Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

Posted: December 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

There is a great deal of attention and concern given today to textual variation in the Holy Scriptures. There are even books written by people who have lost Christian faith because they held to anachronistic and ultimately unsustainable views about the Bible. So I wanted to devote a post to the manner in which ancient texts were transmitted and preserved, placing the development of what we call the Bible in its proper context.

First, it’s important to recognize that unlike some sacred texts (the Qur’an is one good example) our Holy Scriptures were not written by one person at one point in time. The development of what we call the Bible today is a complex topic, but it certainly has many authors and developed over a long period of time. All of it captures a significant part of a larger oral tradition. Basically, the text of the Holy Scriptures functions as an integral piece of that oral tradition. Some parts, especially from what we call the Old Testament, developed over time — sometimes centuries. The New Testament, by contrast, was largely written by specific individuals and did not particularly develop over time. However, it all fits within a larger tradition and loses its meaning if removed from that tradition.

Next, as we’ve discussed before, these texts were all written and copied by hand. We have a difficult time grasping the difficulty of that task. It was extremely labor-intensive. And the materials were fragile and degraded over time, especially if handled and read frequently. Nor was there any sense in the ancient world that absolute verbatim accuracy in the copy was required. It’s not just a case of scribal error — though that certainly occurred. For instance, it’s possible that John did not originally include the story of the adulterous woman in John 8. It’s possible that a scribe a century later or so, living within a community immersed in the Johannine oral tradition decided that story also needed to be preserved. If so, by accepting the revised Gospel, the Church accepted that story as well. It’s not somehow of lesser importance or reliability. In fact, we would owe a debt to that scribe for preserving that piece of the tradition for us in the text.

However, variations in the text were simply not seen as a problem by anyone in the ancient world. We have homilies preserved by, for example, St. John Chrysostom where he encounters variations in a text. He simply notes that he has also seen it rendered this other way. Sometimes he’ll draw a spiritual point from both variant readings. But it doesn’t bother him when it happens. Now, there is a great deal of fidelity in the Christian manuscripts of the New Testament. Obviously care was lavished on their preservation. But they are a synergy between man and God both in their production and in their preservation. Like the Incarnation itself, the Holy Scriptures and the Church that provides the context for them are as fully human as they are divine — with all which that implies.

I’ll close with one more observation on textual variation. If you read the notes in a modern Bible, you’ll see comments that say things like “the oldest manuscripts do not include this.” Sometimes implied in that is the idea that the older a manuscript is the more accurate it is. But the truth is that we simply don’t know. As I’ve mentioned, the more a text was handled, the more it deteriorated. So it’s equally reasonable to assume that an old, variant manuscript survived because it was recognized as a poor copy and thus wasn’t used. We just don’t know. The only real guide we have lies in the reading or readings that the Church has accepted as valid or useful for edification.

If you ask the wrong questions, you’re unlikely to find the right answers. And a lot of the modern discussion on textual variation in parts of Christianity seems to flow from the wrong questions.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 4

Posted: December 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 4

19.  The soul’s salvation is the consummation of faith (cf. 1 Pet. 1:9). This consummation is the revelation of what has been believed. Revelation is the inexpressible interpenetration of the believer with the object of belief and takes place according to each believer’s degree of faith (cf. Rom. 12:6). Through that interpenetration the believer finally returns to his origin. This return is the fulfillment of desire. Fulfillment of desire is ever-active repose in the object of desire. Such repose is eternal uninterrupted enjoyment of this object. Enjoyment of this kind entails participation in supra-natural divine realities. This participation consists in the participant becoming like that in which he participates. Such likeness involves, so far as this is possible, an identity with respect to energy between the participant and that in which he participates by virtue of the likeness. This identity with respect to energy constitutes the deification of the saints. Deification, briefly, is the encompassing and fulfillment of all times and ages, and of all that exists in either. This encompassing and fulfillment is the union, in the person granted salvation, of his real authentic origin with his real authentic consummation. This union presupposes a transcending of all that by nature is essentially limited by an origin and a consummation. Such transcendence is effected by the almighty and more than powerful energy of God, acting in a direct and infinite manner in the person found worthy of this transcendence. The action of this divine energy bestows a more than ineffable pleasure and joy on him in whom the unutterable and unfathomable union with the divine is accomplished. This, in the nature of things, cannot be perceived, conceived or expressed.

