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Do We KNOW the Original Words of the NT?

A final post on the conservative evangelical critics of my book Misquoting Jesus.   One of the most common views they express is that we are virtually certain about what the authors of the New Testament wrote.  We have thousands of manuscripts, and are better informed about the text of the New Testament than for any other book from the ancient world.

By way of response, to begin with, I completely agree (of course!) that we have thousands of New Testament manuscripts of the New Testament and are better informed about its text than any other book in the ancient world that is absolutely right.   (It’s not surprise why we have so many more manuscripts of the NT than for any other ancient book, btw.  Who was copying manuscripts in the Middle Ages – whence the vast bulk of our manuscripts derive?  Monks in Christian monasteries.  What books were Christian monks more inclined to copy — the writings of Sophocles or the writings of Scripture?)

My conservative opponents sometimes press the fact that we are well informed about the text of the New Testament in a ridiculous way – ridiculous possibly because they simply don’t know any better.  They point out that with all this evidence for the New Testament, if I (crazy liberal that I am) don’t think we can know exactly what the authors of the NT wrote (in places) then I’d have to say the same thing about Plato, or Homer, or Cicero, or … or any other author!

Their view is that any such claim would be on the face of it completely bizarre and that this is why, in their view, no one says any such thing.

Which shows that they simply don’t know what they’re talking about.  Most of my conservative opponents …

For the rest of this post, you need to belong to the blog.  The end is near: join soon!  It won’t cost you much and hey, since the end is near, what does it matter?  But in the meantime you’ll be helping out a good cause and getting a lot of bang for your buck.

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Small Differences that Make a Difference
On Being Controversial

74

Comments

  1. fishician  February 5, 2018

    Do the apologists have any suggestion for why the Son of God, depicted in the Gospels as being able to read and write, lived more than 30 years, and never took the time to write down anything for us? I mean, really, you’re going to leave the writing of the most important message to humankind to other people? Who then write anonymously, leaving us to wonder who they were and what their sources were? Very poor scholarship on the part of Jesus, I must say!




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      I guess he didn’t need to since he would later inspire his followers to write what he said and did accurately!




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      • cjeanne  February 5, 2018

        Perfect




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      • jamal12  February 5, 2018

        Hi professor Ehrman do you not think that he had another gospel that he sometimes refers to that got lost on the way after he left this world, this is why some of his words are in the current gospel so they made a mish mash of what he said and what he did not and put them altogether to make their gospels and also much of his gospel may be found in the apocrypha




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        • Bart
          Bart  February 6, 2018

          Are you asking if Jesus himself had some kind of written gospel? No, I don’t think that’s possible.




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    • Lev
      Lev  February 5, 2018

      Perhaps he thought the apocalypse was about to happen so didn’t feel it was necessary to preserve his words in writing?




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    • godspell  February 6, 2018

      1)We don’t know Jesus was able to write. (Writing is a separate skill from reading, though we’ve no proof he could read either.)

      2)We don’t know if any of his disciples were able to write then, though some may have taken the trouble to learn later on.

      3)Jesus believed the world was about to be radically transformed by God, into a just and blessed place, where only good people would exist. He doesn’t believe there’s going to be any posterity to bequeath his ideas to. His ideas will be embodied in the very fabric of reality. He’s not trying to live on through his words, because to him, that’s not true immortality. Your deeds are what matter. I wouldn’t say he was entirely wrong about that, either. The Kingdom never came, but Jesus’ deeds have lived on for thousands of years. (Through words written after his death).

      We can believe all of that without believing all those words are accurate. We got the gist of it, all the same. Those of us with ears.




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      • Iskander Robertson  February 6, 2018

        hello
        “Jesus believed the world was about to be radically transformed by God, into a just and blessed place,”

        are you saying that the historical jesus believed that god himself will step into history and change the condition of the world? wouldn’t that mean that no son of man was required ? so idea of INTERMEDIARY was far from jesus’ mind?




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        • godspell  February 7, 2018

          The Son of Man, while important, would only be doing the will of God. To Jesus, this would be God’s power working through everyone, himself included. (He only claims to be able to work miracles through God, never in his own right, and thinks anyone could do it with sufficient faith.)

          Sorry if that wasn’t clear, but I kind of think it already was.




