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Fred Wisse on Early Textual Transmission

April 4, 2018

In a previous posting I asked if we need a revised/new paradigm for portraying the earliest transmission of NT writings (here).  In support of this, I’ve also drawn attention to the newly-published monograph by Lonnie Bell here, which provides a close analysis of the earliest papyri of the Gospel of John.

An earlier voice advocating a similar position is Frederik Wisse (Emeritus Professor, McGill University) in an essay published in 1989:  “The Nature and Purpose of Redactional Changes in Early Christian Texts: The Canonical Gospels,” in Gospel Traditions in the Second Century: Origins, Recensions, Text and Transmission, ed. William L. Petersen (Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 39-53.  I provide a few choice quotations from his incisive discussion.

“It is widely taken for granted in biblical scholarship that early Christian texts were extensively redacted during the first century of their transmission. . . . .[and]  thought to have served mainly ideological purposes. Since this view has for many the status of a virtual fact, one would expect that it is based on clear textual evidence. However, this is not the case.” (p. 39)

Although a supposedly “wild” handling of the NT writings in the 2nd century is often contrasted with a supposedly more “controlled” and stabilized copying in the subsequent centuries, Wisse noted, “if we judge by the interpolations for which there is textual evidence then it appears that the numbers increase rather than decrease after the second century.” (p. 45).

He then went on to observe, “These facts speak against the common assumption [advocated, e.g., by Helmut Koester] that by the early third century emerging orthodoxy brought about an end to the period of considerable redactional freedom by deciding on a ‘standard’ text and by suppressing all manuscripts which deviated. Long after the third century the church was in no position to establish and control the biblical text, let alone eliminate rival forms of the text. Though there may have been an attempt at establishing a standard text as early as the fourth century, only beginning with the twelfth century do we have evidence for a large scale effort. . . . There is no evidence for the Byzantine period or for an earlier date of efforts to eliminate divergent copies of New Testament manuscripts.” (p. 45)

Consequently, in light of the extant evidence, “Since there is no basis to assume that the early, poorly attested history of the transmission of the text was governed by factors different from those operative in the canonical period, the existing textual evidence may be taken to be indicative of the nature and purpose of redactional activity from the beginning.” (p. 47)  That is, the evidence of the extant papyri from the third and late second century CE likely reflects the handling of the relevant writings in the earlier period from which we don’t have manuscripts.

In sum:  “Thus the claims of extensive ideological redaction of the Gospels and other early Christian literature runs counter to all of the textual evidence. This lack of evidence cannot be explained away by speculations about an extensively interpolated ‘standard’ text which was imposed by orthodox leadership late in the second century, and the successful suppression of all non-interpolated copies. The Church certainly lacked the means and apparently also the will to do this.” (p. 52).

It’s nice to point to Wisse’s essay in support of the view that I’ve been advocating for a number of years now.  As I used to say in some of my classes, I may well be right or wrong in this or that view, but I am not idiosyncratic!



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  1. Griffin permalink

    Larry: what is the status of the “Fabrication” thesis in religion departments these days? That is, the theory that many or all of our apparently foremost historical documents in early Christianity, were deliberately made up, forged, long ago.

    Apparently there are one or two respected articles or books out there, that survey the topic?

    • Griffin: I know of no scholar in the field of ancient history or religion who asserts that “foremost historical documents in early Christianity” (which you don’t specify) were “made up”. I think you’re likely confusing things again. It is reasonably widely thought that some texts were ascribed to individuals who didn’t write them. E.g., many NT scholars think that the “Pastoral Epistles” of the NT were composed in Paul’s name by a later admirer. The texts remain important as historical documents, however, reflecting issues of the time of their composition. There is no “Fabrication” thesis that I recognize as circulating in university departments.

  2. Griffin permalink

    But in that case? Wouldn’t that mean that his finding has no real significant bearing on the important question: were the gospels accurate reflections of earlier verbal reports of Jesus. Or even, in the case of written sayings lists, accurate reflections of earlier writing; early in effect, proto gospels.

