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Illustration of a Textual Change: Did Mark Make a Mistake?

I have started discussing “intentional” changes of the text of the New Testament – that is alterations found in manuscripts of the New Testament that appear to have been made by scribes who *wanted* to change the text, presumably in order to make it say (more closely) what they wanted it to say.   Let me illustrate my discussion by dealing with three of the most interesting textual variants in the Gospel of Mark, one of which is an easy problem to solve, one that is a bit more difficult, and one that has generated a lot of discussion over the years and no firm consensus.  This will take a couple of posts.

In a still later post I will talk about the criteria and arguments that scholars typically use in order to resolve these questions.  I will be alluding to those criteria and arguments here in my explanations of why one form of the text appears to be what the author originally wrote, and the other form of the text appears to be the scribal change.  (It will help me to explain the criteria if first you see them in action.)  (Note, in each of these three instances I will be discussing only two forms of the text ,one of which is presumably the “original”; in other textual units there are three or more forms of the text, which makes things even *more* interesting!)

The one textual problem that is fairly easily resolved occurs almost right off the bat.   Mark begins by indicating that his book will be “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and then he launches into a Scriptural quotation (leading up to his introduction of John the Baptist):

“Just as was written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord”…  And so on.

There several textual variants in this short passage.  Here I’ll point to just one.   In a lot of manuscripts, instead of saying that the Scripture quotation (“Behold I am sending,” etc.) comes from the writing of the prophet Isaiah, the quotation is said to be found “in the prophets.”   So which is it?  Did Mark say the quotation is from Isaiah or from the prophets?  He almost certainly said one or the other, but scribes changed it.   Which way did they change it, and why?

There are two reasons for being relatively certain about which text is the original and which is the altered.   The first may have occurred to you, if you have your entire Bibles memorized, as I’m sure so many of you do.   The lines “Behold I am sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way” are not found …

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[privateThe lines “Behold I am sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way” are not found in the writings of Isaiah.   These words appear to be a kind of loose quotation of Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1 (the *second* part of the quotation, starting with “A voice crying in the wilderness” *does* come from Isaiah 40:3).

Now your first instinct might be to say that this would suggest that originally Mark wrote that the words came from “the prophets,” rather than from “Isaiah,” since in fact the words *don’t* come from Isaiah but from several books of the OT quoted together, so “in the prophets” would be correct and, technically speaking “in Isaiah” would be incorrect.

But your instinct is not shared by textual critics.  In fact, it is precisely because “in the prophet Isaiah” is (technically) wrong, or could be seen as wrong, that critics are sure that it is what Mark originally wrote.

And why is that?   It is because you have to ask yourself the question:  which form of the text is the one that scribes might have found to be problematic and decided, therefore, to change?  Is it one that makes perfectly good sense and is correct?  Or is it one that doesn’t make good sense and seems to be incorrect?  Suppose you were a scribe.  Which of the two would you be more likely to want to change.   Obviously the one that seems incorrect.

So text critics think that is the one that Mark originally wrote and the “improved” text is what scribes created.  And their opinion is supported by one other compelling piece of evidence.  It is *that* reading – the one that is harder to explain away and seems to be incorrect – that is found in all of our earliest and best manuscripts.   It was only later, after the original reading had been in circulation, that a scribe (one whose change became widely accepted)  altered it, so that instead of saying that a quotation  that combines words from Exodus, Malachi, and Isaiah is taken from “Isaiah the prophet” it now says, unproblematically, that it is a quotation that comes from “the prophets.”

You will find this changed text (the one that is almost certainly not original) in the King James Version.  You will find the other one in most of the modern translations.

Now you will have noticed that I have said that this original form of the text is “technically” speaking a mistake.   Some interpreters would argue that it’s not really a mistake.   In their view the author, Mark, is simply indicating the most prominent of the three books as the source for a quotation that he has taken from parts of all of them.   The textual critic – when she or he is working strictly as a textual critic – is not concerned about that question of whether the text is *really* a mistake or not.

The textual critic in a matter such as this is interested in two things and two things only:

  1. What is the oldest form of the text that we can establish? In this case, it is almost certainly “in Isaiah the prophet.”
  2. Why, when, and how was the text changed? In this case: it was changed because the original text could be perceived as a problem/mistake/error; it was changed by at least the year 400 or so, since that is the approximate date of the manuscripts that start having it; and it was changed by altering the words to say “in the prophets.”

Once the textual critic has established what the text actually *said* then interpreters can approach the text and explain what it *means* (in this case, explain why it is or is not an actual mistake).   But they can’t do that until they know what words to interpret.  That’s why textual criticism is such a foundational discipline within the field of New Testament studies.  You can’t really do much of anything else without it.[/private

An Intentional Change in Mark 15:34
Intentional Changes of the Text



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 31, 2015

    Why would God inspire the writing of a Bible that requires so much scholarly work even to get to the “original” text much less interpret that text?????

