Church History the Bible

Causes of corruption in the Traditional Text

The Traditional Text of the New Testament (in original Greek or other languages, i.e. Versions) from which the true believers took their spiritual sustenance through all ages goes back to the earliest times of the Christian Church. But so does corruptions of that text in the original Greek language. The causes of corruption introduced to the Traditional Text of Holy Scripture can be broken into two categories, Unintentional and Intentional. Unintentional causes include various kinds of copyist errors. In the following, expert textual critic, John Burgon explains how and what some intentional errors were introduced by heretics into some early manuscripts. The corruption was chiefly at the hands of the editors of a small band of manuscripts headed up by the Codexes Vaticanus B and Sinaiticus ℵ (Aleph).

9781888328035The following text is excerpted from Dean John William Burgon’s book “The Causes of Corruption of the Traditional Text of the Gospels,” Volume II, pp. 192-205, without original footnotes (with my emphases in bold and my comments in {} brackets).



We are constrained to inquire, How all this can possibly have come about? Have there even been persons who made it their business of set purpose to corrupt the [sacred deposit of Holy Scripture entrusted to the Church for the perpetual illumination of all ages till the Lord should come ?]

At this stage of the inquiry, we are reminded that it is even notorious that in the earliest age of all, the New Testament Scriptures were subject to such influences. In the age which immediately succeeded the Apostolic there were heretical teachers not a few, who finding their tenets refuted by the plain Word of GOD bent themselves against the written Word with all their power. From seeking to evacuate its teaching, it was but a single step to seeking to falsify its testimony. Profane literature {non-Biblical writing} has never been exposed to such hostility. I make the remark in order also to remind the reader of one more point of [dissimilarity between the two classes of writings. The inestimable value of the New Testament entailed greater dangers, as well as secured superior safeguards. Strange, that a later age should try to discard the latter].

It is found therefore that Satan could not even wait for the grave to close over St. John. ‘Many’ there were already who taught that CHRIST had not come in the flesh. Gnosticism was in the world already. St. Paul denounces it by name, and significantly condemns the wild fancies of its professors, their dangerous speculations as well as their absurd figments. Thus he predicts and condemns their pestilential teaching in respect of meats and drinks and concerning matrimony. In his Epistle to Timothy he relates that Hymeneus and Philetus taught that the Resurrection was past already. What wonder if a flood of impious teaching broke loose on the Church when the last of the Apostles had been gathered in, and another generation of men had arisen, and the age of Miracles was found to be departing if it had not already departed, and the loftiest boast which any could make was that they had known those who had [seen and heard the Apostles of the Lord].

The ‘grievous wolves’ whose assaults St. Paul predicted as imminent, and against which he warned the heads of the Ephesian Church, did not long ‘spare the flock.’ Already, while St. John was yet alive, had the Nicolaitans developed their teaching at Ephesus and in the neighbouring Church of Pergamos. Our risen LORD in glory announced to His servant John that in the latter city Satan had established his dwelling-place. Nay, while those awful words were being spoken to the Seer of Patmos, the men were already born who first dared to lay their impious hands on the Gospel of CHRIST.

No sooner do we find ourselves out of Apostolic lines and among monuments of the primitive age than we are made aware that the sacred text must have been exposed at that very early period to disturbing influences which, on no ordinary principles, can be explained. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Clement of Alexandria,—among the Fathers : some Old Latin MSS. {manuscripts}, the Bohairic and Sahidic, and coming later on, the Curetonian and Lewis,—among the Versions {in other languages than Greek} : of the copies Codd. B and ℵ {Codexes (books) Vaticanus B and Sinaiticus ℵ (Aleph)}: and above all coming later down still, Cod. D:—these venerable monuments of a primitive age occasionally present us with deformities which it is worse than useless to extenuate,—quite impossible to overlook. Unauthorized appendixes, —tasteless and stupid amplifications,—plain perversions of the meaning of the Evangelists,—wholly gratuitous assimilations of one Gospel to another,—the unprovoked omission of passages of profound interest and not unfrequently of high doctrinal import:—How are such phenomena as these to be accounted for? Again, in one quarter, we light upon a systematic mutilation of the text so extraordinary that it is as if some one had amused himself by running his pen through every clause which was not absolutely necessary to the intelligibleness of what remained. In another quarter we encounter the thrusting in of fabulous stories and apocryphal sayings which disfigure as well as encumber the text.–How will any one explain all this ?

Let me however at the risk of repeating what has been already said dispose at once of an uneasy suspicion which is pretty sure to suggest itself to a person of intelligence after reading what goes before. If the most primitive witnesses to our hand are indeed discovered to bear false witness to the text of Scripture,–whither are we to betake ourselves for the Truth? And what security can we hope ever to enjoy that any given exhibition of the text of Scripture is the true one ? Are we then to be told that in this subject-matter the maxim ‘ id verius quod prius‘ does not hold ? that the stream instead of getting purer as we approach the fountain head, on the contrary grows more and more corrupt?

