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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 first lecture.

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

The Kenneth W. Clark Lectures
Duke Divinity School

Lecture Two: Text and Transmission: The Historical Significance of the "Altered" Text

Bart D. Ehrman
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


1. For most of its practitioners, the ultimate goal of textual criticism has been to reconstruct the original text of the New Testament. This conception of the field was exemplified in the work of Fenton John Anthony Hort, arguably the most brilliant mind to apply himself to the task, who focused his labors on a solitary objective: "to present exactly the original words of the New Testament, so far as they can now be determined from surviving documents." Hort construed this task in entirely negative terms: "nothing more than the detection and rejection of error."

2. No historian or exegete would deny the desirability of this objective; the words of an ancient author must be established before they can be interpreted. This became clear, I hope, in my last lecture, as I showed how the resolution of a textual problem can significantly affect exegesis, for example, by highlighing Mark's portrayal of Jesus as an angry man, Luke's portrayal of him as imperturbable, and the epistle to the Hebrews' portrayal of him as forsaken.

3. Nonetheless, for textual scholars a century after Hort to continue being obsessed exclusively with the "original" text is, in my judgment, completely myopic. For the manuscript tradition of the New Testament provides us with much more than remnants of the New Testament autographs; it also gives us scribal changes of the text--changes that may be of significance in and of themselves for what they can tell us about the theological and social investments of the scribes who made them and, correspondingly, about the theological and socio-historical contexts within which they worked. When viewed in this way, variant readings are not merely chaff to be discarded en route to the original text--as they were for Hort; they are instead valuable evidence for the history of the early Christian movement.

4. The historian of early Christianity shares a fundamental problem with all other historians of antiquity: our sources are frustratingly sparse. Moreover, the sources that have survived tend to be the literary remains of the cultured elite, which may or may not tell us what other, non-elites were thinking or experiencing. Our New Testament manuscripts were themselves, of course, produced by literate persons; but these anonymous scribes were not necessarily, or even probably, literary, in the sense of being among the most highly educated and cultured in their societies. If the changes that these unnamed copyists made in their reproductions are studied with sufficient care and with the right questions, they may provide a gold mine of information about the thoughts and experiences of late antique Christians who were not among the literary elite. Remarkably, this is a gold mine that has rarely been tapped.

5. Let me begin to illustrate the potential of this kind of approach to our textual tradition by picking up on the three variant readings that I examined in my previous lecture. I will start with the ones found in Luke and Hebrews, as these illustrate well the ways in which the theological controversies of early Christianity made an impact on the scriptural texts that were being used by various sides in the debates.

Theological Modifications of the Text

6. We saw last time that Luke 22:43-44, verses found in some manuscripts but not others, present the familiar story of Jesus in agony before his arrest, sweating great drops as if of blood, and being strengthened by an angel from heaven. I showed that these verses did not originally belong to Luke's Gospel but were inserted by a scribe or scribes in the second century. But why were they inserted? Was it simply because scribes found the story interesting or edifying? While this is, of course, possible, there may have been something far more significant going on. In fact, there are reasons to think that the verses were interpolated into the Gospel precisely because they portray so well a human Jesus, one who agonizes over his coming fate to the point of needing supernatural succor, an agony so deep as to cause him to sweat great drops as if of blood.

7. In the second century, there were a number of Christians who maintained that since Jesus was fully divine, he could not be human. Included in their number were Marcion and members of several groups of Gnostics. Their opponents called these "heretics" docetists, from the Greek word doke/w (to seem or to appear), since these persons maintained that Jesus only "seemed" or "appeared" to be human.

8. This was a serious and heated controversy in the second century, as it affected profoundly the church's entire understanding of the nature of Christ. If the solution to that question seems obvious today, we should surely reflect on the fact that one side eventually won the debate and then wrote the history of the conflict. In any event, in view of this controversy, it is worth observing how the verses in question were used in the sources that first attest them. They occur three times in the writings of anti-heretical, proto-orthodox church fathers of the second century: Justin, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus. Remarkably, in all three cases they are cited to the same end, to counter any notion Jesus was not a real flesh and blood human being. Justin, for example, argues that Jesus' bloody sweat shows "that the Father wished His Son really to undergo such sufferings for our sakes, so that we "may not say that He, being the Son of God, did not feel what was happening to Him and inflicted on Him" (Dial. 103). What is interesting in this case is that we do not need to hypothesize the usefulness of these verses for an anti-docetic polemic; we know that the verses were put to precisely this use during the second-century and that that is when the account came to be inserted into the third Gospel; scribes who did so may well have been reflecting the anti-docetic concerns of their own communities.

