Monday, March 28, 2016

Copies of copies

As part of my ongoing review of Bart Erhman debates, I'm going to comment on a few positions Ehrman staked out in his debate with James White:

1. Ehrman said: let's say Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, and they got a copy, and then somebody made a copy of that original, and then made a couple of mistakes, then somebody copied that copy made a few mistakes, then original was lost and the first copy was lost, and that all other MSS ultimately derive from that third copy. The original wasn't copied any more, the first copy wasn't copied any more, the second copy was copied twice, and both of those were copied five they all go back in a genealogical line to the third copy rather than to the original. All you can reconstruct is what was in the third copy. 

The claim is that we can't recover the original text because we hit a wall. We can't go behind the earliest extant MS, or the extant MS with the fewest intervening links in-between the copy and the original autograph. We can't go back any further than the extant MSS. So we can't get back to the original. 

I'm not a textual critic, but on the face of it, Ehman's contention is obviously and demonstrably false. For instance, I read lots of articles, books, and book reviews. Sometimes I run across typos. Now all I have is my copy of the book or article. I don't have anything to compare it to. I don't have direct access to the author's original. 

Yet when I encounter typos in the text, I normally I have no difficulty going behind the text to reconstruct what he meant. If he (or the publisher) used the wrong word, that mistake is generally obvious. Moreover, it's generally obvious what word he intended to use in its place. If you know the language, you can usually figure that out. You can infer the original word.

And it's not just me. Some book reviewers do the same thing. Near the end of the review they may list notable typos in the book. Not only do they flag the mistakes, but they have no hesitation correcting the typos. They will confidently say the book mistakenly used this word when the right word is such-and-such. Ironically, reviewers have done that in reference to Bart Ehrman's own publications. Now all they have to go by is the text before them; a single text. Yet they can go behind the errant text to say what word the author meant to use. This is just routine. I could give many examples from online book reviews. 

2. In the debate, Ehrman repeated his stock objection that if God wanted to give us his words, why didn't he preserve his words? He then spelled out his alternative. How did he think God could and should have gone about that? He didn't propose that God ought to make every scribe infallible. He didn't propose automatic writing. 

Rather, he said God could have preserved the original autographa. And that would give later scribes a standard of comparison. 

i) Well, that's consider that scenario. The problem with Ehrman's suggestion is that it's too compartmentalized. When you propose these counterfactual scenarios, it's hardly enough to say, why did God do this instead of that, and leave it there. That's only a beginning. You can't stop there. It's not just a matter of changing one variable, for these are not isolated variables. You must take into account everything that flows from this or everything that flows from that. 

It's like asking, what if Hitler won WWII or the South won the Civil War? But a major point of those alternate historical scenarios is to explore the downstream consequences of damming or diverting the river upstream. What follows from the counterfactual? How would that alter the course of history? 

ii) Apropos (i), if you know much church history, it doesn't take much historical imagination to generally predict what would happen if God preserved the originals indefinitely. For starters, these would become relics. Objects of veneration. You'd have pilgrimage churches where these relics were enshrined. 

In addition, you'd have religious wars over possession of these relics. They'd be prized as talismans. Lucky charms for kings and conquerors, to ensure success in battle or ward off invaders. 

iii) Whoever had custody of the relics would use for self-aggrandizement. Imagine how the papacy or the patriarchate of Constantinople would use them in self-promotion, as the keeper of the holy relics. 

iv) In addition, having custody would result in restricted access. The keeper of the relicts would determine who gets to see them–for a price! 

v) Ironically, preserving the originals indefinitely would be an unparalleled opportunity to tamper with the text of Scripture. Due to restricted access, those in charge could swap out the original and swap in a doctored version that contained readings which endorse the papacy, the patriarchate of Constantinople, or whatever. 

Although having the originals would be useful to scribes early on, when the church was decentralized, yet over the passage of time, as ecclesiastical power becomes consolidated in "Apostolic sees," the originals would be weaponized to exalt Apostolic sees. This would be a mutual dynamic. Custody of the relics would expand the authority of the custodian, while expanded authority would further augment control over the relics. 

