My recent post asking whether the Gospels can be seen as anti-Jewish generated a number of comments and questions, one of which was whether scribes who copied the texts of the New Testament ever made them *more* anti-Jewish than they originally were.  The answer to that is Yes.  I have a student just now who is writing a dissertation that deals with that topic.

It’s a question I’ve been intrigued with for years;  one of the first times I wrote about it was in an essay called “The Text as Window: New Testament Manuscripts and the Social History of Early Christianity,” in The New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, ed. Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes. Studies and Documents; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995, pp. 361-79.

The essay was about the wide range of ways that copies of the New Testament from long after the originals were circulated can help us do something other than figure out the original text of each book; when used in a different way, they can help us understand what was going on in the social world of the scribes who made their copies at one time and place or another.

My treatment of anti-Jewish changes were a small part of that discussion, but I thought it would be useful to set the context of my discussion of those changes for blog readers by giving the introduction to my essay.   Here it is.  (After this I’ll have a couple of related posts and then one entire post devoted to a particular anti-Jewish variant reading that you will possibly be familiar with — not knowing it involves a textual variant!)

The first footnote of this introduction, by the way, strikes me as particularly important

(for those of you who like to skip footnotes 🙂 ).


The ultimate goal of textual criticism, in the judgment of most of its practitioners, is to reconstruct the original text of the NT.[i] As the other essays in this volume make abundantly clear, we need the discipline because we lack the autographs (and perfectly accurate reproductions of them); all surviving MSS are filled with mistakes, and it is the task of the critic to get behind these mistakes to reconstruct the text as it was originally written. This conception of the discipline is exemplified in the work of Fenton John Anthony Hort, one of the greatest minds to approach the task, who focused his labors on a solitary objective: “to present exactly the original words of the New Testament, so far as they can now be determined from surviving documents.” Hort construed this task in entirely negative terms: “nothing more than the detection and rejection of error.”[ii]


No historian would deny the desirability of this objective; one must establish the words of an ancient author before they can be interpreted. At the same time, many textual critics have come to recognize that an exclusive concentration on the autographs can prove to be myopic, as it overlooks the value of variant forms of the text for historians interested in matters other than exegesis. Thus one of the significant breakthroughs of textual scholarship has been the recognition that the history of a text’s transmission can contribute to the history of its interpretation: early Christian exegetes occasionally disagreed on the interpretation of a passage because they knew the text in different forms.[iii]


Of yet greater interest to the present essay, some critics have come to recognize that variants in the textual tradition provide data for the social history of early Christianity, especially during the first three Christian centuries, when the majority of all textual corruptions were generated. Changes that scribes made in their texts frequently reflect their own socio-historical contexts. By examining these changes, one can, theoretically, reconstruct the contexts within which they were created, contexts that are otherwise sparsely attested in our surviving sources. When viewed in this way, variant readings are not merely chaff to be discarded en route to the original text, as they were for Hort; they are instead valuable evidence for the history of the early Christian movement. The NT MSS can thus serve as a window into the social world of early Christianity.


I. Textual Variants and the Social History of Early Christianity

Recent study of textual variation has contributed to our understanding of a wide range of significant issues, including the ideological conflicts of early Christianity (i.e., struggles between “heresy” and “orthodoxy”), Jewish-Christian relations and the rise of anti-Judaism, and the early Christian suppression of women. Moreover, as we shall see, other peculiarities of our surviving MSS – for instance, their provenance, dates, and formal features – have deepened our knowledge of such diverse topics as the use of magic and fortune-telling among early Christians, the character and extent of the Christian mission in the empire, the extent and function of literacy in the early church, and the special role that texts played in this religion. Given the limitations of this essay, I cannot discuss any of these issues in great depth; I will, however, enumerate some of the more fruitful and interesting lines of research, and make some suggestions for further inquiry.  [I will pick up here in my next post]


[i] I should emphasize at the outset that it is by no means self-evident that this ought to be the ultimate goal of the discipline, even though most critics have typically, and somewhat unreflectively, held it to be. In recent years, however, some scholars have recognized that it is important to know not only what an author wrote (i.e., in the autograph), but also what a reader read (i.e., in its later transcriptions). Indeed, the history of exegesis is the history of readers interpreting different forms of the text, since throughout this history, virtually no one read the NT in its original form. Thus it is important for the historian of Christianity to know which form of the text was available to Christians in different times and places. In addition, as I will argue throughout this essay, it is important for social historians and historians of doctrine to identify the social and theological movements that affected the texts, through the scribes who modified them. Given these historical concerns, there may indeed be scant reason to privilege the “original” text over forms of the text that developed subsequently.

[ii] B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, [2,] Introduction [and] Appendix (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882; 2d ed., 1896; reprinted Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988) 1.4. Hort was responsible for writing the Introduction.

[iii] See, e.g., my article “Heracleon, Origen, and the Text of the Fourth Gospel,” VC 47 (1993) 105-18. For a methodological discussion of this issue, see my contribution to the Karlfried Froehlich Festschrift, “The Text of Mark in the Hands of the Orthodox,” Biblical Hermeneutics in Historical Perspective (ed. Mark Burrows and Paul Rorem; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 19-31.

