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Contradictions and Silly Claims by Textual Critics

A couple of posts ago I mentioned a comment that I used to make (and still would be happy to make) that rankled some of my colleagues and has led some of my conservative evangelical critics to claim that I’m contradicting myself and can’t figure out what to think.   Or, rather, they claim that I present one view to scholars and a different view to popular readers in order to sensationalize the truth in order to sell books, presumably so I can make millions and retire in a Swiss villa in the Alps.   The comment, as you recall, ran something like this:  “Barring spectacular new discoveries (such as the originals!) or radical developments of new methods, we will never get any closer to the original writings of the New Testament than we already are.” I explained in my previous post why I used to make some such statements (and why I continue to stand by them).  In short, despite all the discoveries over the past 135 years, and all the revolutions in method, the basic [...]

2020-04-03T13:23:07-04:00August 31st, 2015|Bart's Critics, New Testament Manuscripts|

Textual Criticism Syllabus

This semester I am teaching my PhD seminar in precisely the topic I've been discussing for the past number of weeks, New Testament textual criticism.  Here, for your reading pleasure, is the syllabus for the class.     Reli 809: New Testament Textual Criticism   Instructor:  Bart D. Ehrman    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill    Fall 2015   Course Description This class focuses on one of the foundational disciplines of biblical studies.  New Testament textual criticism has experienced a significant resurgence over the past twenty years or so, as scholars have begun, again, to recognize its importance for exegesis, theology, and the history of Christianity, and have realized, contrary to general perception, how much of real significance is yet to be done in the field. Your work for this seminar will assume sundry forms.  A substantial portion of it will be devoted to the study of a significant textual problem, on which you will write a term paper.  The basic task, of course, is to establish the earliest form of the text.  But [...]

2020-05-11T13:03:09-04:00August 29th, 2015|New Testament Manuscripts, Teaching Christianity|

Ruffling the Feathers of My Fellow Textual Critics

I seem to get under the skin of a lot of my fellow textual critics.  Or at least a lot of them find my views somewhere between troubling and irritating.   That became most clear when I published my book Misquoting Jesus.   From what I can gather, the most common complaints about the book were about its perceived “tone.”  Some scholars thought that I made the situation of our manuscripts to be worse than it really is.  I, on the other hand, am not so sure about that. What has probably struck me the most in the years since the book was published (it’s been ten years now!  Very hard to believe….) is that critics almost never say that anything I claimed in the book is actually wrong.  In fact, so far as I know, everything I said in the book is completely right.  How many books are attacked for not saying anything wrong? Here are the main points that I stress in the book. We do not have the originals for any of the books [...]

2020-04-03T13:23:15-04:00August 28th, 2015|Book Discussions, New Testament Manuscripts|

How God Could Become a Human

I have finished my posts on the passage of the so-called “bloody sweat” in Luke 22:43-44.   I devoted some considerable time to this text (for a second time on the blog) because I wanted to use it to set up a discussion in response to a question that a reader asked (that I started answering a very long time ago. June 30 in fact….) about what motivated me to write my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.   Now, after setting the stage for about two months, I’m able to answer the question.   About time, you might think…. But first, in response to my recent posts, I received this interesting query from a reader, not about the textual tradition of the New Testament but about early Christian understandings of Christ.  Here’s the question.   QUESTION: Have any Christians suggested that Jesus was fully God (from all eternity); but *because* he was God, and was *omnipotent*, he could choose to incarnate as a human and – for a planned period of time – *forget* that he was [...]

2020-04-03T13:23:23-04:00August 26th, 2015|Paul and His Letters, Reader’s Questions|

Did Scribes Add the Passage of the Bloody Sweat?

In my previous posts I’ve been puzzling over the textual problem of Luke 22:43-44, the so-called “bloody sweat” passage, where Jesus, before his arrest, is said to have been in such deep agony that he sweat drops “as if of blood,” so that an angel came down from heaven to minister to him.  These verses are found in some manuscripts of Luke, but not others.    So which text is “original”?  The version of Luke with the verses or the version without them? In previous posts I have argued that the verses run contrary both to the structure of Luke’s passage and to the theology of Luke, who worked to *eliminate* any sense of Jesus actually suffering from his Gospel.    In my last post I began to ask, not which of the two texts the author Luke himself would have written (scholars call that kind of question “intrinsic probabilities”: what is more intrinsically likely to go back to the author?) but which of the two texts scribes of the second century, when the passage came to [...]

