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New Testament Texts and Manuscripts

A Hugely Memorable Moment: When I Saw Codex Sinaiticus

In my last post I began to relate an anecdote about a traveling adventure I had several years ago, when giving lectures for a UNC trip to Egypt and Jordan with a stop at the famed St. Catherine’s monastery in the southern part of the Sinai peninsula, the place where Tischendorf had discovered the biblical manuscript Codex Sinaiticus in the mid 19th century, and where a fire at the monastery in the 1970s had uncovered a hidden room found to contain manuscripts, including the pages from the Old Testament of the Codex Sinaiticus that Tischendorf had not come away with from the monastery when he took the bulk of the manuscript with him back to Russian.  (Now THAT'S a long sentence!) For me, one of the highlights of this trip was to be a visit to the monastery, a place that I had wanted to see for years.  It is located in a completely barren location in the wilderness and is the one and only thing to see in the entire region.  It’s not the [...]

2023-08-30T11:41:53-04:00September 7th, 2023|Bart’s Biography, New Testament Manuscripts|

My Trip to Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai: Discovery Site of Codex Sinaiticus

In my previous post I talked about Constantin von Tischendorf and his discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus in St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai peninsula in 1844 and then 1859.   I have a personal anecdote to relate about the manuscript, one of the most interesting things ever to happen to me on my various travels hither and yon. To make sense of the anecdote I need to provide some background information.   As I indicated in my previous post, when Tischendorf discovered the codex Sinaiticus (as it was later called), he considered it to be the most ancient biblical manuscript then known to exist.  He was right.  It was. Tischendorf claimed that the manuscript was gifted to him by the head of the monastery.   The monastery later claimed, and still claims to this day, that he stole it from them. The manuscript consists of both the Old Testament and the New Testament (all in Greek).   It is generally dated today to the middle of the fourth Christian century.   Since Tischendorf’s day, many much older manuscripts have [...]

The Discovery of Codex Sinaiticus: One of the Most Important Manuscripts of the New Testament

Last week my two teenage granddaughters (TEENAGE GRANDDAUGHTERS??  Yikes.  How'd this happen to me...?) were visiting us in London, their first time there.  We did tons of great tourist stuff, and it was fantastic.  One of the things we did is take them to the public exhibition of manuscripts at the British Library, and among the amazing things there -- Leonardo Da Vinci notebooks, the Magna Carta, Beatles songs written on envelopes and scrap paper, Lewis Carroll's own copy of Alice in Wonderland, etc. etc. -- is the very famous Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in existence, dating from around 370 CE or so.  I showed my granddaughters and explained a bit.  They're not Bible geeks (oh boy are they not), but still, it was impressive. It made me think that I should talk about it a bit here and its remarkable discovery here on the blog.  It was found by probably a scholar who was almost certainly the most intrepid of manuscript-hunters of modern times, Constantine von Tischendorf. His [...]

Why Do Some (Many?) Scholars Not Treat the Bible Like Other Ancient Sources?

As I was thinking today about the need to be consistently critical with all of our sources – not just the ones we want to be critical of (this was the topic of yesterday’s post, with an ultimate view of what I want to say about Josephus as a possible witness to the practice of Jews burying their executed dead on the days of their deaths) -- another anecdote occurred to me that I thought might help illustrate my point.  Here it is.  In the next post I will get to Josephus, I promise. As some of you know, I have had a number of debates with evangelical Christians on the question of whether we know what the original writings of the New Testament actually said.  The typical line from these evangelical Christians is that since we have so *many* surviving manuscripts of the NT, that we can be almost completely certain that we know what the authors wrote in the vast majority of cases (virtually all).   My view is that we simply cannot know [...]

2023-08-17T22:10:14-04:00August 26th, 2023|Bart's Critics, Early Judaism, New Testament Manuscripts|

An Intriguing Anti-Jewish Variant: Did Jesus Pray “Father forgive them”?

