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Editor's note: Bart Ehrman delivered the Kenneth W. Clark lectures at Duke Divinity School in 1997. This article, though slightly modified from the oral presentation, preserves the original flavor of the lecture. See also his second lecture.

Text and Tradition: The Role of New Testament Manuscripts in Early Christian Studies

The Kenneth W. Clark Lectures
Duke Divinity School

Lecture One: Text and Interpretation: The Exegetical Significance of the "Original" Text

Bart D. Ehrman
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

1. Kenneth Clark was a real pioneer in the field of NT textual criticism; his collections and photographs of Greek MSS, his significant essays on major aspects of the discipline, his selfless leadership of the International Greek New Testament Project all served to make him a premier textual scholar and to elevate Duke to a place of prominence as one of the great institutions of learning in this field. I am honored and flattered to be asked to present the lectures that have been endowed in his name.


2. 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.

3. 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.

4. During the course of their transmission, the original copies of these books were eventually 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.

5. 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. In the year 1707, 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, several of 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.

6. 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. In any event, Mill's publication launched a discipline committed to determining places of variation among our surviving NT witnesses, ascertaining which of these variations represent modifications of the text as it was first produced by its authors, and which represent the original text itself.

7. We have, of course, come a long way since Mill. Today we have over fifty times as many MSS as he had--at last count, there were upwards of 5300 complete or fragmentary Greek copies--not to mention the thousands of MSS attesting the early translations of the NT into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Old Slavonic, etc., and the many thousands of quotations of the NT by church authors of the first few hundred years. What is particularly striking is that among the 5300+ Greek copies of the NT, with the exception of the smallest fragments, there are no two that are exactly alike in all their particulars.

8. No one knows for sure how many differences there are among our surviving witnesses, simply because no one has yet been able to count them all. The best estimates put the number at around 300,000, but perhaps it's better to put this figure in comparative terms. There are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the NT.

9. As one might expect, however, these raw numbers are somewhat deceptive. For the vast majority of these textual differences are easily recognized as simple scribal mistakes, errors caused by carelessness, ineptitude, or fatigue. The single largest category of mistake is orthographic; an examination of almost any of our oldest Greek manuscripts will show that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today. Scribes can at least be excused on this score: they lived, after all, in a world that was for the most part without dictionaries, let alone spell check.

10. Other textual variants, however, are significant, both for the interpretation of the NT texts and for our understanding of the social world within which these texts were transmitted. The importance of establishing a hypothetically "original" text has always been fairly self-evident to historians; you can't know what an author meant if you don't know what he or she said. The importance of variant readings, however, has rarely been as self-evident to historians, although it is now becoming the most exciting area of study in this field. For once it is known what an author wrote, one can ask why the text came to be changed by later scribes living in different circumstances. Is it possible that Christian scribes in the second, third, and fourth centuries, for example, modified the texts they copied for reasons of their own, possibly to make them say what they were supposed to mean?

11. In my two lectures I am going to be dealing with these two areas of significance. In this afternoon's talk, I'll be exploring three textual problems to show the importance of establishing the "original" text for its interpretation. In my lecture tomorrow, I'll show how modifications of the text by early scribes can help us understand something about the pressing social and theological problems in ancient Christianity, such as the emergence of Christian orthodoxy, the rise of anti-Semitism, and the oppression of women.

12. The three textual problems that I've chosen for this lecture occur in three different books of the New Testament. Each of them relates to the way Jesus himself is portrayed by the book's author; in each instance I will argue that the reading chosen by the United Bible Societies for their Greek New Testament, which is also the text of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, and the text on which most modern English translations are based, and which most interpreters simply assume is probably accurate, is in fact wrong, and that the understanding of the three books of Mark, Luke, and Hebrews is, as a result, significantly affected. These are not trivial and unknown problems for NT scholars; some of you among us, especially my New Testament colleagues, are already aware of the problems surrounding Mark 1:41, where Jesus becomes incensed at a leper's request for healing; Luke 22:43-44, where he allegedly sweats blood before his betrayal and arrest; and Hebrews 2:9, where he is said to have died apart from God.

