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Did the Gospels Originally Contain Miracle Stories?


I have looked up the content of all the papyri I’m aware of (off of links on wikipedia, so who knows if they’re accurate).

It is my understanding that although p52, p90, and p104 are dated around 125-150 AD, they contain fragments of John 18 and Matt 21 only, and that it’s not until 200 AD that manuscripts emerge which actually contain accounts of supernatural actions by Jesus.

So, it’s possible that accounts of miracles existed in copies that got destroyed, but is it fair to say that the earliest available copies of accounts of Jesus’s supernatural actions date from around 200 AD?

In other words, assuming people on average had kids by age 20 back then, and thus 20 years counts as a generation, is it fair to say that the earliest available accounts of miracles by Jesus were written by the great, great, great, great, great, great, grandson of somebody who would have been alive at the same time as Jesus?



This is an interesting question!   It is true that we do not start getting relatively complete manuscripts of the Gospels until around the year 200.   But I don’t think it would be fair to say that this means that we do not have reports of Jesus’ miracles until then – unless we want to be overly-literalistic in our thinking.

This is why:  as I have indicated in other posts, we have far more manuscripts, and early manuscripts, of the New Testament than for any other book from the ancient world.   These manuscripts were themselves copied from earlier ones, which were copied from earlier ones, which were copied from earlier ones.   That’s a key point.

For the Gospel of Luke – just to pick an example – we have an excellent manuscript, P75, from around 200 CE.  It is not a complete manuscript, but a large fragment.  It does, however, contain the reports of Jesus’ miracles.  Now P75 did not make up these reports itself.  It was copying an earlier manuscript (a very good one, from what we can tell).

And as it turns out, we have another manuscript of Luke from about the same time.  P45 is also fragmentary, but it also contains the stories of Jesus’ miracles.  These two manuscripts are independent of one another, but they contain the same stories, and in most instances in exactly the same words.

Moreover, we have versions (ancient translations of the Greek NT into other languages) that were done in the second century – Coptic, Latin, and Syriac.  These also all have the same stories (it’s true that we don’t have second century copies of these versions; but we have enough later copies to make it relatively easy to reconstruct, in most cases, the second-century form of their texts; and NONE of these later copies is lacking any of these miracle stories).  And these versions are not only independent of one another, they are independent of the two Greek manuscripts (P45 and P75) from around 200.   In addition, we have somewhat later Greek manuscripts that are based on earlier manuscripts that are independent of all the versions and the two Greek manuscripts.

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Question on How We Got the Canon of the New Testament
Undergraduate Courses (1): Introduction to the New Testament (Part 1)



  1. Avatar
    bholly72  May 22, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Speaking of miracles, especially the miracles of healing, what is your view of Morton Smith’s “Jesus the Magician?” I found it interesting and provocative, but lack the background needed to really evaluate its arguments.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2012

      I have a chapter on Smith’s Secret Gospel in my book

        Lost Christianities

      . I do not think Jesus is best understood as a magician, but I think Smith’s book is very much worth reading. He was one brilliant scholar!

      • Avatar
        bholly72  May 31, 2012

        Got “Lost Christianities” from Amazon. It arrived yesterday and I was up half the night reading. I wasn’t at all prepared for the mystery (scandal) surrounding Morton and the Clement letter. I found it especially telling that the letter lacked signs of scribal errors — are there any other late copies of early texts equally pristine?. But I am still shocked that so eminent a professor might have been involved in falsification of the most elaborate sort. In the past few years there have been several notorious cases of eminent scientists cooking their results, but I guess my naivete is all too durable. Anyway, I love the book — and I think anyone who enjoyed Elaine Pagels’ “Gnostic Gospels” would love it and get a fuller understanding of early Christian diversity. On another topic, what are your thoughts about Robin Lane Fox? I found his “Pagans and Christians” astonishing and overwhelming. When I finished it, I felt I had been actually living in the late classical period. But it is his “Unauthorized Version” that he really delves into textual issues.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 1, 2012

          I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the book. Yes, Lane Fox is the real item, a brilliant historian and writer.

