Variants in the Bart Ehrman Textual Tradition – By Yii-Jan Lin

Yii-Jan Lin on Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes’s The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research

Ehrman, Holmes, Textual History of the New Testament, New Testament Textual Criticism
Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, second edition. Brill, 2012, 896 pp., $314

Described by its own practitioners as anything from the drain clearer to the handmaiden, or even the Cinderella of literary studies, textual criticism may not be glamorous, but its defenders insist on its necessity. After all, if no definitive, authoritative edition exists — or so goes the argument — how can literary scholars carry out the work of interpretation? In an ironic twist, the task of textual criticism has expanded over the last twenty years to include not only the production of scholarly editions but also the study of textual transmission for its own sake. The thousands of variants in the New Testament textual tradition are no longer simply a means to an end (the original text) but evidence of theological diversity, scribal practice, and the social world of early Christians.

So argues Bart Ehrman in the last essay of the volume, “The Text as Window: New Testament Manuscripts and The Social History of Early Christianity.” The article was included in the first edition, published in 1995 (and also in a collection of Ehrman’s essays in 2006), and it is among the twelve essays that have been wholly revised for publication in this second edition alongside seven completely new chapters and nine rewritten by new authors. What are the revisions and what can they tell us about the changes in the field since 1995? In an attempt to use Ehrman’s method on his own work, I collated the concluding paragraph of “The Text as Window” from the two editions to see if I could use Ehrman as a window through which to view textual criticism over the last twenty years.

Leaving aside non-meaningful variants (e.g., the change from “MS” to “manuscript”), the meaningful changes are important, though subtle. In the 1995 edition, Ehrman wrote that textual critics had “only begun to prove as assiduous in pursuing the history of the text’s subsequent transmission” as they had been in establishing the original text of the New Testament. In 2013, the text states, “Critics have been less assiduous in pursuing the history of the text’s subsequent transmission.” This is a small but surprising change. In 1995, the promise of a new kind of textual criticism was great. Ehrman’s 1993 The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture interpreted certain textual variants as evidence of Christological debates in the second and third centuries. Several books in a similar vein followed, notably Wayne Kannaday’s Apologetic Discourse and the Scribal Tradition and David Parker’s The Living Text of the Gospels. Parker named this new appreciation for variants and their social-historical contexts “narrative textual criticism,” and it was hailed by some as the New Philology. Yet Ehrman’s emendation signals to the reader that although scholars had “only begun to prove as assiduous” as textual critics in 1995, twenty years later they have reverted to being disappointingly “less assiduous” in the investigation of variants for their own sake.

The second edition indeed shows that the bread-and-butter of New Testament textual criticism has remained basically the same. Out of twenty-eight chapters, the vast majority covers primary sources (sixteen chapters) and methods (seven), and the focus of all of these remains firmly in the realm of traditional textual criticism. Thoroughgoing and reasoned eclecticism, the categorization of texts and text groups, and the philological evaluation of readings are still the familiar mainstays of discussion.

Though the field may be basically the same, it is certainly not unchanged, and the other two changes in Ehrman’s text reflect two major shifts. First, the words “the autographs” have been excised from the following statement in the older version: “Indeed, barring extraordinary new discoveries (e.g., the autographs!) or phenomenal alterations of method, it is virtually inconceivable that the physiognomy of our printed Greek New Testament is ever going to change significantly.” The notion that biblical autographs could be unearthed was naïve even in 1995, and certainly Ehrman intended his aside tongue-in-cheek. Today, discovery of the autographs is deemed impossible, not because of the inevitable ravages of time, but because the very meaning of the term is debated. In fact, whether or not the Gospels “are the kinds of texts to have originals” (Parker’s words) is under review. Epp’s watershed article, “The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text’” effectively brought the debate over the terms — and ultimately the goals — of New Testament textual criticism front and center. Michael W. Holmes presents the history of competing terms (“original text,” Ausgangstext, “authorial text”) and their ideological positions in this new edition, and Juan Hernández Jr.’s fully rewritten “Modern Critical Editions and Apparatuses” emphasizes the changing role of the standard text and apparatus of an edition. Rather than an authoritative (and mythical) “original text,” today’s standard or baseline texts are presented as provisional. Apparatuses, in turn, are no longer marginal (both literally and figuratively) but serve as an open invitation for readers to participate in the creation of texts for themselves.

