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Is the New Testament Authentic? Readers’ Mailbag December 4, 2016


Dr Ehrman, I found this attack against you:

Bart likes to deceive his listener by claiming more variations and more copies give birth to less authenticity. Actually flip that and you’ll begin to “see the light”.  The Bible manuscripts were transmitted not in a linear way, as in “Chinese whispers” but geometrically as in 1 produced by 5 others which in turn then produced, say 20, etc.

I think you already dealt with this claim, but I am unable to find your post.



I have to admit that I have a hard time responding to this objection because I don’t know what the person is talking about.  Maybe someone else can enlighten me.   For openers, I’m not sure what he means that I “like” to deceive my listeners – I think that must mean I do this a lot.  And the “deception” appears to be that I think lots of variations in the manuscripts of the New Testament make something “less authentic.”  But what does the person mean?   Exactly what is less authentic?  The words of the Bible?  The words of Jesus?  The message of the Bible?  Christian beliefs?  Something else?   And what does it mean to be less authentic?  Less than what?   And – my biggest problem – what does “authentic” even mean?

I’m not simply asking a set of rhetorical questions: I genuinely don’t know what this person is talking about.

I suppose the reason I have these problems is …

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Finding Meaning in the Bible: More Responses to my Christmas Article
Response to my Newsweek Article on Christmas



  1. Avatar
    peterstone  December 5, 2016

    Thank you for this. Do you think the “Chinese Whispers” analogy is more apt when applied to the process whereby the Gospels were originally written down? As I understand it, the stories in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (not to mention the Gospels that didn’t make it into the NT) were passed along orally for decades before anyone got around to writing them down. (And somewhere along the line they made the transition from Aramaic to Greek.) Would the analogy apply there?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 5, 2016

      Yes, I deal with that issue in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

      • Avatar
        John Uzoigwe  February 15, 2017

        Dr Bart has there been any extensive research on how the greek culture and indigenous beliefs might have affected the interpretation of Jesus sayings in the Gospel

        • Bart
          Bart  February 16, 2017

          Yes, and even more on how such beliefs affected stories about Jesus’ actions and experiences (Virgin birth, miracles, ascension, etc.)

  2. Avatar
    jmmarine1  December 5, 2016

    I once sat through a discussion with someone who tried to tell me what Bart Ehrman was ‘really doing’ with his books and blog. I assured my friend that, though Christian people believed themselves strapped on to the electric chair (due to abortion and gay rights; not sure why they take these measures personally), Prof. Ehrman was not Percy Wetmore whispering into their ear that there is no mouse city; the carefully developed myth on the ultimate destiny of Mr. Jingles. Boss Edgecomb and Boss Howell were simply trying to ease Del’s mind in his last days and there is Percy making sure that he does not even have that slim hope. By contrast, I see the Christian Church going the way of the other great Sunday institution, the NFL; both are collapsing under the weight of scientific investigation as well as from the wounded who were forced out of each. It is not Dr. Omalu’s fault if his x-ray evidence shows that something deep and mostly undetected is going on, he is simply pointing out the evidence, he is not creating it. If NFL doctors want to deny the veracity of the x-ray evidence, it is done so due to ideology (and cash) and not science.

  3. Avatar
    Tempo1936  December 5, 2016

    What a ridiculous claim. After listening to several debates on YouTube , which I recommend highly, your communication skills are witty and educational.
    I do have a question. Your argument is that After the resurrection disciples came to believe Jesus was divine. Overtime The Start of Jesus’ divinity was pushed back to the baptism and then to his birth in Matthew and Luke. By 325 The Council of Nicaea Concluded Jesus was always God and created everything.
    However the earliest fragment of John dated to the early first century may also argue Jesus was an all powerful co equal since that’s in John 1
    So Didn’t some Christians believe that Jesus was co-equal to God very early, maybe after the resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 5, 2016

      We don’t have any fragments of John that early. The earliest is P52 which *may* be from the early second century, but it does not contain any sayings of Jesus claiming to be equal with God (it’s only a few verses from the trial before Pilate)

  4. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  December 5, 2016

    I’ve probably used up my quota of comments/questions for this post, but somewhere I’ve gotten the idea that the real point – or an equally important point – of the Good Samaritan parable is not so much the importance of helping those in need but of recognizing that those who come to the aid of others are one’s neighbors even if they belong to a different tribe. The parable starts off with the question “who is my neighbor?”. After Jesus tells how a Samaritan helps a person in need after his fellow Jews pass him by, Jesus asks “who was neighbor” to the man in need? I’ve traditionally thought the point was that a neighbor is anyone who is in need. But Jesus says it was the one who gave the aid, the Samaritan, who was the neighbor. Maybe the point – or an equally important point – is to help Jews overcome their prejudice against Samaritans by showing that the latter can help the former. Or maybe all those who help those in need will be neighbors in the kingdom of God.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 5, 2016

      I think the parable makes *both* points.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  December 8, 2016

      To understand the parable of the good Samaritan requires a little bit of knowledge. Samaritans were descendants of the Jews left behind at the Babylonian captivity. They considered only Torah to be sacred, since the rest of Tanakh had not yet been written. The students of Shammai refused to even associate with Samaritans, considering them inferior. The students of Hillel chose instead to reach out to Samaritans (and even to sinners), hoping to persuade them to choose the practices of the Jews returning from Diaspora.