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      • fishician  February 6, 2018

        Odds are that Jesus and his disciples were illiterate (though Luke has Jesus reading, and John him writing), and I’ve considered #3 likely, but on the other hand Paul thought the end was near and he did a lot of writing. But maybe Paul did a lot of writing because he was competing with the teachings of those who actually followed what Jesus had taught! (See Dr. Ehrman’s recent posts on that subject.)




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      • Lev
        Lev  February 6, 2018

        “2)We don’t know if any of his disciples were able to write then, though some may have taken the trouble to learn later on.”

        Matthew was a tax collector which would presuppose he could write.

        I understand it was Jewish custom to have fathers teach their sons how to reproduce the family Torah – although I don’t know if this was widely followed.




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        • godspell  February 7, 2018

          Well, we don’t know Matthew was a tax collector. We know he was described as one, and we’re pretty sure he didn’t write the Gospel of Matthew, and honestly, I’m not that sure tax collectors had to be all that literate. How much do you know about what the job entailed then?

          In any event, how come Socrates didn’t leave us any writings of his own?

          He was supposedly the wisest of men (to the point where there was a logical syllogism constructed, to say “No man is wiser than Socrates”), he spent most of his free time teaching the sons of well-off educated Greeks his method of thought (including the nefarious Alcibiades), clearly many of his pupils were highly literate–we have no writings from him at all. We know about him pretty much exclusively from Plato and Xenophon.

          If you want to argue Socrates didn’t exist, go ahead. It’s been tried.




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      • meohanlon  February 11, 2018

        Dr Ehrman,
        I don’t think it’s that likely that, even if Jesus could read, he should’ve left some writings, whether or not he thought the end was neigh. It seemed more standard practice for rabbis of his day to communicate their ideas orally, as though the full impact couldn’t be made without the interactive element – the rabbi often asking his disciples questions or answering a disciple’s question, sometimes with another question, and letting the scribes (present or maybe some time after) do all the writing. Do we have anything written by Hillel the Elder for instance? It seems that none of his most notable sayings were written by himself. And for that matter, maybe the same practice was true in other cultures and this is why we don’t have anything written by Siddhartha, Socrates, Confucius and probably many others.




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  2. smackemyackem  February 5, 2018

    Killin it!




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  3. Steefen  February 5, 2018

    Professor:
    They point out that with all this evidence for the New Testament, if I (crazy liberal that I am) don’t think we can know exactly what the authors of the NT wrote (in places) then I’d have to say the same thing about Plato, or Homer, or Cicero, or … or any other author! … Anyone who says that scholars don’t have any questions about what Plato, Homer, Cicero, or any other author actually (which words they used) is simply ignorant.

    Steefen:
    What are the questions about Cicero? In a Great Courses DVD, The Rise of Rome, the professor says Cicero had a slave who wrote down the speeches Cicero delivered to the Senate. There is no decades-long gap as we see with the traditional dating of Jesus and the pacifist Messiah gospels that started appearing once Rome had had its fill of militant Messiah with the Jewish Civil War and Revolt against Rome. The Biblical Jesus had no slave writing down his sermons and parables, Jesus had no scribe.

    The question of the reliability of the writings and speeches of Cicero are not on par with the reliability of what the Biblical Jesus has said.

    Caesar, Brutus, Antony interacted with Cicero and Cicero appears in their biographies. Those with whom Jesus interacted who have biographical information in history, do not mention Jesus. For example, the biographical information on John the Baptist in Josephus has no interaction content with Jesus.

    Back to the original question: what questions do scholars have about Cicero?

    Thank you.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      Well, for openers, look up the manuscript tradition for Cicero’s important work De re publica.




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      • Steefen  February 6, 2018

        “On the Commonwealth” (De re publica) is a dialogue on Roman politics by Cicero written in the format of a Socratic dialogue in which Scipio Aemilianus (who had died a few decades before Cicero was born takes the role of a wise old man — a typical feature of the genre.

        Large parts of the text are missing: especially from the 4th and the 5th book only minor fragments survived. All other books have at least some passages missing.

        The one corrective hand present in Vat Lat 5757; some scholars believe the corrective hand was a more skilled copyist, perhaps a supervisor, who had access to the same text as the copyist and was correcting the first work; others have concluded that the corrective hand had access to a different version of the text.