Nothing of the sort, I answer. The direct reverse is the case. Our appeal is always made to antiquity; and it is nothing else but a truism to assert that the oldest reading is also the best. A very few words will make this matter clear; because a very few words will suffice to explain a circumstance already adverted to which it is necessary to keep always before the eyes of the reader.

The characteristic note, the one distinguishing feature, of all the monstrous and palpable perversions of the text of Scripture just now under consideration is this:—that they are never vouched for by the oldest documents generally, but only by a few of them,—two, three, or more of the oldest documents being observed as a rule to yield conflicting testimony, (which in this subject-matter is in fact contradictory). In this way the oldest witnesses nearly always refute one another, and indeed dispose of one another’s evidence almost as often as that evidence is untrustworthy. And now I may resume and proceed.

I say then that it is an adequate, as well as a singularly satisfactory explanation of the greater part of those gross depravations of Scripture which admit of no legitimate excuse, to attribute them, however remotely, to those licentious free-handlers of the text who are declared by their contemporaries to have falsified, mutilated, interpolated, and in whatever other way to have corrupted the Gospel; whose blasphemous productions of necessity must once have obtained a very wide circulation : and indeed will never want some to recommend and uphold them. What with those who like Basilides and his followers invented a Gospel of their own:—what with those who with the Ebionites and the Valentinians interpolated and otherwise perverted one of the four Gospels until it suited their own purposes:—what with those who like Marcion shamefully maimed and mutilated the inspired text:—there must have been a large mass of corruption festering in the Church throughout the immediate post-Apostolic age. But even this is not all. There were those who like Tatian constructed Diatessarons, or attempts to weave the fourfold narrative into one,—’Lives of CHRIST,’ so to speak;—and productions of this class were multiplied to an extraordinary extent, and as we certainly know, not only found their way into the remotest corners of the Church, but established themselves there. And will any one affect surprise if occasionally a curious scholar of those days was imposed upon by the confident assurance that by no means were those many sources of light to be indiscriminately rejected, but that there must be some truth in what they advanced ? In a singularly uncritical age, the seductive simplicity of one reading,—the interesting fullness of another,—the plausibility of a third,—was quite sure to recommend its acceptance amongst those many eclectic recensions {edited text from critical analysis} which were constructed by long since forgotten Critics, from which the most depraved and worthless of our existing texts and versions have been derived. Emphatically condemned by Ecclesiastical authority, and hopelessly outvoted by the universal voice of Christendom, buried under fifteen centuries, the corruptions I speak of survive at the present day chiefly in that little handful of copies which, calamitous to relate, the school of Lachmann and Tischendorf and Tregelles look upon as oracular: and in conformity with which many scholars are for refashioning the Evangelical text under the mistaken title of ‘Old Readings.’ And now to proceed with my argument.

§ 2.

Numerous as were the heresies of the first two or three centuries of the Christian era, they almost all agreed in this;—that they involved a denial of the eternal Godhead of the SON of Man: denied that He is essentially very and eternal GOD. This fundamental heresy found itself hopelessly confuted by the whole tenor of the Gospel, which nevertheless it assailed with restless ingenuity : and many are the traces alike of its impotence and of its malice which have survived to our own times. It is a memorable circumstance that it is precisely those very texts which relate either to the eternal generation of the SON,—to His Incarnation,—or to the circumstances of His Nativity, —which have suffered most severely, and retain to this hour traces of having been in various ways tampered with. I do not say that Heretics were the only offenders here. I am inclined to suspect that the orthodox were as much to blame as the impugners of the Truth. But it was at least with a pious motive that the latter tampered with the Deposit {Holy Scriptures}. They did but imitate the example set them by the assailing party. It is indeed the calamitous consequence of extravagances in one direction that they are observed ever to beget excesses in the opposite quarter. Accordingly the piety of the primitive age did not think it wrong to fortify the Truth by the insertion, suppression, or substitution of a few words in any place from which danger was apprehended. In this way, I am persuaded, many an unwarrantable ‘reading’ is to be explained. I do not mean that ‘marginal glosses have frequently found their way into the text’:—that points to a wholly improbable account of the matter. I mean, that expressions which seemed to countenance heretical notions, or at least which had been made a bad use of by evil men, were deliberately falsified. But I must not further anticipate the substance of the next chapter.

