On the apparent discrepancies among the Gospels, a number of attempts were made in the following few centuries to compile a ‘harmony’ of the four Gospels (i.e. to combine them all into one continuous text and narrative). The most famous of these was the Diatessaron (‘after the four’) compiled in the latter part of the second century by St. Justin Martyr’s disciple Tatian. Tatian’s Diatessaron was used by the Syriac churches until the fifth century.* 16
Otherwise all the churches were intensely conservative and treasured and guarded their Scriptures jealously. Each individual church possessed its own complete set of Scriptures, and so the sheer number of copies ensured that no major changes crept into the text. Nevertheless, minor variations of the text abounded. For individual bishops and scribes each had their own temptations to make minor changes to the text. A bishop might wish that this or that verse or passage was clearer or easier for the less educated to understand, or that it did not risk giving scandal. Thus some manuscripts of St. John, for example, omitted 8:1-11 because this passage, seeming to show our Lord failing to condemn adultery, was being abused by heretics claiming that our Lord was licensing that sin. Likewise some manuscripts omitted St. Mark 3: 21 which seems to tell us that our Lord’s relatives thought He was mad. Similarly a scribe, and especially a translator will find himself wishing that this or that verse or passage was less clumsy or more elegant. What was natural in Hebrew could look clumsy in Greek and later on what was natural in Greek could look clumsy in Latin or Syriac or Sahidic (an Egyptian dialect) etc. Thus translators and scribes were liable frequently to change the words of Scripture in the direction of greater clarity or elegance. 17
Indeed it is because of different choices between fidelity and elegance that two ancient manuscripts of the Bible, the Codex Alexandrinus and the Codex Vaticanus, stand at the head of two lines of manuscripts quite different from one another. With its less faithful but more elegant Greek, the Alexandrinus line became the official text of the Byzantine Greek church of the East. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 it came to the west where it was admired by Erasmus and became the basis for the beautiful King James Bible of 1611. In this manuscript tradition, beauty of language triumphed. In the other tradition however, that of the Vaticanus, fidelity to the original came first. Indeed ‘Vaticanus B’ has been described as ‘by far the greatest and best of all the manuscripts of the New Testament which have come down to us. If every other manuscript of the New Testament had perished, and the text was printed from B alone with only the correction of the obvious and superficial errors, we would still have in all essentials a true text of the words of Jesus and the Apostles.’ It is to his undying credit that, in preparing his Latin Vulgate, St. Jerome remained faithful to the much less elegant but more faithful Vaticanus tradition.* 18
The liturgical context of the works in the New Testament should never be forgotten. With the exception of III St. John and Philemon (which were written to individual churchmen), St. Paul’s three ‘pastoral epistles’ (for
Published on Nov 29, 2011
Published on Nov 29, 2011
This survey of how the New Testament came to be written is also a chronicle of the first 40 years of the history of the Christian Church. It...