        = = =
        I’ll give you that. But it doesn’t affect the work I’m doing. For example, Cicero wrote a letter to Atticus explaining the Liberalia cannot be blamed for the riot (which killed a man with the same name of one of the assassins and which burned down houses of the assassins) after Antony delivered the eulogy for Julius Caesar. I’m on the way to Collin College, Prestonwood Campus (where you spoke a few years back) this minute to pick up a Loeb Classical Library volume which includes the letter Cic. Att. 14. 10. I promise to check the introduction to see if there are problems with the accuracy of the letters.

        The reason why the Liberalia is important to Christianity in Antiquity is the wine of Dionysus-Bacchus and the bread that comes from wheat being celebrated at Julius Caesar’s death (image on a cross with body pierced by Longinus) is a precursor to the Christian tradition of wine and bread remembrance of Jesus Christ (man on a cross with body pierced by Longinus). When we remember Julius Caesar, we have to remember the wine and wheat cakes of the Liberalia: when we remember Jesus, we have to remember the wine and bread. That way, the cannibalism of Christianity and the Old Testament verses against Holy Communion are only somewhat mitigated. Jesus asking to be remembered in terms of the Liberalia with Julius Caesar as his hero is unfortunate for those of us who bought into the tradition.




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        • Steefen  February 8, 2018

          D. R. Shackleton Bailey, translator of Cicero, Letters to Atticus in the Introduction, on the Manuscripts and Text:

          The extant manuscripts of the letters to Atticus are late and corrupt, the earliest dating from the end of the fourteenth (14th) century. Moreover, some of them break off long before the end, so that the situation gets worse and worse as the series goes on. We have a few fragments of earlier manuscripts, and, importantly, reports from a variety of sources, one of which disappeared in the 16th century, the Tornesianus, representing a superior tradition.
          = = =
          Despite the above, with Cicero, we get month, day of month, and year of the letter, where it was written, and to a specific person it was written (as opposed to an open letter to “The Romans” or “The Galatians”.. That is far more than what we get with the sayings of Jesus, the acts of Jesus, and the authentic letters of Paul.
          = = =
          Professor, you say scholars have some questions about some of what Cicero actually said.
          Categorically, scholars do not have questions about the existence of Cicero and his non-miraculous acts.
          Scholars would not have any question that he wrote to Atticus about the riot after Caesar’s funeral.
          Scholars would not have any question about what he thought of Antony’s attempt to put a crown on Caesar’s head. Scholars do have questions about the existence of Jesus and his non-secular acts, his miracles and the miracles of his disciples.




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    • godspell  February 6, 2018

      Cicero was a highly controversial figure in his own day. His rhetoric was universally admired by literate Romans, his political ideas were a major bone of contention. And his side lost the argument (well, maybe not rhetorically, or morally, but definitely on the political side).

      So yes, there could be all kinds of reasons to change what he wrote, aside from the fact that we don’t have any of the original copies of what his slave wrote, and did it ever occur to you the slave might have his own ideas too?




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      • Steefen  February 6, 2018

        You have any scholars who support your suggestion that any of the judiciary speeches of Cicero were compromised by his slave? How about the letters of Cicero?




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        • godspell  February 7, 2018

          I wasn’t asserting anything. I’m just saying, how do we know the slave wrote down everything just the way Cicero wanted?

          If you want to believe a slave well-educated enough to do this job (and many slaves of that time were much better educated than the average free Roman) would just be a mindless drone, okay.

          I think he might have had some opinions about what Cicero was saying. Sue me.

          🙂




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          • Steefen  February 9, 2018

            Because Cicero would read the speeches in the Senate after he had dictated a draft to his slave. Cicero didn’t have quality problems with this slave.

            Yes, the slaves were well-educated. Romans prided themselves in having more cultured Greek slaves. Earlier in Rome’s history when it conquered Greek and made Greeks slaves, people of the senatorial class and those more upper class sought out Greek slaves as status symbols.




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          • godspell  February 11, 2018

            Cicero might not notice the changes, if they were small–or he might like them. He wouldn’t be the first big man to take credit for the work of a small one. Happens all the time, in every time.

