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Are There Cut-and-Paste Jobs in the New Testament? The Case of 2 Corinthians

How much of the early Christian writings consist of scissors-and-paste jobs, where later editors cut up earlier writings and stitched them together into one continuous work, so that what we have now are not the originals but only the final edited version?  Are there books like that, for example, in the New Testament?  In a recent post I mentioned how the early Christian writing called the Didache is that kind of thing, with three documents artificially combined into the 16-chapter book we now have.  That prompted the following question from a blog member.


It seems like there was a lot of “cutting and pasting” in early Christianity. It reminds me of how I cobbled together different parts of the World Book when I turned in my first high school papers.  Do we know whether or not this kind of editing was a common practice during the first three centuries?

Yes, it does appear that we have other examples of that kind of thing in the surviving early Christian writings – including at least a couple that made it into the New Testament.  Let me stress: this approach to “editing” a book is not the same as what we find more commonly, for example among the Gospels.  When Matthew “used” the Gospel of Mark, he took over many of its stories; in some instances he rearranged their order, changed their wording, added material to what he found, took away material, and so on.  That’s not what we’re talking about now.  Now we’re talking about an author literally cutting up a text and combining it, wholesale, with very little editing, with another.

The most famous instance of this kind of suspected cut-and-paste job in the New Testament occurs in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which appears to contain two different letters – or even up to five different letters!  Here is …

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  1. Avatar
    anthonygale  December 30, 2017

    Is there any debate whether the spliced fragments, whether there are two or more, are all written by Paul? What if a letter forged in Paul’s name was combined with a genuine one? How would you classify an epistle like that?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2017

      Ah great question. Yes, one of the five fragments tha tI’ll be talking about appears *NOT* to be written by Paul. I’ll go into this on the blog itself.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  December 30, 2017

    And the moral is, miracles are fine and dandy, but if you really want to influence people, learn how to write a good letter. Epistolary power is awesome.

  3. Avatar
    Blaircb  December 30, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What would be the motivation behind the cut-and-paste job found in 2 Corinthians? What advantage to the compiler is afforded by presenting this as a single work?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2017

      I suppose it would be to provide easy access to “the best of Paul’s letters to us” — kind of like those Reader’s Digest books back in the 60s and 70s we had.

  4. bnongbri
    bnongbri  December 30, 2017

    “Do we know whether or not this kind of editing was a common practice during the first three centuries?”
    I had this very question a few years ago, specifically regarding 2 Corinthians. I’ve read a lot of ancient letters, and I had never really seen anything like what scholars say is going on with 2 Corinthians: 2 (or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6!) letters all fused into one. So I carefully looked into the question: Did this kind of thing happen often in antiquity? Short answer: Sort of. Many people in the Roman world kept an archive of their received letters by simply pasting them together, what specialists call tomoi sugkollesimoi (“pasted-together sheets”). If they received the letters out of order (there was no organized post office in antiquity), they could be pasted together out of the chronological order in which they were written. These original pasted rolls were then sometimes copied, and in that process, epistolary openings and closings were sometimes lost. We would have to imagine this happening several times to produce something like what scholars imagine 2 Corinthians to be, but it’s not inconceivable. For the details and data, see a chapter I wrote on the topic here: https://www.academia.edu/12302634/2_Corinthians_and_Possible_Material_Evidence_for_Composite_Letters_in_Antiquity

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2017

      I am SO glad you answered YES. 🙂 If it’s OK with you, I’ll make this a post on the blog so everyone can see it. Thanks!

  5. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  December 30, 2017

    At the end of your post, you say, “In my next post I’ll explain why some scholars – including me – think that actually there are up to five letters that have been cut and pasted together in 2 Corinthians.” Is your thinking on this the majority view or the minority view among scholars who are not religiously biased?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2017

      I’m not sure! The idea that htere are *two* letters is widely shared and is almost certainly the consensus among critical scholars. Five letters? It’s a view of some/lots, but my guess is not the majority? I’m not sure.

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 30, 2017

    OT, but suggested by things that were mentioned in previous posts…

    About the belief that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem: Do you think it’s possible that either Jesus himself, or his disciples after his death, *falsely claimed* he’d been born in Bethlehem? It seems possible to me, now that I’ve begun thinking about it! Like, a 50-50 possibility.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  December 30, 2017

      P.S. to previous: I just had a *really* nasty thought. What if Jesus began falsely claiming he’d been born in Bethlehem, and *that* was what turned Judas against him?

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  December 31, 2017

        Sheer fantasy. The “Judas kiss” story is pure inention.

        • Avatar
          Wilusa  January 1, 2018

          Are you saying you don’t believe in the “betrayal by Judas” at all?

          I’m familiar with the theory that it was made up by early Christians to place the blame for Jesus’s death on “the Jews” – the name “Judas” being related to “Jew.” But as Bart has pointed out…

          On the one hand, the name “Judah/Judas/Jude” was very common. Jesus supposedly had two disciples, and a brother, named that! So it wouldn’t have been an unlikely coincidence for a “betrayer” to have that name.

