May 222012

The New Testament III: The Scribes

by Alan Brain
 
History of the bible

A scribe copying.

This is the third chapter, out of a series of ten, on the history of the Bible, specifically the New Testament. Every time we read a book we trust in it being error-free because we know that, before being manufactured in a printing press, the text was verified with the author or the editor.

In the 1st century, when the epistles, the gospels and other Christian writings appeared, there was a different reality. Back then, writing was handmade in rolls of papyrus, a thick paper made of sheets of a water plant that grows in the Nile river. There were no printing presses, no Internet, no digital documents, and the only way to reproduce one of those manuscripts was to copy it by hand, word by word, as per the original.

If someone wrote a text, perhaps the author would read it before a group of friends and would then make a few copies in papyrus rolls for distribution. Back then, this was “publishing a book”. This might be how the gospels or the epistles written by the first Christian leaders were “published”: One original and a few copies. However, the demand for these manuscripts was ever increasing. The new Christian communities needed a copy of these epistles or gospels circulating from Rome to Antioch because they would certify their beliefs and would become the core of their debates and rituals. The possibilities were few: Either they paid a professional scribe, who made a living by copying texts from a papyrus, to make a new copy, or one of the members of the community would have to do the job.

For those historians who study the first “Christian scribes”, the original papyruses of the epistles and gospels were mostly copied by the same people who needed them and who were forced to act as scribes without being professionals. They were educated Christians, maybe part of a wealthy class, who offered their houses for community meetings and had access to a high-level education, which allowed them to read and write.

Codex Vaticanus detail History of the Bible

Detail of the papyrus collection called “Codex Vaticanus”, showing the “continuous writing” in Greek. This Codex has been paleographically dated around the IV century, and contains most of the Bible books.

This was no easy task. The copies of the first Christian documents were made in Greek because the originals were written in Greek, and they were made using a type of writing called “scripto continua”. This type of writing did not use punctuation marks, did not make a difference between capital letters and lower case letters, and, most importantly, it removed all the separation spaces between words. Reading an article like that was very hard, and transcribing it without mistakes was even worse.

For Bart Ehrman, this task was so complicated and demanded so much attention for the scribes to remain alert and avoid making mechanical transcription mistakes that in some old manuscripts we can find phrases such as: “End of the manuscript, thanks God”. Even experienced and competent scribes made mistakes, but of another kind. Sometimes they just modified the text because they thought it should be changed, or because they considered the passage was wrong, or because they found what they considered to be a contradiction. Origen of Alexandria (120-180), one of the fathers of the Catholic Church of the II century, once wrote about the copies of the gospels that were being made back then.

Commentary on the Gospel o Matthew, Book XIV, 15: 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.

In the Codex Vaticanus, one of the oldest manuscript collections dated around the IV century, we found an example of how scribes changed texts.   In the first verse of the “Epistle to the Hebrews” there is a passage that reads: “He who holds everything together through his powerful words”. This text was changed over and over by different scribes until one of them added a foot note to the manuscript with his thoughts on the previous scribe: “Silly rascal, keep the old text, do not change it”.

 

“Appearance to Mary Magdalene”, Duccio di Buoninsegna History of the Bible

“Appearance to Mary Magdalene”, Duccio di Buoninsegna.

The last twelve verses of the Gospel of Mark

The chaos created by the work of the scribes who copied the Christian texts is exemplified in the last twelve verses of the Gospel of Mark. We all know that the Gospel of Mark ends with the resurrection of Jesus and his appearance before Mary Magdalene, two walking men and his disciples. If we read any serious version of the Bible we will notice that in the ninth verse of chapter XVI of the Gospel of Mark there is a note from the editor, very similar to this:

This ending, verses nine to twenty, is canonical and inspired but Mark’s authorship cannot be proven. It is left out in many very important manuscripts, such as the Vatican and the Sinaitic.

For most of the New Testament scholars, the last twelve verses of the Gospel of Mark (XVI,9-20) were pieces added later on to the original work and they were not written by the same author of said gospel. This would be the original ending:

Mark XVI, 8:
 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

So, if for these scholars, the earliest verifiable form of the Gospel of Mark ended in chapter XVI, verse 8, why are the twelve verses, 9-20, still in our bibles? Many “editorial boards” of the bibles we know decided, in deference to the evident age of the twelve verses and their significance in the gospel tradition, to include them and warn the reader about their alternative authorship, with a short footnote. This is, they might not be original, but since everybody is talking about them, why shouldn’t we leave them?

The case of the adulteress

The same happened with the story of the adulteress in the beginning of the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John. Those who study the New Testament have no doubt this passage was not written by the author of the Gospel of John. It was an addition that appeared in the manuscripts as of the IV century and was omitted in most of the oldest manuscripts.

