Friday, May 22, 2015

Nor the Bart

From the February 2012 E-Block.
In Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, contributor Adam Messer offers an important essay responding to charges by Bart Ehrman regarding Matthew 24:36: 

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
In some manuscripts, "nor the Son" is missing. Ehrman finds this to be evidence of theological tampering by scribes who were embarrassed by Jesus' lack of omniscience. 

We have already answered (with Wallace) that the excision of the critical phrase "nor the Son" does not by itself warrant such a change, since, among other things, 1) the phrase is only rarely excised from the Markan parallel account, and 2) Matthew still has Jesus say that the Father "only" (or alone) knows the day and hour, which excludes the Son quite clearly so that the alleged problem remains. Messer now contributes a coup de grace to Ehrman's thesis with a survey of patristic evidence concerning Matthew 24:36, which is so valuable that we feel it worth a summary article in the E-Block -- especially given, as Messer observes, that Ehrman makes this one of his showcase examples of scribal tampering. 

Messer reasons that since scribes were not exactly theologians, if they had any problem with a passage, it would have come from teaching authorities. Logically, then, if Ehrman is correct, Matthew 24:36 ought to have been a source of consternation for early church theologians. The problem Ehrman has, though, is that it clearly wasn't -- there is no sign at all that patristic authors were disturbed by "nor the Son" being in the text. To be sure, it posed a theological question that required an answer; but the patristic authors, far from entering panic mode, discussed what they perceived to be reasonable solutions in the same manner they discussed other issues of the same type. There is no sign that they consider "nor the Son" to be some sort of insoluble problem which might lead them to wish it were not there. 

Having surveyed patristic references to Matt. 24:36 (and the parallel in Mark 13:32), as well as other relevant information, Messer offered some pertinent observations.

First, there is a factor involved that we probably wouldn't think of: Copies of the NT were also made by heretics, and for various reasons associated with the economy of producing manuscripts, it is not impossible that orthodox Christians unwittingly used manuscripts that had been copied by heretics. In other words, rather than "nor the Son" being excised by orthodox scribes, it could be that the phrase was excised by heretical scribes, and that these manuscripts came into the possession of the orthodox and were used and copied by them.

Surveying heresies of the period, Messer concludes that certain modalist heresies, which desired to eliminate any difference between the members of the Trinity, would be motivated to remove "nor the Son". Among heresies of this order were Sabellianism, which concluded that the Son and Father were the same.

Second, Messer compiles the reactions of several patristic writers to Mathew 24:36/Mark 13:32 and finds that there simply was no serious difficulty had with it. Here are the clearest referents from among those he collects:
  • Ireneaus (c. 180 AD) actually regards Jesus' ignorance as instructive for Christians, demonstrating that as Jesus was not ashamed to admit his ignorance of the time of the parousia, so likewise Christians should not hesitate to reserve greater questions for God. Since he does not quote the verse, it is not clear if his copy was missing "nor the Son." However, if it was, then he clearly derived this lesson from the verse simply saying that the Father alone knew the time of the parousia -- which of course demonstrates our earlier point about the excision not resolving the "problem".
  • Tertullian (c. 200 AD) references the passage three times, and in not one instance does he perceive Jesus' ignorance to be a problem, merely noting it as a fact -- though notably, from the perspective of saying the Father alone knew the time more substantially. Messer acknowledges that since Tertullian was arguing with modalists, he may have left out any reservations he had on this issue in some of his writings, but in writings not addressing them, he maintains the same view. It is also not clear if his copies had the key phrase excised.
  • Origen (c. 220 AD) also described Jesus' ignorance in plain terms and with no reservations. This is especially significant since Origen "often contemplated the limitations of Jesus" described in Scripture.
  • In contrast, Athanasius (c. 320 AD), the chief defender against the Arian heresy, did have a serious problem with Jesus' ignorance and sought to explain it in terms of Jesus' human nature being ignorant. It is also clear that his copy of Matthew lacks "nor the Son."
  • Following this, Hilary (d. 368 AD) and Epiphanius (367 AD) also offered extensive arguments explaining this as a problem, and from that time on, it remains a problem under discussion.
Third, combined with the above information, information on the text itself leads to the conclusion that the phrase did not exist in at least some manuscripts prior to the Arian controversy. The above analysis may lead to speculation that the Arian controversy was what inspired the excision. However, an important fact is that Origen -- a writer well before the Arian controversy -- was our earliest textual critic, and discussed any variant he was aware of. Matthew 24:36 is not in his roster. While he may have forgotten such variations, or not had a universal enough awareness of all manuscript traditions, this remains a point of reckoning.

Additionally, there is a point which confounds Ehrman rather ironically: For all of these later writers to discuss the problem means that they had manuscripts which contained the key phrase. Some were also aware of manuscripts that did not have it. So, Messer asks us, what must have happened? The evidence, he believes, leads to the conclusion that the excision (if that is what it was) happened very early, in the late second century , and was not the result of some conscious effort or demand, but was "naturally disseminated" as were many other variants.

Fourth, based on the above, Messer points to another problem not considered by Ehrman. Ehrman supposes that "nor the Son" was removed as a reaction to the adoptionist heresy. But as noted, modalist heresies would be anxious to remove it as well. Therefore, the scribe Ehrman supposes to be on the job would be darned if he did, darned if he didn't. Only modalists had a motivation to remove it, in a way which would not also give in to some other group.

In the end, Messer's conclusion is that Matthew originally lacked, "nor the Son" -- and I daresay in light of his discussion that this earns the right to be called the simplest solution as well.

1 comment:

  1. This is why Ehrman is so dangerous. And I hesitate to pin down an explanation. There's the 'will-to-deceive' (WTD) explanation for - at worst - a paycheck; then there's the 'incompetence' explanation (IE), which is more subtle. I'm ready to admit Ehrman as a great textual scholar - that is not where the incompetency resides: it's in these weird inferences he makes from the textual evidence. Maybe 'weird' is the wrong word. It's an inference which, intuitively, doesn't jive with where it seems commonsense would go. So, the IE would have to apply a couple logical levels deeper than the textual-criticism level. It lies at a level where a scholar, not just as a critic, but also has a logical thinker, becomes relevant. This seems to me to reinforce the idea that Ehrman's positions are primarily 'attitudinal', which is compatible with WTD or IE. With WTD, since the motive for deception is a product of the attitude; with IE, since the 'incompetency' ferments over time 'due to' the attitude. The problem is that the Church, by and large, because of its general neglect of things intellectual, can be drawn in by Ehrman's surface-level sophistication and scholarly credentials and possibly apostatize, or at least become spiritually deceived. Since the inferences he draws, once you get down to the nitty-gritty, seem so obviously obtuse or contrary to intuitive common sense, the case of Ehrman is sometimes more interesting from the psychological perspective, rather than the exegetical one!