9. We might hypothesize a somewhat different motivation behind the modification of Hebrews 2:9. If you recall, in that passage Jesus was said to have died "apart from God." Early in the second century, however, scribes began to change the word "apart" (xwri\j in Greek) to a word similar in appearance xa/riti, "grace," so that now Jesus is said to have died "by the grace" of God. Even though this change may have been made by accident, it carries such a significantly different meaning that one might suspect that scribes knew full well what they were doing when they made it. On the one hand, one could probably argue that these anonymous copyists simply couldn't understand what it might mean to say that Jesus died "apart from God" and so changed it to say something that made better sense; but, on the other hand, it may be that they knew full well what the text meant and that they knew how some Christians were interpreting it. If this is so, then the offending parties would not have been groups of docetists, but, possibly, other kinds of Gnostics who had a different view of Jesus.

10. For in fact, most Gnostics did not maintain that Jesus was fully God and not human (the docetic view); they instead claimed that Jesus Christ was two separate beings, one human (the man Jesus) and the other divine (the heavenly Christ). As the heretic-fighter Irenaeus explains, these Gnostics maintained that when Jesus was baptized, the Christ descended upon him as a dove and entered into him, empowering him for his ministry. Then, at some point prior to his death, the Christ, who could not suffer, departed from him. That's why, according to some Gnostics, Jesus cried out on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you left me behind?" For them, that's exactly what had happened, when the divine Christ made his exit. For these gnostic Christians, Jesus literally did die "apart from God."

11. We know that the scribal alteration of the text of Heb 2:9 occurred precisely during the time that the controversy between proto-orthodox Christians and Gnostics was raging. It is not at all implausible to think that it was just this controversy then that led to the modification of this text, that proto-orthodox scribes, who shared the christological views of Irenaeus, modified the text so that Gnostics could not use it as a scriptural warrant for saying that Jesus died "apart from God," since the divine Christ had already left him.

12. This would not be the only verse that was altered out of anti-gnostic concerns. Just to take one other similar example before moving on to other kinds of scribal changes, we might consider the cry of dereliction that I've just mentioned from Mark 15:34, where Jesus breaks the silence he has maintained throughout the entire crucifixion scene by crying out, in Aramaic: elwi elwi lema sabaxqani, a quotation of Ps 22:2, for which the author supplies the Greek translation of the LXX, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

13. As I've already intimated, at stake in the Gnostic controversy was the meaning of the Greek verb in this verse, e)gkate/lipej, literally, "left behind." The proto-orthodox took it to mean "forsake" and argued that because Christ had taken the sins of the world upon himself, he felt forsaken by God; the Gnostics, on the other hand, understood the word in its more literal sense, so that for them, Jesus was lamenting the departure of the divine Christ: "My God, my God, why have you left me behind?"

14. This is clearly the interpretation given by the gnostic Gospel of Philip, which quotes the verse before explaining that "It was on the cross that Jesus said these words, for it was there that he was divided." The words appear to be construed similarly in their reformulation in the Gospel of Peter, where on the cross Jesus cries out, "My power, O power, you have left me."

15. Until recently, scholars have failed to recognize how this controversy over the meaning of Jesus' last words in Mark relates to a famous textual problem of the verse. For in some manuscripts, rather than crying out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" the dying Jesus cries "My God, my God, why have you reviled me?"

