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How Consistent are Orthodox Corruptions of Scripture?

The goal of my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture was to show all the places that I could find of where early Christian scribes modified their texts of the New Testament in order to make them more amenable to their own (the scribes’ own) polemical purposes, particularly with respect to the Christological debates they were involved with.  I will describe these second and third century debates in subsequent posts.  (Recall: there are very good reasons for thinking that the vast majority of “intentional” changes in the text of the NT were made already by around the year 300 CE – so it is debates in this earlier period that really matter for understanding textual changes.)

In my previous post I indicated how I went about finding the data: I carefully combed through our most exhaustive textual apparatuses verse by verse, throughout the entire New Testament, examining every textual variant that is noted in them – many thousands indeed! – and looking to see which ones were closely, relatively closely, or distantly tied to Christological issues.   I found hundreds of possible variants, and then had to narrow down the field to the ones that I thought I could plausibly argue were in fact variants that had been generated because of disagreements over Christology (as opposed to other causes.)  I ended up with over a hundred instances, and my book discusses all of these, some at great length and some very briefly, depending on how significant in various ways: to the history of the textual tradition of the New Testament; to the understanding of early Christological debates; to the meaning of the passages in which they were found; etc.

Some of these variants, I ended up arguing (I will be giving examples in later posts), were created by scribes in order to “correct” a possible misreading of a text.  That is, if a text was susceptible to an interpretation that a scribe found “heretical,” then sometimes (not always) he would change it to make it more plainly support the view that he had.  In other variants a scribe changed a text that was relatively inoffensive theologically in order to make it more strongly support his Christological understanding.

One thing to stress is that after doing all the research, I could find *no* evidence

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How Can You Know A Scribe’s Intentions?
On Falsification and Forgery



  1. Avatar
    Jayredinger  September 23, 2015

    ” For a reason, I believe, that is completely unsatisfying for people who *do* like conspiracy theories (I, for one, am not a big fan)” Glad to hear that. I am not a fan either.

  2. Avatar
    Scott  September 23, 2015

    How have other researchers accepted your thesis?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2015

      Yes, the term “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” is regularly used these days by other scholars.

  3. Avatar
    dougckatyBE  September 23, 2015

    “Most of the changes that were made appear to have been ad hoc creations of this, that, or the other scribe. There is nothing to suggest that any proto-orthodox church leader directed scribes to make systematic revisions of the text along theological lines; there is no evidence that any one scribe decided to make a thorough set of changes of a text along in order to “correct” or “improve” its Christology; and there is no evidence that any one manuscript represents a complete reworking of the text for theological reasons.”

    Maybe it’s an “apples and oranges” kind of comparison, but I was reminded of the way that biological evolution appears to work: small changes, mostly with minor impact, but somehow more likely to survive in following generations.

  4. Avatar
    prairieian  September 24, 2015

    It struck me that perhaps one reason a systematic ‘rewrite’ didn’t occur was the element of spontaneity involved in the modifications introduced by scribes. That is, they were copying along and came to a spot where a little tweak would clear up an unnecessary confusion, or make clear the obscure, or add a compelling incident, which would help the right thinking Christian in his faith journey. Going back to another spot in the narrative for additional corroboration, or whatever, would be wearying in the extreme given the need to rewrite.

    We forget how much easier it is to write with a computer which allows corrections, insertions, and modifications with no effort at all. I recall my own undergraduate days when writing an essay – only time for the one ‘perfect’ draft owing to the normal time pressures one endures – and writing a truly brutal sentence towards the end of a page that I was typing. Needless to add the imperfection remained in the document handed in. Blunders in the first few lines of a new page could be fixed by retyping a few lines, but there were limits. Presumably this story makes no sense at all to those raised on desktop Word programs. Those with Underwood experience likely know of which I speak.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 24, 2015

    Do you think that other non-orthodox variants might have been destroyed or just not copied?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2015

      Probably just not copied — which is the same thing as destroying them (since they were written thereby out of existence.)

  6. Avatar
    jmmarine1  September 24, 2015

    Since it is so rare to have copies of ancient texts so close to the autographs, it is hard to determine if the sorts of edits/revisions that you cataloged for the NT was something of the norm for 1st/ and 2nd century scribes. When one considers the evidence from Qumran, I have read alternative explanations as to why there are differences between the Dead Sea Scrolls biblical manuscripts (usually shorter) and the reigning MT. One explanation given by Marty Abegg is that the shorter texts were copied for novices (a sort of ‘living Bible’ for those not quite ready for the full text), which hardly seems likely. Another explanation was given by Gene Ulrich stating that the canonical process (roughly dated to 70 CE) was not only to determine which books were in and which were out, but was designed to stop the writing/editing process of the books themselves. Both explanations, of course, are theories, but could something like this be in place for scribes of the NT before 367 CE? Is there evidence for this sort of textual fluidity, or, is the evidence you deduced that only minor (in the sense of length) Christological changes were made in order to get the text in line with developing theologies with regard to the person of Christ?

