Copying the Bible

Reading the Bible as we know it isn’t possible without the work of countless scholars who, over the course of the last few centuries, have devoted their professional lives to making it possible for us to do so. This was the point I tried to make in my last post and here I want to elaborate a bit on what that scholarship actually looks like. In short, I want to ask the following question: What sort of work is required in order to give us our Bibles?

I’ll try and answer that question with my next post but first some background.

From the beginning Christianity was a religion of the book. That is, from the outset Christianity was a movement that was centered around a number of writings that the various churches scattered throughout the Mediterranean found authoritative. This can be best explained by remembering that Christianity began as a Jewish movement and Judaism was also a bookish religion. Thus the early Christians, seeing themselves as a part of the Jewish tradition, understood the Hebrew Bible (that is, what Christians today call the “Old Testament”) as very much their own book. We could say that the early Church’s “Bible” was a form of what we today call the Old Testament. There was no New Testament.

It didn’t take long, however, for specifically Christian writings to surface. The apostle Paul began to write around the year 50 CE (some 20 years after Jesus was crucified) and the gospels that are included in our canon were soon to follow, being written sometime between 70-95 CE (Mark being the earliest and John the latest). These writings, along with countless others, many of which didn’t make it into our New Testament, quickly took on an aura of authority and so began to be widely copied and circulated throughout the Roman world.

I want to emphasize that last part: these texts were copied by hand. In a world without the luxury of the printing press, there was simply no other way to copy texts but by rewriting them by hand. This was no doubt a tedious and time consuming task.

But who was responsible for copying the texts of the early Church?

In a brilliant little book called Misquoting Jesus, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman attempts to answer this very question. One of the things that Ehrman makes clear is that outside the Christian community in the rest of the Roman world, texts were copied by professional scribes or literate household slaves. Generally speaking, the copyists were doing there work for others whether their patron or master. Within the Christian community, however, the texts were copied by those who themselves wanted the text. If a letter or gospel showed up in a Christian community and it was desired then a literate Christian from that community would take the time to copy the book by hand.

It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see how quickly something like this could get out of hand. And get out of hand it did. The Christian theologian and scholar Origen, writing some 200 years after the earliest Christian texts were produced had this to say about the matter:

The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please. (Origen’s Commentary on Matthew as quoted in Ehrman)

Origen mentions two types of textual alterations here. The first might be described as a simple slip of the pen on the part of the copyist and the second is a blatant changing of what the text said in order to, presumably, bring the text more into alignment with the copyist’s own theological agenda. Both were commonplace in the early days of these texts.

The result of these alterations, whether the result of an honest mistake or a blatant and purposeful changing of the texts, is that today we are left with thousands of different manuscripts and fragments most of which differ from each other in one way or another.

The task of the scholars whose job it is to help produce the Bibles that you and I read, then, is to figure out which of these manuscripts most likely represent the earliest form of the book under consideration. A number of brilliant techniques have been developed by scholars in order to aid them in this task and it’s these techniques that I’ll highlight in my next post.