The New Testament III: The Scribes
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.
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”.
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.
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.)
- The New Testament I: The First Scriptures
- The New Testament II: The Gospels
- The Historical Jesus Christ
- What is the history of our Bible?
- Jesus Christ had siblings – Part I
- Jesus Christ had siblings – Part II