16. The witnesses that support this reading indicate that it was in wide circulation already in the second century. But it has proved very difficult for scholars to imagine that it was the original reading of Mark, for lots of reasons that I don't need to go into here. Assuming that Mark's Jesus cried out "why have you forsaken me," why would some scribes have changed it to "why have you reviled me"? Surely it's not unrelated to fact that Gnostics were using the verse to support their separationist christology. For them, Jesus' despair at being "left behind" by God demonstrated that the Christ had separated from him and returned into the Pleroma, leaving him to die alone. The change, then, may have been made to circumvent the "misuse" of the text, and naturally suggested itself from the context. Just as Jesus was reviled by his opponents, those for whom he died, so too he bore the reproach of God himself, for whose sake he went to the cross in the first place.

17. Variations such as this, that relate in one way or another to the early christological controversies, have been studied at some length in recent years. The same cannot be said about variants that relate to other kinds of issues confronting Christian scribes of the second and third centuries. There are a number of fruitful avenues of exploration, just begging for intelligent attention. We can begin by looking at variants involving the apologetic concerns of early Christianity.

Apologetically-Motivated Variants

18. To do so, we should return to the third variant that I considered in my previous lecture, Mark 1:41, where Mark indicates that Jesus became angry when approached by a leper who wanted to be healed. Scribes changed the text so that Jesus was no longer said to become angry, but was moved by compassion. This kind of change is also, roughly speaking, christological, in that it pertains to the portrayal of Jesus. But it is hard to understand the change in relation to any of the christological controversies known to be raging during the time it was made, the second century. So perhaps we should look for some other context within which to situate it.

19. Again, it's possible that scribes simply couldn't figure out why Jesus would get angry at this poor fellow and so changed the text to make his response more appropriate. But could something else have motivated the change? To my knowledge, no one has considered the possibility that the change was made in light of another kind of controversy second-century Christians were embroiled in, this time not with "heretics," that is, Christians who took different theological positions, but with pagan opponents of Christianity.

20. In the second half of the second century, when this text appears to have been altered, pagan critics started to take notice of the burgeoning Christian movement and began to write vitriolic attacks on it, labeling it a mindless superstition comprised of uneducated bumpkins, who followed the teachings of a rural nobody who was executed for crimes against the state. This was also the time when Christianity began to find real intellectuals among its converts, who began to write scholarly defenses, or apologies, on behalf of the faith.

21. None of the early pagan critics of Christianity was as thorough and penetrating as the late-second century Celsus, and none of its defenders was as brilliant as Celsus's posthumous opponent, Origen. In the five books of his work, Against Celsus, Origen quotes at length from the attack of Celsus on Christianity and defends the religion and its founder against the charges leveled against it.

22. I do not wish to say that this particular verse, Mark 1:41, figured prominently in Celsus' attack or in Origen's defense. But the issues involved are perhaps of relevance. Celsus maintained that Jesus was not the Son of God but was a poor, lower-class, uneducated peasant who did his miracles through the power of magic. Origen, writing 70 years later, tried to show that Jesus was not a purveyor of the magical arts but was the son of God himself come to earth for the betterment of the human race. To mount his defense, Origen establishes some common ground with Celsus: anyone who is a true son of God will do what he does for the common good, to improve the lot of humanity, to resolve suffering, and to work for moral reformation. Both the goals of Jesus' miraculous deeds and the character of his person are at stake here, as they evidently were for other pagan opponents and Christian apologists.

23. In a context in which pagan critics are maligning the person of Jesus, what might one think of a scribe who modifies the scriptural accounts that describe his character? If we find a text in which Jesus, for no obvious reason, becomes angry at someone in desperate need, and see that scribes have changed it so that he reacts in a way more appropriate for the kindly divine presence on earth, being moved by compassion instead of filled with wrath, is it not possible that the alteration has been motivated precisely by the pagan attacks on Jesus' character? At this stage I throw it out merely as a suggestion; it is at least worth further investigation.

24. And other variants in our tradition may be worth considering in a similar light. Take, for example, the well known description of Jesus in Mark 6:3. In this passage, Jesus has returned to his hometown with his disciples, and preaches in the synagogue with a brilliance that astounds his hearers, who say, "What is the wisdom given to this one, and such powers have come through his hands. Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Juda, and Simon?"

