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Do the Differences in Our Manuscripts Matter?

The final two arguments that conservative critics of Misquoting Jesus have made, time and time again, are that (a) none of the variations in our manuscripts is particularly significant and (b) at the end of the day, we really do know what the original words of the New Testament were – far better than for any other book from the ancient world.  These are two points that my old friend and debate opponent Dan Wallace makes emphatically every time he hears a whiff of my name.

On the matter of significance there are a couple of things to be said.  The first is that some readers of my book have misunderstood my claims and have thought that I was saying something like “There are manuscripts of the New Testament that get rid of the resurrection!” or “There are manuscripts of the New Testament that deny God exists!” or “There are manuscripts of the New Testament that claim that Jesus was a Zoroastrian!” or some such thing.

That’s obviously not at all what I’ve ever said or hinted at.   I have repeatedly said that among the hundreds of thousands of differences in our manuscripts, most of them are completely unimportant, immaterial, and significant for nothing more than to show that scribes in the ancient world could spell no better than students can today.   What my opponents object to is that I don’t say that over, over, and over again, and then say nothing else.  They’d prefer that I say nothing else.

And at the end of the day they have a different understanding of what a “significant” variant is than I do.   They would all agree that …

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On Being Controversial
Conservative Reactions to Misquoting Jesus

61

Comments

  1. swaffbls  February 2, 2018

    Very interesting point there at the end illustrating the significance of non-doctrinal material. If anyone books of the New Testament suddenly vanished overnight, it would certaibly send a shockwave through many (if not all) churches. It would certainly be a revealing occurrence; would people be more troubled because they no longer had access to the words of Paul (for example) or because what is held to be holy scripture seems to have lost some of its authority/stability (seems like many of your opponents already take this latter position)? I wonder what people would do if suddenly the Shepherd of Hermas was suddenly added back in! At any rate, I’ve always wondered why Mark was included in the canon of scripture in the first place if almost all of it was used by Matthew/Luke, thereby making its contents (maybe not its message) redundant. Any thoughts on that?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 2, 2018

      My sense is that it was included because it was both known and thought to be by a companion of Peter.

      • AnotherBart  February 2, 2018

        If Mark was Peter’s ‘on-the-spot’ sermon translator for years, then his writing the whole thing from memory would have been easy.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 4, 2018

          You may be interested in seeing what scholars of memory would say about that. See my book Jesus Before the Gospels, where I talk about it at length.

          • AnotherBart  February 4, 2018

            By easy, I mean if Mark was writing 45 CE in Rome, Peter alive, not 25 years later.

          • brandon284  February 21, 2018

            Do we have much reason to doubt Papias’s writings in regards to the validity of Mark as Peter’s interpreter?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 22, 2018

            I’ve long doubted it myself. Maybe I’ll post on this again. But I talk about it in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

      • ardeare  February 4, 2018

        It seems that you have become more open to Mark having been a traveling companion of Peter with your use of the terms, “both known and thought.”

        • Bart
          Bart  February 5, 2018

          No, not at all. I don’t at all think that!

          • Lev
            Lev  February 5, 2018

            Ancient sources are impressively united on Mark being Peter’s interpreter.

            Papias is especially important due to his information coming from 1st century John, but Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian in the 2nd century are also united in this conclusion.

            How do you object to this evidence?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 6, 2018

            I have a fairly lengthy discussion of it in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

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            1
          • AnotherBart  February 6, 2018

            🙁 Bummer!

            “Come to the Light, Kylo. I know you can FEEL it.” 😉

            responding to Dr. E’s comment:
            “No, not at all. I don’t at all think that!”

    • godspell  February 3, 2018

      Because it’s a great and moving work of literature, that has entirely unique points to make about a Jesus who seems at least as much human as divine?

      It’s not like they were swimming in gospels. Yes, there are the gnostics, but those are from much later, and express very alternate POVs that mainstream Christianity can’t fully embrace. The New Testament is a lot shorter than the Old. Might as well ask why they didn’t just make it all Luke, since he tells the longest story, Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is less detailed and contradicting of Luke’s, and John is–you know–weird.

      The fact is, the New Testament is a one hell of an eclectic anthology, and I’d assume those who compiled it did know they were trying to find some way to include differing stories about a man they’d come to see as God. Because they genuinely wanted to know all they could about him. With certain exceptions.

