In my previous post I started talking about the different kinds of manuscripts of the New Testament we have.  I now want to give some more information about these manuscripts and how they can help us figure out what the authors of the NT originally wrote (and why they pose problems for us to that end).

Below is what I say about the matter in my textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.


How Can We Reconstruct the Original New Testament Manuscripts? The Good News.

When trying to reconstruct what the authors of the New Testament actually wrote, based on the surviving copies, we have both good news and bad news.

The good news: We have more New Testament manuscripts than for any other book from the ancient world—many, many more manuscripts than we have for the writings of Homer, Plato, Cicero, or any other important author. We have something like 5,700 manuscripts of the New Testament—from small fragments of tiny parts of a single book to complete copies of the entire New Testament – in the Greek language in which they were originally written, along with manuscripts in many other ancient languages (for example, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic).  That is good news indeed—the more manuscripts you have, the more likely it is that you can figure out what the authors originally said.

How Can We Reconstruct the Original New Testament Manuscripts? The Bad News.

Still, there is some bad news: as I have already intimated, despite the large number of manuscripts we have, there are hardly any that are extremely early. Most of our New Testament manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, many centuries—over a thousand years!— after the originals.  What is worst, all these surviving manuscripts disagree with one another, often in minor ways, and sometimes even in major ways. Apart from the smallest fragments,

no two of our manuscripts are exactly alike.  How many differences are there in our surviving New Testament manuscripts?  Thousands of differences; tens of thousands of differences; hundreds of thousands of differences.  It is probably easiest to put the matter in comparative terms: there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

But there is more good news. The vast majority of these hundreds of thousands of differences are completely and utterly unimportant and insignificant and don’t matter at all. By far the most common differences simply show us that scribes in the ancient world could spell no better than most people can today (and the scribes didn’t have spell-check!). If we really want to know what the apostle Paul had to say about the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, does it matter to us how he spelled the word “resurrection”? Probably not. Moreover, lots of other kinds of differences in our manuscripts—as we will see—are easy to explain and don’t affect the meaning of the writings in the least.

But there is also some more bad news. There are lots of differences that do matter a lot. They may not completely reverse the teachings of the New Testament: when the Bible says that “God is love,” we don’t have manuscripts that claim the opposite, that “God is hate”! But, as we will see, they do affect how we interpret important passages of the books of the New Testament, and sometimes they affect significant teachings of the biblical authors.

There is, however, some further good news. Some of the New Testament manuscripts appear to be highly accurate copies, and a few of them are very ancient. The oldest surviving manuscript that we have is called P52—named this because it was the fifty-second papyrus manuscript to be discovered and catalogued in modern times. It is just a tiny scrap found in a trash heap in Egypt. It originally came from a full manuscript of the Gospel of John, but all that is left is this little piece, the size of a credit card, with writing on the front and back that has a few verses from John 18, where Jesus is put on trial before Pontius Pilate prior to his crucifixion. Even though this little scrap does not have much writing on it, it is very valuable: scholars have typically dated it to around 125 C.E. or so—just thirty to thirty-five years after John was originally written. It could well be a copy of a copy of a copy. Too bad the rest of the manuscript didn’t survive!

The Oldest New Testament Manuscript

Our first reasonably complete copy of the Gospel of John is from around 200 C.E. That is still a long time after John was written (well over a century). But it is still pretty old—older than most manuscripts for most other authors from the ancient world, by a wide margin. Our first complete manuscripts of the New Testament start appearing about 150 years after that, in the mid-fourth century C.E. (three hundred years or so after the originals). And so with the New Testament we are in the good situation of having some manuscripts—even if highly fragmentary—from within a century or two of the books’ originally having been written.

Still, you may have already have figured out more of the bad news. Having a few scraps from within a hundred years of when the New Testament was written does not give us what we’d really like to have: complete manuscripts from near the time the authors published their books. If our first reasonably complete copies of the New Testament do not appear until two or three centuries after the books were first put in circulation, that’s two or three hundred years of scribes copying and recopying, making mistakes, multiplying mistakes, changing the text in ways big and small before we have complete copies. We can’t compare these, our oldest surviving copies, with yet older ones to see where their mistakes are. There aren’t any older ones.

