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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 appearance of our Greek New Testaments today is very, very similar to how they appeared in 1881.   And they aren’t likely to change much.  We’re just tweakin’ ‘em.   To be sure (this point can’t be stressed enough) there are lots and lots of places where scholars disagree on which variant reading to prefer.  But there is no consensus on most of these readings that make the text we have much different from the text that our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents had (assuming any of them could read the Greek NT) (in my case, not a one of them could….).

So, if that’s what I really think (as evidenced by the fact that I made some such claim in scholarly contexts), how could I have the audacity to claim, to general readers, that we in fact don’t know what the text of the NT originally said?  Aren’t I contradicting myself?  Making spectacular claims to draw attention to myself.  Trying to find the dosh for that villa in the Alps?

Like some of my readers (who commented), I just don’t see the problem.  I don’t think our New Testaments are likely ever to change much.  And I don’t think we know in a lot of places what the originals said.  Where’s the contradiction?  I’m not saying that we *know* that we have the original text in 99.9% of the passages of the NT.  I’m saying we *don’t* know – for a wide variety of reasons that I haven’t gotten into very much here.   But I’m emphasizing the word “know.”  We simply don’t know.

Do I *suspect* that most of the time we are pretty close or even there?  Yes, that would be my guess.  But it’s just a guess based on scholarly assumption and suspicion.

I should stress that (despite occasional requests) I really can’t give a percentage of how many places we are relative comfortable with, as having the original or something very close to the original.  That is very much unlike many of my critics, who somehow think they can say things like “we are sure about the text in 99% of all cases.”  Where in the blazes does that 99% come from?  What does it mean?  How are they counting?  *What* are they counting?  What statistical model have they employed?  And how would they know?

In fact, they’re just…

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Arguments that We Have the Original Text
Textual Criticism Syllabus



  1. dlw297  August 31, 2015

    Ok, Dr. Bart, correct me.
    1. The Syriac Sinaiticus (Aristides?) quotes text from the Gospels dating to second century CE (?); very close to the autographs. If that be the case, are we laying to rest Bauer’s thesis?
    2. The allusion to the modern child’s game of pass-the-secret is a deception since, as you known, the oral-aural culture of the ANE valued and insisted upon memorization of sacred texts.
    3. If. as you say, the texts are essentially unchanged through two millennia (Codex Sinaiticus, DSS), is it reasonable to assume that in the first three centuries they were radically (fatally?) altered by well meaning scribes, but then (miraculously) rendered faithfully for the next two millennia?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2015

      1. No, the Syriac Sinaiticus does not date to the second century. Even if it did, and even if it quoted the NT accurately (we would have no way to know, since we don’t have the original to compare it to), it would have no bearing on Bauer’s view of orthodoxy and heresy. No relevance at all. His views had nothing to do with the accuracy of textual transmission. 2. No, I don’t know that. In fact, I know just the opposite. Oral societies, especially ones in the time of the NT, did not subscribe to the memorization of texts. In no small measure because virtually no one could read them. 3. I have never said the texts were virtually unchanged. I’ have always said the opposite. And it’s not just my opinion. It is an indisputable fact, as anyone who has studies our manuscripts will be quick to tell you.

  2. rivercrowman  August 31, 2015

    So the first complete manuscript of Mark dates to 350 CE? … Bart, did that manuscript have the shorter or longer endings of Mark? (past 16:8)? For now, I’ll presume it didn’t.

  3. dtkline  August 31, 2015

    And even if we did have autographs, which of course we do not, there’s that little problem of (shall we call it) ‘interpretation.’ Texts are not reality but a representation.

  4. shakespeare66  August 31, 2015

    By the time of a full manuscript of Mark, I would think the Proto-Orthodox were gaining an upper hand on the power of the church. One can assume that these manuscripts needed some tweaking themselves in order to reflect that view. But I also assume that these changes took place over time, were never really a conspiracy of sorts, and accomplished the goal ( for the most part) of presenting a quasi-unified view of Jesus Christ. Although I suppose the gospel stories were not looked at very closely and the “problems” associated with their inconsistencies would not emerge until modernity. Is all of this fair to say?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2015

      Yup, I pretty much agree. (though some ealry Xn scholars looked very closely at inconsistencies)

  5. rbrtbaumgardner  August 31, 2015

    “That is very much unlike many of my critics, who somehow think they can say things like “we are sure about the text in 99% of all cases.” Where in the blazes does that 99% come from? What does it mean? How are they counting? *What* are they counting? What statistical model have they employed? And how would they know?”

    Maybe they vote using colored beads. :p

  6. hmltonius  August 31, 2015

    I was told you can know quite definitively when reading the King James Bible because it was “written from the original Greek”. This conversation introduced me to Westcott and Hort who were portrayed as editors who had caused more damage than anyone in altering the original inspired Word of God, demonstrating Satan’s handiwork. Another of life’s curiosities that a view as nonsensical as this could be held and yet maintain a layperson’s knowledge to include Westcott and Hort.

    Could you write more about the relationship between Westcott and Hort and the current English translations, including the KJV (preferably the Scolfield!) Your KJV talk on video was very good.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2015

      Virtually all modern translations are based on a form of the Greek text that is very close to the one W&H produced. Only fundamentalists go a different direction.

    • mjordan20149  September 1, 2015

      I read a book by John Burgin (I think) that attempted to explain the primacy of the Erasmus Greek NT. He tried to show that the Erasmus text was superior to Westcott and Hort. As I recall, the main reason that he said the W&H were not accurate was that they were too Anglo-Catholic in their theological views. I wasn’t real impressed by the argument.

