Saturday, September 09, 2006

Corruption of Scripture: An Aside

As a sidebar to my investigation of the Bible's portayal of God's authority, I wanted to think a bit about the idea of the corruption of scripture.

Bart Ehrman has a book titled The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. This is obviously a polemical title. It appeals to a paranoia in our culture. This idea of the orthodox corruption of scripture popped into my head tonight as I was reading Richard Nelson's The Historical Books. In the section I was reading, Nelson was talking about the historical development of biblical texts. Our modern idea of authorship is that of a single person sitting down and writing a book. But biblical books, Nelson says, tend to be products of a community over time. The text is tinkered with as needed before it reaches its canonical form. For most scholars, I take it, this is a commonplace.

So here's the thing. The title of Ehrman's book says that early orthodox Christians corrupted the scriptures. But I would claim that the orthodox community produced the scriptures. This is the way biblical books are "written", right? The community has a book that they use in their life of faith. Something isn't quite as the community believes it should be, so they fix it.

If we look at the biblical book, whatever it may be, as a book of faith meant to serve a community of faith then there is absolutely nothing wrong with the community tailoring that book to match its teaching. It's what we would expect. To say that the book was "corrupted" would seem to imply that there was an earlier time when an author produced a book that was flawless (dare I say "inerrant") in its portrayal of the earlier faith, and a later community with different faith changed it (thus introducing error).

The problem, I suspect, is that Ehrman wants to use the Bible as a historical source to establish facts about the early Christians, whereas the early Christians wanted to use it as a book of faith.

Obviously, if we were to start editing the Bible today to make it say what we wanted it to say, that would be a bit suspect. But at some point the process of redacting was not only permissible, but was in fact necessary to produce the optimal product. The question, I suppose, is what is the statute of limitations on making changes to Holy Scripture?

But I suspect this is a wrong approach to the question. More important is the intent. Is the Bible being changed to make it a more suitable source for winning an argument? (I think this is what Ehrman actually claims.) Or is it being tidied up to make it a more accurate reflection of the faith of the community?


a. steward said...

Do you see scripture as normative? Or is it one resource among many, albeit a particularly valuable one? Do you hold to Byzantine priority? The church, it seems, was uncomfortable with certain scandalous readings. Mark's gospel, for instance, has overwhelming evidence testifying to 16.8 being the "original" ending. It seems like what happened was that scribes outside of the Alexandrian strain took offense at this, were scandalized by the extreme call to radical discipleship, as Hays has it. At any rate, my point is that alot of times textual variants are motivated by offended scribes, and I don't really think this is the sort of unanimous decision on behalf of orthodoxy that you seem to imply.
Also, I just read an essay by David Yeago that talked about the way that Luther saw the church as the recipitent of salvation, and in this grid understanding the church itself being subject to the Word, and not simply the individual as subject to the word of the church. It's hard for me to understand how the church can be subject to a word it itself has created. This is a problem because the word that the church supposedly created seems to testify pretty strongly to a Word that stands over, criticizes, subverts, and is generally against the sort of things that humans come up with on their own. Or maybe this isn't a relevant contradiction.
Also, alot of the books within scripture (i.e. the Apocalypse) seem pretty well tied to an individual, whose style of writing bears a good deal of continuity, to the extent that it can be recognized as primarily the work of one author. In this regard it is irrelevant whether he is acting on behalf of the church and the developing orthodoxy - he created that work, and so editing this text with the intent of creating the impression that the "original" author wrote it is an act of violence, one that ought to be mitigated by the intervention of textual critics who, motivated by Christian love for the voice of their fellow human, attempt to recover his voice. (I don't mean this to be the sort of wrong-headed arguments for authorial intent advocated by Hirsch and the rest). I realize that for works like Isaiah this argument isn't particularly relevant, but you're not talking about the OT anyhow.

Andy said...

Hi Adam. Thanks for stopping by.

I definitely see scripture as normative. But when does it become normative and when does it become scripture? The common evangelical appeal to "the original autographs" is left wanting because there are no such works. If we press the appeal to original autographs too far we end up with some version of Mark and Q being authoritative and we can discard Matthew and Luke. And, of course, this is being tried in some quarters.

So what is canonical? What is normative? Do you dismiss Matthew 28:19-20 on the suspicion that it is a later addition? What about the prologue to John? The story of the woman caught in adultery? How does that differ from the endings to Mark?

Honestly, I have tended to disregard the endings to Mark as illegitimate in the past. The "original" ending appeals to me much more on a strictly literary basis. But now I think perhaps I need to rethink the canonicity of the endings, even as late as they are.