I don’t have any comments on this text and I’m not even entirely sure I understand it. Actually, I’m fairly certain I don’t understand it. But I’ve been trying to wrap my little head around theosis or deification for years now, so I thought I would go ahead and publish this text. Maybe somebody reading might want to take a stab at it in the comments.


Ancient Texts 3 – Scribes

Posted: December 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 3 – Scribes

There are a lot of modern misconceptions about the nature of the content of ancient texts. For instance, I’ve seen depictions of St. Paul or a Gospel writer hunched over a table writing by candlelight. That’s almost certainly not how the texts were developed. In fact, Luke/Acts are probably the only two New Testament texts that may have been directly penned by their author.

St. Luke was highly educated in philosophy, medicine, and the arts. In addition to working as a practicing physician, it appears that he also may have worked as a scribe. He may even have served as St. Paul’s scribe for some of his letters. (I’m using scribe in its more common ancient context and not in its specific first century Jewish connotation, which is rather different.) So it’s virtually certain that he directly penned his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

While it’s very likely that Paul, the other epistle writers, and the writers of the Gospels other than Luke spoke Greek, the lingua franca of the Empire, with varying degrees of proficiency (and as a Roman citizen, Paul at least almost certainly spoke some Latin), their native language was Aramaic. While Paul and possibly some of the others had training in rhetoric, it’s unlikely they had training in the more specific craft of capturing that rhetoric in written form. We know that Paul used a scribe for his letters because he mentions that fact in some of them. It’s safe to assume the other authors did as well.

It’s important to understand that an ancient scribe was not like a more modern secretary taking dictation or shorthand — trying to capture what is said word for word. Rather, the job of a scribe was to find the best way to convey the thought and intent of the speaker in written form. In the case of the epistles and three of the Gospels, the scribe was likely also translating from the author’s native Aramaic to Greek. Even when not translating, the scribe was often responsible for choosing the best written words to communicate the desired thought. The act of composing a text was more of a synergy between the author and the scribe than a mechanical reproduction. (Apart from the fact that I don’t believe we have sufficient text to determine authorship from textual analysis alone for any of the New Testament texts, I also think it’s a futile quest for this reason. The same author working with a different scribe would produce a text with a somewhat different “voice.”)

The author and the scribe would work together to produce a text and then the text would be sent with someone who had been trained to properly deliver it to its recipients. Nobody who carried a letter or other text of any complexity in the ancient world was a mere delivery agent. They weren’t the ancient version of UPS or FedEx. Rather, they were the ones entrusted with the task of correctly presenting it orally. So it’s important to recognize, for instance, the true role of the deacon Phoebe carrying the letter to the Romans. She is the one who would have stood before the Christians in Rome and orally traditioned Paul’s teaching to them. It was a very important and even crucial role.

When discussing the texts of the Holy Scriptures, I find many people tend to make pretty anachronistic assumptions about the way they were composed. Hopefully this clarifies some of that confusion.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 3

Posted: December 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 3

17. Just as it is impossible for the eye to perceive sensible objects without the light of the sun, so the human intellect cannot engage in spiritual contemplation without the light of the Spirit. For physical light naturally illuminates the senses so that they may perceive physical bodies; while spiritual light illumines the intellect so that it can engage in contemplation and thus grasp what lies beyond the senses.

I appreciate St. Maximos’ comparison here between our ability to perceive with our physical and spiritual eyes. In both cases, we require illumination. Absent that illumination, we are in darkness.


Ancient Texts 2 – Nature and Composition

Posted: December 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 2 – Nature and Composition

Before we can explore the way texts were used in ancient, oral cultures, it’s important to understand their physical nature and the manner in which they were constructed. I’ve discovered over the years that something which is obvious or well-known for one person may not be known for another, so I’ll try to briefly cover all the main points. If you already know most of this, bear with me.

First, the two ancient media for texts (if you discount clay or stone engravings) were papyrus and parchment. Papyrus was developed in ancient Egypt from the pith of a plant that grew in the Nile region and became widely used across that region of the ancient world. Parchment was constructed from thin layers of animal skin (calf, sheep, or goat). Both tended to be somewhat fragile and subject to damage by the elements and both were expensive. The higher the quality, the more expensive they were.