    This series is very interesting and seems much like an upper level college course. Keep going!

  2. Avatar
    toejam  July 31, 2015

    1) Wouldn’t a third option be that the copy of Isaiah that “Mark” was quoting actually had the “behold, I am sending my messenger ” verses in question? While I agree with the reasoning here – of the three options, the most probable seems to be that Mark originally said “Isaiah” mistakenly – I don’t think we can say this with certainty.

    2) Also, I’m currently just finishing Daniel Boyarin’s book “The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ”. The major differences between your views is that Boyarin argues that the idea of a Suffering Messiah could well have been present prior to Jesus via midrashic interpretations of Daniel and Isaiah. I’m curious if you’re familiar with Boyarin’s work and what your thoughts are?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2015
        1. It’s technically possible, but one would expect there to be some evidence.
        2. Yes, he’s a brilliant scholar and we’ve known each other for years. My view is that we would expect some explicit evidence for that position.
  3. Avatar
    Cristian  July 31, 2015

    Would Mark have made this mistake because he was quoting the OT off the top of his head? How did they quote the OT at that time?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2015

      Possibly. We don’t really know why. Maybe he didn’t htink the exact reference mattered much.

  4. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 31, 2015

    They were already hard at work “justifying” Jesus as the Messiah, but were not exactly being careful about it, because they probably did not have to worry about most people reading it and picking up on the error. Later, it was an error that was too prominent, so it had to be “corrected.” It was a matter of getting the ducks in order. Let us see more of these significant changes. I have seen many of your debates but don’t recall this one being pointed out. I may have missed it. It seems to me that proving the Christology of Christ is a complicated matter, but one that made more simple by these posts. Thanks so much!

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 31, 2015

    “Now your first instinct might be to say that this would suggest that originally Mark wrote that the words came from “the prophets,” rather than from “Isaiah,” since in fact the words *don’t* come from Isaiah but from several books of the OT quoted together, so “in the prophets” would be correct and, technically speaking “in Isaiah” would be incorrect.

    “But your instinct is not shared by textual critics. In fact, it is precisely because “in the prophet Isaiah” is (technically) wrong, or could be seen as wrong, that critics are sure that it is what Mark originally wrote.”

    My instinct would have been that Mark made a mistake (presumably obvious, to the scribe) in attributing everything he was quoting to Isaiah, and the scribe corrected it to read “the prophets.” I’m surprised that you don’t think everyone would see it that way.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2015

      No need for surprise. Not everyone *does* see it that way! Some people think that Mark originally said “the prophets”!

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 1, 2015

    Say, I just had this thought…

    Suppose the earliest scribes copying the New Testament were – as others have suggested – not thinking of the texts they were copying as “sacred Scripture,” so they weren’t fussy about reproducing them exactly.

    But suppose that a century(?) later, scribes were making Latin copies of earlier Latin copies (and Syriacs copying earlier Syriac copies, etc.). *These* scribes *did* believe they were copying sacred Scripture, and what God had “dictated” to the Greek authors had been error-free. When they saw glaring errors and contradictions, they thought they were all the result of *mistranslation* from the original Greek!

    They themselves had no access to Greek manuscripts, might not even have known Greek. So they made some “common sense” corrections, but otherwise let the errors and inconsistencies stand – assuming later generations would understand the problem as they did.

    Does that make sense? It would explain why there are so many errors and inconsistencies, when scribes *must* have seen them. (Of course, it wouldn’t account for obvious later *insertions*, like the story of the woman taken in adultery.)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2015

      Yes, to an extent. You’d still have to explain why all those Latin and Syriac scribes also made tons of mistakes.

  7. Avatar
    Steefen  August 1, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, why didn’t you grace your post referencing dated papyri or manuscripts of Mark to illustrate the dating where Isaiah is present vs where the prophets are present?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2015

      I did indicate that the first manuscript to have “the prophets” was from the fifth century. Both of our two earlier manuscripts from the fourth century have “Isaiah”, as does one second century church father (the only one to quote it).

      • Avatar
        Steefen  August 4, 2015

        What I’m saying is the name of the manuscripts you’re referring to.

        Do you want us to have a benchmark of the earliest complete manuscript of Mark? Should the Codex Sinaiticus of the 4th century or the Codex Vaticanus of the 4th century.

        So when you reply about two manuscripts from the 4th century, you’re talking about Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus?

        I don’t know which 5th century manuscript you’re talking about. There also was the possibility that there was a fragment prior to the 4th century that could have been brought into the discussion.

