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Accidental Scribal Changes

As I stressed in my most recent post, the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of differences among out surviving manuscripts (and versions, and patristic citations) are of very little or no importance in trying to establish what the authors of the NT originally wrote.   There are others that matter, and matter a lot.  Those tend to be the ones that are the most interesting.   But there are many, many more differences that are easy to detect and of no real significance.

Most of these differences appear simply to be accidental mistakes.  We can never be absolutely certain, of course, if a change was made by accident or not.   But in a huge majority of cases, there seems to be little reason to doubt it.

The *reasons* mistakes were made are not hard to detect, but are nonetheless  hugely interesting for a reason I will explain in my next post.  The reality is that scribes were human beings and they made mistakes.   Of course, in theory, they didn’t *have* to make mistakes.   Throughout the middle ages, Jewish scribes of the Torah and Muslim scribes of the Qur’an were *unbelievably* careful not to make mistakes.   But not the Christian scribes.  Their human faults are all too easy to see on the page of virtually any manuscript.  The reasons they made their mistakes:  some scribes were not very competent; some were not highly educated; some were not careful; some were not attentive; some were tired and worn out; some had other things on their minds; and on and on and on.

As a result, there are lots of mistakes in our surviving manuscripts.  Here is a point very much worth making:  the earliest copies we have are….


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The Significance of an Astounding New Discovery
Kinds of Changes in our Manuscripts



  1. talitakum
    talitakum  July 24, 2015

    Off Topic: I have just read your previous post on Pesce-Destro book.. Se avessi saputo che conosci l’italiano non mi sarei impegnato a scrivere tutti i miei post in inglese!!! 🙂 Ciao.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 25, 2015

      Ha! I wish I knew it better. But I keep slugging away at it….

  2. Avatar
    JEffler  July 24, 2015

    This article begs me to question: Dr. Ehrman what do *you* think has been changed ultimately from the speculation regarding the early, and lost, manuscripts? You tend to post and encourage so much doubt to them so If you were to sit with Metzger and hash what is in and not in th New Testament where would you disagree?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 25, 2015

      I really don’t know! If I knew, trust me, I would be the most sought out scholar in the Christian world and could write the best selling book of all time on the question!!

  3. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 24, 2015

    So much to consider here. I am assuming that the earlier scribes, who were generally less careful, made a lot of minor errors. The conscious changing of the manuscript would come as time progressed. That is, the alteration of the 4th gospel ( John) to be more inclusive of those who could be saved was an adjustment made by those who did not think just Jews needed to buy into the Jesus sacrifice. If the scribes were not good at copying, then it is a wonder what the original manuscripts actually said. So much of what was said after the death of Jesus seems to be written for the purposes of fulfilling an agenda, given that there were so many competing Christianity’s. I think so much was being written that it was hard to find good workers!

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 24, 2015

    I especially appreciate the point that early scribes were probably less accurate in copying than later scribes.

    Getting to the New RSV Bible translation that I currently read took an incredible amount of scholarly work. I respect that work, but sometimes wonder why a God would make it so complicated with periods of oral transmission before most of the books were written, different books from which to choose a canon, different texts of the canonized books, contradictions among the books, scientific implausible events described in the books, and so on and so forth…..

    Have you ever thought about teaching a weekly or monthly class for lay people in the Durham area? You could charge a fee just like for the website?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 25, 2015

      I wish I could! I simply don’t have time in my schedule. Alas, not enough days in the week or hours in the day….

  5. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  July 24, 2015

    Please excuse this question, Professor; it’s only remotely related. What do you think of the hypothesis that Sinaiticus was one of the copies that Constantine ordered from Bishop Athanasius but that it was held back and rejected because it had so many corrections (27,000 by one count)? I also read somewhere that Alexandrinus also may have been a “reject”.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 25, 2015

      I think there’s no evidence for it, and a good deal of evidence against it (Alexandrinus is usually dated about 50 years after Sinaiticus). And I think you mean Eusebius, not Athanasius.

  6. Avatar
    Jim  July 24, 2015

    By way of quick background to my odd question; I was following a blog post related to criterion in historical Jesus studies and one commenter on the post asked for “a book that that surveyed the scholarly consensus on the basis for considering Jesus to be historical”. I was just a bystander in this conversation, but this comment seems to come up quite regularly now from mythicists. (I suppose they’re trying to imply that such information doesn’t really exist and whatever is available is vague and biased.).

    Could you recommend a book that is dedicated specifically to this topic and that in your view surveys the current consensus on HJ and that presents the evidence clearly? Btw, the purpose for my request is for me to personally educate myself … and not for the more pleasurable activity of smacking this/a mythicist over the head with said book.

    Many thanks in advance for your advice.

  7. Avatar
    SteveWalach  July 25, 2015

    As far as we know, none of the four gospels or Paul’s epistles are eyewitness accounts.

    Much of what those authors wrote could have been intentional interpretations or re-interpretations of what Jesus supposedly said and did, based on the interpretations and re-interpretations of what their sources supposedly heard and saw. And the authors’ original manuscripts could have contained misspellings and/or ambiguities, some of which later scribes tried to correct in the name of readability or to maintain the story’s internal logic. Later scribal errors or deliberate re-wordings would only compound the difficulty of getting to the truth of what Jesus said and did.

    It makes sense to me now that the “born agains” and charismatics have surged in fervor and popularity. They at least have (or believe they have) a verifiable, personal experience to go on — however debatable or unverifiable that experience may be to biblical scholars or objective observers. The charismatic and born again Christians (and perhaps latter-day Gnostics) can at least lean on scriptural references to justify their faith even though a critical reading might poke holes in the authenticity of selected passages or the entire NT for that matter.

