Saturday, February 12, 2005

Book Review: Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture

The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: the Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament
Bart D. Ehrman

Reviewed by Michael Turton

The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: the Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, offers a simultaneous presentation of methodologies for performing text criticism, a glimpse into the theological controversies of early Christianity, and a discussion of the evolution of the early Christian texts. Ehrman's view is that the instability of the early texts is matched by the instability of the scribes, who did not make changes in any systematic way, oftimes ignoring what might appear to modern readers to be dangerous passages, while at the same time working over the most minor prepositions several times. Despite the ubiquity of textual alterations, and their deliberate nature, Ehrman emphasizes that scribes do not appear to have been motivated by malice (there are few cases of deliberate changes of meaning so that the text says the opposite of what a natural reading might make it say). Instead, orthodox corrupters of the text generally changed it to bring it in line with what they thought it should be saying. Ehrman points out that even as orthodox apologists claimed their opponents were corrupting the text, they also acknowledged that their enemies felt they were only correcting them. Surely the orthodox were no different themselves, Ehrman argues.

The work is divided into 6 chapters, the meat of which are four chapters on textual corruptions aimed at Adoptionism, Separationism (Ehrman's term for a loose collection of alternative Christianities), Docetism, and Patripassianism. The focus is on changes in the Canonical gospels and, to a lesser extent, the non-Pauline epistles. The letters of Paul, while discussed, are generally presented as secondary examples of major points. In fact, Ehrman consistently ignores the major questions of Pauline interpolations (for example, 1 Thess 2:14-16; 1 Thess is not even mentioned in the book!).

Despite the eye-catching title, which contains the tantalizingly explosive word "corruption," the volume is a model of scholarly restraint, focusing largely on textual controversies more of interest to text critics than lay readers. Ehrman is intent on establishing that many of textual changes that other scholars have dismissed as "harmonizations" or "errors" actually have an underlying apologetic thrust logic that betrays their deliberate nature. The book contains long sections aimed at establishing Ehrman's arguments against critics and against the consensus, often with the simple goal of showing that an alteration was deliberate apologetic attempt to render the text unusable to "heretics" rather than a simple act of harmonization. These passages are of great value for their methodological skill and critical depth, and will repay close study.

Part of the reason that so many textual critics have missed the deliberate nature of textual alterations by the early scribes, Ehrman argues, is that the proto-orthodox Church's position on the nature of Jesus was fundamentally paradoxical. On one side Jesus had to be a real living human, while on the other, he had to be god, and both at the same time. This paradox acted as a brake on orthodox corruption by limiting its extent. If reinforcing Jesus' humanity, proto-orthodox scribes could not go too far, or they would create ammunition for other Christians who felt Jesus was just a man. By the same token, Jesus' divinity had to be carefully handled, or textual support would be offered to those who believed that Jesus' humanity was an illusion.

Further fallout from this position was that changes are often haphazard and lacking in clear direction, since they can go either way. Some changes reinforce Jesus' humanity, others his divinity, aimed as they were at different types of "heresy." The reason that there are no systematic changes is that there was no systematic opposition; all heresies had to be accounted for in the textual controversies. Thus, the only direction of change was in the direction of compromise, a direction that is hard to see since it naturally rejects identifiable extremes.

As far it as it goes, this is a useful work, especially on the methodological front. The problem for this reviewer is that it doesn't go far enough. By pointing to strong tendencies in the orthodox Church for adjusting the gospels to reinforce the orthodox view, Ehrman automatically raises the issue of why those documents were written in the first place. Despite the clear demonstration of this overarching tendenz, Ehrman refrains from exploring its repercussions for the stories as a whole. The other problem, far more disturbing, and far more urgent, is the text of the Pauline letters. Ehrman essentially cops out by not exploring them in greater detail. Our only texts of the Pauline canon basically date from the start of the third century, yet Ehrman shows that the "corruption" of the scriptures was well under way by then. It is hard to avoid concluding that the Pauline canon must be extensively booby-trapped against heretics as well (Ehrman points to numerous minor emendations) but there is simply no discussion of this. Indeed, the issue is not even raised. That is why, in the final analysis, this book should probably be entitled The Orthodox Corruption of the Gospels.


FJ said...

Good Heavens! Were so many words ever written to obfuscate a subject? Why not call a spade a shovel?

A review of a review is what this is, I suppose, but there was too much language to say too little. I have NO sense of what the book was about at all!


Anonymous said...

Excellent review. Had planned to read the book but my take-away from the review is what my take-away from the book will be, making me think that is isn't worth the time.