        # # #
        1. The Greek text of the Gospel of Mark is certainly the worst attested of all the canonical gospels. It is extant in only three papyrus manuscripts, none of which are by any means complete, and of which only one ( 45) is definitely earlier than the fourth century uncials; while one other is perhaps contemporary with them ( 88). Thus our knowledge of the text of Mark is more dependent on the early uncial texts than is the case with the other gospels, where early papyri and more substantial comments in church fathers supplement the early uncial texts.

        2. The Greek text of Mark in Sinaiticus is therefore one of the two earliest complete representations of the Greek text of Mark (the other being Codex Vaticanus).

        From The Gospel of Mark in Codex Sinaiticus: Textual and
        Reception-Historical Considerations
        Peter M. Head
        Cambridge University

        # # #

        uncial: of or written in a majuscule script with rounded unjoined letters that is found in European manuscripts of the 4th–8th centuries and from which modern capital letters are derived.

        # # #

        Codex Sinaiticus – 4th century hand written Greek Bible
        Codex Vaticanus – 4th century hand written Greek Bible

        • Bart
          Bart  August 4, 2015

          Yes, I’m talking about Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. The first to have the passage is Alexandrinus.

          • Avatar
            Steefen  August 5, 2015

            Codex Alexandrinus – 5th century hand written Greek Bible
            And to round out the four great uncials (something all members probably could have learned here:
            Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus – 5th century

            Unfortunately, Codex Ephraemi has given me a new appreciation of what Dr. Bart Ehrman does.
            Take a good look at its Wikipedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Ephraemi_Rescriptus#History .

            This is the sentence that gave me an aha moment: “The text has been corrected by three correctors.”

            Dr. Ehrman, in what book have you elaborated on that? Have you done a blog post here on Codex Ephraemi?

            In Acts 20:28 it reads του κυριου (of the Lord) along with the manuscripts \mathfrak{P}74 D E Ψ 33 36 453 945 1739 1891, but the corrector added και του Θεου (and God) as have P 049 326 1241 2492 and the Byzantine manuscripts.[23][n 2]

            In 1 Corinthians 12:9 the original scribe omits phrase εν τω αυτω πνευματι (in His spirit), but it was added by the third corrector (C3).[24]
            Scrivener’s facsimile with text of 1 Tim 3:15–16

            In 1 Timothy 3:16 it reads ὅς ἐφανερώθη (He was manifested), but the second corrector (C2) changed it into θεός ἐφανερώθη (God was manifested);

            And finally, a What? moment:
            In Matthew 27:49 Codex C contains added text: ἄλλος δὲ λαβὼν λόγχην ἒνυξεν αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευράν, καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ὖδορ καὶ αἳμα (the other took a spear and pierced His side, and immediately came out water and blood). This reading was derived from John 19:34 and occurs in other manuscripts of the Alexandrian text-type (א, B, L, Γ, 1010, 1293, pc, vgmss).[17][18][19]

            Dr. Ehrman, what does this mean? Does it mean “the other took a spear and pierced His side, and immediately came out water and blood,” added, means this is “a later addition” not original, similar to Jesus saves the lady caught in adultery, later addition?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 5, 2015

            I haven’t written on Ephraemi Rescriptus. But most of these textual variants I cover in Orthodox Corruption at some length.

  8. Avatar
    DonakdDHeacock  August 1, 2015

    Bart I am writing to you most recent post. I know it is not on target but help. I would like to know the climate in Israel in N. T. can you refer me anywhere? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2015

      I’m not sure! You might ask an archaeologist, such as my colleague at UNC, Jodi Magness.

  9. Avatar
    dragonfly  August 2, 2015

    Are we pretty confident that whatever mark had access to was (almost) identical to what we know as the books of the hebrew bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2015

      Not necessarily. It almost certainly differed in places — maybe lots of places, since he was quoting it in the Greek version availalbe to him (which may not even be the Greek version available to us!).

  10. Avatar
    Michael Sommers  August 2, 2015

    Strictly speaking, even “the prophets” is incorrect, since Exodus is not part of the prophets (and the passage from Exodus seems closer to what Mark says than does the passage from Malachi (due to who the path is being prepared for)).

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  August 5, 2015

    Steefen: Unfortunately, Codex Ephraemi has given me a new appreciation of what Dr. Bart Ehrman does.

    What does that mean? Unfortunately it has taken so many years to fortunately see the point of Dr. Ehrman’s type of work crystallized with the knowledge that Codex Erphraemi had three correctors. While Dr. Ehrman spoke of orthodox corruptions and scribal errors, if I only knew there was a Codex Ephraemi where three correctors are evidenced the welcome to this field would have been more overt.

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