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2023-01-31T15:15:34-05:00February 5th, 2023|New Testament Manuscripts|

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  1. giselebendor February 5, 2023 at 10:32 am

    How can we know that something was ” changed” without knowing the text that was allegedly changed? And if we know the original/ earlier text that was changed, why don’t we pick *that* text – as it is closer to the original- to be in the NT rather than the changed text? Perhaps I don’t understand the process.

    This is all very interesting, particularly the reason a scribe would condemn the Jews further, as if not enough was already said.

    • BDEhrman February 6, 2023 at 9:42 pm

      Yup, this is the discipline of “textual criticism”: use a range of criteria to determine the original form of the text among the varint traditions that survive, see then which are the changes, and evaluate why/how they came into existence. It’s a discipline that has been around, in NT studies, in rigorous form, since the 18th century, and of course gets used on the Hebrew Bible as well (where the manuscript tradition is *completely* different), but on all texts really, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens to … yo uname it (and in every language)

  2. wpoe54 February 5, 2023 at 12:20 pm

    We talk about scribes changing texts. On whose volition were changes made? Was it their own or, say, their bishop who directed the change?

    Would leaders (e.g. bishops) have known of various copies of the NT and chosen to have ones copied for their group because, say, it put Jews in a worse light according to the Bishop’s beliefs? Or, say, a particular copy made Jesus seem more human and that accorded with their idea so they gave it to scribes to make more?

    I keep wondering about the “Darwinism” of the variations. As beliefs changed, were copies more in line with current beliefs copied more often and others just rotted away uncopied?

    Would prior copies possessed by the local group have been destroyed and replaced?

    In the first three centuries, were texts scribed to be read from by clergy to believers? Did believers have access to copies of the NT if they were able to read?

    Where were copies stored? Where they kept in the home of the local church community leader? How early did monasteries form?

    Do we know?

    • BDEhrman February 7, 2023 at 4:01 pm

      OK, lots of questions! Changes were almost certainly done on an ad hoc basis by individuals, never on orders. Wwe don’t have the kid of consistency in alteration we would expcect if there were directions from abot, and no “group” copies. Since most of the changes were made already by about 300 (even those in later copies appear to be repreesengint earlier changes), so there are *some* variatins that reflect evolutions (where a scribe changed it one way then a later scribe changed the change), but these are almost never consistently moving in one direct evolutionary line and can’t be arranged chronologically. Seriously altered mss were apparently just not recopied. Most believers couldn’t read; early on if they could they would borrow church copies. They were normally kept in the churches.

  3. fishician February 5, 2023 at 12:25 pm

    What was your personal goal when you decided to study textual criticism? Didn’t you choose this line of study while still a conservative Christian?

    • BDEhrman February 7, 2023 at 4:02 pm

      Yup, I wanted to know the “original words” of the text because I knew that was what God had inspired. So it was important to know them! That’s why most NT textual critics get into the field, and is why a large number still work in it…

  4. historicalmike February 5, 2023 at 1:01 pm

    Good footnote, indeed!

    Unrelatedly, I just finished reading Heaven and Hell and have a question. When discussing Jesus’s resurrection in Luke, you point out that Luke “insists that precisely the body that went into Jesus’s tomb is the one that came out of it—a view that actually contradicts Paul.” (p. 195) So if I understand correctly, Luke believes in a revivified body with flesh and blood (“a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” Luke 24:39), whereas Paul believes in a body transformed into pneuma.

    Here’s where my question arises. Would Paul have believed that wherever Jesus’s corpse had been laying (a tomb, a communal grave, it doesn’t matter), it no longer lay there after his resurrection? That is, if someone were witnessing the resurrection they would see the corpse literally transformed into something else (pneuma) and then walk off (or float away, or whatever it is pneuma bodies do), with an empty spot where the corpse had previously been? I believe so, but haven’t seen it mentioned explicitly before.

    • BDEhrman February 7, 2023 at 4:12 pm

      Yes, I think that’s right. The fleshly corpse was transformed into the pneumatic body, like, for Paul, a seed transforms into a plant.

  5. wbhiggins February 5, 2023 at 6:36 pm

    Professor Ehrman, I am intrigued by the story of the women going to the tomb to “anoint the body” after Jesus was dead for three days. I had always thought that the anointing was a Jewish religious rite. I read an article on Jewish burial practices of the first century and found out it is not a religious rite but more of a cosmetic thing so the body did not smell during the funeral process. They would wash the body, add spices or perfumes so that it would not “stinketh” during the funeral. They wrapped it with a burial shroud and then bury it, usually within one day. Once the body was buried this was not an issue. Why would the women go to the tomb to perform this act three days after the death and already buried? John changes the story and has Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea prepare the body for burial with 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes after taking Jesus down from the cross. My question, is it possible that John had read at least one of the Synoptic Gospels and this story did not ring true for him so he changed it?

