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Do Textual Variants Really Matter for Anything?

QUESTION: I got the impression (I can’t remember where or if you said this… or if Bruce Metzger said it) that no significant Christian doctrine is threatened by text critical issues… and so, if that is the case, who cares if, in Mark 4: 18, Jesus spoke of the “illusion” of wealth or the “love” of wealth. I mean, who cares other than textual critics and Bible translators?   RESPONSE: This is a very good question, and one that I get a lot.  I’ve given an answer to it before on the blog, but since it periodically reappears, I thought that maybe I should give it another shot. The first thing to emphasize is a point that I repeatedly make and that many people seem never to notice that I make (especially my fundamentalist friends who very much object to my views about textual criticism):  of the many hundreds of thousands of textual variants that we have among our manuscripts, most of them are completely unimportant and insignificant and don’t matter for twit.   Why should [...]

Why Are the Gospels Anonymous?

In my previous posts I have tried to establish that the four Gospels circulated anonymously for decades after they were written.   To some modern readers that seems surprising.   Why wouldn’t the authors name themselves?   Surely they named themselves.   Didn’t’ they? The clear answer is, no, they did not.   But why? There have been a number of theories put forth over the years.   Possibly the most popular one (at least it’s the one I’ve heard most often) is that the Gospel writers thought that what was most important was the message they wanted to convey about the life, teachings, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus.   The authors did not want their own persons to “get in the way” of the message, and so they wrote their Gospels anonymously. In rough outline I suppose that might be true, but I would refine the idea a bit myself – as I will in a moment.   Before doing so, I should respond to an objection to this view.   Most of the *other* books of the New Testament identify their [...]

2020-04-03T14:19:46-04:00November 28th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

Papias on Matthew and Mark

In my previous two posts I showed why Papias is not a reliable source when it comes to the authorship of Matthew and Mark.   If you haven’t read those posts and are personally inclined to think that his testimony about Matthew and Mark are accurate, I suggest you read them (the posts) before reading this one. In this post I want to argue that what he actually says about Matthew and Mark are not true of our Matthew and Mark, and so either he is talking about *other* Gospels that he knows about (or has heard about) called Matthew and Mark, that do not correspond to our Matthew and Mark, or he simply is wrong. I’ll reverse the order in which his comments are given, and deal with Matthew first. In the quotation of the fourth century historian Eusebius, we read this:  And this is what [Papias] says about Matthew: “And so Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted [Or: translated] them to the best of his ability.” The problems [...]

2024-02-02T14:31:15-05:00November 26th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

Believing Papias When It’s Convenient

In my previous post I stressed that, contrary to what you sometimes may have heard or possibly will hear, Papias is not a *direct* witness to what the apostles of Jesus were saying.  That is an important point because of the most important “testimony” that Papias gives, a testimony that is often taken as very strong evidence that the second Gospel of the NT was written by Mark, the companion of Peter, and that the first Gospel was really and truly written by Matthew, the disciple of Jesus.   If these claims were right, they would be highly significant.  Matthew would have been written by someone who was there to see these things happen; and Mark’s account would be based on arguably the most important witness to Jesus’ life.. Here is what Papias says.  Remember, when he indicates what “the elder” says, he is indicating what he has learned from a person who was allegedly “companion” of the elder; the elder was someone who allegedly knew the apostles.  “And this is what the elder used to [...]

2020-04-03T14:20:05-04:00November 25th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

Papias as an Earwitness?

I have discussed Papias a number of times on the blog in the past, but have not given any substantial time to him in a about a year and a half.   He is an important figure for historians of early Christianity, because, as I pointed out in my previous post, he was a proto-orthodox author from the first part of the second century.   More than anything, conservative biblical scholars have latched on to Papias because in their opinion he provides direct evidence that the Gospel of Matthew really was written by Matthew, and the Gospel of Mark was really written by Mark.   I’ll be dealing with the evidence from Papias on both matters in subsequent posts.   What is even more remarkable is that some conservative scholars have actually argued that Papias gives us evidence about Luke and John, even though in none of the surviving fragments does Papias so much as *mention* Luke and John!!   Scholars can be amazingly inventive sometimes….. Before discussng what Papias says about the two Gospel-writers that do get mentioned in [...]

2020-04-03T14:20:21-04:00November 25th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

Why Don’t You Believe Like Your Teacher, Dr. Metzger?

