The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald… and Textual Criticism

Forty years ago today, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank during an early November, severe winter storm on Lake Superior. All 29 of the Fitzgerald’s crew were lost.

As a kid in middle school, I fell in love with Gordon Lightfoot’s song telling the haunting story of the tragedy. I pretty much had the whole song memorized. I still get goose-bumps every time Lightfoot gets to the part where he sings:

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck
Sayin’ “Fellas, it’s too rough t’feed ya.”
At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said,
“Fellas, it’s bin good t’know ya!”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
and the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when ‘is lights went outta sight
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

In my mind, I envision water breaking through that main hatchway, taking the ship down into the icy, cold lake. I get the chills just thinking about it.

The problem is that you have to allow Lightfoot some artistic license in his telling of the story. The fact is, we simply do not know what the “old cook” said, nor did the ship captain after that wire anything about “water comin’ in.” Earlier that fateful afternoon, huge waves had already broken over the deck of the “Fitz,” causing substantial damage, resulting in a “bad list” and the loss of both radar units. The last radio transmission to a neighboring ship was, “We are holding our own.” Some twenty minutes later, after 7 P.M., the ship went down.

Lightfoot’s imaginary speech from the cook makes no substantial alteration to the basic story. In fact, it aptly summarizes the desperate situation the crew were facing. However, what is potentially significant, is that detail about, “At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in.”

Did someone forget to properly secure the hatchway? Was the hatch cover faulty? Was there human error involved?

It can make a difference.

Subsequent expeditions to the ship have since proven that there was no human error related to the ship’s demise. For the families of loved ones who were lost that evening, this knowledge absolves the crew of any wrongdoing on their part. When Lightfoot learned of the new evidence in 2010, he promised to alter the potentially offending lyric in future performances from:

At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said…

To a more accurate:

At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then he said…

Hatchways Caving In, as a Lesson for Christians When Reading Their Bibles

This could be a bit of a stretch for some, but in my mind, the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald tells us a lot about how Christians can better understand their Bibles, believe it or not.

Just like me with the Gordon Lightfoot song, people can often grow up with certain pictures in their mind about different passages of the Bible. An idea or image can easily stick in our head, when if you look at things a little more closely, in light of new evidence, it would require some changes to how we mentally represent something that the Bible says.

Here is a good example: in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, 1 John 5:7-8 reads like this:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

I put the middle phrase in bold, because if you compare the same passage with the English Standard Version (ESV), it reads quite differently:

For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.

As with all modern translations, the explicit reference to the Trinity has been removed. This is not a glitch. Nor is it a conspiracy. This decision by modern translators is founded on good, historical evidence.

In the field of textual criticism, scholars work with ancient documents that have been copied and recopied over the centuries, in order to try to arrive at what is most probably the best and most accurate original reading of the text involved. This particular case, known by scholars as the Comma Johanneum, is famous in that there are no ancient copies of the New Testament that include this explicit reference to the Trinity. At best, the earliest we find any reference to the Comma Johanneum is about the 4th or 5th century A.D., and that was from a church homily, not a copy of the New Testament, according to textual scholar, Dan Wallace. The added phrase only appears rarely in medieval copies of the New Testament, mostly being found in Latin texts by the 15th century. The lack of clear, ancient evidence supporting the existence of this phrase casts serious doubts on it historical authenticity. Since Christian faith is founded on history, scholars are obligated to treat the scriptural text with a respect for history.

Codex Sinaiticus is one of the oldest copies of the New Testament discovered by scholars within the past two centuries. In this excerpt from I John 5:7-9, it lacks the explicit reference to the Trinity, the Comma Johanneum, that made its way into the King James Bible in 1611. The colored text reads, "There are three witness bearers, the Spirit and the water and the blood." (image credit: "CODEX SINAITICUS 1 John 5:7- 8 Comma Johanneum" by Pvasiliadis - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)

Codex Sinaiticus is one of the oldest copies of the New Testament discovered by scholars within the past two centuries. In this excerpt from I John 5:7-9, it lacks the explicit reference to the Trinity, the Comma Johanneum, that made its way into the King James Bible in 1611. The colored text reads, “There are three witness bearers, the Spirit and the water and the blood.”
(image credit: “CODEX SINAITICUS 1 John 5:7- 8 Comma Johanneum” by Pvasiliadis – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)

But once you get accustomed to a particular rendering, it becomes difficult to break old habits of thinking. Most scholars today agree with the great, late medieval textual critic, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who attempted to give Christians in the 16th century an improved, accurate text of the Bible. Erasmus suspected that a Latin copyist inserted the extra words into 1 John 5:7, probably with good intent, but nonetheless, it was not original to the text. So, Erasmus removed the phrase from his publication of the Greek New Testament.

However, a number of people who were so accustomed to the phrase demanded that Erasmus put it back. They complained that removing the phrase was an attack on the doctrine of the Trinity, as it is the only place in the King James Version of the Bible where there is an explicit reference to the Trinity. But when read in context, this passage is not necessarily meant by the New Testament author to teach the Trinity so directly, though one could allegorize the three-fold nature of the Godhead from these verses. The Trinity can be readily defended implicitly by examining other verses in the Bible. Removing the phrase does not take away anything regarding the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Erasmus was aiming for the accuracy of that particular text, but others were more concerned about maintaining the traditional rendering that stuck in their minds and their imagination.

Erasmus caved  into the pressure and reinserted the phrase in later editions of his Greek New Testament. The King James Version of the Bible, translated in 1611, is based on Erasmus’ later editions of the Greek New Testament, which is why the KJV preserves the phrase.

Now, I probably will never get accustomed to Lightfoot’s new rendering of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald song, though the new alteration is surely more accurate. Likewise, many people who grew up reading the KJV have become quite attached to the Comma Johanneum.  So, I understand why some might complain about the changes found in modern translations of the Bible.

But think about those families who lost loved ones on the Fitzgerald. Lightfoot’s new rendering clearly preserves the honor of that crew that went down with the ship, in a way that the older, more popular version that I heard on the radio in the 1970s left unresolved. Likewise, when we read our Bibles, we should be more concerned about accuracy than trying to preserve the cherished memories of our Bible imagination.

Here, Gordon Lightfoot discusses why he changed the lyrics:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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