Scholars sometimes debate whether we can know that we have reconstructed the original text of the New Testament at every point – or even every important point.  To me the answer was and is self-evidently, no, of course not.  Many of my conservative evangelical critics think that I’m being overly skeptical, that since we have thousands of manuscripts of the NT, we can surely know better what the authors of the NT said than any other authors from the ancient world.  My view is that this might be true, but that simply shows that we can’t know what *most* authors of the ancient world actually said, word for word.

Why does that matter?  I’ll explain in a second, for the bulk of this post.  But first let me put the matter in very simple form, at least insofar as I can.  Suppose Matthew’s Gospel was circulated for the very first time in Antioch of Syria around the year 85 CE.   We’ll call that first circulated copy the “original.”  Someone copied the original in his church.   The original got lost in a fire.

But the copy was copied ten times over the years.  And all of our subsequent copies were descended from those ten copies.   That would mean that our entire manuscript tradition goes back to the first copy, made from the original.  But what if that first copy contained lots of mistakes?  What if its copyist added a few stories that he too had heard about Jesus?  What if he added sentences here and there to make sure the “true” meaning of the gospel was understood?  What if he omitted some sentences he didn’t like or approve of?  Remember: he didn’t think he was copying “the Bible.”  He thought he was copying a book about Jesus that he wanted people to read to get to a right understanding of who Jesus was.

Then the next copyists (ten of them in this scenario), would have reproduced these additions, omissions and alterations.  How would we know what the original said, then, if all our copies go back to something other than the original?  There is precisely no way to know.  Let me emphasize, there is PRECISELY no way to know.

And why does that matter?  Well, for a lot of people it doesn’t matter at all.  That is oddly enough true for many people who think the Bible is the inspired word of God, the very words of which were given directly by God, and for those who have no interest in the Bible at all.  People of both groups actually don’t care that much if that’s what happened.

The first group doesn’t care because for most of them, it is the English words of the Bible that God has inspired (in some sense).  And even if they have sense enough to realize that it is the Greek words that God would have inspired, many (most?) of them would think that it was the copy that stands at the foundation of all our surviving manuscripts that ultimately God inspired.  In this sense, God inspired not only the original author but the first copyist who made some alterations in what that author said.  God works in mysterious ways!  And surely one of the ways he could work, in order to get his truth widely spread throughout the world, would be by directly the work of an early Christian copyist.

The second group doesn’t care because, for the most part, they simply aren’t interested in what the words of the Bible said.   The Bible is just another ancient book with some good ideas, some crazy ideas, some profound thoughts, some dangerous thoughts, some historical and cultural significance and some idiosyncrasies and irrelevancies.  Who cares whether one word or another was the original word?

The people who really do care are the smart evangelicals who realize that any doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture – an incredibly important doctrine for them – depends on God inspiring the words produced by the original authors, in the Greek.  These are the words God inspired.  But what if you don’t know the words?  Then you don’t know the words God inspired.  And so you don’t know, then, what God was trying to communicate to the human race.

Thus, for them, it is of vital importance to know the very words.  And since it’s *important* to know the words, then, well, God would have made sure we have access to the words.  And so textual criticism is not only a fundamental and significant intellectual enterprise, it is theologically important.  It gets us back to God’s very words.

Sometimes I get asked by an evangelical opponent what kind of evidence I would need before I could be sure that we have the original words.  My view is that unless we find the originals, we will never “know” the words.  (See the scenario I painted at the beginning to see why I think this.)  But they press – apart from finding the originals (which they themselves admit probably ain’t gonna happen), what would I need?  I sometimes reply that if we had, say, half a dozen copies of Mark’s Gospel produced within a year or two of its original production, and could compare them to one another, only to see that they are all essentially very much the same, then I would say we “probably” can “know” what the originals said (though even then I’m not absolutely sure: see my scenario above).

Whenever I say such a thing my interlocutor gets exasperated and frustrated and can’t believe I’m saying such a thing, that I have such an unreasonable demand for “knowing” the original text.  My view is that it is not my demand that is unreasonable.  I actually don’t have a demand.  I’m not demanding a single thing.  If I’m asked what we would need to know something, I’m happy to indicate what we would need in order to know.   But what is demanding is not my expectation.  It is the request.  The request is based on the sense that we really have to know.   If we *have* to know, then this is what it would probably take.  But why should we have to know?  For me, we don’t have to know.  It is THESE PEOPLE who are insisting that we know.   That’s why for me, for me, they are the unreasonable ones.

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2024-05-08T15:14:28-04:00May 12th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

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21 Comments

  1. daniel.calita May 12, 2024 at 5:56 pm

    Hi, Bart,

    I stumbled upon this question and couldn’t find reliable information. Could you tell your opinion?

