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Did God Want Us To Have His Word?

In my previous post I said that, in my opinion, the best way to approach the “original” text of the New Testament – given the fact that we don’t actually *have* it – is to make a working assumption that we are pretty darn close, in most places, most of the time.   I openly admit, and always have, that this is an *assumption*.  But since it’s one that “works,” well, I think I’ll continue calling it a working assumption!  And I’ll show why there are really very good grounds for it.

But first I want to affirm strongly that the assumption is contrary to what most people think about the New Testament – both scholars and lay folk.  Among virtually everyone else that I’ve ever heard talk about it, there are two views, one the massive consensus and one the tiny minority; and I don’t agree with either one.

The consensus view seems to be that we really do *know* what the authors of the New Testament wrote.   Deeply committed Christian readers of the Bible (including the scholars among them) often think this on theological/religious grounds – God wanted to give us his words and so we have his words.  That’s what the Word of God is.  His words.  If God wanted to give us his Word, as he did, then he *did* give us his Word.  And that must mean we have the actual words.

I think this view is obviously and demonstrably wrong.

The reality is that …

If you have any interest at all in the Bible, and how we got it, and how we should understand it — keep reading.  If not, there are plenty of sit-coms to choose from!  To read, though, you’ll need to belong to the blog.  It costs less than cable.  And is so much more informative and invigorating.  And hey, it’s not an either-or!  The blog has a small membership fee, and it all goes to charity.  So why not join?

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Crazy Things Textual Scholars Say
Misconstruing My Words. Can We Know What the Authors of the New Testament Originally Said?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Nichrob  October 11, 2019

    I’ve read (and heard you argue in debates), that from about 400 to time zero, we have copies of copies of copies and with respect those “early” copies, they are filled with contradictions and / or “mistakes” (although most are immaterial), and therefore, it is probable we will never know if we have the original words of the authors.. In this post I’m sensing a different conclusion. Am I interpreting you incorrectly, or are you altering your earlier position?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2019

      NOPE! That’s my point. We will never know. But we can make some reasonable assumptions that allow us to get on with our work. Very different!

      • Avatar
        Damian King  October 13, 2019

        If that is the case with overwhelming majority of ancient manuscripts, why do you need to be so specific about NT? Why can’t you talk about NT in a more broader way, rather than singling out NT? Does that make sense?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 14, 2019

          Yup, and I do! Scholars do! But lay people, frankly, are not interested in the manuscript problems with Cicero’s de re Publica, or the Aeneid, or the Odyssey (the problems are *immense*, and different in all three cases). Most today may be interested in the New, Testament, but little else. (BTW, the problems with the Old Testament are even more complicated!)

          • Avatar
            Charlene  October 21, 2019

            There are no problems with the Old Testament if you understand it correctly. Also, the WORD is God. This does not mean words at all. Seriously, you have to dig deeper. You are merely scratching the surface. Use your right brain, not your left. That’s what the RIGHT hand of God means. It was not written to be deciphered the way you are doing it. They were much more clever than that. Look for clues like repetitions. The wilderness, water and brothers. Things like that. The stranger the story is, the more apt it is a clue. The only requirement is to give up what you think you know and start with an open mind. I won’t be here much longer but you can probably find me. ✌🏼

  2. John4
    John4  October 11, 2019

    I agree with you, Bart, that “the current form of the Greek New Testament – the words we read, one after the other, in Greek — is an invention of the 20th century.” Would it be reasonable to say by way of analogy that the current form of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Old Testament is largely an invention of the 10th and 11th centuries?

    Many thanks, as always! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2019

      I’d say of earlier times — but yes, the persons who gave us the Hebrew text were also making choices.

  3. Avatar
    Pegill7  October 11, 2019

    Bart,

    A question about protocol on the blog: After submitting a question there is a message that the comment is awaiting moderation. Then after moderation the question is either added to the list of questions or is deleted. You will either answer or you won’t. What is the basis for a question being deleted? Obviously questions that are vulgar, totally off the wall, expression of a bigoted sentiment, too lengthy, or perhaps too personal. Any other reasons for deletion?

    Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2019

      I delete a comment only about one time a month, and that’s only if it is snarky or disrespectful, or so completely irrelevant to the purposes of the blog that it makes no sense in this context. If I’ve inadvertently deleted one that you have made, let me know! I doubt if that happens more than once a month either, but hey, I am so human….

  4. Avatar
    dljohnston0890  October 11, 2019

    Dear Bart,

    What seems to you to be the most significant differences between the manuscripts that may or may not be obvious in today’s translations of the New Testament?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2019

      I give a bunch of them in my book Misquoting Jesus. One I’ve dealt with on the blog, e.g. is on the “Bloody Sweat.” Search for the posts and you’ll see.

  5. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  October 11, 2019

    I’ve said similar before: You’re a gentleman.
    “Did God Want Us To Have His Word?” I don’t know.
    Do the people invested in the current NT want us to have the real, absolutely original, exact first version of the NT? Hell, no!

  6. Avatar
    Epikouros  October 11, 2019

    The original manuscripts were WRITTENLIKETHIS. Sort of weird that God couldn’t have inspired his scribes to use handy tools like spacing or punctuation. We had to wait several more centuries for those!

  7. Avatar
    jrussel18@aol.com  October 11, 2019

    Does your approach make room for an “inspired” element to scripture? And does that mean that believers’ versions are more “inspired” than atheists or agnostics? Is there a consensus view on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2019

      Yes, indeed, it would be completely possible for the Bible to be inspired without us having the originals. I thought that for many many years. And no, there would be no translations more inspired than others.

    • Avatar
      ShonaG  October 30, 2019

      Agnostics and atheists are also believers, they just differ in their beliefs and in how they’re relating. Richard Dawkins probably devotes more time to God than most Christians – Ahab and the whale it consumes him and that is also a Christian relationship if the person is Christian, obviously there are Jewish atheists and Muslim atheists. Atheism isn’t a lack of belief its a lack of belief in something defined usually dogma more than God.

  8. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  October 11, 2019

    What I always find odd is the assumption that God’s “word” would be in any way comprehensible. There is for instance a large gap between a cat’s intellect and the human intellect, but that gap isn’t infinite. The gap between God’s intellect and the human intellect is surely greater than the gap between human intellect and that of one of our pets. So it seems that God transmitting his “word” to a human being would be a lot like someone trying to convey Quantum Field Theory to an ant. Implicit in this idea that God communicates his “word” to us, is the assumption that God, be he ever so powerful, really isn’t much smarter than we are. I don’t quite buy that. In fact, I don’t buy that at all. You can turn this around and say: “By golly, God is just as ignorant as me! Just as dumb!” Put it like that and it doesn’t sound very complementary to God. On the other hand, it is not unusual to hear people say, “Oh, God’s ways are not our ways– we shouldn’t expect to understand why uncle Joe died horribly in that flaming inferno of a car crash out on the highway. It’s not for us to question God’s will– his plan is too mighty for us to comprehend!” What?? You can’t have it both ways, can you??

    • Avatar
      ShonaG  October 30, 2019

      How about he died that way because that’s the laws of physics and biology that govern life and make it possible and just maybe me, you or uncle Joe aren’t the centre of the universe. I don’t think that’s about God but about human consciousness, our consciousness places us at the centre, we feel our pain nobody else’s. Uncle Joe’s our uncle, how he died is at the centre of our universe. I think that’s a new age belief i.e. Joe Bloggs p*ssed me off the universe should hit him with a bus that’s karma. I don’t think ego centricity a thousand years ago was anything like as narcissistic, cold and selfish as it is today for practical reasons.
      I also don’t think when uncle Joe has died that would be the time to say that so people say kind things because there is a time and a place to remove beams without taking out somebody’s eye.