  2. jbskq5  February 2, 2018

    For years one of the top results when one does a google search of your name is Dan Wallace’s article “The Gospel According to Bart” on Bible.org. When I first found it, I was a little disappointed that you hadn’t responded to many of its points directly in your debates with him or here on the blog. In fact, I wrote a rebuttal of my own to the article on many of the rhetorical points (some of the textual arguments are beyond me). I’m glad to see you respond to them here at last.

  3. flyboydh1  February 2, 2018

    The crazy thing is, the additions to the NT such as John 8 and the last part of Mark have huge implications as to the honesty and integrity of these documents. If they are G-d breathed, why would they not be part of the originals? Would G-d have such a problem including them? Did He change his mind later and decide to add them? It’s insane to think these additions don’t matter on the part of your critics, Dr. Ehrman. Also, the story in John 8 is a complete fabrication, and cannot possibly have happened according to Jewish law. It is a fake story designed with the sole intent to implicate the Jews in their apparent rejection of Jesus and try to show a contrast between Jesus and the Jews. And how Jesus is the compassionate one, and the Jews lack heart. And with that (and the entire NT), we can see the innocent Jewish lives lost in history as the result of writings like these. It’s sad and heartbreaking.

  4. RonaldTaska  February 2, 2018

    I not only admire your scholarship and productivity, but your courage and honesty. Every time you get unfairly attacked, my friend, remember that there are many that you have helped, really helped, understand stuff in a way that non-scholars can get it. Thanks and keep plugging away. I still hope that at some point honest truth will be more important than “fake news” and spin doctors, but I am not optimistic. In fact, I am skeptical that it will ever happen even among those who advocate the “truth” and who contend that the truth is supposed to make you free.

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    • steelerpat  February 4, 2018

      Is there a Bible or specifically New Testament version published including only original (not added later) and non forged material as agreed upon by most contemporary Scholars?

      Be interesting to see how that would flow

  5. jhague  February 2, 2018

    I think most conservative fundamentalist, evangelicals and just conservative Christians in general do not want regular church goers (who give money) to hear these things for fear of losing a giving member. We will never hear a conservative pastor of a church speak of these things publicly even if that pastor has a clear understanding of these issues.

  6. webo112
    webo112  February 2, 2018

    I have been waiting for you to explain and clarify this, as sometimes I wish in debates you explained this further, as I knew what you meant, but you never said it.

    These differences you state in the above post also include differences between what one gospel states to the other (not necessarily only differences in manuscripts) correct?

    To me, to get to the “conclusions” you get to above; (which I strongly share) its important to also combine all these differences with all the other evidence and analysis.
    It is when you combine these differences along with the historical time frame of when the NT books were written, along with their sources theory, books outside the NT, the different messages and portrayal of JC of each book, the historical criteria’s, the different (low to high) Christology evolution, corruptions etc that you then can make an even greater case for the overall effect and consequences of these changes.

    In the end these changes are just a mere example of how ‘human’ the whole Christological path has been, even all of ancient and modern religions and human supernatural history show this once you get “into the weeds of it all”.

  7. fishician  February 2, 2018

    In my personal view this matters because: 1. The doctrine of Bible inerrancy is objectively not true. 2. It shows that people influenced what went into the Bible, it wasn’t done by a divine spirit. 3. It shows the evolution of early Christian concepts when you are willing to acknowledge the differences between earlier and later writings. 4. It shows that many Christians value tradition over intellectual integrity. (I might even say moral integrity, when people make untrue statements about textual criticism and those in the field,as they do with you, Dr. Ehrman.)

  8. ddorner  February 2, 2018

    It seems odd to me that God would give his revelation in a book, when the vast majority of people throughout history could never have read it because they were illiterate. And yet, at least for modern conservative evangelicals, your salvation literally depends on the correct interpretation of that revelation.

  9. GregLogan  February 2, 2018

    Bart

    Thanks for the clear, cogent, articulate thinking pushing through Dan’s typically specious reasoning (as if the existence of 10 million 8thC + mss compared to the number of the mss of Euripides actually is the least relevant for reliability of the text – Dan’s big hobby-horse – for which his very use demonstrates the highly stunted level he is working at).

    I am indebted to you in assisting my thinking of regarding the Bible as literature – and finding it far richer as such. Needless to say, a movement away from inerrantism – and, naturally, ultimately, at some yet uncertain level, inspiration – which a cornerstone – which the Synoptics/John did a fine job by themselves (oh, some integrity and study might have helped too…:-) ).

