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Jesus “Sweating Blood”: Which Text Would *Scribes* Have Preferred?

I’ve been discussing the kinds of evidence that textual critics appeal to in order to make a decision concerning what an author originally wrote, when there are two or more different forms of the text – that is, where a verse or passage is worded in different ways in different manuscripts.  And I have been using the passage found (only) in (some manuscripts of) Luke of Jesus’ bloody sweat as an example.  In my previous post I discussed one kind of “internal” evidence.    Remember: external evidence deals with figuring out which manuscripts have which reading: how many manuscripts (this criterion, as it turns out, is not so important), age of the manuscripts, geographical distribution of the manuscripts, and (something I didn’t discuss) quality of the manuscripts.   And recall that internal evidence is of two kinds, the first of which is “intrinsic probabilities,” which seeks to establish which form of the text is more likely to have been written by the author himself.

The second kind of internal evidence is a kind of flip side of the coin, and it’s called “transcriptional probabilities.”   Here the question is not which reading is more inherently likely to go back to the author; instead it is which reading is more inherently likely to have been created by a scribe or scribes.

The deal is this:  a lot of times when there are variant readings for a verse, one of the readings is really hard to understand, or grammatically incorrect, or contains a historical error, or presents a theological view that later came to be seen as dubious, whereas the other reading is easy to understand, grammatically correct, has no historical problems, and presents a perfectly acceptable theological view.  Now, this criterion may seem backwards, but it’s one of the best in the business:  it is the *more difficult* reading that is more likely original than the less difficult one.   The one that is hard to figure out or that has grammatical, historical, or theological problems is more likely to be the one the author originally wrote.  And why is that?   Because scribes who were changing the text were more likely to make it better – if they were consciously changing it – rather than worse; they were more likely to try to *correct* problems than *create* them.

This criterion has been around for over 250 years, and it has proven right time and time again: the earliest manuscripts (discovered since the rule was first formulated) tend to have the more difficult readings, which get smoothed out over time by sharp-minded copyists.

This criterion involves “transcriptional probabilities” because….

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Paul and the Status of Women
Did Jesus Sweat Blood? “Intrinsic” Evidence for Textual Variants



  1. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 13, 2020

    I sometimes find myself glad that scribes inserted or changed something [the story of woman taken in adultery being my favorite], and other times not [the infamous Johannine comma for example]. Either way it’s good to know. So Thanks for educating us, Bart. I don’t really believe that Jesus sweated blood, but I definitely like the emphasis on his humanity.
    For me there’s an even more basic issue in the scene however. Why would the Gospel writers portray Jesus as agonizing and asking that the cup of suffering pass from him? If it was God’s will from the beginning for Jesus to become a sacrifice for our sins, could Jesus be any less willing to accept martyrdom than his followers were, or some of his predecessors? John’s gospel downplays this agony in the Garden. Do the synoptics play it up to counter Docetism, or is there a historical kernel here to the effect that Jesus sensed his doom and sought an alternative course?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2020

      Yup, it’s an important question. I think it’s precisely to show that some things that happen to us may seem incomprehensible, but there really is a divine purpose behind it all. Jesus’ own situation is itself used to demonstrate the point.

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    fishician  March 13, 2020

    In Luke 24 it says, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have,” and he also eats a piece of broiled fish, as if to prove he’s flesh and blood. This paragraph seems to also be rather anti-docetic. Any evidence this was a later addition, as with the sweating blood passage?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2020

      It appears to be original — there aren’t any manuscripts without it. It appears to be attacking a group similar to the one Paul took on in 1 Corinthians 15, Christians who maintained there is not a *physical* resurrection from the dead with actual bodies, but a “spiritual” one. Luke’s approach is different from Paul’s — he doesn’t insist on a *transformed* *immortal* body made of pneuma (spirit) instead of sarx (flesh) — both of those are material substances for Paul, but one more finally refined and perfect than the other — instead he insists that Jesus returned in his restored cadaver. So the “false teaching” could definitely have been this early.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  March 17, 2020

        This reminds me of a passage in Matthew 27: ” The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” [NIV]

        What the heck??!!! So this writer thinks that a bunch of people BESIDES Jesus left behind empty tombs??? Does what we are discussing in this thread help us all to understand this? — Ghosts? Zombies? Glorified resurrected cadavers?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 18, 2020

          Yup, it’s a famously problematic passage! But not usually connected with Jesus “sweating blood”

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    tellswo16  March 13, 2020

    If the author only wanted to push back against docetism with the addition of the bloody sweat then why include a visit of an angel? One would need only include a bloody sweat. What is the purpose of the angel addition?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2020

      It’s to show he needed help because he was in such physical distress.

      • Avatar
        Scott  March 16, 2020

        Could it have been added as a parallel to Matt 4:11 where angels minister to Jesus after his temptation in the wilderness?

  4. Avatar
    brenmcg  March 14, 2020

    Could be that Justin, Hippolytus, and Irenaeus quoted from their copies to prove Jesus was a man which led to the Docetists removing it from theirs.

    I think sometimes too much is made of the criterion of the “harsher reading”, giving it a power to the exclusion of all other evidence.

    eg Mark 1:41. Here it would take just one ancient scribe to be falsely accused of stealing some turnips and ordered to go two days without food. Then turning to his copying duties would write “Jesus was indignant … ”

    Suddenly all other ancient copies which correctly have “Jesus was filled with compassion … ” are rendered obsolete.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 14, 2020

    Very, very interesting and. as always with you, written in clear enough style, thinking, and form that I can understand it. Thanks

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    mortensend  March 28, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, your discussion of intrinsic and transcriptional probabilities reminds me of the source model and channel model from information theory (specifically, the noisy channel model). The source model gives the probability of the source (like the intrinsic probability) when the channel model gives the probability of the source getting mangled into the observed signal. To “decode” the observed signal into the source, you chose the hypothetical source that maximizes the product of the channel model and the source model (to simplify somewhat). This model is very important in the speech and language technologies that people use everyday.

    My question is: do textual critics ever make explicit use of concepts from information theory, or at least draw parallels? Textual criticism is older (information theory dates from the 1940s) but information theory has a firm mathematical basis (Bayes Rule). Do textual critics at least know about Bayes Rule?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      Interesting. Intrinsic and Transcriptional probabilities were aruond in textual criticism since the sixteen century or so, maybe earlier. They were most explicitly named most famously in the 1880s. I don’t work in the field of textual criticism any more, so i don’t know of develoopments have incorporated information theory or not…..

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