And the problems get worse. In later times, when we have an abundance of manuscripts, the copyists of the New Testament were trained scribes—usually monks in monasteries who copied new Testament manuscripts as a sacred duty. These monks of the Middle Ages did their level best—most, but not all, of the time—to copy their texts accurately. They sometimes got tired and inattentive and made mistakes; and they sometimes changed the text because they thought it was supposed to be changed. Still, for the most part they did a good job. But that was only much later in Christian history. In the earliest centuries, the vast majority of copyists of the New Testament books were not trained scribes. We know this because we can examine their copies and evaluate the quality of their handwriting, and we can assess how accurately they did their work. The striking and disappointing fact is that our earliest manuscripts of the New Testament have far more mistakes and differences in them than our later ones. The earlier we go in the history of copying these texts, the less skilled and attentive the scribes appear to have been.


Another way to put this: if you take two New Testament manuscripts from around the year 1000 and compare them to one another, they are often very much alike in every verse. But if you do the same thing with the fragmentary copies made around the year 200, you find lots and lots of differences—differences both from the manuscripts of the year 1000 and, more disconcertingly, differences from one another. This tells us that the earliest scribes were not as skilled or assiduous as the later ones. And that’s a problem, because all of our surviving manuscripts were copied from earlier manuscripts, and the earliest copies of all were filled with mistakes. If our earliest known copyists made tons of mistakes, how many mistakes were made by their predecessors, who produced the copies that they copied? We have no way of knowing.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we should give up all hope of ever discovering what the New Testament authors wrote. It simply means that there are some places, possibly a lot of places, where we will never know for sure.

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2022-10-21T12:45:46-04:00November 1st, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts|

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  1. Bennett November 1, 2022 at 8:16 am

    Do you have a good estimate on the typical length of ‘lifetime’ of a manuscript from, say, 200 CE? Once a manuscript went into use in a church setting, how long would it typically last? I would assume papyri might not last as long as vellum copies, but is that true? Also, would the geographic location of the church using the text make any difference in the material used for the copy (e.g. papyrus in Alexandria versus vellum in Rome), and would the local climate have more of an effect on the longevity than amount of use?

    • BDEhrman November 3, 2022 at 3:54 am

      It’s really impossible to say. It depends on a large number of factors, including such disparate things as use and humidity. If the humidity is *constant* (whether dry or wet, as it turns out), papyrus can last for millenia.

  2. copiesofthecopiesofthecopies November 1, 2022 at 10:17 am

    Off-Topic Question: I’m trying to understand Romans; what book/commentary would you recommend?

    • BDEhrman November 3, 2022 at 3:59 am

      I’d suggest you start with a good study Bible (HarperCollins Study Bible or Oxford Reference Bible), read the introduction and then the entire text of Romans looking at footnotes; then maybe my chapter on Romans in my book The New Testament: A Historical Introdu tion to the Early Christian Writings; I give some bibliography there as well.

  3. charrua November 1, 2022 at 11:50 am

    Chapeau !

    “There are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament”

    What a sentence to illustrate the article !

    And the flip-flops between bad and good news is an excellent way to introduce the big problem of “reconstructing what the authors of the New Testament actually wrote”.

    Just a minor observation about “scholars have typically dated it to around 125 C.E” in relation to P52, as far as I know this is highly disputed and the “around” could easily reach the third century .

  4. anthonygale November 1, 2022 at 2:50 pm

    Would it have been typical for an author to make their own copies? If so, how many might they produce, how far might they circulate, and how long might they stay in circulation before being lost/destroyed?

    Obviously, people other than the author did the majority of the copying, and the presence of errors is clear. The reason I ask is, when you suggest that a fragment dating to 125 might be a copy of a copy of a copy, why not a copy? If John was written in 100, might he have made a copy in 125 himself? The chances of P52 being written by John is about zero of course, and even an author would probably make errors copying their own book. Still, perhaps some of the earliest manuscripts are not as far removed from the originals as you suggest?

    • BDEhrman November 3, 2022 at 4:11 am

      Some did have copies made of their literary works for initial circulation; but I don’t think I know of any ancient authors who copied out their own works themselves. All we know about such things is from a comments by upper class literary elites; it’s really impossible to say wha the early Xn authors (who were not among the elite) were doing in that respect. And there isn’t any way to say how many copies an author would make; the instances taht we know of (or at lesat that I’m aware of) involced having copies made to give to a circle of friends. That is what “publication” entailed.