Mark 1:41 and the Angry Jesus

13. The textual problem of Mark 1:41 occurs in the story of Jesus' healing a man with a skin disease. The surviving manuscripts preserve v. 41 in two different forms; I've included both variant readings for you here, italicized:

39 And he came preaching in their synagogues in all of Galilee and casting out the demons. 40 And a leper came to him beseeching him and saying to him, "If you wish, you are able to cleanse me." 41 And [feeling compassion (splagxnisqei\j)/becoming angry (o)rgisqei\j)], reaching out his hand, he touched him and said, "I wish, be cleansed." 42 And immediately the leprosy went out from him, and he was cleansed. 43 And rebuking him severely, immediately he cast him out 44 and said to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing that which Moses commanded as a witness to them." 45 But when he went out he began to preach many things and to spread the word, so that he [Jesus] was no longer able to enter publicly into a city.

14. Most English translations render the beginning of v. 41 so as to emphasize Jesus' compassion for this poor outcast leper, "moved with compassion/filled with pity." In doing so, they are following the Greek text found in most of our manuscripts, splagxnisqei\j e)ktei/naj th\n xei=ra au)tou=, "feeling compassion, reaching out his hand." It is certainly easy to see why compassion might be called for in the situation. We don't know the precise nature of the man's disease--many commentators prefer to think of it as a scaly skin disorder rather than the kind of rotting flesh that we commonly associate with leprosy. In any event, he may well have fallen under the injunctions of the Torah that forbad "lepers" of any sort to live normal lives; they were to be isolated, cut off from the public, considered unclean (Leviticus 13-14). Moved with pity for such a one, Jesus reaches out a tender hand, touches his diseased flesh, and heals him.

15. The simple pathos and unproblematic emotion of the scene may well account for translators and interpreters, as a rule, not considering the alternative text found in some of our manuscripts. For the wording of one of our oldest witnesses, Codex Bezae, which is supported by three Old Latin manuscripts, is at first puzzling and wrenching. Here, rather than saying that Jesus felt compassion for the man, the text indicates that he became angry. In Greek it is a difference between the words splagxnisqei/j and o)rgisqei/j. Because of its attestation in both Greek and Latin witnesses, this reading is generally conceded by textual specialists to go back at least to the second century. Is it possible, though, that this in fact is what Mark himself wrote?

16. In many instances of textual variation, possibly most, we are safe in saying that when the vast majority of manuscripts have one reading and only a couple have another, the majority are probably right. But this is not always the case. Sometimes a couple or a few manuscripts appear to be right even when all the others disagree. In part this is because the vast majority of our manuscripts were produced hundreds and hundreds of years after the originals, and they themselves were copied not from the originals but from other much later copies. Once a change made its way into the manuscript tradition, it could be perpetuated until it became more commonly transmitted than the original wording. Both readings we are considering here are very ancient. Which one is original?

17. If Christian readers today were given the choice between these two readings, virtually everyone, no doubt, would choose the one more commonly attested in our manuscripts: Jesus felt pity for this man, and so he healed him. The other reading is hard to construe: what would it mean to say that Jesus felt angry? Isn't this in itself sufficient ground for assuming that Mark must have written splagxnisqei\j feeling compassion?

18. On the contrary, and this may indeed seem backwards at first, the fact that one of the readings makes such good sense and is easy to understand is precisely what makes some scholars suspect that it is wrong. For scribes also would have preferred the text to be simple to understand and nonproblematic. Which is more likely, that a scribe copying this text would change it to say that Jesus became wrathful instead of compassionate, or to say that Jesus became compassionate instead wrathful? When seen from this perspective, the latter is obviously more likely. o)rgisqei/j, became angry, is the more difficult reading and therefore more likely to be "original."

19. But there is even better evidence than this speculative question of which reading the scribes were likely to invent. As it turns out, we don't have any Greek manuscripts of Mark that contain this passage until the end of the fourth century, nearly 300 years after the book was produced. But we do have two authors that copied this story from within twenty years of its first production. Matthew and Luke have both taken this story over from Mark, their common source. It is striking that Matthew and Luke are virtually word for word the same as Mark in the leper's request and in Jesus' response in vv. 40-41. Which word, then, do they use to describe Jesus' reaction? Does he become compassionate or angry? Oddly enough, as has often been noted, Matthew and Luke both omit the word altogether.