The Bloody Sweat and the Scribes Who Changed It

I have been talking about the famous passage in Luke 22:43-44, the account of the so-called “bloody sweat,” where we are told that prior to his arrest, Jesus went into deep agony and began to sweat great drops “as if of blood,” and to be so deeply disturbed that an angel had to come down from heaven to support him. These verses can be found in a lot of manuscripts, including those used by the translators of the King James Bible, which is why the passage became so familiar to English-Bible readers over the years; but they are absent from many or our earliest and best manuscripts, which is why some modern translations put the verses in a footnote or, more commonly (as in the NRSV), in double brackets, indicating that in the opinion of the translators, the verses were not original (the translators keep them – bracketed --  in the text because they knew they are familiar and judge that they are very ancient). In my previous posts I have given two reasons for [...]

How Textual Criticism Became Relevant

COMMENT: Dr. Ehrman, I am an enormous fan of you and your work. Truly. But some of the recent claims you've made in your  blog posts seem rather grandiose. You're saying that the field of textual criticism was all but dead before you showed up and imparted your uncommon wisdom?   RESPONSE: WHOA!!!   That’s not what I’ve been saying (or *trying* to say) (evidently unsuccessfully!) at all!   I’m not claiming that I myself am personally responsible for turning around the discipline.   I’m glad this reader has made this comment, because others might be thinking the same thing, and so I need to clarify. What I *am* saying is that when I got into the field it was moribund.  And now it’s vibrant.  I was very lucky to get in when I did, as it was at the beginning of a resurgence of interesting and a new direction that the field has since taken.  If it had kept on going the way it had, it may well have died out.   But things have happened that have [...]

2020-12-29T01:20:06-05:00August 22nd, 2015|New Testament Manuscripts, Reader’s Questions|

Jesus’ Lack of Agony

Did Jesus feel deep agony in the face of death, in virtual despair up until the end?  Or was he calm and collected, confident in both himself and God’s will?  It depends which Gospel you read. And that is one of the reasons (not the only one, as we will see!) that the textual problem of Luke 22:43-44 – the passage that narrates the “bloody sweat” --  is so important.   If the verses were originally in Luke, then Jesus in Luke, as in Mark, is in deep agony looking ahead to his crucifixion.  If the verses were not originally in Luke, then there is no evidence of any agony in Luke’s entire account.  Just the contrary.   So were the verses originally in Luke or not?  It’s a question that really matters. It is worth stressing what I showed yesterday, that in this passage, Luke has changed Mark (his  written source for the account) in significant ways.   Many of these changes achieve one overarching purpose: Luke has eliminated every reference and hint to Jesus’ agony.   No [...]

2020-10-16T22:18:59-04:00August 21st, 2015|Canonical Gospels, New Testament Manuscripts|

When I First Realized the Importance of Textual Criticism: The Bloody Sweat

I think I first came to see precisely why textual criticism could be so important my first semester in my PhD program, during a seminar I was taking that had almost nothing to do with the study of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.  It was an “exegesis” course (i.e. focused on interpretation) on the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke – studied, of course, in the Greek).  My realization of the importance of text-critical issues was not even connected to my own research.  It had to do with what a friend and colleague of mine had discovered. For that seminar we had to make a class-presentation of our study of a passage in the Synoptics.  My fellow-first-year student Mark Plunkett (who later went on to teach at Ohio Northern University before deciding to scrap the academic thing and become a gynecologist) (really!) was devoting his term paper to the prayer of Jesus before his arrest as found in the Gospel of Luke. As many readers of this blog know, Luke had as one [...]

2020-04-03T13:24:03-04:00August 20th, 2015|Canonical Gospels, New Testament Manuscripts|

An Amusing Anecdote about the State of Textual Criticism

I’d like to sum up my posts so far on the state of New Testament textual criticism – my original field of scholarship – when I entered into the field of student as a graduate student in the early 1980s by telling an anecdote. It has always struck me as rather amusing.  (I am basing all this on memory, and as I’ve just written a book on memory, I am acutely aware of how frail this particular human function is.  But this is exactly as I remember it!) I was attending, for the second or third time, I suppose, the annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting.   This is the professional meeting that nearly all scholars of biblical studies – mainly professors (and graduate students) in colleges, universities, and seminaries – attend every year.  Today the meeting has probably 6000 or 7000 attendees.  Back then it was probably half that. At the meeting there are papers being read in different sessions, simultaneously – maybe 30-40 sessions going on at a time, in all sorts of areas:  [...]

