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Introduction to the Manuscripts of the New Testament

This now will be the next portion of my longer blog post that will serve as an Introduction to the New Testament.  The previous section was on how the 27 books came to be collected into “the” New Tesatment; this one is on how the books were copied/transmitted over the centuries.

As with the other sections, I’ve made this one pretty short, because I’m trying to be as concise as I can, with links to other blog posts throughout.  I don’t want the entire article to be massively long.  One could obviously write a book or two on this topic (and many have!); but for a brief introduction, I want to hit only the really key points.


The Text of the New Testament

How, though, were the books copied?  In the ancient world the only way to get a copy of a book was by copying it by hand or by having someone else do so:  one page, one sentence, one word at a time.  The earliest Christian copyists would not have been trained professionals – these came in only later.  At first, anyone who could read and write might be asked to produce a copy of, say, one of the Gospels or one of Paul’s letters.   Most people at the time were illiterate, and so literate Christians were a precious commodity for a church community.  There would have been no guarantees, of course, of their individual copying skills (it is a real skill); and we need always to remember that these earliest scribes did not think they were copying The Inspired Word of God.  They were just copying a letter one of their leaders wrote, or an account of what Jesus had said and done.

We do not have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament – or in fact of any literary work from the ancient world.  We instead have copies.   In the case of the New Testament, we have …

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Do Textual Variants Actually *Matter* For Much??
How Did We Get The 27 Books of the New Testament?



  1. Avatar
    ShonaG  November 19, 2019

    Is their evidence that some writings of Paul weren’t universals but applied to certain cultures alone?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      His letters are all addressed to specific congretations/individuals, not to general issues.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  November 19, 2019

    I think fundamentalists make a major mistake when they assert that not only were the original authors of the New Testament inspired by God but also all the copyists, so that we have an accurate record that can be traced back to the disciples of Jesus. IF (big if) the authors and copyists were inspired, why the inconsistencies and outright (OK, “apparent” per the fundies) contradictions? If you accept that humans recorded the life of Jesus and made later copies then these problems almost evaporate. Who cares if the authors were a little bit off if the basic message is intact? For me, though, the basic message is still a problem: God wants blood because we are, well, human, as He made us, and often act so.

  3. Barfo
    Barfo  November 19, 2019

    In my NASB Study Bible it notes that the woman caught in adultery story of John 8 “may not have belonged originally to the Gospel of John. It is absent from almost all early manuscripts, and those that have it sometimes place it elsewhere…..But the story may well be authentic.” I’m sure I have read this years ago but never gave it any thought but I should have asked, why didn’t it appear in earlier manuscripts? November 19 @1100 hours.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      I think the idea that it may have really happened is just to assure people. If it did hapen, we would expect early evidence of it. it didn’t appear in the mss because it is a later tradition that scribes added to teh manuscripts.

  4. Avatar
    veritas  November 19, 2019

    Prof .Ehrman I need some clarity.in your opening remark you claimed ,”we have no original copies of the N.T. books”.Later on,you say,”scholars have devised methods for determining what the original reading was whenever there are differences……..These methods can show us what the oldest are but cannot be certain its the original.So are you saying,these methods are not a precise indicator to convince you and other scholars otherwise as being originals?Furthermore,then how would historians conclude they have an original copy in their hands if the current method in your view is not certain?Could anything ever be authenticated as original from ancient history?Very odd.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      There are methods that can show us which variant readings appear to be changes of the text by scribes, and these allow us to see how the text was worded before the scribes changed it. Some scholars think this “earliest form of the text” is probalby the “original.” Others say that there is no way to know for sure. I’m in the latter group.

  5. Avatar
    MisterTheDog  November 19, 2019

    Hi, Bart-
    You mention the methods that scholars have to determine which was the oldest reading of a particular verse. What would some of those methods be?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      I was planning on posting on that. I will! (It will take several posts)

  6. Avatar
    arallyr137  November 19, 2019

    I was struck by the assertion that “these earliest scribes did not think they were copying The Inspired Word of God.” That does make sense. Is this earliest copyist’s view attributable to the apocalyptic idea that it would all be over soon, or was it more a feeling that the material they copied was not that important – it was just some instruction from Paul about mundane matters?