20. If the text of Mark available to Matthew and Luke had used the term splagxnisqei\j, feeling compassion, why would each of them have omitted it? On only two other occasions in Mark's Gospel is Jesus explicitly described as compassionate: Mark 6:34, at the feeding of the 5000, and Mark 8:2, the feeding of the 4000. Luke completely recasts the first story and does not include the second. Matthew, however, has both stories and retains Mark's description of Jesus being compassionate on both occasions (14:14 [and 9:30]; 15:32). On three additional occasions in Matthew, and yet one other occasion in Luke, Jesus is explicitly described as compassionate, using this term (splagxni/zw). It's hard to imagine, then, why they both, independently of one another, would have omitted the term from the present account if they had found it in Mark.

21. What about the other option? What if both Matthew and Luke read in Mark's Gospel that Jesus became angry? Would they have been inclined to eliminate that emotion? There are in fact other occasions in which Jesus becomes angry in Mark. In each instance, Matthew and Luke have modified the accounts. In Mark 3:5 Jesus looks around "with anger" (met) o)rgh=j) at those in the synagogue who were watching to see if he'd heal the man with the withered hand. Luke has the verse almost the same as Mark, but he removes the reference to Jesus' anger. Matthew completely rewrites this section of the story and says nothing of Jesus' wrath. Similarly, in Mark 10:14 Jesus is aggravated at his disciples (different word: h)gana/kthsen) for not allowing people to bring their children to be blessed. Both Matthew and Luke have the story, often verbally the same, but both delete the reference to Jesus' anger (Matt 19:14; Luke 18:16).

22. In sum, Matthew and Luke have no qualms about describing Jesus as compassionate. But they never describe him as angry. In fact, whenever one of their sources, Mark, did so, they both independently rewrite the term out of their stories. Thus it's hard to understand why they would have removed splagxnisqei\j from the account of Jesus' healing of the leper but altogether easy to see why they might have wanted to remove o)rgisqei/j. Combined with the circumstance that the term is attested in a very ancient stream of our manuscript tradition and that scribes would have been unlikely to have created it out of the much more readily comprehensible splagxnisqei\j, it is becoming increasingly evident that Mark in fact described Jesus as angry when approached by the leper to be healed.

23. But one other issue must be emphasized before moving on. I've indicated that whereas Matthew and Luke have difficulty ascribing anger to Jesus, Mark has no problems at all doing so. I should point out that even in the present story, apart from the textual problem of v. 41, Jesus does not treat this poor leper with kid gloves. After he heals him, he "severely rebukes him" and "throws him out." These are literal renderings of the Greek words that are usually softened in translation. But they are harsh terms, used elsewhere in Mark always in contexts of violent conflict and aggression (e.g., when Jesus casts out demons). It's difficult to see why Jesus would harshly upbraid this person and cast him out if he feels compassion for him; but if he is angry, perhaps it makes better sense.

24. At what, though, would Jesus be angry? This is where the relationship of text and interpretation becomes critical. Some scholars who have preferred o)rgisqei/j (becoming angry) in this passage have come up with highly improbable interpretations, usually, in fact, with the goal of exonerating the emotion and making Jesus look compassionate when in fact they realize that the text says he became angry. And so one commentator argues that Jesus is angry with the state of the world that is full of disease; in other words, he loves the sick but hates the sickness. There's no textual basis for the interpretation, but it does have the virtue of making Jesus look good. Another interpreter argues that Jesus is angry because this leprous person had been alienated from society, overlooking the facts that the text doesn't say anything about the man being an outsider and that even if it assumes he was, it would not have been the fault of Jesus' society but of the Law of God (specifically the book of Leviticus). Another argues that in fact that is what Jesus is angry about, that the Law of Moses forces this kind of alienation. This interpretation ignores the fact that at the conclusion of the passage (v. 44) Jesus affirms the law of Moses and urges the former leper to observe it.

