21 votes, average: 5.00 out of 521 votes, average: 5.00 out of 521 votes, average: 5.00 out of 521 votes, average: 5.00 out of 521 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5 (21 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

If We Did Have the “Original” Gospels, Would That Make Them True?

Have you ever noticed how people who are having an argument often use a slight of hand, either not realizing what they are doing or doing it in order to misdirect the discussion?  What I have in mind is when someone wants to prove a view that we will call X, but instead of directly dealing with the issues of central importance to X, they divert attention to something else that we can call Y.  Then, when they claim they have proved Y they lead their audience to think they therefore proved X.  On one hand, a  lot of time they haven’t even proved Y.  But they claim not only they have done *that* but that since they have done that they have also thereby proved X, even though Y is not the same as X.  Sometimes Y is not even related to Y.

I don’t know if you’ve seen this before, but it happens a lot, in all sorts of arguments about religion, politics, society, and so on.  It certainly happens a lot in circles I’m involved with in biblical studies.   The matter is often on my mind, but it came back to mind with some vigor over the past week as I was thinking through this matter of whether we can know with any certainty what the authors of the New Testament actually wrote, based on this whole fiasco of the so-called first-century Gospel of Mark.

After I posted on that topic last week I got a number of interesting responses, including the one I dealt with a couple of days ago in the weekly Readers Mailbag.  One other issue that some people have raised is of even greater importance.  It is related to what ultimately matters to most people who choose to read Gospel of Mark and the other Gospels at all in the first place.  Anyone with a modicum of interest in history and, especially, the history as recounted in the Bible, and most particularly the historical events related in the New Testament Gospels about what Jesus said and did naturally wants to know: did these things really happen?  And if so, did they happen in the way they are described?

It’s the fundamental question for anyone interested in the Gospels in relationship to Jesus.  It has been at the front and center of biblical studies for over three hundred years now, especially since the 1770s when scholars who had been influenced by the Enlightenment began to turn the critical skills that helped them understand the ancient world more broadly to the New Testament Gospels.  When they did so some of them started arguing that the Gospels contain accounts that did not actually happen, and others that happened in some sense but not in the way they are described.

The arguments of these scholars were massively shocking to most readers in the Christian world and were considered scandalous, heretical, evil.  The scholars were personally attacked.  Some of them (including the first, Hermann Samuel Reimarus) knew that would happen and so chose not to publish their findings rather than ring the deathknell for their careers, reputations, and personal lives; others of them (e.g., David Friedrich Strauss) braved the consequences, published their work, and then in fact did pay the consequences, with their careers destroyed and their lives in shambles.  The post-Enlightenment pursuit of truth was not a smooth road, and it’s no wonder so many intelligent people decided not to take it.

The assaults continue today, even though the people who believe that the Gospels are completely accurate no longer have the social and political clout to destroy the lives of others because of their critical research that lead to results that are inimical to traditional Christian belief.  For which I say: thank God for tenure.  If there was ever an argument for it, this is it.  If you can’t go where the truth will lead without destroying your life, most people just ain’t goin’ there.  And that is the death of the university.

So back to the sleight-of-hand argument.  For a long time evangelical supporters of the complete accuracy of the Bible have argued that “We can trust the Bible because it is the best attested book from the ancient world.”  On first glance, that does sound impressive.  Really?  Is it the best attested book?  As it turns out, the answer is absolutely YES.  No one disputes it and no one can dispute it.  It’s simply true.

And so doesn’t that make the Bible completely trustworthy?  Actually, no.  It has almost NOTHING to do with the question.  It’s irrelevant.   That conclusion is a non-sequitur.  It is a sleight of hand.  These evangelical apologists are claiming to be dealing with view X (Is the Bible completely accurate?), but instead they are arguing about view Y (Do we know what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote?).

All this relates to the alleged discovery of a first-century Mark.  Here I will make a few rather important observations that are simply ignored by these apologists; the first couple I’ve made before but they bear repeating.