3. Here and elsewhere, Ehrman keeps insisting that unless we have the autographa, we no longer have the words of God. But that confuses the medium with the message. That confounds God's word with a record of God's word. The word of God isn't the paper and ink, but the message. A MSS is just a storage and retrieval mechanism–like a CD. The same information, the same word of God, can be instantiated in various media. It can be written. Or spoken. Or digitized. Or memorized. In the latter case, the word of God is mentally rather than materially exemplified. God's word isn't lost whenever a physical record of God's word is lost.

(Peter J. Williams makes a similar point, although he uses different terminology to draw these distinctions.) 

4. During the debate, Ehrman said that because some of Matthew's OT quotations don't exactly match the LXX or underlying Hebrew, in the extant samples at our disposal (e.g. MT, DDS), Matthew had different form of the text.

But although it's possible that Matthew's quotations bear witness to a different textual tradition, surely that's not the only explanation. He may simply be editing the passage to incorporate it into his narrative. An interpretive paraphrase. Combining two different passages. That sort of thing. 


  1. Regarding Ehrman's example of Philippians being miscopied, there are other factors that need to be taken into account. Paul could have made multiple copies of the letter, including at least one that he kept. So, there would have been multiple originals in that sense, not just one. Stanley Porter notes:

    "There is also evidence that even private letters regularly had copies made (e.g., Cicero, Familial Letters 9.26.1; 7.18.1; Letters to Atticus 13.6.3)....As noted above, scholars for a number of years have suggested that Paul might have made copies of his letters at the time he was writing them with his scribe and missionary companions. This would follow the pattern of many ancient writers - among them, Seneca and Cicero as literary authors (who speak of actual letters, not composites made out of the fragments of earlier letters), and Zenon as a documentary writer - who made copies of their letters before having them dispatched. This allowed the writers not only to refer to their letters in the future - perhaps explaining why 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Colossians and Ephesians, among others, have verbal material in common - but to have the copies either with them or in the possession of their companions....Paul is widely regarded in classical studies as one of the great letter writers of the ancient world. If that is true - and his corpus of letters argues that it is - then it is logical to think that Paul followed the conventions of ancient letter writing, including producing copies." (in Craig Evans and Emanuel Tov, edd., Exploring The Origins Of The Bible [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008], pp. 189-190, 195, n. 106 on p. 195)

    Steve Mason comments:

    "An author normally composed a work gradually and by constant revision, presenting it in stages to ever-widening concentric circles, moving from closest friends to more remote associates through a combination of oral recitation and distribution of partial drafts. The cycle of oral presentations typically began in the intimate setting of a private residence, perhaps at a dinner party, and moved as the author gained confidence in the work to rented auditoriums. The oral dimensions of this entire process, even with written texts, should always be kept in mind." (Josephus, Judea, And Christian Origins [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009], p. 52)

    Since documents like the ones we have in the New Testament were often read publicly (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:27), there would have been many witnesses to the original text of those documents, including illiterate people who heard the documents read.

    And we know that authors frequently watched what was happening with their documents as those documents circulated (e.g., 2 Corinthians 7:8 and the patristic material I discuss here). They didn't just send out a letter or a document like a gospel, then make no effort to follow what happened with the document, such as who was reading it, how people were reacting to it, and how they were interpreting it.

    If there were multiple originals circulating and a large number of witnesses of the original text, even illiterate individuals, and the authors were monitoring what was happening with their documents, how likely is it that the text was as radically distorted as skeptical theories often require? It's not enough for people like Ehrman to speculate about possible minor distortions of the text, the kind that people could easily have missed. How would major, or even moderate, distortions have occurred under the circumstances I've outlined above? Most likely, the textual deviations that occurred in the earliest years were about as insignificant as what we see in the manuscripts from the second century onward at worst. The deviations early on could easily have been significantly less than the minor amount we see from the second century onward, given the factors I've mentioned above.

  2. Steve, I have to say that reading your scenarios of weaponized autographs was chilling. Scenes from medieval war movies like Kingdom of Heaven flashed before my mind. How wise of God to providentially allow the autographs to be lost to history for as long as they have. Though, now would be a great time for them to be rediscovered.