In my previous post I pointed out that scribes appear to have changed their texts of the New Testament in ways that reflected the rising anti-Jewish sentiment of the early Christian centuries.  For me, by a wide margin, the most intriguing example of this is the prayer Jesus makes from the cross in Luke's Gospel (and nowhere else in the New Testament) "Father forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." I wrote about this passage in an article many years ago that I called  “The Text of the Gospels at the End of the Second Century,” which was reprinted in a collection of my more scholarly essays on textual criticism called Studies in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Brill, 2006; the paper was originally written for a conference in 1993) (not that I'm dating myself...) The paper was written for fellow scholars, but I’ve decided to go ahead and include it here verbatim.  BUT, I have added several explanatory comments in [brackets] for technical terms and ideas that are not the [...]

Anti-Jewish Alterations of the New Testament Writings?

In my previous post I pointed out that scribes sometimes changed the manuscripts of the New Testament in order to make them more theologically "orthodox," that is, more in line with theological views of (most of) the scribes who were copying the texts in the second and third centuries.  Five points I would like to emphasize about that phenomenon (if you want a fuller analysis, this is the topic of my study, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effects of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament). It would be a very big mistake to think that this was the main reason scribes changed their texts (as I've said my entire life, even if many people haven't noticed!) These changes were never done consistently or throughly, at least in any of our surviving manuscripts, and that suggests it was an ad hoc affair, happening now and then as a scribe decided to modify a passage.  So far as we can tell it was never done on orders from on high.  That is, [...]

New Testament Manuscripts That Reveal Later Theological Controversies

In my previous post I started to explain how the manuscripts of the New Testament can help us reconstruct not only the “original” texts that the author wrote but also, when looked at in a different way, what was happening in the worlds of the scribes who changed them.  In this post I deal with the one part of that context that is best known today, scribes changing the text for theological reasons.  In my next post I’ll get to the issue that started this small thread, changes of the text made in opposition to Jews and Judaism.  This again is from my essay “The Text as Window,” in the collection of essays Mike Holmes and I edited, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research. (This post is a bit longer than usual; if you want to cut it in half, you have my permission, indeed, my suggestion, not to read the footnotes.  It was written for scholars, who like nothing better than footnotes....) ****************************** The Internecine Struggles of Early Christianity Arguably the [...]

2023-01-31T15:26:45-05:00February 7th, 2023|New Testament Manuscripts|

New Testament Manuscripts as Windows into Early Christian History

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 [...]

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

Do All Modern Translators of the New Testament Translate the Same Greek Text?

If someone translates the New Testament today into English, French, Arabic, or Swahili -- what exactly are they translating?  They must have access to some kind of Greek text.  But what?  Are there lots to choose from out there?  Are they wildly different from one another?  I pointed out in my previous post that the King James and just about all other versions before the end of the 19th century were based on a printed Greek text that is now widely seen as flawed.  So what do folks use today?  Or if someone is just wanting to *read* the Greek -- what options are there?  Is there some kind of "official" version? Blog readers occasionally ask me these questions and luckily there is a fairly standard answer known to almost no one but scholars. When scholars translate the New Testament into any modern language, they almost always (apart from fundamentalists who prefer the Greek used for the King James) use the same Greek text.  It is a printed edition of the Greek New Testament published [...]

Famous Passages that Are Not Original: How Do Modern Translators Deal with Them?

In my previous post I indicated that the King James Version includes verses in some places that are almost certainly not “original” – that is, passages that were not written by the original authors but were added by later scribes.  I chose three of the most outstanding and famous examples: the explicit reference to the Trinity in 1 John 5:7-8; the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 7:53-8:11; and Jesus’ resurrection appearance in the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel, Mark 16:9-20. What about more recent translations?  how are these three passages presented there?   I won't discuss all the translations here, of course (the 29 million of them) but the one that I and most other historical scholars I know, prefer, the New Revised Standard Version, recently updated in the NRSVue (= updated edition.  Catchy, huh?).   Since virtually all scholars (including the translators of this edition) agree these three passages were not original to the New Testament, are they printed there? As it turns out, the three passages are handled differently.   The first, [...]

