This afternoon I found myself debating with a Muslim polemicist online who was rubbishing the bible, and suggesting that we don’t even have the words of Jesus. The polemicist dealt with my replies by ignoring them and simply making further claims, so our debate did not last long. But in the process I was treated to a quotation, which struck me as quite extraordinary:
A good number of the books of the Bible are pseudonymous (for example, written in the name of an apostle by someone else), that in fact we don’t have the original copies of any of the biblical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered.
This daft claim, I was told, was by a certain Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them), Harper Collins (2010).
Of course one would never trust a polemic, so I went and looked. To my astonishment the quotation, slightly abbreviated, was accurate, and may be found on pages 14-15 of the book. A somewhat longer quoted is here. The book itself is not a scholarly volume – so much must be allowed for -, but is an anti-Christian – and especially anti-bible – hit piece, complete with claims of “I was one of you once but then I learned better”.
It is always curious to hear claims that the transmitted authorship of “a good number” of the New Testament texts is now “known” to be false. Such claims are invariably uttered with the utmost certainty. But our knowledge of the authorship derives from precisely two sources, in exactly the same way as with every other ancient literary text. The first source is the attributions in the manuscripts; in their tituli or colophons. The other is the testimony of other ancient texts. Neither justifies the claim made. In reality this claim seems to be the product of something very like the “assured conclusions of modern scholarship”, or something of that sort.
But scholarship is not science. There are few mechanisms to control partisan distortions. On matters of controversy, of politics or religion, the consensus of scholarship in a time and place naturally tends to reflect the consensus of the non-scholars who control university appointments.
Anybody who delves into past controversies, long dead, can think of examples of this. In patristics we have the arguments of the 19th century between “protestant” and “catholic” scholars, each in their university fortresses, over whether the longer or shorter forms of the treatises and letters of Cyprian should be accepted as genuine. Today I think we would most accept that both are genuine, and the longer form was revised by the author in order to give support to Pope Stephen in his difficulties with the Novatianists.
An occurence of the same problem was demonstrated by N. Holzberg in his essay “Lucian and the Germans”, in A.C.Dionisotti, The Uses of Greek and Latin: Historical Essays, Strasbourg (1988), 199-209. In Germany before 1945, Lucian was regarded as a second-rate Jewish author. This consensus, Holzberg showed, derived from a single seminal article, which was verbally identical in passages with a non-scholarly rant, published in an anti-semitic magazine some months earlier, by Houston Stewart Chamberlain. No doubt examples could be multiplied indefinitely.
None of this means that scholarship is not worth our time. But it does mean that we need to exercise a critical intelligence towards claims which have a significant political or religious utility to the author or those who pay him. This is true when we disagree with them and even more so when we do agree with them. The greatest barrier to understanding the past is anachronism, and the greatest source of anachronism is our own opinions.
Biblical studies will never be anything other than a politicised discipline. I suppose most of us know that the biblical scholars of the early 20th century were certain that John’s Gospel – which they elaborately called “The Fourth Gospel” – was composed around 170. There was never any evidence for this at all, and all the evidence was against it. In 1936 they were put right by the discovery of a papyrus fragment, dated before then. But this was quite accidental. They should never have got to that place in the first place. Yet I see that some scholars still yearn for those days.
We need not spend any time on the claim that some of the NT texts are not by the transmitted author. The data to support such a claim does not exist, the claim is useful to those who control the appointments of scholars in the USA, and the methods used seem entirely too reminiscent of the “Fourth Gospel” school of writing.
But Dr E. is supposed to be a professional textual critic, a man who earns his living by being paid to do textual criticism. Does he actually mean what he says, when he tells his audience that “we don’t have the original copies of any of the biblical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered”, knowing that they will understand this to mean that we don’t actually have the text?
What is textual criticism about? Let us have the words with which Paul Maas opens his handbook, Textual Criticism, Oxford (1958):
1. We have no autograph manuscripts of the Greek and Roman classical writers and no copies which have been collated with the originals; the manuscripts we possess derive from the originals through an unknown number of intermediate copies, and are consequently of questionable trustworthiness.
The business of textual criticism is to produce a text as close as possible to the original (constitutio textus).
An admirably economical and precise definition.
Textual criticism arises from the rediscovery of the classics during the renaissance, and the need to fix damage – mainly copyist errors. It arose from love: love of the texts studied, of a desire to have them, to read them, to learn from them. If I recall correctly, Petrarch was so excited when he discovered the letters of Cicero at Verona that he sat down and wrote a letter to Cicero, telling him how much they meant to him.
What, I wonder, would Petrarch have thought of a man who said,
we don’t have the original copies of any of the
biblicalclassical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered.
I suspect that he would have called him an ignoramus; or rather, he would have called him something very much worse. He lived in a time when insult was an art. E. is paid to do what Petrarch did, to make the texts transmitted to us free of errors. He is not paid – at least in principle – to invent reasons to suppose those texts not worth the reading. Poisoning the well is no trade for a scholar. Yet here we are.
It is absurd to suggest that “all the copies have been altered”, of the 5,000 manuscripts of the Greek NT. Nobody knows that, least of all Dr. E., who, like most people, has probably never looked at more than a handful. It could more reasonably be said that all contain copyist errors, but of course this is merely saying that we live in an imperfect world. Every book in the world is imperfect, in one respect or another. No printed edition reflects the author’s manuscript, even without corrections in proof. For how many books that we have on our shelves is the autograph preserved?
It is absurd to say that we have “only copies made centuries later”, when we have the Apocriticus of Macarius Magnes, extant only in a posthumous printed edition of 1876. The unwary reader will naturally infer from the claim that the copies are so late that the text is unreliable; when in fact the bible text is far and away the best preserved text of its period, and one with the earliest witnesses, to within a couple of decades in some cases.
But for E., we only have “copies… all of which have been altered.” Hardly worth our time, unless paid to do so – certainly not worth our trust. Far better to trust whatever the man on TV says this week; that is what the reader is intended to hear.
There’s nothing much to be done about Dr E., and those who pay him to write this stuff. It’s not scholarship. It’s polemic, intended to demoralise his religious enemies. There are very many worse things recorded of academics down the years. Especially by their enemies!
But it’s still annoying to those of us trying to get people to read old books. That should be all of us, and especially it should be every text critic and every scholar.