    OT Jewish scripture gives detailed instructions on the process of copying scripture, checking for errors, and how to deal with any errors found. I’m sorry I cannot give you chapter and verse right now. Are there indications that any later scribes, 2nd or 3rd century maybe, felt the same requirement to make exact error free copies, without adding or removing anything?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      It’s mainly because they just hadn’t developed yet the idea that Christain writings would be Scripture. But yes, that would be a later idea, once the end didn’t come.

      The Jewish rules for copying are not in the Bible; they come from much later times (early middle ages probably)

  7. Avatar
    Stewiegriffin  November 19, 2019

    What are the reasons for dating Marks gospel to around 70 and why is it thought to be the original?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      It’s a long question; I’ll have to post on! It’s on the list. (By “original” I think you must mean: the first of our surviving Gospels to be written)

  8. Avatar
    forthfading  November 19, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You said that most schloars think we have a good approximation of what Mark and other authors actually wrote. Are you one of these scholars? Even though it’s impossible to know the exact wording, do you feel that if the autographs did magically appear our NT we read today would basically be the same?

    Thanks, Jay

  9. Avatar
    qditt  November 19, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Please excuse this off topic question, but I cannot find it through your blog (I’m sure it’s there somewhere) and opinions vary throughout the internet. In your opinion, when did the Jews start using synagogues to worship? After the destruction of the second temple? Hundreds of years before during times of sacrifice? I’m curious because they are mentioned in the NT, but I’m not sure if that was because it was written later in the first century. Could Jesus have preached in them?

    Thanks for the blog as always, and your assistance with helping those in need.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      Definitely before then. The archaeology on it is sparse; but they recently found a first-century synagogue in Magdala. Not sure of the precise date. But I think they must have been around, given the literary references.

    • Avatar
      qditt  November 22, 2019

      Thank you!

  10. Avatar
    XanderKastan  November 20, 2019

    I recommend you take your favorite joke about spell check out of this article. Don’t the inconsistent spellings actually reflect a lack of dictionaries or standardization of spelling? i.e. Consistent spelling wasn’t even a concern for these writers, right? Similarly, if word order didn’t change the meaning much or at all, they might not care so much about that either.

    • Avatar
      XanderKastan  November 20, 2019

      Just to be clear, my suggestion is to keep the first part of the sentence:

      “On the other hand, the vast majority of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant, ”

      And changing the end of that sentence to something like:
      (Only if it is accurate, of course.)

      “merely illustrating that there were no dictionaries or standardization of spelling and that Greek grammar allows many different word orders of the same sentence without materially altering the meaning.”

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      That’s my point. It’s a concern for us, and we have ways of detecting it. Those are the differences.

      • Avatar
        XanderKastan  November 21, 2019

        Yes and, considering the intended audience, I think that point gets obscured by your mentioning modern students and spell check.

  11. Avatar
    Brand3000  November 21, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Great post addressing a key topic. My favorite parts of the NT are Galatians and 1 Corinthians 15, is there any reason to doubt that what we have per these writings was what was originally written?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      No particular reasons to doubt it, in most passages.

  12. Avatar
    mannix  November 21, 2019

    Semi-relevant question:

    Luke reports the incident of the “good thief/bad thief” dialogue at the crucifixion. However, Mark and Matthew indicate that BOTH thieves mocked Jesus. John describes the thieves, but neither said anything.. Do you think Luke used the L source or simply “created” his version to give the message that forgiveness is possible even to the end? Do you cover this in any of your books?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      I think he created it out of Mark. I talk about it as a contradiction in some of my writing, but I don’t discuss the question of where it came from. But the ideas it conveys fit perfectly with Luke’s own theology (forgiveness; life immediately after death), and so makes sense as his own doing.

