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Errant Texts and Historians


In your debates with James White and Dan Wallace, you argued that we cannot know what the original autographs of the NT said because we don’t have the originals. In your debate with James White, you even commented that the 2nd or 3rd copier of the text of Mark could have radically altered the text so that the way it came down to us is radically different than the autographs. You’ve argued that this is the case even for classical writings or any textual document from antiquity. Now, if you believe we cannot know what the originals said because we don’t have the autographs, then how could you know that Paul met with James and Cephas, and use that as an argument proving that we know Jesus existed? Is it not possible (according to your view) that Galatians has been radically altered?

In other words, it seems that you either have to sacrifice your skepticism regarding textual criticism or sacrifice your certainty for the historicity of Jesus.


This is a great question! So, my response to it is a bit complicated (in my head, if not on the page), and it involves two issues: audience and probabilities.

First, on audience. When I talk about changes in the text of the New Testament in my debates with conservative evangelicals or fundamentalists, it is usually in the context of people who firmly believe that every word, every jot and tittle, of the text of the New Testament is inspired. In that context it is important to stress: this is not a plausible belief!! One reason it is not plausible is that we don’t have the originals of the NT, we don’t have copies of the originals, we don’t have copies of copies of the originals, and so on. What we have are copies made hundreds – often many hundreds — of years later. All of these copies have mistakes in them. Altogether there are hundreds of thousands of mistakes. Most of them don’t matter TWIT for anything. But some matter a lot. There are places where scholars debate what the “original” authors wrote. And there are some places where we don’t know.
That’s true, as you say, of all books from antiquity – even more, for example, of the Hebrew Bible than for the NT (we have far, far, far fewer manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible; but also far, far, far fewer certainty of being able to get back to any original text of any kind whatsoever).
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The point it, faith in the very words of the Bible is extraordinarily problematic, for this textual reason alone.  People should not, in my opinion, “believe in the words of the Bible.”  If they’re going to believe, let them believe in something else.  (E.g. God!)

And so my text-critical arguments are meant to dispel a certain kind of fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism.

But there are other audiences out there.   What I’ve just said does not become less true depending on the audience.   But there are other things to talk about that whether the story of the woman taken in adultery or the last twelve verses of Mark were originally in the NT.

Often I talk about the history of early Christianity.  And as historians we have to establish to the best of our abilities what probably happened in the past.

And so this is where probabilities come in.   Was the story of the woman taken in adultery originally part of the Gospel of John?  Almost certainly not.   Did Mark 1:1 originally include the phrase “Son of God.”  Probably not.  Was Luke 22:19-20 augmented by scribes to make Jesus talk about his own body and blood being offered for others?  Probably.    Did scribes change Luke 3:22 to get rid of a possible adoptionistic interpretation.  Probably.  Was John 3 inserted into the Gospel of John by some later scribe?  Almost certainly not.  Did a scribe alter what Paul says in Galatians 2 about meeting Cephas and James?  Almost certainly not.

These are all probability judgments – the only kinds of judgments that historians can make.  They are not made on the basis of sheer guess work, but on the basis of careful, detailed examination.  With respect to the question about Galatianst 2: the historian has to look carefully at the Greek texts (say of Galatians), the manuscripts that contain these texts (do they all contain it? in this case yes!  So what are the grounds for thinking it wasn’t originally there?  there are no plausible grounds that I know of), the literary contexts of the passages in question (do the comments fit the context and if they are taken out does the context thereby get confused?  In this case, yes and yes), the writing style and vocabulary of these passages (are they Pauline or not?  Yes they are), and lots of other things.  At length.  In detail.  With lots of thought and scholarship.

On the basis of that kind of extensive scholarship I can say that the very high probability is that Galatians 2 did talk about Paul meeting with Cephas and Peter.

Do I know absolutely that the original text of Galatians said that?  Nope.   Is that a problem if my entire religion is based on knowing the precise words of Galatians 2?  Yup.  Is it a problem if I simply want to know whether Paul knew Cephas?  Not so much.  He probably did – in fact it’s an exceedingly high probability , since he mentions Cephas in a number of places and none of them is particularly suspect, textually.

I hope this makes sense!