The problem of the Church being subject to a canon of scripture that it created (it certainly didn't create the Word) is interesting, but it's not a problem that will go away. The Church and its scriptures grew up together, both being nutured by the same Spirit, and each participated in the formation of the other.

My inclination, as a Lutheran, is to say that it's not ultimately the text that is authoritative. It is the Word which is conveyed by the text. On the surface this seems to raise all kinds of problems about how I can play fast and loose with the text and claim that anything I choose is the Word, but that's only a problem if the Word doesn't really have power and if it doesn't really accomplish that which God intends.

So applying this to the current discussion, the Word of the Lord comes to the Church. The Church writes books to convey this Word. The Church finds minor discrepancies between the texts they have created and their experience of the Word, so they touch up the texts in accordance with the "rule of faith." It's not a perfect model, but it works for me (notice the similarity between this and the definition of the canon).

The recognition of the myth of the uniform Church, of course, raises some more issues here.

a. steward said...

Your explanation makes sense to me, and I do certainly respect your position. I particularly appreciate your comment that "that's only a problem if the Word doesn't really have power and if it doesn't really accomplish that which God intends." I can't hardly disagree with the notion that God can and will communicate through any arbitrary means that strikes His fancy. What it comes down to for me, however, is that the means he has chosen, the canon of scripture, explicitly presents itself as the word of God specially communicated through particular authors. The theory of composition you espouse seems to make a facade of the final form of the text - playing off a multigenerational process as the work of an individual in the tradition of the prophets. I think that 1st century Romans would see this sort of thing as just as decietful as we moderns would. I am basically quoting Witherington's treatment of pseudonymous authorship in The Paul Quest.

Having grown up Conservative Baptist, I have a hard time accepting the idea that we have any access to the (W)ord apart from the (w)ord, especially not one which could so verify our perception of it that we could use it to critique the (w)ord. But then again, I did spend four years in a pentecostal church.

As for Mt 28.19-20, there is no manuscript evidence that would cause me to doubt its originality; the same goes for John's prologue, which flows seamlessly with the style and thematic elements of the rest of his gospel; Jn 7.53-8.11, however, is almost certainly not the work of John, since it is missing from the early manuscripts of each of the major copy centers. Although I think it highly likely that this is a reliable oral tradition, that Jesus may have had a very similar encounter, John did not include it because it was not a part of the theological agenda of his presentation of Jesus. So, as beautiful as the story is, I do think it should be relegated to commentaries [although there is that problem of offending the church by telling someone they have the wrong Bible...]. I think this example is the only one similar to that of Mark's ending.

Pastor David Hansen said...

As I havce read Ehrman, much can be learned from his own faith history (at least, I seem to remember reading this, but my books are packed right now). As I recall, Prof. Ehrman was put off at an early age by a very aggresive, judgemental, form of Christianity. Since then, he has been on a quest to find other "Christianities."

To no one's surprise, as he went looking for diversity in the early church, Ehrman found it. The disturbing aspect of his research for me is the conclusions he then draws. Ehrman concludes that there was a conspiracy to exclude these other "Christianities" and even deny that they ever existed. Ehrman, along with Elaine Pagels and a number of other modern scholars, sees "The Church" as the ultimate conspiracy.

Of course, other logical conclusion could be that, of all the "Christianities" present in the first two centuries AD, the one affirmed at Nicaea and by the broader tradition was more authentic to the witness of the apostles and those who witnessed the life and ministry of Jesus.

Or, even more upsetting to those who want to expunge the word "heresy" from our lexicon is the conclusion that the Holy Spirit guided the processes which led to the formation of the canon and the dominance of what we now call the orthodox tradition of the church.

Andy said...

My understanding is that Ehrman was a conservative evangelical when he began working as a scholar, but he lost his faith through scholarship. I think he hasn't quite overcome the conservative approach to the texts, which ironically leads to the evaluation he has of the history.

That is, I think it is his previous belief in the existence of an inerrant Bible that shook him so much when he learned about the history of the texts. He has basically accepted the scholarly consensus about the development of the Bible without giving up the "inerrant or secular" dichotomy that is often characteristic of conservative evangelicalism.

Andy said...

By the way, Adam, if you happen to wonder back and see this comment, it didn't occur to me at first that I should elaborate. I didn't intend to suggest a mechanism whereby God was communicating "through any arbitrary means that strikes His fancy." When I distinguish between the Word and the word, I do not thereby mean to say that the Word comes to us by arbitrary means and thereby judges the text of the Bible. Rather my intention was to say that the Word comes to us through the word and thereby reveals its meaning to us.

This is, of course, dependent on the Lutheran concept of the Bible as the cradle in which Christ is laid. It is in the word that we meet the Word.