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Kinds of Changes in our Manuscripts

In this post I continue to provide some more of the background necessary to understand what my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture was about.   So far I have indicated that since we do not have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament, we have to rely on later copies, all of which have mistakes in them.   We have far more copies of the NT than of any other book from antiquity –and as a result, far more differences among our copies (i.e. more mistakes).   In addition we have ancient translations of the NT (the early “versions”) and quotations of the NT in the writings of church fathers.   These also provide further pieces of evidence – as well as further variations in wording.

As a result, it is a very complicated business trying to establish what the authors of the NT originally wrote.   Scholars continue to debate the precise wording of this that or the other verse.  In some cases we simply will never know.

No one has been able to count all the differences that exist among our surviving textual witnesses.   The best guesses put the number in the hundreds of thousands – say 300,000 or (more commonly said) 400,000.   We really don’t know.

Two points are critically important when considering all these differences.  The first is one that I always state, even though my evangelical debate opponents frequently pretend that I never say it at all.   But, in fact, I always say it.


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Accidental Scribal Changes
Patristic Evidence for the New Testament



  1. Avatar
    luigi  July 22, 2015

    The problem of reconstructing what ancient sources said is essentially the same as that of reconstructing what the DNA of ancient organisms looked like. Each generation introduces mistakes into their DNA, just like scribes introduce mistakes into manuscripts. Bioinformaticians have developed incredibly sophisticated software to reconstruct relationships among DNA samples (say from different individuals, or even different species) in order to infer genealogies. Have textual critics used similar software to reconstruct the genealogies of ancient texts?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2015

      Yes, some have gotten into cladistics. But it’s an area I know very little about.

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    Judith  July 22, 2015

    This is invaluable to me and “Scribbes offen misspellled wordds.” sparked a little fun in reading it.

  3. Avatar
    bbcamerican  July 22, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Firstly, as someone who has read most of your trade books and watched pretty much all of your lectures/debates on YouTube, I find it depressingly “funny” how anyone could accuse you of not having a “fair and balanced” (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) approach to your work and your published materials. I sometimes think you go too far out of your way to make disclaimers regarding how your work may or may not affect a person’s beliefs and/or your own motives for pursuing your work. However, it still appears that there are some who can somehow completely bypass these disclaimers to try and find the tiny glint of a point you are making that might be contentious or challenging. So, I suppose you will, unfortunately, keep having to make the disclaimers.

    I apologize that the following in somewhat off-topic. But in a “global” sense when looking over all of your work, many things that you touch on are tremendously interesting to me. A couple that really stand out for me are, first, how things really are truly lost in translation, sometimes due to the differences between the languages themselves and sometimes due to the choices of the translator, and second, the cultural context as it relates to the language/text of the Bible. You pepper your posts and published works with many examples of these, which has piqued my interest.

    One example you have shared of the first situation is that in our English translations of the Old Testament, when we see the words “Lord” and “LORD”, these differences are actually referring to the original texts actually referring to different names for the Christian God, YWHW and Elohim (I may have gotten those out of order). The lay reader of the bible would not realize the significance of the difference, particularly as it relates to why Old Testament scholars understand the book of Genesis to include more than one source/author, as each consistently refers to God by a different name.

    One the cultural point is the fact that folks in the modern day point back to the Old Testament to claim that the Bible condemns homosexuality, despite the fact that, as you’ve explained on this blog and in other published works, the modern concept of sexual orientation was unknown in the ancient world and the exhortations in the Old Testament that are being cited are actually referring to challenging the status quo understanding of male superiority in relation to women and that a man, for instance, should not become subordinate to another man through submitting to same sex, well, sex.

    So, would you be able to point me to any commentaries/books that really hone in specifically on these two issues, places where Biblical translations are really leaving something out or distorting the texts being translated AND/OR how our modern view of the world and society leads us towards erroneous conclusions regarding what Biblical authors were really saying in their own time/place/culture? As I said, you have given several examples throughout your various works as you were arguing other main points. But, I was wondering if you knew of some good treatments of these specific topics that could reasonably be understood by a semi-intelligent lay person.

    Thanks as always for all of your work in shedding light on these mysteries of early Christianities and for your dedication to both the mission and daily commitment of this blog.

    – Mike

    • Avatar
      bbcamerican  July 22, 2015

      In retrospect, maybe I need to go back and read “Misquoting Jesus” on the first point. But, unless I’m mistaken, I don’t believe that you personally, Dr. Ehrman, have applied a full treatment to the cultural context issue.


      – Mike

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2015

      I think most scholarship on the Bible deals with these issues, as they are at the forefront of scholarly investigations of the Bible. So I’d suggest looking at biblical commentaries, for example, for the particular books you’re most interested in. There are tons out there. If you want to select a few options I can give you my opinion about whether they would be good ones to look at or not; in part, of course, that depends on how much background you have in the field and your willingness and ability to dig deep with heavy scholarly jargon, or not!