25. This is the only passage in the New Testament that describes Jesus as a carpenter. The word, in fact, may not actually signify what we think of as a carpenter; it is true that in the second century author, Justin, Jesus was said to have made yokes and gates (?), but the Greek word tektwn can refer to a number of different occupations, including metal smiths and stone masons. In any event, the term typically refers to a person who works with the hands, a lower-class blue-collar worker; we possibly get a comparable "feel" from our term "construction worker."

26. No where else is Jesus called a tektwn in the New Testament; the other Synoptics independently change the passage; in Matthew the crowd asks, "is this not the son of the tektwn," and in Luke, somewhat similarly, "Is this not the son of Joseph." In both Gospels a particularly acute irony is thereby created, since Matthew and Luke each explicitly indicate that Jesus' mother was a virgin at his birth so that Joseph is not his father; the crowd obviously doesn't really know the first thing about him, despite their presumed familiarity, and the reader notes their ignorance. The irony is not possible in Mark, however, which says not a word about Jesus' virginal conception.

27. What is of particular interest for our purposes here is that this description of Jesus as a tektwn in Mark has been changed by some scribes, so that now, as in Matthew, Jesus is said to be the son of the tektwn rather than the tektwn himself. Some scholars have argued that this was in fact the original text in Mark, and that it got changed by scribes who were afraid that it might be taken to indicate that Jesus really was the son of Joseph, i.e., that he was not born of a virgin. This seems unlikely to me for a variety of reasons; for one thing, it doesn't explain why the explicit statements of Matthew and Luke, in which the crowds do say precisely this, were not also changed (and a change in those cases would have had the added benefit of resolving the apparent contradiction of the claim that he was Joseph's son, when in fact he was not).

28. For this, and other reasons, it looks like Mark probably did describe Jesus as a tektwn. But why then did some copyists change it to say that he was the son of the tektwn? It may may be that they did so simply to bring Mark's Gospel into closer harmony with the more commonly read Gospel of Matthew; but whenever a harmonistic change like this has occurred, we are well served in asking whether there is anything in particular that might have influenced a scribe to harmonize the texts, especially if no explicit contradiction occurs between them.

29. In this case it is particularly worth noting that the pagan critic Celsus does attack Jesus' character precisely because of his blue-collar associations, making fun of the Christians' notion that a lowly day-laborer (tektwn) could be the Son of God himself [Cels. 6.36]. It is hard to tell whether Origen's reply to this charge is disingenuous, for he claims that in fact Jesus is never called a tektwn in the Gospels. Either Origen overlooked this passage (which is a bit hard to imagine, given his exhaustive knowledge of the Gospels) or the manuscripts available to him had themselves been changed. But why changed? Could it have been in order to circumvent precisely the problem that Celsus raises, that it describes Jesus, whom Christians acknowledge as the divine son of God, as a low-class construction worker?

Other Examples

30. Other changes in the text of the New Testament may be closely related to the apologetic concerns of second-century Christians, even though they have never been examined in this vein. Throughout the Mediterranean world at this time, for example, it was widely and naturally thought that anyone claiming to be divine could foretell the future, and that those who made errors in their predictions were, more or less obviously, somewhat wanting in their divine skills. Could this kind of "common-sense" have motivated scribes occasionally to modify passages that appear to compromise Jesus' omniscience?

31. The most famous instance comes in Matthew 24:36, where Jesus explicitly states that no one knows the day or the hour in which the end will come, not even the angels of heaven nor the son, but the father alone. A significant number of our manuscripts omit the phrase "not even the son." The reason is not hard to postulate; if Jesus does not know the future, the Christian claim that he is divine is more than a little compromised.

32. A less obvious example comes three chapters later in Matthew's crucifixion scene. We're told in Matt 27:34 that while on the cross Jesus was given wine to drink, mixed with gall, which he tasted. A large number of manuscripts, though, indicate that it was not wine that he was given, but vinegar. The change may have been made to conform the text more closely with the prooftext that was used to explain the action, Psalm 69:22; but one might wonder if something else is motivating the scribes as well. It is interesting to note that at his last supper, in 26:29, after distributing the cup of wine to his disciples, Jesus explicitly states that he will not drink wine again until he does so in the kingdom of the father. Is the change of 27:34 from wine to vinegar meant to safeguard that prediction?