“Jesus and the Adulteress”, Rembrandt. History of the Bible

“Jesus and the Adulteress”, Rembrandt.

Some theories maintain that this passage was removed from the gospel during the first centuries because of how easily Jesus forgave the adulteress, which was irreconcilable with the discipline of the Catholic Church back then. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), best known as Saint Augustine, addressed this issue in one of his works.

On Adulterous Marriages II, 7: Certain persons of little faith or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if He who had said ‘sin no more’ had granted permission to sin.

This passage also remains in our bibles for the same reason. It’s if like someone would have said: How are we supposed to remove the adulteress off Jesus’ life if everybody knows the story?

Bruce Metzger, “Un comentario textual sobre el nuevo testamento en griego”, 1971:  Although the Committee was unanimous that the pericope was originally no part of the Fourth Gospel, in deference to the evident antiquity of the passage a majority decided to print it, enclosed within double square brackets, at its traditional place following John VII, 52.

Such was the situation of the Christian texts during the first centuries. The manuscripts might have not been written by the author to whom they were attributed, they could have transcription errors, they could be added or removed by the scribes and, apart from that, as we’ll see in the next article on the history of the Bible, they could be deliberately modified so as to support a particular doctrine.

(The Bible quotes correspond to the New Revised Standard Version Holy Bible with Apocrypha. Oxford University Press, 1989. We have also used, as a support in case of discrepancy, The Word Study Greek-English New Testament with Complete Concordance de Paul R. McReynolds, Tyndale House Publishers, 1999.)

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Opinions about this story
  1. 1

    Regarding the manuscripts of Mark: you stated that footnotes in “any serious version of the Bible” state that verses 9-20 are “left out in many very important manuscripts, such as the Vatican and the Sinaitic.”

    Either you are lying, or you are misinformed. Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus (the two copies called “the Vatican and the Sinaitic” in your statement) are the only two Greek manuscripts of Mark in which the text clearly ends at the end of 16:8. In addition, in Vaticanus the copyist left a special prolonged blank space after 16:8, and in Sinaiticus, the four pages containing Mark 14:54-Luke 1:56 are replacement-pages; they were not written by the same copyist who wrote the text on the surrounding pages.

    Only three other manuscripts produced before the 700′s do not include at least part of verses 9-20: the Old Latin Codex Bobbiensis (from c. 430), the Sinaitic Syriac, and one Sahidic manuscript (of uncertain date, but possibly from the 400′s). That’s it. The claim about “many very important manuscripts” lacking Mk. 16:9-20 is false.

    Why are you not telling your readers the truth: that over 1,500 Greek copies include Mark 16:9-20? Why don’t you mention the testimony of Justin, Tatian, and Irenaeus in the 100′s (over a century before the production of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) in support of the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20 in their copies? I suspect it is because you have been misinformed on this subject, like many other commentators who do not do their own research on this sort of thing.

    Please study this some more and, in the meantime, stop spreading misinformation!

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

    • Alan Brain Alan Brain says:

      Hi,

      First of all, let me thank you for taking the time to read and leave a comment.

      Regarding your comment I should say that I’m neither lying or misinformed.

      The greek manuscripts that contains fragments of the NT are more than 5,000. If we include the NT manuscripts written in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian or Georgian, we can reach a number around tens of thousands.

      We should remember that most of those manuscripts do not contain a complete gospel and most of them have been written after 1,000 a.D.

      Also, we do not have any manuscripts of Mark written before the third century.

      As far as I know, E.J.Brill is preparing a book about the discovery of six second century manuscripts in 2012, that will challenge the position of P52 as the oldest manuscript and most interesting, one of those six manuscripts have some fragments of the gospel of Mark. This discovery was announced by Daniel B. Wallace some months ago.

      The oldest manuscripts containing the gospel of Mark are the Codex Sinaiticus (circa 370 CE), Codex Vaticanus (circa 325 CE) and the papyrus classified as P45 from the beginning of the third century (c. AD 200–250).

      P45 does not have the complete gospel of Mark, so we do not have the longer ending here.

      In the Codex Vaticanus, the last verse of Mark is 16:8. After that verse, there is a blank space. Its true that some scholars have argued that the blank space is enough to contain the other known verses of Mark, that is not a definitive answer because the reality is that some columns of the cancel sheet of Mark ending, column 4 til column 5 line 10, have been compressed accommodating around 707 letters. Later from Mark from 15:19 (column 5, line 11) the text is not compressed but has been stretched to fill more space than it normally would in order, possibly, to avoid leaving a blank space.

      If the scribe would have written the long ending of Mark in the blank space in compressed style it would have fit, but in the other hand, if the scribe would have written in the same style as the last columns, the longer ending of Mark would not have fit completely.

