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“Scribes” and “Copyists”

February 16, 2011

It has been pointed out, but insufficiently noted among textual critics, that we have probably ascribed too much of a role in the emergence of textual variation in NT writings to “scribes”.  Instead, the users/readers of texts were much more typically the ones who made various changes (“improvements”) to the texts, and copyists generally tended to aim to copy the exemplar before them (albeit, with varying levels of skill in doing so).  For stimulating discussions that make this point, see Ulrich Schmid, “Scribes and Variants: Sociology and Typology,” in Textual Variation: Theological and Social Tendencies?, ed. H. A. G. Houghton and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2008), 1-23; and Michael W. Holmes, “Codex Bezae As a Recension of the Gospels,” in Codex Bezae: Studies From the Lunel Colloquium, June 1994, ed. D. C. Parker and C.-B. Amphoux (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 123-60 (esp. 145-50). 

Schmid in particular observes that the time and thought involved in such things as harmonization to the immediate context (not to mention harmonization of one Gospel passage to a parallel in another Gospel), stylistic improvements, amendment of difficult passages, etc. reflects more the role of readers/users of texts, not copyists.  So, we should adjust our models of the processes by which ancient texts were transmitted and amended, with less emphasis on “scribes” and “scribal purposes/changes/tendencies”, and more allowance for the role of readers/users. 

I also propose that we drop the term “scribe”, and simply use “copyist”.  For one reason, as Christine Schams has shown, the terms translated “scribe” in Semitic and Greek languages shifted meanings across time, and the typical meaning in Greek culture differed from what became the meaning in settings reflecting more traditional Semitic cultures:   Christine Schams, Jewish Scribes in the Second-Temple Period, JSOTSup, no. 291 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998). 

In Greek culture a “scribe” (Greek:  grammateus) was essentially someone who wrote out and copied texts, which could mean anything from writing letters (e.g., written on behalf of an illiterate person) to copying formal documents, treatises and literary works.  In Roman-era Jewish usage, however, a “scribe” (Hebrew:  sofer) tended to connote someone learned, especially in the scriptures and Jewish law.

So, all the more reason for us text-critics to refer to “copyists” when we deal with the physical process of textual transmission.

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  1. Andrew Johnson permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, thank you for your blog. As a student of text-criticism, I have a question about the role of the reader. I think that text-criticism has been delayed in allowing the “reader/user” of the text to become a larger part of our enterprise because we do not have the information available to make accurate judgments on reasoning about their linguistic movements within a text. Would you take this as a far assessment of the situation?

    I would further assert that if we do take more seriously the role of the “reader/user” of the text, then we should look to better understand their mindset through what is left of their sermonic and apologetic material. However, my underlying question is, does “reader/user” of the text effectively translate to a pastor/theologian understanding of a minister leading a body of believers? Thank you for your time.

    • The most immediate data about the effects on the NT writings of their transmission and usage are the variants. We don’t have textual sermons early enough, not as early as the earliest MSS. And also texts such as Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho don’t use NT texts, but OT texts mainly.
      From the variants we can see that users of these texts often felt free to “improve” them at various points, most often in small stylistic/grammatical changes, also harmonization of wording to immediate context, sometimes removal of ambiguity or other sense-difficulty. But in some other MSS we see comparatively little of this, and a firmer practice of simply copying the text without these “improvements” (P75 being the most obvious case).
      The point I was making in my posting is that our picture of the transmission-process should make much more room for readers/users of texts, and not place so much on the supposed activities of “scribes”.

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