33. Or consider the alteration to Jesus' prediction to the high priest at the Sanhedrin trial of Mark 14:62. When asked whether he is the Christ, the Son of the Blessed, Jesus replies, "I am, and you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven." Widely considered by modern scholars to embody or approximate an authentic saying of Jesus, these words have proved discomforting for many Christians since near the end of the first century. The son of man never did arrive on the clouds of heaven. Why then did Jesus predict that the high priest would himself see him come?

34. The answer may well be that Jesus actually thought that the high priest would see it, i.e., that it would happen within his lifetime. But, obviously, in the context of second-century apologetics, this could be taken as a false prediction. No wonder that one of our earliest witnesses to Mark modifies the verse by eliminating the offending words, so that now Jesus simply says that the high priest will see the son of man seated at the right hand of power with the clouds of heaven. No mention here, of an imminent parousia.

35. Jesus omniscience is safeguarded in other ways in yet other passages. A fairly obvious example occurs in Mark 2:26, in which Jesus wrongly claims that Abiathar was the high priest when David entered into the temple with his companions to eat the showbread. The incident is recorded in 1 Sam 21, and it is quite clear that it was not Abiathar, but his father Ahimelech, who was the high priest at the time. As one might expect, scribes have modified the text to remove Jesus' mistake; the reference to Abiathar is excised in several of our earlier manuscripts.

36. It is at least possible that these changes, and others like them, have been influenced by the apologetic concerns of early Christians. How many others are there? I have no idea and, I'm sorry to report, to my knowledge neither does anyone else. No one has undertaken a systematic investigation of the problem. But now we move on to another area of interest.

Anti-Judaic Modifications

37. A Christian living in the second century would find him or herself almost automatically embroiled in a situation of conflict with non-Christian Jews, a conflict that involved different understandings of the role that Jesus played in the divine plan for the world and of the meaning of the Jewish Scriptures. I should point out that by no means was this conflict an even match; by around the year 100, the Christian church was still only a tiny fraction of the population of the Empire, unheard of by most of its other inhabitants, outnumbered by non-Christian Jews something like ten to one.

38. It was perhaps their threatened and defensive position that led Christians of the second century to use such vitriolic polemic in their discussions of their Jewish opponents. From the first half of the century, for example, we find the epistle of Barnabas claiming that Judaism is and always has been a false religion. The author argues that Israel had irrevocably broken God's covenant, smashed it to bits, as shown, quite literally, by the story of the giving of the Law in the Old Testament itself, for when Moses comes down from Mount Sinai he sees the children of Israel engaged in wild and lawless activities and smashes to smithereens the two tablets of stone containing the ten commandments. And the covenant never was restored. That is why, he maintains, Israel misunderstood all of its own laws subsequently given to Moses. For in fact, the laws of circumcision and kosher foods and all the rest were never meant to be taken literally, but were symbolic expressions of God's will, as has now been revealed in Christ.

39. Later in the second and third centuries we find other authors moving along a similar anti-Judaic path, authors like Justin in Rome who maintained that God commanded Jewish males to be circumcised not as a sign of his special favor, but in order to mark them off from the rest of the human race for special punishment; and authors like Tertullian and Origen, who claimed that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans at God's own initiative, as a punishment upon the Jews for rejecting their own messiah. And we find the elegant if terrifying rhetoric of Melito of Sardis, whose Passover sermon provided an occasion to vent his own animosity towards the Jews.

Pay attention all families of the nations and observe! An extraordinary murder has taken place in the center of Jerusalem, in the city devoted to God's law, in the city of the Hebrews, in the city of the prophets, in the city thought of as just. And who has been murdered? And who is the murderer? I am ashamed to give the answer, but give it I must.... The one who hung the earth in space, is himself hanged; the one who fixed the heavens in place is himself impaled; the one who firmly fixed all things is himself firmly fixed to the tree. The Lord is insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been destroyed by the right hand of Israel (Paschal Homily, 94-96).
To my knowledge, this is the first instance in which a Christian author explicitly accuses the Jewish people of deicide in the death of Jesus.