  9. Avatar
    geshtu  October 11, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    When I first came across some of your debates I was shocked to learn how few manuscripts we have the further back we go. Christians love to point out the 5600 or so NT manuscripts but I believe that’s a bit like pointing out how many copies we had after the invention of the printing press. Many of them are late and not all that relevant when deciding what the original might have said. I think you may also have made the comment that the older manuscripts differ from each other more than the later ones do.

    I understand that if you have lots of very early copies, the eclectic method should come pretty close to recovering the original text, though it will probably never be exact and we can’t ever know how accurate it is for certain. The problem I see is that we don’t have lots of early copies, and we don’t know what “generation” the manuscripts we have even are, meaning we don’t know how many intermediate texts existed between any manuscript and the original. Every intermediate text means potential for more copying errors or even deliberate changes.

    Whether or not our current copies are accurate seems to depend very heavily on the assumption that there were not any major changes in the earliest copies of the text that occurred before the oldest manuscripts we have today. Is that fair to say?

    A lot seems to rest on the idea that many copies were made from the original rather than a few copies made of the original and a few copies made from those and so on. The more parallel these branches are, the more accuracy we have, but conversely the more linear these branches are the more we should doubt the reliability of the text. Are you able to comment or post on how many early copies we have and whether they were all copies of very early sources or whether they were each copies of copies in a more linear chain?

  10. Avatar
    Poolboyjoe  October 11, 2019

    Hi
    Bart do Christians worship a pagen God to day ie Yahweh / El.

  11. Avatar
    Damian King  October 11, 2019

    Hey Bart, 2 questions I wanted to ask you.
    Do you know any faithful Roman Catholics that accept most of your scholarship and accept Catholicism.
    Do you think that one could accept your scholarship mostly and stay a faithful Roman Catholic, like accept major precepts, Papacy, Eucharist, Trinity, and the importance of the Church?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2019

      Yes, absolutely. Of course no two scholars agree on everything. But, famously, Raymond Brown and John Meier were/are amazing critical scholars of the New Testament and ordained and practicing RC priests.

      • Avatar
        Damian King  October 13, 2019

        As a historian of Christianity, and I would assume, a person with many interests, do you have any predictions as to the future of the Roman Catholic Church?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 14, 2019

          Well, I don’t think it’s going anywhere in *my* lifetime. But I think it will probably continue to grow in some developing countries and shrink in the U.S. and western Europe.

          • Avatar
            mombird903  October 14, 2019

            Oh no, as if developing countries don’t have enough to deal with. 🙁

  12. Avatar
    WLFobe  October 12, 2019

    I was told once by an authority on the Qur’an that when Muhammad was preaching and noticed his followers writing down what he said, he made them stop and listen. Really listen. So there were early textual difference as everyone left the sermon and wrote down what they thought had been said.

  13. galah
    galah  October 12, 2019

    I think the biggest problem here is the use of “the word of God” in reference to scriptures.

  14. fefferdan
    fefferdan  October 12, 2019

    “If God wanted to make sure his people had his words, why did he wait 2000 years for it to happen?” My answer: because the people who compiled the NT and the bishops who used it to bolster their own apostolic authority did a good job of suppressing the words of God they didn’t agree with 😉 I don’t really see much hope in uncovering the original and true Greek text of the bible. For me, God’s word is bigger than that anyway. It includes a lot of both oral and written material that we will probably never get to know… not to mention the many teachings and actions of Jesus and his disciples that didn’t make the cut. Personally I think the discovery of the Nag Hamadi library, the DSS and other recently uncovered texts is providential. Are there some “words of God” there? I think so. But I think the writings of a certain agnostic bible critic are also words of God.
    Namaste
    Dan

  15. Avatar
    francis  October 13, 2019

    Dr Ehrman: I was just listening to your lecture on The New Testament (The great courses) John – Jesus the man from heaven. (I have all of your courses) It occurred to me that we cannot be dealing with a divinity here. If a divinity is perfect than it cannot have an ego. Why does a divinity need to be glorified for by humans? This is a further reason that I am a non believer. Who ever created this divinity did not take into consideration that he was creating a sub human.