  10. joncopeland  February 2, 2018

    I’ve recently completed an introductory Greek course and am considering using Wallace’s Greek Beyond the Basics to continue learning. Is there an intermediate grammar you recommend (or any other resources)? This will be a self-directed study. Unfortunately, I do not have access to an intermediate level college course, but I do have access to university libraries. Thanks Dr. Ehrman.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2018

      I’m afraid I’m not current on intermediate grammars; I always have my students use Smythe, but it’s comprehensive.

  11. YahyaSnow  February 2, 2018

    Very interesting and frank post.

    Prof. Ehrman, I just want to pick up on your comments concerning the Trinity and 1 John 5:7-8. Some evangelical apologists posit the baptismal formula in Matt 28 is an explicit teaching of theTrinity doctrine. I don’t think it is as it does not say these three are one.
    But there are some folks on the opposite end of the spectrum who speculate Matt 28:19 was not part of the original text. IIRC they cast doubt on it by mentioning the Church Father Eusebius did not quote the baptismal formula in his writings and because that nobody baptises in the name of the three Persons in Acts. I’m not convinced by these arguments.

    [19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit]

    1. Do you think Matt 28:19 teaches the Trinity?
    2. Do you think the motivation for those who made a Greek text for Erasmus including 1 John 5:7-8 was because they did not feel the rest of the NT was sufficient or clear enough with respect to teaching the Trinity?
    3. I don;t think I’ve ever seen you make a case against Matt 28:19. In your expert view do you think Matt 28:19 is possibly a later addition?
    4. Would you be open to debating Dr Wallace again?

    Thanks for your time.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2018

      1. No, it mentions the three names, but non-trinitarians agree on the names; 2. Yup; 3. No, I think it’s original; 4. I go where the invitations take me!

  12. James Chalmers  February 2, 2018

    It seems to me that atonement might be taken to be a cardinal doctrine, and that Luke and Mark (and others) articulate or adumbrate doctrines of the atonement that differ significantly from Luke’s. So I’m not sure Wallace is correct in asserting that the New Testament authors don’t propound differing cardinal doctrines.

    Am I being less agreeable to Wallace than I should be?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2018

      He would argue that the doctrine can be found elsewhere, so it wouldn’t matter if Luke’ teaches it or not.

  13. ekeefer  February 2, 2018

    I have watched several debates between you, Dr. Ehrman, and Dr. Wallace, and have enjoyed them very much. However, each time I’m left with a feeling that you both are talking over one another. Dr. Wallace makes the claim that no cardinal doctrine is affected by textual uncertainties. Unless I missed it, it seems like you are silent on that claim and move on to show why the discrepancies that exist matter. By doing so, I’m left with the feeling that you think, or you want to imply that there are, in fact, cardinal doctrines which are affected. However, I don’t think you actually think that; I think you agree with him, but also believe that the textual uncertainties do matter. At the beginning of many of your debates, you almost always defuse the audience’s defenses by stating that you are not arguing against belief in God or a similar statement. That works. It lowers the defenses and it makes a skeptical person want to hear more. I think that you could draw far fewer criticisms from others and make for a more interesting debate if you felt you could clearly concede that point. Your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2018

      I’ve never been silent on the claim. I”ve always agreed with it. My point is that it’s a very strange criterion for “the only thing that matters.”

  14. doug  February 2, 2018

    A Christian Fundamentalist friend once told me, “If the Bible isn’t all true, throw it in the trash!”. I imagine that he (and perhaps others) think that an authoritarian inerrant “Word of God” approach is necessary in order to get people to believe some of the more difficult to believe teachings and miracles in the Bible. The less something can be supported by reason, the more likely it is to rely on authoritarian dogma.

  15. meajon  February 2, 2018

    When I think of the different accounts given by different authors, I think about how this might come out at trial. I’m a lawyer, and if I have four witnesses give different stories, the variations might not matter if the core story is the same. If all four witnesses say the light was “red” but can’t remember exactly what color the car was and it’s a case involving a red light, then the color of the car is for the most part irrelevant. If there are several quasi-relevant inconsistencies, I’d be worried a little, and it would probably depend on a credibility assessment, which normally includes seeing the demeanor and hearing the testimony of the witness live. But if one witness says the light was “red,” another “yellow,” another “green,” and another says, “Light? What light?” I’d be a lot worried. In fact, I wouldn’t go to trial. I would really, really, really be worried if I had one witness, the Holy Ghost, for example, give four different stories and then try to explain away the differences by saying, “Oh, Officer Matthew was a nice Jewish boy, so I thought I’d tell a nice Jewish story.” Doesn’t work that way. If the Bible is the word of God, infallible and/or inerrant, I’d expect that he would make a better witness than his testimony in the Bible indicates. The evidence demands a verdict, and I’d say it doesn’t come close to being believable or credible or even plausible. Surely, a god could do better than this. It’s so obviously man-made, it’s a shock to the conscience to believe anyone could believe any different.

