The Neglect of the Firstborn in New Testament Studies

Bart D. Ehrman

Presidential Lecture, Society of Biblical Literature, SE Region

March 1997

Bart Ehrman delivered this presidential address to the audience gathered at the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion in Macon, Georgia, on March 14, 1997. A fuller discussion of the textual variants mentioned below (Luke 22:19-20) can be found in Ehrman's book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 197-209

Interpreters of the NT are faced with a discomforting reality that many of them would like to ignore. In many instances, we don't know what the authors of the NT actually wrote. It often proves difficult enough to establish what the words of the NT mean; the fact that in some instances we don't know what the words actually were does more than a little to exacerbate the problem.

I say that many interpreters would like to ignore this reality; but perhaps that isn't strong enough. In point of fact, many interpreters, possibly most, do ignore it, pretending that the textual basis of the Christian Scriptures is secure, when unhappily, it is not.

When the individual authors of the NT released their works to the public, each book found a niche in one or another of the burgeoning Christian communities that were scattered, principally in large Greek-speaking urban areas, around the Mediterranean. Anyone within these communities who wanted a copy of these books, whether for private use, as community property, or for general distribution, was compelled to produce a copy by hand, or to acquire the services of someone else to do so.

During the course of their transmission, the original copies of these books came to be lost, worn out, or destroyed; the early Christians evidently saw no need to preserve their original texts for antiquarian or other reasons. Had they been more fully cognizant of what happens to documents that are copied by hand, however, especially by hands that are not professionally trained for the job, they may have exercised greater caution in preserving the originals. As it is, for whatever historical reasons, the originals no longer survive. What do survive are copies of the originals, or, to be more precise, copies made from the copies of the copies of the originals, thousands of these subsequent copies, dating from the 2nd to the 16th centuries, some of them tiny fragments the size of a credit card, uncovered in garbage heaps buried in the sands of Egypt, others of them enormous and elegant tomes preserved in the great libraries and monasteries of Europe. It is difficult to know what the authors of the Greek New Testament wrote, in many instances, because all of these surviving copies differ from one another, sometimes significantly.

The severity of the problem was not recognized throughout the Middle Ages or even, for the most part, during the Renaissance. Indeed, biblical scholars were not forcefully confronted with the uncertainty of their texts until the early eighteenth century. The floodgates opened in 1707, when an Oxford scholar named John Mill published an edition of the Greek New Testament that contained a critical apparatus systematically and graphically detailing the differences among the surviving witnesses of the NT. Mill had devoted some thirty years of his life to examining a hundred or so Greek MSS, the early versions of the NT, and the citations of the NT in the writings of the church fathers. His apparatus did not include all of the differences that he had uncovered in his investigation, but only the ones that he considered significant for the purposes of exegesis or textual reconstruction. These, however, were enough. To the shock and dismay of many of his contemporaries, Mill's apparatus indicated some 30,000 places of variation, 30,000 places where the available witnesses to the NT text differed from one another.

Numerous representatives of traditional piety were immediately outraged, and promptly denounced Mill's publication as a demonic attempt to render the text of the NT uncertain. Mill's supporters, on the other hand, pointed out that he had not invented these 30,000 places of variation, but had simply noticed them. One positive outcome of the dispute was that a number of competent, classically-trained scholars entered into the fray, such disparate personalities as Richard Bentley and Johann Albrecht Bengel, and eventually such greats as Karl Lachmann and J. J. Griesbach. For the most part these scholars were less interested in discovering differences in our manuscripts than in figuring out what to do with the differences, with the ultimate objective of establishing the so-called original text, that is, the text as actually written by the New Testament authors themselves. They developed a number of criteria by which manuscripts, and the readings they contained, could be evaluated; building on one another's work, they labored to establish which of the surviving readings were original and which were later modifications, either accidental slips made by careless or incompetent scribes or intentional alterations made by scribes who thought the text ought to say what they already knew it to mean.

These pioneering efforts at establishing the text represent the first attempts to study the New Testament on critical, rather than confessional, grounds. Long before other kinds of critical approaches to the text--source, form, redaction, rhetorical, structuralist, and post-structuralist forms of criticism--there was textual criticism. It was the firstborn of NT studies.