My Original Foray into Textual Criticism

I have been explaining why “textual criticism,” the discipline that examines the surviving manuscripts of a text and then tries to reconstruct what the author originally wrote, had fallen on hard times by the time I got into the field.   The main reason, I think, is that most New Testament scholars thought that all the serious work in the field had been done, that we pretty well knew what the “original text” said, and that all that was left were a few mopping up exercises. Moreover, to engage in those exercises required extraordinary expertise in remarkably recondite areas of inquiry.  It was a lot of very hard work to deal with all the evidence, and the yield was so slight (change of a word or phrase here or there throughout the New Testament), that most scholars didn’t see why they should bother.  Why not do more interesting things, like actually *interpret* the text? I was an exception to that rule.  I was passionate about the field of textual criticism.  Looking back, I think I became [...]

The Malaise in New Testament Textual Criticism

I indicated in my previous post that the overall character of the text (as opposed to the apparatus) of the Greek New Testament in 1981 was widely perceived by New Testament scholars in to be pretty much “set,” and not all much different from what it had been in 1881.  I need to explain that a bit. I chose 1881 intentionally (not just for personal reasons: by fluke, it happens to have been exactly a century before I finished my Master’s degree in which I focused on New Testament textual criticism).   1881 was a very big year for the field.  It was the year that two famous New Testament scholars from England, named Fenton John Anthony Hort and Brooke Foss Westcott, published their highly significant edition of the Greek New Testament, which they called, with some temerity, The New Testament in the Original Greek.  (Temerity because they were claiming to have solved virtually all the problems of establishing “the” original text.) This was a huge event, as it turns out.   But to make sense of [...]

Why New Testament Textual Criticism Had Grown Moribund

In my previous post I had begun to indicate that the field of New Testament textual criticism had grown notably and depressingly moribund in America by the late 1970s when I began my graduate studies.   But I didn’t explain just *why* most New Testament scholars – let alone scholars in other fields of religious studies or the humanities more broadly – did not find the field interesting and / or important.   The reason has to do with what I laid out as one of the almost-universally-held views among textual critics (and other scholars at all connected with the field):  That the entire goal, purpose, and raison d’être of the discipline was to establish what an author originally wrote (a goal, purpose, and raison d’être that may seem both reasonable and self-evident.  But keep reading my posts). Why would that view have created such apathy toward the field, such a lack of interest in pursuing its objectives?  For the most part, it was because New Testament scholars assumed that the field had achieved its goal.  We [...]

When I Started in Textual Criticism

For a very long thread now, I have talking about the textual criticism of the New Testament.  As I said early on, “textual criticism” is a technical term.  It does not refer to any kind of analysis of the texts of the New Testament; that is to say, it is *not* about the interpretation of the New Testament texts.  It is specifically about how one goes about evaluating the surviving manuscripts (and versions, and church father quotations) of the New Testament in order to reconstruct what the authors originally wrote:  (that is, it does not ask what the authors *meant* by what they wrote; it is instead concerned  with establishing what, exactly, they did write.  Textual criticism needs to be applied to every surviving writing – from Homer’s Iliad to Wordsworth’s poems to … the Bible.  Without textual criticism you would not know what an author said. All of this discussion has been preliminary to answering the question asked by a reader concerning what I had in mind when I wrote my book The Orthodox [...]

2020-05-08T14:50:04-04:00August 14th, 2015|Bart’s Biography, New Testament Manuscripts|

Gentle as a Nurse in 1 Thessalonians 2:7

I am about ready to wrap up my discussion of the textual problem of 1 Thessalonians 2:7.   When recalling his time with the Thessalonians, when he had worked hard not to be a burden with any of them, did Paul indicate that he and his missionary companions had become "as infants, as a nurse tending her children"  or that they had become "gentle, as a nurse tending her children."   It is not an obvious decision, whether you think the change was made accidentally or on purpose.  (If you think it *is* obvious, look at the preceding two posts).   It seems like it might go either way.   I myself have an opinion on the matter (textual scholars tend to have opinions); but I"ll hold off on that for a minute. First: some of you might be wondering: which of these readings do the best surviving manuscripts actually suggest?  Is one of the readings ("infants" or "gentle") better attested than the other?   Which reading do our oldest and best manuscripts have? Here, as it turns out, the [...]

