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“Scribal” Changes?Or Readers’ Changes?

June 14, 2019

Reviewing Pardee’s otherwise excellent new book about “scribal harmonizations” in the Synoptic Gospels (here) led me again to think about the terms that we use in studying variant readings in texts.  In particular, Pardee, along with many other NT textual critics (including myself in earlier years), refers to changes as made by “scribes”.  Indeed, it appears that this is done without thinking much about it.  But I believe that we should give the matter more thought.

In an earlier posting (here), I commented on the topic, and I refer readers to that posting.  Essentially, the act of reading and studying a text is not the same thing as copying that text.  To be sure, the actions might be combined in a given individual.  For example, when someone copies out a text for one’s own study, he/she might take the time to ponder the text as he/she copies it, and so might well make conscious changes to clarify the text or to correct what he/she may regard as mistaken readings.  But in many (most?) other instances the person copying a text is responsible simply for doing that.  Indeed, taking time to study the text would hold up the copying process.

I’m persuaded that a good many variants, especially major ones that seem to have been deliberate changes, were more likely introduced into the textual tradition by serious readers of the texts in question, not in the process of copying them.  In my earlier posting I referred to other scholars of the same opinion.  With the papyrologist, Peter Parsons, therefore, I refer now to “copyists” rather than “scribes,” to designate those individuals who copied texts.  And I distinguish the process of copying texts from the activities of readers and students of those texts.  The activities are distinguishable, even if in some cases they are combined in a given person.

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  1. Ryan permalink

    This is a discussion I have followed and vacillated on repeatedly. I think I can agree with the basic distinction between “scribes” and “readers” , but I’m still not 100% sure it’s not one of those distinctions without a difference.
    From the perspective of having an accurate historical narrative, yes I see the difference and the benefit.

    But – and this is a sincere question, not a rhetorical one – what is the difference for students today? So we have variant. It appears to be an accidental misspelling. So we conclude that was an unintentional scribal change. Then we have another variant. It appears to be ideological. So we conclude it was an intentional change by a reader.

    So we’ve changed our identification label on the actor, but we haven’t changed anything about our identification of the essential nature of the variant, have we? As far as I can see, we’ve just substituted one actor for another.

    But since both actors are unknown to us, and we know them only through the nature of the variant – which stayed the same, what have we really done besides swapping around some name tags?

    It reminds me a little of an exchange I had with my young son the other day. He has all these little lego men. They all have names. He left one on the floor in the middle of the hallway, and of all the places I could have stepped, of course I stepped – painfully! – right there. I yelled out “son! One of your lego men is in the hallway! I think it’s Lloyd! Come clean it up!”. My son came dutifully to the hallway, inspected the lego man, and then confidentially informed me ” dad, that’s not Lloyd, that’s Garmadon!”. My response? “Same difference – clean it up!”

    • Ryan: A fair question. Here’s an answer. Part of our aim in studying the textual transmission of texts such as the Gospels is to grasp as accurately as we can that process, who was involved, the circumstances, etc., and what these things tell us about the larger questions involved. So, e.g., accidental errors/changes are likely the product of copyists. Intentional changes, especially those that seem to reflect drawing upon the immediate context, and of these especially those that draw upon the context following where the variant appears, likely reflect the activities of readers of that text. And that tells us something of the sorts of questions and interests that ancient readers of these texts brought to them. That is, we’re introduced to the very early exegetical activities of Christian readers.

      • This seems useful. Though the proposed term term “readers” might be misleading. Since we are dealing with scribal writers who did not just read the old texts, but then added to them; who wrote additional material. Albeit in ways they may have felt (correctly or incorrectly) were consistent with readings of the earlier text.

        Then too, the term “scribe” was often historically used for both copyists, and authors.

        So for that reason, I often use phrases like “copyist scibes,” versus “scribal authors.” To try to capture both the similarities and differences too.

        If we can agree on some similar terminology, that would facilitate discussion on this important topic.

      • CG: First, may I politely but firmly ask what experience and competence you have in the study of the copyists and their manuscripts? In order to have a proper conversation about the matter, it’s necessary to establish this. For you seem to me to pontificate about matters on which you seem to me to have only a very general acquaintance. For example, you claim that “we are dealing with scribal writers” when that’s exactly what I’m questioning. So, what publications or other demonstrations of expertise in the matter of ancient manuscripts can you provide, please?

      • 1) MA in the Art History of Prints and Photographs; dealing often with art and texts especially on paper, of all eras. 2) PhD Culture Studies dissertation, in part on visual and semantic aspects of ancient and modern alphabets, texts. 3) Book in preparation on the early to modern cultures of literacy. Most of which concerned scribes, at times

        I could wish for preparation even more directly relevant to 4) specifically early Christian texts. Though I’ve followed that subject fairly seriously for several years. And find that knowing the broader background of writing culture, helps contextualize what religion scholars know.

        Here, I’m interested in both copyist scribes. But far more, scribal authors. In my perspective, religious writers you have recently mentioned – like Paul. the author, or especially Matthew (the tax collector?) – would have been described as “scribes” by many. And therefore should be included in any discussion of ANE copyists and authors.

        Some items of very direct interest could be Paul apparently claiming to write a letter or two in his own hand; Jesus’ important problems with “scribes,” etc… Though at the moment I’m ultimately interested in the more general “scribal” characteristics of the authors of the Bible. And here? Exactly how they differ from copyists.

        In the past I’ve 5) taught a course in part on these subjects, while doing research on related topics in a university very close to Israel.

        So for once, I may actually have some rather directly relevant academic experience here.

      • CG: I congratulate you on your studies, which make it all the more curious that you seem to think that you know enough about other matters to speak confidently. But to refer to Paul as a “scribe” is misleading. If we use the word in the Jewish sense, meaning an expert in Torah, perhaps. But if we use the term the way papyrologists do, meaning someone who copies texts, then, no, he wasn’t one. You need to familiarize yourself with the composition habits of ancient Roman-era authors (e.g., they didn’t typically write their own texts but dictated them to assistants/slaves). In short, figures such as Paul do NOT rightly feature in discussion of Roman-era copyists. Let’s move on. You keep going in circles. I think you should drop what is an informed line of assertions.

  2. Definitely makes more sense than a scribe, sorry, copyist, authorising themselves to just add in whole phrases. Take Jesus’ bloody sweating in Luke for instance.


  3. Dr. Griffin Gaddie permalink

    Thank you for this useful distinction.

    It seems clear there were many “scribes” who were not just copyists. But who were actively reading – and thoughtfully changing – parts of some earlier writings. And I find that class of scribes to be particularly interesting and important. Since they may have now and then significantly influenced content.

    • Dr. Gaddie: “Scribes” suggests scholars such as those trained in Torah. Copyists copied. Readers studied texts and could make changes. We know this precisely because they were not able to change the entire tradition, and so such changes show up readily. And can be dealt with in the preparation of a critical edition of a work such as the text of the Gospels. Not to worry.

      • That often seens true. Though as you yourself recently said, some writers like Paul, as many scholars today note, seem to have “appropriated” scripture. An idea which many find interesting and potentially important.

        Writers like Paul – or Origin – seem to approve of, say, taking earlier scriptures not literally, but as metaphors for spiritual things? A development or transformation which many Christian churches regard as very positive.

      • Once again, you’re confusing things. The USE/INTERPRETATION of texts, e.g., by Paul, is altogether different from the COPYING/TRANSMISSION of texts by copyists and readers. Do, please, try to stay on topic. This gets tedious!!

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