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NOBTS scholars chase Bible’s changes
Bruce Nolan, Religion News Service
May 27, 2011

NOBTS scholars chase Bible’s changes

NOBTS scholars chase Bible’s changes
Bruce Nolan, Religion News Service
May 27, 2011

NEW

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.

RNS photo by John McCusker/The Times-Picayune

Scholars at the Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans are in the midst of a 20-year project to catalogue and post online most of the thousands of text changes that have crept into the New Testament Textual Studies Center, holds a piece of papyrus that contains part of the Gospel of John.

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

textual changes.

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,

said Warren.

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

major sins?”

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

said.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in

New Orleans.)