ORLEANS — Working in a cluster of offices
above a LifeWay Christian Bookstore, Bible scholars are buried in a 20-year
project to codify the thousands of changes, verse by verse, word by word — even
letter by letter — that crept into the early New Testament during hundreds of
years of laborious hand-copying.
Their goal: to log them into the world’s first searchable
online database for serious Bible students and professional scholars who want
to see how the document changed over time.
Their research is of particular interest to evangelical
Christians who, because they regard the Bible as the sole authority on matters
of faith, want to distinguish the earliest possible texts and carefully
evaluate subsequent changes.
The first phase of the researchers’ work is done. They have
documented thousands of creeping changes, down to an extraneous Greek letter,
across hundreds of early manuscripts from the second through 15th centuries,
said Bill Warren, the New Testament scholar
who leads the project at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
After 10 years of work and the interruption of Hurricane
Katrina, the seminary’s Center for New Testament Textual Studies has logged
those changes, amounting to 17,000 pages of highly technical notes, all in
Greek, into a searchable database.
Many of the early changes are well known, and have been for
hundreds of years. Study Bibles mark scores of changes in italicized footnotes
at the bottom of what often seems like every page. But nowhere have so many
changes been collated in a single place and made searchable for scholars and
serious students, Warren said. Nor is there an Internet tool like the one being
constructed now in the second phase of the project: the history of substantive
This fall, the New Testament center will publish an online
catalogue of substantive textual changes in Philippians and 1 Peter. Warren
estimates there’s 10 more years of work to do on the rest of the New Testament.
Those with more than a passing familiarity with the New
Testament know its 27 books and letters, or epistles, were not first published
exactly as they appear today.
The earliest works date to about the middle of the first
century. They were written by hand, and successors were copied by hand.
Mistakes occasionally crept in.
Moreover, with Christianity in its infancy and the earliest
Christians still trying to clarify the full meaning of Jesus, his mission and
his stories, the texts themselves sometimes changed from generation to generation,
As archeologists and historians uncovered more manuscripts,
each one hand-copied from some predecessor, they could see occasional additions
or subtractions from a phrase, a verse or a story. Most changes are inconsequential, the result of mere copying
errors, or the replacement of a less common word for a more common word. But
others are more important.
For example, the famous tale in John’s Gospel in which Jesus
challenges a mob about to stone a woman accused of adultery: “Let any one of
you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” is a variant that
copyists began inserting at least 300 years after that Gospel first appeared.
In the conclusion to the Gospel of Mark, the description of
Jesus appearing to various disciples after His resurrection does not appear in
the earliest manuscripts.
And in the Gospel of Luke, the crucified Jesus’ plea that
his executioners be forgiven “for they know not what they are doing” also does
not appear in the earliest versions of his Gospel.
Warren said that
even after the fourth-century church definitively settled on the books it
accepted as divinely inspired accounts, some of the texts within those books
were still subject to slight changes.
Warren said the
story of the adulterous woman in John’s Gospel, for example, seems to be an
account of an actual event preserved and treasured by the Christian community.
“People know it, and they like it,” he said. “It’s about a
forgiveness that many times is needed in the church. Can you be forgiven on
John had not included it, but early Christians wanted to
shoehorn it in somewhere, Warren
said. Warren said the story wanders
across several early John manuscripts, appearing in a variety of places.
It even shows up in two early copies of Luke.
“But probably it was never part of John’s Gospel, in the
original form,” he said.
In effect, early copiers were taking what modern readers
would recognize as study notes and slipping them into the texts, a process that
began to tail off around the ninth century, Warren
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in