40. How did the opposition to Jews and Judaism affect Christian scribes who were reproducing the texts of the New Testament? Many of the passages involved stood at the heart of the conflict, New Testament passages that detailed the Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus. Here I can do little more than cite a couple of instances.

41. As I pointed out in my first lecture, Mark's powerful portrayal of Jesus going to his death in silence is modified by Luke, where, as he is being nailed to the cross, Jesus utters the memorable prayer, "Father forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." Interestingly enough, Jesus' prayer is not found in every manuscript of Luke's Gospel. Of the manuscripts that lack the verse some can be dated to about the year 200. In these witnesses, Jesus does not ask his father to forgive those who are doing this cruel thing to him.

42. The verse appears to be clearly Lukan, as it portrays Jesus calm and in control of his own destiny, concerned about the welfare and fate of others more than himself. At the same time, and perhaps yet more significantly, the verse contains a perspective that proved discomforting to early scribes. Many people today understand Jesus' prayer to be for those who were in the act of crucifying him, that is, the Roman soldiers. But throughout the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, written by the same author, those who are blamed for Jesus' crucifixion are consistently the Jewish people. Furthermore, and this is the really important point, we know from later writings of the church fathers that Jesus' prayer of forgiveness was typically understood to refer to the Jews who were to blame for his death.

43. This makes our textual situation very interesting. A verse that gives every indication of having come from the hand of the author of the Gospel is occasionally being deleted by scribes of the late second or early third century. During this time the verse is being construed as Jesus' prayer that God forgive the Jewish people. Moreover, it is precisely at this time that anti-Judaic sentiment is rising to a kind of crescendo, when Jews are being accused as Christ killers, as murderers of God, when Christians are claiming that the destruction of the holy city Jerusalem was God's punishment of the Jews for the death of Jesus. For many Christians, God had not forgiven Jews for their rejection of Jesus. How then could Jesus have asked him to forgive them; and why would he have done so? Some Christian scribes evidently solved the problem of Jesus' prayer simply by excising it.

44. Other instances of this sort of scribal activity occur in modifications that heighten Jewish culpability for Jesus' death. As but one example, in the famous scene of Jesus' trial in Matthew's Gospel, we are told that Pilate washed his hands before the crowds and proclaimed that he was innocent of Jesus' blood. The crowds then replied, "His blood be on us and our children." Pilate then had Jesus scourged and "delivered him up to be crucified."

45. The passage has served as an incentive for anti-semitic sentiments and activities over the years, since the Jewish crowds here are said not only to have borne the responsibility for Jesus' death but also to have made their succeeding generations accountable for it. Whether Matthew intended a kind of anti-Judaic reading is much debated among exegetes. In any event, the textual history of the passage is quite interesting in light of its subsequent usage by anti-Jewish Christians. Whereas in the oldest available form of the text, Pilate hands Jesus over to his Roman guard for crucifixion, in some of our early manuscripts, after hearing the Jewish crowd accept responsibility for Jesus' death, Pilate "delivered Jesus over to them so that they might crucify him." In these manuscripts, the Jews are fully responsible for Jesus' death.

46. Not only the guilt associated with Jesus' death, but also its salvific effect came to be modified in the hands of early Christian scribes. As but one quick example, we are told in the birth narrative of Matthew's Gospel that the newborn savior was to be called Jesus, a name that comes from the Hebrew word, Joshua, which means salvation, because he would "save his people from their sins." Interestingly enough, at least one ancient scribe appears to have had difficulty with this notion of Jews being saved and so modified the angelic explication of Jesus' name. In this Syriac manuscript, Jesus is said to "save the world," not his people, "from their sins."

47. Other examples of such possibly anti-Judaic alterations of the text could be multiplied. How many such instances are there? Again, it's impossible to say; no one has rigorously pursued the question.

