Scholars chase Bible's changes, one verse at a time

May 7, 2011

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) 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 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 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.