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The Significance of the Scribal Corruptions to the New Testament Text

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Ancient scribes who copied the handwritten texts of the New Testament frequently changed the text intentionally. Although unintentional changes account for the vast majority of textual corruption, intentional alterations also account for thousands of corruptions. In some cases, to be sure, it does seem that the scribes were being malicious. But these instances are few and far between. The majority of the intentional changes to the text were done by scribes who either thought that the text they were copying had errors in it or by scribes who were clarifying the meaning, especially for liturgical reasons.

Some of the commonest intentional changes involve parallel passages. This is where the passage that the scribe is copying out has a parallel to it of which the scribe is aware. For example, about 90% of the pericopes (or stories) in Mark’s Gospel are found in Matthew. When a scribe was copying Mark, after he had just finished copying Matthew, he would frequently remember the parallel in Matthew and make adjustments to the wording of Mark so that it would conform to the wording of Matthew. This alteration is known as harmonization. Occasionally, the wording in Matthew would be conformed to that of Mark or Luke. Or when the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament, especially when the quotation is from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament abbreviated LXX), scribes tended to conform the wording in the NT to the LXX. Parallels between letters of Paul also suffer from this kind of alteration. But when certain manuscripts disagree with such parallels, they are usually considered to reflect the wording of the original text better. A part of the reason for this is that virtually all manuscripts harmonize passages. This shows that there was a concern for the wording of the text and the historical reliability of the text. Consequently, when a manuscript does not harmonize while most others do, it is usually considered to reflect the original wording.

Scribes also were prone to clarify passages, especially for liturgical reasons. For example, 89 successive verses in Mark do not mention the name of Jesus once nor refer to him by any noun at all. But in the lectionary cycle, a portion of Mark’s Gospel would be read for the assigned day. It would be a bit confusing if the passage began with, “And he went out from Galilee.” Who is the ‘he’? The lectionaries would add the name of Jesus (and they did so in three well-placed locations in these 89 verses) to give a little context to the reader. The lectionaries exercised a great influence on the later manuscripts especially. What was part of the prescribed reading of scripture became so ingrained in the scribes’ minds that they naturally added the words that they knew from such recitations.

Scribes also were prone to clarify what they thought the text meant. Sometimes they were right, sometimes they were wrong. There could be theological issues involved, or issues of mere orthopraxy (proper conduct in the church). An understanding of early church history helps us to get a better grasp on which reading is most likely to be authentic and which is not. But we can’t always be sure, and one of the great problems with this kind of approach is pinpointing when a reading arose and matching it to a theological agenda. Some have attempted this as a primary explanation for the apparent theological changes in the NT, but what they haven’t done is sufficiently anchor a particular reading to a particular time and place in which such a reading would probably arise. Thus, the theological argument must give way to the textual evidence, since the textual variants are capable of being explained by several different factors.

Two or three examples are in order to illustrate the above points. In Mark 3:21 most manuscripts (including early and important ones) read, “When his family heard this they went out to restrain him, for they were saying, ‘he is out of his mind.’” The ‘they’ here is ambiguous: it might refer back to ‘his family,’ in which case Jesus’ family was calling him nuts; or it might refer to a general ‘they.’ Manuscripts of the Western text-type changed ‘his family’ to ‘the scribes and the rest’ to remove the potential embarrassment. Yet this is precisely why ‘his family’ is probably authentic: what scribe would change the text to make it more ambiguous, and capable of embarrassment?

In John 4:17, Jesus quotes the Samaritan woman’s words back to her: “Correctly you have said, ‘I don’t have a husband.’” However, in the Greek text, he didn’t quote her exactly. The word order is reversed: “A husband I don’t have.” The emphasis seems to be that she had someone at home but he was not her husband, a point Jesus will make explicit in the next verse. However, a few manuscripts change the word order to make both statements conform to each other---however, they don’t change Jesus’ word order but the woman’s! It’s as if the scribes were thinking, “He quoted her correctly; she just didn’t say it right in the first place so we need to adjust her words”! Other manuscripts both changed the word order of what the woman had to say and turned Jesus’ statement into an indirect statement (“Correctly you have said that you don’t have a husband”), to safeguard the Lord’s speech. Here is an instance in which the parallel is in the same verse rather than between two Gospels.