    “Were the Ten Commandments taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead?”

  2. GeoffClifton May 13, 2024 at 4:31 am

    Thank you Dr Ehrman. In your book Armageddon, you say that the Book of Revelation was one of the least copied manuscripts. Given how weird it is (and ripe for ‘tidying up’ by later copyists) could we say that what we have got now is close to the original? For example, I’m surprised some of its anti-Roman elements haven’t been redacted.

    • BDEhrman May 15, 2024 at 10:43 am

      Like most of the ooks of the NT, we have a pretty good idea what it says in the vast majority of verses. And there’s little reason to think that ALL the manucripts give the wrong reading at any particular place. By the time it was being copied, Christian scribes continued to hate PAGAN Rome (before it converted) and so had no trouble letting the book blast away at it.

  3. improv58 May 13, 2024 at 7:28 am

    Your argument is supported by my read of the Gospel of Thomas. I know Christian churches discount it, but I see it as an example of how words considered “gospel” can go awry.
    By the way, what are the odds archaeologists can find originals similar to the recent find of the Quran?

    • BDEhrman May 15, 2024 at 10:43 am

      I’d say it’s impossible to say!

  4. Bewilderbeast May 13, 2024 at 7:58 am

    The Unreasonable Ones are not used to people asking searching questions. They are used to saying *anything* then saying, “Can I get an amen on that?” and without fail getting a resounding and unquestioning AMEN!
    Same as the question of why there is suffering: “Oh, its because God Knows, can I get an amen on that?”

  5. normative May 13, 2024 at 12:18 pm

    One way to put the point is: It’s not that scholars are unusually skeptical about the authenticity of the text of the New Testament, but that evangelicals care a lot more about that authenticity than other scholars of ancient texts.

    Obviously it would be of great interest to know how much of Plato’s dialogues reflect the “real” views of Socrates and how much is Plato’s ventriloquism, or for that matter how much “Plato’s” dialogues as we have them were modified, redacted, or added to by students and later philosophers in the centuries between their writing and our earliest manuscripts. But for the practice of philosophy as such, it wouldn’t really matter all that much. The arguments in the texts would still be the arguments in the texts, and they’d still have influenced subsequent thought in the western tradition.

    If the Euthyphro were proven conclusively to have been written by Plato’s cousin Steve, much as it’d be a sensational discovery, college professors would probably keep teaching the Euthyphro in more or less the same way. It’s only when you think the text is God’s instruction manual that this sort of ubiquitous uncertainty becomes intolerable.

    • BDEhrman May 15, 2024 at 10:48 am

      Oh, I like the Steve hypothesis.

    • elizvand May 17, 2024 at 3:38 pm

      I think that’s a little overstated (though I like the “Steve” hypothesis, too), at least when it comes to works of literature. There are passages in ancient poets–e.g., the tragedian Aeschylus–that are so garbled it is impossible to reconstruct them in any way that makes sense. Aeschylus didn’t write nonsense. Very much the opposite. But his Greek was fiercely difficult, allusive, complicated — the nearest English equivalent is maybe Gerard Manley Hopkins ( scribes copying by hand over many centuries could easily go astray with, e.g., “wind-wandering weed-winding bank”).

      Literary scholars are FIERCELY interested in what Aeschylus actually wrote. We would love to have some of the unrecoverable passages elucidated for us, especially since Aeschylus wrote over 90 plays and only SEVEN have survived, one of which (Prometheus Bound) is probably not by Aeschylus himself. We would love to know, at least, what those few plays actually said when they were first performed in the 5th century BCE!! But we have to accept that we don’t know, and barring some highly unlikely papyrus discovery, we’re not going to know. Since we don’t think that Aeschylus was divinely inspired, we *can* accept that we don’t know.

  6. SteveHouseworth May 14, 2024 at 10:07 pm

    I agree with your position regarding “knowing”, which leads to my question. You state:

    “Remember: he didn’t think he was copying “the Bible.” He thought he was copying a book about Jesus that he wanted people to read to get to a right understanding of who Jesus was.”

    How can we know the intent of the copyist of Mark – or any of the copyists for that matter? But, let’s stay with your example. I tend to agree with R.S. Price’s contention in his book The Gospel of Mark as Reaction and Allegory, i.e. that the original intent portrays Jesus as a symbol of the Jews who is ultimately NOT protected by the Jewish god but is destroyed by Rome, just as was Jerusalem and the Jewish nation state.

    I shortened Price’s argument a bit. Hey, summarizing a book is difficult. Hopefully, you get the point.

    What if the original author of Mark, and subsequent copyists, wanted to convey that the zealous Jews are just too ingrained in their own arguments and can’t see reality, i.e. Jewish culture has been defeated by Rome?

