Were the Church Fathers Aware of Variations in the New Testament Manuscripts?


Awareness of textual variants in literature goes back at least a few hundred years before Jesus was born, and scholars have constantly been trying to find the original readings. In the series I’ve been writing, I’ve been focused on textual variants in the New Testament, but they also exist in the Old Testament and in secular literature.

Secular Literature

The city of Alexandria, Egypt, was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., and the Library of Alexandria was likely founded by pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus between 285–246 B.C. This library was one of the largest in the Roman Empire, and some of the best scholars in the world worked at the library. Librarians at the Library of Alexandria compared copies of Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey, trying to determine the original text.

  • Zenodotus – 325–234 B.C.
    • Eliminated spurious verses
    • Marked verses as doubtful, but kept them
    • Changed order of verses
    • Introduced new readings
  • Aristophanes of Byzantium – 257–180 B.C.
    • Added ascent marks and other diacritics
  • Aristarchus of Samothrace – 220–144 B.C.
    • Added critical symbols

Old Testament

The Dead Sea Scrolls were written between about 300 B.C. to A.D. 100, and some textual variants have been found in them.

Prophet Jeremiah

In the study [of the Dead Sea Scrolls], researchers were able to establish that four copies of the book of Jeremiah were represented among the fragments, each a different version. This suggests Jewish society of the Second Temple period was open to differently worded versions circulating simultaneously, with emphasis more on the larger meaning and themes conveyed, and less insistence on the precise wording of the religious scripture.1

Prophet Isaiah

Textual Criticism in Great Isaiah Scroll 1QIs(a), 3:17-18
Textual Criticism in Great Isaiah Scroll 1QIsa, 3:17-18

…it is reasonable to conclude that the scribes at Qumran may have modified their texts because they were aware of other traditions or manuscripts of the Old Testament. This possibility is also suggested by several of the Qumran texts themselves. For example, the Isaiah Scroll (1QIsa) includes a significant number of corrections to the text, the majority of which bring its readings into closer harmony with the MT’s [Masoretic Text2] readings, but several additions actually go the other way, suggesting that the text being followed may have had a different reading…. An interesting example is found in Isaiah 3:17–18…. In the third line…dots appear below the mt [Masoretic Text] reading אדוני (ʾdwny, “the Lord”) and the alternate reading יהוה (yhwh, “Yahweh”) appears above it. But in the fourth line the readings are reversed: dots appear below the word יהוה (yhwh) and the reading from the mt [Masoretic Text] appears above it. Dots placed above (Is 7:16; 35:10; 36:4, 7; 41:20) or below (Is 34:17; 40:7) a letter, word or phrase may indicate similar changes. Other markings in the first Isaiah Scroll point to some degree of textual criticism being carried on at this early period.3

Origen’s Hexapla

The earliest known Bible with several versions was compiled by the early church father Origen of Alexandria, sometime before A.D. 240. Origen spent an estimated 28 years on this project, and it contained only the Old Testament in an estimated 6,000 pages. The massive work is called the Hexapla, from a Greek word meaning “six-fold”, because it has six versions of the Old Testament.

  1. Hebrew text (consonants only)
  2. Hebrew text (consonants only) transliterated using Greek characters
  3. Greek translation by Aquila of Sinope (A.D. 100-200)
  4. Greek translation by Symmachus the Ebionite (A.D. 150-200)
  5. Greek Septuagint (300-200 B.C.), revised by Origen
  6. Greek translation by Theodotion (A.D. 125-175)

New Testament and Church Fathers

The church fathers were aware the Biblical manuscripts had differences in them. Some of the differences were innocuous, while other differences introduced heresies into the church, and even produced cults.

Tertullian (c. A.D. 155-240)

One man perverts the Scriptures with his hand, another their meaning by his exposition. For although Valentinus seems to use the entire volume, he has none the less laid violent hands on the truth only with a more cunning mind and skill than Marcion. Marcion expressly and openly used the knife, not the pen, since he made such an excision of the Scriptures as suited his own subject-matter. Valentinus, however, abstained from such excision, because he did not invent Scriptures to square with his own subject-matter, but adapted his matter to the Scriptures; and yet he took away more, and added more, by removing the proper meaning of every particular word, and adding fantastic arrangements of things which have no real existence.4

Eusebius of Caesarea (c. A.D. 260-339)

15 But that those who use the arts of unbelievers for their heretical opinions and adulterate the simple faith of the Divine Scriptures by the craft of the godless, are far from the faith, what need is there to say? Therefore they have laid their hands boldly upon the Divine Scriptures, alleging that they have corrected them. 16 That I am not speaking falsely of them in this matter, whoever wishes may learn. For if any one will collect their respective copies, and compare them one with another, he will find that they differ greatly.5

Saint Augustine (A.D. 354-430)

The great remedy for ignorance of proper signs is knowledge of languages.  And men who speak the Latin tongue…need two other languages for the knowledge of Scripture, Hebrew and Greek, that they may have recourse to the original texts if the endless diversity of the Latin translators throw them into doubt….For the translations of the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek can be counted, but the Latin translators are out of all number. For in the early days of the faith every man who happened to get his hands upon a Greek manuscript, and who thought he had any knowledge, were it ever so little, of the two languages, ventured upon the work of translation. 6

For those who are anxious to know, the Scriptures ought in the first place to use their skill in the correction of the texts, so that the uncorrected ones should give way to the corrected, at least when they are copies of the same translation.7

Summary

Some people claim textual criticism of the Bible is a modern invention used as a way to pervert the meaning of scripture. It’s clear that scholars thousands of years ago were aware that both secular and religious manuscripts contained textual variants, and tried to find the original readings. The study of textual criticism in general isn’t new, nor is the study of Biblical textual criticism.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Laden, Jonathan. Dead Sea Scrolls Genetically Fingerprinted (Biblical Archaeology Society: June 11, 2020: webpage) Accessed 17-Jun-2020.
  2. Who were the Masoretes?
  3. Wegner, Paul D. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006; Logos) Page 91. (Amazon) (Logos)
  4. Tertullian. Prescription Against Heretics. Quoted in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885) Chapter XXXVIII – Harmony of the Church and the Scriptures. (CCEL.org)
  5. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 300-325). Quoted in:  Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890) Book 5, Chapter XXVIII, Paragraphs 15-16. (CCEL.org)
  6. Saint Augustine. On Christian Doctrine (A.D. 397). Quoted in: City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. F. Shaw, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887) Book 2, Chapter 11 – Knowledge of Languages, Especially of Greek and Hebrew, Necessary to Remove Ignorance or Signs, Paragraph 16. (CCEL.org)
  7. Saint Augustine. On Christian Doctrine (A.D. 397). Quoted in: City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. F. Shaw, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887) Book II, Chapter 14 – How the Meaning of Unknown Words and Idioms is to Be Discovered, Paragraph 21. (CCEL.org)

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