  5. anthonygale November 1, 2022 at 3:38 pm

    To elaborate on my previous comment with a hypothetical series of events…

    John is written say between the years of 90 and 100. He himself makes a copy in 120. By then he is revered in the early church, at least locally, so someone wants to save a copy written in his hand. That copy (or another he has made), survives until the early 3rd century. Someone makes a copy of that 2nd century copy (made by John himself), and copies it well, which is preserved until the early 4th century. Whoever compiled Codex Vaticanus got their hands on that copy, which could be considered a copy of an original.

    Is that the most likely scenario? Perhaps not. Is there any evidence this occurred? Zero. Is it implausible?

    • BDEhrman November 3, 2022 at 4:17 am

      I’d say it’s pretty unlikely. We don’t know of authors later making copies of their own works — at least I’ve never heard of it. And that the scribe of Vaticanus would happen to have John’s own copy seems, well, maybe implausible isn’t strong enough? 🙂 (Living in a different part of the world, centuries later, when numerous copies would have been in circulation, almost all of them copies of copies of copies. (They *had* to be, since there are so many out there in different places from Gaul to North Africa to Syria to Asia Minor to Rome to Alexandria to Greece, etc. etc. etc.)

  6. thepauldasilva November 1, 2022 at 4:36 pm

    A very helpful summary Dr Ehrman. Excellent insight as always.

    1. Is there a substantial difference in the body of manuscripts used to generate current translations, compared with previous versions?

    2. If so, is it driven by more recent discoveries, or a shift in which manuscripts are considered authoritative?

    3. Do translators into other languages use the same corpus of manuscripts as translators to English?

    4. Are there translations in other languages that have the same support as the KJV does for many English speakers, taking on an authority of its own?

    Thanks for your great work, as always. Paul

    • BDEhrman November 3, 2022 at 4:26 am

      1. Oh yes. Translators always take all the available manuscript evidence into consideratoin. But they don’t normally refer to the manuscirpts themselves but to Greek editions that are made specifically to provide access to what experts maintain is the closest we can get tto the original I should post on that. 2. The reconstructed Greek text that virtually everyone uses has not signficantly changed over the past century or so, despite discoveries. 3. Yes. 4. Yup, many of of the european languages. Luther’s German translation had that kind of KJV like standing.

      • fragmentp52 November 4, 2022 at 9:23 pm

        Hello Bart.

        1. So, if I’ve understood your post correctly, the thousand of manuscripts as individual items are not used by scholars such as yourself ? What happens is that other scholars have in essence compiled a “master” copy, which is used by folks like you for your books, university courses etc. Is that right ?

        2. If the answer to 1 is yes, is there any disagreement among scholars with respect to inclusions / exclusions of individual manuscripts in the “master” copy ?

        Thank you.

        • BDEhrman November 6, 2022 at 8:25 am

          1. Yes, there’s an edition of the Greek NT that almost everyone agrees should be used and that translators use; it indicates significant places where manuscripts disagree, but not all the insignificant places since that would take many, many volumes and wouldn’t affect things much. 2. Yes there are very major disagreements in places. That’s what we have both the bad news with the good news still. Even scholars who insist that the very words were inspired by God cannot agree on some of the key words in places.

          • fragmentp52 November 6, 2022 at 2:25 pm

            Thank you Bart.

  7. tom.hennell November 1, 2022 at 9:27 pm

    Fascinating Bart.

    But I am intrigued that your commentw in 2011; “The striking and disappointing fact is that our earliest manuscripts of the New Testament have far more mistakes and differences in them than our later ones”; which do not appear to have been confirmed in Lonnie Bell’s more recent – and very systematic – study of all the early fragmentary papyri of the Gospel of John. Rather the contrary. Lonnie claims ” to test, by way of these passages, whether or not the manuscript tradition can be fairly characterized as freer and more prone to corruption in the second and third centuries than in subsequent centuries”; and concludes “that the copying of John during the second and third centuries was characterized largely by stability and by continuity with the later period”.

