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A Major Controversy in New Testament Textual Criticism

After my post yesterday about the 1707 publication by John Mill of his edition of the Greek New Testament, in which he identified some 30,000 places where the manuscripts known in his day differed from one another, my plan was to talk about Greek editions available now, over three centuries later.  But it occurred to me that some readers might be interested in the controversy that was stirred by Mill’s rather alarming publication.  So that’s what this post will be.  Again, this is from my book Misquoting Jesus.




The impact of Mill’s publication was immediately felt, although he himself did not live to see the drama play out.  He died just two weeks after his massive publication, the victim of stroke.  His untimely death (said by one observer to have been brought on by “drinking too much coffee”!) did not prevent detractors from coming to the fore, however.  The most scathing attack came three years after Mill’s publication, in a learned volume by a controversialist named Daniel Whitby, who in 1710 published a set of notes on the interpretation of the New Testament to which he added an appendix of 100 pages examining, in great detail, the variants cited by Mill in his apparatus.  Whitby was a conservative Protestant theologian, whose basic view was that even though God certainly would not prevent errors from creeping into scribal copies of the New Testament, at the same time he would never allow the text to be corrupted (i.e., altered) to the point where it could not adequately achieve its divine aim and purpose.   And so, he laments “I GRIEVE therefore and am vexed that I have found so much in Mill’s Prolegomena which seems quite plainly to render the standard of faith insecure, or at best to give others too good a handle for doubting.”

Whitby goes on to …

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My Work Habits the Letter allegedly by Jesus’ Own Brother: Mailbag 2/12/2017
Better Editions of the Greek New Testament



  1. Avatar
    Silver  February 10, 2017

    Sorry if this is off the immediate topic.
    When manuscripts were produced, were they always copied or were some taken at dictation? If so, such a procedure may well have produced a number of errors because of poor spelling or mishearing / misunderstanding the words.
    Also, would some scribes simply copy the text by ‘drawing’ the individual letters rather than actually understanding the words they were writing?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2017

      Yes, they sometimes (especially in the Middle Ages) were taken down by dictation, and yes, that did lead to some kinds of errors that were not made when they were copied by sight. (Some words are more easily “misheard” than “mis-seen”)

  2. Avatar
    Todd  February 10, 2017

    This discussion of the quest for an authentic and accurate Greek New Testament is quite interesting, complex, and seems to be extremely important to those who view the NT scripture as the one and only source for all things required for one’s faith and morals.

    I do not come from that perspective. I view scripture (of all religions) as being human documents showing how humans view their place in the universe, and all which that entails.

    So, it would seem the first premise would be that scripture is the prime source of the knowledge of God and God’s will…then an extensive investigation of those documents in detail and their accuracy would be a worthy activity as you are presenting here.

    **Question** … I am wondering how this “scripture only” position came about. There are no definitive references in the NT that I can find which proclaim the NT to be the definitive documents that proclaim that such scripture is the prime/only source for God’s Written Word.

    How did that position come about? Perhaps you could get into this in a longer article than in a quick reply here, or point us to some references dealing with this.

    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2017

      In some ways it has come down to the Christian tradition through the Protestant Reformation, in particular Luther with his insistence of “sola Scriptura” (only Scripture: not church tradition)

    • Avatar
      Robby  February 13, 2017

      2 Tim 3:16 is often cited as the basis for the scripture alone argument since it trys to make the point that it provides all that is needed (I.e. sufficient)

      • Avatar
        HistoricalChristianity  February 14, 2017

        Except that 2 Tim 3:16 makes no claim for sufficiency.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  February 16, 2017

        a. 2 Timothy 3:16 could only have been referring to the Hebrew Scriptures (or LXX) since there was no New Testament at the time it was written.
        b. Citing Timothy is a circular argument since you wouldn’t take it as authoritative unless you already believed it was “God-breathed.”
        c. If taken literally, “all scriptures” would refer literally to ALL scriptures including the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  February 10, 2017

    This post made my realize something that for some reason never occured to me. A significant part of the Protestant Reformation was taking authority away from the (ostensibly corrupt) Roman Catholic Church and putting that authority back into the Bible itself — the so-called Sola Scriptura. But if the Bible itself was shown to be error-ridden, then how reliable of an authority can it possibly be? In other words, if you can’t trust the authority of the Church, but also can’t trust the authority of the Bible, then who do you trust? It’s questions like this that me make glad to be an atheist. I don’t have to hurt by brain trying to untie that Gordian Knot.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2017

