Many people seem to think that every interesting question about the Bible has been answered long ago. After all, it has been studied in depth for nearly 2000 years (more, of course, for the Hebrew Bible). For some of these people the best answers were given by their favourite Church Fathers, popes or Reformers. For others, the answers have come from 19th or 20th century biblical scholarship. Yet, it turns out, there are many questions still unanswered, and not just ones which cannot be answered for lack of data.
So the discipline of biblical studies is still alive and fairly well. Last week it had its annual jamboree in New Orleans, a double whammy of ETS and SBL, attended by many of my blogging buddies. I’m sure a lot of what was presented there was speculation on the basis of old evidence, or of no evidence at all. But at least a few really new things seem to have come up. And they are not all about purely academic matters; some actually have practical implications.
One of the latter, amazingly enough, has to do with some dots in an ancient biblical manuscript. These dots, occurring in pairs and so known as umlauts or distigmai (Greek for “two dots”), are in Codex Vaticanus, which is one of the oldest known manuscripts of the New Testament. They were (at least according to textual critic and Evangelical Textual Criticism blogger Tommy Wasserman) discovered by the biblical scholar Philip Payne. Payne himself blogged last month about his discovery and analysis of these dots, at Zondervan’s Koinonia blog, where he wrote:
The paper I will read at the ETS Annual Meeting at 8:30 AM, Thursday Nov. 19 in the Waterbury Ballroom on the 2nd floor of the Sheraton will establish with conclusive statistical evidence that the distigmai in Codex Vaticanus are marks of textual variants.
Now this might appear to be of little interest to anyone much except for the textual critics. But not so! These dots turn out to be major supporting evidence for the theory that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is an interpolation, not an original part of Paul’s letter. This is the notorious passage in which the apostle allegedly tells women to be silent in church. It is hardly surprising that egalitarian evangelicals, most notably the well known exegete and commentator Gordon Fee, have tended to conclude that this passage is not original. The evidence for this which Fee gives in his NICNT commentary on 1 Corinthians has not convinced everyone. So of course it was of great interest to many people when Payne claimed to have found further evidence of the passage being an interpolation.
Move on from ETS to SBL, still in New Orleans, probably in the same Sheraton hotel, and just two days later on Saturday 21st. A new scholar, Peter Head, who also blogs at Evangelical Textual Criticism, has arrived from England during the night, having put the finishing touches to his presentation on the plane. So he wasn’t at Payne’s presentation. Had he seen a report of it? I’m sure he had at least seen the kind of summary of arguments which Payne had already posted. But, as Wasserman reports, Payne was in the front row when Head presented his paper, and so witnessed his argument being thoroughly demolished – at least if Wasserman’s account (which continues here) is fair.
Payne dated the distigmai to the 4th century. Head turned this theory on its head by dating them a full 1200 years later, to the 16th century, and even suggested the name of the person responsible for adding them to the manuscript: Juan Ginés de Sepulveda (UPDATE: this name was first put froward by Curt Niccum, as Tommy Wasserman points out in a comment below). Part of Head’s argument was in the positioning of the dots, avoiding other marks dated to as late as the 15th century. But his main argument related to which textual variants are marked. Payne apparently claimed a 60-70% match between the locations of the distigmai and the locations of textual variants known to date back to the 4th century. Head claimed a 98% match between distigmai and textual variants known to Erasmus in the 16th century. And it is known that Erasmus corresponded with Sepulveda about the text of Vaticanus at these very locations. If Head’s findings can be confirmed (and analysis of the ink of the dots might allow this), it seems that the mystery of the distigmai has been solved.
So, does this undermine Payne’s argument? It certainly undermines his dating of the distigmai to the 4th century. Therefore he no longer has clear evidence that the textual variant in 1 Corinthians 14 was known as early as that. However, he has found evidence that this textual variant was known at some time, perhaps in the 16th century. Quite probably this relates to the fact, probably well known to Erasmus and Sepulveda as it is to modern scholars, that the passage in question, 1 Corinthians 14:34-45, is displaced to after 14:40 in many manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate as well as in the so-called Western Text of the Greek; in one Vulgate manuscript, Codex Fuldensis, the passage is actually a later addition. This is basically the same evidence which Fee used to claim that these two verses are an interpolation into the original letter. And Fee’s argument, even without added evidence from the distigmai, is a strong one.
However, even if the passage is not an interpolation, it should not be concluded that the apostle Paul was a misogynist or that the Bible teaches that women should not be allowed to say anything in gatherings of Christians. Paul cannot have written that because it would be in direct contradiction to what he had written in 11:5, that women may pray or prophesy (the latter at least must be out loud in a gathering) as long as their heads are covered. If he did write 14:34-35, his meaning must have been that women were not to disrupt meetings by chattering or asking questions.
So is this a case of the apparent complementarian Peter Head, formerly of Oak Hill College, winning an argument over the egalitarian Philip Payne? No, that would be a caricature. I’m sure Peter’s motivations for presenting his paper were entirely scholarly, concerning his field of textual criticism, and nothing to do with proving a point about women. Perhaps one speculative piece of support for the egalitarian position has been found wanting, but the position as a whole has not been compromised at all. Certainly no one should use Peter’s SBL presentation as grounds for silencing women in their churches.