  16. Avatar
    anthonygale  October 13, 2019

    How do you think the accuracy of modern reconstructed versions of the Bible compare to the earliest “best” manuscripts, such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus?

  17. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  October 13, 2019

    Bart Ehrman wonders: “Did God Want Us To Have His Word?” Of course not. For if the God of the Judeo-Christians is by definition omnipotent and omniscience, the reality is that he has done a very bad job trying to tell his life and miracles to his creatures.

    But with all the interest and respect that I deserve from the invaluable work of experts who with objectivity and intellectual honesty – which generally excludes apologists and many of the believers – perform textual criticism and Historical criticism (also known as the historical-critical method or higher criticism), I think to myself that this, together with the problem of their true authors or of the fidelity of the copies to the originals , is a minor issue compared to the content of the original manuscripts, both of the OT and the NT.

    There is much evidence that the so-called Sacred Scriptures are not at all, the Word of an omnipotent and omniscient God, that what he wants is for his creatures to know him, love him, worship and praise him and not make guessing games with them, for the simple pleasure to test their faith, so that if they fail, condemn them to unimaginable torments for all eternity.

    In addition, the problems with the inability or unwillingness of God that his creatures have his Word with all the guarantees that it is such does not end with the manuscripts and their copies. They have followed and continues throughout the history of Christianity, as is the example of the duplication of canons – Catholic and Protestant – supposedly the result of the inspiration of a Holy Spirit that changes his mind according to historical circumstances. Or that today there are more than 25,000 so-called “Christian denominations.”

    Also, if what is read in Galatians 4: 4 is true: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law”, with a simple and elementary view of history, it is ridiculous to speak of “this fullness of time.” Among other things, because if God wanted all mankind to know with certainty his plans to send his only-begotten son to be tortured and give him horrific death, he could have waited a little, some 2,000 years – not even an infinitesimal of time for an eternal God– for “the fullness of time” to have occurred in the era of global information, telecommunications and social networks.
    .

  18. Avatar
    mombird903  October 14, 2019

    Poor God whoever he is or isn’t. Those claiming to know God and what he says, thinks, does, are driving many right into the arms of atheism. Bible interpretation is a big contributor to this.

  19. Avatar
    mb71314  October 15, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, has there been any analysis (or estimates) on how many copies could have been made of each NT book, from the estimated year when we think the book was written (Mark ~70CE) to the earliest extant copy we have (Mark ~3rd century CE)? Or have any scholars found evidence of contemporary societies’ (1-4th centuries CE) copying practices? How many did a scribe copy? How long did it take? Was a copy “ordered” or was a batch made and distributed? Things of this nature.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2019

      Yes, there are studies on some of these issues: how quickly scribes worked/how much they could produce/how they were instructed to make copies. Lots of scholarship. You might start with the basics, e.g., with the sections on this kind of thing (which will not answer all your questions) in the introductions to textual criticism of the NT, e..g. by Bruce Metzger, or David Parker. We don’t really have any way of knowing how many times a particular book was copied though. Our best information comes to us about Greek and Roman scribes and their practices. Another place to start would be Harry Hurtado’s book on manuscripts as artefacts.

  20. Avatar
    anthonygale  October 20, 2019

    What if the answer to the title of this post was simply: No. God wasn’t and isn’t bothered with that.

    I know you don’t believe in God, but what if there is a God that had no (direct at least) influence on the writing of the Bible? If God doesn’t see fit to make his existence undeniably known, why would he be concerned with inspiring the writing of a book? That until modern times few people could read? That in modern times most believers still don’t read? Without getting the writing started until decades (NT) or centuries (OT) after events happened/were said to have happened?

    If I was an apologist, I might be inclined to say: the errors in the Bible are there, because human make errors and God allowed it. I have difficulty understanding why many Christians aren’t open to that idea while accepting all sorts of other things (e.g. hell, events like the Holocaust were allowed to happen).

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      Yup, if I were a believer I would entertain that as a real option.

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