            Again, this is not a theory I’m proposing. This is just a point I’m making. Textual variatns happen everywhere. Not just in religious texts. You may not like it, but it’s still a fact. Cicero was not around to supervise all the many copies made of his speeches, and we don’t have any of the original manuscripts.

            If you attack one textual authority, you attack all.




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    • SidDhartha1953  February 10, 2018

      I don’t know if there were any methods of Greek (or Latin?) shorthand, but Cicero’s speeches would still be in doubt. Even if the slave taking notes got all the words right (a miracle!) that says nothing about the accuracy of the copies.




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      • Steefen  February 15, 2018

        Yes, there were methods of shorthand at those times. Cicero quality checked his slaves’ work. Augustus quality-checked the work of others who attempted to write down the speeches of Julius Caesar. Cicero knew no more eloquent speaker than Caesar and Cicero thought Caesar wrote admirably. (However, Asinius Pollio faulted Caesar for carelessness and inaccuracy.)
        If you find something in the introduction or translator notes to quality editions of the works of Cicero or his biography to support your claims, I’ll take note, but I’m not going with your unsubstantiated assumptions/speculations. There are more important problems with the works of Cicero, one of which are missing letters to Atticus in the month of March when Julius Caesar as assassinated. When Cicero’s letters to Atticus do resume, there is a remark, “we take consolation in the Ides of March.”

        Tiro is the name of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s slave. Tiro received an education equal to Cicero. His official duty was to be Ciceros personal secretary. Tiro invented a type of shorthand note-taking to do his work. After being freed, he dedicated his life to publishing and cataloging Cicero’s writings. (So, this cuts down your point even further because the publishing and cataloging was done in a state of freedom, not slavery.)




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  4. SkepticsRUs  February 5, 2018

    English language scholars are not even confident that we always know the original words of William Shakespeare, and his works are far more recent than those of the New Testament authors.




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  5. ajh22  February 5, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, thank you for this blog and your books! I’ve heard Christian apologists state Bruce Metzger that the NT is copied with 99.5 percent accuracy. I’ve also heard your comment on this, that there is no way to know for sure because we don’t have the originals. Christian apologists still cling to this figure, or something close to it. What else would you say to the apologist who clings to this incredibly high accuracy? Thanks!




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      I think what Professor Metzger was saying was that he himself was confident that he knew with relative certainty the wording of 99.5% of the NT. He cannot have been saying that we actually certainly have that 99.5%, because unless you have the original to compare our text to, you can’t establish a percentage of agreement. It might be 99.7% accurate, or 99.1% or 83.5% or 72.9% — you can’t tell without having the thing itself for comparison.




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  6. ardeare  February 5, 2018

    New Testament studies is one of my favorite hobbies. During this journey, I have found a couple of things seem to work out well for me. One is that I need to have more than one source. It’s important to my overall growth that I read the individual and collective writings from both secular and believing scholars. The comments associated with scholarly blogs and websites is also important. Another is that I read older codexes and opinions, some resonating back to the eighteenth century as a companion to more modern books.

    On a technical level, one aspect always strikes me as a bit interesting. Inevitably, scholars will disagree on translations. The reasons are complicated as they deal with colloquialism, literalism, grammar and so on. This causes me to wonder if the writers of the gospels ever thought future historians would partially judge their works by their grammatical correctness. In turn, this leads me to wonder if a proofreader would have been the original editor for each gospel and made changes before the first copy was ever penned. Have you considered that one or all of the gospel writers might have voluntarily used a proofreader/editor before circulating their gospels?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      I suppose it’s possible! But I don’t know of any evidence, off hand, that anyone in antiquity used what we would be considered proof-readers. Maybe very wealthy aristocrats had scribes look over their correspondence and other writings before sending it out? I don’t recall evidence of that off hand.




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  7. Mitchmarfl  February 5, 2018

    Maybe we don’t know exactly what Homer, Cicero, and Plato actually wrote. We do not look to their works as points of historical fact as many people look to the writings of the bible. Maybe the Greeks snuck into Troy in a wooden cow. It would still make good fiction.




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  8. caesar  February 5, 2018

    Could it be argued that there is much more motivation to change the words of Jesus than Homer? For example, if I’m making a copy of Matthew and I don’t like what a certain passage implies, I might change it to fit my theology. But if I’m copying Homer, because it’s fiction I’m not motivated to change it at all.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      Certainly more motivation for someone who was a Christian who had an investment in the Bible rather than a Greek with an investment in Homer!




