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The Scribes and the Book of Revelation: How Do You Copy a Book Full of Bad Grammar?

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4. How Do You Copy a Book Full of Bad Grammar?

Now at last we get to our big, juicy rabbit. How do you copy a book full of bad grammar? On the one hand, if you revere the text, you will feel the urge to copy carefully and not change a single letter (and since the third century, New Testament manuscripts show this degree of care). But on the other hand, bad grammar is bad grammar, and if you love good grammar, you might follow the urge to correct it.

How do the scribes of Revelation in fact handle their urges? We shall look and see.

What about the two barbarisms we talked about earlier? What happened to them as they came through the transmission process?

Here is the first one: “Behold, I have set before you an open door, ἣν οὐδεὶς δύναται κλεῖσαι αὐτήν—which no one is able to close it” (3:8). The scribes get a very good grade here, for they almost universally preserve the barbarism. But there are two ways to fix it: (1) Change ἣν to καὶ: “and no one is able to close it.” 1611 and a few others follow this urge. (2) Omit αὐτήν: “which no one is able to close.” 1006 א C and a few others correct the text in this way.

Here is the other one: “And the woman fled into the wilderness, ὅπου ἔχει ἐκεῖ τόπον—where she has there a place (12:6).” This barbarism is easily fixed by removing ἐκεῖ, leaving “where she has a place.” About half of the manuscripts do this: C 2329 and the manuscripts with the Andreas commentary.

There are plenty more barbarisms, but let us move on and have a look at a few solecisms.

Here is one in 2:20: “But I have against you that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, the one calling herself a prophetess and she teaches and deceives my servantsτὴν γυναῖκα Ἰεζάβελ ἡ λέγουσα ἑαυτὴν προφῆτιν καὶ διδάσκει καὶ πλανᾷ τοὺς ἐμοὺς δούλους.” This is the text as found in א* A C 2053 2329 and a few others. There are two problems here. One is that since γυναῖκα is feminine accusative, any inflectable modifiers have to be feminine accusative, too, and ἡ λέγουσα isn’t. So that’s a clear solecism. The other problem is that you have in series a  participle and two finite verbs: “the one calling herself a prophetess and she teaches and deceives.” This is awkward, since it is smoother to express coordinate ideas in similar language. Only a few manuscripts have the original reading. Most follow the urge to fix it, either partly or completely: (1) Change ἡ λέγουσα to accusative so it agrees with its noun: τὴν λέγουσαν, as is found in 2050 1854 a corrector of  א and the manuscripts with the Andreas Commentary. This is the partial fix. (2) The complete fix is to replace the participle with a finite verb: ἣ λέγει (“Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and teaches and deceives”) 1006 1611 1841 2351 and the manuscripts of the Koine type.

In 7:4 a substantive in the genitive case is modified by a participle in the nominative case: τῶν ἐσφραγισμένων . . . ἐσφραγισμένοι. This is bad. But about half of our manuscripts preserve it (the ones with the Andreas commentary), while the other half change the modifier to make it agree: τῶν ἐσφραγισμένων . . . ἐσφραγισμένων (2351 the ones of the Koine type).

Another example of the same kind is 20:2: τὸν δράκοντα, ὁ ὄφις ὁ ἀρχαῖος, where you have a dependent in the nominative modifying a noun in the accusative. The reading is only supported by A and few other witnesses. All the rest correct it to read τὸν δράκοντα, τὸν ὄφιν τὸν ἀρχαῖον.

Maybe the most famous grammatical oddity in the book is this name for God: ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος (1:4 and a few other places). The scribes do not dare to change this, although it is very un-Greek. In the first place it is treated as indeclinable—that is, whatever case it is supposed to be in, it stays put in the nominative. In the second place, in the middle of the expression a finite verb takes the article. The English Bible renders it in correct English: Grace to you and peace from “him who is and who was and who is to come.” To make the surface oddities show up, we have to have something like, “Grace to you and peace from he who is and the he-was and he who is coming.” But that is not as mellifluous as John’s Greek, where it really sounds rather grand.


Those are only a few examples out of many. But time is on the wing, and my feet are tired, and your—you are tired. It is time to bring this formal little talk around to some conclusions, although the informal talk, if you like, can go on into the night.

1. The language may be low and contain barbarisms and solecisms, but the ideas and visions are high and wonderful. That is why Dionysius had a little bit of a tender conscience even to point it out. The author of Revelation was a great artist who accomplished stupendous effects with no assistance from the grammarians. Good for him! “As if Shakespeare could spell!” (Brenda Ueland).

2. The tendency is to fix the bad grammar, and you find the manuscript tradition doing this. But another tendency is to preserve. Therefore, at any place where there is bad grammar, you can expect it to be fixed somewhere in the tradition, but not everywhere. Since there is the tendency to preserve as well as the tendency to fix, the manuscript tradition preserves both the original text somewhere and the fixes somewhere.

3. The readings which identify the Koine text are self-evidently secondary. In Revelation the eccentricities of grammar are internally consistent: they can be described (and have been) as a coherent and regular system of bad grammar. By no conceivable means can you account for a book in normal Greek being transformed by scribal transmission into eccentric Greek with internal consistency. But it is quite easy to account for a book in eccentric Greek being normalized in kind of a casual way.

4. And yet the secondary readings are themselves quite old. Just look at  א and p47.

5. Naturally when we read and interpret any book that we are serious about, we want to be able to trust what the text is. In the case of Revelation, the bad grammar sets off a cascade of departures from the original text as the scribes try to fix it. These departures themselves prove the original text they were trying to fix and therefore serve to verify the text as effectively as a unanimous manuscript tradition would.

6. But really, getting back to the original text is not the only thing textual criticism is good for. We don’t have to throw away the variants when we have chosen one reading as original. The full and complete study of any text has to include the variants, too. The variants are our direct connection with the people who over the past two millennia have devoted themselves to the text. One simple variant can take us back in our imagination to a scriptorium with bright, open windows on the coast of the Mediterranean where a room full of scribes are bending over their copies and some of them hear “washed” while others hear “loosed.” The variants are often our earliest commentary when a scribe found something ambiguous and decided to make it clear. And even where the variants only multiply confusions, they at least signal that here confusion reigns. Textual criticism is a most human scholarly discipline. In the text we are in the presence of the prophet who heard the seven thunders. But when we are down among the variants, we are in the presence of persons like ourselves, laboring away to hear a word from God.


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