  16. ardeare  February 2, 2018

    Another way to look at it is to ask what if Paul had found the wrong end of a sword before his conversion, Mark had died at birth, or James had perished at sea before their collective writings were produced. Would we have identical manuscripts written by different authors? I think not. Hypothetically, it’s possible that we would have similar documents. This however, raises new issues because these three documents have areas of disagreement. To base one’s entire beliefs on the words and writings of men, dead or alive, seems a poor substitute for spiritually and prayerfully seeking answers on our own.

    Having said that, I fully realize there are many who do not rely on spiritual confirmation and others who doubt it’s very existence. For them, the reliability of the written word is exponentially inflated. This is true for both the skeptic and the believer. A rough stone rolling when it comes to matters of faith and eternal salvation.

  17. smackemyackem  February 2, 2018

    Nicely done!

  18. Telling
    Telling  February 2, 2018

    Bart,

    Bringing up the idea of Christians absolutely needing the Crucifixion, I feel the inherent bias extends also to non-Christians including historians, because I sometimes feel a same hostility from atheists, the Crucifixion seemingly running through the veins of Westerners.

    I would like to present here a brief argument, logic based as you might make (regarding method), that I will argue supports the idea that another man was crucified and misidentified as Jesus. It has to do with Peter’s denial of Jesus, which everybody knows is true.

    1. If Peter denied Jesus it is unlikely he would have gone and told people about it, and is equally unlikely that the girl or whoever asked him the question would have gone around telling people, and if she or they had, it is unlikely that Jesus followers who were now followers of Peter would have wanted that story to be told. We might thus argue it is more likely that this story was added later.

    2. This “point 1” is problematic too, because why would somebody make up something that makes the new head of the Christians look weak? Why would a story of Peter’s denial, which probably only Peter would have really known about, become so lasting in the records. This story smacks of mischief-making, added later for some other purpose.

    3. The problem is resolved when we consider that Peter denied the man was Jesus because the man was not Jesus. If Peter went about telling people that it was not Jesus who was crucified, then this event becomes highly important and most certainly must be addressed, particularly as Paul’s salvation message emerges. A spin of Peter disavowing Jesus is the perfect answer, explaining for the doubters that Peter was not really saying that Jesus wasn’t crucified, getting rid of Peter’s problematic claim that the man on trial was not Jesus, while also weakening Peter further, as having behaved cowardly.

    Historians have this certainty that Jesus was crucified, and they give this and that explanation based on their methods. As I say above, I think secular historians should not be so certain about the Crucifixion and should consider the legitimate alternative that Jesus was credited for another man’s execution. This alternative resolves other problems as well. And I wonder if there could be a Muslim bias for Western historians steering clear of this possibility.

  19. SidDhartha1953  February 3, 2018

    I read this morning that Urim and Thummim, the oracular stones mentioned in Exodus 28:30, begin with the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Could John have been comparing Christ to these stones in Revelation, using the first and last Greek letters because they would be more familiar to his audience?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2018

      Seems unlikely. The fact that Urim begins with Aleph and begins with Tav does not seem particularly significant. Alpha and Omega on the other hand simply mean “from the very first to the very last.”

  20. tompicard
    tompicard  February 3, 2018

    Does Wallace really hold that “different [biblical] authors saw eye-to-eye on [all] matters [of] significance” ? If so, i would consider that comparable to a belief that God did dictate the bible to them.

    maybe i am a little dense and as i haven’t read the book, do you mind giving a specific example where
    “the textual variants affect . . . a great deal.”
    like where textual variant A describes “significance of his [Jesus] death” as so-and-so and
    where variant B describes “significance of his [Jesus] death” contrary to so-and-so ?

    or variants A/B describe in a somewhat contradictory manner “about who Jesus is” ?
    or “what should be the relationship of Jews who don’t believe in Jesus and Christians who do” ?

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