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New Testament Manuscripts: Good News and Bad News

In my previous post I started talking about the different kinds of manuscripts of the New Testament we have, as a prelude to my discussion of my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.  I now want to say something further about these manuscripts and how they can help us reconstruct 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 on the New Testament, in the new sixth edition that has just appeared.

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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 manuscripts for the New Testament 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.

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 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 manuscripts of the New Testament 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!

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 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.

 


The Versional Evidence for the New Testament
The Manuscripts of the New Testament

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Jim  July 18, 2015

    If you should decide to do a new edition of Orthodox Corruption of Scripture in the near future, is there any new and significant orthodox corruption that has come to light since the current version of your book?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2015

      I did a second edition of the book a couple of years ago, but I have not found more variants than the ones I already discussed that I think need to be included.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 18, 2015

    My response to this post was to rush right over to Amazon.com and order a copy of your book!

  3. Avatar
    JB  July 18, 2015

    Dr Ehrman,

    Sorry if you’ve already addressed this somewhere, but given your earlier post “Growth Rate of Early Christianity” there in all likelihood were only a few thousand Christians at the time the gospels were written through the begining of the second century, fewer and fewer as one looks back in time. Since elsewhere I’ve seen you mention a literacy rate of no more than 3% in the ancient near east we probably are talking about no more than a tiny handfull of individuals in each generation capable of copying of scriptures, numbering maybe in the dozens and perhaps less for the first few generations of scripture (and probably only a subset of these of these actually DID copy scripture). Does this sound about right to you?

  4. John4
    John4  July 18, 2015

    Congratulations on your new edition, Bart. 🙂

  5. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 18, 2015

    Very interesting. I imagine these manuscripts evolved over time as a result of competing Christianities. There is an evolution of Christ from Mark to John and this evolution is quite significant. Once the Orthodox view was won, established, then other doctrines were added to “make up” the core of Christianity. As Rome was not built over night, nor was Christianity. It is too bad that we don’t have a lot more early manuscripts from the first century. I think a good deal more can be proven with an early manuscript even though a great deal has been uncovered as a result of all this scholarship. Why would you like to have the Gospel of John if you could have an early manuscript? If you have multiple reasons, then just one or two is fine. Give me your best one.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2015

      I’d love to see what the reading of 1:18 and 20:31 were (for openers), and whether it had chapter 21.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 20, 2015

        What in particular makes you wonder about Chapter 21? Do you think the “primacy of Peter” notion was introduced at a later date?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 21, 2015

          It is widely thought that the first edition of the Gospel ended with ch. 21. The resurrection appearances in 21 look like an add-on, and 20:30-31 sounds like the ending of a book (among other reasons).

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 20, 2015

        Incidentally, I typed and submitted my previous “reply” before noticing my Bible had the words “Primacy of Peter” at the top of the page, to indicate the “stand-out” thing on that page. I’m surprised that I’d used the same wording!

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 18, 2015

    Excellent summary, especially the part about the early scribes making more mistakes than later scribes.

  7. Avatar
    paul c  July 19, 2015

    Languages and script change over time. I, personally, can understand very little of Chaucer and almost none of Beowulf, and yet, they are written in earlier forms of my native language. Do you suppose that those doing transcriptions toward the end of the period in which Greek dominated the copying process adequately knew what they were copying or were the copiers “updating” the copy as time went on?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2015

      It appears relatively certain that Greek scribes all the way down to modernity could read the Greek NT with ease.

  8. Avatar
    evanball  July 19, 2015

    I’ve heard apologists claim that much of the NT could be reconstructed simply using quotes from the early church fathers. I also heard you say in a debate that quotes from church fathers frequently differ from the current accepted scripture. Can point me towards any examples? Thank you and I really enjoyed your appearance on Unbelievable yesterday!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 20, 2015

      I’ll be talking about Patristic evidence later this week. Hopefully some of your questions will be answered then.

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