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      • Boltonian  February 6, 2018

        Wasn’t Homer myth rather than fiction? To the Greeks copying the stories we have come to know as the Iliad and the Odyssey, these event were real. They described their gods and how they interacted with people and, so far as the listeners were concerned, this is how their gods would have behaved. Supposing the copyist’s personal goddess was Pallas Athene and he didn’t like what the story he was copying said about her, might he be tempted to change it to show her in a more heroic, or whatever, light? My question is this: is it likely that pagan Greeks were any less invested in their myths than Christians are in theirs?




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        • Bart
          Bart  February 6, 2018

          The word “myth” comes from the Greek word “mythos” which simply means something like “tale” or “story.”




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          • Boltonian  February 7, 2018

            Ah. ‘Divided by a common language!’ I was using my (British) dictionary definition:

            ‘…a story about superhuman beings of an earlier age taken by preliterate society to be a true account, usually of how natural phenomena, social customs, etc, came into existence.’




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          • Bart
            Bart  February 7, 2018

            Early in graduate school I learned that dictionaries are not objective statements of facts! The term “myth” can mean very many different things in very different contexts! But yes, that definition is certainly slanted in a particular direction. I wonder how many of hte Greek adn Roman myths fit into it’s “usually” category, e.g.,




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    • godspell  February 6, 2018

      Considering that what Homer wrote was relevant to the geo-political beliefs of the Greeks and Romans, I’d say there’s even more motivation to change it. The Aeniad was, to some extent, written to justify what the Romans later did to the Greeks.

      I’ve noticed that Anti-Christian writers tend to assume that ONLY religious writings are faked in some way, and everything else from antiquity is (you should pardon the expression) fully kosher. Because those old pagan religions have died out (not entirely true of Norse religion), they can view their myths as world literature. But that’s precisely what the OT and NT are, whether the stories are originally based on real-life events or not (and clearly some of them are).

      It’s not just evangelicals who can get crazy irrational ideas, to justify emotional beliefs.




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      • Steefen  February 7, 2018

        godspell:
        The Aeniad was, to some extent, written to justify what the Romans later did to the Greeks.

        Steefen:
        Later did to the Greeks? I recall Rome conquering Greece (146 BCE) before Virgil wrote the Aeneid during the reign of Augustus.

        Virgil, also spelled Vergil, Latin in full Publius Vergilius Maro, (born October 15, 70 bce, Andes, near Mantua [Italy]—died September 21, 19 bce, Brundisium), Roman poet, best known for his national epic, the Aeneid (from c. 30 bce; unfinished at his death).




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        • godspell  February 11, 2018

          Later in the sense of “After the events Homer wrote about, that took place long before anybody heard of Rome.”

          Was that really so hard to figure out?




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  9. balivi  February 5, 2018

    During my debates with apologists, in vain, to know exactly what the text is, if we do not understand the author’s intentions. Knowledge is not enough. We have to understand. Understand what and why the authors wrote.This is harder. and the blog has helped me in this. For example: John evangelist and apostle Paul are not friends 🙂 And many more I understood thanks to the blog.




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  10. loumindar  February 5, 2018

    We don’t know what changes were made during copying to Paul’s original letter to the Philippians, but we do know of several changes that were made from one copy to another, do we not? If so, were there a lot of changes? Were they material? I seem to remember you saying in a lecture that there were a significant number of differences between one copy and the next and the next.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2018

      There are lots of changes in the texts of Philippians, but most of them are very insignificant. With this letter in particular the big question is whether it was one letter or two, later spliced together by an editor/scribe. For that we have no textual evidence (i.e., all the mss we have contain the full text), but internal evidence of the letter may suggest it.




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  11. talmoore
    talmoore  February 5, 2018

    Can’t say I’ve ever met any Classicists who claim that our current copies of Plato’s Apology are inerrant, so I’m not sure what point these conservative Biblical scholars are trying to make.




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  12. doug  February 5, 2018

    Or – God could just tell all of us in a clear and unmistakable way, “Yeah, those are all my words.” Maybe there’s a reason that hasn’t happened.