The last change in Ehrman’s concluding paragraph involves the addition of “the social world of the scribe” to a list of historical information variant readings might provide. There has been a definite increase of interest in the lives of scribes (beyond the analysis of variants in James R. Royse’s “Scribal Tendencies”) and of early Christians via textual criticism, as evinced by the addition of Kim Haines-Eitzen’s “The Social History of Early Christian Scribes” and Peter M. Head’s “Additional Greek Witnesses to the New Testament (Ostraca, Amulets, Inscriptions, and Other Sources).” The latter especially shows the growing use of textual criticism to explore the material, everyday lives of early Christians, which can be loosely traced back to Larry Hurtado’s The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Similarly, in a new paragraph of his revised chapter, Parker calls for greater study of the artwork, miniatures, and decorative embellishments in the majuscule manuscripts of the New Testament not only in order to date them but also to better understand scribal practice.

While the variants in the concluding paragraph of Ehrman’s “The Text as Window” certainly provide an entrée into discussing significant changes in the field and, appropriately, to the second edition, a particular portion of Ehrman’s paragraph that remains unchanged gives me pause. The sentence containing the excised words “the autographs” otherwise remains mostly the same in the 2013 version: “Indeed, barring extraordinary new discoveries or phenomenal alterations of method, it is virtually inconceivable that the character of our printed Greek New Testament is ever going to change significantly.” Judging by the lack of variation, one could assume that there have been no “extraordinary new discoveries or phenomenal alterations of method” since the first edition.

If Ehrman means that there have been no game-changing archaeological discoveries in the last twenty years, then I would have to agree with him. But to imply that there have been no important changes in method ignores the creation and implementation of the Coherence Based Genealogical Method (CBGM) at the Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung in Münster, a method that could justly be termed a “phenomenal alteration” to how things are done in textual criticism. Discussed in nine chapters of the new edition, including every chapter on method, the CBGM has been hailed as “equal to any past advance” in textual criticism from Lachmann onwards. The details of the method cannot be discussed here, but suffice it to say that it comprises a spectacular combination of elements that includes traditional philology, sophisticated software, and full transcriptions of all continuous Greek manuscripts, so that the relationship of a text to every other extant text can be analyzed at every point of variation. The CBGM is now the engine behind both the Editio Critica Maior and the Nestle-Aland 28th edition [see the MRB review of NA28]. Because it deals with comprehensive sets of textual data, older profile methods (e.g., the Claremont Profile Method) and even time-honored classifications of texts are no longer necessary. If the CBGM does not qualify as a “phenomenal alteration in method,” then what does?

One could argue that collating Ehrman’s article is a pretty far-removed way to survey the changes of textual criticism in the years between the first and second editions, that Ehrman never expected or intended his alterations to indicate shifts in the field. But these arguments are exactly those that weaken the text-as-window or variants-as-window methods. As Ernst Colwell stated in 1968, “Granted that a number of variant readings have been theologically motivated, would any serious student of the history of theology turn to these as a major source? Is it not true on the contrary that we can be sure of theological motivation for a variant reading only when the history of theology of that manuscript’s time and place is already well known?” It is with information gathered from primary works of textual criticism that I am able to create a context explaining Ehrman’s variants, not because they provided much evidence themselves. The text is not a window through which we see what happened. At the most, it is a window we see when standing within a lighted house in the night: we see reflected in it our own image, knowledge, and reconstructions. Any glimpse of the dark past outside is only dimly perceived through our shadow.