Can a Later Manuscript Contain an Earlier (and More Reliable) Reading?

In my latest reading of Bart Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Ehrman has a section about text criticism, an Excursus on “Western non-interpolations”.  This section is not as fascinating as other parts of Ehrman’s book, but I think that it’s important in terms of understanding Ehrman’s methodology.

I recently read the conservative Christian book Reinventing Jesus, which talks extensively about text criticism.  One of the authors of the book is Daniel Wallace, who knows a lot about that topic (and who has debated Bart Ehrman), so I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the one who contributed the chapters about text criticism to Reinventing Jesus.  What I got out of Reinventing Jesus‘ discussion about text criticism was the criteria for judging the reliability of New Testament readings within manuscripts.  (By “reliability,” I mean closer to the original text.)  These criteria included the date of the manuscript, with earlier manuscripts being more reliable than later ones.  There also seemed to be a notion that the Alexandrian manuscripts are more reliable than the Western and Byzantine ones, since the Alexandrian manuscripts are earlier, and also because the Western and Byzantine manuscripts tend to mix up different versions.  My impression is that, for Wallace, a text that does not mix up versions is more reliable than one that does mix them up.

Bart Ehrman’s overall argument in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is that proto-orthodox Christian scribes changed the text of the New Testament to reinforce orthodoxy.  There were beliefs about Jesus that these proto-orthodox scribes did not particularly like, and so they changed the text of the New Testament in places so that it would not appear to support these sorts of beliefs.  In making his argument, Ehrman has to determine which readings came first.  We have different manuscripts out there.  According to Ehrman, some contain the parts that a proto-orthodox scribe may have had problems with, and some reflect the proto-orthodox scribe’s alterations.  But do we really know that the reading that Ehrman says was earlier truly was earlier, and that the reading that Ehrman considers to be a later alteration actually was a later reading, reflecting alteration?

Ehrman supports his claims through a variety of arguments, and, in some cases, he overlaps with the external criteria that Wallace uses: that the manuscript that is earlier in date is more reliable, or that we should take into consideration the early Alexandrian texts.  But there are times when Ehrman appears to diverge from this.  Sometimes, there are readings that he considers to be proto-orthodox alterations that are in early manuscripts, whereas the earlier pre-altered readings (in Ehrman’s judgment) are in later manuscripts.  In terms of Ehrman’s Excursus on Western non-interpolations, Ehrman appears to be saying that there are times when the later Western manuscripts contain an earlier and more reliable reading than the earlier Alexandrian manuscripts.

In this Excursus, Ehrman is reflecting on times when the Western manuscripts contain shorter readings than the earlier Alexandrian manuscripts.  According to Ehrman, this is unusual, for the Western manuscripts tend to elaborate and add, not shorten.  Here are some passages from Ehrman’s discussion, followed by my comments:

Page 226: “…no one can yet deny that the Greek witness codex Bezae, the Old Latin manuscripts, and (often) the Old Syriac tradition evidence wide-ranging agreements with one another and that these points of agreement can scarcely be explained except on the theory of their relative antiquity.  It would be foolish to ignore this confluence on traditions as if it no longer means anything, now that we happen to have early Alexandrian papyri.  For certainly the New Testament textual tradition of the second century was not restricted to Egypt…

“The so-called Western witnesses occasionally attest readings found neither among the witnesses of the Alexandrian text nor among any other witness.  In almost every instance these variants appear clearly secondary: they are harmonizations, secondary additions, or paraphrases.  But what about instances in which a Western variant is shorter and more difficult, where in fact the text attested elsewhere does not fit in its broader literary context and can be explained as a harmonization or an explanatory addition?  Such Western readings cannot be discounted without further ado.  They are, after all, evidenced in witnesses of the fourth and fifth century in Greek, Latin, and Syriac, so that if they did not originate in the autographs, they must have been generated in quite early times, at least by the end of the second century.  Moreover, it should not be too quickly forgotten…that several of the papyri discovered subsequent to Hort’s investigations, despite their Egyptian provenance, do derive from just such a Western stream of tradition.”

Page 225: “On other occasions, however—-and these were extremely rare—-the Western tradition stood alone in preserving the original text.  These were cases in which the ‘other’ stream of tradition had become corrupted by interpolations at an extremely early point in its history.  It just so happened, by a kind of historical quirk, that the Western tradition had broken off as an independent stream of tradition before this infrequent exercise in interpolation had taken place, so that where it did occur the surviving Western witnesses coincidentally—-purely coincidentally—-preserve the original text, while all other forms of the tradition evidence contamination.”

There’s a lot there!  Let me start of by saying that what Ehrman says in the above passages overlaps with text-critical criteria that is discussed in Reinventing Jesus.  A reading being attested in different geographical areas is a fairly strong indication of its reliability.  A shorter or a more difficult reading is often preferred to longer or easier readings.  Ehrman is acknowledging that the Western tradition contains readings that are later than the Alexandrian tradition, for the Western tradition has “harmonizations, secondary additions, [and] paraphrases.”  But what do we do when the Western tradition contains a reading that is attested in geographically different regions?  What if the Western tradition has a reading that is shorter and more difficult than what is in the Alexandrian tradition?  And what if the passage that the Alexandrian text has but which the Western tradition lacks appears to be an interpolation: it conflicts with the language and the ideology of the book in which it is located, and one can make an argument that it was added in an attempt to resolve some theological difficulty?  In these cases, should the Alexandrian text be preferred, simply because it’s in earlier manuscripts?  Or should we accept that the later Western manuscripts may contain readings that are earlier than what we find in the Alexandrian text?  (And, by the way, Ehrman appears to argue that there are times when Egyptian texts agree with what is in the Western tradition.  At times in this book, Ehrman appeals to the diversity of the Alexandrian texts in determining which readings are earlier or secondary, which may imply that the Alexandrian text is not monolithic.)

I’m curious as to how the Western tradition broke off to become independent and insulated from the interpolations that were going on at an early date.  My impression is that the Western tradition would not be permanently insulated from other traditions, for the Western tradition mixes up different versions and readings.  But maybe it does contain early readings that originated before certain interpolations were made—-at a time when a tradition broke off from the broader tradition and became independent.

In closing this post, I should stress, first of all, that I’m conveying my own understanding of Ehrman’s argument, and so I apologize for any misrepresentation on my part, which is not deliberate.  Second, I have things to learn about text criticism, and so I may not be using the correct nomenclature in every case.  For example, am I allowed to call a papyrus a manuscript?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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