QUESTION: Dr. Ehrman just out of curiosity, why do people pit you against your teacher Dr. Bruce Metzger? Did Metzger also find the construction of the originals impossible due to the late manuscript attestation and the inability to know what the original looked like? Or did your teacher, Dr. Metzger, disagree and hold to biblical inerrancy? RESPONSE: It’s a very good question and it has a very straightforward answer.  The people who do this are all, to my knowledge, conservative evangelical Christians who find it upsetting over two of the things that I say: (1) that I am now no longer a believer because I do not think the Christian faith can adequately explain how a good and powerful God can be in control of this world when there is so much senseless pain, misery, and suffering in it and, completely unrelatedly (2) that since we do not have lots of early manuscripts of the New Testament (let alone the originals) there are places where we cannot know for sure what the authors originally wrote.   [...]

2022-06-12T20:09:38-04:00November 23rd, 2014|Bart’s Biography, Public Forum, Reader’s Questions|

Papias and the Gospels: Some Background

In my previous post I argued that sometime in the second half of the second century, an edition of the four Gospels was compiled by an unknown editor/scribe, and place in circulation in Rome, in which the texts were identified, definitively and possibly for the first time, as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.   Now the question is: why did these names come to be chosen? This is a complicated question, and the answer is neither straightforward nor easy.   But I can state its broad contours simply:  for two of the authors, Matthew and Mark, there were much older traditions indicating that they had written Gospels, and the editor of the Roman edition of the four Gospels latched onto these traditions and assigned two of his Gospels to them; and for the other two Gospels, the unknown Roman editor used internal hints within Luke and John themselves to derive the names of their authors. First I’ll deal with Matthew and Mark, beginning with this post. The old traditions that Matthew the tax collector and Mark the [...]

2020-04-03T14:20:35-04:00November 21st, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

The Four Gospels in the Muratorian Fragment

I argued in my previous post that sometime between Justin, in Rome around 150-60, and Irenaeus in 185 the Gospels had begun to be known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  In my opinion this did not happen earlier (if some of you are wondering about the witness of Papias, I’ll say something about him in a few later posts).   In terms of his personal and ecclesiastical life, Irenaeus is best known as the bishop of Lyons in Gaul (i.e., the ancient forerunner of Lyon, France).   But he spent significant time in Rome itself before his appointment in Gaul, and he considered the Roman church to be the center of Christendom at his time. There is another witness to the fourfold Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John from Irenaeus’s time, and also from Rome.   This comes to us in a fragmentary Latin text discovered in the 18th century and called the Muratorian Fragment.   This document was discovered by an Italian scholar named Lodovico Antonio Muratori in the Ambrosiana Library (and so it is named [...]

2020-04-03T14:20:45-04:00November 20th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

The Gospels are Finally Named! Irenaeus of Lyons.

In the previous post we saw that the Gospels almost certainly circulated anonymously at first, just as they were composed anonymously.  It is an interesting question why the authors all chose to remain anonymous instead of indicating who they were.  I have a theory about that, and I may post on it eventually when I get through a bit more of this thread on why the Gospels ended up with the names they did.  At this stage, what we can say with certainty is that the Gospels are quoted in the early and mid-second centuries by proto-orthodox Christian authors, who never identify them as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That is especially significant when we come to Justin around 150-60 CE, who explicitly quotes these books as “Memoirs of the Apostles,” but does not tell us which apostles they are to be associated with.   This is in Rome, the capital of the Empire, and the seat of what was probably the largest, and certainly the most influential, church at the time. Some thirty years after [...]

2020-04-03T14:20:54-04:00November 18th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

When Did the Gospels Get Their Names?

When Did the Gospels Get Their Names? In this series of posts on the authors’ names associated with the New Testament Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – we have so far seen that the texts themselves are completely anonymous.  The authors of two of these works (Luke and John) do speak in the first person in a couple of instances, but they do not say who they are.  By the end of the second century, roughly a century after the books were written, they were being called by the names that are familiar to us today.   So naturally one might wonder, when were they given these ascriptions? When Did the Gospels Get Their Names: Evidence  Contrary to what you may sometimes have heard, there is no concrete evidence that the Gospels received their familiar names early on.   It is absolutely true to say that in the manuscripts of the Gospels, they have the titles we are accustomed to (The Gospel according to Matthew, etc.).  But these manuscripts with titles do not start appearing until [...]