  2. Avatar
    Jacobus  May 24, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman, I find the Rudolf Pesch’s way of evaluating the Pre-Markan miracle stories quite interesting. How do you think about the miracle stories before Mark was written? Does the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Mark tap into the same oral tradition, although John was much later written? How do you think about exorcisms in the miracle stories?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2012

      I do think there was a sequence of miracle stories, in written form, available to Mark; there is obviously some relation between Mark and John in some respects, as they have a couple of miracle stories in common. But I do not think they were both accessing the same sources for them; the oral tradition, I believe, was vibrant, with lots of cross-fertilization as Christians in various communities moved about and told their stories. One interesting feature of the Gospel relations is that whereas Mark has a number of striking exorcism accounts, there is none in John. Scholars have suggested a variety of reasons for that. It is not an accident, perhaps, that John is the least apocalyptic of the Gospels, and that Mark, which *is* very apocalyptic, seems to understand the defeat of the demons as a sign that the apocalyptic end was soon to appear. Possibly in non-apocalyptic traditions demons were less important?

      • Christopher Sanders
        Christopher Sanders  November 30, 2012

        I was looking for somewhere to ask this question so that it may be appropriate and contribute to the discussion and I think this is as good a place as any. I was making my case against the resurrection and Jesus’ divinity tonight to a Christian and we ended up discussing oral tradition. His assertion was that there was enough of a check on what was being transmitted orally that we can be assured the information is reliable. For example, in the context of the story in Mark of the two women discovering the empty tomb, he said that this is probably true because, if it wasn’t, people that knew the disciples, who knew the two women, would have heard about it and put a stop to the story. I thought this was naive to the extreme but I’m not expert on oral traditions so I wanted to take it to you and see what you’d say about it.

        I’d also really appreciate any reading and source recommendations on this topic you can make. I like to take my knowledge straight from the facts if I can. Thanks! 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Keith Collura  May 28, 2012

    Can you touch on the virgin birth story from Mark. I read the following and I just wanted you to comment on it.
    The first two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew in today’s Bibles were not part of the ‘original Hebrew’ version of that Gospel. They narrate the virgin birth of Jesus Christ and were forged into the text late in ‘the 5th Century AD’ (‘Catholic Encyclopedia’, Pecci Ed., ii, 398; ‘Diderot’s Encyclopedia’, 1759). None of the Gospels in their earliest form ever recorded a virgin birth of Jesus Christ, confirmed in the Church’s ‘Encyclopedia Biblica’ (iii, 3344).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2012

      I assume you mean Matthew, not Mark. I’m afraid your information is very dated. The chapters could not have been added in the fifth century, since they are referred to and discussed by church fathers in the second century! (Plus: Matthew was not originally written in Hebrew, but in Greek)

  4. Avatar
    Margie  May 28, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You mentioned earlier that you too did not believe Jesus performed miracles as the gospels relate. Can you enlarge upon that? I am very interested in your reasoning. By the way, I don’t believe Jesus performed miracles either. I don’t hold a magic world view.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2012

      Maybe I can devote a post to it on the blog. It’s a long answer! (But one shortcut answer: since I don’t believe in the supernatural realm, I don’t believe in supernatural events!)

      • Avatar
        DMiller5842  May 30, 2012

        Preacher Dies From a Rattlesnake Bite

        From above article:
        “He and other adherents cited Mark 16:17-18 as the reason for their practice: “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

        He died expecting a miracle. This is just one case where religion gone wrong is harmful.

        Last night I was watching the debate between you and William Lane Craig on YouTube. First, I want to say that I am appalled at the way he attacked you personally. Then he completely misused the language of the universe (mathematics) to try to prove his point. His involving mathematics in his argument caused me to sit up straight and pay attention. AHA I thought – he has mathematical proof. There is something I could hang my hat on… but …
        no, his math was wrong.