      In the Codex Sinaiticus, the scribe really made clear that the gospel ended there because he underlined the text with a decorative design and even wrote “The Gospel according to Mark”. Its true that, in this codex, the pages from Mark 14.54 til Luke 1.56 were replaced but we can not be sure that these replacement pages are related to the longer ending of Mark issue.

      For some scholars, the longer ending of Mark differs in vocabulary and style from the rest of the Gospel and that is not something to ignore.

      Also, we should say also, that there are other endings of Mark like the one in the Codex Bobiensis (circa 400 CE)

      As you say, there are over 1,700 Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark and that only a few of them end Mark in 16.8. Truth is that quantity is not quality and the three oldest manuscripts does not have the long ending and there are other not greek manuscripts that do not have the long ending.

      Scholar James H. Charlesworth pointed out that Codex Syriacus (5th-century ), Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Bobiensis (4th- or 5th-century) exclude the long ending of Mark. Furthermore, approximately 100 early Armenian translations, and the two oldest Georgian translations, also omit the long ending of Mark. There are some appendix Manuscripts written after Sinaiticus and that contain the long ending of Mark with a note from the Scribe in the margins that said
      the verses were not in older copies.

      So, when I said that “any serious version of the Bible” state that verses 9-20 are “left out in many very important manuscripts, such as the Vatican and the Sinaitic.”, that is true. Its true because most of the bibles like NIV,NRSV, KJB, and others have footnotes pointing out to this issue.

      As you can see, that is true and Im not certainly lying or desinformed.

      If something, the case of the longer ending of Mark is still not closed, and is similar to issues like the textus receptus vs the text of Westcott and Hort.

      So, I would like to thank you once more for your comment, it was a pleasure to remember some facts writing this answer, but I would say that if you really feel that what most of the bibles footnotes said about the longer ending of Mark is a lie, you should address them directly.

      My statement regarding the longer ending of Mark is quoting from what most of the bibles say: “any serious version of the Bible” state that verses 9-20 are “left out in many very important manuscripts, such as the Vatican and the Sinaitic.”

      So, before accusing me of lying or being misinformed, please address the right person… I did not wrote those footnotes.

      I’m reviewing the case here for you to understand my position but in this article the objective is just to raise the issue of the long process of changes, variants and manipulations that have been around the text of the New Testament.

      If you want to comment or debate about this issue without unnecessary aggressions, I would be happy to do it.

      Best Regards,

      • Alan,

        I appreciate your efforts to read up about the evidence pertaining to Mark 16:9-20, but you still have a long way to go. Your statements about Vaticanus are mixed up with statements that describe Codex Sinaiticus (it’s Sinaiticus, not Vaticanus, that has a replacement-sheet containing Mk. 14:54-Lk. 1:56).

        Also, it is incorrect to say that there are “other endings of Mark like the one in the Codex Bobiensis.” The “Shorter Ending” in Codex Bobiensis is the only ending that follows 16:8 that does not involve verses 9-20.

        Regarding the over 1,700 Greek manuscripts in which Mark 16:9-20 is included: while quantity is not quantity, quantity does mean something, as far as the transmission-history of the text is concerned. It means that Mark 16:9-20 is supported in all branches of the text, whereas the abrupt ending is confined mainly to one particular locale (Egypt). It is more probable that one locale contains an error than that all the others spontaneously produced the same error.

        Your claim that “approximately 100 early Armenian translations, and the two oldest Georgian translations, also omit the long ending of Mark” contains a confusion of terms. The Armenian evidence to which you refer consists of medieval Armenian manuscripts; they echo one translation, not 100 translations! Likewise you should refer to the two oldest Georgian /manuscripts/ of Mark. And since the Old Georgian version was translated from Armenian, it merely stands behind the Armenian version; the Old Georgian echoes the Armenian version; it is not an independent line of evidence (although some commentators apparently want to give that impression to their readers).

        You have been misinformed, and you are still being misinformed. Again I focus on the statement that Mark 16:9-20 is “left out in many very important manuscripts.” The total number of all manuscripts of Mark produced before the year 700, in any language, in which Mark’s text does not include verses 9-20, is five. Your claim about “many” such manuscripts is fiction. Consider: taking into consideration Greek and non-Greek manuscripts, we face two statements:

        Statement A: “Many manuscripts of Mark 16 produced before the year 700 do not include 16:9-20.”
        Statement B: “Five manuscripts of Mark 16 produced before the year 700 do not include 16:9-20.”

        The second statement is true. The first statement — the essence of which is your own statement — is false.

        I know that you did not write the footnotes that have misinformed you and given you false impression. I already have written to some of the commentators and Bible-annotators who have spread the misinformation and errors about Mark 16:9-20 that have misled you. Hopefully the notes will be improved. In their current state they are rather useless for people who want an accurate assessment of the relevant evidence.

