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Are There Passages Where *Every* NT Manuscript Gives the “Wrong” Reading?

In this post I deal with an interesting question that a reader has asked me, with reference to the post I made last week where I explained a complicated situation that appears sometimes to have occurred in our surviving manuscripts of the New Testament, when every single manuscript we have may have the “wrong” reading – that is, when every one of the manuscripts appears to an alteration from what the author original wrote.  Here is what I said.

Another reason interpolations and scribal corruptions overlap is because – here it gets even more tricky — there are places where scholars are convinced that there were scribal alterations made very early in the history of the transmission of the text that occurred *after* the book was originally put in circulation in the textual form that has come down to us but that affected *all* of our surviving manuscripts.  In other words, in these places (no one can agree where it has happened!) all of our manuscripts have the wrong reading, but not because of an interpolation made before the text in its final form was put in circulation but because the text in that final form was changed very early by a scribe whose alteration came to be the form of the text copied by all later scribes.

QUESTION:  Please can you give an example in the New Testament where a majority of scholars believe that all our surviving manuscripts have the wrong wording?


I have to admit, I’m not much of an expert on this phenomenon of textual emendation – where scholars “emend” the text (that is, suggest what the original reading was) when all the manuscripts present a reading that appears to be wrong.  It’s a highly technical and massively complex sub-subfield of study within the subfield of study of textual criticism.

But I know some incredibly learned scholars in the world, and among them are experts in textual emendation.  Probably the top scholar in the sub-sub-field is Jan Krans, a professor at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.   I asked him the question, and he gave me a detailed and very gratifying response.

His response was written to me, and so contains a bit of scholarly terminology and assumes a bit of scholarly background, but I think you can get the point.  It’s very interesting.   (I have put any explanatory glosses that I myself have made in boldface; if there’s anything you don’t understand about this, just ask and I’ll try to explain):

Here is what he said:


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Do Later Manuscript Discoveries Ever Support Proposed Interpolations?
Was John the Son of Zebedee Capable of Writing a Gospel?



  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  August 21, 2017

    Bart, a couple of years ago on the blog (Sept. 1, 2015) you answered me the earliest complete manuscript of Mark that ends at 16:8 “dates to 350 CE.” A belated thanks! A follow-up please. About what date did the earliest manuscript appear that had the longer ending of Mark? As many of us know, that ending includes Jesus’ missionary Commission to the Disciples.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2017

      It is found in three manuscripts from the early fifth century.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 21, 2017

    This is way above my head, but I think it illustrates once again that literal interpretation of the scripture is problematic if we have HUGE trouble figuring out which text is “the” scripture to interpret literally.

  3. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  August 21, 2017

    I guess I don’t understand the seriousness of the problem here. In 1 Cor 6:5, didn’t believers sometimes call each other “brother.” I must be missing something because I don’t see how this affects the meaning of the passage.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2017

      For some people the actual wording of each individual verse matters (independently of what *other* verses say)

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  August 22, 2017

        My understanding is that “between a brother” makes no sense because there is no “between” a thing and itself. The (unnoted) emendation in the NRSV is “between one believer and another” – giving rise to the question: if translators “fix” the text without even telling the reader, how can ordinary people even believe what they are reading can be called the Bible? Isn’t there a question of scholarly ethics here?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 24, 2017

          The reality is that all Bible translators are simply trying to make the best sense of the text in front of them as they render it into English. The one and only way to see what the text *literally* says is to read it in Greek. Anything else, any attempt at translation is, by necessity (not choice), a kind of interpretation.

    • Avatar
      JamesSnappJr  August 23, 2017

      The difficulty re: I Cor. 6:5 is that the Greek text seems to refer to judging between a brother, period; whereas one would expect a judgment to involve more than just one participant. This has elicited the conjecture (adopted by Michael Holmes in the SBL-GNT) that originally there was another phrase, “and a brother,” which was lost very early when a copyist’s line of sight drifted from the first “brother” to the second “brother,” accidentally skipping the words in between.

  4. Avatar
    nichael  August 21, 2017

    Thank you.

    As always, one of the most valuable features of this ‘blog is that not only does it provide specific information and examples (as in this case); but also posts like this that give a “behind the curtain peek” into how scholars approach such issues.

  5. Avatar
    Seeker1952  August 21, 2017

    Fascinating but they seem like very small very technical points. I’m probably forgetting some key distinctions or reasoning you made in earlier posts but I wonder where he stands on something like Luke’s birth narrative.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2017

      Yes, serious scholarship deals with a lot of things that outsiders will consider to be minutia!

  6. Avatar
    Silver  August 21, 2017

    Thank you for following this up and, via your friend, giving examples.

  7. Avatar
    gavriel  August 21, 2017

    How do you decide that an incomprehensible textual element, common to all witnesses, is an early copying corruption and not an error made by the author himself?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2017

      Yes, that is very much the big question when it comes to textual emendation.