With the passing of time, and the emergence of new questions and interests, every critical approach to the New Testament becomes antiquated; in some instances this is understandable. The very assumptions underlying form critical and structuralist analyses, for example, are today roundly rejected, probably in most quarters. And the very real contributions to be made through traditional forms of source and redaction criticism have already been made; frankly, there doesn't appear to be much water left in these wells, even though what has already been retrieved can on occasion be fruitfully recycled. With textual criticism, we are, somewhat ironically, in a different situation altogether. It's true that some of the fundamental assumptions of the field are undergoing important critique, as a growing number of textual scholars are beginning to question seriously and fruitfully what it might mean to speak about an "original" text, for example, of the Gospel of Mark or John. Even so, at the end of the day, the importance of the basic task is widely acknowledged: you can't very well interpret what a text means if you don't know what it says. And the basic methods for establishing the earliest form of the text are widely seen as theoretically defensible and practically indispensable. Yet more importantly, this is one critical well that is not at all dry. It is this latter point that I want to stress in my talk. We have nearly 50 times the number of MSS that John Mill had at his disposal in 1707, and we know of possibly 100 times as many textual variants--far more variants among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Most of these variant readings are completely insignificant for larger questions, involving such things as misspelled words and fatigue-inspired slips of pens. But a lot of them do have broader implications for other areas of research, such as biblical exegesis, Christian theology, and early Christian social history. Most of these have not been considered adequately in light of these broader concerns. There is in fact a lot that remains to be done in this field that is both interesting and significant.

This is not widely recognized, however, and the firstborn of NT studies has, as a result, suffered from some serious neglect. The neglect is evident on almost all levels. A surprising number of PhD's in NT--we may as well admit it--are barely competent in Greek. Even more are unable to make sense of the critical apparatus that stands at the foot of every page of the Nestle- Aland Greek New Testament that everyone uses. And even those who can construe the apparatus are rarely equipped to understand why one reading, the one found in the text, has been printed, while others are found only in the apparatus--let alone to come to independent judgments about the adequacy of the decision of the United Bible Society's committee, comprised of Kurt and Barbara Aland, Bruce Metzger, and others. Commentators typically ignore textual problems, not simply because they have other things to do but also because in many instances they don't have the wherewithal to deal with the problems.

Many students of the New Testament in divinity schools and seminaries, not to speak of Greek students in colleges and universities, are never taught what the apparatus is all about; many of them don't know that there is a difference between the various kinds of apparatus that are available; most of them don't realize that the apparatuses are not exhaustive but barely scratch the surface of the textual variation of which we now have knowledge. And this is not to say a word about the general population, laypeople who don't know that the New Testament was written in Greek and that we don't actually have the NT books themselves but only copies produced many centuries later that differ widely among one another.

This is raw ignorance in one of its most crass forms, an ignorance that can be and has been fed upon by well-meaning incompetents and glory-seeking cranks. Very few people in our society have any grounds whatsoever to evaluate the claims that the words of the King James Translation are themselves inspired by God; very few highly trained New Testament scholars are able actually to dispute the claims of Carston Thiede found in a major article of Time Magazine that one of our papyrus MSS, P64, in fact dates to the middle of the first century and may represent an eyewitness account of the life of Jesus by one of his followers. There are lots of knees jerking over these issues, but very few minds working. At the very least scholars of the NT should be equipped to deal with these matters. And, in fact, the training that can prepare them to do so can prove salutary for other reasons, since considerations of the problems of the text naturally involve so many areas of research interest to scholars of the Bible and early Christianity.

This is the point I'd like to emphasize in the bulk of the time I have remaining. In order to illustrate the wide range of relatively interesting issues that can be involved with the textual variation of the NT, I've decided to discuss in some detail just one variant reading, out of a cast of hundreds that could readily be chosen for the purpose, a solitary textual problem whose resolution has broad ranging implications for such fields as exegesis, the history of doctrine, the development of Christian liturgy, and, of all things, post-modernist understandings of ancient texts.

I've chosen for my illustration one of the most intriguing textual problems of the Gospel of Luke, namely the variant accounts of the Last Supper preserved in MSS of Luke 22:19-20. The NT MSS present the passage in two major forms; one is conveniently labeled the "shorter text," because it lacks vv. 19b- 20, so that the passage reads as follows (17-19a, 21):

Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, "Take this and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, "This is my body. 21 But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table."

The longer text includes the familiar material (italicized) between the final two sentences (vv. 19b-20):

Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. 21 But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table."

This longer form of the text is the one familiar to most readers of the Bible, since it is the one found in virtually all modern English translations and is very similar to the words of institution recorded by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. It is also the one found in most of our Greek manuscripts of Luke. There are nonetheless solid reasons for thinking that the shorter text was the one originally written by the author, and that the passage italicized above was added by a scribe of the second century, some sixty or seventy years after the Gospel was first placed in circulation.