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  13. cjeanne  February 5, 2018

    When pushed to the wall most fundamentalists, even scholars that I know, rely on: God would have kept his scriptures pure.




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  14. Betty Jo  February 5, 2018

    My evangelical relatives would say, don’t worry. God’s Word is true. God took care of it. Just go to the King James Version, never thinking if your bible says “version,” it means there’s been more than 1. And yes, Jonah lived in the belly of a big fish, literally.




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    • SidDhartha1953  February 10, 2018

      Then why did Jesus think it was a whale? Maybe he read a different version. 😉




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  15. BartyD4all  February 5, 2018

    Thank you for this discussion. I preordered Triumph of Christianity. Can’t wait for Amazon to send it.




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  16. Seeker1952  February 5, 2018

    I thought I asked this question in connection with one of your last few postings but it seems to have disappeared into cyberspace. But it seems to fit this posting better anyway.

    Do you think it would be fair to say that, despite their use of pre-existing material and later editing by others, each of the gospels has, more or less, a single original author? In other words, did each evangelist put his own stamp on the material to a degree that (1) it was a substantially new work compared to pre-existing materials; and (2) has largely survived without major transformations by others?

    I suppose the alternative (or one of them) is that the gospels as we have them today evolved and underwent lots of incremental changes without there ever having been a definitive original, at least not a definitive original that is still recognizable.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2018

      I think you asked it and I answered it, no? Maybe not. But (1) yes, pretty much and (2) yes, pretty much.




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  17. anthonygale  February 5, 2018

    I think there are good reasons why a fundamentalist would want to study the Bible. Even if someone thinks they know what the words are, that wouldn’t mean work isn’t required to understand what the words mean. Having the words might be necessary, but perhaps it isn’t sufficient. Do you know fundamentalist scholars who do research on textual criticism? That would indicate that someone who thinks they know the words is devoting time and energy determining what they were, which does seem like a strange thing to do. Perhaps they think they are proving their beliefs to be correct? In any case, I think your last point is a good one. Why is someone doing research unless they admit they don’t know? If you devote your life to seeking what you don’t know, it seems almost certain you will learn things that surprise you and challenge old beliefs. That doesn’t seem highly compatible with being a fundamentalist to me.




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  18. JohnMuellerJD  February 5, 2018

    Is there a database (www.???) that contains all the passages of the new testament and a list of the earliest manuscripts that have been discovered (when discovered, where, how old the manuscript is) pertaining to each passage?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2018

      In an appendix to the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece there is a list of every (important for the edition) surviving manuscript and its date, with a precise indication of which portions of the NT it contains.




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    • AnotherBart  February 13, 2018

      The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts makes many (most?) of the available manuscripts available in high res. http://www.csntm.org

      Also, there is a project called greeknewtestament.net that may have what you’re looking for, verse by verse.

      Those two put together are pretty valuable. CSNTM also has links to other privately made databases.




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  19. gchrist4  February 5, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    So why *do* we have copies of Paul’s letters? If as you noted a few posts ago that the early church fathers didn’t seem to quote him or reference him with the inference being Paul wasn’t a “big deal” in the early days of Chistiantiy, why would anyone have cared enough to keep his letters, let alone copy them and preserve them? And not just do so at one church but at many of them (hence why we have at least seven of his letters preserved)? What changed and made Paul into a big deal in later centuries?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2018

      Paul was not *universally* beloved, but he was *widely* beloved, and is certainly quoted in *other* church fathers. He becomes the apostolic superstar by the end of the second century, but is already celebrated by the end of the first.




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  20. godspell  February 6, 2018

    My question would be, even if we believe the stories relating to prophets and kings and (eventually) Jesus that we find in the OT and NT were written by people in some kind of divine trance, as God dictated to them–even though they routinely contradict each other, which kind of suggests God has Alzheimer’s–we’re not supposed to believe that God also dictated letters Paul wrote, that are basically nothing more than his opinions regarding how Christians should live and act?

    Are the letters of Jean Calvin divinely inspired too? How about Savonarola? When exactly did God stop telling believers what to write? And isn’t Muhammad the only religious figure of note who actually claimed to be just writing down what he was told? (I guess you could make a case for the author of Revelation, though he’s mainly writing down visions, not text.)