      In its earliest usage, neighbor always referred only to a fellow Israelite. Jesus (as a student largely of Hillel) wanted to extend neighbor to include the Samaritans. After all, the Samaritans were still Jews, just with some different practices. Not until Paul did anyone suggest extending neighbor to include Gentiles. Paul was a builder of empire. He worked to extend the scope of social cohesion across the whole Roman Empire.

  5. Avatar
    jhague  December 5, 2016

    Does the sheep and goat story also relate to Jews (sheep) vs. Gentiles (goats)?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 5, 2016

      I don’t think so: it’ is “all the nations of earth,” and they aren’t divided by ethnicity.

      • Avatar
        jhague  December 5, 2016

        If these words go back to Jesus, wasn’t his message just for Jews, not all the nations of the earth?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 7, 2016

          My sense is that Jesus taught only Jews. But he may well have taught Jews about non-Jews.

  6. Avatar
    wostraub  December 5, 2016

    Regarding the “attack” inquiry:

    You rarely if ever stray into political territory, Dr. Ehrman, but I fervently believe that we now live in a post-fact, post-truth world in which facts and scientific theories based on empirical evidence are seen as merely elitist opinions. Sure, your Excel spreadsheet might consistently say that 1+1=2, but there are those who believe that God can change that when he wants. Otherwise, how do you explain Jesus feeding the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes?

    While I enjoy your books because they make me think hard about problematic issues in the Bible, many believers view your work as attacks on their faith. As for your suggestion that they actually read and think about the issues you’ve written on, they may simply see that as an invitation to dance with the devil, even if what you say is true.

    You may never win over many people of faith, but I urge you to keep up the good fight!

  7. Avatar
    probablynot  December 5, 2016

    I’m a little surprised with your conclusion that the sheep/goats passage is wonderful and encapsulates the great teachings about love. I guess it depends on what a person sees as the main takeaway from the story. If the main takeaway is “be nice to everyone, especially the less fortunate than you,” then I can agree. But personally I can’t see how the main takeaway isn’t “or else me or my dad will kill you horribly forever,” and that is, in my view, the single most awful concept found in the New Testament.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 5, 2016

      Yeah, I’m not big on the fiery torment for ever side either….

    • Avatar
      dankoh  December 6, 2016

      I think it depends on whether you choose the read the passage positively, as in, this is what is good, or negatively, as in, this is what will happen to you if you don’t do as I say. Is it an exhortation or a threat?

      That’s a personal take. Historically, I don’t think the idea of eternal punishment was quite fixed at that time; there are hints of it, but it doesn’t seem to be settled doctrine just yet.

      • Avatar
        probablynot  December 7, 2016

        If it’s meant as an exhortation, though, why not just say those who do good will get a reward and those who don’t won’t get the reward? That, to me, is the way to make it clearly not a threat.

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  December 8, 2016

          It’s more consolation than exhortation. People really liked the idea that the people who have been abusing them will finally get the punishment they so richly deserve.

  8. TWood
    TWood  December 5, 2016

    1. Do you think Paul was aware of the sheep and goats parable?

    2. If Paul was aware of it (whether he actually was or not), do you think he would reject such a teaching as judaizing, and maybe hope those who follow it cut off their penises on accident?

    3. Have you ever written a book/paper that categorizes which statements you think are authentically Jesus’ (and which ones you think are theologically constructed by his followers)? Almost like adding a new color to the letters (keep the red letters to the statements attributed to Jesus, but then add blue letters to the statements you think he actually said). That’d be very interesting/enlightening I think. If you haven’t written on it, do you know of a legit scholar who has?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      1. No. 2. No. 3. Not a list as such; but it’s the topic of my book Jesus: Apocalytpic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  9. Avatar
    alvinstoll  December 5, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman: Since the New Testament manuscripts we have for the most part were made several hundred years after the originals, they were, as you say, “copies of copies of copies, etc.” However, the number of copies separating the original from the surviving manuscripts would necessarily depend on how long each manuscript was used. If the usual life span was 10 years, there would be many more copies than if each manuscript lasted for, say, 50 years. What basis do we have for assumptions regarding the time between each successive copying?