Longer texts were originally maintained on scrolls. Scrolls tend to damage the material, especially at the ends where they were attached as they were rolled and unrolled. And scrolls were not necessarily easy to access. You couldn’t just flip to a particular page the way you can in a modern book. There was also a physical limit on the size of a scroll. (When we look at the development of what Christians call the Old Testament, there’s an interesting historical tidbit that flows from that fact.)

Around the first century BCE or CE, the idea of folding or stitching papyrus or parchment in a rectangular form called a codex developed. That form was widely adopted by early Christian writers and is obviously the predecessor of the modern book. A codex, however, was not as large as a modern book. The form wouldn’t physically support that size. That will be important to remember, especially when we consider the New Testament.

At least in part because of the expense, space was not wasted on ancient texts. Unlike your average Rob Bell book, most of the available material was typically covered in writing. Niceties like lower case and punctuation were also relatively late developing. So an ancient text typically was in all one case, with no punctuation, and no spaces between the words. (Ancient Hebrew didn’t even have vowels in its written form.) An overly simple example I’ve seen used to illustrate that point follows.

GODISNOWHERE

What does the above say? Does it say “God is now here?” Or does it say “God is nowhere?” Now that’s ridiculously simple and with any context at all, it wouldn’t be hard for any of us to figure out. But now imagine a large, complex text written like the above from edge to edge with no spacing, no breaks, no marks to indicate how it should be read and understood. Imagine this very post written in all caps with no spaces and no punctuation. Could you read it?

So how did texts work in the ancient world? It’s pretty straightforward, actually. Remember, these were oral cultures. The text was never meant to stand by itself. Instead it captured something that had been delivered orally or which was intended to be delivered orally. A person who knew how it was supposed to be read would orally present it to others who would learn the correct reading from the oral presentation. The text was not the delivery mechanism itself the way it is in a literate culture. Rather the text essentially formed the crib notes for the oral presentation. And the tradition of that oral presentation was then passed along with the text.

I don’t remember who it was, but there was one ancient Christian saint who was known in part because he could read the Holy Scriptures without his lips moving, that is without sounding it out as he read. Now, that seems unremarkable to those of us shaped within the context of a literate culture. But that was highly unusual in an oral culture. People were not shaped to think that way. And the texts themselves did not support it.

So when you pick up a Bible, there are some things you should now recognize about it. First, it was never a single book until pretty recent times. Instead, it was a collection of separate scrolls and codices. Those scrolls and codices were not divided into chapters and verses for easy reference for many years. Their early or original forms did not have any spaces between the words or any punctuation. When you read a modern Bible, even before you get into the issue of the way interpretation influences word selection in translation, it’s important to recognize that all of the punctuation, sentence structures, and paragraph breaks form an attempt to translate an oral tradition into a literate form.

As you can see, it’s a little silly to try to distinguish oral from written tradition. In the ancient world, it was all fundamentally oral tradition. The texts serve to capture part of the oral tradition in which they were embedded. Typically they formed a very important part of that tradition, else they would not have been preserved. But it’s important to place them in their proper ancient context.


Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Posted: December 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | 4 Comments »

I wanted to take a moment to thank those who do read my blog, whether you comment here or not. I deliberately chose a “boring” theme, do not pursue “hits” or an “audience”, and write posts that most people probably wouldn’t find interesting. If you read my stream of consciousness musings (other than my celiac-related posts) then you’re probably either family or a real-life friend. If you are someone who only knows me online and yet still reads my blog, please recognize that you’re probably a tad unusual. 😉 But I certainly appreciate you.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

It’s a short exclamation, but there is a world of meaning contained in it. This day, the day after Christmas, is the Synaxis of the Theotokos, I believe. The juxtaposition of the feasts should resonate in our minds and in our hearts. Sometimes I feel like I have relatively little to say, but I say it again and again in different ways. Maybe that’s how it is with all of us. We have the small window of our experience, but when others engage it, the ripples flow outward in ways we could never imagine.

If you would like to say Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, or offer any other sort of greeting, feel free to do so in the comments to this post.

Grace and peace to you all!


Weekend Update 12-25-2010

Posted: December 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Weekend Update | Comments Off on Weekend Update 12-25-2010

Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas! I hope that everyone is having a wonderful day today! Now on to the links and short thoughts from the past week.

