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Textual Variants and Ancient Readers

August 7, 2014

In my essay that has just been published (mentioned in my post yesterday), my broader emphasis is that intentional textual variants in NT writings likely resulted from ancient readers.  In the case of the variation-units I survey in that essay, I submit that readers were trying to judge the referents in statements that were somewhat ambiguous.  I further propose that the variants likely resulted from readers perusing the context of each ambiguous statement to make their judgement, in short, doing just what serious readers and modern commentators do:  exegesis based on context.

But, whereas modern commentators write a new text about the biblical text, these ancient readers (and we’re talking about the 2nd-3rd centuries likely) wrote what they judged to be the correct referent into their text of the NT writing.  Ironically, out of their high regard for the text and its clear meaning, they felt free to alter the word to make clearer the referent.

This sort of close study of immediate context (reading not  only backwards but also forward) isn’t likely what copyists did.  Copyists basically copied the text before them.  But readers/users of the copied text, they had the opportunity to note ambiguities and other problems, and the leisure-time to study carefully the context to see if they could clarify matters.

Then, when a reader’s copy was thereafter copied, the copyist likely assumed that what originated as a change in wording was the corrected wording, and so that change/variant entered subsequent textual transmission.

Copyists, to be sure, made oodles of accidental or unintentional changes, as is well documented.  But the sort of exegetically-based intentional changes that I discuss were, I contend, made by readers/users of the texts.  (I’m not the first to make this point.  I refer to earlier publications by Michael Holmes and Ulrich Schmid in my essay.)

So, as I note in the essay, these and other such textual variants are fascinating “artefacts” of ancient reading/readers, and their exegetical efforts to understand more precisely the texts.  Whereas in much earlier times NT textual critics tended to dismiss obviously secondary variants, seeking only the “original” reading, nowadays we are coming to regard all variants as in themselves valuable historical data.  The field of NT textual criticism is now a much “sexier” discipline than it ever was!

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  1. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,

    With the distinction you make between readers and copiers, which I find largely convincing, would harmonization be more likely the result of contemplation by readers or carry-over of familiar material by copiers/scribes? If as is often intimated, that a scribe copies mainly words or smaller units, then most changes that are intentional would have had to occur at the reader level. Additionally, since even the majority of theological changes involve the replacement of either an implied subject or an extended honorific title, i. e. Lord Jesus Christ, isn’t it more likely that these changes happened by reader clarification than by some supposed orthodox corruption?


    • Tim: To speak to your final question, yes, it is much more likely that intentional changes were made “in good faith” by readers who thought they were helping, trying to make clear the meaning, and/or remove potential misunderstandings or even, occasionally, removing what they presumed to be errors of some kind in the prior transmission of the text. You allude to Ehrman’s now-famous book, and he acknowledges, actually, that he has no evidence of some organized effort at “orthodox corruption”, only perhaps a few dozen at most cases where he thinks that readers likely made a change that reflected their own preferred understanding of the text.

  2. Thank you Dr. Hurtado for this clear explanation of one of the causes for alterations in early manuscripts of the Bible.
    The reasons for the differences in manuscripts is the subject of my blog. I just had to reblog your post on my blog.
    I will also be looking at the interesting variation in Mark 13:33 that Danny mentioned, especially since the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus do not agree on this variation!
    God bless,

  3. The striking and perhaps most important thing for many of us about the LXX is of course, is that it translated the OT from Hebrew to Greek. Many of us suspect that thereby, the theological habits and mindset of Greeks and Romans, or Hellenized Jews (of which there were many in say, Philo’s Alexandria), would almost inevitably have affected this translation. ( Perhaps a recent example would be the 2013 book that you reviewed, on the way the “son of God” was thought of in Roman culture; with any implications that this affected our notion of Jesus.)

    As this applies in the present case: aren’t there clear indications that a Greek or Roman or mindset was involved in equivocation of the term(s) for God or Lord? Clearly, “curiously” you might say, we are going from the Hebrew Yahweh to a Latin name, after all. Indeed, changing the name of Yahweh to a Latin word, would have been a very, very deep Hellenization/Latinization of the Jewish mindset.