    I am a recent subscriber to this blog, so if you have already answered this question, my apologies.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      Yes, I’m afraid that in most cases it is impossible to know the age of a copy’s exemplar. It would help a lot if we *could* know!

  10. cheito
    cheito  December 5, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    So far as we know, none of these copies was made from the originals or from a copy of the originals or from a copy of the copy of the originals. They were all made much later from other copies.

    My Comment:

    Among the dead sea scrolls found, One of the Isaiah Scrolls, found relatively intact, is 1000 years older than any previously known copy of Isaiah. This copy of Isaiah contains many minor differences from the later Masoretic text (the text which forms the basis of the modern Hebrew Bible). Most of the differences are simply grammatical (for example, spelling certain words with an extra letter that does not alter the pronunciation)

    Apparently the scribes who copied the Isaiah scrolls were very careful. For over 1000 years there were no major variations from the later Masoretic texts.

    My point is that when you say that the copies we have of the new testament were not made from the originals nor from a copy of the originals or from a copy of the copy of the originals you’re only speculating. If you haven’t seen an original how could you know this?

    I guess the only way to know for certain is that there would be a major discovery, of lets say, an entire scroll of the gospel of John dating back to the first century. I pray that will happen… And I pray it will happen so that you may witness it..

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  December 8, 2016

      Tanakh was already considered sacred scripture and was meticulously copied. It was decades before Paul’s writings achieved that status. Even longer before anyone else’s writings achieved that status, including writings claimed to be by Paul or assumed to be by Paul (like Hebrews).

      Paul’s writings were a textual body much smaller than Tanakh. Any particular copy would be more heavily used than a particular copy of a particular text of Tanakh. Papyrus was more fragile than paper, or even parchment.

  11. Rick
    Rick  December 5, 2016

    Is it assumed that the sheep are Jewish sheep in order to fulfill the first of the two great commandments, or do gentiles get a pass here?

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 6, 2016

    I think some of your critics illustrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect where the less one knows about a subject, the more one thinks he/she knows about the subject.

  13. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  December 6, 2016

    Bart, Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 25:31-46 above and Luke 10:25-37 (in which an attorney asks Jesus what he must do to get into Heaven) are alike in that, in both, Jesus does not even suggest that belief in him was required. But, then, how could he have? How could Jesus, during his life, before his death, tell others that they must believe in the salvific power of his death and resurrection? Do you think that some New Testament writers understood that this is what Jesus would have taught and others felt they needed Jesus to teach belief in him?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      Well, in the Gospel of John Jesus tells people to believe in him.

  14. Avatar
    Theonedue  December 26, 2016

    When Paul states that he believes that salvation through Jesus is by grace through faith and that not of yourselves, does he mean that grace and faith are solely a gift from God, or just the grace is from him (from the Greek texts)?

    Does he mean works of the law only, or the 10 commandments?

    When Jesus says “No one can come to me unless the Father draw him first” do you think he had something supernatural in mind (i.e supernatural drawing) or does, as a couple of Christians stated, the drawing entail reading or hearing words from the Old Testament (they found a text in the O.T that said something about God drawing people with his word)?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2016

      1. I think you’re referring to Ephesiahs 2:8-10; I don’t think Paul wrote that letter. But in any event, the author thinks that faith is a gift from God, not something the believer musters for him/herself. (Grace by definition is given by another) This author is not referring to the works of the law at all, but to doing good deeds.
      2. Yes, in John’s Gospel God has the initiative and draws people to himself (probably not just through the OT)

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  December 27, 2016

      The author of John (in 6:44) is expressing Gnostic philosophy. You can’t become a Christian unless God imparts special knowledge directly to you. Thus, by definition, you can’t do it yourself. No text of any kind was involved.

      The growth (and I think the origin) of earliest Christianity was in Greek thought, not Jewish. For them, Jewish law was irrelevant.

  15. TWood
    TWood  January 14, 2017

    This question is off topic, but it’s the first one that came up after I searched for a relevant term in my question (cursing)… I’ve heard people say Paul “cussed” (apart from what he implies in Galatians with hs wish his enemies cut off their “members”… when he said the following:

    1. “I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ…” Is rubbish (dung) equivalent to “crap” or even “shit?”

    2. When Paul says “God forbid” in Romans, is he saying something like “hell no!”?

    3. Extra one if you will… is 1 Kings 12:10 referring to what it sounds like?

    Any other passages that come to mind that are relevant would be great to hear too…

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2017

      1. Yes 2. He doesn’t use a cuss word. It is the word for “become/be” and it simply expresses a negative wish “May it never be”

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