The latest Glory to God podcast, You Never Pray Alone, is less than fifteen minutes long, but packs a lot into those minutes. The individual is preeminent in modern thought and consideration and that permeates much of modern Christianity. There is little room left for our common humanity. One great line from the podcast: The Church is what salvation looks like, as troubling a thought as that might be. And on this Christmas day, I also want to share Fr. Stephen’s blog post, The God Who Became Small.

I was appalled that House Republicans blocked the Child Marriage Act, a piece of international civil rights legislation that passed the Senate by unanimous consent. Just when I think they might have hit bottom, they manage to find new depths to which to sink.

And  Politifact has selected the Republican catch-phrase, a government takeover of health care, as the lie of the year. Of course, they only got away with it because such a large portion of our population seems willfully ignorant and disconnected from any meaningful sense of reality. Lies and propaganda are nothing new in politics, of course. But when half your population is gleefully drinking the koolaid, your country is in a dangerous place.

This article reminds me that I need to get Droid Wall or some similar iptables firewall installed and working on my Android phone soon. I don’t tend to use a lot of apps, but I would like to know what they are really doing.

CBS ran a PSA on celiac disease.

One of my first computers was a Commodore 64. (I cobbled together custom wiring for a used RGB monitor at one point, had a disk drive, and (since it only read one side of disks) had a punch so I could modify disks so I could flip them over and use the other side. A whole group of us used to gather around the monitor with one person ‘driving’ on the computer to play Bard’s Tale. Now a company is making a modern PC simulating the original C64. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted — even though I really have no use or need for another PC.

RIPE has published a handy-dandy IPv6 subnet card.

Sweet! I had no idea my Dad’s cookbook was reviewed in Texas Monthly back in the late 70s. I have copies of it and it’s still my first source when I want to cook Indian food. Google really brings buried things to light! My Mom’s play that year was also reviewed in Texas monthly. (I do remember that review.) Though the review was mixed, I was one of the four children in the chorus praised by the reviewer. I liked the play. Maybe my family had more to do with the development of the Montrose area art scene than I imagined.

The research on celiac disease continues to develop. In this article it seems like metabolic changes are in place before any villi damage occurs.

This Christmas Day, Fr. Thomas’ podcast, The Incarnation — Do We Really Believe It?, seems like a good listening choice.


Leo the Great of Rome, Homily 21, On the Nativity

Posted: December 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Leo the Great of Rome, Homily 21, On the Nativity

It seemed appropriate to me to share one of the great Nativity homilies on this Christmas Eve. May all who read enter into the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I. All share in the joy of Christmas

Our Savior, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fullness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered through that (nature) which he had conquered. And in this conflict undertaken for us, the fight was fought on great and wondrous principles of fairness; for the Almighty Lord enters the lists with His savage foe not in His own majesty but in our humility, opposing him with the same form and the same nature, which shares indeed our mortality, though it is free from all sin. Truly foreign to this nativity is that which we read of all others, “no one is clean from stain, not even the infant who has lived but one day upon earth” (Job 19.4). Nothing therefore of the lust of the flesh has passed into that peerless nativity, nothing of the law of sin has entered. A royal Virgin of the stem of David is chosen, to be impregnated with the sacred seed and to conceive the Divinely-human offspring in mind first and then in body. And lest in ignorance of the heavenly counsel she should tremble at so strange a result , she learns from converse with the angel that what is to be wrought in her is of the Holy Ghost. Nor does she believe it loss of honor that she is soon to be the Mother of God. For why should she be in despair over the novelty of such conception, to whom the power of the most High has promised to effect it. Her implicit faith is confirmed also by the attestation of a precursory miracle, and Elizabeth receives unexpected fertility: in order that there might be no doubt that He who had given conception to the barren, would give it even to a virgin.

II. The mystery of the Incarnation is a fitting theme for joy both to angels and to men

Therefore the Word of God, Himself God, the Son of God who “in the beginning was with God,” through whom “all things were made” and “without” whom “was nothing made” (John 1.1-3), with the purpose of delivering man from eternal death, became man: so bending Himself to take on Him our humility without decrease in His own majesty, that remaining what He was and assuming what He was not, He might unite the true form of a slave to that form in which He is equal to God the Father, and join both natures together by such a compact that the lower should not be swallowed up in its exaltation nor the higher impaired by its new associate. Without detriment therefore to the properties of either substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt, belonging to our condition, inviolable nature was united with possible nature, and true God and true man were combined to form one Lord, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and rise again with the other.