The men who first systematically depraved the text of Scripture, were as we now must know the heresiarchs Basilides (A.D. 134), Valentinus (A.D. 140), and Marcion (A.D. 15o) : three names which Origen is observed almost invariably to enumerate together. Basilides and Valentinus are even said to have written Gospels of their own. Such a statement is not to be severely pressed: but the general fact is established by the notices, and those are exceedingly abundant, which the writers against Heresies have cited and left on record. All that is intended by such statements is that these old heretics retained, altered, transposed, just so much as they pleased of the fourfold Gospel: and further, that they imported whatever additional matter they saw fit:—not that they rejected the inspired text entirely, and substituted something of their own invention in its place. And though, in the case of Valentinus, it has been contended, apparently with reason, that he probably did not individually go to the same length as Basilides,—who, as well in respect of St. Paul’s Epistles as of the four Gospels, was evidently a grievous offender,—yet, since it is clear that his principal followers, who were also his contemporaries, put forth a composition which they were pleased to style the ‘Gospel of Truth,’ it is idle to dispute as to the limit of the rashness and impiety of the individual author of the heresy. Let it be further stated, as no slight confirmation of the view already hazarded as to the probable contents of the (so-called) Gospels of Basilides and of Valentinus, that one particular Gospel is related to have been preferred before the rest and specially adopted by certain schools of ancient Heretics. Thus, a strangely mutilated and depraved text of St. Matthew’s Gospel is related to have found especial favour with the Ebionites, with whom the Corinthians arc associated by Epiphanius : though Irenaeus seems to say that it was St. Mark’s Gospel which was adopted by the heretical followers of Cerinthus. Marcion’s deliberate choice of St. Luke’s Gospel is sufficiently well-known. The Valentinians appropriated to themselves St. John. Heracleon, the most distinguished disciple of this school, is deliberately censured by Origen for having corrupted the text of the fourth Evangelist in many places. A considerable portion of his Commentary on St. John has been preserved to us: and a very strange production it is found to have been.

Concerning Marcion, who is a far more conspicuous personage, it will be necessary to speak more particularly. He has left a mark on the text of Scripture of which traces are distinctly recognizable at the present day. A great deal more is known about him than about any other individual of his school. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus wrote against him: besides Origen and Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian in the West, and Epiphanius in the East, elaborately refuted his teaching, and give us large information as to his method of handling Scripture.

Another writer of this remote time who, as I am prone to think, must have exercised sensible influence on the text of Scripture was Ammonius of Alexandria.

But Tatian beyond every other early writer of antiquity [appears to me to have caused alterations in the Sacred Text.]

It is obviously no answer to anything that has gone before to insist that the Evangelium of Marcion (for instance), so far as it is recognizable by the notices of it given by Epiphanius, can very rarely indeed be shewn to have resembled any extant MS. {manuscript} of the Gospels. Let it be even freely granted that many of the charges brought against it by Epiphanius with so much warmth, collapse when closely examined and severely sifted. It is to be remembered that Marcion’s Gospel was known to be an heretical production: one of the many creations of the Gnostic age,—it must have been universally execrated and abhorred by faithful men. Besides this lacerated text of St. Luke’s Gospel, there was an Ebionite recension of St. Matthew: a Cerinthian exhibition of St. Mark: a Valentinian perversion of St. John. And we are but insisting that the effect of so many corruptions of the Truth, industriously propagated within far less than 100 years of the date of the inspired verities {true texts} themselves, must needs have made itself sensibly felt. Add the notorious fact, that in the second and third centuries after the Christian era the text of the Gospels is found to have been grossly corrupted even in orthodox quarters,–and that traces of these gross corruptions are discoverable in certain circles to the present hour,—and it seems impossible not to connect the two phenomena together. The wonder rather is that, at the end of so many centuries, we are able distinctly to recognize any evidence whatever.

The proneness of these early Heretics severally to adopt one of the four Gospels for their own, explains why there is no consistency observable in the corruptions they introduced into the text. It also explains the bringing into one Gospel of things which of right clearly belong to another—as in St. Mark iii. 14 {Greek text}.

I do not propose (as will presently appear) in this way to explain any considerable number of the actual corruptions of the text: but in no other way is it possible to account for such systematic mutilations as are found in Cod. B,—such monstrous additions as are found in Cod. D,—such gross perturbations as are continually met with in one or more, but never in all, of the earliest Codexes extant, as well as in the oldest Versions and Fathers {early church commentators}.

The plan of Tatian’s Diatessaron will account for a great deal. He indulges in frigid glosses, as when about the wine at the feast of Cana in Galilee he reads that the servants knew ‘because they had drawn the water’; or in tasteless and stupid amplifications, as in the going back of the Centurion to his house. I suspect that the {Greek text}, ‘Why do you ask me about that which is good?’ is to be referred to some of these tamperers with the Divine Word.

§ 3.