    It seems to me these kinds of articles like to hint at the important conclusions, to the unwary. But on being called out for that, they retreat. To claim a possibly true but much mote trivial conclusion.

    • Griffin: This is my last indulgence in your amazing tendency to miss the point. The matter under discussion is whether known texts were transmitted in a careless/wild manner or with comparatively more care. It isn’t whether there were other texts that didn’t survive, or sources now lost, or whatever. PLEASE! Final warning.

  3. Griffin permalink

    Does the author absolutely reject any early Q or sayings tradition? Those hypotheses might suggest an original, sketchy source, that was likely very redacted, added to, in the later written gospels proper.

    • Griffin: As I’ve pointed out to you repeatedly, you confuse the re-writing of texts, and the use of sources in creating new texts with the copying of texts. All different processes. Wisse spoke to the copying of the Gospels.

  4. john mitrosky permalink

    So if you think Mark ending or cut off at 16:8 is stable and relatively not tinkered with from the date range (65 to 75 C.E.), what date might you assign Q? Before Mark? During the Mark date range? Or do you guess Q knows Mark and is the first expansion and commentary on Mark, before Matthew and Luke?

    • John: Again, your question is off-beam (seems to happen often, don’t you see?). We’re talking about the copying/transmission of texts, not the date or existence of theoretical texts. Maybe hold off posing further comments, and just read for a few months??

  5. Hi Larry,
    Thanks for the post and the notice of Bell’s book. I’ve posted some more extended reflections on the question on my blog:

    • Thanks for the “heads-up”, Brent. I aim to post on the article and your reflections.

  6. Dr. Hurtado, it just came to my mind to ask you if you were willing to ever write a post on something like the “some of most influential scholarly monographs in NT studies since 2000”. I would be quite interested in reading that, especially to have my attention drawn to monographs I may be unaware of and to see what a scholar like yourself would say has really pushed the field. I’d imagine you could give individual lists for different categories of scholarship (textual transmission, christology, theology, etc). Just a request.

    • It’s probably a bit too soon to judge “some of the most influential scholarly monographs in NT studies since 2000”. It takes a while for books to acquire sufficient influence to be so identified. And the field of NT studies is now so complex and diverse that anyone who attempted the task would likely only reflect his/her own limits and favorite topics.

  7. Michael J Brugge permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, regarding B. Ehrman’s “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture,” have you reviewed “Revisiting the Corruption” (edited by Daniel Wallace) ?

  8. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Isn’t the evidence for redaction of the NT as a whole in the second century: book titles; book order; nomina sacra: use of codex; editorial additions such as John 21? As David Trobisch argued.

    I also think the early papyri were not as carefully written as the fourth century uncials. The handwriting was not as neat; the organisation of the text was more haphazard (they sometimes misjudged the length of texts); mistakes such as haplogrpahy were more common. From all these factors, and more, we may infer that textual transmission was more stable and reliable in the fourth century than in the first two centuries.

    Plus in the absence of any actual manuscripts from c. 50-150 C.E. it just makes sense to assume that the text in this period was more fluid. Why? Because the church was early in its formation, much was contested, the writings were not yet gathered and viewed as inspired, Christian book production was probably outsourced and/or amateurish.

    If we take Shakespeare as an analogy, isn’t it the case that many of his plays had volatile texts in the first few years? Years later the texts were gathered together in collections and stable forms of the texts were established. It’s probably safe to assume something similar happened with the NT writings.

    • Donald: I’ll address your comments in serial order. (1) Yes, the items you mention (e.g., nomina sacra, use of codex, etc.) are all relevant, and all suggest a standardization of practices that works against the notion of “wild” copying. (2) The early papyri actually show care in legibility, sense-unit spacing, some punctuation, etc., and largely clear, separated letters. The studies (e.g., Bell’s recent study of John papyri) show no more scribal mistakes (e.g., haplography or dittography) than in later manuscripts (contra your assertion). Read the relevant studies: e.g., Alan Mugridge, Copying Early Christian Texts: A Study of Scribal Practice, WUNT, no. 362 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016). (3) Actually, Donald, there was quite a lot of trans-local sharing and communication among early Christian groups from the get-go, and certainly by the late first/early 2nd century, there were already copying centres for the distribution of texts: see the now-classic study, Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). (4) Shakespeare isn’t a valid comparison. His texts weren’t the centre of a religious movement that read them and shared them trans-locally. So, no, it isn’t “safe to assume something similar” for the NT writings.