25. All of these interpretations have in common the desire to exonerate Jesus' anger and the decision to bypass the text in order to do so. Should we opt to do otherwise, what might we conclude? It seems to me there are two options, one that focuses more heavily on the immediate literary context of the passage and the other on its broader context.

26. First, in terms of the more immediate context. How is one struck by the portrayal of Jesus in the opening part of Mark's Gospel? Bracketing for a moment our own pre-conceptions of who Jesus was and simply reading this particular text, one has to admit that Jesus does not come off as the meek and mild, soft-featured, good shepherd of the stain-glassed window. Mark begins his Gospel by portraying Jesus as a physically and charismatically powerful authority figure who is not to be messed with. He is introduced by a wildman prophet in the wilderness; he is cast out from society to do battle in the wilderness with Satan and the wild beasts; he returns to call for urgent repentance in the face of the imminent coming of the judgment of God; he rips his followers away from their families; he overwhelms his audiences with his authority; he rebukes and overpowers demonic forces that can completely subdue mere mortals; he refuses to accede to popular demand, ignoring people who plead to have an audience with him. The only story in this opening chapter of Mark that hints at personal compassion is the healing of the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, sick in bed. But even that compassionate interpretation may be open to question. Some observers have wryly noted that after Jesus dispells her fever, she rises to serve them, presumably bringing them their evening meal.

27. Is it possible that Jesus is being portrayed in the opening scenes of this Gospel as a powerful figure with a strong will and an agenda of his own, a charismatic authority who doesn't like to be disturbed? It would certainly make sense of his response to the healed leper, whom he harshly rebukes and then casts out.

28. There is another explanation, though. For as I've indicated, Jesus does get angry elsewhere in this Gospel. The next time it happens is in chapter 3, which involves, strikingly, another healing story. Here Jesus is explicitly said to be angry at Pharisees, who think that he has no authority to heal the man with the crippled hand on the Sabbath.

29. In some ways an even closer parallel comes in a story in which Jesus' anger is not explicitly mentioned but is nonetheless evident. In Mark 9, when Jesus comes down from the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, he finds a crowd around his disciples and a desparate man in their midst, whose son is posssessed by a demon, and who explains the situation to Jesus and then appeals to him: "If you are able, have pity on us and help us." Jesus fires back an angry response, "If you are able? Everything is possible to the one who believes." The man grows even more desparate and pleads, "I believe, help my unbelief." Jesus then casts out the demon.

30. What is striking in these stories is that Jesus' evident anger erupts when someone doubts his willingness, ability, or divine authority to heal. Maybe this in fact is what is involved in the story of the leper. As in the story of Mark 9, someone approaches Jesus gingerly to ask: "If you are willing you are able to heal me." Jesus becomes angry. Of course he's willing, just as he is able and authorized. He heals the man and, still somewhat miffed, rebukes him sharply and throws him out.

31. There's a completely different feel to the story, given this way of construing it, a construal based on establishing the text as Mark appears to have written it. Mark, in places, portrays an angry Jesus.

Luke 22:43-44 and the Imperturbable Jesus

32. Unlike Mark, Luke never explicitly states that Jesus becomes angry. In fact, here Jesus never appears to become disturbed at all, in any way. Rather than the angry Jesus, Luke portrays an imperturbable Jesus. There is only one passage in this entire Gospel where Jesus appears to lose his composure. And that, interestingly enough, is a passage whose authenticity is hotly debated among textual scholars.

33. The passage occurs in the context of Jesus' prayer on the Mount of Olives prior to his betrayal and arrest (Luke 22:39-46). After enjoining his disciples to "pray, lest you enter into temptation," Jesus leaves them, bows to his knees, and prays, "Father, if it be your will, remove this cup from me. Except not my will, but yours be done." In a large number of manuscripts the prayer is followed by the account, found nowhere else among our Gospels, of Jesus' heightened agony and so-called "bloody sweat": "And an angel from heaven appeared to him, strengthening him. And being in agony he began to pray yet more fervently, and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground" (vv. 43-44). The scene closes with Jesus rising from prayer and returning to his disciples to find them asleep. He then repeats his initial injunction for them to "pray, lest you enter into temptation." Immediately Judas arrives with the crowds, and Jesus is arrested.