      Yup, that is the problem raised precisely by modern biblical criticism (originally a Protestant phenomenon)

  4. Avatar
    doug  February 10, 2017

    Perhaps one thing the authoritarians feared was “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. Once even the smallest crack in the Bible’s inerrancy is admitted, then inerrancy is dead, even if the main religious dogmas are not significantly affected. If one thing in the Bible can be in error, then other things in the Bible can be in error.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  February 10, 2017

    It is possible, after all, to have faith in both scripture and scholarship. Richard Bentley. Q.E.D.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  February 14, 2017

      Good point. Critics thus began accusing Christian Fundamentalists of bibliolatry, a perjorative epithet for the worship of the Bible.

  6. Avatar
    Jana  February 10, 2017

    I’m sure you’ve seen this and just in case .. 12th dead sea scroll cave discovered: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/02/dead-sea-scrolls-cave-discovered-judea-israel-west-bank-forgeries/

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2017

      Thanks! Unfortunately the manuscript has no writing on it!!

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 11, 2017

    Fascinating. Bentley’s “analysis” reminds me of the political “spin” done by politicians today.

    I was raised in “the Bible and only the Bible” environment in south Texas. As an adolescent, I was surprised to learn that my best friend, a Catholic, was not really bothered by any historical Bible issues since he viewed theology as having 3 sources of evidence: the Bible, the “magisterium,” and “tradition” and if two of these three supported something, then it was true. Hence, his faith was less vulnerable to textual and historical Biblical criticism than my faith, since his faith was not so Bible dependent, and my faith, in contrast, depended entirely on the Bible which, as I learned more and more, gradually and progressively seemed less divine and historical to me.

  8. Avatar
    Steefen  February 11, 2017

    Off topic easy question for you: Matthew 18:22 why do some Bible say 77 times and others say 70 times 7 = 490 times? There are variations in the earliest Greek texts of that verse? Thank you, doctor.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2017

      It’s a bit tricky in the Greek. The phrase and others like it can mean either seventy times seven or seventy times and seven times. My sense is that hte former is more likely here.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 12, 2017

      It’s probably an attempt at a Greek rendition of the Hebrew expression shiv’im wa-shiv’ah — “seventy and seven” — which can be found, for example, in Genesis 4:24. The Hebrew expression is likewise ambiguous.

  9. Avatar
    jimviv2@gmail.com  February 11, 2017

    A bit off topic, maybe something for the readers mail bag – you have said 1st century Jews generally did not have last names. What about Judas Iscariot, son of Simon Iscariot?
    Thank you for your patience.

    • Avatar
      jimviv2@gmail.com  February 11, 2017

      I enjoyed the opportunity to meet and hear you last week in Tulsa.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2017

      We don’t know what Iscariot means — I give a number of options in my book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. It appears not to be a last name but a descriptive term, possibly “a man who comes from the village of Kerioth”

      • Avatar
        dankoh  February 12, 2017

        “Iscariot” may be a variation of “sicarii” – rebel. I agree that in any case it is not a proper last name. Jews did not use last names in western Europe until the emancipations of the late XVIII century, and in Russia when the tsar forced them to, sometime in the mid-XIX century if I remember correctly.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 12, 2017

      At first, I thought the scholarly consensus that Iscariot came from the Hebrew “ish” plus “kerioth” — which could either mean a man from the town of Kerioth or a man from the outskirts of a city (the Hebrew word קריות can mean both) — was pretty reasonable and probably correct. But once I put some serious thought into it I realized that, if that was, indeed, a Hebrew knickname for a man from such a place, it was a very clumsy way of expressing it. In either case, Judas would have an epithet such as “ha-Krioti” — “The Keriothene” — not “Ish-kerioth”.

      (We see a similar problem with Jesus’ epithet of “Nazorean,” which most scholars seem to think means Jesus was from Nazareth, but in Aramaic or Hebrew, a person from Nazareth would be called a “Nazreti,” not a Nazori. Therefore, Nazorean probably doesn’t represent where Jesus was from but what kind of person he was. In Hebrew, a “N’azori” — נאזורי — is someone who is “girded,” meaning that they are ready or prepared, such as in the way a warrior is ready with his sword belted to his hip or a priest is ready with his sash around his waist. In the case of Jesus, he was probably one of John the Baptist’s followers who had “prepared” themselves (i.e. metaphorically “girded” themselves) via baptism for the imminent arrival of the Messiah and Judgment Day. In other words, the “Nazoreans” were the Elect of John the Baptist’s followers. Also, if you notice, many of the disciples’ epithets didn’t designate where they came from but what type of men they were — e.g. Simon “the Rock”, Simon “the Zealot”, etc. And in some cases we only know them from their epithet — e.g. Thomas the “twin” — forcing us to assume their proper names were John or James or Jude or Simon or somesuch common Jewish name. Anyway, I digress.)