  8. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  August 22, 2017

    Have you spent much time studying different popular translations of the NT (e.g. Williams, Phillips, Moffatt)? I remember one of those three reversing Paul’s word order – I think it was where he says “first the natural, then the spiritual.” The tr. said that didn’t make aense in the context, so he assumed Paul misspoke and “corrected” it.But at least he admitted he had made an editorial decision for the benefit of his readers.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  August 22, 2017

      “aense” makes no “sense,” which is what I meant.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2017

      I’ve read them but have not engaged in a systematic analysis in light of the Greek text.

  9. Avatar
    JoeWallack  August 22, 2017

    “1 Cor 6:5: here the transmitted text has ἀνὰ μέσον τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ (“between his brother”), which clearly does not make sense. To my knowing, there is no translation ancient or modern that reflects this reading. The most common solution by critics is to assume, in various forms, that another instance of “brother” has been accidentally omitted, and thus, again, that primitive corruption has taken place. Translations usually do not state whether they adopt a conjecture or simply produce a text that does make sense. See http://ntvmr.uni-muenster.de/nt-conjectures/?indexContent=1 Cor 6:5 for more information on this case.”

    This seems overly critical. For someone as poetic as Paul, the context converts the use of the singular “brother” here to a meaning of the plural “brothers” in the context of comparison. Presumably your expert here thinks this would have been considered an error in the ancient world but the lack of any correction in the Manuscripts indicates it was not considered an error, at least by the Church. There is a translation that does just have “brother”: http://biblehub.com/1_corinthians/6-5.htm “Berean Literal Bible
    I say this to you for shame. Thus is there not one wise man among you who will be able to decide in between his brother?” and I have faith that there are others.


  10. Avatar
    Jayredinger  August 24, 2017

    Hi Bart, I was following a thread on Facebook when I came across the following comments. I have posted the thread below. I was wondering if you believe that it is possible that we have reconstructed the New Testament to 98% accuracy. That is of what the original authors wrote. To me a statement like that is impossible to make since we do not have the originals. Your thoughts?

    Kaine Diatheke
    If we lack the essentials to reconstruct these mss, then we would be pretending to know. So, why would we bank on pretense and anchor on such hyperbole?

    Michael Hardin Too much Bart Ehrman methinks 😉

    Michael Hardin
    Textual criticism is a science, I wonder what makes you think we lack tools to reconstruct a critical text? Let me tag a few New Testament scholars and see where they come down. Jay PhelanChris Tilling Douglas Campbell Jaime Clark-Soles

    Kaine Diatheke
    Would love to have them on my show.

    Kaine Diatheke
    Reconstructing these mss synthetically is much different than having all of the essential data.

    Jaime Clark-Soles
    What timing. Just putting the finishing touches on my Intermediate Greek syllabus for the fall term, including a text-criticism assignment that treats this very topic. After they’ve read Metzger and Ehrman’s Text of the New Testament, of course. Oh, and LOTS of ancient Greek using the critical apparatus available in their Nestle-Alands!

    Jaime Clark-Soles
    We’ll also be visiting with Dan Wallace and viewing the project he has going with the ancient mss.

    Daniel Skillman
    Michael Hardin, you’re right to mention Ehrman. Though actually a *careful reading of Ehrman would yield the conclusion of his own teacher Metzger: we can be confident that the New Testament we have is 98%+ accurate in preserving the originals. But not many read Ehrman carefully, and He himself seems to add to the problem by approving sensational book titles and occasionally writing hyperbolicly.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2017

      The only way to know if we can be 98% accurate is by comparing our reconstructed text to the original text itself to see that it is the same in 98% of the places. But the precise problem is that we don’t *have* the original text to compare our reconstructed text to. If we did, we wouldn’t need to reconstruct it. The 98% is simply a made up number.

  11. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 25, 2017

    Jan seems to be saying that they know there are places where the original reading was lost, but scholars can’t agree where they occur, and that’s because of their prior assumptions rather than engaging with the problems of the text. That doesn’t do much for my confidence in critical biblical scholarship. I realized a few months ago when searching out the historical Jesus versus the mythical Jesus that translations are not without certain theological assumptions (and any other priori) on the part of the translator.

    And that brings me to the NRSV. I’ve tried to like it, but I just don’t. I feel like there was an agenda to make it gender neutral so it would be more palatable to readers in the modern world. One example being Matt 4:19 (cf. Jer. 16:16, Isa. 19:8). I want the truth, not a sugar-coated version of something that feels like a form of mission creep (subliminal conversion techniques). I see the same thing in Paul’s letters with the words born, portrayed, and betrayed.

    I have to wonder if it’s bias, assumptions, or flat out deception when it comes to these translations. What bothers me is that the general lay audience has no idea they’re being influenced in such a way. And then there’s this false assumption that 97-98% of the text has been preserved. That is an absolute lie.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      I’m not sure he’s saying that differences of opinion are driven *entirely* by different assumptions. And I’ll add your comments on the NRSV to the mailbag, since I was personally involved with its use of inclusive language.

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