    And if scribes — or even the original authors — made lots of mistakes, where indeed, as you wonder, “does that leave us?” The answer seems to be to find inspiration where one can and not worry too much about the absolute validity of scripture, or to look totally elsewhere for meaning and fulfillment because, as you point out, the literal authenticity of the NT is no slam dunk.

    In the meantime, a rigorous examination of the NT is certainly a worthwhile enterprise because so much of Western civilization rests upon it.

  8. Avatar
    Jason  July 27, 2015

    I always think of this when you talk about abundance.

  9. Avatar
    hgb55  July 27, 2015

    Jesus and Nazareth mythicist Frank Zindler used Ruben Swanson’s variant texts of the Gospel of Mark (in Swanson’s “New Testament Greek Manuscripts: Variant Readings Arranged in Horizontal Lines against Codex Vaticanus”) in his probability and Bayesian analysis of Mark 1:9.

    Zindler claims that the absence of a definite article (ho) in this verse, before the name Jesus, is not a scribal error and shows that this verse is partly or totally an interpolation that was made in order to insert Nazareth into the Gospel of Mark in order to make it look like Jesus was a real person with a real home town. (He calculates the probability of falsehood and interpolation to be >99.99%, which should make any critical reader suspicious.)

    Does anyone know when the 67 Greek variants of the Gospel of Mark in Swanson’s book were written and where they came from? I would think that in order for Zindler to do any meaningful mathematical analysis he would have to be sure that he used randomly and independent variants of the Gospel of Mark, and possibly other sources of Mark (Syrian, Coptic, etc.).

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2015

      I’m not sure what you mean about the 67 Greek variants. Swanson’s book simply gives all the important variants found in significant manuscripts (most of these variants — nearly all of them — have been common knowledge for a long time).

  10. Avatar
    stevenavery  March 4, 2017

    > ” Moreover, when lines end the same way, that is called “homoeoteleuton.”

    In our research which was spurred by the 2009 Codex Sinaiticus Project and and the questions of the history and authenticity of the manuscript, a gentleman in England came across some interesting examples of homoeoteleuton involving the Sinaiticus ms. Including one that is truly a “textbook case” in 1 Corinthians, for which he wrote up 3 pages of analysis. You can see a bit about this fine example (where we have both the exemplar and the target mss) at this site:

    Homeoteleuton – Text Omitted Because Of Similar Endings

    With the original paper having a link at bottom.

    All feedback welcome. Have you seen a better case documented with extant mss?

    The study of these textual quirks can have a large bearing on our textual theories and give insight into the history of how the Critical Text developed.

    Steven Avery
    Asheville, NC

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2017

      Thanks. There are lots of good cases found in our manuscripts (e.g., Luke 12:9).

      • Avatar
        stevenavery  March 5, 2017

        Thanks, Bart!

        Do you know of any clear and significant cases where we have both the source and target ms?

        Notice that we have lots of special agreements that make this specific dependency virtually an iron-clad conclusion. (This is gone over in more detail in the layman’s guide.)

        And do you know of any cases where the source ms. has been dated to later than the dating (questionably) assigned to the target ms?

        And thus it appears to impel the significant redating of a (major) manuscript?

        All thoughts and feedback appreciated!


        • Bart
          Bart  March 6, 2017

          I can’t think of an instance.

          • Avatar
            stevenavery  March 8, 2017

            Right. So with the evidence so strong, and with Sinaiticus lacking provenance before 1840 and swirling with difficulties, the new evidence will require a radical redating.of the ms. This was placed now in the forum.

            Sinaiticus 350 AD homoeoteleuton – model is Claromontanus 550 AD !

            Granted, a scholar can always stall by saying .. “I need peer-reviewed papesr”. However we also live in a new era where salientl information is available online and we can, at least, begin our own searching. There is nothing real complicated here.

            So we look forward to your explanations of the evidence that Claromontanus was used in the creation of Sinaiticus.



          • Bart
            Bart  March 8, 2017

            I don’t think an opinion expressed online has any of the weight of a peer-reviewed publication, for rather obvious reasons. But I haven’t analyzed this particular argument.

  11. Avatar
    stevenavery  March 11, 2017

    And I agree that a peer-reviewed publication would be nice. And might, or might not, happen in 2017. And could include more material about the sister homoeoteleutons involving the two mss. However, even in the best case 6 to 18 months would go by before a “peer-review journal” approach would bear fruit. And the evidence is actually available for personal review today.

    And since you have an unusual confluence of circumstances.

    1) an extremely important issue (the dating of one of the most important and valuable mss in the world)

    2) a textbook case for a phenomenon which is normal only talked about in the abstract, not two actually extant mss.

    3) an easy-to-see and understand textual phenomenon, that can be digested in a time period of 10 minutes (a textual expert) to an hour (a layman)

    Why wait for the peer-review paper? Especially since some of the experts (like Tommy Wasserman) who have influence in journals and forums and conferences have shown strident hostility to even the possibility that Sinaiticus might need a radical redating.

    All that considered, I suggest that it would be an excellent use of 15 minutes of your time to at least look at how the two manuscripts are laid out. Supporting the idea that Claromontanus was used in the production of Sinaiticus. (Issues of “how could that be” being put aside in order to consider the hard evidence first. Eschew circularity.)

    “knowledge of documents should precede final judgement upon readings ”
    Fenton Hort, 1881



    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2017

      Peer review is not a way of seeing if you can convince a particular reader (the reviewer) (usually there is more than one), but do see if what you say can pass intellectual muster (whether they personally agree with your conclusions or not).

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