      Similar to Jesus’ epithet, I don’t think Iscariot was meant to describe where Judas came from but rather the kind of man he was. That’s why I think Judas was called, in Hebrew, איש-קריאות, or “Ish-Qeriy’ot”. Now, the word קריאה in Hebrew has several meanings. It could mean a reading or recitation (similar to the Arabic “qur’an”), or it can mean a calling out or proclamation, or it can mean an invocation or appeal. In either case, we are talking about a man who makes recitations or proclamations or appeals — that is, Judas was a public speaker or orator of some kind. What kind of orator is anyone’s guess. And, if this is, indeed, the meaning of Judas’ epithet, it’s quite possible that he was literate. If I were to take a wild guess, I would guess that Judas was either what is now called a Gabbai — i.e. the man who calls congregants up to read from the Torah during the Sabbath service — or he was what is today called a Keriat ha-Torah, or Torah Reader, who is the guy who actually reads aloud from Torah while the person who was called reads quiet along with the Torah Reader. (The reason this is done today is just in case the congregant called up to read from the Torah stumbles in his reading — a big no-no — so, rather, he only follows along as the “professional” reader does the actual recitation.) Whether Torah Readers were used in Jesus’ time, well, I can’t say. I’m not an historian. But assuming Luke 4:17-21 is an accurate representation of how services were done in Jesus’ time and place, I can’t see why professional Torah readers didn’t existed at that time, and that they may have been called Ish-Qeri’yot or “Recitations Man”.

      Anyway, that’s one theory.

      • Bart
        Bart  February 13, 2017

        INteresting. As you probably know, there are lots of other theories floating about, most of them based on etymologies…

        • talmoore
          talmoore  February 13, 2017

          True. Another theory is that the epithet Iscariot comes from the Hebrew שקר, which can mean to betray. However, for one, such a sobriquet obviously must have been given to Judas after his betrayal, and, besides, one would really need to torture the root of “sheqer” to arrive at “Iscariot”.

          Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of native Hebrew speakers trying to dig deep into the Semitic substratum of the Gospels (probably because they’re busy with the Hebrew scriptures and Judaism). Most of the scholars I’ve read — Vermes, Jeremias, Casey, et al. — are not native Semitic speakers (alas, Vermes was even a Jew who converted to Catholicism!), so they tend to approach the Semiticisms of the NT from the outside. Well, in my case, I was born in Israel — Jerusalem, even. Hebrew was my first language. Even growing up in America, I was surrounded by Hebrew speakers. I still speak Hebrew with family. I speak Hebrew when I’m in Israel. I read the TaNaKh in Hebrew. I’m immersed in the Semitic world, both linguistically and culturally, and all I can say is even the few scholars who appear to me to have tried to tackle the Semitic substratum of the Gospels are lost in the Christian woods. Jesus wasn’t a Christian. Judas wasn’t a Christian. Not even Paul was a Christian in the sense we mean today. They were all Jews, first and foremost. If we don’t truly know who they were as Jews, then we don’t truly know who they were at all.

          • Avatar
            HistoricalChristianity  February 14, 2017

            Good points, though I’ve come to take the claim that Paul was Jewish with a grain of salt. Aside from apocalypticism, Paul expresses no Jewish ideas. The ideas of Christianity are far more Greek than Jewish.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  February 21, 2017

            Many of my fellow Jews in which I interact with, who are, incidentally, orthodox, are actually more forgiving of Jesus than they are of Paul. They consider Jesus “mishpachah,” i.e. family, but they consider Paul to be essentially a traitor to his race, or in modern parlance an Uncle Tom. The reason for this is simple. They believe that no self-respecting Jew would ever claim to be God in the flesh. That idea is so anathema to Judaism as to be nonsensical. If one were to condense the entire prophetic message of the TaNaKh, or Old Testament, into a handful of tenents, one of those tenets is that a Jew must never, ever worship an image or idol. Therefore, the idea that a Jew should see a mere man as God is thoroughly ridiculous. That’s why many Jews don’t think that Jesus — assuming he was a self-respecting Jewish man — would ever pretend to be God. That’s why a lot of the Jews I know are willing to give Jesus a pass.