  • This first one may seem weird, but it’s absolutely true and needs to be emphasized. The question of whether the New Testament is the best attested book from the ancient world has no bearing on whether we can be certain that we know what its authors originally wrote.  It would only mean that with some level of probability we have a *better* idea of what its authors wrote than we have for what other authors of other books wrote.  How could it show that we can e certain about what they wrote?  Here’s an analogy: if I can be shown to be better at math than anyone in Durham (I can’t) does that mean I have gotten every math problem I’ve ever done right?  Of course not.  It means I’m more likely to have gotten a particular math problem right than someone else who is not as good at math.  If we are more likely to know what one author wrote than what another author wrote, does that mean we are *certain* what he wrote?  We may be for other reasons, but not for this
  • A copy of Mark from the first century has no relevance to whether we have what the author originally wrote. It would prove that we can show what Mark looked like very close to the time it was put in circulation and started being copied.  The scribe who produced the copy may well have changed the text he copied in hundreds of places.  How would we know?  We can’t know.
  • A copy of Mark from the first century would only tell us what Mark looked like very close to the time it was put in circulation ONLY for the verses it contains. If it contains, say, five verses, it would show us what one copy in the first century contained for those verses.  But not for the hundreds of other verses of the Gospel of Mark or the thousands of verses in the other Gospels, or the many more thousands in the rest of the New Testament.  Would it prove that we now have the original New Testament?  Uh, how could it prove *that*???
  • HERE’S the most important point so far though. Even if we knew for certain what the author of Mark, and the authors of the other Gospels wrote, it would have no bearing on the accuracy of what they wrote.  It would have bearing only on the question of whether we can know what they wrote.  Why don’t people see THAT AIN’T THE SAME THING???  I suppose people will accept what they want to hear and pretend that if they can prove Y (which they can’t) they therefore have proven X (which is a different issue).
  • Let me stress and illustrate that point. Suppose the creationist Ken Ham and the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson both wrote books discussing when the universe came into existence.  Ham argues that it came into existence 10,000 years ago and Tyson argues that it came into existence 13.8 billion years ago.  Suppose both authors refer to the faulty views of the other.  And suppose we could prove beyond reasonable doubt that we have the exact words that each author wrote (e.g., by arguing that the books are both “extremely well attested” — that is, that we have so many copies we can establish their originals).  Would that prove that they are both correct in what they have to say?  How can they both be correct?  Obviously, knowing what someone says has no bearing on whether what she or he says is accurate or true.
  • So why do some evangelical scholars argue that because they believe they can show Y (we know what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote) that therefore they have proven X (the Gospels are accurate)? Because either they are very sloppy thinkers and don’t recognize a non-sequitur when it bites them on the nose, OR because, more cynically, they realize their listeners/readers won’t recognize a non-sequitur when it bites them on the nose.  Is it a ridiculous argument or an intentionally deceptive one?  It probably varies from one “scholar” to the next, and I don’t think there’s any way to know for sure.  For most of the scholars I personally know who use the argument, I think they simply don’t recognize a dumb argument when they see it.
  • MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL.  This sleight-of-hand argument conveniently avoids the really vital question. There are in fact massive reasons for thinking that the Gospels are not accurate with respect to the historical Jesus, and these reasons are completely, in every single way, UNRELATED to the question of whether we have the words of the original authors.  The biggest one of these reasons: these authors, writing their accounts of Jesus life forty to sixty-five years after his death, living in different countries and speaking a different language from Jesus, were writing accounts that had been changed and sometimes invented as they had circulated by word of mouth year after year after year, starting probably before these authors were even born.
  • Suppose we could say for certain we have every single word that Mark originally wrote about Jesus. That has no bearing on the fact that the stories he heard had been exaggerated, modified, expanded, even invented during the period of the oral tradition.  That can be shown.  It is the subject of one of my recent books, Jesus Before the Gospels.  In it I show that contrary to what people always seem to say, oral traditions in the ancient world were not always preserved accurately in anything like our sense, and were not meant to be.  They were constantly being changed.  And it can proved that the stories in the Gospels had been.
  • Anyone who wants to argue about that directly will be dealing with X while claiming to deal with X (i.e. no sleight of hand). That’s why, in terms of subject matter and significance, my book Jesus Before the Gospels (about the accuracy of the Gospel traditions), and my book Jesus Interrupted (about the contradictions and historical problems with the New Testament), are actually far more important for issues that most people care most deeply about than my book Misquoting Jesus (on whether we can know the original words of the New Testament authors).

What Did Judas Betray?
Judas Iscariot? What’s an Iscariot??



  1. Avatar
    Rosales102  May 31, 2020

    Dr Ehrman I have just one question I was on Barnes and Nobles website looking for one of your books and I saw that there is a book coming out in September with you and Craig Evans Is this correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2020

      Kind of! It’s a transcript of a debate we had some years ago. And it reads very much like an oral exchange rather than a carefully written book.

    • Avatar
      rafi  June 24, 2020

      Mr ehrman i want to ask which scholar that particularly agree with you about jesus never claim to be god? I just curious about their name

      • Bart
        Bart  June 26, 2020

        Tons of scholars. For starters, the first historical Jesus scholar, Hermann Reimarus, and, say, Albert Schweitzer.

