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How Accurate Are our Earliest NT Manuscripts?

QUESTIONS

I have received the following three, interrelated, questions from an inquiring mind that wants to know, all of them involving the potential accuracy of the manuscript tradition of the NT based on what we can deduce from the early papyri.   My responses will follow.

  • In your last debate with Dr. Wallace, he seemed to argue, in part, for the relative integrity of the early NT manuscript tradition. He referred to p75 as being representative of other early NT MSS in that, while obviously the product of non-professionals, it yielded variants that were easy to correct, in the nature of “onion instead of union”. Is this a fair characterization on his part of these early texts? What portion of these variants would indeed fall into the category of “easy to correct”?
  • Citing Dr. Metzger, Dr. Wallace also claimed that Alexandria was one place where uncontrolled early scribal practices was not the norm. You countered with the letters of Clement of Alexandria as evidence against this conclusion. Could you please elaborate on this point & mention whether these letters are typical of the place and period?
  • Another argument Dr. Wallace made was founded on the claim that earliest papyri discovered merely confirm the previous judgments of scholars as to what was the most likely original form of a text in that they don’t add any new variant readings. These judgments were based on later though more reliable NT manuscripts. He referred specifically to the work of Westcott & Hort on Codex Sinaitcus & Vaticanus whose conclusions were attested by the later discovery of p75. This dynamic, according to him, is also true of other early papyri. This leads Dr. Wallace to argue that if these early papyri simply confirm earlier judgments then we should expect even earlier papyri to do so likewise. Your thoughts on this argument would be appreciated.

RESPONSES

These are terrific questions, to which I can, I think, give some direct answers.

Comments

  1. Avatar
    dostonj  January 26, 2015

    Bart, perhaps you already addressed this in a prior blog entry, but I have a question about the plausibility of apostolic authorship of the canonical gospels. You have taken the position that it is highly unlikely that the gospels had apostolic authorship in part because they were written in Greek, and the apostles, being Aramaic speaking Palestinian Jews, we’re illiterate. Do you have any historical evidence to support your position that the individuals who would have comprised the 12 apostles were unlikely to have received training in Greek and/or Aramaic literacy? It’s not too difficult to imagine that a fishermen (Simon Peter) was not literate. But Matthew was reputed to be a tax collector. Would that not require at least some basic literacy? And considering that Greek was the lingua franca of Roman Empire, would not such literacy on Matthew’s part involve Greek literacy?

    I recently conversed with anew evangelical Christian who insisted that typical 1st century Palestinian Jews received a well rounded education that included not just the precepts of Jewish law, but also Aramaic and Greek literacy. He also pointed to the prevalence of the Septuagint to support his position.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 27, 2015

      A tax collector *may* have been literate, but would not have needed literacy for his job. The idea of widespread literacy in Palestine is a myth. The authoritative study is by Catherine Hezser, Literacy in Roman Palestine.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 26, 2015

    As I have read in your books, I certainly understand that the copying in the first century may have been filled with more errors than copying done a 1000 years later. But I am more than willing to let the Fundamentalists say that we more or less have something that is close to the original Gospels. The bigger problem is what to do about all of the contradictions in the Gospels using whatever ancient texts and whatever translation you want to choose. Of course, you reviewed all of this in “Jesus Interrupted” which, for me, has been the most helpful of your books. In other words, give in to all of the textual arguments and one still has a Bible of questionable historical reliability. That to me is the big issue.

  3. Avatar
    brcworks  January 26, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I know your interest is primarily in textual variants, but I have a series of questions that have nothing to do with that:
    1. How many Christians were there in Egypt in 90 CE?
    2. How many of those could read?
    3. How many of those would have had a copy of Mark?
    4. How many of those would have had an extra copy, so they could dispose of one?
    5. How many of those would have chosen to dispose of one copy as part of a funeral mask?
    6. How many of those would have been available to a group of evangelical scholars whose soul interest in the masks was to find a biblical manuscript?
    7. What are the odds that this unpublished, unseen manuscript actually exists?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 27, 2015

      First four questions: We don’t know! Second three: the idea is that a copy of Mark was worn out and thrown away and deteriorated, until someone took some of the scraps from it to use for a paper-mache mask. I think the MS certainly exists.

      • Avatar
        brcworks  January 27, 2015

        It just seems to me that unless someone is taking apart thousands of masks, or unless there were thousands of copies of NT manuscripts floating around Alexandria at the time, the odds against someone finding the one thing they are looking for in a mask are astronomical! Shouldn’t someone have calculated the probability of finding something worthwhile before they started destroying the masks?

  4. Avatar
    Kevin  January 26, 2015

    What’s the criteria for knowing here? We can’t know with absolute certainty very much at all about things in the past, even last year. You seem to put the bar for knowledge here incredibly high. Isn’t it reasonable that we have now what was written in these documents like Mark? Isn’t it reasonableness rather than absolute certainty what we’re after here sice it’s all we can have? I get that there are Christians that are literal interpreters making claims, and they can be annoying, but that shouldn’t color every statement about knowledge.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 27, 2015

      Yes, that’s what I’m trying to say. I think it reasonable that what we have is pretty close to Mark as it was written. But if for theological reasons you need to know the very words of the text, that’s a bit problematic.

  5. Avatar
    SWerdal  January 26, 2015

    That last point you make is precisely the same as a classics prof at the U of MN made to me in the summer of 1982, and it made all the difference in my direction of graduate study. Excellent post (if there’s anyone out there like i was still wondering the same thing)!