To analyze the competing merits of the two readings, the first step is obviously to consider the manuscripts supporting each one.

Whereas hundreds of mss attest the longer reading of the text, the shorter form is supported only by one early Greek and a handful of Old Latin manuscripts. That in itself is not a compelling reason for rejecting it, however, precisely because of the nature of the particular manuscripts in question. For technical reasons, whenever these particular manuscripts agree on a reading, scholars generally concede that it goes back at the least to the second century; but the odd thing is that when they do agree, it is almost always in expanded forms of the text, rather than contracted forms. In this instance, the mss that generally preserve longer texts attest the shorter one. This has given scholars pause; in this passage these manuscripts attest a reading that cuts against their known proclivities.

There are strong internal grounds for thinking they do so here because the shorter text is, in fact, the oldest surviving reading. It's worth noting, for example, that the longer passage preserves an inordinately high number of literary features completely uncharacteristic of Luke-Acts, and that precisely these non-Lukan features are the key elements of the text: the phrase "for you" occurs twice in this passage, but nowhere else in all of Luke-Acts, the word for "remembrance," occurs only here in Luke- Acts, and never elsewhere does Luke speak of the "new covenant," let alone the new covenant "in my blood."

But far more important than the absence of this vocabulary from the rest of Luke-Acts is the matter of its ideational content. For it is surely significant that the understanding of Jesus' death expressed by these words and phrases is otherwise absent from Luke's entire two-volume work. When Jesus says in Luke 22:19b-20 that his body is given "for you" and that his blood is shed "for you," he is stating what Luke says nowhere else: in neither his Gospel nor Acts does he portray Jesus' death as an atonement for sins.

Although most readers probably haven't noticed, never in his two volumes does Luke say that Jesus died "for your sins" or "for you." Significantly when he summarizes the features of the "Christ event" in the speeches of Acts, with remarkable consistency he portrays the death of Jesus not as an atoning sacrifice, but as a miscarriage of justice that God reversed by vindicating Jesus at the resurrection (e.g., Acts 2, 3, and 4). In none of these speeches is Jesus said to die "for" anyone. Instead, the scandal of his death as God's righteous one drives people to their knees in repentance, and it's this repentance that brings forgiveness of sins. In one passage in particular one might expect some reference, however distant, to Jesus' atoning death. In Acts 8 the apostle Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch reading the text of Scripture used most widely by early Christians to explain Jesus' death as a vicarious atonement: Isaiah 53. But somewhat remarkably, when Luke cites the passage as read by the Ethiopian, he includes not a word about the Servant of the Lord being "wounded for our transgressions" (Isa. 53:5), being "bruised for our iniquities" (53:5), or making himself "an offering for sin" (53:10). Luke has instead crafted his quotation to affirm his own view of Jesus' passion: he died as an innocent victim who was then vindicated (Acts 8:32-33).

It is particularly important to stress that Luke has not simply overlooked or avoided making references to Jesus' death as an atonement; he has in fact gone out of his way to eliminate notions of atonement from the one source we are virtually certain he had before him, the Gospel of Mark. Mark makes two poignant references to the salvific significance of Jesus' death and Luke changed them both. The first and most obvious comes in the famous words of Jesus in Mark 10:45: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." If Luke found this theology acceptable, it is hard to explain what he did with the verse. He omitted it altogether.

The other reference is more subtle, but nonetheless forms a kind of linchpin for Mark's theology of the cross. In Mark's account, Jesus' death is immediately followed by two signs that suggest its meaning: the temple curtain is ripped in half and the Roman centurion confesses him to be "the Son of God" (15:38-39). Mark evidently uses the ripping of the curtain of the Holy of Holies to indicate that in the death of Jesus God has made himself available to human beings, destroying the barrier of access to him. And the confession of the centurion represents the first (and only) instance of a person in Mark's Gospel who fully recognizes who Jesus is: he is the Son of God who had to die, whose death was not inimical to his divine sonship but was instead constitutive of it. In short, the ripping of the curtain and the confession of the centurion reveal Mark's understanding of Jesus' death as an atoning sacrifice that effects salvation.

Luke's account of Jesus' death, which is dependent on Mark's, also records a tearing of the temple curtain and a confession of the centurion. But the events are modified so that their significance is transformed. The tearing of the curtain in the Temple no longer results from Jesus' death, because in Luke it occurs before Jesus dies (23:45). What the event might mean to Luke has been debated, but since it is now combined with the eerie darkness that has come over the land, it appears to represent a cosmic sign that accompanies the hour of darkness, symbolizing God's judgment upon his own people who have rejected his gift of "light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death" (1:79), a judgment that falls in particular on the religious institution which his people have perverted to their own ends (Luke 19:45-46).