  2. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  May 31, 2020

    I don’t see how you could make the point more clearly. I don’t understand how some evangelicals, the slippery and cynical ones, can claim to be “godly” when they are so obviously slippery and cynical. What does truth mean to them? Not very much, it seems. On the one hand, the bible they thump tells them that Satan is the father of lies. And then they lie. Or at least twist the truth into a pretzel. Within the confines of the belief system they espouse, they stand condemned. They better hope their belief system is false. Otherwise… otherwise one possibility is that they really don’t believe what they claim to believe but they are only in it for whatever power and money and perks they can get out of it. It’s a good racket. But a good con artist is never dumb enough to believe their own “schtick”. That’s for the suckers.

  3. Avatar
    mguess1  May 31, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, Regarding Enoch & Elijah “not dying” in the Hebrew Bible, is there any explanation as to why they were spared death or why they didn’t die? I am aware of Malachi 4.5 & then Jesus’ statement about Elijah & John the Baptist; an allusion to reincarnation in the early church but what about Enoch? I am also aware that Tertullian, Hippolytus etc. referred to the 2 witnesses in Revelation as being Elijah & Enoch because they didn’t die but could there be another reason? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2020

      It’s usually thought that it’s because they were exceptionally righteous and close to God.

  4. Lev
    Lev  May 31, 2020

    BE: “The biggest one of these reasons: these authors, writing their accounts of Jesus life forty to sixty-five years after his death, living in different countries and speaking a different language from Jesus, were writing accounts that had been changed and sometimes invented as they had circulated by word of mouth year after year after year, starting probably before these authors were even born.”

    How much difference would it make if we were to unearth a document that was within 10-20 years of Jesus’ day? Say, if an early copy of Q was discovered and it included a colophon that stated it was written while Simon Cantheras, son of Boethus was high priest (41-42AD) – would it make much difference?

    I ask because in those 11 to 12 years, you could still make the same argument that the stories of Jesus had been circulating by word of mouth for over a decade, things would have been changed and it would simply reflect the community’s belief in that year, not the events that occurred 11 to 12 years prior.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2020

      It’s hard to say. It would completely depend on what was in it and how it compared to the later sources. But yes indeed, stories change overnight. I hear stories about me circulating the next *day* and they aren’t even close to being right. You too maybe!

  5. Avatar
    nichael  May 31, 2020

    But the converse act of “sleight of hand” is equally common, right? That is, among folks attempting to disprove a position (let’s call it Z), the claim that any problem or flaw related to Z —however tangentially— can be used to prove that Z is wrong.

    As a slightly silly example, I have a friend who is neither a creationist nor stupid. Nonetheless his favorite argument *against* Darwinian Evolution is the fact that while it used to be claimed that all dinosaurs were “cold-blooded” we now know that this is not correct. Consequently this proves that all evolutionary theory Is incorrect.

    To pick an example slightly closer to home, it is certainly a common practice among the Mythicists to cite books like “Jesus Interrupted” or “Misquoting Jesus” to support their position. That is, since there are plainly contradictions in the various narratives in the New Testament, or corruptions in its textual history, this is put forward as evidence that the man Jesus of Nazareth did not exist.

    [NOTE: I hope it’s clear that I’m NOT suggesting that Dr Ehrman has ever made this argument. But among fundamentalist atheists writers this is a common line of reasoning.)

  6. Avatar
    doug  May 31, 2020

    Well said.

    The primary reason conservative Christians I have known believe the NT is all true (including myself when I was one) is: “I want to believe”.

  7. Avatar
    Jayredinger  May 31, 2020

    On a slightly different note, some Bibles have omitted verses like the following – Matthew 17:21, 18:11, 23:14;
    Mark 7:16, 9:44, 9:46;
    Luke 17:36, 23:17;
    John 5:4; Acts 8:37.
    What is the reason for omitting these verses, but at the same time not omitting the longer ending of Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2020

      Ah, I should post on that. Major reason: translators feel that the longer ending of Mark is so familiar to devoted readers of the Bible that they’d be massively upset not to find it there. I.e., it’s a decision driven not by scholarship but by other reasons.

    • Avatar
      clerrance2005  June 13, 2020

      Prof Ehrman, a follow up please
      I looked up these verses in my Study Bible (NIV) and to my utter dismay, they were all omitted. My question focuses on the earlier part of his question –

      1. What is the reason for the omission of the 10 listed verses,

      2. Are there more omitted verses?

      3. Can Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus be said to be the earliest and best reconstructed form of the Biblical text?

