Textual Ambiguity and Textual Variants in Acts
Over a year ago I provided a requested essay for a multi-author volume to appear in honour of a colleague in the field of NT studies. In working up a previous essay on “Christology in Acts” for another multi-author volume, I had noticed a number of places where there were interesting textual variations among key witnesses. So, I decided to focus on these for the later essay. (The earlier essay appeared in Issues in Luke-Acts: Selected Essays, eds. Sean A. Adams & Michael Pahl; Gorgias Press, 2012, pp. 217-37.) I’m still awaiting publication of the later volume and my essay on these textual variants, so I’ve decided to give a summary of it here/now. When it’s published, I’ll be able to put it up on this blog site. For now, the following summary.
The first point to note is that in Luke-Acts the author seems to use “kyrios” in a deliberately dyadic manner, sometimes referring to God and other times to Jesus. So, in a number of places, it’s not entirely or immediately clear who the referent is. This, I propose, led some ancient readers of Acts in particular (that’s the focus in my essay) to attempt to resolve the ambiguity by specifying more clearly the referent, thus producing the textual variants that I note. I provide a list of the variation-units that I discuss here: Textual ambiguity in Acts–List of variation-units
A few points underscored for emphasis. First, these textual variants seem pretty clearly to have arisen intentionally, not by accident. So, they reflect the efforts of some ancient users of Acts to clarify the text, the sort of work that commentators and exegetes still do. But these ancient readers inserted their clarification or reading of the text into the text itself. These variants are, thus, “artifacts” of this ancient effort to understand the referents in these passages, the remnants of ancient exegetical/reading work.
Second, as suggested in the previous paragraph, those responsible for this are more likely readers of the text, not so likely copyists of it (“scribes”). A number of the variants appear to reflect detailed study and reflection on the slightly larger context, both before and after the variation-unit. So someone in each case had to take the time to do this. I think this is not likely done by copyists, who essentially got on with the task of copying a text. Instead, readers/users of Acts had the time to note ambiguities and reflect on how to resolve them. Then, having “clarified” the text by making these deliberate changes, when that copy was copied on, the variants got inserted into the transmission-process.
Finally, I see no clear pattern or “drift” to the variants. I mean that I don’t see any particular movement, e.g., replacing references to God with references to Jesus, or vice versa. I don’t see any particular witness exhibiting any such drift either. In one or two places doctrinal sensitivities may have been a factor, perhaps most likely in Acts 20:28, where the reading preferred in Nestle-Aland could have been taken as subject to a “patripassionist” reading (taking God, “the Father,” as having acquired the church “through his own blood”). But even here, the aim in the variants was clearly to avoid what the readers likely regarded as phrasing that could be (from their standpoint) misunderstood (and the reading of the text that they sought to avoid would be, in fact, a misunderstanding of it).
In short, there is no indication of a programmatic “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture,” at least in the sense of some orchestrated effort to bend the text of Acts in some pronounced doctrinal direction. (And in his study with that provocative title, Bart Ehrman admitted that the total number of variants that he could offer as likely reflecting doctrinal concerns was a very small portion of the many textual variants attested, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 46 n. 124, and that there was, in fact, no evidence of an organized “corruption” of the NT writings.)
But these variants are, nevertheless, very interesting, showing that ancient readers detected the same ambiguities in Acts that modern exegetes and commentators find. To repeat my point, these variants are direct artifacts of ancient readers’ efforts to ponder the text and resolve such ambiguities.