2020-04-03T13:25:00-04:00August 13th, 2015|Paul and His Letters|

More Intriguing Problems with 1 Thessalonians 2:7

The textual problem of 1 Thess 2:7, as I have started to outline it, is an unusually interesting one for textual critics, since the arguments for one reading or another seem to cancel each other out so neatly.   It is a difference of only one letter.   Did Paul remind the Thessalonians that when he and his missionary colleagues were with them they became like “infants” among them rather than great, powerful, and demanding apostles?  Or did he say they became “gentle” among them? Now, you might be saying: Who Cares?   Well, it does matter to New Testament interpreters.  It may not matter like having a passage that determines a major doctrine (Who was Christ? Was his death an atoning sacrifice? Is there a trinity?).   But there are lots of things that matter that are not major doctrines.   Any scholar of the New Testament wants to know the basic gist of each book of the New Testament; and its major themes and ideas; and the meaning of each of its passages; and the meaning of each [...]

2020-04-03T13:25:09-04:00August 11th, 2015|Paul and His Letters|

The Textual Problem of 1 Thessalonians 2:7

Now that I have discussed the purpose of 1 Thessalonians and spent a couple of posts talking about one of its most interesting passages, on which the modern Christian notion of a “rapture” is based, I am able to return to my point of departure, a textual variant found in 1 Thess. 2:7.  This variant has nothing to do with the question of what Paul thought would happen when Jesus returned, sometime in his lifetime.   It is an earlier part of the letter where Paul is reminding the Thessalonians of the time that he had spent with them when he converted them to their new faith. This is a very joyful part of the letter, one of the most sentimental passages of all of Paul’s letters, where he speaks of the relationship he had with his converts when he was there.   But the description is a bit hard to pin down, in part because of this one textual variant.   The variant depends on the presence or non-presence of just one letter of the alphabet.   Some [...]

2020-04-03T13:25:24-04:00August 10th, 2015|Paul and His Letters|

A Thief in the Night

Discussing the mythology found in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 has made me remember something that happened some 35 years ago. It’s a pretty funny story. At the time I was still a church going Christian. The church I was attending was evangelical, but I was moving away from a conservative theology and its strict, literal interpretation of the Bible. I was becoming socially quite liberal, and was starting to take a more liberal view of the Bible. I still thought that in *some* sense it was the Word of God, but I did not think that it was infallible or true in every way. I had already come to see that parts of it contradicted one another, that there were historical implausibilities, and mistakes of various kinds. For me at that stage, the Bible was not so much the words God had given his human authors as it was a book that was written with real religious insight by special authors whose words were a medium through which God could deliver his message to humans. It wasn’t [...]

2017-11-28T21:54:44-05:00August 9th, 2015|Bart’s Biography, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Myth of the Rapture: Calling a Spade a Spade

I am sometimes torn between wanting to be sensitive to people’s deeply rooted religious convictions and calling a spade a spade. think many readers would be surprised (and dubious) that have this sensitivity, since I’m often blasted precisely for trouncing people’s religious beliefs. But that’s almost never my intention. The one exception is when it comes to fundamentalism. I have no qualms about attacking Christian fundamentalist thinking head-on. But even then try to be sensitive to the people holding onto this kind of thinking, and I try to engage it with reason and evidence rather than with ridicule. But there are times when it is worthwhile calling a spade a spade, and sometimes we ought to just do that. I’ve been thinking about the passage summarized in the post yesterday from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the passage from which the fundamentalist view of the “rapture” principally comes from. Jesus returns on the clouds of heaven, the dead in Christ rise first, and then those who are alive who are his followers are snatched up into the [...]

2020-04-03T13:27:13-04:00August 8th, 2015|Paul and His Letters, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Return of Jesus (Rapture?) in 1 Thessalonians

Since I’ve started talking about Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the earliest Christian writing of any kind that we have, in preparation for discussion one tiny little textual variant in 1 Thess. 2:7,which involves only the presence or absence of a single letter in a single word, but on which the meaning of the passage hinges, I can’t let the opportunity pass without saying something further by way of background (none of which is especially relevant to this particular textual variant!) on the letter.   The reason:  this is the letter that modern-day conservative Christians who believe that the “rapture” is about to occur base their views on. The “rapture” is a modern doctrine/idea.   Even though some conservative Christians think this is one of the main points of the Christian faith, historically it has rarely been that.  In fact, for most of history, most Christians simply haven’t believed in a rapture. The doctrine of the rapture is that Jesus will be returning from heaven (sometime soon) and when he does those who had believed in [...]

2020-04-03T13:27:34-04:00August 6th, 2015|Paul and His Letters|
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