      Thank you.

      Jayredinger May 31, 2020
      On a slightly different note, some Bibles have omitted verses like the following – Matthew 17:21, 18:11, 23:14;
      Mark 7:16, 9:44, 9:46;
      Luke 17:36, 23:17;
      John 5:4; Acts 8:37.
      What is the reason for omitting these verses, but at the same time not omitting the longer ending of Mark?

      • Bart
        Bart  June 14, 2020

        1. They are lacking in the oldest and best manuscripts. 2. yes indeed — there are other places where some mss have a verse and others don’t.
        3. Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are our oldest full mss (Vaticanus is missing some books at the end) of the NT and generally represent the form of text that most scholars think is the oldest and best. But they are far from perfect.

  8. Avatar
    nichael  May 31, 2020

    To go off on a tangent:

    As a suggestion/topic-request it might be fun to discuss examples when discoveries of new, purely textual finds *did* result in a significant change in our understanding of the text of the New Testament or its history.

    As an example —assuming I’m remembering the history of Textual Criticism correctly— the discovery of p52, a fragment of the Gospel of John, and its subsequent dating as the earliest NT fragment put to rest the earlier discussion about whether the composition of the Gospel should be dated to the mid-2nd cent. (But, in any case, even if I’m wrong here, you get the point.)

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2020

      Thanks! I’ll have to think about that one. (As you may know, blog guest poster and manuscript expert Brent Nongbri has called into question the early second-century date of P52)

      • Avatar
        nichael  June 1, 2020

        Quite right. I was aware of the current debate about the early dating of P52 but didn’t bring it up (in an effort to keep my comment to under 200 words. 😉 )

        But just to be sure I was clear: This discovery —and its influence on scholarly opinions about tGoJ— was meant simply as an example. The main question had to do with the more general issue of instances of such discoveries.

        (Although it goes without saying, any additional discussion concern the specific dating of P52 would be quite welcome, as well….)

  9. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  May 31, 2020

    Great post Bart. Thanks for the X and Y logical fallacy.

  10. Avatar
    Apocryphile  May 31, 2020

    A bit of an aside, but the notion of what ideas are acceptable at certain times is still very much a real issue in academia. Even (or perhaps especially) in the “hard” science of physics. Max Tegmark – a theoretical physicist now at MIT – relates how, early in his career, he had to keep some of his more speculative ideas under wraps until he was able to get tenure. His conjecture is that there are several types or levels of multiverse, with the “highest” one being a platonic realm of pure mathematics, out of which everything else is instantiated. Pretty far out stuff for a non-tenured physics prof. Probably the ultimate example in the field is the story of Hugh Everett III, whose career stalled and fizzled out in the 1950s when he published a paper arguing that each world event branched off into all the myriad possibilities inherent in the quantum wave function (i.e. there was no “collapse” of the wave function). Since then, things have loosened up a bit in the physics community, but it still takes courage to swim against the prevailing professional paradigm.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2020

      Ah, great! Thanks.

    • Avatar
      Maccabeus  June 2, 2020

      Reminds me of the research of Lynn Margulis into endosymbiosis, the theory that organelles like mitochondria originated as bacteria that entered other cells.. Her seminal paper on the theory was rejected over a dozen times, and it took over a decade after publication for it to be widely accepted. Now it’s standard evolutionary biology and taught in every university.

  11. Avatar
    prairieian  May 31, 2020

    Your notion of “sense” is a useful one – historians have one ‘sense’ of what records illustrate; evangelicals another. The two are not fighting on the same battlefield as say two historians do who are debating some aspect of their patch; or, for that matter, two theologians chatting about heads of pins and angels thereon. Any rational inspection of the records to hand, given the discernible motivation of the writers some 19 centuries ago, will conclude that historical fact and the gospel accounts are only tangentially related. But when your basic assumption is that you are reading the word of God untrammeled by human error then you are indeed in another world. Pretty difficult to actually have a debate given these two world views. I am not sure why evangelicals even try save to shore up wavering faith. Steven Jay Gould described these two approaches as separate ‘magesteria’ in his book “Rock of Ages.” A good read.

  12. Avatar
    Poohbear  June 1, 2020

    On a post which was deleted rather than being easily (?) addressed, I wrote, ” No ‘scholar’ worth his salt is going to say that Jesus was the Son of God. Makes no difference if they excavated an entire Alexandria Library of documents saying as much. Thus a lot of biblical ‘scholarship’ comes with a materialist agenda.”

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      It’s not clear to me that you have a very clear sense of what it means to be a scholar.