        P(R/B) = 0 and so does P(R/E,B) . The value of B = zero since known cases of people coming back to life after death is 0. Even if we allowed Christians to use a number other than 0 to reflect their belief (not a number from their own experience in the world) in the resurrection of Jesus it would be a very tiny number and the probability would still be close to 0.

        I was really disappointed that he did not substitue any values into his formula and solve it. I would especially have enjoyed observing how he arrived at his B value. This would have obviously demonstrated his own error and made your point. I wish you would have asked him to do that.

        In any event, using the mathematics or more simply the common understanding of what it means for something to be probable… you were right. The resurrection is not the most likely event.

        Moral of the story… if you handle rattlesnakes, it is likely you will be bitten and you may die just like your father.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 30, 2012

          Thanks for this. Yes, I don’t have the training in math to be able to whip out the response to his formula, but it did make me laugh. Even to a non-mathmetician, it was absurd. Interesting that the same formula (Baye’s Theorem) is now being used to prove not that Jesus was raised from the dead but that he never existed!

          • Avatar
            DMiller5842  May 31, 2012

            As any math teacher would say to that, I’d like to see all the steps worked out!

        • Avatar
          bholly72  May 31, 2012

          Yes, in the last few years it has become all too common for Christian philosophers to try to deck out their tired versions of the argument from design with all the symbolism of the probability calculus. I was disappointed to see Alvin Plantinga, a philosopher far more distinguished than Craig, trot out this nonsense in his debate with Dan Dennett. But, as you point out, they don’t dare put in actual numbers, since any hard values would have to be completely arbitrary and made-up. Craig is a special offender in the misuse of math category, as he just lies about tranfinite arithmetic in his defense of the Kalam cosmological argument.

          • Avatar
            Cephas  November 17, 2012

            William Lane ‘Two Citations’ Craig is a very difficult apologist to refute. He really sticks to one presentation each debate, just substituting whatever the subject is to his boilerplate text. Theoretically, that should make him much easier to better in debate, but as you point out, when he feels the balance shifting, he starts introducing all sorts of apocryphal arguments to throw his opponents off.

            Bart knows (I suspect) that WLC knows even less mathematics than he does, but it’s actually pretty difficult to switch gears in the midst of a line of reasoning! Especially when the microphones are on! I’ve seen good mathematicians stumble debating the Creationists’ “Usual Suspects” (WLC, Ham, Comfort, Plantinga, etc). Not because they didn’t know what they were talking about, but because when a Creationist senses another lost argument, they don’t admit defeat, they just change the subject.

            In fact, the best type of interlocutor for a debate would be a polymath, so they could easily and quickly destroy all the fake arguments and get the apologist to fall back on their old favourite, the ad-hominem attack! I’m just such a polymath, but trust me, I’m a LOUSY debater!

            I have more to say on apologists on my own blog, but that’s probably inappropriate here!

  5. Avatar
    Michael Burgess  December 30, 2013

    One of the points I found attractive in Reza Aslan’s “Zealot” was his suggestion that:

    1. Jesus’ healing miracles were extremely subversive because the temple in Jerusalem would slowly be deprived of income from sick people paying for cleansing rituals.

    2. Jesus was distinctive from your common or garden itinerant healer because he never accepted payment.

    Is there any merit to any of this?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 1, 2014

      Well, I don’t think the leaders in the temple were particularly bothered by some guy up in Galilee healing a few people. There’s no evidence they were upset at other times by other Jewish miracle workers. And I don’t know of any evidence that other Jewish healers in the first century were paid for doing what they did. Does Aslan cite any actual evidence? I don’t recall offhand….

  6. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  February 19, 2018

    Did you ever write that “other” post mentioned here in which you explain why you don’t believe Jesus did the miracles “ascribed” to him. I, too, don’t believe they are factual/actual but I would be pleased to hear YOUR position.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      Seems like I did! I also talk about it at some length in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

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