Variants Involving the Oppression of Women

48. Over the course of the past twenty years or so, feminist historians have offered a number of compelling reconstructions of the history of early Christianity. In contrast, the historical narratives produced by white men have typically downplayed the role of women in the church, or more commonly, simply ignored their role altogether. It is certainly understandable how those trained in the standard European models of historiography may have overlooked the evidence for women's actual, if not recorded, prominence in the early years of the Christian movement. The ancient records were themselves written almost entirely by men who no less than we were driven by ideological concerns in preserving descriptions of how things happened and at whose hands. By all counts, women are seriously under-represented in these ancient records.

49. And yet there are firm indications that women were quite active in the early Christian movement, that they were instrumental in its early development as a religion, that they probably comprised the majority of Christians in the early centuries, that at the outset they were widely granted positions of status and authority equal to that of men, and that only with the passing of time and the expansion of the movement did their voices come to be silenced. The evidence of the early prominence of women from the New Testament, especially the writings of Paul (e.g., Rom 16), is familiar to most of my audience, or at least easily accessible, and so I won't recount it for you now. Perhaps I should emphasize, though, that women's continuing prominence in some of the churches associated with Paul is attested in a number of places, such as the second-century apocryphal tales like the Acts of Thecla, in gnostic groups that claimed allegiance to Paul and that were known to have women as their leaders and spokespersons, and in such sectarian groups as that associated with the prophet Montanus and his two women colleagues Prisca and Maximillia--women who had evidently forsaken their marriages in order to live ascetic lives, insisting that the end of the age was near.

50. As is well known, not everyone in the early Christian movement was pleased with the important roles women played in the churches or the ideology that allowed them to do so. On the contrary, a good deal of the history of Christianity, including its early history, involved a movement to oppress women and to take away their voices, a movement spearheaded by those who believed that women should be in complete submission to men. The movement is already in evidence in the pseudonymous letters of Timothy and Titus that made it into the New Tesament, letters allegedly written by Paul to male leaders of two of his churches, urging them to tend to the problems of their communities, including the problem of women, who were to be brought under subjection. Christian women were to be silent and submissive and sexually active with their spouses; those who wanted to enjoy the benefits of salvation were to recognize the superiority of their husbands, to keep quiet, and to produce babies (1 Tim 2:11-13).

51. How did the debates over the status of women affect the scribes who reproduced our texts? The first place to turn is a familiar passage that continues to play a prominent role in modern Christian debates over women in the church, 1 Cor. 14:35-36. Indeed, this is another passage commonly thought to show Paul's true misogynist colors, for here Paul appears to urge a view that is anything but egalitarian:

Let the women be silent in the churches For they are not permitted to speak but must be subordinate, just as the law says. But if they wish to learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

52. I'm sorry to say, especially for my fellow neutestamentlers, that I really have nothing new to say about this much worked over passage, except that the discussion over whether Paul actually wrote it ought to be situated in the context I've just sketched of the early Christian oppression of women, rather than left in vacuous isolation as is more commonly done.

53. For those of you not as familiar with the problem, let me summarize the issues briefly. There are good reasons for thinking that a scribe inserted this passage into 1 Corinthians after it had already left Paul's hand and been in circulation for a time.

54. The evidence is not as compelling as some of the other cases we have examined, for the passage is found in all of our manuscripts of 1 Corinthians. Nonetheless, some of our Latin manuscripts situate these verses in a different location, placing them at the end of the chapter, after v. 40. One way to explain this kind of transposition is to assume that the passage originated as a marginal note that scribes later incorporated into the text itself, some scribes inserting it in one place and others in another. And indeed, there are strong arguments for thinking that this is exactly what happened in the present instance, for the verses appear intrusive in their immediate literary context and completely at odds with what Paul says about women elsewhere--including within 1 Corinthians itself.

55. In terms of the immediate context, this entire chapter addresses the issue of prophecy in the church. This is the topic of discussion up to v. 33, immediately before these verses, and the topic beginning again with vv. 36-37, immediately afterwards. The verses in question, however, go off on a different tangent, making them look intrusive.

56. Moreover, what the verses actually say stands in tension with Paul's own views--not only Gal 3:28, where he maintains that in Christ there is neither male nor female, but more puzzling still, even within the letter of 1 Corinthians itself. The present passage insists that women be silent, that they not be allowed to speak in church. But just three chapters earlier Paul endorsed the practice of women praying and prophecying in church, activities always done aloud in antiquity. How could he affirm the right of women to speak in chapter eleven and then deny them that right in chapter 14?