  13. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  June 1, 2020

    Since, you are talking about the Gospel of Mark and forgery, I want to ask you this question. In your book, “Lost Scriptures”, you wrote a piece on “The Secret Gospel of Mark”. What stood out was the open ended questions to what this supposed lost passage could be. But what is your overall opinion, is it legit or a forgery?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      I *suspect* it is a modern forgery. But I don’t think we know for sure, and it’s not a slam-dunk case.

  14. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 1, 2020

    People use two very different methods to evaluate arguments. If it’s something they already agree with, they ask themselves “can I believe it?” If they can think of one reason to do so, they do. If it something they don’t agree with, they ask themselves “do I have to believe it?” And if they can think of one reason why they don’t have to believe it, they don’t. I think many of the scholars who use this argument are perfectly capable of recognizing a dumb argument *when it argues against their position, or when it comes to a position they’re neutral towards.* But when it comes to arguments that agree with their position, they are as blind as the rest of us.

    Evolution, sadly, did not make us disinterested pursuers of truth. That is why it is so important in any academic field to have a broad range of positions. And to not have people persecuted for pursuing unpopular venues.

  15. Avatar
    peterstone  June 1, 2020

    Well said, sir.

  16. Avatar
    WhenBeliefDies  June 1, 2020

    I would love to know if you have, or ever will be giving examples of the scholars who perform these slights of hand.

    Or engaging on these topics in a co-authorship, much like NT Wright & Marcus Borg did in ‘The Meaning of Jesus’. It would be really good to see you engage with these views in written form, allowing the other side to push back. I think it would make much of what you have to say stronger 🙂

    What are your thoughts on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      Interesting question. I think it does happen, yes, but I haven’t kept an inventory! (Some scholars, in fact, make the arguments I have been talking about here: we can trust the NT because….)

  17. Rick
    Rick  June 1, 2020

    Bene dictum!

  18. Avatar
    mancity  June 1, 2020

    Pardon my ignorance and new to this forum but not the books, I thought your objection was not having the earliest or original works and so we could not be sure of what was originally written. Now your point is even if we had very early manuscripts how can we trust the accuracy. That seems to be trying to eat your cake and have it.
    What would you need?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      My point is that these are two completely separate questions. Have you ever eaten an aardvark? No. If you did eat an aardvark would you find the taste of aarvark pleasurable? No, having eaten it would not guarantee that we would enjoy it. That would have to be determined on other grounds. Do we know exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote? No. If we did know what they wrote would that make what they wrote accurate or true? No. That would have to be determined on other grounds.

  19. Avatar
    Thespologian  June 1, 2020

    Lawyering one’s position doesn’t mean one needs to believe it or is blind to logic. Certainly any tactic will be employed when there is no argument left to make. Consider the non-sequitur a submission on their part. This post also leaves one to imagine a gospel written during Jesus’ lifetime being completely devoid of any connection to his divinty. If only someone kept a journal. I often think if Jesus could visit us today, he might say in reference to the bible, “What! I never said that!”

  20. Avatar
    vox_clamantis  June 1, 2020

    I can’t help wonder whether there might be a more complex relationship between X and Y in the mind of one making the argument that one proves the other (or seems to). For example, doesn’t the Chicago statement on inerrancy explicitly tie inspiration to the autographs? One might argue that any step closer to the original brings us that much nearer to the authoritative text about which every other affirmation would apply.

    Bart, is it fair to say that many textual critics chose their field of expertise out of a passion to find out just what did God really say? I’ve no axe to grind here, just wondering what you’ve observed working with so many in the discipline. It’s definitely something I considered ever since a street preacher pointed out my shiny new NIV had relegated Acts 8:37 to a footnote.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      Yes, that’s right. You can’t claim the manuscripts are inerrant since they differ; so you have to say the “originals” were. But having the originals doesn’t make them inerrant. And yes, that’s exactly why most scholars become textual critics. It’s certainly why *I* did!! I think I should post on that!

      • Avatar
        gshopov  June 5, 2020

        X, Y fallacy – that is exactly how Craig Evans argue with Bart. “Bart has one of his shoes untied, so he is wrong in his concussions. ….. The gospels are biography and they should be judged fairly as such, and not with todays standards.” – How dies this make them inerrant? Do we think that the biographies from that time are inerrant? Does any one, knowing that the testimonies of the eye wittiness contradict, still consider all of them inerrant, only because they were eye witnesses?
        These are not questions for Craig Evans, because I don’t tie my shoes very well.

You must be logged in to post a comment.