Papers at the SBL
Why Historians Can Talk “About” the Resurrection



  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  November 20, 2013

    I think there is evidence that Jesus existed and that he really did exist. However, given your definition of history “These are all probability judgments – the ONLY kinds of judgments that historians can make,” shouldn’t you say when you’re wearing your historical hat that “Jesus probably existed.” To say “Jesus existed” is not a probability judgement, but fact claim.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 21, 2013

      My sense is that many things are *so* probable as having happened (UNC got beat by Belmont the other night), that instead of qualifying everything we say about the past, we may as well just, as a short hand, simply say they happened. I would say that about the Allies winning WWII, Socrates committing suicide, and Jesus living — as three out of three trillion examples!

  2. Avatar
    willow  November 20, 2013

    🙂 It does. Great answer to a great question! Now, for one of my own. You say the Old Testament is worse than the New. Comparatively speaking, does your criticism (critical analysis) hold equally true for both the Hebrew text and the English translation of the Hebrew?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 21, 2013

      Yes, the text is harder to establish, and it is harder to render into English (or any other modern language), than the NT.

  3. Avatar
    willow  November 21, 2013

    Never mind, Bart. I’m finding the answer in your earlier writings.
    Thanks, so much, for all you do.

  4. Avatar
    toejam  November 21, 2013

    What are your thoughts on James White? I get a creepy vibe from W.L.Craig and Disouza. But even more so from White. He’s a strict Calvinist – the most subversive of all Christian denominations IMO. Were you a Calvinist in your fundamentalist days?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 21, 2013

      Yes I was. I find White to be a wannabe scholar and a bully.

      • Avatar
        reedm60  November 23, 2013

        That is exactly what I was thinking throughout the course of your debate with him.

  5. Avatar
    Habakuk  November 21, 2013

    “… is that Galatians 2 did talk about Paul meeting with Cephas and Peter.”

    Meeting with Cephas and Peter? Both at the same time? 😉

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 21, 2013

      Yes, he was very talented…. (I *did* once write a serious scholarly article claiming that Peter and Cephas were two different people….)

      • Avatar
        FrankJay71  November 23, 2013

        I read that article a few years ago. Do you still believe that Peter and Cephas were two different people?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  November 23, 2013

          Depends what I’ve had for dinner.

          • Avatar
            gavriel  November 24, 2013

            I got the impression that your article was steamrolled by Dale Allison shortly after? (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 111, No. 3 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 489-495)

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  November 24, 2013

            Yes, we had a rather hearty disagreement about that. 🙂

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 21, 2013

    It does make sense and is another excellent post as you balance between the fundamentalists on the one hand and the mythicists on the other hand. The question is also a good one. There being no evidence of any textual changes in Galatians 2 is a good argument. Other ancient writings may have fewer alterations than the Bible because they were copied less and scribes had fewer reasons to change them to handle discrepancies and contradictions among competing books.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  November 21, 2013

    I believe many fundamentalists worship the Bible and the system of religion that is based on it rather than God. I recently heard a discussion in which a fundamentalist believer quoted various passages from the OT that made God seem cruel and unjust but he argued that since these stories are in the Bible they must be true and must somehow actually be “good” in God’s divine scheme of things. Fundamentalism (perhaps religion in general) renders people unable to make rational evaluations of good and evil – they must be slaves of their religious texts.

  8. Avatar
    Rosekeister  November 21, 2013

    Do you ever make the point in your debates that if we had undisputed eyewitness accounts by Peter and all the disciples, that would not make what they said the truth? My point of course is that any person recounting an event even with a few minutes of that event is already reinterpreting it. That brings up a second point. Do you ever point out that if we had undisputed evidence that Jesus walked out of the tomb, what has been proven is that he did not die on the cross?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 21, 2013

      I”m not sure if I have made those statements. I agree with the first. The second I would say is a Near Death Experience.

  9. Avatar
    ben.holman  November 21, 2013

    What is the oldest manuscript of the Hebrew Bible? (Also, any news on this 1st century copy of Mark?)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 21, 2013

      There are copies of all the books of the HB, except Esther, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, some going back, I would guess to the 2nd, but certainly the 1st c. BCE. Most are fragmentary, though. The first complete copy is Codex Leningradensis, from around 1000 CE.

  10. Avatar
    donmax  November 22, 2013

    Since it seems we are in a questioning mood, I’ve got one or two of my own I’d like add to the list.

