviated to 'ths, which is a theta followed by a sigma, with a marker over the two letters indicating it's an abbreviation. So the rough breather becomes the abbreviation marker, and the omicron becomes a theta, which is an omicron with a line through the center. This could easily be explained by a misread rather than a deliberate change, and one piece of information Ehrman notes (on p.113) makes this even more probable. In one very old manuscript, the line making the omicron a theta is much fainter than the rest of the letter, and in fact it turns out to be a bleedthrough from the other side. It's extremely probable that the scribe simply misread the 'hos' as an abbreviation of 'theos'.

So Ehrman has given very good reason to think this was an unintentional copyist mistake due to someone misreading the word in question because of the bleedthrough. Why, then, does he give it as an example of an ideologically-motivated change to defend proto-orthodoxy against adoptionism? Why does he refer to it as "made to counter a claim that Jesus was fully human but not himself divine" when he's just referred to his earlier discussion, which gave every reason to think this was a completely accidental change. That's an extremely strange mistake for someone who is widely regarded as an excellent textual critic to make. Am I missing something here?

9 Comments

I'm not sure I'm of any help answering your question, but I remember reading excerpts from Ehrman's debate with Dan Wallace that touched a little on this issue. Wallace pointed out in the debate that in Ehrman's scholarly writings, he sounds very sure of what textual critics can say about the validity of the NT manuscript tradition. But in his popular writings, he leads the readers to believe that we should be more skeptical, due largely to ideological changes.

I haven't read Misquoting Jesus, do you get that impression from the book?

I'm not sure Wallace is talking about the same issue. Ehrman in this book sounds very sure that some particular readings are earlier than others. What he's hesitant to say is that any particular reading is original, since the oldest manuscripts are 2nd century or later and because we know ideological changes happened later and can't rule out the chance that they happened earlier and we've simply lost the manuscripts evidencing them. He's happy to claim confidently that one reading is older than another, though.

I'm not sure this is philosophically consistent, because the skepticism he has about possible variants before the manuscript tradition basically assumes that we can't trust anything if there's a chance it was altered, but the arguments he gives for later changes are still also probabilistic, and he's ruled out probabilistic reasoning in his treatment of possible earlier variants. He wants to be a Cartesian skeptic about one but can confidently rely on not-absolutely-certain reasoning in the other. His best hope at defending this would be to argue that there's a difference in likelihood between the two, but I'm not sure the likelihood for the earliest readings being the original is that low compared to the in likelihood that textual critics' conclusions about certain readings being earlier.

Jeremy,

I think you may be missing something.

According to Ehrman, it was not simply a mistake made in copying. An alteration was made to the existing manuscript by drawing the line over the two letters in a different ink. Moreover, Ehrman notes that "the same correction occurs in four of our other early manuscripts." As I understand the situation, the "bleed through" only has explanatory power in one of the alterations. Moreover, it only has partial explanatory power since there was a demonstrably intentional addition as well.

Danny,

In both Misquoting Jesus and his more scholarly works, Ehrman discusses both areas of certainty and areas of uncertainty. Having listened to the entire debate, it is my impression that Wallace simply compared discussions of uncertainties from Ehrman's popular works with discussions of certainties in his scholarly works thereby giving the impression that Ehrman was saying different things to different audiences.

Right, but the movement of the rough breather to the line over the whole word can easily be seen as a miscorrection. I thought that was how he was presenting it in the earlier passage in the book.

Is it clear that the other four are either later manuscripts or certainly distinct manuscript traditions? If so, then he could have been clearer about that. Doesn't that seem rather unlikely, that four separate occurrences of the same change would take place completely independently, all for ideological reasons rather than for some common miscorrection explanation? At any rate, I got the sense that his mention of the bleedthrough was to explain the change, not just as evidence that it was a change, so he would have been clearer if he'd emphasized that the bleedthrough couldn't be the explanation for the change in all the cases. I'm pretty sure he never says that in either discussion of the case in Misquoting Jesus.

I'm pretty sure Wallace has more to it than just picking and choosing passages. Wallace is a serious enough textual critic to know Ehrman's work as a whole and not just the occasional passage. Regardless of what he has in mind, I do think there's a complaint in the area that I'd tend to agree with. Ehrman has higher standards for what we can be sure about when asking what the original text said than he does for what sort of probabilistic argument he'll accept when comparing two manuscripts. He says we can't know what the original author says merely because it might have been changed with no remaining records, but he accepts with pretty strong confidence what the earliest reading might be, sometimes when careful scholars think the evidence is pretty evenly split. I don't what kind of epistemology Ehrman is assuming, but I don't know of one that will treat the relevant probabilities in those two cases with the kind of serious difference in evaluation that he needs to make it work.

