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It is my opinion that scribal gap-filling accounts for many of the textual variants (especially textual expansions) in the New Testament—particularly in the narrative books (the Four Gospels and Acts). Usually, textual critics examine textual variants as accidental deviations from the original text. However, some variants may be accounted for more accurately as individual “reader-receptions” of the text. By this, I mean variants created by individual scribes as they interpreted the text in the process of reading it. In the centuries prior to the production of copies via dictation (wherein many scribes in a scriptorium transcribed a text as it was dictated to them by one reader), all manuscript copies were made singly—each scribe working alone to produce a copy from an exemplar. The good scribe was expected not to have really processed the text internally but to have mechanically copied it word by word, even letter by letter. But no matter how meticulous or professional, a scribe would become subjectively involved with the text and—whether consciously or unconsciously—at times produce a transcription that differed from his exemplar, thereby leaving a written legacy of his individual reading of the text.
Even a scribe as meticulous as the one who produced 𝔓75 could not refrain, on occasion, from filling in a perceived gap. This occurs in the parable in Luke 16:19–31 where the reader is told of an unnamed rich man and a beggar who has a name, Lazarus. Perceiving a gap in the story, the scribe gives the rich man a name: “Neues,” perhaps meaning “Nineveh” (see note on Luke 16:19). Other scribes gave names to the two revolutionaries crucified with Jesus: Zoatham and Camma (in some manuscripts), or Joathas and Maggatras (in other manuscripts; see note on Matt 27:38). Many other scribes filled in bigger gaps, especially in narratives. In the story of the salvation of the Ethiopian eunuch recorded in Acts 8:26–40, some scribes added an entire verse so as to fill in a perceived gap of what one must confess before being baptized. Thus, we are given these extra words in Acts 8:37, “And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may [be baptized].’ And he [the eunuch] replied, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ ” (See note on Acts 8:37 for further discussion below.)
The observations of certain literary theorists who focus on reader reception help us understand the dynamic interaction between the scribe (functioning as a true reader) and the text he or she was copying. Textual critics must take into account the historical situation of the scribes who produced the manuscripts we rely on for textual criticism. Textual critics must also realize that scribes were interactive readers. Indeed, as many literary critics in recent years have shifted their focus from the text itself to the readers of the text in an attempt to comprehend plurality of interpretation, so textual critics could analyze variant readings in the textual tradition as possibly being the products of different, personalized “readings” of the text created by the scribes who produced them.
The work of Wolfgang Iser is useful for understanding how scribes read and processed a text as they transcribed it. Iser is concerned not just with the question of what a literary text makes its readers do but with how readers participate in creating meaning. In other words, the meaning of a text is not inherent in the text but must be actualized by the reader. A reader must act as cocreator of the text by supplying that portion of it which is not written but only implied. Each reader uses his or her imagination to fill in the unwritten portions of the text, its “gaps” or areas of “indeterminacy.” In other words, the meaning of a text is gradually actualized as the reader adopts the perspectives thrust on him or her by the text, experiences it sequentially, has expectations frustrated or modified, relates one part of the text to the other, and imagines and fills in all that the text leaves blank. The reader’s reflection on the thwarting of his or her expectations, the negations of familiar values, the causes of their failure, and whatever potential solutions the text offers, require the reader to take an active part in formulating the meaning of the narrative.
While readers do this gap-filling in their imaginations only, scribes sometimes took the liberty to fill the unwritten gaps with written words. In other words, some scribes went beyond just imagining how the gaps should be filled and actually filled them. The historical evidence shows that each scribe who copied a text created a new written text. Although there are many factors that could have contributed to the making of this new text, one major factor is that the text constantly demands the reader to fill in the gaps.
A literary work is not autonomous but is an intensional object that depends on the cognition of the reader. As an intensional object, a literary work cannot fill in all the details; the reader is required to do this. During the reading process, the reader must concretize the gaps by using his or her imagination to give substance to textual omission and/or indefiniteness. Since this substantiation is a subjective and creative act, the concretization will assume many variations for different readers. For example, the Gospel of Luke says that the crowds who had watched Jesus’ crucifixion “returned home, beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48). Although it would seem that most readers are given enough text to visualize this scene, the imaginations of various scribes were sparked to consider how extensive their grief was or to re-create what they might have been saying to one another as they walked home. A few scribes, imagining a more intense reaction, added, “they returned home, beating their breasts and foreheads.” Other scribes provided some dialogue: “they returned home beating their breasts, and saying, ‘Woe to us for the sins we have committed this day, for the destruction of Jerusalem is imminent!’ ”
Iser calls the textual gaps “blanks”; each blank is a nothing that propels communication because the blank requires an act of ideation in order to be filled. “Blanks suspend connectibility of textual patterns, the resultant break in good continuation intensifies the acts of ideation on the reader’s part, and in this respect the blank functions as an elementary function of communication” (Iser 1978, 189). According to Iser, the central factor in literary communication concerns the reader’s filling in of these textual blanks. His theory of textual gaps is useful for understanding scribal reader-reception. Of course, his perception of gaps or blanks is far bigger and more demanding on the reader’s imaginative powers than was usually the case for New Testament scribes. Nonetheless, scribes were confronted with gaps or blanks that begged for imaginative filling. Many scribes, when confronted with such textual gaps, took the liberty to fill in those gaps by adding extra words or changing the wording to provide what they thought would be a more communicative text. Indeed, the entire history of New Testament textual transmission shows the text getting longer and longer due to textual interpolations—i.e., the filling in of perceived gaps. We especially see the work of gap-filling in the substantial number of expansions in the D-text of the Gospels and Acts. Whoever edited this text had a propensity for filling in textual gaps, as he perceived them. Such gap-filling is especially pronounced in the book of Acts, where the D-reviser made countless interpolations (see introduction to Acts).
Philip W. Comfort
New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008)
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