    One of the themes in my book about Jesus covers the Advent of Christianity and the Rise of Anti-Semitism in the aftermath of three Roman-Jewish wars. So my questions are as follows:

    Do you think Christianity is inherently Anti-Semitic?
    Do you think Christians behaved badly in their treatment of Jews, historically speaking?
    And have you thought about writing a book on the subject? (Perhaps with an eminent Jewish scholar like Amy Jill Levine? Or a Christian convert to Judaism, such as Paula Fredriksen?

    Hope so! 

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 23, 2013

      Yes, it’s my next popular book. I don’t think it is appropriate to speak of anti-Semitism prior to the invention of the categories of “race” that have distinguished the discussions since the work of 19th century anthropologists. In antiquity, Jews were sometimes opposed (heatedly at times by Christians), but because of their views, customs, forms of worship, and so on — not because of their bloodlines/race. What we think of anti-semitism is indeed unimaginable, in my view, apart from the conflict between Jews and Christians throughout the centuries, going back to the NT period.

      • Avatar
        donmax  December 1, 2013

        Anti-Semitism or Jew Hatred, call it what you will, I’m glad to hear you intend to write about the subject, which in my opinion is long overdue. Not the least bit *unimaginable*, but historical reality that extends well into modern times. Good luck and best wishes. 🙂

  11. cheito
    cheito  November 24, 2013

    DR Ehrman:

    You have the all the pieces to the the puzzle. Yet you are not willing to complete it in God’s favor. Why?
    I don’t know your heart. God does. I have the same information you do. I interpret it differently.

    The apostolic fathers had in their possession the original writings of the apostles. Would you agree that this is true? Or most likely true?

    It is recorded by Irenaeus, who in his youth heard Polycarp speak, and by Tertullian, that Polycarp had been a disciple of John the Apostle.

    Jerome wrote that Polycarp was a disciple of John and that John had ordained him bishop of Smyrna.
    Polycarp was born in 69 AD and he quotes from 1 timothy 6:7,10, “10-Forthe love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, , knowing …. that we brought nothing into the world, neither can we carry anything out” (compare 1 Timothy 6:7,10).

    Obviously Polycarp, who was an eyewitness of John the Apostle and perhaps met some of the other Apostles, believed in the Pastoral epistles and quoted from them.

    It’s difficult to just throw out such external evidence of the Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles.

    This is just one example of the fact that the Epistles of the Apostles and the gospel of John which I believe is the true portrayal of Jesus were in circulation before they were canonized.

    Let’s assemble the pieces of the puzzle where they belong!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 26, 2013

      No, there is no evidence (literally none) that the apostolic fathers had the original writings of the apostles available to them.

      • cheito
        cheito  November 27, 2013

        Then why did the Apostolic Father’s quote the words of the Apostles? Where did they get these words from? The copies that surfaced and were canonized later on had to be copied from some source. Were the letters of the Apostles circulating among the first century churches? Who collected them? Was Polycarp a disciple of John? Perhaps Polycarp had copies? He is known to have quoted many of the writings of the Apostles before they were canonized. Am I right in this?

        I still think a person with your knowledge has all the pieces to the puzzle. If you wanted to you could make a good case in favor of God and Jesus.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  November 27, 2013

          Most people in antiquity heard the words of the apostles as these were circulated by word of mouth (since most people couldn’t read).

          THere is, of course, a lot of scholarship on this. If you’re really interested I’d suggest the two-volume work on The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers edited by Chris Tucker and Andrew Gregory.

  12. Avatar
    Michael Burgess  December 30, 2013

    Before my sudden departure from the Episcopal church, I was impressed by a series of sermons given by our rector J. D. McQueen II on the subject of Galatians. What got me excited was McQueen’s analysis of how Paul was polemicizing against the “Judaizers” (presumably James & Co. operating out of Jerusalem). The Judaizers were insisting that salvation demands observance of the law and the prophets, whereas Paul said none of that mattered if you believed in the resurrection.

    At the time, I thought this was a great answer to the evangelicals in the USA who want to say “God hates fags” because of Leviticus. Imagine my surprise when I discussed this potential with the rector and he explained he’d lifted the whole thing from a right-wing evangelist whose position is opposed to the rights of gays and women.

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