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Is There a Way to Know if a Manuscript is the “Original”?

In response to the recent flurry of posts on the question of a “first-century Mark,” I have received a very interesting question: suppose there *were* a first-century Mark that was discovered (hey, it’s possible!  And we’re holding our breaths – what an amazing find it would be)..  Would there be a way of showing it was the actual original Mark, the one the author himself wrote with his own hand?

I was asked this question on the blog seven years ago, and responded to it by saying I had never thought about it before. (!)   Below is the original question and my initial reflections.  My views haven’t matured much during the past seven years (and they ain’t the only thing), so I give my initial response.  If someone can improve on it, let me know.

First here is this week’s way of asking the question:

 

QUESTION:

Suppose someone did claim to have found the original….    I get that you can show something isn’t original, such as by dating it to two hundred years later. But is there anything you can do to show it is likely original?

 

Here now is the original post.

******************************************************************************

 

READER’S QUESTION:

Were we to have any *original manuscript* of any NT document in our midst, would we be able to recognize and confirm it as such?  If so, how?

BART’S RESPONSE:

Now that’s a question I’ve never been asked before!  And in fact, that I’ve never really thought about before.  It’s been fun to reflect on it a bit.

To get to the short answer: I think the answer would almost certainly be “No”.

The reasons are of particular interest, though.   Suppose by chance a very early copy of the Gospel of John appeared.   How would we …

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Flat-out Lies or Willful Ignorance. How Do They Get Away With It?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  June 28, 2019

    If we look at any canonical text in any current version of the NT, how confidant can we be that ANY of it is “historical”, except in the very vaguest sense? Yes, there was a John the Baptist, but what can we say, definitely, about his life and history and relationship with Jesus? Yes, there was a person named Jesus, who was eventually crucified, but what can we actually KNOW? What can we be sure of? Can we be sure of anything he said? Can we be sure of anything he is said to have done? The bottom line appears to be that Christianity is built on hearsay and gossip. That doesn’t seem to be a very secure foundation for the monumental structure built on top. Am I missing something? I’ve read a lot of your books and the impression I’m getting is that Christianity is mostly faith, with very little well-established fact. A lot of it, or all of it, seems to have been created on the basis of very slender and disputable evidence, long after the death of the principle figure or figures.

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2019

      Lots of scholarship on all that! I talk about it at lenght in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. For John the Baptist, see Joel Marcus’s book, which he blogged about here a few months ago.

  2. Avatar
    brenmcg  June 28, 2019

    maybe the original had lots of verses crossed out and then rewritten in a different way.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2019

      Yup! Then which is the original? The part that was uncorrected or the part that was corrected? You could argue either way!

      4
  3. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  June 28, 2019

    Great post!

    As your blog makes clear, it all depends on the agenda of the so-called expert in question.

    Some scholars want to make everything as late as possible so that they can poke holes in the beliefs of Christians or other believers.

    Some scholars want to make everything as early as possible to support their own theological beliefs.

    It is important to try to understand the worldview and beliefs of the EXPERT in question, so that you can discern the truth within their opinion in spite of what they believe or refuse to accept that colors their own analysis.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  June 28, 2019

    Even if an early copy of a gospel was found that closely matched our current versions, it would only show that the copyists did a better job than we thought, but it would have no bearing on the veracity of the contents, any more than an early copy of The Iliad would suggest that it was factual history. Question: the gospels seem to be compilations of either oral or written stories. So, if we find a scrap of something that appears to be a passage from Mark, how do we know it was actually from that gospel, rather than simply being a copy of the story that Mark used when composing his gospel? Even if it agreed word-for-word it could mean Mark simply inserted the story unchanged into his gospel, but it wouldn’t prove it came from a copy of Mark’s gospel, would it? Alternatively, we find a scrap from Matthew, but how do we know it isn’t actually a scrap from the Q source?

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2019

      Ha! Right! Or how do we know it’s not a later writing about something else that quoted a few lines from one of the Gospels?

      1
  5. Brent Nongbri
    Brent Nongbri  June 28, 2019

    That is a really good question. To my knowledge, there is at least one early Christian manuscript that is generally described as being an autograph. It is a fragmentary papyrus from the trash heaps of the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus that contains a piece of dialogue literature between a Christian and a Jew debating about the Old Testament and the messiah. The papyrus is assigned to the third century CE. Here is what the editor of the papyrus, the great Arthur Hunt, said about it: “The authorship of the fragment remains unknown, but there is some reason for attributing it to a local writer. This is suggested by the frequent alterations which have been made in the text, apparently by the original hand, and are difficult to explain except on the hypothesis that we here have a fragment of the author’s own manuscript.” The idea is that we have something like a rough draft, a working copy to which the author is still making changes. It’s neat because it problematizes the whole idea of an “original” text. Which is original? What the author first wrote? Or the corrections they made? How do we know what version of a text is “final”? Tricky questions! You can see a picture of the papyrus here: http://163.1.169.40/gsdl/collect/POxy/index/assoc/HASH018a.dir/POxy.v0017.n2070.a.01.hires.jpg

    19
    • Avatar
      alexc  June 28, 2019

      I’m curious as to how you would differentiate this working copy from the work of a trainee manuscript copier?