So too Luke has changed the confession of the centurion. No longer does it indicate a profession of faith in the Son of God who has died ("Truly this man was the Son of God," Mark 15:39); now it coincides with Luke's own understanding of Jesus' death, for here the centurion proclaims, "Truly this man was innocent" (Luke 23:47). The death of Jesus in Luke-Acts is not a death that effects an atoning sacrifice. It is the death of a righteous martyr who has suffered from miscarried justice, whose death is vindicated by God at the resurrection. Let me emphasize: Luke was able to shift the focus away from the atoning significance of Jesus' death only by modifying the one account of that death which we are certain he had received. What though has this to do with our textual problem?

In fact only one of the two readings conforms with the theology of Luke otherwise, and specifically with his demonstrable handling of his Marcan source. The verses of the longer text of the institution of the Lord's Supper stress the atoning significance of Jesus' death for his disciples. That is, they emphasize precisely what Luke has gone out of his way to eliminate from his entire two-volume narrative. It's hard to see these verses as coming from Luke's own pen.

I would like to deal with one final aspect of the passage before drawing out some of the broader implications. One of the reasons most people prefer the longer form of the text is that without the addition of vv. 19b-20 the text appears to end abruptly, so abruptly that it is difficult to imagine a Christian author not supplementing the account with additional material. Look for yourself at the passage. Doesn't the abruptness of the shorter text suggest that the longer text must have been original?

In fact, as has sometimes been recognized, it probably indicates just the reverse. Readers who are thoroughly conversant with the eucharistic liturgy feel that something is "missing" when Jesus' words over the bread are not followed by his passing of the cup. But of course this is the case not only for modern critics who assume that Luke could not have ended the passage so shortly, but also for ancient scribes who were equally accustomed to the traditions of Jesus' Last Supper. What would be more natural for scribes conversant with what "really happened" at Jesus' last meal than to supplement Luke's version with the words drawn from a tradition with which they were otherwise familiar?

Interestingly, this "other tradition" (i.e. vv. 19b-20 in the longer text) is not only anomalous within Luke's Gospel itself, it also has very few connections with Luke's source, the Gospel of Mark. Instead, the additional words practically mirror the familiar form of the institution preserved in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Is it possible that a scribe has inserted a Pauline form of the institution into Luke's seemingly too brief account?

This appears to be the best explanation for the longer passage. For in point of fact, no one has been able to provide a convincing explanation for how the shorter text would have come into existence if the longer were original. One of the standard explanations is that a scribe who either could not understand or did not appreciate the appearance of two cups in Luke's narrative eliminated one of them to make the account coincide better with all the others. The problem is that it's hard to explain a scribe harmonizing the account to its parallels by eliminating the second cup instead of the first. It is the first that is problematic, since it is distributed before the giving of the bread; and it is the second that is familiar, because the words of institution parallel so closely those of Paul in 1 Corinthians. Anyone wanting to eliminate the problems of two cups and of sequence would have excised the earlier cup, not the latter. Even worse, this explanation cannot at all account for the omission of v. 19b, where the cup is not yet mentioned.

Virtually the only explanation that might account for the shorter text if the longer is original is that vv. 19b-20 dropped out by accident. But this is problematic as well. Only rarely do such long passages (thirty-two words) drop out of a text for no apparent reason. And it scarcely seems accidental (1) that these thirty-words just happen to supply precisely what is missing in the account otherwise, a notion that Jesus' body and blood would be given on behalf of his disciples, (2) that this theological construal is otherwise alien to Luke's entire two-volume work, and (3) that these words, and only these words, parallel the words found in 1 Corinthians. In short, it is difficult to explain the shorter text if the longer text is original.

But it is not at all difficult to account for an interpolation of the disputed words into Luke's brief account of Jesus' last supper with his disciples. For while Luke's account of Jesus going to his death proved useful for proto-orthodox Christians of the second century who themselves emphasized the necessity of martyrdom and the need to emulate the tranquility of Jesus in the face of it, it was not at all useful when they wanted to stress, in direct opposition to certain groups of docetic opponents, that Christ experienced a real passion in which his body was broken and his blood was shed for the sins of the world.

