Thursday, March 17, 2011

Don't Hate the Scribes

For many moderns, their first introduction to the types of textual variants found in the manuscripts can be quite a shock. Failing to meet moderns' expectations for perfect transmission of the text, many Christians instinctively react to the textual change with horror and indignation. "How could a faithful scribe possibly change/alter/corrupt/distort the text in such ways?" "How dare they add to or subtract from God's word!" If you've ever read any KJV-only authors, you have probably seen this quite often, as they commonly attribute almost every non-Majority Text variant to heretical scribes altering the text. But even to Christians with less extreme views, the motives of the ancient scribes can be bewildering and unsettling.

But if we stop for a moment and walk a mile in their shoes (or perhaps write a manuscript in their stead), I think we will gain much appreciation for both their faithful work and motives. The problem is largely that we approach the question from a modern point of view. Most of us have never copied out a book by hand, nor for that matter even read a book copied by hand. At best, we have seen hand-written manuscripts in a museum, but we have no time or ability to read them. When we read a printed book, we have every reason to believe that our copy (as well as the one on our neighbor's shelf) is an exact representation of what the author wrote (barring editorial or printer errors). When we copy-paste text in a Word document, we expect it to appear instantly and as a perfect representation of the original. In short, we have next to no experience with manuscripts and the complications they carry with them. So to gain a better appreciation of the work and motives of the ancient scribes, let's look at some of the many factors that help us understand the changes they made to the text.

1. First, it cannot be overemphasized that the vast majority of scribal changes are totally unintentional and innocuous. They do not in any way reflect poorly on the motives of the scribes, because they are accidental copying errors that anyone would have made. While admittedly some scribes were more careful than others, every scribe, regardless of creed, was subject to simple errors. If you have ever tried to copy a substantial text by hand, you are undoubtedly familiar with the reality that you make mistakes. And try making a copy from dictation as someone reads the text to you... Then consider that a scribe could be doing this tedious work for hours at a time. Even the best scribes, with the best intentions, working from the best manuscripts, can and did make accidental errors. No manuscript of any substance is free of errors.

2. The ancient scribes had another problem that we rarely think of. We expect the copy of a book we are reading to be an exact representation of what the author wrote. Even if there are typos, they can usually be attributed to the author, unless the publisher messed up. But those familiar with reading manuscripts approach the text they are copying with a different perspective. Ancient scribes knew that no manuscript was free of errors, and they would of necessity have to approach the text with a more critical eye, expecting to find copying errors in the manuscripts before their eyes. It would not be at all unusual for the copyist to correct obvious transmission errors, spelling, syntax, etc., nor would it have been viewed as an evil, heretical "changing the text of the Bible." Rather, it would be little more significant than you or I going back and editing out errors in a paper we have written. Sometimes the scribes were right in their corrections, and other times it turns out they were wrong, but in most cases they were not ill-motivated. Hindsight is 20/20, but for the scribe copying the text, scribal errors, illegible readings, material damage, and the like in the source manuscript presented a dilemma that often made them the unwitting agents of textual change.

3. At other times, scribes would have access to multiple conflicting manuscripts. In this case, which is the scribe to copy? One? The other? Both? Either way, if he makes the wrong choice, he is going to be condemned by 21st century Christians. Even with all of our detailed modern text-critical work, the right choice is not always obvious, and no scribe could bear the full burden of correctly adjudicating every variant reading.

4. Ancient scribes, by and large, lacked the complex editorial conventions we use to mark out direct quotations, extra-textual comments, etc. When scribes made mistakes, often they would write corrections between the lines or in the margins. When we realize that often similar conventions were followed by scribes making additional comments or annotations on passages of Scripture, we can see how easily a marginal note could be mistaken for a textual correction and find its way into the new copy of the text. Conversely, a marginal correction could be mistaken for an annotation, and hence omitted from the new copy. In either case, it is not the ill will or theology of the scribe that caused the addition to or subtraction from the text, but rather a reasonable confusion of the manuscript evidence.

5. Another mitigating factor is that few of us understand what it is like to live in an age without standardized/official spelling rules. While, more and more, spelling rules are readily flaunted through daily communication and electronic media, Microsoft Word still obstinately underlines in red our "misspelled" words. Before I post this bog, I will use a spell check tool. But in an age when no spelling can be considered "the right one," such was not the case. In many instances, textual errors merely represent different spelling conventions that in no way affect the meaning.

6. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the scribes' primary language was often that of the original text. One would think this would be of great advantage to them, and it certainly was, but it also complicates things in retrospect. As English speakers, we have a long history of Bible revisions. Some reflect modernizing of outdated language. Few today could read the first English translations without a great deal of effort, and surely we do not expect the average layperson to. Others reflect different translation styles with different purposes and audiences in view. Some preachers prefer woodenly literal texts for their preaching; some readers prefer a text in more natural modern English for ease of comprehension. These revisions present no problem, because the original text is not affected by the numerous changes in translation. But what happens if your primary language is that of the original text? To update the language leaves you vulnerable to charges by 21st century Christians of changing the text, but rigidly to retain it in all its particulars leaves you without a text comprehensible to you and your contemporaries! Thus, the ancient scribes are caught in a catch-22, where they are damned if they do, damned if they don't. A rigidly preserved text leaves the scribe's community without the modern aids we demand for ourselves, but a scribe who alters the text to conform to contemporary language has changed the original text. As much as we moderns would love to have the original text preserved in its original form without later alterations, who can condemn the motives of the scribes who chose contemporary relevance over rigid preservation of outdated language?

7. Similar is the question of harmonization. Many a textual critic has been frustrated by the sheer amount of harmonization that has taken place in the transmission of synoptic passages or texts with repetitive speech. Much of this textual change was likely done unintentionally by scribes who accidentally read what they remembered from another passage or verse, thereby bringing the one text closer into line with the other text. Who can blame the scribes for remembering their Bible a little too well? Alternatively, even intentional harmonizations were often done not with the intent of corrupting the text but with clarifying the text.

8. Occasionally scribes were even known to make substantial rearrangements of material. But who of us has never been tempted to rearrange the text for our purposes? In our modern Christian bookstores we have synoptic harmonies, topical Bibles, chronological Bibles, daily Bibles, and a whole host of other alternative arrangements that serve the purposes of modern readers.

I do not claim that every scribe had perfectly pure motives in approaching the text, nor do I claim that every textual alteration is justifiable, but I do believe that understanding these changes against the complicated background of the difficult work the scribes had to do should lead us to grant them a little more grace in areas where we would have preferred they act differently. Most of the scribes had a reverent attitude towards the text of Scripture and had no desire to see it corrupted, even if their actions in the end did just that. The textual critic must attempt to reverse that corruption, but we should also be gracious to the ancient scribes whose diligent and faithful efforts have left us the text of Scripture in the relatively pristine state we have it today. In the words of my colleague Brian Kortcamp, "Don't be a hater."

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