        Yours in Christ,

        James Snapp, Jr.

      • Alan Brain Alan Brain says:

        Hi James,

        Thanks for your reply.

        First of all, let me tell you that somehow you got confused, you wrote:

        “Your statements about Vaticanus are mixed up with statements that describe Codex Sinaiticus (it’s Sinaiticus, not Vaticanus, that has a replacement-sheet containing Mk. 14:54-Lk. 1:56). “

        And I wrote:

        “In the Codex Sinaiticus, the scribe really made clear that the gospel ended there because he underlined the text with a decorative design and even wrote “The Gospel according to Mark”. Its true that, in this codex, the pages from Mark 14.54 til Luke 1.56 were replaced but we can not be sure that these replacement pages are related to the longer ending of Mark issue.”

        Unless my english is different than yours, you can read that what I wrote was that, Sinaiticus had the replacement pages.

        Anyway, sometimes, we just see what we want to see…

        And probably it is true that I have a long way to go. I would rather accept that I have a long way to go than to imply that I know everything about the ending of Mark when probably there will be always somebody that knows more than me…

        As for your comment that says:

        “Also, it is incorrect to say that there are “other endings of Mark like the one in the Codex Bobiensis.” The “Shorter Ending” in Codex Bobiensis is the only ending that follows 16:8 that does not involve verses 9-20. “

        You are right, k (Codex Bobiensis) is the only manuscript that ends with a different ending and does not have verses from 9-20, but there are other different version of those last verses. Maybe I chose the wrong word, maybe I should have said that there are different versions of the last part of Mark. We have, according to Bruce Metzger, four uncial greek manuscripts of the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, not a few ethiopic manuscripts, the old latin K and some others manuscripts that continue after verse 8 with the following:

        “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

        Furthermore, we have Codex Washingtonianus that includes the following right after ver. 14:

        “And they excused themselves, saying, ‘This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits [or, does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God]. Therefore reveal thy righteousness now — thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, ‘The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more, in order that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness which is in heaven.’ “

        So, I’m not wrong. There are other ends, not precisely the very end of the gospel, but there are different versions of the last verses.

        Again, I have not been misinformed, it just happens that in this issue you do not have the absolute truth and my position is valid as well as yours.

        In my opinion, the longer ending of Mark is not original. I already explained, in my previous reply, the case of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, but there are other reasons.

        I will quote Bruce Metzger, since I agree completely with his analysis:

        “The longer ending (of Mark), though current in a variety of witnesses, some of them ancient, must also be judged by internal evidence to be secondary. (a) The vocabulary and style of verses 9-20 are non-Markan. (e.g. απιστεω, βλαπτω, βεβαιοω, επακολουθεω, θεαομαι, μετα ταυτα, πορευομαι, συνεργεω, υστερον are found nowhere else in Mark; and θανασιμον and τοις μετ αυτου γενομενοις, as designations of the disciples, occur only here in the New Testament). (b) The connection between ver. 8 and verses 9-20 is so awkward that it is difficult to believe that the evangelist intended the section to be a continuation of the Gospel.

        Thus, the subject of ver. 8 is the women, whereas Jesus is the presumed subject in ver. 9; in ver. 9 Mary Magdalene is identified even though she has been mentioned only a few lines before (15.47 and 16.1); the other women of verses 1-8 are now forgotten; the use of αναστας δε and the position of πρωτον are appropriate at the beginning of a comprehensive narrative, but they are ill-suited in a continuation of verses 1-8. In short, all these features indicate that the section was added by someone who knew a form of Mark that ended abruptly with ver. 8 and who wished to supply a more appropriate conclusion. In view of the inconcinnities between verses 1-8 and 9-20, it is unlikely that the long ending was composed ad hoc to fill up an obvious gap; it is more likely that the section was excerpted from another document, dating perhaps from the first half of the second century.

        Thus, on the basis of good external evidence and strong internal considerations it appears that the earliest ascertainable form of the Gospel of Mark ended with 16.8. At the same time, however out of deference to the evident antiquity of the longer ending and its importance in the textual tradition of the Gospel, the Committee decided to include verses 9-20 as part of the text, but to enclose them within double square brackets to indicate that they are the work of an author other than the evangelist.”

        So, the statement “Mark 16:9-20 is left out in many very important manuscripts.”, even not being mine, can be true and that will depend on what you consider to be “very important manuscripts”.

        In this regard, most likely, we are not going to reach an agreement because both positions have enough evidence to support its case. However, you invalidate my position as mere disinformation.

        I could classify your version as misinformed but choose not to do so. I’m just trying to explain to you that having different points of view does not mean that it is right to disqualify the other with adjectives.

        The irony here is that you are a Christian and I’m not…

        Best Regards,

        Alan

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