    I can believe in divine inspiration in the sense that Shaw’s St. Joan spoke of it–God speaks to us through our imaginations. But to seriously think any book has been literally dictated by an omnipotent omniscient being, with the writer merely acting as amanuensis–does anyone literally believe that?

    God didn’t need Moses to write down the Ten Commandments. He wrote them himself, and Moses carried them down. Or so we’re told, and if that’s divinely inspired, that means God could just hand Paul the epistles, all written out, letter perfect, and make sure the originals are never destroyed, maybe have the Holy Spirit notarize them.

    Literal beliefs are absurd beliefs. That’s not what faith is.




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    • SidDhartha1953  February 10, 2018

      But Moses smashed the first set, so God said fine! You broke it. You make the next copy. And actually, it seems the first was not just the 10 commandments because it was written on two tablets, front and back. The second version is called “the ten words.” So maybe Moses just did a Sinai’s Notes study guide.




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  21. ddecker54  February 6, 2018

    Professor:

    I agree with all that you said except for one point: I do believe that fundamentalist apologists are in fact willfully stupid. And it’s because they WANT to believe that they have the “true” faith. Not unlike climate change non-believers, they condemn and ostracize anyone who disagrees with them, claiming that basing an argument upon facts, research, and logic is the devil’s work. Thanks!




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  22. nbraith1975  February 6, 2018

    Bart – Arguing about the validity and accuracy of the NT texts plays into the hands of fundamentalists Christians. It allows them to simply say that they believe the texts are accurate enough to maintain the message of their savior Jesus. That argument is as valid as the one you make when you say it is impossible, at this time, to know for certain that the texts available are accurate compared to the originals. Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t – but they could be. As you state – we simply don’t know if the texts are accurate. And as they state – they believe they are. You reject Christianity because you obviously believe they don’t – or maybe your doubt is simply to great. They accept Christianity because they believe they do – and have replaced their doubt with faith. And the ingrained generational religious faith they are taught from birth is a much harder nut to crack than that of any secular scholarly community.




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    • HawksJ  February 9, 2018

      The two positions are NOT at all the same. One is a position of faith, while Bart’s is one of logic.




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  23. RonaldTaska  February 6, 2018

    I have heard this argument man times: Since we have more copies of the New Testament than any other ancient book then it is more attested and more reliable a copy than any other ancient book. The problem for me is that the more copies you have, then the more chances you have of copying and editing changes.




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  24. webo112
    webo112  February 6, 2018

    Good post, I hope in your future debates (on this topic) you clearly make the point “I am not – I am decidedly NOT – saying that we “know” that we do “not” have the original text. I’m saying the converse: we do not “know” that we “do” have the original text.”
    ..as it appears that your opponents do not come to this conclusion, on their own.




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  25. kadmiral
    kadmiral  February 7, 2018

    So when someone claims that basically the whole NT text as we know it today can be reproduced from the early Church fathers’ writings, what is being claimed to be reproduced is not the “original” texts, but the copies of copies etc? Which “could” be original, but who knows?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2018

      Well, they often don’t know what it is they *are* claiming. But the only think one can legitimately claim is that most of the NT gets quoted by one church father or another at one time and in one place or another. A father who quotes it, of course, is quoting it based on teh mansucripts he has learned it from or that happen to be on hand, in his time and place.




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  26. SidDhartha1953  February 10, 2018

    “Early in graduate school I learned that dictionaries are not objective statements of facts!” Ain’t that the truth!




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  27. SidDhartha1953  February 10, 2018

    Are enough of the quotes from the fathers lengthy enough that a reconstructed NT would follow the same basic sequence within each book or letter? Which raises another question: has anyone ever devoted a dissertation to determining what that reconstructed NT would look like?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      Nope, you’d have no idea. The problem with respect to the second question is that different fathers would have *different* forms of the text, not one form (wording different all over the place). I (and two co-authors) did reconstruct the text of John in the writings of Origen, but that’s an exceptional case since he quotes it so much.




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  28. bmay  February 14, 2018

    I just started reading The Trimph of Christianity. it was delivered yesterday. I love the insights into Pauls life, how he taught, what he taught, when he was where… Doing what, etc. enjoying it very much. Thank you for the effort. And please let us know that you don’t get death threats Dr. Ehrman that you mentioned in your previous post.




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