“Those Who Love Me Will Keep My Word”: Narrative Variants in New Testament Gospel Stories

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This dissertation examines dozens of “narrative variants” preserved in copies of ancient New Testament gospel manuscripts. In antiquity every copy was made by hand, so even texts understood to hold sacred status were always susceptible to meaningful change. Although New Testament textual criticism has traditionally sought to recover a singular text of the gospels, this study argues that early Christianity was in fact centered in an environment of interpretive expansions and editorial revisions, rendering such a recovery impossible in many passages. In antiquity, gospel stories were regularly altered by a single letter, a single word, an added or omitted phrase, an altered phrase, a rewritten section, or the revision of an entire book. The narrative variants highlighted here are limited to those preserved in gospel manuscripts copied no later than the fifth century, whether in Greek, Coptic, Latin, and/or Syriac. The study also examines the reception of story variations in artwork, liturgy, and ancient quotations of the gospel text; various modern scholars’ attempts to establish the “original text” in these passages are also surveyed. Three goals are in view: to demonstrate that 1) early Christian copying emerged at the confluence of Second Temple Jewish and Roman-era literary practices, both of which were centered in textual change; 2) consequently, the exact narrative authored by an evangelist is sometimes uncertain, despite the best efforts of modern scholars; and 3) even in cases where the direction of textual change is reasonably certain, a tendency to create narrative variants was present from the beginning. The dissertation concludes that a wide variety of forms of gospel stories were understood as sacred in the first centuries of Christianity, that narrative multiplicity is inherent to the Christian gospels, and that this multiplicity should be embraced by Biblical scholars.









Schrader Polczer, Elizabeth (2023). “Those Who Love Me Will Keep My Word”: Narrative Variants in New Testament Gospel Stories. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/29103.


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