  13. Avatar
    mgagnon  November 21, 2019

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    I’d be curious to know your thoughts on the following:

    1) “One other problem, though, is that there is no way to know for certain whether this oldest reading was the “original” one.” Am I correct in saying that such an “original” may be known to us today; however, there is currently no agreed upon way to confirm with certainty that it is original?
    2) Am I correct in saying that for the oldest of the gospels there was an original manuscript, which itself may have been influenced by oral traditions and other manuscripts? If so, should we not consider these older manuscript influences as the original or should we consider the original as being the manuscript where the majority of the new content first appeared?
    3) Does current research consider how this first original copied over time? For example, with a first manuscript appearing in 70 C.E. would it have been copied a dozen or so times to share with the various christian communities at that time? And then, would further copies have been made from this first generation of copies or could the first original have been used for a number of years following? I realize there is no real way of knowing, but I’m curious about current scholarly thinking surrounding the transformation of early manuscripts to the versions we have today.
    4) Are you aware of any computational research using AI and machine learning to perhaps identify writing patterns (either the actual writing strokes or simply the grammar) that would otherwise be hidden or less apparent and that could link different manuscripts to each other (i.e. same author or same copyist)? I assume that we all have our own ‘signature’ so to speak, and seeing how AI and machine learning has evolved over the past few years it would seem that this would be an interesting application for it.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2019

      1. Yes, it’s possible 2. It’s debated: you could argue either way. But usually the first written version is considered the original. 3. We just don’t know. 4. Not offhand, but I wouldn’t be surprised to know they exist.

  14. Avatar
    mikezamjara  November 22, 2019

    I’ve heard that although 2 corinthians was written by Paul, the passage in 2 cor 6:14

    “Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness
    and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? ”

    is an insertion of other authors. Do you agree with that position and why?,

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2019

      Yes, that and v. 15, which mentions Beliar, apparently as a name for Satan. The vocabulary differs from Paul’s (e.g. Beliar); the verses seem obtrusive in their context; and the imagery is generally thought to be non-Pauline. So I have no problem with seeing it as an interpolation.

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 22, 2019

    A great, concise summary written clearly and writing clearly is your GIFT. Those new to the blog will want to read Dr. Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” on this subject.

  16. Avatar
    jeffmd90  November 25, 2019

    Bart, I recognise that reading the Gospels in order of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, it is apparent that divinity of Jesus becomes more pronounced. Reading through the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is presented as a teacher of Torah, but one who perfectly understands the scriptures and teachings of the Jewish religion But I’d like to point out Matthew 11:25-27

    “At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

    That sounds like the sort of thing you would hear in the Gospel of John, it is possible members of the Johannine community inserted lines like this to remind readers that Jesus was more than a just a righteous man and a wise teacher, that he was divine.

  17. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  February 6, 2020

    ,,,finding the oldest greek manuscripts ,,,or which some call “originals”,would have been facinating in itself,,,,,but like you have emphazse, the stories comes from somewhere. I am convinced that an understanding of the origin has to be filtered through the culture, the ideology of what group of law abiding jewish group, sect it came from, like Pharisees Saddusees Essenes, or other groups or groups related to those. As you have said many times, Jesus was most probably a Law abiding jew teacher, who probably practiced a form of Judism, used and were familiar the same scripture/books, who was called a rabbi, and seemed educated enough to handle both the law and the scripture. I’m perhaps even more facinated by the idea what the earliest scibes wrote when they wrote the stories who ended up in the Greek manuscripts, and who they were. I’m convinced that there were so many jewish brances with different emphazises, and understanding of their sacred books. It the storys originally came from jews, probably some who were aquanted with recording such stories (scribes), it had to be filtered through their jewish filters. I am not that convinced that this cultural, religious languages was so well known for Europeans back then (Romans, Greeks). And if the stories came from jews originally,,,,just understanding the deeper meaning ,,,the language the parables, the symbols and so on could perhaps end up in some terrible misunderstandings. If you look at the language, the symbols jews used,,,and even acocryptical tendensies found among Essenes,,,,or those who used Kabbalah or this kind of thinking ,,,they would be telling storys using “Language of the brances” where stories is told with less historical empazies but more spiritual. If a Greek or Roman scribe should try to interpret and translate this, it would in my mind end up in a mount of misunderstandings.

    I have no problems understanding the deep gap betwween the “gentiles” and the Jews.

    Kjell TIdslevold

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