34. One of the intriguing features about the debate over this passage is the balance of arguments back and forth over whether the disputed verses were written by Luke or were instead inserted by a later scribe. The manuscripts that are known to be earliest and that are generally conceded to be the best do not, as a rule, include the verses. So perhaps they are a later scribal addition. On the other hand, they are found in several other early witnesses and are, on the whole, widely distributed throughout the entire manuscript tradition.

35. So, were they added by scribes who wanted them in or deleted by scribes who wanted them out? It's hard to say on the basis of the manuscripts themselves.

36. Some scholars have proposed that we consider other features of the verses to help us decide. Adolph von Harnack, for example, claimed that the vocabulary and style of the verses are distinctively Lukan: e.g., appearances of angels are common in Luke, and several words and phrases found in the passage occur in Luke and nowhere else in the New Testament (such the verb for "strengthen"). The argument hasn't proved convincing to everyone, however, since most of these "characteristically Lukan" ideas, constructions, and phrases are either formulated in uncharacteristically Lukan ways (e.g., angels never appear without speaking in Luke) or are common in Jewish and Christian texts outside of the New Testament. Moreover, there is an inordinately high concentration of unusual words and phrases in these verses: three of its key words, for example (agony, sweat, and drops) occur nowhere else in Luke or Acts. At the end of the day, it's difficult to decide about these verses on the basis of their vocabulary and style.

37. And so we need to turn to other kinds of arguments. In the early 1980's I wrote an article on the problem with Mark Plunkett, a friend of mine in graduate school. There we developed an argument that proved to be convincing, at least to the two of us. It has to do with the literary structure of the passage. In a nutshell, the passage appears to be deliberately structured as a kind of chiasmus:

Jesus (a) tells his disciples to "pray lest you enter into temptation" (v. 40). He then (b) leaves them (v. 41a) and (c) kneels to pray (v. 41b). The center of the pericope is (d) Jesus' prayer itself, a prayer bracketed by his two requests that God's will be done (v 42). Jesus then (c) rises from prayer (v. 45a), (b) returns to his disciples (v. 45b), and (a) finding them asleep, once again addresses them in the same words, telling them to "pray lest you enter into temptation" (vv. 45c-46).

38. One of the reasons I like this argument, which, I'm sorry to admit, Plunkett came up with, is that, contrary to the claims of some scholars, chiasmus is a relatively rare phenomenon within the pages of the New Testament. This means that when a clear instance of its use does occur, one must do something with it -- either deny its presence or its significance, or admit that an author has employed a literary device in order to contribute to his overall purpose. In this case the chiasmus is nearly impossible to overlook.

39. But the mere presence of this structure is not really the point. The point is how the chiasmus contributes to the meaning of the passage. The story is bracketed by the two injunctions to the disciples to pray so as to avoid entering into temptation. Prayer of course has long been recognized as a Lukan theme; here it comes into special prominence. For at the very center of the pericope is Jesus' own prayer, a prayer that expresses his desire, bracketed by his greater desire that the Father's will be done (vv. 41c-42). As the center of the chiastic structure, this prayer supplies the passage's point of focus and, correspondingly, its hermeneutical key. This is a lesson on the importance of prayer in the face of temptation. The disciples, despite Jesus' repeated injunction to pray, fall asleep instead. Immediately the crowd comes to arrest Jesus. And what happens? The disciples, who have failed to pray, do "enter into temptation"; they flee the scene, leaving Jesus to face his fate alone. What about Jesus, the one who has prayed before the coming of his trial? When the crowds arrive he calmly submits to his Father's will, yielding himself up to the martyrdom that has been prepared for him.

40. Luke's Passion narrative, as has long been recognized, is a story of Jesus' martyrdom, a martyrdom that functions, as do many others, to set an example to the faithful of how to remain firm in the face of death. Luke's martyrology shows that only prayer can prepare one to die.