  9. You quote: “Since there is no basis to assume that the early, poorly attested history of the transmission of the text was governed by factors different from those operative in the canonical period, the existing textual evidence may be taken to be indicative of the nature and purpose of redactional activity from the beginning.” The problem here is that Wisse is making a assumption regarding the factors governing “early, poorly attested history of the transmission of the text” that is not warranted, while the reality is that there is no basis for ANY assumption regarding those factors.

    For example: “if we judge by the interpolations for which there is textual evidence then it appears that the numbers increase rather than decrease after the second century.” OK, so the numbers increase, but to suggest that this does not indicate ‘more “controlled” and stabilized copying in the subsequent centuries’ implies that we know WHY the numbers increase, which we do not. For example, a plausible explanation could be that people had been going round gathering copies of letters, gospels etc. and that the increase in interpolations reflect a deliberate effort to incorporate more of the differences found in the copies in order to maximize the possibility that none of the original text was lost, and as more copies were found over time more interpolations crept into the ‘revised’ text.

    Note that I’m not suggesting that this did happen, just that it could have, and so we must be wary of making unwarranted assumptions about HOW a textual change happened when there are a range of potential explanations.

    • David: The situation is that scholars have regularly made assumptions (or, better, inferences) about the earliest, unattested period of textual transmission. Wisse’s essay issued a challenge to one common assumption, offering a basis for a different inference. The more “agnostic” position that you advocate is perhaps an option, but scholars find it difficult to resist making inferences!
      As for your scenario for the 4th century, I think you may misunderstand the issue. What Wisse noted is that there is more evidence of larger textual variants in the 4th century and thereafter than in the earlier evidence. Moreover, in Byzantine period, some of these larger variants obtain acceptance into the “received” text of various writings. In any case, there does not appear to be greater textual variation in the earlier evidence. Read the data.

      • Dr Hurtado, thank you for your reply. My point is that the “earlier evidence,” is not ‘early evidence,’ unless you count mss more than 100 or years after the fact as early. I do not. However, as you pointed out in a previous reply we do have Paul and James, and the letters we do have are indicative of a lot of ‘fire fighting’ by Paul, which in turn suggests (to me, at least!) that the period from which we have no extant mss was very fluid, with a number of different ‘interpretations’ of Christianity (e.g. faith vs. works) vying for attention. Consequently I think it very reasonable to question a supposition that because the evidence of larger textual variants is less in the “earlier evidence” that means that those variants were not created earlier, especially as 1st and 2nd century is minimal, at best.

      • David: Copies (manuscripts) of texts only 100 yrs from composition is pretty damned good! Compare that with pretty much any other ancient literary text. Second, the diversity of early Christianity isn’t the issue and isn’t contested. What is specifically under examination is the quality of the copying/transmission of certain texts in early Christianity. Finally, the absence of major textual variants in extant earliest manuscripts at least shows that these variants were not then widely circulated. No one questions that there was some freedom and variation in early Christian copying practices. The question is whether these copying practices were confined to “wild” treatment of texts, or whether there were also copyists who worked comparatively more conscientiously. The extant evidence suggests the latter.

  10. Roy Kotansky permalink

    Sorry, but I do not see how Frederik Wisse’s comments above offer a scintilla of evidence to counter the prevailing view of diversity in the 2nd century text of the NT.

    • Roy: Well, the extant evidence, from the late 2nd and/or early 3rd century, doesn’t show the “wild” treatment of the Gospels presupposed in the “standard” paradigm. The evidence also shows that there were no ecclesiastical structures that could have altered and controlled the copying suddenly in the period of the extant evidence. So, the logical inference is (or is at least as cogent as the “prevailing” view) that the earlier period was characterized by a similar relatively conscientious copying. Why is that such a stretch?

