Friday, 21 August 2015

Bloody Sweat

Via a series of blog posts, Bart Ehrman is currently telling the story of how he got into textual criticism of the Bible back in the 1980s. He sets the context very clearly - I already knew that the textus receptus Greek translation upon which the KJV was translated was based on very few and quite young manuscripts. But I did not know that they were all done by one man, a humanist, who updated his own work over time but that was the only improvements provided. I did not know that there was a part of Revelation he literally had no Greek manuscript for whatsoever and borrowed in some latin that he had that has never matched any subsequent Greek manuscript discovered.

In this textus receptus, you get the story of the woman caught in adultery, you get the long ending in Mark 16, you get the verse in 1 John 5 affirming the doctrine of the Trinity.

As the centuries went on, more and more manuscripts were discovered. Hundreds more. Thousands more, many of them older and more reliable than those used to form the textus receptus used for the KJV. Finally in 1881 was released a huge edition of the Greek NT, one version of which included a major contextual analysis of each significant variant in the manuscripts, along with the most likely originals. This was done by Westcott and Hort. On the basis of the evidence of the many small changes (some accidental, some not) made by scribes and their analysis of which way the changes probably went (did the scribe change John 1:18 from the only begotten God to the only begotten son, or was it the other way around, or did he add God or Son to an original "the only begotten [one]"?). In fact they did such a monumental work that there were virtually no changes for a century, or even expectation about how we could get closer to the original Greek, because we were virtually there already!

That's where the bloody sweat kicks in.

It's actually a really popular passage found in Luke's description of Jesus' "passion" building up to his crucifixion. But there is absolutely NOTHING about a text that appears good, profound, inspiring, etc., that makes it true. And while Ehrman would quibble that we are not talking about truth anyway, just the way in which the text was changed, I believe that Christians concerned about truth today should not be putting their faith in a significant textual variant or calling it the word of God. This applies to the above additions (long ending of Mark, Trinity proof text, etc.), but it also applies, I am sad to say, to the bloody sweat.

Ehrman is zooming into this passage, that a lot of Christians will know has some issues if their bibles have footnotes, for a reason. He is keen to show how the field of textual criticism really matters for other areas like theology and exegesis. It had been assumed that the study of textual changes was pretty much devoid of implications for other areas than its own technical field.

So if the bloody sweat verses are an addition, why would it be significant? Most people, like me, would be thinking about size - where most changes concern a single word or article, here is something highly constructed and thought through, like the end of Mark, that has been deliberately appended. Of course that remains a pretty big concern in its own right, there are not many passages like that where the manuscript credentials are very low. But there is a bigger more serious problem.

If you compare Luke's passion with Mark's, and most seem to agree that Luke was using Mark, there is an astonishing systematic removal of Mark's references to Jesus' anguish and suffering, right up to the point that he actually dies. If it weren't for two rather critical verses, then you might read the account thinking that actually Jesus did not really have such a hard time dying after all.

And these are the two verses concerned, from Luke 22:43-44
An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

Imagine you are a committed Christian scribe. Maybe a 100 years have gone past since the events in question, maybe more. There are heretical elements threatening the identity of the church regarding just how human Jesus really was (did he just appear human, people asked?) There are other stories circulating about what happened at Gethsemane about Christ's suffering, some quite extreme and explicit.

In my  next post, we will see just how significant and clear this insertion into Luke's account actually is, via a comparison with Mark and a look at the literary structure of the passage into which the verses were later inserted.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks very much for your feedback, really appreciate the interaction.