  7. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  September 24, 2015


    during your debate with bass you tried to explain the son of man . we know that gospel writers tanslated the saying of jesus from armaic to greek . so how do you say son of man in armaic of jesus time and what did it mean back then because thats what it counts . .in arabic which is cousin language of armaic we have similar expression we say ben adam or son of adam and prophet muhamed used it many times refering to all human being including himself because we are all children of adams . these are hadiths where prophet is using the expression ben adam or son of adam

    Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas:
    I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “If the son of Adam had money equal to a valley, then he will wish for another similar to it, for nothing can satisfy the eye of Adam’s son except dust. And Allah forgives him who repents to Him.”

    on the authority of Anas ibn Maalik who said, ‘I heard the Messenger of Allaah saying: “Allaah says, ‘O son of Adam! As long as you call unto me and seek (forgiveness from) me, I will forgive you for all of the sins that you may commit and I do not care (how many they amount to). O son of Adam! If you come to me with what is almost as much as the earth (in volume) in sins, but you meet me without having associated any partner with Me in worship, I will give you the same amount of forgiveness.’

    The Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam said, ‘every son of Adam is sinner and the best among the sinners are those who repent.

    so i think when jesus used son of man he just wanted to prove that he is human being like everybody else and not divine . remember jews and arab are both semetic so it is more likely it means the same thing. do you think now i solved the dificulties that scholars had with son of man

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2015

      One question is whether “son of man” refers to the divine (or divine-like) figure in Daniel 7:13-=14 or not

      • Avatar
        Mhamed Errifi  September 26, 2015

        hello bart

        forget what daniel said . he may have different meaning . i want to know how jesus said it in aramaic and what did he mean by that

        • Bart
          Bart  September 28, 2015

          He meant there was a future judge of the earth soon to arrive.

    • Avatar
      RRomanchek  September 28, 2015

      Thank you for your perspective.

  8. Avatar
    bbcamerican  September 24, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    One of the things I appreciate the most about your approach to scholarship, and why I am so drawn to your work, is that you are so open-minded and willing to follow the evidence wherever it takes you. In a world in which so many people (e.g. experts, politicians, theologians, etc.) have an axe to grind and are twisting and distorting reality to fit their own personal world views, it is just plain emotionally and intellectually satisfying to find those rare individuals who are willing to examine the evidence with a mind that is focused on learning rather than a heart that is set on justification or validation.

    It is rare, indeed, for someone to seek the truth, and, God forbid, actually change his or her mind if that’s what the actual evidence requires. I find it tragically funny that many of your detractors point to your willingness to change your mind as a weakness, flaw, and/or a negative. To the contrary, your willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it runs counter to your own prior opinions, is profoundly admirable and exemplifies the true meaning of scholarship.

    Thank you for sharing your quest for knowledge with us on this blog every single day. To say that it is appreciated is a gross understatement.

  9. Avatar
    hgb55  September 24, 2015


    Frank Zindler argues in his book (“Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth”) that the word Christ is not derived from messiah or anointed but from other Greek word such as Chrestos, which means good, oracle, prophesy, etc. As evidence he notes that Irenaeus mentions that the Gnostics used the word Chreistos and not Christos. He also cites burial inscriptions from the 3rd and 4th centuries from Phrygia and a few other places that show variations in the spelling of Christ or Christian (such as Chreistos, Chrestos, Christos, Chreistanoi, and Chresianoi).

    Did you find any significant variations in the spellings or meanings of the word Christ when you examined the New Testament texts or other early religious texts? How certain are scholars that Christ is derived from messiah or anointed and not some other word?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2015

      The words Christos an Chrestus are not etymologically related, though they were often confused by scribes. That has nothing to do with derivation however. Christos comes from Chrio — to anoint.

  10. Avatar
    J.J.  September 28, 2015

    Hi Bart, I think your point about wholesale, systemic editorial activity is an important point. I don’t recall seeing you mention this in publication before… at least, I just reread the conclusion to Orthodox Corruption and don’t see this mentioned (but unfortunately, I don’t have your second edition of this, so maybe you do so there). Have you mentioned this point in publication? or just here on the blog (and unfortunately here, it’s behind the private firewall)?
    You mention heretical corruptions of scriptures. How do we know that the textual variants always moved in the direction of orthodoxy? In some circles, what was later considered heretical (such as adoptionism) may have been orthodoxy in that milieu so that variants arising in that context moved in a direction opposite of what became orthodoxy. Thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2015

      Yes I deal with that point in Orthodox Corruption, several times. My view is that there were certainly corruptions that went hte other directoin, but they simply don’t appear to survive.

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