    • BDEhrman February 7, 2023 at 4:16 pm

      It’s possible, and some peopel thing so. MY view is that there’s not enough positive evidence in John (e.g., in any of these stories) to think so (e.g., no real evidence of copying). My sense is that he had *heard* stories, which must have been everywhere, rather than necessarily read them in one of th ewritten textst aht we just happen to still have. As to why the third day: it would have been 36 hours later (if he died 6:00 pm Friday and they came 6:00 am Sunday), and that probably would still be OK. Even if not, it’s about the only option open to the Gospel writers if they know he was buried Friday and no one could do anything about it on a Saturday.

      • JR February 7, 2023 at 6:49 pm

        Hi, I think what the comment by wnhiggins is getting at is why would they need to anoint the body at all if it was already buried?
        Is this like an undertaker today going to the cemetery to dress a corpse that is already 6 feet under?!
        Is the story about the women going to anoint the body possibly just a plot device to enable someone to find the tomb empty?

        • BDEhrman February 10, 2023 at 6:26 pm

          It’s because in antiquity it was felt to be REALLY important (not just in Jewish circles, but Greek, Roman, etc.) for the body to be given proper burial rites, and Joseph of A., in the stories, had to do a rush job. But yes, I think it is definitely a story used to set up the possibility of finding an empty tomb.

    • RICHWEN90 February 7, 2023 at 4:33 pm

      Wouldn’t it also be more than a little unusual to have women perform this function, especially on a male body?

      • BDEhrman February 10, 2023 at 6:21 pm

        I think it was often teh woman’s job to do that.

    • wbhiggins February 8, 2023 at 12:40 pm

      If Mark was the first to record this story, do you think he was more interested in recording what actually happened or was he more concerned with just writing a good story and used this as a plot device to get the women to the tomb to find it empty on the third day. Mark 16:3 “They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” If they were serious about anointing the body and knew they couldn’t move the stone wouldn’t they have asked 2 or 3 of the disciples to go with them to move the stone? The women didn’t know and the first time reader doesn’t know but the author knows that the stone will already be moved when they get there. Sounds contrived to me, your thoughts.

      • BDEhrman February 10, 2023 at 6:42 pm

        I definitely don’t think that he was trying to record a disinterested account of what actually happened. And yes, there are some terrific implausiilities written into the text; e.g., since it ends in 16:8, and the women never tell *anyone* *anything* — then how does Mark know Jesus was raised? 🙂 It works as a great story, but not so much as history.

  6. edecter February 6, 2023 at 3:44 pm

    Is it possible that textual variants are the result not only of scribes making changes (either intentionally or erroneously) but of the original authors themselves making revisions to their works? In other words, is it possible that “Mark” wrote one version of his gospel and distributed it, but then later made either minor or major updates to the document and distributed the new version? Sort of the way contemporary authors will issue a new updated edition of a classic work that incorporates the latest scholarship in their field.

    • BDEhrman February 7, 2023 at 4:25 pm

      Yes, that has often been claimed for some of the books — especially the book of Acts (which has two very different textual traditions). And I”ve argued on teh blog before that the Gospel of Luke was first published without what are now chapters 1-2. Some variants in John could be explained this way. So it’s possible. But it’s really difficult to show that it’s likely/probable.

  7. SC February 13, 2023 at 9:00 am


    A short except from Mark Goodacres last blog post at NT Blog circa 2022:

    Jesus’ Activity in the Gospels: “only some three weeks”?

    “There is an idea attributed to B. H. Streeter (1874-1937) that attempts to articulate how much time Jesus’ narrated ministry, in the canonical gospels, actually takes up. He is reported to have said that the action described in the gospels, with the exception of the Temptation story, would actually only occupy about three weeks. The point he is apparently making is a good if rather obvious one — that what is narrated about Jesus’ life in the Synoptics and John, even if it is were all historical, amounts to the tiniest fraction of Jesus’ life.”

    Mark goes on to show that it must be at least 6 weeks that are narrated not 3…

    Still though…an incredibly small amount of information for a 30 year life to try and build a psychological profile. And with so many unanswered questions – like we do not even know who his greatest influence was growing up.

    Do you have any comments or overall thoughts on this subject that come to mind?

    Thank you for your time,

    • BDEhrman February 13, 2023 at 7:18 pm

      Yup, I’ve thought that for a long time. I once saw a one-person play that was on Broadway, The Gospel according to Mark. The actor recited Mark (King James Version) word for word, beginning to end, with just a chair and small table as a prop. It was *fantastic*. And it took two-hours. That’s how much material we have in Mark. Two hours out of a life.

  8. bcdwa288 February 16, 2023 at 4:43 pm

    I could hardly read this with so many typos. Where was the spell check option????

    • BDEhrman February 18, 2023 at 7:34 pm

      The point of hte post is that scribes make mistakes…

    • BDEhrman February 18, 2023 at 7:34 pm

      The point of hte post is that scribes make mistakes…

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