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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 …

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Small Differences that Make a Difference
On Being Controversial



  1. Avatar
    ddecker54  February 6, 2018


    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!

  2. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.

  3. Avatar
    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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

    • 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.

  6. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  February 10, 2018

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

  7. Avatar
    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?

    • 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.

  8. Avatar
    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.

  9. Avatar
    JRH  February 25, 2018

    Dear Bart, I have a general question related to your book “Misquoting Jesus.” I believe you state that large parts of Matthew are copied in Greek from Mark. (Some people think it’s the other way around, but I think that’s what you said.) Anyway, if large portions of the two books are identical in Greek, why aren’t they identical when translated into English? I’ll admit I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Maybe they are identical in English, but I don’t think so. Rather, I suspect the translators use “literary variation” to obscure the fact that Matthew plagiarized Mark. (Although I seriously doubt there was any prohibition against copying back in those days.) But please answer my question: If the writing is identical in Greek, why isn’t it identical in English?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      Ah, they are! You can see that by reading a version of the Gospels in English that puts them side-by-side in parallel columns on the same page. some stories have sentences exactly alike.

  10. Avatar
    JRH  February 25, 2018

    Dear Bart, Second question. In Matthew 16-24, Jesus says “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” However at the time Jesus supposedly said this the cross was just a Roman torture device. It didn’t have any sacrificial or religious significance until after Jesus died. So how could the disciples have made sense of this verse? In fact, how likely is it that Jesus even said this? The story only makes sense if it got started in the years after Jesus died when early Christians were being crucified for their faith. What is your opinion on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      Yes, that’s precisely why critical scholars think these are words put on Jesus’ lips only after his death.

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  April 3, 2018

        what if an apologist said that they knew what crucifixion was? is the point that they would not have known that the cross symbolises the sacrifice for sins?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 4, 2018

          I’m not sure what you’re asking. Everyone in the Roman world knew what crucifixion was and no one thought it had to do with a sacrifice for sins.

  11. Avatar
    ftbond  March 9, 2018

    Dr Ehrman –

    A question about the Codex Vaticanus:

    From what I’ve read, it seems the CV was compiled in the first half of the 4th century (and, for all I know, everything I’ve read may be wrong, so you can correct me). But, presuming the CV was actually put together by 350, then, that’s approx. 300 years after Paul’s original writings.

    We have many, many documents in existence that are much older, going back, say, 500 years, and we know that our current versions are essentially the same as the original versions (and, I say “essentially”, because in 500 years, we’ve come up with different ways of punctuating things, and so on, that would not be considered material changes), and of course, we have the Tanach, which shows an amazing consistency with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    But, we also know that there have indeed been additions to, and subtractions from the CV. But, those changes were (obviously) made *after* 350 (just using that as our approximate date).

    So, what do we know about the texts from which the CV was compiled? Do we have enough copies of NT writings from *before* 350, such that we can compare them to the CV? And, if so, how do those compare with the CV?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2018

      We don’t have any complete copies before then, only fragments. Some of the oldest — such as P75 in particular, from around 200 CE — are very close to Vaticanus. Others, not so much (lots of little differences)

  12. Avatar
    Tauma  April 8, 2018

    Reading the Book of Psalms I noticed how much of the gospels are lifted from there word for word. Which indicates it was added by someone educated in the Old Testament. The original story that writer was working from must not have had those elements, although perhaps the verbal tradition had already incorporated some of them? Regardless, it implies a reductionist version of the New Testament stories would better describe events. I’ve ordered a copy of The Five Gospels so as not to fail to appreciate the Old Testament quotes Jesus actually spoke. It’s a tempting project.

  13. Avatar
    car3366  May 1, 2018

    Dr Ehrman, Thank you so much for your scholarship in this area. It is much needed. I do have an observation that I would like you to comment on. It seems to me that you have another counter argument against your critics who say the New Testament manuscripts (and the Bible in general) are reliable evidence of the truth of every event they describe. (You might have already addressed this somewhere in your writing, I just haven’t seen it yet. I own most of your books but am still working through them.) And that counter-argument to the fundamentalists is simply this rhetorical question: How is it that you can trust the accuracy and truth of documents produced and copied by (mostly unknown) human hands and minds, while at the same time believing or knowing that the human race is fallen, depraved and sinful? Doesn’t your trust in these manuscripts effectively elevate the work product of these merely human scribes to the work of God?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2018

      What they think is that the scribes were completely fallible, but God made sure that nothing *significant* was permanently changed. It’s a bit like grasping at straws.

  14. Avatar
    rburos  January 4, 2019

    Question on learning Greek–
    I didn’t have access to Greek and Latin classes growing up or in college, and wasn’t even interested in learning them until the last two years. But I do speak German and live in Arizona and am picking up conversational Spanish, so I prepared to jump in and teach myself Greek. It is a more difficult language at first, even only learning to recognize written forms. I decided on Attic and found great resources–combining the Greek 101 at the Teaching Company (excellent), Reading Greek from the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (outstanding), and even Learn Ancient Greek by Peter Jones (very good and even refreshing)–all approach the subject slightly differently, and fill in lots of info based on differing learning styles. I really recommend the multi-resource approach to anybody having to learn it on their own.
    BUT–just how important is it to learn the bloody rules of accents? I’m fine with using them to learn stress patterns in a glossary, and must admit that sometimes it makes a different grammatically, but for just learning to read the NT in koine is it ok to not worry about this aspect, especially if one doesn’t plan on learning to write?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2019

      Ha!! That’s the question every student of ancient Greek asks the instructor the second week of the semester!! The *main* rules aren’t really that complicated, if you have someone explain them to you, and you can pick up more and more nuances later. But yes, in many cases they do matter — e.g. in knowing whether a verb is present tense of future. Rather important to know. My Greek teacher always used to say “Accents are your friends”! (I’d suggest you try to get someone to lend a hand for your learning process — preferably in person, but possibly online). Greek is one language in particular that’s very difficult to pick up correctly without someone explaining things to you)

      • Avatar
        rburos  January 6, 2019

        Thanks. I was caught in between emotions of 1) I fully expected you to say that, and 2) extreme disappointment in the fact that you said that. Every so often the Univ of Arizona offers a Greek class online, and will take that. Until then I’ll prepare by continuing to use the multiple sources, and learn diese verdammten regeln. lol

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