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Actually, there is good evidence that sometimes scribes making copies of the Bible did deliberately change some words or passages when they were making copies from an older manuscript. This sounds like a dark conspiracy in the DaVinci Code tradition, and you may see some television documentaries suggesting just that. The truth is far less exciting, and we can fairly easily detect textual variants that are the result of deliberate alteration.

The most frequent instances of such deliberate changes are found in the gospels, and they are the result of what textual scholars refer to as “harmonization.” This involves attempts by scribes to make Jesus’s words recorded in one gospel identical to how they are recorded in another gospel.

Let’s look at just one example of how this happens. In the NIV the last part of Matthew 11:19 reads, “But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” Compare that reading with Luke 7:35 which the NIV translates as “But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

First, let’s notice that the meaning is not changed with either reading. Both “deeds” and “children” are metaphors to say that wisdom can be tested by the results that it produces. That is the real message no matter which way the passages read (deeds or children).

There are manuscripts of both Matthew and Luke which support both “deeds” and “children.” But when we look at the weight of the manuscripts supporting either reading, we find that the manuscript evidence is better for translating Matthew as “deeds,” and Luke as “children.” Most of the modern translations will show that difference.

So, why do some of the manuscript differ? We cannot say with certainty, but most scholars feel it is likely that Matthew originally wrote the Greek word for “deeds,” and Luke originally wrote the word for “children.” At some point in the copying process, one or more pious scribes may have assumed that both Matthew and Luke should have recorded Jesus’s words identically. Since the manuscript from which he was copying used a word that was different, one of them must have made an error in quoting Jesus. In all good conscience, he may have changed the word in the copy he was making, believing that he was correcting an error in the older manuscript. Then any copies made from his altered copy would perpetuate that change. Over hundreds of years, both manuscripts may have continued to be used to make more copies, so the process continued.

Fortunately, the science of textual criticism described in my last post allows scholars to evaluate each reading on its own. Also, there is the recognition that preserving the two separate readings is more likely to be correct. We can see the logic a copyist may have used to change Jesus’s words in one gospel to agree with His words in another gospel. But there would be no good reason for someone to change a verse to have a different reading for another gospel.

We have looked at just two verses today, but I hope you can see how the process works. And this explains a number of the variants we have in the manuscripts. There is no evidence of a conspiracy to change the message of the gospel; just the normal kinds of changes that we would expect to find in an age when every copy had to be made by hand.

Did the ancient copyists deliberately change some verses? Yes.

Does that indicate some kind of conspiracy to change the original message of the New Testament? No.

Do these variant readings change what Jesus taught? Absolutely not.

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As I was writing the post for today, I was struck with how much material I am forced to leave out. Most of the subjects I write about are so complex that time and space limitations force me to summarize in ways that must appear simplistic to those who are aware of the issues. I make an attempt at least to summarize the various interpretations. Then, I go on to provide my conclusion. My purpose is not to provide a comprehensive discussion or even defense of all the issues involved. That would require posts much too long to be of benefit or even interest to most of those to whom this blog is addressed. So if you find yourself asking if I am not oversimplifying some of the issues, please know that you are right, and I am painfully aware of that. If you wish to bring up any of these issues in response, please feel free to do so. I will be happy to address them within the limits of my knowledge, as long as we do not get bogged down with them. That being said, today I want us to consider the gospel of Matthew.

Matthew is the only one of the gospels consistently linked to one of the twelve apostles (we will deal with John a little later). Tradition says that it was written by Matthew, the tax collector, one of the twelve apostles. Let me remind you that nowhere does the gospel itself ever make this claim, so there is no question of honesty or inspiration involved in the question. We are simply looking at the evidence.

The earliest source we have for the authorship of Matthew once again is Papias, whom we referred to in the discussion about Mark. Here is what Papias says about Matthew. “So Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language and each person interpreted them as best he could” (Michael W. Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers).

Remember that Papias probably wrote @ AD 120-140, certainly early enough for ancient (and accurate) traditions to have been preserved. At the same time, we must recognize that this quotation reveals very little. It is even hard to understand just what Papias is trying to say. At the very least it indicates that whatever Matthew wrote was not simply a coherent gospel that was transmitted pretty much as written. Papias indicates that whatever lies behind Matthew as we have it was first written in Hebrew (or perhaps Aramaic) and that it was translated in a variety of ways.

Many scholars discount what Papias says and date Matthew to late in the first century, anywhere from AD 80-100. Part of the reasoning for a later date is the recognition that Matthew apparently used the gospel of Mark as one of his sources (as did Luke). Also, the Greek gospel of Matthew as we have it does not show signs of being a translation from Hebrew.

First of all, while it would be unwise to accept what Papias says uncritically, it is just as wrong simply to reject his account out-of-hand. Papias is, after all, the earliest witness we have. I see no reason to deny that the apostle Matthew in some form lies behind the gospel as we have it. At the same time, there is every reason to believe that the origin of the gospel is more complex than that. As I said in an earlier post, the fact that our gospel used Mark as one of his sources does not mean it could not go back to an eyewitness. People who write eyewitness accounts (including me) rely on other sources to fill in where necessary.

Matthew, in the form we have it, also preserves a very Jewish flavor. It is a coherent presentation of the theme of what Matthew refers to as “the Kindom of God.” For this reason, it is likely that Matthew goes back to someone very knowledgeable of Jewish religion and customs.

While the gospels tell us that Matthew was a hated tax collector, that very occupation would require him to be able to converse and write in both Aramaic and Greek. As with most male Jews, he would probably have some knowledge of Hebrew as well. What Papias refers to as the “oracles” (“logia” in Greek) may refer to a collection of the sayings of Jesus written by Matthew. Look at a red-letter edition of Matthew. Jesus says more in Matthew than any of the other gospels. It is also organized in sections. We have the Sermon on the Mount, many of the parables are arranged together, as with many of the miracles. It is as if Matthew is divided into sections that are topical, not chronological.

So here in summary is my position. I do believe that our gospel goes back to a Hebrew or Aramaic document written by the apostle Matthew. At the same time, at some point Matthew or someone else took this material, and I am guessing between AD 70-80 wrote in Greek the gospel we have now. To repeat what I said earlier, this should not be a matter of faith. Once again, I have left myself open to strong disagreement from both conservative and liberal positions. So be it. This is simply how I see the evidence at this point. Next year I may well understand it differently.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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