    Have Lonnie Bell’s findings led you to modify your earlier views; in that he sees them rather as implying that habits in scribal copying in the earlier period were not significantly more likely to generate variants than the counterpart habits in copying from the 4th century onwards?

    • BDEhrman November 3, 2022 at 4:34 am

      As you probably noticed, Bell published that book in a mongrap series that I edit. 🙂 I would say that he makes a good point about a narrow slice of the tradition. But anyone who has colla5ed manuscripts to determine percentages of agreements in genetically significant units of variation can tell you that the disagreements among witnesses of the witnesses from, say P52 to Bezae are SIGNIFICANTLY greater than in any later period. For full manuscripts, just collate D against B (which are based of course on earlier textual witnesses) and then collate any two manuscripts you choose at random from, say, the 10th century.

  8. tom.hennell November 3, 2022 at 8:02 am

    Thanks Bart; I did note that you had edited Bell’s monograph for publication (though I confess I am using his on-line PhD)

    Bell’s states his exam question as “Do we see greater care and stability in copying in the later period (fourth through seventh centuries) than in the early period (second and third centuries)? Put differently, is the manuscript tradition [in John] moving in a trajectory from “free” and “wild” to careful and stable transmission attitudes and practices during this period?”

    While Bell is working within a shorter period than your proposed later comparator witnesses of 10th century, I would propose that this ‘narrower slice’ is far the most important for establishing the text. Bell’s 4th-7th century witnesses – potentially extendable in the Gospels for all the major versions – Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Gothic – are complete source-texts for establishing more than 99% of the ‘critical text’. 10th(plus) century witnesses are much less used.

    So might you now agree with Bell that – for the Gospel of John – there is no evidence that scribal habits from the second to third centuries were “wilder” or “freer” than those from the fourth to seventh?

    • BDEhrman November 5, 2022 at 10:26 am

      It would take me a few days or even weeks to do a full evaluation at the critical level, and I just am not that invested in teh question for that narrower slice. I collated many dozens of early and late manuscripts in my early work when I was focused on developing methods of manuscript classificatoin, and the results of all that work was almost invariable; my focus was not on small fragments, for which statistical models are almost impossible, but on large chunks and complete mss. As I say, if you compare P66 and D to one another, on the one hand, with almost any early Byzantine mss on another, there really isn’t much of a question. Byzantine mss are often in 90+ agreement in genetically signoficant variation; you get nothing like that earlier. I can’t remember what Bell says about that.

      • tom.hennell November 6, 2022 at 7:39 pm

        Fair enough Bart; it would indeed be a lot of work to replicate

        I am not sure I understand your statistical comments though; Bell’s study has 14 observations – remembering that each scribe’s habits represents only one observation, however much (or little) text from that scribe survives. So his study has far greater statistical power than would, say, a comparison of the scribal habits of P66 with D.

        But you can read across from Bell’s count of ‘copyist-created’ readings in two fragments, against counterpart copyist-created readings in P66 and D respectiviely (not much of D survives from John);. Counts in brackets

        P95 (2); P66(0); D(2)

        P39(0); P66(1); D(6)

        (note that Bell’s count excludes singular reading corrected by the copyist or diorthetes; and he finds very few uncorrected in P66).

        From this you certainly would not conclude that the scribe of D was ‘stricter’ than that of P66 or the fragments.

        Much later manuscripts certainly do demonstrate more controlled copying; but are largely irrelevant for establishing the text. A parallel might be the Masoretic text; which was highly controlled in late medieval copies; but the published critical text uses these very rarely, resting rather on just two early manuscripts.

      • tom.hennell November 7, 2022 at 6:38 am

        Apologies for taking two bites at the cherry;

        but to clarify; Bell agrees with Royse that the text of P66 should be evaluated in its final form, after the attentions of the diorthetes. “when we turn to this final product, we see the removal of nearly all nonsense readings, efforts to compare the copy with a different Vorlage, and even attempts to correct corruptions in word order and itacistic spellings, all of which demonstrate that “the scribe of P66 exercises great care to render a literal copy.”

        If so, then P66 should be considered as a very highly controlled text; perhaps as much controlled in its own terms as the later Byzantine manuscripts were in theirs. The contrary view derives from collating only its ‘first’ stage of production.