    • Avatar
      Leovigild  June 28, 2019

      Yes, I was going to say something along those lines. The earliest autograph MS that we have of a well-known literary work (as opposed to receipts, personal letters, and the like) that I am aware of is by Maimonides, and that too is identifiable by the presence of his own editorial self-corrections.

  6. Avatar
    anthonygale  June 28, 2019

    I think that creates another problem for folks trying to deduce what the original text said. How can you know you’ve reproduced the original when you wouldn’t recognize the original if you had it?

    3
    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2019

      Yup, that’s the problem. And surprisingly few people think about it.

      5
  7. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 28, 2019

    If you could find *one* original manuscript from this era, which one would it be? Q? Gospel of the Hebrews?

  8. Avatar
    Miles  June 28, 2019

    When did including dates/years on manuscripts become common practice? Also, did scribes of antiquity ever include transcription data such as “copied by the hand of Miles in the second year of the reign of Octavian”?

  9. Avatar
    Stephen  June 28, 2019

    Ok I must be missing something. If you have a 50 year window and the Gospel of Mark was written 70ish, how were the Hobby Lobby bunch ever going to prove that their “Mark” was from the First Century?

    Thanks

    2
  10. Avatar
    anthonygale  June 29, 2019

    Do you think paleography is accurate and reliable?

    Perhaps professionally trained scribes adhered to standards of the time, wrote consistently and we have enough texts to show this is true. But is all that true? Look at variation in people’s handwritting in modern times. My writing changes depending on how fast I’m writing. I can write quite neatly if I take my time, but when I rush I produce chicken scratch. If I get tired I might start to get sloppier. The size of my letters might also change. Should I believe ancient people didn’t do this either? Or that people in two countries wrote the same way? Perhaps, but I’m skeptical.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2019

      Not always, but often indeed.

    • Avatar
      nichael  June 30, 2019

      What you describe is true, of course (that is, there may be unexpected variance in a given manuscript). But I think we should expect a competent paleographer to take such possibilities into account, and to examine (as well as to report on) the evidence for any such variances.

      Then, consequently, the presence of such possible variance would be reflected in the “uncertainty” ( I.e “+/- X years”) attached to the proposed date. (in the physical sciences we call these “the error bars”, and they are an essential part of any reported value.)

  11. Avatar
    Mark57  June 29, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    So if we cannot determine whether a particular gospel is original doesn’t that negate your argument that we don’t have the originals? I’m probably missing something. How much of this is just scraps and how much is complete manuscripts must also be important, but I expect most of us readers are having trouble comprehending the overall picture of the current state of manuscripts in existence. It doesn’t come up much in water cooler talk.

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2019

      I’m not sure what you mean about a gospel being original. I’m referring to *manuscripts* of books. Every book is published for a first time, in antiquity by the author who writes it. The “original” is the copy he produces. (Whether it is accurate or not, e.g.)

      1
      • Avatar
        Mark57  June 30, 2019

        The original is referring to the first copy of that original? I assumed original meant the first and only original. Okay thanks.

  12. Avatar
    Hormiga  June 29, 2019

    What about physical evidence such as carbon-14 dating, analysis of the composition of the ink, how the papyrus was manufactured and the details of the reeds themselves? I’d imagine those differ significantly over time and from place to place.

    Also about the papyrus: do we have any indication how long a given sheet was likely to sit on the shelf before being written on? Could we be reasonably sure in ruling out the possibility that a document written on papyrus dating to 100 CE wasn’t actually written until, say, 150? I’d think the time between purchase and use would be fairly short, but was it?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2019

      Yes, carbon 14 is used in rare circumstances — rare both because it’s very expensive and because you have to destroy a piece of the manuscript to do it. Plus, your second question. C14 can tell you when the plant died that was used to make the papyrus (or the animal, if the ms is parchment), but not when the papyrus itself was manufactured (almost always right away, one would think), or how long it sat around before it got used. One would think that normally it would not be hanging around a shop for a hundred years, but maybe a few? I’m sure Brent Nongbri deals with this in his book, but I don’t recall the evidence one way or the other offhand. Ink is harder to analyze, but there are ways being developed. The problem, again, has always been that you don’t want to destroy any of it.