41. What happens though when the disputed verses are injected into the pericope? On the literary level, the chiasmus that focuses the passage on Jesus' prayer is absolutely destroyed. Now the center of the passage, and hence its focus, shifts to Jesus' agony, an agony so terrible as to require a supernatural visitant for strength to bear it. It is significant that in this longer version of the story Jesus' prayer does not effect the calm assurance that he exudes throughout the rest of the account; indeed, it is after he prays "yet more fervently" that his sweat takes on the appearance of great drops of blood falling to the ground. The point is not simply that a nice literary structure has been lost, but that the entire focus of attention shifts to Jesus in deep and heart-rending agony and in need of miraculous intervention.

42. This in itself may not seem like an insurmountable problem, until one realizes that in fact nowhere else in Luke's Gospel is Jesus portrayed in this way. In fact, quite to the contrary, Luke has gone to great lengths to counter precisely the view of Jesus that these verses embrace. Rather than entering his passion with fear and trembling, in anguish over his coming fate, the Jesus of Luke goes to his death calm and in control, confident of his Father's will until the very end. It is a striking fact, of particular relevance to our textual problem, that Luke could produce this image of Jesus only by eliminating traditions offensive to it from his sources (e.g., the Gospel according to Mark). Only the longer text of 22:43-44 stands out as anomalous.

43. A simple redactional comparison with Mark in the story at hand can prove instructive in this regard. For Luke has completely omitted Mark's statement that Jesus "began to be distressed and agitated" (Mark 14:33), as well as Jesus' own comment to his disciples, "My soul is deeply troubled, even unto death" (Mark 14:34). Rather than falling to the ground in anguish (Mark 14:35), Luke's Jesus bows to his knees (Luke 22:41). In Luke, Jesus does not ask that the hour might pass from him (cf. Mark 14:35); and rather than praying three times for the cup to be removed (Mark 14:36, 39, 41), he asks only once (Luke 22:42), prefacing his prayer, only in Luke, with the important condition, "If it be your will." And so, while Luke's source, the Gospel of Mark, portrays Jesus in anguish as he prays in the garden, Luke has completely remodeled the scene to show Jesus at peace in the face of death. The only exception is the account of Jesus "bloody sweat," an account absent from our earliest and best witnesses. Why would Luke have gone to such lengths to eliminate Mark's portrayal of an anguished Jesus if in fact Jesus' anguish were the point of his story?

44. Luke in fact does not share Mark's understanding that Jesus was in anguish, bordering on despair. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in their subsequent accounts of Jesus' crucifixion. Mark portrays Jesus as silent on his path to Golgotha. His disciples have all fled; even the faithful women look on only "from a distance." All those present deride him--passers by, Jewish leaders, and both robbers. Mark's Jesus has been beaten, mocked, deserted, and forsaken, not just by his followers but finally by God himself. His only words in the entire proceding come at the very end, when he cries aloud, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?)." He then utters a loud cry and dies.

45. This portrayal, again, stands in sharp contrast with what we find in Luke. For here, Jesus is far from silent, and when he speaks, he shows that he is still in control, trustful of God his Father, confident of his fate, concerned for the fate of others. En route to his crucifixion, seeing a group of women bewailing his misfortune, Jesus tells them not to weep for him, but for themselves and their children, because of the disaster that is soon to befall them (23:27-31). When being nailed to the cross, rather than being silent, he prays to God, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing" (23:34). While on the cross, in the throes of his passion, Jesus engages in an intelligent conversation with one of the robbers crucified beside him, assuring him that they will be together that day in paradise. Most telling of all, rather than uttering his pathetic cry of dereliction at the end, Luke's Jesus, in full confidence of his standing before God, commends his soul to his loving Father: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (24:46).

46. It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of these redactional changes for our textual problem. At no point in Luke's passion narrative does Jesus lose control, never is he in deep and debilitating anguish over his fate. He is in charge of his own destiny, he knows what he must do and what will happen to him once he does it. This is a man who is at peace with himself and tranquil in the face of death.

47. What then shall we say about our disputed verses? These are the only verses in the entire Gospel that undermine this clear portrayal. Only here does Jesus agonize over his coming fate; only here does he appear out of control, unable to bear the burden of his destiny. Why would Luke have totally eliminated all remnants of Jesus' agony elsewhere if he meant to emphasize it in yet stronger terms here? Why remove compatible material from his source, both before and after the verses in question? It appears that the account of Jesus' "bloody-sweat" is a secondary incursion into his Gospel.