        The key question is not whether these earlier scribes adopted the same controls as the Byzantine scribes did; but whether the controls they did adopt were sufficient to transmit a reliable text? From an overlook of Bell’s findings, the Vaticanus scribe(s) looks to have been highly controlled (with 9 out of 14 scores of zero copyist-generated readings); the Sinaiticus scribe(s) rather less so (2 out of 14).

        • BDEhrman November 9, 2022 at 9:52 am

          Yup, it’s all important data, and its an important study. Since I haven’t worked in teh field for many years, I have not kept up to see if anyone fully trained in manuscript classification (as you might imagine, there were not many of us; apart from Hurtado and me in my generation I’m drawing blanks; Reece was a bit earlier , and then of coruse there was the Calremont crowd, but Wisse moved on long before me) has dug in to provided a detailed evalutaion in a review. If you find any, let me know.

  9. Ting November 3, 2022 at 11:46 pm

    Matthew says the wise men saw a star that pinpointed the location of the Messiah.

    Where in the Jewish scripture does it say that a star would reveal the location or birthplace of the messiah? If there’s none, where did Matthew get this idea? Thanks!

    • BDEhrman November 6, 2022 at 8:11 am

      It apparently comes from Numbers 24:17, another biblical prophecy taken by Matthew to refer to the Messiah. (You will probably think it’s a bit of a loose connection to the narrative of Matthew, and it is! So too are other biblical references in the passage)

  10. mikebeverley November 4, 2022 at 6:36 am

    Hi. I tried to buy “misquoting Jesus” and the shop tried to sell me “whose word is it”. They said its got the same design on the cover, same subtitle and blurb. So is one an updated version over the other?


    • BDEhrman November 6, 2022 at 8:19 am

      Yup, it’s exactly the same book. The British publishers changed the title. They often do that, and sometimes it’s a good decision. In this case it’s one reason (but not the only one) the book sold approximately four copies in the UK.

      • mikebeverley November 7, 2022 at 8:59 am

        I’m amazed how long it took before I heard of you/your work here in the UK. It just happened one day that YouTube recommended a debate of yours despite me having watched dozens of religious debates over the years. I’ve ended up buying Misquoting Jesus and God’s problem within days of flicking through some of your other YouTube shown lectures. I’m certainly passing the word on to people I know and discuss with. So maybe that will jump to at least eight books soon!

        • BDEhrman November 9, 2022 at 9:58 am

          Great! My relatives over here (I’m here now) don’t even know people who are remotely interested in this kind of thing. Different universe from the American south!

  11. Manuel November 4, 2022 at 12:41 pm

    I know that there are a few hundred (thousand?) charred papyri in Herculaneum and Pompeii which modern science is beginning to decipher. 79 AD may be too early for the gospels but not for the letters of Paul. What do you think the chances are of finding something biblical in those papyri and what would be the impact if such documents were found?

    • BDEhrman November 6, 2022 at 8:21 am

      My guess is that the chances are roughly zero. But oh boy would I be happy to be surprised!

  12. arthurzetes November 5, 2022 at 5:52 am

    Thank you for sharing this. I wasnt aware that the original manuscripts were written by people who were not well trained. This casts the whole “earlier is better” argument in a whole different light.

    When I read The Case for Christ as a Christian I thought the number of manuscripts was pretty compelling. They didnt share that the vast majority of them come after everything was decided – hundreds of years after the originals.

    • BDEhrman November 6, 2022 at 8:28 am

      Yup, it’s a very strange argument that convinces people because they aren’t told what the actual situation is. But surely if we don’t have full copies for hundreds of years, there’s no way to know exactly with completely accuracy how the text got changed in all that time. There are good reasons for thinking we *basically* know *most* of the time, but that ain’t the same, and in the end even that comes down to a set of assumptions that we use for the sake of convenience.

  13. bobby November 12, 2022 at 10:52 am

    Firstly congrats on donating over a million dollars! A great achievement.

    I’m wondering if you know of research/researchers who are working on establishing lineages of documents based on machine learning/data science algorithms.

    • BDEhrman November 14, 2022 at 5:11 pm

      The current craze among textual specialists is something called the Coherence Based Genealogical Method that establishes the genealogical relationshiop among variant readings through computer analyses. Look it up on the internet and you’ll get an idea about it.

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