Extract from ‘The Invention of Jesus’

Misquoting Hebrews …

The following example is often quoted to illustrate how ‘errors’ crept in as a result of well-intentioned efforts to correct or improve the text. But, in this instance, the scribal corrector and subsequent commentators have got it wrong…

Commentary is from ch 14 of The Invention of Jesus

Fool and knave, leave the old reading and do not change it! (ἀμαθέστατε καὶ κακέ, ἄφες τὸν παλαιόν, μὴ μεταποίει) – Marginal note against Hebrews 1, 3 in Codex Vaticanus by a writer who objected to an earlier corrector changing the original scribe’s ΦANEPωN (manifests) to ΦEPωN (bears)

Our sympathy lies to an extent with the irritated scribe who, many centuries ago, added to Codex Vaticanus his own exasperated note in the margin on the tendency of previous readers to tinker with the text. We would, however, add a rider: if only it were that simple.

The marginal note is alongside a correction to the text. Without the correction, this reads:




[Jesus] manifests all things by the word of his power.

The corrector had changed ΦANEPωN (manifests) to ΦEPωN which means ‘sustains’ or ‘bears’, a very different reading. The switch is from Jesus revealing all things to Jesus keeping all things, that is, the entire universe, together. Neither of these propositions would seem to have much going for them from an entirely objective point of view. From a Christian point of view, however, one or other might have seemed more preferable at different points in time, according to developing Church doctrine.

The scribe who subsequently erased the first corrector’s word ‘bears’ and rewrote the word ‘manifests’ evidently felt that the earlier reading was, from a doctrinal standpoint, more likely or more acceptable or both. Thus, he must have felt that it was also more accurate.

But was it, in any sense, original?

Bart Ehrman quotes this example as a demonstration that the bible is not inerrant but full of mistakes, corrections and contradictions. So, in this respect, he abandoned the Christian fundamentalism that he had been brought up with. But he still seems to believe that the originals of the texts, however much transmuted by change and however difficult to disentangle, are somehow out there.

Implicit in his approach is a profoundly mistaken assumption, that the ‘original’ authors must have been Christians. The first narrative and the first verbal tradition would have originated from the followers of Jesus and James, then to be used and remoulded by Paul and his followers in the creation of their schismatic sect. These latter certainly were Christians or came to be known as Christians (Acts 11, 26). But the people from whom their information came were Jews.

Codex Vaticanus is a key manuscript. Along with Codex Sinaiticus, both dating from around the mid fourth century, it provides the earliest available evidence for much of the New Testament. We have shown that Codex Sinaiticus was probably created as a robust master copy from which to make further copies. We have also demonstrated that Codex Vaticanus was copied with reference to the same main exemplar for Sinaiticus and probably also Sinaiticus itself.

In this instance, Codex Sinaiticus has in the above passage from Hebrews, ΦEPωN, meaning ‘bears’. The clear implication is that the Vaticanus scribe, in copying from the common exemplar or Sinaiticus (either or both), made a mistake and wrote a similar-sounding and similar-looking word ΦANEPωN, ‘manifests’,
which  also in context happens to make sense. The first corrector checked against the exemplar or Codex Sinaiticus or both and restored what had been in the original.

So he was not, as the later scribe charged in his marginal comment, adding his own embellishment. He was in fact restoring what had been in the source! We can, in this case, potentially take the source further back in time. For once, there is an earlier papyrus manuscript that has the relevant passage. This is P 46, dating from around the mid second century. Like Codex Sinaiticus, it has in Hebrews 1, 3, not ‘manifests’ but ΦEPωN, ‘bears’.

This all provides a very salutary lesson. Not only was the indignation of the later scribe and re-corrector of the passage most probably misplaced, but he had ended up doing precisely what he had criticised. That is, he was himself tinkering with the text without enough knowledge and without sufficient justification. Had Codex Vaticanus been copied, incorporating his change, and had all previous versions as well as Vaticanus then been lost, ΦANEPωN would have stood as original, in the sense of being from source. But, on the evidence, which we fortunately still do have, it was not.

Source: The Invention of Jesus pp 285-7