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“Bible Hunters” Part 1: Comments from an Interviewee

February 17, 2014

Well, the first of the two-part “Bible Hunters” programme aired and it was better than one could fear.  The approach reflected what now seems the “orthodox” view among TV producers/directors that the public wants to see some guy/gal running around to various places and doing the “golly, gee” bit, with scholars confined to 10-20 second blips on this or that, just to show that the “golly, gee” has some basis.  (Quite why the presenter was filmed motorcycling around places in Egypt, I can’t say.  Couldn’t he have simply ridden in the car with the camera-guy . . . who was filming him riding a motorcycle??  Seemed to take up unnecessary time, but, hey, “this is TV”.)

It was, of course, TV, but Prof. Mary Beard’s excellent series on Rome shows, contra the “orthodox” view, that a real scholar can present a show, and that it can be both interesting and seriously informative.

In the interviews, I had to work hard to get the “Bible Hunters” people to understand that (contrary to what they seemed to assume) Tischendorf, the Smith Sisters, etc., were devout Christians, and that they didn’t find early manuscripts and the earlier readings they contained a problem at all.  Quite the opposite!  They were eager to find earlier manuscripts because they saw these as placing them closer to an earlier and more authentic form of what they regarded as the Word of God in written form.  That is, these people pursued early manuscripts precisely to obtain the earliest textual form of what was for them sacred scripture, and didn’t find the incidence of textual variants worrying much.

To be sure there were others of the time who found the evidence of early manuscripts unsettling.  Among these were some who objected on the basis of “high church” views, reasoning that, to follow the early manuscripts over against the later ones would mean (to them) that for a 1000 years the church had been allowed (by God) to use and endorse a faulty biblical text.  This would call into question their doctrine of the church, and so they passionately defended the traditional wording of the biblical text based (based heavily on medieval-era manuscripts).

But, as I say, for the “Bible Hunters” and other (perhaps most) Christians who looked at the question, the discovery of early manuscripts meant a firmer basis on which to establish the biblical text, and so an earlier and more reliable biblical text on which to preach, pray, theologize, etc.  That is, the discovery of early manuscripts was seen as great progress, both in scholarly investigation and in practical benefit to Christianity.  Contra one voice in the programme (who shall remain unnamed and from whom the TV producers may have got their somewhat sensationalist storyline), the discovery of early manuscripts didn’t actually shake Victorian-era Christianity to the core.  Much more troublesome were other developments, such as emergent German higher criticism, Lyle’s geology, and Darwin’s ideas too.  But, even in these matters many/most Christians of the time were able to take it all on board without feeling that the ground had been cut from under their faith.

Anyway, I’m glad that the programme featured the Smith sisters.  They’re inadequately lauded in the usual histories (typically written by males), and I heartily recommend Janet Soskice’s book on them, Sisters of Sinai.

In the next instalment, I take it, the focus will be on the discovery of various non-biblical texts, such as the Nag Hammadi cache.  I expect there’ll be lots of references to “excluded” texts and such (whereas there is scant evidence that the authors of those texts put in this category actually ever wanted to be included in a canon such as the emergent NT).

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17 Comments
  1. Patrick permalink

    I don’t personally “get” the logic that with no evidence “if something nefarious could have occurred, we should think it likely did occur” that Geoff posits.

    Knowing the societal oral traditions of the 1st century held sway before there were any documents for anyone to read and that most folks could not read anyway, it seems to me less logical to think this way, not more.

    IF Mark, Matthew or Luke for example began to circulate and teach sayings or conduct or theology antithetical to the oral traditions about Christ already embedded in the hearts of the early church, they would never have become canonical or accepted, IMO. The very thought is illogical regardless of “powerful people”.

    Nero&Domitian were pretty powerful and their misuse of that power didn’t change a theological thing within the church. How much more the “powerful people” Geoff has in mind could have succeeded with less power than either Caesar held.

    • Yes, you cite one of a number of reasons that conspiracy theories don’t fit for earliest Christianity. The problem often is that people imagine a situation like that of “established” Christianity as it has been in Europe over the last 1500+ years, and so posit powerful priests, bishops, etc., able to foist something by force and ban/suppress contrary views, texts, etc. But in the first three centuries, it was a sort of “free market economy” with various Christian groups and types of Christians all “doing their thing”. There was no structure able to exert coercion until Constantine.

  2. Thanks for your input! Alas, as somebody has already commented, it is a pity they didn’t listen to your explanations a bit more carefully, as the narrative seems to focus only on the textual problems… Thanks again and looking forward to Part 2!

  3. Really enjoyed the programme. Was wondering: do we have any Bible hunters today (aside from archaeologists)? I know Dan Wallace does some hunting. Are there many others?
    Please keep us posted when more episodes air.

    • I don’t know any others who go trawling through monasteries. But there are people who act more like Freer and Chester Beatty, e.g., the Green Collection (which now apparently comprises a large and growing body of manuscripts of various texts, historic Bibles, etc.).

  4. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, you wrote:”It was, of course, TV, but Prof. Mary Beard’s excellent series on Rome shows, contra the “orthodox” view, that a real scholar can present a show, and that it can be both interesting and seriously informative.”

    This hits the nail on the head. If the show had involved a dozen scholars all quoting their head off, as is typical in some TV, I would have turned it off. As it came across, it was a fine production which held my attention and drew me in.

    The film centered on some imperfections in the New Testament (was it about 30,000?). I enjoyed your comment about whether or not one should be worried. The film seemed to show that there was a trend that increased with time in imperfections, or should I say editorials.

