Saturday, February 20, 2016

An Edifying Error in a Syriac Manuscript

          The differences in the text of manuscripts of the Gospels tend to fall into categories.  The chief difference is between readings that are original and readings that are not original.
          Variants in the group of readings that are not original fall into two sub-categories:  first, variations that do not affect the meaning of the text, and variations that do affect the meaning of the text.  Most non-original textual variants fall into the first category, and while they are sometimes helpful for textual criticism, they tend to be considered unimportant because their impact on interpretation is inconsequential.    (Nevertheless, textual critics should not ignore variants that do not impact the meaning of the text, because even minor variants may provide clues about the background of a manuscript and its text.  Spelling-variations may suggest that a manuscript’s copyist was from a particular locale.  A cluster of manuscripts which share the same inconsequential variants are probably related in some way.) 
          The non-original variants that are capable of affecting the meaning of the text may be divided further into sub-categories:  reading which appear to have originated accidentally, and readings which appear to have been deliberate.  The categorization of a particular reading will depend on the text-critical decision about whether it is original or not.  For example, in First Thessalonians 1:1, if the inclusion of the second half of the verse is considered original, then its loss may be explained as an accident, caused when an early copyist’s line of sight drifted from the middle of the verse (“in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”) to the end of it, where a similar phrase recurs (“from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”).  But if it is considered non-original, then its presence can only be accounted for as a deliberate conformation to the opening verses of some of Paul’s other letters (such as Philippians 1:2).
          Accidental variants merely inform us that copyists were not immune to accidents, but readings which are clearly non-original and clearly intentionally created tend to imply an agenda, either in the mind of a manuscript’s copyist, or (more often) in the mind of the earlier individual who created the variant.  And, again, the category of deliberate changes sub-divides into sub-categories:  

● attempts at technical correction (for instance, when it appears that a copyist thought there was an error in his exemplar, and attempted to make an on-the-spot correction), 
● attempts at verbal clarification (for instance, when it appears that a copyist encountered a word or phrase which he thought his readers might misunderstand, and replaced it with a clearer or more common word), 
● attempts at doctrinal clarification (for instance, when it appears that a copyist encountered something in his exemplar which raised a doctrinal question in his mind, or which he suspected would raise a doctrinal question in his readers’ minds, and he adjusted the text into a form more amenable to his own theological preferences), 
● liturgical adjustments (for instance, adding Jesus’ name at the beginning of a section used as a lection, and adjusting statements in the text that were adapted for specific rites and ceremonies), and
● attempts at edification.

An Armenian manuscript from the 1400s
features an illustration of Jesus and the blind man
(Walters MS 540).
        Examples of this last category – attempts at edification – are very rare, inasmuch as most copyists were content to let the Scriptural text edify and instruct the reader.  The ambition of the typical copyist was simply to make an accurate copy, and for this task, the more robotically he worked, the better – provided that he was working from a legible, complete, and accurately copied exemplar.  Occasionally, though, a copyist came along who considered it his responsibility to improve upon the text which had been handed down to him, either because of reckless pride, or because manuscripts in his care had indeed been poorly copied, or damaged.
          Two variants, occurring in Matthew 20:33 and Luke 18:41 (parallel-passages that are, in both Gospels, part of the account of the healing of the blind man in Jericho), were apparently made to edify the reader.  They are found only in the Curetonian Syriac manuscript.  (This manuscript is named after William Cureton (1808-1864), who published its contents in 1858.  It is one of a very small group of early witnesses – it probably was produced in the 400s – with text from an early Syriac version of the Gospels which was made before the Peshitta became so dominant that other Syriac versions ceased to be used.)     
          In  Matthew 20, the scene runs as follows:  two blind men, stationed along the road near the city ofJericho, cry out to Jesus as He and his disciples pass by:  “Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!”  Although the crowd discourages their disruptive shouting, Jesus stops and calls them, and asks them what they want.  They answer – in the text of verse 33 that is usually found – “Lord, that our eyes may be opened.”  The Curetonian Syriac reports the same thing, but then adds that the blind men also said, “And to see you.”  
          Luke 18 mentions one blind man (according to Mark 10:46, his name was Bartimaeus); after Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”, in the text that is typically found, the man responds:  “Lord, that I may receive my sight.”  And here, again, the text has been altered in the Curetonian Syriac manuscript, with the result that the blind man’s response in verse 41 is, “Lord, that I may receive my sight, and see you.
          It is as if a note that was intended to remind the reader about a sermon-point has somehow crept into the text.     
           Although it is often necessary for translators to add extra words to make a translation clearly convey the meaning of the Greek text, the insertion of words that convey some other meaning is not a good thing to do.  But in this case, the insertion is so edifying that the situation seems comparable to finding silver in a gold mine.  For when we come to Christ in a condition of spiritual blindness, before we can see anything as it truly is, we must first see Christ, the light who enlightens everyone.  Whatever blessings or burdens we may observe, and whatever friends, foes, or strangers we meet, we cannot see them properly until we first see Christ, and view everyone and everything else in the light of His presence.  As Jesus said in John 8:12, “The person who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”  And as Psalm 36:9 says, “In Your light, we shall see light.”
          Every time our eyes open, before we see anything else – let us see Christ first!

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