            Paul is different. Many Jews see Paul as a traitor to his people, because he told the Gentiles that they could adopt the God of Israel without adopting the Law, and thus Paul sowed the seeds of anti-Semiticism by giving Gentiles an excuse to belittle and vilify the Jews who still accepted the Law. It’s all rather complex, but the fact of the matter is that many Jews see Paul as a Jew who betrayed his own people, while they don’t see Jesus that way.

            That being said, Paul himself claims that he still believes in the Law, and he may have even possibly continued to observe the Law (see Romans chapter 7 — e.g. verse 22: “For I delight in the Law of God in my inmost self”), but the very fact that he suggested to Gentiles that they can simply ignore the Law (e.g. Romans 7:23 : “but I see in members another law at war with the law of my mind”) is seen as a betrayal of Paul’s Jewishness for the sake of his Gentile converts. That is, Paul wasn’t simply making the God of Israel known to the Gentiles, but was, in effect, making the Gentiles a new Israel, supplanting and replacing the old Israel. That’s why Paul is seen as a race traitor.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  February 21, 2017

            Paul also ascribed some divine qualities to J.C. albeit stopping short of calling him God.
            He also saw Christ as the Savior while, for Jews, only God Himself was the Savior.
            He also, in accepting the idea of the sacrificial crucifixion of Jesus, accepted human sacrifice which (so I read) was not accepted in Judaism.
            Would you agree?

          • Avatar
            HistoricalChristianity  February 21, 2017

            The comment attributed to talmoore is very perceptive. The synoptic authors go to great lengths to explain why the ideas of Christianity were unknown during his lifetime. That’s why their writings don’t contain the idea that Jesus was God, or don’t show that idea until after the resurrection. The Jesus they portray was a sage of Second Temple Judaism. Except for divorce (where he sided with Shammai), the views he expressed were those of Hillel.

            And yes, Paul flatly contradicts Torah (and all of Tanakh). Since his are the earliest proto-orthodox writings we have, we can trace his ideas no farther back.

            I don’t know how Paul managed the cognitive dissonance exemplified in Romans 7. If Paul really did consider Torah as a schoolmaster, he should have recognized it as a communication from God, telling Israel what he wanted them to do. So Paul should have concluded that God still wanted his worshipers to observe Sabbath and kosher, even if he decided they shouldn’t offer sacrifices.

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  February 11, 2017

    Prof Ehrman

    News reports over the last two days have detailed the discovery of a 12th cave at Qumran. The initial excitement was tempered when it was announced that while the cave had apparently once stored texts it was now empty. But now I’ve heard at least one report that there might be a sealed (!) 13th cave. Any inside info on the Biblical Textual Scholar grapevine? Is this an interesting but not earthshaking discovery or is there more to come?


    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2017

      Yes, unfortunately the scroll that was discovered doesn’t have any writing on it. I have not yet heard of a 13th cave. It wouldn’t count as “the thirteenth” unless scrolls were found in it. There are hundreds of caves there, all of which they thought they had previous explored carefully.

  11. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 11, 2017

    I can understand how Whitby and Bentley could conclude that the huge number of variations in the NT is not necessarily critical with regard to the NT being a sound basis for faith. However, must it not seem kind of bizarre, at least to conservative Christians, that we don’t have the original “autographs” (if that’s the right term)–or at least certified true copies thereof. After all we’re talking about the divinely inspired Word of God! Why would God tell people what to write and allow it to perish? If God would not permit the copies to vary so much from the original as to be problematic for Christian faith, why permit the original autographs to completely perish. (Maybe allowing them to perish is just one more human sin.) Nowadays scholars have developed ways to be pretty sure of the substance of the original autographs. But those methods didn’t exist for the first 1900 years of Christianity.

    And how can a text be considered sacred when there are so many variations? So maybe Christians should not consider the text itself to be sacred but the substance of the ideas in the text. If nothing else the variations and lack of autographs has to be fatal for biblical literalism and inerrancy.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2017

      The usual argument is that God inspired the autographs but then let human free-will be involved in their transmission. That used ot seem like a strong argument to me, back in my fundamentalist days!

      • Avatar
        stevenavery  February 12, 2017

        Fascinating topic.

        And I saw a lot of analogy between the Collins-Bentley discourse and your discussions in recent years.