We know of a number of Christians who embraced docetic Christologies from at least the beginning of the second century onwards (i.e. from precisely the period in which this Lukan text must have been altered). Representatives of such views are known from the writings of Ignatius and other second- and third-century heresiologists; some of them are known by name, with the arch-heretics Marcion, Saturninus, and Basilides heading the list. Despite the differences among their views, these Christians were unified in thinking that Christ did not have a real flesh and blood existence. He was a phantasm, a specter. By implication, at least in the eyes of their proto-orthodox opponents, these docetists necessarily devalued the salvific significance of Christ's death, indeed necessarily denied that Christ "really" died and shed "real" blood, let alone that he shed blood "for you."

For the proto-orthodox, on the other hand, it was precisely the sacrifice of Christ's flesh and the shedding of his blood that brought redemption to the fallen race of humans. For them, Jesus was a human not in appearance only but in reality; he had real flesh and real blood, he suffered real pain and died a real death. And most importantly for the textual history of this passage, Jesus' suffering and death were not incidental to salvation but were integral to it. Jesus' body was given for believers, and it was his blood that established the new covenant.

It is no accident that Tertullian refers on one occasion to Christ's consecration of the wine as his blood to disparage Marcion's view that he was merely a phantom (Treatise on the Soul, 17), while on another occasion he cites the entire institution narrative as known from 1 Cor. 11 and the longer text of Luke to the same end, precisely to show that Christ's giving of his body and blood for his disciples demonstrated the reality of that body and blood (Adv. Marc., 40).

In using the text in this way, Tertullian is closely allied with other proto-orthodox authors of the second century such as Irenaeus, who also used this passage in his attacks on both Marcion and other unnamed docetists.

It is precisely the emphasis on Jesus' giving of his own flesh and blood for the salvation of believers, as represented in the physical elements of the bread broken "for you" and the cup given "for you," that made the longer text of Luke 22:19-20 so attractive to the proto-orthodox heresiologists of the second century. And it is the same theological concern that may account for the genesis of the text, which as we have seen, evidently did not come from the hand of Luke himself.

Consider now the areas of research that both impinge upon this textual decision and are affected by it. It is obviously a significant matter of exegesis to know which words belong in Luke's text. As I've pointed out, it's impossible for interpreters to explain what Luke's words mean if they don't know what these words were. Establishing the earliest form of the text also matters for our understanding of New Testament theology, since here is a book that construes the significance of Jesus' death in a non-Pauline way, not as an atonement but as a ground for repentance that leads to forgiveness. This construal in turn is significant for our understanding of the diversity of early Christianity, as the traditional Christian creeds developed from one of these paths of thought rather than the other. It may well be that liturgical diversity in early Christianity is at issue as well, since the older form of Luke's text appears to reflect not only a different wording of the institution narrative at the Lord's supper, but a different sequence within the liturgical act itself, in which the cup is given primacy over the bread. These forms of diversity came to fuller expression in the second century, as historians of liturgy and doctrine know from our early sources; interestingly, it may have been the historical development of Christian doctrine that led to the modification of the text in the first place, as second century Christians searched for texts to combat proponents of docetic Christologies. This in turn shows that the transmission of the text was affected by social disputes in early Christianity, in this case, by the struggles to establish emerging orthodoxy. I might add that other kinds of disputes and social issues played their role on the transmission of the text, though in passages other than this one, issues such as the rise of Christian anti-Judaism, the oppression of women, the apologetic movement, and the rise of asceticism.

At least this one passage is sufficient, though, to make my basic point. There are dozens of passages that need to be worked on in this way with these sets of questions, not just to determine some kind of reputedly "original" text, but also to see how the transmission of this text came to be so thoroughly enmeshed in the concerns and conflicts of the emerging Christian church. Thus the modernist obsession with origins, historically so characteristic of biblical studies, can give way even in the study of the text, a study invested not simply in a hypothetically primal fixed entity ("the autograph") but in texts that have been construed over time, reread by readers in real contexts, and occasionally rewritten by some of these readers in the process of transmission.

Let me conclude by saying that in recent years the firstborn of New Testament studies has begun to show some internal signs of growth, as specialists in the field have begun to recognize the potential of the data at their disposal for scholars who do not reside among the rare and occasionally endangered species of the professional textual critic. It's absolutely true that this aspect of NT studies has typically conjured up images of uninteresting, technical, and theoretically naive modernistic discourse, undertaken by uninteresting and theoretically naive modernist technicians who have nothing to say of broader interest to scholars working in the field of NT, let alone to the larger academy of religion. But we are now well positioned to move beyond this banal perception, which indeed we can do, if train a new generation of scholars in the field to pursue new lines of inquiry and so bring this neglected child to an age of maturity.