48. Why did a scribe add them to his copy of Luke? This is a topic I will take up in my next lecture. For the purpose of the present lecture, it is enough to note that Luke himself evidently didn't write them.

Heb. 2:9: The Forsaken Jesus

49. Luke's portrayal of Jesus stands in contrast not only with that of Mark, but also of other NT authors, including the unknown author of the epistle to the Hebrews, who appears to presuppose knowledge of passion traditions in which Jesus was terrified in the face of death and died with no divine succor or support, as can be seen in the resolution of one of the most interesting textual problems of the NT.

50. The problem occurs in a context that describes the eventual subjugation of all things to Jesus, the Son of Man:

For when [God] subjects to him all things, he leaves nothing that is not subjected to him. But we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we do see Jesus, who, having been made for a little while lower than the angels, was crowned with glory and honor on account of his suffering of death, so that [by the grace of God/apart from God] he might taste death for everyone. [Heb 2:8-9]
Although almost all of the surviving manuscripts state that Jesus died for all people "by the grace of God" (xa/riti qeou=), a couple of others state, instead, that he died "apart from God" (xwri\j qeou=). There are good reasons for thinking that this, however, was the original reading of the epistle to the Hebrews.

51. I don't have time to go into the intricacies of the manuscript support of the reading, except to say that even though it occurs only in two documents of the tenth century (0121b 1739), one of these is known to have been produced from a copy that was at least as ancient as our earliest papyri. Of yet greater interest, the early 3rd century scholar Origen tell us that this was the reading of the majority of manuscripts of his own day. Other evidence also suggests its early popularity: it was found in manuscripts known to Ambrose and Jerome in the Latin West, and it is quoted by a range of ecclesiastical writers down to the eleventh century.

52. When one turns from external to internal evidence, there can be no doubt concerning the superiority of this poorly attested variant. We have already seen that scribes were far more likely to make a reading that was hard to understand easier, rather than to make an easy reading harder. This variant provides a textbook case of the phenomenon. Christians in the early centuries commonly regarded Jesus' death as the supreme manifestation of God's grace. But to say that Jesus died "apart from God" could be taken to mean any number of things, most of them unpalatable. Since scribes must have created one of these readings out of the other, there is little question concerning which of the two is more likely the corruption.

53. But was the corruption deliberate? Advocates of the more common text (xa/riti qeou=) have naturally had to claim that the change was not made on purpose (otherwise their favored text would almost certainly be the modification). By virtue of necessity, then, they have devised alternative scenarios to explain the origin of the more difficult reading. Most commonly it's simply supposed that since the words in question are so similar in appearance (xariti / xwris), a scribe inadvertently mistook the word "grace" for the preposition "apart from."

54. This view, though, seems a shade unlikely. Is a negligent or absent-minded scribe likely to have changed his text by writing a word used less frequently in the New Testament ("apart from") or one used more frequently ("grace," four times as common)? Is he likely to have created a phrase that never occurs elsewhere in the New Testament ("apart from God") or one that occurs over twenty times ("by the grace of God")? Is he likely to produce a statement, even by accident, that is bizarre and troubling or one that is familiar and easy? Surely it's the latter: readers typically confuse unusual words for common ones and make simple what is complex, especially when their minds have partially strayed. Thus even a theory of carelessness supports the less attested reading.

55. The most popular theory for those who think that the phrase xwri\j qeou=, apart from God, is not original is that the reading was created as a marginal note: a scribe read in Heb. 2:8 that "all things" are to be subjected to the lordship of Christ, but he wanted it to be clear, based on his knowledge of 1 Cor 15:27, that this did not include God the Father. To protect the text from misconstrual, the scribe then inserted an explanatory note in the margin, pointing out that nothing is left unsubjected to Christ, "except for God" (xwri\j qeou=). This note was subsequently transferred into the text of a manuscript.