      • Bart
        Bart  September 1, 2015

        No one is persuaded by him, but it’s a *great* book to read. He loved to call his enemies names. And did so with the kind of acerbic wit that no one could get away with today. (John Burgon)

  7. Matt7  September 1, 2015

    “…they’re just making stuff up.” I think you’re on to something.

  8. Robert  September 1, 2015

    87% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

  9. JoeWallack  September 1, 2015

    “Let’s take the Gospel of Mark”

    Yes, let’s take it (“Take my Gospel. Please.”). As the likely original Gospel narrative, the ending of GMark is the most important area in the entire Christian Bible. Yet:
    “it is not taken as certain in all the textual critics. The inaccurate ones of the critics, at least, uncircumscribe the end of the history according to Mark in either the words of the long ending or a lost ending. These things that seldom follow evidence, but which are extant in some textual critics but not in all, may make themselves superfluous, and especially if indeed it holds a contradiction to the testimony of these same textual critics who say there is no significant uncertainty as to what was originally written.”

  10. Forrest  September 1, 2015

    Bart, your comment about the time lapse between the time of Jesus and the first full manuscript of Mark is one that came to me in one of those “aha” moments not too long ago. It is so easy to conflate the time of Justin, Origen and Augustine. But Bart is right, it’s a long time. Lots of things transpired not only with manuscripts but theology as well!

  11. Wilusa  September 1, 2015

    Say, can I ask a (possbly dumb) OT question? About the ancient Jews’ beliefs.

    Without looking back at your textbook on the entire Bible, I think I remember your saying they thought the points of light we see in the night sky – stars – were actually *holes* in the sky, where rain could fall through. But you’ve said elsewhere that they thought the stars were *angels*, and semi-divine humans who’d been taken up into the heavens. Was that a case of later beliefs having replaced earlier ones? And if so, had they just stopped wondering where rain came from? (They certainly hadn’t made any scientific advances.)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2015

      In some ways asking about “the ancient Jewish” belief is like asking about “the modern American” belief. There were/are lots of beliefs about a lot of things.

  12. gabilaranjeira  September 1, 2015

    I am looking forward to what you are going to say next since I am already pretty satisfied with the explanation that we can’t know simply because we don’t have the originals to compare with… Hi!

  13. rbrtbaumgardner  September 1, 2015

    Having read several of your books, the blog for a few years, and seen several of your video presentations, I think what often happens with critics is this: You make an initial broad orienting statement on a subject, which you go then go on to elaborate and qualify.Your critics, however, take hold of that broad statement while they ignore your elaboration and qualifications. Then they accuse you of being inaccurate, contradictory, or overly provocative.

    I appreciate your approach, although your critics do not.

  14. RonaldTaska  September 2, 2015

    A very persuasive analysis. In my opinion, the evidence against the “literal” view of the Bible is overwhelming and, indeed, this “literal” view has done much harm, but that seems to make no difference since the “faith” argument is used as “evidence.” I find that to be very discouraging.

  15. miket  September 2, 2015

    Anyone who thinks that any translation is a 100% accurate representation of the entire meaning of an original text has never had the experience or opportunity of learning and speaking a foreign language. I lived in Germany and there are words in the German language which have no direct English counterpart. Further, German is a language with both formal/familiar forms (Sie, Du) and gender differentiation (Der, Das), neither of which exists in English. Selective use of these constructs can convey meanings which are impossible to express directly in English. In addition there are a number of distinctive German dialects in which the same word may have different meanings. Even beyond that are the presence of colloquialisms. The point being that the only person who could have a chance of really understanding a 1st Century Greek manuscript would be a native Greek speaking 1st Century scribe/monk. Everyone after that would be working on producing an approximate translation at best, even if they had the original text.

  16. kbakalar  September 5, 2015

    Bart, how long is a manuscript in active use in late antiquity? Or to ask the same question in another way, how long is it before a manuscript is deemed to require recopyng? Or again, how many manuscript generations per century?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 5, 2015

      I’m afraid I don’t know. I’d assume some manuscripts are copied a month later, and others a hundred years later.

  17. kbakalar  September 6, 2015

    But your hypothesis depends on knowing, at least to an order of magnitude. If manuscripts are copied every day, then the great, great..grandfather argument carries weight. If its every five hundred years, then not so much. So you must have some estimate in mind of the length of a generation.

    More generally, is there any way to get at the distribution (in the statistical rather than geographic sense) of the frequency of copying, or is just unknowable?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2015

      It works even if the book was copied only once. See today’s post.

      • fabiogaucho  November 25, 2015

        So theoretically the 350 CE manuscript could have been copied from the original? I mean, if papyri can last more than a thousand years, there is no reason it can’t be.

        On the other hand, the earliest manuscript available could be, say, six copies “removed” from the original, while another manuscript from the year 800 could be made straight from the original, is that it? In that case, date of the papyrus is of relative value as a criterium. The older could be earlier.

        Is there any other criterium to decide which manuscripts are probably closer to the original text? For example, place it was found?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 25, 2015

          Yes, all that is theoretically possible (even if not very probable). And no, you can’t use geography to help decide which text is closer to the original, since manuscripts could travel far and wide. The best criterion involves reconstructing the ostensible original based on surviving evidence and then seeing which mss are most like it.

  18. ChrisHembree  May 6, 2017

    Cheap shots from William Lane Craig and Frank Turek.

    The apologists have an entire YouTube channel dedicated to “de-bunking” you!

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