  6. Avatar
    Jason  January 26, 2015

    Is there an official sanctioned body that catalogs manuscript papyri and parchments?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 27, 2015

      They are cataloged at the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Muenster Germany.

  7. Avatar
    Steefen  January 27, 2015

    In the last two “There is a new comment added” notices I’ve received, when I click the link, it only brings me to the page of the post without going down to the post number. Second, I cannot find the reply from the other member. I thought I could email Steve, but I didn’t see that in Support. Please forward or advise. Thank you.

  8. Avatar
    Steefen  January 28, 2015

    A scribe who copied say, a work of Plato, Homer, Virgil, Cicero, or hymns for the cult of Isis wouldn’t have copied any of the Gospels?

    Basically, if there are no major problems with papyri of Plato, Homer, Virgil, Cicero, hymns for the cult of Isis, why is quality slipping with first century New Testament manuscripts?

    While there is talk (scholarship) of the Library at Alexandria, is there any scholarship for Libraries of the Forum in Rome. I’m thinking great Roman works of the first century made it there. They must have had scrolls on religion in Israel because King Herod sent at least one of his sons to Rome for education.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2015

      It’s *possible*, of course, that a copyist who produced pagan works also produced Christian. But there are problems with the manuscript traditions of all the ancient authors. I’m not aware that the forum in Rome housed a major library, but maybe I just don’t know about it.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  January 28, 2015

        Libraries of the Forum, consisted of separate libraries founded in the time of Augustus near the Roman Forum that contained both Greek and Latin texts, separately housed, as was the conventional practice. There were libraries:

        in the Porticus Octaviae near the Theatre of Marcellus,
        in the temple of Apollo Palatinus, and
        in the Bibliotheca Ulpia in the Forum of Trajan.

  9. Avatar
    anberry  January 30, 2015

    Bart, I was wondering whether you could comment on how the geographic distribution of early manuscripts can support or disconfirm reliability of the text. If two manuscripts that were discovered in two locations far apart from each other (say, Egypt and Greece) and contain the same readings that would support scribal reliability since if a change was made in an Egyptian manuscript it would only show up in the Egyptian MSS and would be easy to weed out since the change would not be in the MSS from Greece.

    Perhaps in this way, even if you only had manuscripts from the 3rd century, if they lined up well and were greatly disbursed you could be pretty sure that those readings date reliably back to an earlier date before the manuscripts were widely disbursed.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      Good question. I’ll add it to my questions to post on. But the problem is that all of our early manuscripts have been and are being discovered only in Egypt, since that’s the climate where they can be preserved.

      • Avatar
        Adam Beaven  February 1, 2015

        doc, i don’t understand you reply. do you mean that ALL of our early manuscripts were not WIDELY disbursed?
        thanks doc.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 1, 2015

          They may have been *very* widely dispersed. They could have come from Rome, or Ephesus, or Lyons — but they all *ended up* in Egypt.

  10. Avatar
    Carl  January 30, 2015

    I’m a bit confused. If the earliest manuscripts are in the main the worst, shouldn’t we infer that our versions of the New Testament books are probably quite a bit different from the originals? I suppose the key word in your post is “radically.” Are you saying then that your guess is that the originals are probably quite a bit different, but just not “radically different”?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      Ah, good question. They are the “worst” not because the text behind them is bad, but because their copyists make high numbers of mistakes. But the texts they are copying (also with scribal mistakes) are our oldest available, so that’s gotta be good. Maybe I’ll post on this.

  11. Avatar
    anberry  January 31, 2015

    I think it would be hard to argue that the early gospel manuscripts were radically changed due to the presence of certain difficulties in the texts having to do with theology. If scribes would just change the script to read however they wanted it to read, why have Jesus baptized by John the Baptist which might imply that John is Jesus’ spiritual superiority? Why have Jesus rejected in his hometown? If early scribes were just at liberty to make radical changes, you’d think they would have smoothed these things out

  12. Avatar
    walstrom  February 21, 2015

    What is your scholarly response to this claim on Zola Levitt’s website as provided by his friend, Dr. Thomas McCall, the Senior Theologian of our ministry, has written many articles for the Levitt Letter. He holds a Th.M. in Old Testament studies and a Th.D. in Semitic languages and Old Testament.

    “. . . what we have to understand is that first-century Israelis were tri-lingual, and even perhaps quadri-lingual. The languages spoken in Israel at the time of Christ were Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin. Most Jewish people spoke the first three, and some were conversant in Latin as well.”

    https://ehrmanblog.org/how-accurate-are-our-earliest-nt-manuscripts/
    ______________________

    What evidence is there for / against such an assertion of poly linguistic prowess?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 21, 2015

      Yes, that’s what people used to think. But it appears simply not to be true. The evidence is overwhelming. You might look at the books on Galilee by Mark Chancey and on literacy in Roman Palestine by Catherine Hezser.

  13. Avatar
    Kakuzato  August 7, 2019

    Dr Ehrman, do you think that it is plausible, or even possible to find the originals, or MSs close enough the date so we could be almost sure what the originals said? How likely they survive readable about 2000 years later?

    Not related really, but if you made a papyrus today with the methods they used back then how it would survive in wilderness compared to a paper made today? Yeah, there are many kinds of paper, so let’s say something standard paper used in offices, I don’t know the english definition though 😀

    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2019

      1. My sense is that in most cases we’re pretty close to the originals, but there’s no way to know for sure. 2. Great question! I don’t know!

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