          On the other, the identifier “Iscariot” was very *un*common, possibly unique. Yet all the “Judas” traditions include it. (The most widely accepted explanation being that either Judas or his father had come from a hamlet named Kerioth, in southern Judea.) That makes it more likely that the traditions refer to a real person.

          And if there *wasn’t* a “blame the Jews” plot, Jesus’s followers wouldn’t have made up a “betrayal” story: his having been betrayed by one of his own disciples was *embarrassing*! Something they had to try hard to explain (Jesus knew it was about to happen, and accepted it as part of God’s plan).

          What I’m guessing is that Judas believed in the coming “Kingdom,” but never had believed in any kind of “Messiah.” And Jesus’s claiming that role for himself was what turned Judas against him.

        • Avatar
          Wilusa  January 1, 2018

          A further thought: I can even accept the kiss as plausible (if disgusting). Jesus wasn’t a well-known public figure, whom the guards would have been exected to recognize!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2017

      It’s certainly possible that Jesus did, but I see no evidence of it. The disciples: possibly they too — again there’s no way to know.

    • Avatar
      godspell  January 2, 2018

      If Jesus had claimed to be born in Bethlehem, I think that would be mentioned in Mark.

      Jesus, far as we can tell, never openly claimed to be Messiah (perhaps privately), which is why Mark writes his gospel as a detective story, with Jesus giving clues as to his true identity, and almost nobody picks up on them.

      If Jesus had believed he was Messiah, he would also believe that being born in Judea was not a necessary qualification for that. Because, you know, he wasn’t born in Judea. Neither was John the Baptizer, the only man he seems to have recognized as a spiritual equal, his teacher. Judea, in Jesus’ mind, would be overrated. Think about how he describes Jerusalem–not in complimentary terms at all.

      Charismatic people who come from peripheral territories to the center of a given realm don’t typically claim to be from the center themselves–they make it a point of pride, a distinction, that they came from the outside–to transform the center. You don’t deny your birthplace. You own it. But once Jesus was gone, his birthplace remained a problem with regards to convincing Jews he was Messiah–and I would think this was doubly true for Jews in Judea, because you know, hometown pride. So Matthew and Luke tried to have it both ways. He was a Galillean, but he had been born in Bethlehem.

      (There was, incidentally a town called Bethlehem in Galilee, very near Nazareth.)

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  January 3, 2018

        You may be right. But the explanation of two Gospel authors having “gone out of their way” to have Jesus of Nazareth born in Bethlehem *may*, just as possibly, have been that many (most?) Jews who’d believed in a coming Messiah had thought he would *necessarily* come from Bethlehem, or at least be born there.

        Thinking about the implausible Gospel stories that had him born there… The author of “Matthew” was, of course, trying – with the Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt – to creae a literary parallel with the Moses story. (Which he could have done perfectly well with Jesus having been born in Nazareth, and returned when it had become safe.) Can we assume he knew those “events” never happened…but also knew that the less-educated “flock” to whom he’d be reading the story would accept it all as true?

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  December 30, 2017

    I re-read 2 Corinthians recently and I got that exact impression.

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  December 31, 2017

    Prof Ehrman, is there any way to extrapolate from the information in Paul’s letters just how big these communities of believers he was writing to might have been? With the full blown factionalism going on in Corinth it makes it sound like a fairly large community but what would “large” mean in this context? Fifteen or twenty people? More? Less? Do we have any idea (or guess)?


    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2017

      Just guesses — but, for example, given the host of problems the church of Corinth was having, as Paul himself explicates, they would have to be several dozen at the least I should think.

  9. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  December 31, 2017

    I could not understand why Paul seems so erratic at times. Turns out, his letters were cut and pasted together! His personality comes across much differently to me now that I know this.

    • Avatar
      godspell  January 2, 2018

      Imagine if future historians were judging us by our email conversations–which contain all previous emails in the chain, from us and others. I shudder to think of it. Though at least no one shall judge me by my tweets. Since there are none.

  10. Lev
    Lev  December 31, 2017

    Is there a scholarly consensus on who the ‘super-apostles’ were?

    Were they members of the Twelve or “men from James”? Or perhaps they were closer to those warned about in the Didache, the false prophets that were warned about?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 1, 2018

      My sense is that it is widely thought that they were otherwise unknown and unnamed converts, possibly from Jerusalem, who touted their superior spiritual gifts and abilities.

  11. Avatar
    jdub3125  January 1, 2018

    Perhaps the President of the United States has an opinion about 2 Corinthians. He has spoken publicly about it.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2018

      Actually, I’ve heard professional NT scholars (Brits maybe?) refer to Two Corinthians!

      • Avatar
        godspell  January 3, 2018

        Tell me if you’ve heard this one–Two Corinthians walk into a bar…..


  12. Avatar
    Thomasfperkins  January 14, 2018

    Dr Ehrman,

    Does anyone have any idea what constitutes “miraculous deeds and spectacular signs”?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2018

      My guess is that people usually think in terms of spectacular healings and other comparable miracles.

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