2022-12-31T16:25:39-05:00November 17th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

The Year’s Society of Biblical Literature Meeting

This coming week, on Thursday, I head off to the annual Society of Biblical Literature, which this year is being held in San Diego.   I’m not sure if I’ve discussed the meeting on the blog before.   It is the main professional meeting that I go to every year; it’s always held the weekend before Thanksgiving (well, Saturday through Tuesday).   I go on Thursday evenings because I always have a commitment there first thing Friday morning. The SBL is a learned society for all professors of biblical studies – and graduate students and others academically committed to the field.  It’s not a really a conference that layfolk would or should be interested in.  It is a group of serious scholars talking serious scholarship using serious scholarly jargon based on scholarly assumptions.   Not fit for normal human consumption.  When I say a “group,” that makes it sound rather small, like a couple of dozen people.   And it’s not actually that kind of group.  It’s a group of many thousands.   The Society meets at the same time, in [...]

2017-12-14T10:22:02-05:00November 15th, 2014|History of Biblical Scholarship, Public Forum|

Did the Beloved Disciple Write the Gospel of John?

I have started a series of posts dealing with the authorship of the Gospels – specifically, why they were eventually named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.   My first point, in my previous post and in this one, is that the books are completely anonymous.  Their authors never divulge their names.   Eventually I may want to address the question of why that is.  But for now, my point is that despite what people might commonly think, the books are anonymous. I pointed out yesterday that even though the author of Luke does not tell us his name, he does write in the first person (“I”/ “we”) in the opening of his Gospel.  That never happens in either Matthew or Mark, but it does happen again in the Gospel of John.  In fact, it is widely claimed – sometimes even by scholars who should know better – that the author identifies himself as the “beloved disciple” who appears several times in the Gospel of John, and only in this Gospel. On a number of occasions the author [...]

2020-04-03T14:21:13-04:00November 14th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

Our Anonymous Gospels, Starting with Luke

Over the past few weeks I’ve had several people ask me about why the Gospels of the New Testament are attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.   It’s a great question, and one that I want to do some more intense thinking and reading about myself.  So I thought I would lay out some of the basics here in a series of posts, and think aloud a bit about why I think the Gospels got the names they did. To begin with, it’s important to recognize that the Gospels themselves are completely anonymous.   None of the authors identifies himself by name.  The Gospels are all written in the third person about what “they” – other people – were doing (including, of course, and principally, Jesus). There are only a couple of exceptions to the third-person narratives of the Gospels, and even in these cases the authors do not given their own names.   The first is in the Prologue to Luke’s Gospel, Luke 1:1-4, where the author says: Just as many have attempted to write a [...]

2020-04-03T14:21:20-04:00November 14th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

A Newly Discovered Gospel? Was Jesus Married with Children???

I have been repeatedly asked about the brand new news story, that a new Gospel has been discovered that shows that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had children.  If this sounds like (bad) fiction to you (think Da Vinci Code)  (or for movies: think “Last Temptation of Christ”), it is.   The claim is completely bogus.  This “new” Gospel is not a Gospel, but a text that scholars have known for roughly forever.  It’s not a Christian text (ostensibly).  It’s about Joseph (as in the Old Testament) and his wife Asenath.   Rather than explaining why the new claims about this text  are not worth taking seriously (no scholar will), instead of explaining the whole situation myself, I give you a post made by Bob Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa.   I reproduce his post here with Bob’s permission.  It’s a bit long for this blog, but I thought you should get the whole shooting match before you.   *************************************************************** Review of “The Lost Gospel” by [...]

2017-12-14T10:24:19-05:00November 12th, 2014|Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

Some Other Gnostics

As I was indicating last week, I have rewritten the section in my New Testament textbook that discusses early Christian Gnostics.  I have already devoted two posts on the matter, and here will be my third and final one.   This one deals with another famous group of Gnostics, the Valentinians; it also gives two of the “boxes” that I will be including in the chapter, taken over from the earlier edition, on interesting side issues (my view in general is that the “boxes” in my chapters are the most interesting parts!) ****************************************************************** Valentinian Gnostics A second group that was very important in the history of early Christianity is known as the Valentinian Gnostics.  Unlike the Sethians, the Valentinians were named after an actual person, Valentinus, the founder and original leader of the group.  We know about the Valentinians from the writings of their proto-orthodox opponents beginning with Irenaeus and by some of the writings discovered among the Nag Hammadi Library that almost certainly derive from Valentinian authors, including one book that may actually have been [...]