In Mark 9:31 and 10:34, most manuscripts change the wording of Jesus’ prediction of his own death and resurrection to say that he would rise from the dead ‘on the third day’ instead of ‘after three days.’ However, several important and diverse witnesses read ‘after three days’ in these verses. Why the change? Because Matthew and Luke spoke of Jesus’ resurrection as occurring on the third day, not after three days. Mark consistently referred to Jesus’ resurrection as occurring after three days, while Matthew and Luke almost consistently speak of it as occurring on the third day. There is but one instance in Matthew in which ‘after three days’ is used, and that on the lips of would-be witnesses against Jesus (Matt 27:63). Without getting into the details of these parallels, suffice it to say that both Matthew and Luke seemed to want to clarify that ‘after three days’ meant ‘on the third day’; and most later scribes, not recognizing the Jewish idiom, also changed the wording in Mark to reflect the wording in Matthew and Luke.

It is remarkable, however, that the scribes seemed to be more concerned with harmonizations, both literary and historical, than in protecting Jesus’ divine status—even if they embraced his full deity. A classic example of this is the parallel between Matthew 19:17 and Mark 10:18. In Mark 10:17, the rich young ruler says to Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” To this Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” The answer must have startled the young man—and certainly would have startled the readers of this gospel! Was Jesus here declaring that he was not divine? That certainly seems to be the implication—at least on the surface. Most likely, however, Jesus was attempting to get the young man to recognize that by calling Jesus good he was saying something about him that was ontological, intrinsic to his nature. Was he really prepared to call Jesus divine? If so, then he should definitely do whatever the Lord told him because this man from Nazareth was God in the flesh.

In characteristic fashion, Matthew softens this line of thought because his goal is not so much to get his readers to wrestle with who Jesus is as it is to instruct them who he is. While Mark is attempting to get his readers to come to their own conclusions about Jesus, Matthew is attempting to get them to come to his conclusions. (This, by the way, explains why Mark ends his gospel at 16:8 rather than at 16:20: the reader is invited to think through the death and resurrection and consider whether he should embrace Jesus as both the suffering servant and the resurrected Lord. Mark, however, does not give him the option of just accepting Jesus in his glory. This is what Peter and the disciples originally wanted, and for this reason Mark leaves off any resurrection appearance to Peter and the disciples.) Hence, in Matt 19:16, the young man says, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?” To this Jesus responds, Why do you ask me about the good? There is only one who is good.” The full response here is almost a non sequitur. The man, in Matthew, did not call Jesus good, so ‘there is only one who is good’ does not seem to directly answer his question. However, it does reveal a seam, a vestige of Mark’s wording that has carried over into Matthew’s gospel. What is most remarkable about this parallel, however, is this: later, orthodox scribes changed the wording in Matthew rather than in Mark. In fact, the majority of scribes changed Matthew’s wording to conform to Mark. Well after orthodoxy was established, these scribes continued to fix the text of Matthew and leave Mark untouched. Now, to be sure, the wording in Mark is the same as the wording in Luke. But since Matthew was the most copied and read gospel in the ancient church, one would especially expect Mark’s gospel to be changed to conform to Matthew. Further, concerning Christology, where Mark asks a question, Matthew gives an answer. It may have been the near non sequitur in Matt 19:17 that tipped the scales, or the parallel in Luke, but regardless of the reason the fact that later scribes changed the text of Matthew to conform to Mark shows at least that they were more concerned about verbal harmonization than about any implications this might have for Christology. And this is something we see frequently in the synoptic gospels: harmonizations simply for the sake of smoothing out historical and literary parallels, regardless of the consequences for other theological issues.

Nevertheless, such harmonizations are easy to spot. And scribes were not entirely consistent. Thus, the ‘after three days’ in Mark 8:31 is virtually untouched. Even this strong motive to alter the text was never done systematically and was never done completely. For this reason, we can have a great deal of confidence that the essential message of the original text can be recovered, for there is always a witness to it.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Textual Criticism