    Changing the name of God himself is no small thing. Likely even the slightest change in resonances, cultural overtones, would likely have an enormous change on all of the text. In the present case, it seems all but inevitable that the shift of an entire holy text from one language to another, would have allowed plenty of opportunities for major shifts. Though it appears that the Hebrew “God” Yahweh might have been retained for a brief moment, that seems to have changed moreover, rather quickly (in historical terms; where a decade is an eyeblink).

    If you are looking for the source of a relatively rapid, “explosive” change in the status of Jewish people and god(s) and texts, could this be it?

    • There are a number of misunderstandings and oversimplifications in your comment that I’ll try to address briefly. First, the referent of “LXX” or “Septuagint” must be clarified. Technically the “Septuagint” is now applied to the revision of the Greek “OT” reflected in Christian manuscripts. The term “Old Greek” is applied to the “pre-Septuagintal” form of the Greek translation of these writings from earlier times. Moreover, there were in fact several versions of the Greek OT writings, of which the “Septuagint” is only one.
      Second, the translation of the Hebrew biblical writings into Greek wasn’t a one-time affair, but took place over time and involving a number of translators, reflecting distinguishable translation practices and policies. So, it would be simplistic to characterize the work as a “Hellenization”, if by that you mean some kind of conceptual and cultural programme enforced in the process.
      So, e.g., there are various approaches taken toward the Hebrew divine name, not just one. (And, by the way, the “translation” or substitution of “kyrios” for YHWH involved a movement from Hebrew into GREEK, not Latin.
      For a handy and accessible introduction to the LXX: Karen H. Jobes and Moises Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Baker Academic/Paternoster, 2000).
      For an intriguing discussion of the translation of Heb scriptures into Greek as a major project of cultural resistance, see Tessa Rajak, Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible and Ancient Jewish Diaspora (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
      It wasn’t simply a one-way street! And so, no, the “LXX” isn’t the “source” of any “explosive” change in the Jewish people and gods and texts.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        The referrent for LXX/Septuagint is by no means uniform in the scholarly literature. For example Pietersma uses LXX to refer to to pre-Christian Pentatuech in his article “Kyrios or Tetragram”. Karen Jobes also identifies this use of LXX to distinguish the Greek translation of the Pentateuch and Old Greek translations of other books of the Hebrew Bible, while noting yet other ways in which the term LXX/Septuagint is applied:

        “such ambiguity has led Septuagint scholars to call for standard terminology. This may be easier said than done, however, for the ambiguities of the term go back to antiquity.” (Page 32 of “Invitation to the Septuagint”)

      • Yes, “Septuagint” continues to be used with some confusion, rather a “wax nose” I’m afraid. But among themselves, specialists in the Greek translations (NB: plural) of the Hebrew scriptures do use “Old Greek” and “Pre-Septuagintal” to refer to the stage(s) of the texts prior to the standardization found in Christian copies of the Greek “OT”.

  4. Four of your books, including Lord Jesus Christ, are now available electronically in the Logos format.

  5. Hi Dr. Hurtado,

    This question is off-the-cuff, so it may actually lead nowhere or to a rather simple “No,” but this post has re-awakened some questions I’ve had about the variations in Mk 13:33. I wonder if ancient readers, reading backwards and forwards in Mark’s story, might have been the ones to add “and pray” to Mk 13:33 (W, Θ, f 13, 28, 565 and, I think, others. I am posting from work and my NA28 is, sadly, not accessible). The reason I think your proposal may shed light on this variation is because the addition of “and pray” in 13:33 is part of a larger pattern of “forecasts and echoes” between Mk 13 and the Markan passion narrative. I wonder if it is possible that ancient readers noticed this wider pattern in Mark and added to it.


    Danny Yencich

    • The Nestle-Aland 27 committee took the view that the “watch and pray” variant was prompted by that phrase in Mark 14:38 (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition, 95. That would certainly suggest a serious (and repeated) reader. And it’s interesting that this variant actually enjoys quite a lot of manuscripts in support, so it was also a popular variant.

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