Interviews With the Authors: Myths and Mistakes—Zachary J. Cole

Series Introduction: Leigh Ann Thompson | Interview: Sarah Allen and Zachary J. Cole

In November the book Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism—edited by Peter Gurry and Elijah Hixson— hit the shelves. Each chapter in the book considers a “myth” about manuscripts and the text of the New Testament and offers a response with helpful information for apologists and lay people who are interested in how data about manuscripts influences our understanding of the reliability of the text of the New Testament.

Some of the authors of Myths and Mistakes have kindly participated in interviews with the CSNTM interns about their contributions. Over the next few weeks we will post these written interviews here on CSNTM’s blog. We hope you enjoy learning from the book’s contributors, and we highly recommend purchasing the book for yourself!

Zachary J. Cole (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the author of the chapter entitled “Myths About Copyists: The Scribes Who Copied Our Earliest Manuscripts” in the recently published work, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. Cole currently serves on faculty at Union Theological College in Belfast, equipping students in the areas of New Testament and Greek. He also is an active minister in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. He earned his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh and authored the book Numerals in Early Greek New Testament Manuscripts: Text-Critical, Scribal, and Theological Studies.

What benefits have you experienced in your own research and teaching by studying the habits of New Testament scribes?

One clear benefit of studying the habits of New Testament scribes is that it improves one’s ability to solve textual problems. Getting to know the tendencies of particular copyists allows a more nuanced consideration of textual problems because we learn something about how they worked. If you know, for example, that one scribe in particular was more prone to omit text than to add it, then this knowledge might change the way you assess the work of that scribe in a another textual problem. This takes us back to Westcott and Hort’s famous (and sound) principle: “knowledge of documents should precede final judgement upon readings.”1  

Another benefit is the cumulative effect of seeing that the vast majority of New Testament scribes were good at what they did and that they were mainly interested in copying text not creating it. That is, we might get the impression that scribes played fast and loose with the text, editing it and changing it as they pleased. However, the more I study the work of New Testament scribes the more I see a different picture. By and large, most scribes aimed to make good, reliable copies of their texts, not new literary creations. We can see this fact demonstrated in a number of studies, but anyone can observe it for themselves if they take the time to examine the work of a scribe.

What are the main fallacies embedded within the common generalization that scribes were “unprofessional?” 

The main fallacy here is an uncritical use of the word “professional.” We need to be clear about exactly what that word is supposed to mean. Does “professional” here mean competent or trained or skilled or scribes by trade? Or something else?

It is perhaps true that most of the early scribes were not “professional” in the sense of being scribes by trade, but this by no means implies that these copyists were untrained or incompetent. On the contrary, in the ancient world we see that a range of individuals were able to competently transcribe, take dictation, copy, and produce texts, not just “professional scribes.” For example, many slaves and freed-persons working in sizeable households were fully capable of producing accurate, carefully made texts and did so on a regular basis. Such individuals may not have been “professionals” in the sense of being scribes by trade, but they were nonetheless routinely entrusted with a wide range of tasks involving copying texts, and they were often highly trained for the task. 

When we examine our earliest manuscripts of the New Testament, there is not much evidence to suggest that they were made by copyists who were scribes by trade. There may be some exceptions. P46, for example, has marginal stichoi counts, which suggest the scribe was paid for the work. Nevertheless, these very same manuscripts are quite obviously the work of experienced, skilled copyists who knew what they were doing. Were they “professional” scribes? Probably not. Were they competent? Definitely.

For a helpful discussion of this issue, see Kim Haines-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature (Oxford University Press, 2000).

We know that some scribes displayed great consistency in their copies. Why would it be significant for their accuracy to be attributed to an ability to sit for long stretches of time versus the possibility of consistent breaks?

I’m not sure we know enough about ancient scribal habits to discern the importance of being able to sit for long stretches of time. At least I don’t. What we can see, however, is that experienced scribes demonstrate a consistency in handwriting that extends for long stretches of text. That is, inexperienced writers tend to get sloppy as the work goes on, such that the end of a letter or text will become increasingly illegible. Frankly, their hands get tired. Experienced copyists, however, are able to maintain a consistency of legibility for long portions of text. This fact is demonstrated by Roger Bagnall and Raffaella Cribiore in their book Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt: 300 B.C.–A.D. 800 (University of Michigan Press, 2006). They show that even brief letters—consisting of just a few paragraphs—illustrate this decreasing legibility when penned by inexperienced writers. 

What is important to note, and not very well appreciated, is that our earliest New Testament papyri of substantial length show a remarkable ability to maintain legibility and clarity of script for considerably long stretches, chapter after chapter. Notable papyri such as P45, P46, P66, and P75, for instance, exemplify an impressive consistency in script for very long stretches that we hardly even notice—perhaps because we are accustomed to seeing it in modern printing. This overlooked feature provides additional support for the assertion that our early copyists were experienced and well trained for the task.

Why is it important to understand that a scribe’s ability does not necessarily determine the care he or she might give to their copy?

Scribes were humans. This of course means that they could be inconsistent, physically tired, or prone to migraines. Some scribes may have been capable of brilliant calligraphy but relatively unconcerned with accuracy on a given day. Evidently, this was a widespread problem in antiquity; the best looking books were not always the most carefully copied books. On the other end of the spectrum, some scribes used unpretentious scripts and produced books that were visually unimpressive but nevertheless accurate and reliable. Given this complexity, when we evaluate the work of the scribe we need to be careful to observe not just the scribe’s ability to produce attractive work, but also their ability to produce accurate work. Some scribes achieved both; some didn’t.

A further complicating factor is the nature of the text that the scribe was intending to copy. Sometimes, scribes accurately copied bad texts; that is, he or she received a poor copy of a book but faithfully reproduced that poor copy. Identifying such instances can be tricky.

All in all, it can be extremely difficult to untangle these issues when it comes to a particular manuscript. We need to resist the urge to psychologize, impute motives to a scribe, or say more than the available evidence actually allows. We should be thorough in our research and cautious in our conclusions. 

How do you personally deal with the tension between the known and the unknown concerning the study of scribal habits?

Before we knew anything about scribal habits, we still had a good, reliable text of the New Testament. That should be enormously encouraging, and it should keep things in perspective. The more we learn about scribal habits and manuscript history, the more we are able to make minor adjustments here and there in the text; but it has remained remarkably stable in substance. That is something to be thankful for.

1The New Testament in the Original Greek: Introduction-Appendix (Macmillan, 1882)

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