These professors of ‘Gnosticism’ held no consistent theory. The two leading problems on which they exercised their perverse ingenuity are found to have been (1) the origin of Matter, and (2) the origin of Evil.
(1) They taught that the world’s artificer (‘the Word’) was Himself a creature of ‘the Father.’ Encountered on the threshold of the Gospel by the plain declaration that, ‘In the beginning was the WORD: and the WORD was with GOD: and the WORD was GOD’: and presently, ‘All things were made by Him’;—they were much exercised. The expedients to which they had recourse were certainly extraordinary. That ‘Beginning’ (said Valentinus) was the first thing which ‘the FATHER’ created : which He called ‘Only begotten SON,’ and also ‘GOD’ : and in whom he implanted the germ of all things. Seminally, that is, whatsoever subsequently came into being was in Him. ‘The Word’ (he said) was a product of this first-created thing. And ‘All things were made by Him,’ because in ‘the Word’ was the entire essence of all the subsequent worlds (Aeons), to which he assigned forms. From which it is plain that, according to Valentinus, ‘the WORD’ was distinct from ‘the SON’; who was not the world’s Creator. Both alike, however, he acknowledged to be ‘GOD’: but only, as we have seen already, using the term in an inferior sense.

Heracleon, commenting on St. John i. 3, insists that ‘all things’ can but signify this perishable world and the things that are therein: not essences of a loftier nature. Accordingly, after the words ‘and without Him was not anything made,’ he ventures to interpolate this clause,—’of the things that are in the world and in the creation.’ True, that the Evangelist had declared with unmistakable emphasis, ‘and without Him was not anything’ (literally, ‘was not even one thing’) ‘made that was made.’ But instead of ‘not even one thing,’ the Valentinian Gnostics appear to have written ‘nothing’; and the concluding clause ‘that was made,’ because he found it simply unmanageable, Valentinus boldly severed from its context, making it the beginning of a fresh sentence. With the Gnostics, ver. 4 is found to have begun thus,— ‘What was made in Him was life.’

Of the change of {Greek text} traces survive in many of the Fathers: but ℵ and D are the only Uncial MSS., which are known to retain that corrupt reading.—The uncouth sentence which follows {Greek text}, singular to relate, was generally tolerated, became established in many quarters, and meets us still at every step. It was evidently put forward so perseveringly by the Gnostics, with whom it was a kind of article of the faith, that the orthodox at last became too familiar with it. Epiphanius, though he condemns it, once employs it. Occurring first in a fragment of Valentinus: next, in the Commentary of Heracleon: after that, in the pages of Theodotus the Gnostic (A.D. 192): then, in an exposure by Hippolytus of the tenets of the Naäseni, (a subsection of the same school);—the baseness of its origin at least is undeniable. But inasmuch as the words may be made to bear a loyal interpretation, the heretical construction of St. John i. 3 was endured by the Church for full 200 years. Clemens Alex. is observed thrice to adopt it: Origen and Eusebius fall into it repeatedly. It is found in Codd. ℵCD: apparently in Cod. A, where it fills one line exactly. Cyril comments largely on it. But as fresh heresies arose which the depraved text seemed to favour, the Church bestirred herself and remonstrated. It suited the Arians and the Macedonians, who insisted that the HOLY GHOST is a creature. The former were refuted by Epiphanius, who points out that the sense is not complete until you have read the words {Greek text}. A fresh sentence (he says) {Greek text}. Chrysostom deals with the latter. ‘Let us beware of putting the full stop’ (he says) ‘at the words {Greek text},–as do the heretics. In order to make out that the SPIRIT is a creature, they read {Greek text}: by which means the Evangelist’s meaning becomes unintelligible.’

But in the meantime, Valentinus, whose example was followed by Theodotus and by at least two of the Gnostic Sects against whom Hippolytus wrote, had gone further. The better to conceal St. John’s purpose, the heresiarch falsified the inspired text. In the place of, ‘What was made in Him, was life,’ he substituted ‘What was made In Him, is life.’ Origen had seen copies so depraved, and judged the reading not altogether improbable. Clement, on a single occasion, even adopted it. It was the approved reading of the Old Latin versions,—a memorable indication, by the way, of a quarter from which the Old Latin derived their texts,—which explains why it is found in Cyprian, Hilary, and Augustine ; and why Ambrose has so elaborately vindicated its sufficiency. It also appears in the Sahidic and in Cureton’s Syriac; but not in the Peshitto, nor in the Vulgate. [Nor in the Bohairic.] In the meantime, the only Greek Codexes which retain this singular trace of the Gnostic period at the present day, are Codexes ℵ and D.

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By John Gideon Hartnett

Dr John G. Hartnett is an Australian physicist and cosmologist, and a Christian with a biblical creationist worldview. He received a B.Sc. (Hons) and Ph.D. (with distinction) in Physics from The University of Western Australia, W.A., Australia. He was an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award (DORA) fellow at the University of Adelaide, with rank of Associate Professor. Now he is retired. He has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals, book chapters and conference proceedings.