      • Dr. Hurtado, if there were “no ecclesiastical structures” then surely that is the time during which the uncontrolled variants would appear. Also, you refer to “late 2nd and/or early 3rd century,” i.e. at least 150 years after the events, during which IMHO we have no reason to suppose there was “relatively conscientious copying.” Even if that was true from the late 2nd on, by then the ‘damage’ would have been done. In your words: “Why is that such a stretch?”

      • David: What you propose is pure supposition. If the handling of the early texts such as the Gospels was characteristically “wild” in the earliest phase, then we should expect to see some clear traces of this in the earliest evidence. But we don’t. So, those who posit such “wild” early copying have to resort to invoking some sort of otherwise unattested (and improbable) “recension” of all copies sometime in the late second century, which somehow suppressed all the supposedly earlier “wild” copies. Sounds like a version of the “I have a secret and beautiful girl friend” claim!

      • Dr. Hurtado, regarding my “secret and beautiful girl friend” claim, I note your point, which I believe is that we have a ‘black box’ with an unknown input but a known output, and a known progression of variants after that, so that by default we should assume a similar ‘progression of variants’ inside the black box when extrapolating back to find the input to the box.

        However, that is not all, for we do have hypotheses suggesting the existence of things that did not make it out of the box, and so for which we have no extant direct evidence, such as Q or the Gospel of the Hebrews/Nazarenes/Ebionites. We also know that there were other Paulines that we do not have (Paul tells us about them), and that Paul tells us at least some of what he had to do to keep people on the path that he was describing. Also, in the gospels we have four very different versions of events, and are still arguing over how that happened. So, given what we know that we do not know (the Known Unknowns!) I think we are right to hypothesize that the growth of Christianity was much more fluid in the early days than what we see in the record of the extant mss, not least because the earliest mss are so fragmentary that a lot of our extant text begins centuries after the event. This may well be much better than the evidence we have for other ancient texts, but it is still not early evidence.

      • David: Yet again I have to point out (wearily!) that you’re missing/confusing the point. Nobody, NOBODY! disputes that there were different versions of “Christianity”, and all across the first several centuries, perhaps more blatantly in the 2nd and 3rd century than in the first century. That’s not the issue. Nor is there a widespread argument over whether there were now-lost texts, such as “Q” or this or that letter of Paul to Corinth. PLEASE: The issue is whether the copying/transmission of texts was careless, “wild”, etc., or relatively more conscientious (or at least both). Please: Don’t sidestep the issue again. That’s really tedious.

      • Dr. Hurtado, I understand that we do not have early information on copying/transmission, but my point was that given the texts that we KNOW have been lost, we may have also lost many “wild” variants that were weeded out in the early years. Of course we do not have evidence of that, but I still do not think that we should assume that transmission in the early years was basically the same as what we see in the extant mss. I think we will have to agree to disagree, so thank you for indulging me (and I do not expect a reply to this).

  11. Thank you so much for this, it’s an even fuller answer to my question on the previous post.

  12. Now, what I’m supposed to be doing with “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” book of dr. Ehrman? 🙂

    • A *careful* reading of Bart’s book will show that (a) the title is a bit sensationalized, and (2) he actually grants that he has no evidence of any organized or thorough-going “corruption” motivated by theological purposes. As he notes, of the tens of thousands of textual variants, he can point to, maybe, a dozen or two, at most, that have some possible theological motivation. There are some, but they are readily identified,in part because they are relatively rare.

      • Thank you. So I will put a sticker for subtitle “ almost an Hoax” 🙂

      • Lorenzo: Ehrman’s book isn’t a hoax at all. The title is a bit over-the-top. And his arguments about particular variants may or may not convince. At most you might judge him guilty of exaggeration (perhaps more in some of this popular writings), but not a hoax.

      • You are correct. My proposed sub-title doesn’t actually refer to the book – but to the title itself.. “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” + “ almost an hoax”. 🙂 So said, my post is not that serious.. I love Ehrman’s “marketing” style!

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