The earlier passage is part of Ehrman’s historical overview of textual criticism so I would read it as being an account of Wettstein’s conclusions rather than Ehrman’s own analysis, but I agree that it would have been helpful if Ehrman had addressed the point more clearly. I suspect that he dealt with it more thoroughly in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

I too am pretty sure that Wallace is familiar with all of Ehrman’s work, however, in their recent debate I thought that Wallace was picking statements from different works that were not directly comparable.

I am not sure whether Ehrman is overly confident of his interpretation of the manuscript evidence that exists, but I can certainly see why he lacks confidence on questions for which manuscript evidence does not exist.

My point is that not having any manuscripts doesn't mean there's no manuscript evidence. The fact that all the manuscripts after a certain date say a certain thing is evidence, even if it's not conclusive. The fact that many possible readings are thoroughly implausible for various reasons is also evidence. And so on. Arguments of both sorts are probabilistic, so there are things in common, and sometimes the inconclusive ones deserve less credence than ones where we're dealing with suppositions of what must have come earlier.

My point is that not having any manuscripts doesn't mean there's no manuscript evidence. The fact that all the manuscripts after a certain date say a certain thing is evidence, even if it's not conclusive.

As I understand the problem, the overwhelming majority of the manuscript evidence comes from after the time of Constantine when Christianity was the state religion of the Roman Empire. In his talk at the Greer-Heard Forums, Professor Michael Holmes of Bethel University noted that “the closer in time that you get to the origins of the New Testament, the more scarce the manuscript evidence becomes, and indeed, for the first century or more after its compositions, from roughly the end of the late first century to the beginning of the third century we have almost no manuscript evidence for any of the New Testament Documents and for some books the gap extends to two centuries or more.”

While it is true that the readings found in the fourth century constitute some evidence of what the originals said, I don’t see how you get around the problem of trying to extrapolate from the scribal practices in the time when orthodox Christianity was the state religion back to the practices in the time when Christianity was a persecuted minority composed of competing sects. What evidence exists seems to suggest that the rate of variants was significantly higher in the first couple of centuries.

I'm not sure I'd disagree with any of that in terms of the facts, but the variants that we actually have, even in the earlier periods of what we've got, are almost entirely:

(a) completely insignificant, like misspellings that don't change the meaning or word order that affects very little sense
(b) significant enough to make a difference in the interpretation of the particular context but not significant enough to affect anything globally (e.g. the variants involve saying one thing taught several times throughout scripture or something else also taught several times throughout scripture)

This is true even of all the examples Ehrman gives of changes for ideological reasons. There are occasions where something of minor importance appears in a perhaps suspect instance but only appears once somewhere else, and Ehrman might have grounds to wonder if the other instance was also a change. But there aren't very many of these. You certainly get no sense of the numbers in Misquoting Jesus, which leads me to wonder if he was deliberately holding back in order to make his case seem stronger than it is.

He acts as if he's giving typical examples when he gives the only two instances of large sections that were added (John 8 and Mark 16). You'd get the sense from reading him with no other text-critical knowledge that most of the basic doctrines Christians believe could have been added later, but the probability of that is vanishingly small compared with the probability that a text was changed for ideological reasons when you can equally explain the text being changed the other way for ideological reasons (I'll give an example of that sort in my second post that I haven't gotten to yet.)

Another point: you have 1 Tim. 3:16 quoted as "Christ, who was made manifest in the flesh" or "Christ, God made manifest in the flesh," but the word 'Christ' isn't there, which is a minor grammatical problem for the first reading, which most scholars think is the original one. A VERY frequent source of errors is when a copyist is a native speaker of the language in question and reads what he expects to see, instead of what is actually there. In this case, he certainly isn't expecting a relative pronoun without an antecedent anywhere in the vicinity. Incidentally, the masculine singular nouns in v. 15 are 'pillar' (which makes no sense), 'the living God', 'God', and 'the house of God' (also doesn't make sense), so it looks like the only sensible antecedent for the pronoun is 'God' and nothing much hangs on this problem. Probably, a copyist (possibly sub- or unconsciously) fixed the slightly odd grammar.

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