57. It could well be that he didn't deny them that right, but that a later author did so, a scribe who penned a marginal note in his manuscript of this letter, whose comments were later made part of the text itself. The note is remarkably close in tenor to the comments preserved pseudonymously in Paul's name by the author of the Pastoral epistles. It may well, then, represent a scribal attempt to understand Paul in light of the oppressive views advocated by the proto-orthodox Christians of a later generation.

58. Other passages of the New Testament are affected by this same tendency, although rarely in so striking a fashion. Here I might mention Rom 16:7, which identifies the woman Junia as one of the apostles: "Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and fellow prisoners, who are eminent among the apostles." English Bible translators have gone out of their way to perform a sex change on Junia, by transforming her name into a masculine name that didn't exist in ancient Greek, Junias. These modern scholars may find solace in the precedent set by two of our earliest scribes, who by adding an article to the text allow it to be read differently: "Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives; and also greet my fellow prisoners who are eminent among the apostles."

59. Two other quick examples from the book of Acts. In chapter 17, Paul is said to have converted several socially prominent women to the faith. One ancient copy of the passage, however, preserves a modification that celebrates the people who really count: now rather than calling these converts "women of prominence" they are unambiguously labeled "wives of prominent men." A similar tendency is at work in the regular scribal tendency to transpose the names of two of the noteworthy companions of Paul, Priscilla and her husband Aquila, so that the husband's name, in these modified manuscripts of the book of Acts, appears in its appropriately prior position.


60. There are other kinds of scribal modifications that we could look at along similar lines, if we chose--e.g., changes that reflect theological issues other than christology or alterations that appear to be related to the ascetic practices emerging in the early Christian movement. Like scribal changes related to apologetic, anti-Jewish, and anti-women views that were sweeping through many of the Christian churches of the second century, these kinds of modifications have been left virtually untouched by textual scholars.

61. My time is running rather short, however, and rather than pursue these lines of inquiry here, I would like to conclude by reflecting for a moment on a somewhat broader issue. I have been trying to make a couple of basic points in these two lectures; one of my major theses, though, has remained more or less hidden as a kind of subtext for them both. In my conclusion I would like to raise it to the level of consciousness. To some extent I've wanted these lectures to show that even though it's not generally perceived this way, the study of the NT manuscripts can be both interesting and important for early Christian studies more generally.

62. I say that it's not generally perceived this way, and that's perhaps a bit of an understatement. Most people, even most NT scholars, typically consider textual criticism to be an arcane subdiscipline of little interest to anyone residing outside the rare and occasionally endangered species of textual critics themselves. A lot of the fault for this perception lies with my colleagues in the field, who in fact are among the worst you'll find anywhere at explaining why it is that what they do matters for anything, for example, for exegesis or historical reconstruction, let alone for the study of NT theology, the history of doctrine, or the social world of early Christianity.

63. No wonder that most of today's NT scholars, by their own admission, are not capable of rendering independent judgments concerning textual variants preserved in the tradition (I except my NT colleagues here, by the way; and they will for the most part agree, I think, with my opinion on this point). It strikes me as a pity that most doctoral candidates in New Testament are not trained even to use the apparatus of the standard Greek text, the Nestle-Aland 27th ed., that most divinity school students are not taught the fundamental problems of the textual tradition that they are expected to teach or preach, and that most of the laypersons in the churches to which the graduates of divinity school go are left completely unaware of the problems of the texts of the books that they themselves revere as Scripture.

64. In any event, I hope I've made a case for the fundamental importance of this kind of knowledge, and for why its continued neglect is not in anyone's best interest. It shouldn't be left to a small coterie of specialists. Significant issues surrounding NT exegesis, the development of early Christian theology, and the social history of the early church are intricately connected with decisions concerning the texts of the books that came to be considered by Christians as sacred scripture. The oldest form of the text must be established before it can be interpreted, and the later alterations of this text reveal significant moments in the use of these texts during the theological and social conflicts of the first three or four centuries of the Christian church.

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