56. Despite the popularity of the solution, it strikes me as too clever by half, and requires too many dubious steps to work. There is no manuscript that attests both readings in the text (i.e., the correction in the margin or text of v. 8, where it would belongs, and the original text of v. 9). Moreover, if a scribe thought that the note was a marginal correction, why did he find it in the margin next to v. 8 rather than v. 9? Finally, if the scribe who created the note had done so in reference to 1 Corinthians, would he not have written e)kto\j qeou=?

57. In sum, it is extremely difficult to account for xwri\j qeou= if xa/riti qeou= was the original reading of Heb. 2:9. At the same time, while a scribe could scarcely be expected to have said that Christ died "apart from God," there is every reason to think that this is precisely what the author of Hebrews said. For this less attested reading is also more consistent with the theology of Hebrews. Never in this entire epistle does the word grace (xa/rij) refer to Jesus' death or to the salvific benefits that accrue as a result of it. Instead, it is consistently connected with the gift of salvation that is yet to be bestowed upon the believer by the goodness of God (see esp. Heb. 4:16; also 10:29; 12:15; 13:25). To be sure, Christians historically have been more influenced by other New Testament authors, notably Paul, who saw Jesus' sacrifice on the cross as the supreme manifestation of the grace of God. But Hebrews does not use the term in this way, even though scribes who identified this author as Paul may not have realized it.

58. On the other hand, the statement that Jesus died "apart from God"--enigmatic when made in isolation--makes compelling sense in its broader literary context. Whereas this author never refers to Jesus' death as a manifestation of divine "grace," he repeatedly emphasizes that Jesus died a fully human, shameful death, totally removed from the realm whence he came, the realm of God; his sacrifice, as a result, was accepted as the perfect expiation for sin. Moreover, God did not intervene in his passion and did nothing to minimize his pain. Thus, for example, Heb. 5:7 speaks of Jesus, in the face of death, beseeching God with loud cries and tears. In 12:2 he is said to endure the "shame" of his death, not because God sustained him, but because he hoped for vindication. Throughout this epistle, Jesus is said to experience human pain and death, like other humans "in every respect." His was not an agony attenuated by special dispensation.

59. Yet more significantly, this is a major theme of the immediate context of Heb. 2:9, which emphasizes that Christ lowered himself below the angels to share fully in blood and flesh, experience human sufferings, and die a human death. To be sure, his death is known to bring salvation, but the passage says not a word about God's grace as manifest in Christ's work of atonement. It focuses instead on christology, on Christ's condescension into the transitory realm of suffering and death. It is as a full human that Jesus experienced his passion, apart from any succor that might have been his as an exalted being. The work he began at his condescension he completes in his death, a death that had to be "apart from God."

60. How is it that the reading xwri\j qeou=, which can scarcely be explained as a scribal corruption, conforms to the linguistic preferences, style, and theology of the epistle to the Hebrews, while the alternative reading xa/riti qeou=, which would have caused scribes no difficulties at all, stands at odds both with what Hebrews says about the death of Christ and with the ways it says it? Heb. 2:9 appears originally to have said that Jesus died "apart from God," forsaken, much as he is portrayed in the passion narrative of Mark's Gospel.


61. Let me take just one minute and 24 seconds to sum up what we have discovered. Establishing what an author wrote is an indispensible first step to determining what he or she meant. Within the pages of the New Testament there are textual variations that have not yet been satisfactorily resolved and that have profound effects, not just on a word here or there, but on the entire meaning of entire books and their portrayals of Jesus, e.g., the angry Jesus of Mark, the imperturbable Jesus of Luke, and the forsaken Jesus of Hebrews. These textual problems cannot simply be swept under the table and ignored. Commentators, interpreters, preachers, and general readers of the Bible must recognize their existence and realize the stakes involved in solving them.

62. But there is far more to the textual tradition of the New Testament than merely establishing what its authors actually wrote. There is also the question of why these words came to be changed, and how these changes affect the meanings of their writings. This question of the modification of Scripture in the early Christian church will be the subject of my next lecture, as I try to show how scribes who were not altogether satisfied with what the New Testament books said modified their words, to make them more clearly support orthodox Christianity and more vigorously oppose Jews, pagans, heretics, and women.

© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 2000.