        [TC-Alternate-list] Collins-Bentley – precursor to the Ehrman-Wallace debates
        Steven Avery – Nov 26, 2011

        “Bart Ehrman notes the efforts of the Wallace and Ehrman forerunners – Richard Bentley and the “Deist” (atheist/agnostic) Anthony Collins. I will compliment Bart Ehrman here for some real efforts in studying and digesting and representing earlier textual debates…”

        Steven Avery
        Asheville, NC

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  February 14, 2017

      Also, a long time passed before anyone considered any of these writings to be sacred. Paul’s early letters were to churches he had been involved with (and perhaps founded), telling them to behave themselves, and telling them not to believe any ideas different from Paul’s ideas. Today, we’d consider him an egotistical arrogant preacher or evangelist.

      The position of Conservative (but not Fundamentalist) Christianity is reasonable. We want our beliefs to be those chosen by the people who chose the texts which became our canon (New Testament). For that, the NT texts are the most authoritative. It doesn’t mean those beliefs were correct. It just means they are the beliefs of those who chose our canon.

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  February 13, 2017

    Two questions:
    1) Psalm 45:6a reads (in the NRSV) “Your throne, o God, endures forever and ever.” A footnote says it could mean “Your throne is a throne of God. It…” etc.. An annotation says that this is the only place in the Old Testament where the king may have been addressed as God, not the son of God. Is that why they provide the alternative translation or is that really a credible alternative reading?
    2) There are many text notes that say “meaning of Hebrew (or Greek) uncertain. If the meaning is uncertain, why (and on what basis) do they supply a meaning?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2017

      1. Yes, they usually only give meanings that have been seriously proposed by bona fide scholars 2. They have to supply a menaing because they only alternatives are to leave it in the original language or just to provide a blank space.

  13. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 13, 2017

    Doesn’t Bentley beg the question? Of course people had faith before the huge number of variations was known. The issue is whether they had faith in the right thing, ie, belief in the original inspired Word of God. Belief in something other than that might not be effective for salvation.

    Whitby’s approach seems more promising, ie, the variations are not important enough to prevent people from being able to believe the right things.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  February 14, 2017

      Fundamentalism (aka faith in the Bible) didn’t happen until very late 19th century. Before that, Christians simply believed the ideas of Christianity. The ‘right thing’ was something that was decided or became popular, not something that was correct.

  14. Avatar
    twiskus  February 15, 2017

    I am pretty sure I have heard you say in a debate that the reasons and evidence for dating the gospels is a little drawn out. I am half way through Jesus Before the Gospels, but haven’t seen it yet. Have I missed where you have tackled the issue in depth for each gospel as far as how the dating is worked out? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2017

      I”ve talked about it on the blog before. But it was a very long time ago. I think I’ll repost the discussion this week. Thanks!

  15. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  February 16, 2017

    Point ‘a’ would be appropriate if this were a Jewish author writing to a Jewish audience. Neither is the case. Since the author was not likely Paul, and not likely even the same author as of 1 Timothy, we have no certain other writings by this author. Thus we can’t definitively say what he meant by the generic term ‘writings’, transliterated to scriptures in most New Testament translations. The author expresses no Jewish ideas beyond saying Jesus was a descendant of David, and quoting a couple of generic texts which could have come from Tanakh.

  16. Avatar
    TGeiger  October 23, 2017

    All of this back and forth on what text is accurate and what is in error still leads me back to the same troubling question: Why is an infinitely powerful God relying on humans to transmit text, translate text, transcribe text to proclaim truths? If this all loving God cares about His creation so much, aren’t there much better and concrete and infallible methods to communicate His will?

    Or am I just a simplistic layperson?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2017

      Not at all. That’s a point I raise in my book Misquoting Jesus.

      • Avatar
        TGeiger  October 24, 2017

        Well, off to the bookstore to make a purchase then.
        Thank you for your answer, much appreciated!

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  October 24, 2017

      It seems to me that you’re an observant, question-asking layperson who now has some reason to doubt that the Bible is the Word of God. After 2,000 years, only 30% of the world is Christian so having people write the Bible and proselytize seem to not be very effective marketing strategies. Anyway, it is not the Bible that claims it is the Word of God; it’s people. And people also, not the Bible or God, who claim it is inerrant, without contradiction or inconsistency, and should be read and understood literally. Many conservative Christians often remind us that there is the wisdom of man and the Wisdom of God yet half of what they claim belongs to the former.

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