A Better Kind of Fundamentalist

In today’s post I’d like to go back to that intriguing little article by Louis Markos in the journal First Things, which he entitled “Errant Ehrman.”   If you’ll recall from my post last week, Markos starts the article by indicating that he felt “great pity” for me because I was the wrong kind of fundamentalist back when I was a conservative Christian.   My problem, he indicates, is that I applied modern standards to decide whether the Bible was inerrant.  Here are his words: He [Ehrman] was taught, rightly, that there are no contradictions in the Bible, but he was trained, quite falsely, to interpret the non-contradictory nature of the Bible in modern, scientific, post-Enlightenment terms. That is to say, he was encouraged to test the truth of the Bible against a verification system that has only existed for some 250 years….. And so, as I pointed out last time, the right kind of true believer is obviously one who does not “test the truth of the Bible” by modern standards using modern criteria, but only [...]

2017-12-14T10:25:07-05:00November 10th, 2014|Bart's Critics, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

My New Summary of Gnosticism

Yesterday I mentioned on the blog that I had rewritten my description of early Christian Gnosticism for the new edition of my textbook.   Here is what the major part of that discussion now looks like.  The first part tries to give a general overview of what different groups of Gnostics had in common; the second part describes the views of one of the most prominent Gnostic Groupsl   ***************************************************************** Major Views of Various Gnostic Groups Despite the many differences among the various Gnostic groups, most of them appear to have subscribed to the following views. (1)    The divine realm is inhabited not only by one ultimate God but also by a range of other divine beings, widely known as aeons.   These aeons are, in a sense, personifications of the ultimate God’s mental capacities and/or powers (some of them were called such things as Reason, Will, Grace, and Wisdom). (2)  The physical world that we inhabit was not the creation of the ultimate God but of a lower, ignorant divine being, who is often identified with [...]

My New Discussion of Gnosticism: Introduction

One other major change that I have made in my textbook on the New Testament is that I have completely rewritten my description of early Christian Gnosticism.   I’ll be presenting in a few posts what the section now looks like, and will explain why I made the changes.   To make sense of the new portion, I first need to give the introductory discussion (dealing with our sources of information, including the Nag Hammadi Library), which I did not change drastically from the earlier version.  Here it is: ********************************************************** The Problems of Definitions, Sources, and Dating Over the past fifty years scholars have engaged in heated debates over how to define Gnosticism. These debates are intimately related to the problems that we have with the ancient sources that describe Gnostics or were written by Gnostics. Until about a hundred years ago, our only sources for understanding Gnosticism were the writings of its most vocal opponents, the proto-orthodox church fathers of the second, third, and fourth centuries. In our discussion of the Johannine epistles, we have already [...]

Discussion Forum (Please read to the end)

  I am happy to say that the membership forum – where people can interact with each others’ ideas, thoughts, claims, arguments, and perspectives directly, without any interference from me – is going very well.   We started off slowing, with just a couple of people posting questions, comments, and responses.  It slowly has been building.  And it is getting to be more and more every day.  I want to encourage you to consider contributing – and to tell others about it as a way to increase membership on the blog. (As you know, blog membership is, for me, what this entire enterprise is about, because I do the blog as a way of raising money for charity.  As far as I’m concerned, the more money raised, the better we’re doing.   Please encourage friends, colleagues, family members, neighbors, and others to join!) It is very easy to participate in the Forum.   Simply click the tab from the homepage that says, yes, “Membership Forum.”  And go from there. To this point the posts and responses have followed [...]

2014-11-07T07:24:06-05:00November 5th, 2014|Public Forum|

Why Would Christian Authors Write Forgeries?

In my previous post I cited the box in the new edition of my textbook that explained how Christian authors may have justified themselves in writing “literary deceits,” that is, books that claimed to be written by someone else, for example, a famous apostle such as Peter and Paul (as is almost certainly true of Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and 1 and 2 Peter, e.g.).   Several readers have asked me, though, why a Christian author would *do* such a thing as commit forgery.   It’s one thing to indicate how an author would justify such a deceit (the point of my last post); but why would he engage in the deceit in the first place? In my books on forgery(both the trade book Forged and the scholarly monography Forgery and Counterforgery) I indicate a number of motives that ancient authors (for example, Jews and pagans) had for producing their forgeries: some did it to make money, some did it to attack a personal enemy, some did it to authorize a philosophical [...]

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