    • Geoff: I’m not sure what film you’re commending, Beard on Rome or the “Bible Hunters” one. In any case, scholars speak of “textual variants”, not “imperfections” in texts, and, yes, there are many in the NT writings, mainly because they were copied so often and for so long. I’d guess that ca. 95%+ are the sort of minor variants of word-order, verb tense, etc., many/most accidental, but others deliberate. Despite Bart Ehrman’s sensationalist title of his book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, as he himself admits, the actual number of variants that seem theologically motived are a very small percentage of the total, and none of the basic ideas of the NT depends on any of them.
      Probably the two largest variants are the endings of Mark and the narrative of the adulterous woman (that forms part of the KJV text of John 7:53-8:11), neither of which is in the earlier manuscripts.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry, I was commending Bible Hunters. I also enjoyed Beard on Rome. Neither had too many scholars.

        The text of the New Testament gospels look to me as as though they have been developed with time.

        The question I ask myself is: are the variants (as above) indicative of an increasing trend as one goes back in time? Even though the the Smith sisters were Christians, they must have been very surprised to find the variations in the text. Their discovery helped to establish the principle that the earlier the manuscript, the more likely one was to find variation.

      • Geoff: I don’t know what you’re referring to in stating that it appears to you that the NT gospels “developed with time”. All manuscript evidence shows them easily recognizable pretty much as we know them (except for the Markan ending, the periscope of the adulterous woman, and a few smaller variants, none of which really changes the nature of the text into something else). The evident literary structures of the Gospels strike most scholars as indicative of authors, who produced pretty much what we have.
        As for the Smith sisters (and prior “hunters”), no, they weren’t surprised by variants. Indeed, the reason they went hunting for early manuscripts was because they knew that there were variants in the NT textual tradition, and so sought the earliest witnesses to the texts. And I don’t recognize your “principle that the earlier the manuscript the more likely one was to find variation.” Perhaps what you meant is that earlier manuscripts help reveal the subsequent variants reflected in later manuscripts. But, in fact, even our early fragmentary manuscripts of the Gospels, which take us back at least to early 3rd century CE scarcely reflect any variant that we don’t already know about from later manuscripts. This suggests no greater degree of variation in the earliest attested stages than in the later (late Byzantine/early medieval) period.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry, the manuscript evidence leaves a gap of some two hundred or so years. Plenty could have happened in that time. In an established church, the third century documents are ever likely to show little variation. You have assumed that the text has always been stable following a pattern of the small variations in the extant text. The trend is from large variation (evident from literary analysis) to small variation with increasing time.

      • Geoff: You’re incorrect on pretty much every statement. First, our earliest NT manuscripts are dated as early as late 2nd century, which would be a scant 100 yrs after likely composition (in the case of the Gospels), not “some 200 years or so”. Second, there was no “established” church in the 3rd century. Indeed, the 3rd century saw the worst of the Roman persecutions of Christians. It was not until Constantine (early 4th century) that there was relief, and then a structure that could begin to standardize doctrine, canon, etc. That is, our earliest manuscripts come from a time where there was no such effective ecclesiastical structure. So, given that, it is perfectly reasonable to assume (as most text-critical scholars do) that the copying conventions evident in the earliest MSS reflect the prior copying conventions as well.
        Finally, as I’ve repeatedly noted, the major textual variants (long ending of Mark, periscope of adulterous woman, etc.) aren’t evidenced in manuscripts until the 5th century. Actually, therefore there is no basis for your claim that “the trend is from large variation . . . to small variation”: The opposite suggests itself.
        Geoff: As you’re neither a textual critic nor someone who has established his reputation for textual analysis of the biblical texts, I’m puzzled at the confident assertions that you make, especially when, as with these, they are typically so incorrect.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry, 100 years is still plenty of time for text to have developed from that of the original ‘Christians’ to the text that we have today. It is not a question of copying convention, but of textual manipulation from something simple, to the extant NT text, by a powerful group.

      • But, Geoff, it’s not on simply to allege some mysterious “powerful group” that supposedly succeeded in “textual manipulation” such that nothing else is left. There was no such “powerful group” in the first two centuries, Geoff. Early Christianity didn’t have ecclesiastical structures like those in the 4th century, and was very diverse.
        Moreover, all indications are that texts were copied and distributed trans-locally immediately after being written, which would have made it very difficult to control that process and “manipulate” things. You seem to want to posit things, Geoff, with little understanding of the historical data. Not a good practice. We’re done on this.

  5. Doug Bridges permalink

    How sweet is the voice of reason. Thank you Dr. Hurtado!

  6. I thought since you brought up the Smith sisters, I would share a link to “A Translation of the Four Gospels from the Syriac of the Sinaitic Palimpsest 2 editions, By Agnes Smith Lewis” for any of your readers who are interested. The Introduction itself is fascinating to read as Agnes describes the discovery of the manuscript and a number of other things including a pretty large section where she talks about the variant readings.

    https://openlibrary.org/works/OL1106968W/A_Translation_of_the_Four_Gospels_from_the_Syriac_of_the_Sinaitic_Palimpsest

  7. Thanks Larry,
    Well, it was a pity they didn’t listen to your explanations a bit more closely, as the overall narrative was only about the “problems” posed by variations found in the new manuscripts. And very little about the piety of the “hunters” themselves.

  8. Minas Monier permalink

    Hi Larry, thanks for this comment and for your contribution to the show. I just wanted to make a point, as an Egyptian. I must admit that I was not quite happy for the way Egypt was represented. It looked to me as some dirty districts, desert, camels … so stereotypical. Unfortunately, my experience in Europe and America is that westerners do think that Egypt still lives in prehistory and they are sometimes astonished how an Egyptian managed to come to the west to study theology. This is thanks to the way Egypt is depicted in such shows.

    Otherwise, I enjoyed the materials in the film and watching my friends in St. Catherine monastery again🙂

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