    Can we really know the original author’s intent, or of the copyists?

    • BDEhrman May 15, 2024 at 11:05 am

      It’s a matter of probability. If anyone can come up with a plausible explanation for how an author in the ancient world believed he was a writing a new book of Scripture, when so far as we know no one in that context even appears to have a sense of new books of Scripture, it is certainly worth evaluating it (the explanation). “Sripture” is not simply writings that the author thinks are “right” or “true”

      • SteveHouseworth May 17, 2024 at 1:18 pm

        Hmmm. Probability?! My statistics training prompts me to question the applicability of probability, as a math and statistics construct, to this problem.

        This seems to be a matter of finite conjecture, i.e. how many explanations can be developed.
        However, implicit in your response is a fundamental truth, that we can’t really know the author’s intent. We can only infer certain conclusions or conjectures based on what an author wrote. Sometimes the conclusions are substantiated by the text. Sometimes only conjectures are possible because the text is not at all clear. The road traveled can be quite wide – to invoke a metaphor. I could not resist.

        • BDEhrman May 21, 2024 at 7:33 pm

          Probability is not only a mathematical concept. If it were, you’re right, it would have no relevance to history. Is it probable that George Washington “crossed the Delaware”? There’s no mathmatical formula for that. Or for anything in the past. But we try to establish what probalby happened. And if a theory about what happened has no known precedent, as a rule it’s less probable than a theory based on something that happens all the time. It doesn’t mean that this is an iron-clad demonstration of what happened (one-offs happen all the time). But history is not a matter either of math or of saying, “Hey, maybe it’s THAT!” without any evidence or argument.

  7. fergmcb May 17, 2024 at 8:58 am

    “God works in mysterious ways! And surely one of the ways he could work, in order to get his truth widely spread throughout the world, would be by directly the work of an early Christian copyist.”

    Why do you think God had to set that fire!

    • BDEhrman May 21, 2024 at 7:24 pm

      I don’t think he had to.

  8. mini1071 May 18, 2024 at 8:35 pm

    I actually saw a bumper sticker once that said “If it aint King James it aint Bible.”

    PS: Not necessarily qouted exactly, I may have added capitalization…..

  9. mozartpc27 May 20, 2024 at 5:02 pm

    I listened to two of your debates today (w/ Justin Bass & Peter Williams) and had a thought/question, and among your recent posts it fits here best since it deals with epistemological questions.

    In these debates, I always want yourself (or anyone taking the scientific historian “side”) to ask their counterparts WHY believing Christians find any value in thinking the Resurrection (or any theological claim) is an historical fact. To me, ascribing to belief the mantle of “historical fact” is a serious theological error, because it actually robs faith of its most human characteristic – the capacity for hope. Hope is related to reason insofar as they are qualities traditionally thought to distinguish the human from the animal mind. Humans reason and hope. Animals don’t.

    For good reason, there are no religions built on scientific or historical facts, like 2+2=4 or Ronald Reagan was the 40th President: they don’t require anyone’s “belief.” Belief, not knowledge, is what is beautiful about religious experience. Make “Jesus rose from the dead” as verifiable a fact as “Reagan was the 40th President,” and it’s no longer a basis for religion, any more than Reagan’s presidency is.

    What say you?

    • BDEhrman May 21, 2024 at 7:57 pm

      They would have a ready answer. If Jesus’ resurrectoin didn’t *really* happen then we can’t konw that our own afterlife will really happen; and it would mean that God did not *really* intervene in history; and that would mean the very basis of the Christian religion is undermined, since it is a religion that fervently insists that God does intervene in our world, actually, not metaphorically.

  10. mozartpc27 May 21, 2024 at 8:53 am

    Reading through Romans this morning, and to my comment above, from Paul: “Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?”

    I know that I am making more of a philosophical-theological point rather than an historical one, but still, I’d love to hear from you, Dr. Ehrman, as one who was once an evangelical, on your thoughts on this and how it might fit in with a response to those who desire what to me is the very bizarre and almost anti-religious project of establishing the Resurrection as historical fact, something that to any rational mind simply cannot be done.

    • BDEhrman May 21, 2024 at 8:13 pm

      Paul is saying that the expected glories to come with the appearance of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, and the glorificatoin of believers has decidedly not happened yet. His opponents in Corinth, e.g., claimed that they are already experiencing the full glories of salvation, and much of 1 Corinthians is written to explain that they hgave not. So too here in Romans, he is explaining that the world is still “groaning” while it awaits its redemption, which is FUTURE. Christians “hope” for it, knowing that it will indeed come; but it is not here, it is future, so unlike, say, the resurrection of Jesus, which is past, and is not a matter of hope since it has already happened, the future resurrection of the dead is indeed future ,and therefore a hope, not a past event.

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