  4. Avatar
    Joshua  July 22, 2015

    subtle humor? …..Scribbes offen misspellled wordds

  5. Avatar
    Tom  July 22, 2015

    This material is so fascinating, Dr. E.

    Thanks for passing it along.

  6. Avatar
    Jason  July 22, 2015

    I c what u did there…
    “Scribbes offen misspellled wordds It happened all the time. ”
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but scribes of Koine didn’t use punctuation either. 😉

  7. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 23, 2015

    I think I am getting the picture more clearly now. I assume the Orthodox view had to have the scriptures say the right things, and over time they were massaged to say what or reflect what the orthodox view was, but they never really had all of the works together in order to verify that corruption had not taken place, and here you are showing us what those corruptions were. I just got your book and I will be reading it simultaneously to the blog posts. Isn’t the Gospel of John an obvious corruption of the synoptic gospels? That is, wasn’t it written to “fill in the orthodox gaps” that the synoptics did not have?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2015

      The difference is that whoever wrote John was not pretending to make a “copy” of the other Gospels; he was using materials at his disposal to write his own Gospel. Bit difference!

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    Wilusa  July 23, 2015

    Say, this may be a dumb question, but I just realized I don’t understand something. What was Didymus the Blind actually doing? Writing some kind of *commentary* on parts of the New Testament? (He couldn’t have been just making copies, when everything he “read” had to be read *to* him, and everything he “wrote” had to be *dictated*.)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2015

      Yes, his surviving books are commentaries that he “wrote” by dictation, but on the Old Testament. He was active near the end of the fourth century; the copies we have are from the sixth century, discovered by accident in the 1940s.

  9. Avatar
    justjudy6  July 23, 2015

    More to come? Can’t wait!

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    RonaldTaska  July 23, 2015

    Good series. Keep going. I think the addition of snake handling to the ending of the Gospel of Mark is another very important scribal change since it has resulted in the deaths of people.

  11. John4
    John4  July 23, 2015

    Wonderful Bart! 🙂

    In your (very helpful!) discussion in *Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalen* of the violent opposition to Paul, you display no doubt whatsoever as to the authenticity of Pauline authorship of 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16. However, when I checked your reference, I saw that the HarperCollins Study Bible Notes offer the following caution: “2.14–16 The authenticity of these verses is sometimes challenged; see Introduction.”

    So, I checked the HarperCollins introduction. But, from what I could see (or, perhaps, project?) there, the only basis for doubting the authenticity of 2:14-16 is some sort of post-holocaust queasiness regarding Paul’s sentiments and/or language here on the part of some person or group whom HarperCollins neglected to name. Is there anything more to this doubt?

    Many, many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2015

      Yes, I think that this is a modern conjecture driven in part by concerns of its anti-Judaism; but there are also difficulties in the verse, both over how to translate it and how to figure out what it mans: in what sense, prior to 70 CE, had the “wrath” of God “at last” come upon the Judeans? Many interpreters think that this *must* be presupposing a time after the destruction of Jerusalem, and that it is therefore an interpolation. That’s not my view, however. I think Paul just means that God was no longer pleased with his chosen people.

      • John4
        John4  July 24, 2015

        I see. That helps. Many thanks! 🙂

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    Theonedue  July 29, 2015

    Hey Bart. I wanted to know what your thoughts are concerning the signs that witnesses saw in Jerusalem which were recorded by Josephus in his Histories (and attested to by Tacitus).

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2015

      I think they’re astounding, and just this week I was wondering what conservative Christains would say about them (the passage is repeated in Eusebius Church History, which I’m rereading ust now): they are based on *multiple* eyewitness reports!

      • Avatar
        Theonedue  July 30, 2015

        Do you think they are authentic accounts or interpolations? I know the statement in Josephus’s work concerning Jesus is an interpolation, and some Futurists believe both the accounts of Josephus and Tacitus concerning the soldiers in the sky were interpolated. Did Tacitus get his information from residents of Jerusalem who allegedly witnessed the omens?

        Off topic, who would you say is the greatest (most reliable) ancient historian (say 400 b.c to 100 a.d)? I love reading works by people like Tacitus and Pliny The Younger (you should read his account of a ghost story!) and wanted something to read.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 31, 2015

          I think Josephus wrote them. And I’m not convinced the Jesus passage is an interpolation.

          • Avatar
            Theonedue  July 31, 2015

            I think Josephus embellishing the events that transpired during 66 C.E- would seem odd. Heck, I wouldn’t even consider it legend because he states that the soldiers in the sky would have been thought of as a myth unless multiple eyewitnesses reported it. Maybe he and Tacitus lied, lol. It is interesting none the less.

  13. Avatar
    Potato410  August 3, 2015

    “Scribbes offen misspellled wordds”

    Haha, sometimes even the author himself makes “mistake”, intentionally!

    But if a scribe copy your text and correct your spell mistakes, is that a “corruption” of the text? (Just joking)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2015

      Yes, indeed, it would have been a corruption, since then my very point would not have been made by what I wrote.

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