Biblical studies: October 2008 Archives

Ehrman on John 1:18

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A little while ago, I posted a criticism of an argument from Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. I said I had one other criticism to post and am now finally getting around to writing up my thoughts on it.

John 1:18 calls Jesus either "the unique Son" or "the unique God". Ehrman (on pp.161-162) argues that the former reading is more likely. He admits that the second reading is found in the Alexandrian manuscripts, which are generally regarded as closer to the original biblical texts. That would normally be a decisive enough argument for me, in lieu of some other consideration that would nevertheless make it less likely to be the original reading. Ehrman thinks he has such a consideration.

One interesting piece of evidence is that you don't find "the unique God" very much in non-Alexandrian manuscripts, which is some indication that it either came into the manuscript tradition after the Alexandrian branch diverged (Ehrman's view) or that the change to "the unique Son" was so early that it managed to get into most of the other manuscripts that survive. I certainly wouldn't rule that out (and its occasional presence does undermine this argument a little bit), but this is one piece of evidence against "the unique God" being original.

Even so, Ehrman raises some other arguments against "the unique God" that I can't agree with. He says John uses "the unique Son" elsewhere but never "the unique God". I suppose that counts for something, but there's nothing to rule out John using an expression in the very different prologue that never occurs elsewhere in the gospel.

The argument that really baffles me, though, is his claim that "the unique God" makes no sense when applied to Jesus. Only someone who isn't thinking in terms of classical Trinitarian theology could say such a thing. He says the term for "unique" in Greek means "one of a kind". So far so good, until he concludes that such an expression must therefore refer to the Father and not to Jesus. "But if the term refers to the Father, how can it be used of the Son?"

Obviously, the people he believes to have changed the text thought it meant something that they thought they understood, or they wouldn't have changed it for the ideological reasons he thinks they changed it for, so there's immediately something suspicious about his claim that both of the following are true:

1. It was changed for ideological reasons because the changed text better supports proto-orthodoxy.
2. What it was changed to makes no sense when applied to Jesus and violates proto-orthodoxy by applying something true only of the Father to Jesus.

Consider what the view he calls proto-orthdoxy holds. The classic Trinitarian view is that Jesus is God. There's only one God, and both the person called the Father and the person called the Son are that God. So any characteristic of that God, say his uniqueness, is true of both the person called the Father and the person called the Son. In light of that, doesn't Ehrman's argument sound very strange? He has to assume from the outset that classic Trinitarianism, the very proto-orthodoxy that he thinks this change was introduced to support, is not a viable view, or he couldn't claim that it makes no sense. It makes perfect sense according to that view, and it's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect someone holding the view to accept as true.

Finally, if "the unique God" is theologically puzzling, as it might be for a copyist who doesn't fully grasp classical Trinitarian theology, then we have a perfectly good explanation of how a copyist might have gone from "the unique God" to "the unique Son" if the latter is indeed more easily understood, as Ehrman says it is.

Maybe some of the other reasons might be good reason to withhold judgment on which reading is earlier or maybe even to favor "the unique Son". I'm not doing a comprehensive look into which reading is likely to be better. I just thought this particular argument is especially problematic, and yet it seems the one Ehrman takes to be most decisive.

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?

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