  13. Lev
    Lev  June 29, 2019

    “The reality is that books never do end that way. But even if you did find an ending like that at the end of a manuscript, there is absolutely nothing to say that the manuscript is not a COPY of the original that had that final line on it.”

    I suppose a good example of scribes reproducing the author’s personal note at the end of a document is Galatians 6:11 “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” I’ve never seen an ancient Greek copy of this verse, but are there any examples where the scribe has reproduced it in REALLY LARGE LETTERS as the original did?

    • Lev
      Lev  July 1, 2019

      Did this comment get missed? It’s been awaiting moderation for a few days now.

      • Bart
        Bart  July 2, 2019

        Not sure what happened? Maybe it was inadvertently blasted into the stratosphere! Sorry.

        • Lev
          Lev  July 2, 2019

          Ha! Like the Falcon Heavy the other day. 🙂 #SpaceX

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2019

      No, apparently not.

      1
  14. Avatar
    hoijarvi  June 29, 2019

    Also: Carbon dating would tell only to one direction, when the papyrus was made, not when the text was written. I have some old blank sheets to forge old letters if needed.

    Also we don’t have a method to measure C-14 from a speck of dust yet, and nobody wants to burn the historic scrap.

  15. Telling
    Telling  June 30, 2019

    If as you say manuscripts don’t usually end with “I … wrote this with my own hand”, how do we account for Paul’s letters of which many end with that?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2019

      I thought the question was asking about whether *scribes* ever indicated they were the ones copying manuscripts, not about whether *authors* named themselves.

      • Telling
        Telling  July 1, 2019

        That was the subject but you mentioned:

        “Suppose the manuscript has some kind of identifying mark on it, for example, a concluding sentence saying: ‘The book has been written by my own hand, John the son of Zebedee.'”

        And you said:

        “The reality is that books never do end that way.”

        But Paul’s letters generally DO end that way. We know they’re copies of copies of course, but Paul’s added line indicates that he wrote it himself or wrote the salutation himself, so (presumably) to reinforce that this letter really is from him.

        So, I’m unclear on what you meant by the above. Without consideration of who transcribed the letter and how we might know, was it unusual that Paul ended his letters that way?

  16. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  July 1, 2019

    philosophical question. do you think the trinity is contradictory ?

    imagine there is 1 human being. this human being is identified as grandfather, father and son.
    now the 3 are not IDENTICAL, they are literally 3 distinct persons existing as 1 human being.

    so when the human being is grandfather, he is at the same time NOT grandfather.

    when the grandfather is acting, he is not acting as his son who is identified as father.

    based on this, is the trinity contradictory?

    Say that grandfather does x, father does y and son does z.

    since the 3 aren’t identical and grandfather is not 33% of the 1 human being, then logically grandfather is FULLY 1 human being. this means trinity is 3 gods pretending to be 1.

    do you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2019

      Yes, the theologians who devised the doctrine knew full well it is not logically consistent following strict rules of, say, Aristotelian logic. But they didn’t think those rules governed all of reality. That’s why the doctrine is labeled a “mystery.”

      1
  17. Avatar
    jehudemus  July 4, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I’m so glad to have come across this post of yours because I’ve been wanting to ask the INVERSE question:

    “How do we know our early manuscripts dated 150-250 CE are copies of earlier works and not first editions themselves?”

    I’ve heard two common answers but they both sound pretty weak:

    1) the content of the text. They mentioned this building but they didn’t mention that ruler so we know it had to of been written before X and after Y. But we write historical fiction all the time, telling a story of a previous era and only mentioning items of that era. If I picked up a handwritten manuscript of Gone With The Wind, should I assume it was a copy of an original that was written in 1860?

    2) early church fathers made references to the earlier works. The early church fathers were writing at the same time the early manuscripts are dated, it doesn’t seem unusual for them to refer to contemporary writings.

    If that is all the reasoning we have, it seems like the belief in earlier dated missing orginals is based on faith; experts claiming an earlier original must have existed because they “want it to be true.”

    Am I missing something? Am I not correctly understanding the reasons given for earlier missing originals? Are there other reasons that I’m not aware of?

    Jarrod from South Carolina

    • Bart
      Bart  July 7, 2019

      Yes, one of the main things is that we can see the *influence* of these texts on writers prior to this period. You can’t be influenced by something — or quote something specifically — or even refer to it explicitly (as 2nd century church fathers do; already clear intimations of this in Ignatius, but certainly in Polycarp) if it hadn’t been brought into existence yet. So I don’t see it as a leap of faith, but as a careful argument based on evidence.

      2

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