Rightly therefore did the birth of our Salvation impart no corruption to the Virgin’s purity, because the bearing of the Truth was the keeping of honor. Such then beloved was the nativity which became the Power of God and the Wisdom of God even Christ, whereby He might be one with us in manhood and surpass us in Godhead. For unless He were true God, He would not bring us a remedy, unless He were true Man, He would not give us an example. Therefore the exulting angel’s song when the Lord was born is this, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and their message, “peace on earth to men of good will” (Luke 2.14). For they see that the heavenly Jerusalem is being built up out of all the nations of the world: and over that indescribable work of the Divine love how ought the humbleness of men to rejoice, when the joy of the lofty angels is so great?

III. Christians then must live worthily of Christ their Head

Let us then, dearly beloved, give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit , Who “for His great mercy, wherewith He has loved us,” has had pity on us: and “when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together in Christ” (Ephesians 2.4-5), that we might be in Him a new creation and a new production. Let us put off then the old man with his deeds: and having obtained a share in the birth of Christ let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, acknowledge your dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which you are a member. Recollect that you were rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God’s light and kingdom. By the mystery of Baptism you were made the temple of the Holy Ghost: do not put such a denizen to flight from you by base acts, and subject yourself once more to the devil’s thralldom: because your purchase money is the blood of Christ, because He shall judge you in truth Who ransomed you in mercy, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever and ever. Amen.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 2

Posted: December 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 2

13. Not even the grace of the Holy Spirit can actualize wisdom in the saints unless there is an intellect capable of receiving it; or spiritual knowledge unless there is a faculty of intelligence that can receive it; or faith unless there is in the intellect and the intelligence full assurance about the realities to be disclosed hereafter and until then hidden from everyone; or gifts of healing unless there is natural compassion; or any other gift of grace without the disposition and faculty capable of receiving it. On the other hand, a man cannot acquire a single one of these gifts with his natural faculties unless aided by the divine power that bestows them. All the saints show that God’s grace does not suspend man’s natural powers; for, after receiving revelations of divine realities, they inquired into the spiritual principles contained in what had been revealed to them.

This expands on the theme of synergy. If we do not have the natural capacity or predisposition for a gift, grace cannot impose it on us. I think the example of healing is a good one. If we do not have compassion, if we do not suffer with those who need healing, how can God’s grace give us a gift for healing of any sort? God does not overpower us and turn us into marionettes. He heals, completes, and empowers us to be fully human as we were created to be. God overflows with grace. In one sense, we lead powerless lives because we choose to don spiritual raincoats.


Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

Posted: December 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

I realized today that I left an important thought out of my discussion of oral cultures this morning — the cultural bias of trust. In an oral culture, texts tend to be distrusted. That was particularly true in the ancient world where all texts were written by hand. How do you know that a text really comes from whom it says it comes? Even if it did, how do you know that it hasn’t been altered? By contrast, verbal communication, especially in the form of oral tradition, tended to be trusted. You knew who was giving you the tradition and you had a basis on which you could decide whether or not you trusted that person and thus whether or not you trusted what they said.

If you look, you can actually see that dynamic at play in the NT texts, especially in Paul’s letters where he is typically trying to address problems and needs the Church to accept his communication in absentia. He makes a point of greeting and saying things that indicate his personal knowledge of people in the Church. He often describes who is with him as he was writing the text. He will sometimes commend the one carrying his communication (and who will present it to the Church). He will write a greeting in his own hand at times. While those serve multiple purposes, one thing Paul is doing is trying to overcome the automatic cultural distrust of texts.

By contrast, in a literate cultural we are biased to trust texts over oral communication. When we can reference something in a publication, it gives greater weight to our argument. Printed texts are not necessarily easy to modify. (We can see that dynamic changing with electronic communication, but there remains a cultural bias toward the written form.) It’s an unconscious bias that permeates our evaluation of the things we can or can’t trust.

I will note that the idea that an oral tradition — even one that can be traced continuously back to the first or second century — can’t be trusted unless it can be confirmed in a text is one that could only arise within the context of a literate culture. As such, it can be eliminated as a technique used in the ancient world. Instead, the bias would have worked the other way. The oral tradition would have had to attest to the reliability of a text before the text would be trusted.

If you don’t grasp the way in which that underlying bias works, you’ll probably make the wrong assumptions when examining ancient Christian writings.