Problems with the King James Version: What Were the Translators Translating?

I’ve mentioned several problems with the King James Version in previous posts.  Arguably the most significant set of problems has to do with the text that the translators were translating.  The brief reality is that in the early 17th century, Greek editions of the New Testament were based on very few and highly inferior manuscripts.  Only after the King James was translated did scholars begin to become aware of the existence of older, and far better, manuscripts. The manuscripts of the New Testament (and of all books from antiquity) were copied -- prior to the invention of printing -- almost always by scribes who did their best to make faithful reproductions of the copies they were copying, and many of them did a remarkably good job.  Others did a not-so-good job.  Since mistakes can get replicated over time, and introduced over time, in general it is a good idea to consult the *earliest* manuscripts for determining what an author of a book wrote.  The later manuscripts tend to be worse (that’s not an *absolute* rule, [...]

Can We Trust the Bible? The First Published (as opposed to Printed) Greek New Testament

In this thread on Bible translation, I have been talking about what it is translators of the New Testament actually translate.  In order to answer the question, I have had to explain how we started to get printed editions of the Greek New Testament, including the first to come off the printing press, the Complutensian Polyglot (discussed in yesterday’s post).  Today I take the discussion a step further, to talk about the first published (not the first printed!) Greek New Testament.  Again, the discussion is taken from my book Misquoting Jesus. ****************************** The First Published Edition of the Greek New Testament Even though the Complutensian Polyglot was the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament, it was not the first published version.  As I pointed out, even though the work was printed by 1514, it did not actually see the light of published day until 1522.  Between those two dates a famous and enterprising Dutch scholar, the humanist intellectual Desiderius Erasmus, both produced and published an edition of the Greek New Testament, receiving the [...]

Can We Trust the Bible? The First Printed Greek New Testament

I have started to explain what it is translators of the New Testament actually translate.  They do not translate just one manuscript or another; they translate what they take to be the “original” text as it has been reconstructed by textual specialists (some of whom are the translators themselves).  These reconstructions can be found in printed editions of the Greek New Testament. To make sense of what the translators actually have in front of them when they are translating, I need to give a brief history of the printing of the Greek New Testament.  To that end I will provide in two or three posts the directly relevant material given in my book Misquoting Jesus.  I’ve always thought this is unusually interesting information connected to “how we got our Bible.”  I start at the beginning, with the invention of printing. ****************************** The text of the New Testament was copied in a fairly standardized form throughout the centuries of the Middle Ages, both in the East (the “Byzantine” text) and the West (the Latin Vulgate).   It [...]

What New Testament Do New Testament Translators Translate?

I've been talking about some of the intriguing issues and problems with the King James translation.  The Biggest Problem is one that takes a bit of time to explain, and so will consume a couple of posts even before I explain the issue with the KJV.  The broader context involves Bible translation in general, and revolves around a rather basic and highly important question that very few people know the answer to:  What is it that Bible translators translate when they are translating? Here I will focus on the New Testament, my main area of expertise.   When a translator wants to make an English version of, say, Mark (what I say about Mark will be true of all the books of the NT), what does she actually translate into English? Obviously she cannot take Mark’s original manuscript and translate it, since we don’t have it.  Or the first copy of the original, or a copy of the copy of the original.   We have hundreds of copies of Mark.  Does she just choose one that seems good [...]

Is the King James Bible Actually the William Tyndale Version?

Many, possibly most, people don’t realize that the King James Bible was not the first translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament into English. There were seven major translations published earlier, and all of them to a greater or lesser extent (almost always greater) were dependent on the one(s) that came before them. The first, greatest, and most influential was the translation by William Tyndale. It was also the riskiest. It cost Tyndale his life. In 1408 a law had been passed in England making it illegal to translate or to read the Bible in English without official ecclesiastical approval; this was in response to the translation activities connected with (pre-Reformer) John Wycliffe and his followers, whose English rendering was not from the original Hebrew and Greek, but from the Latin vulgate. By the time of Tyndale in the early 16th century, it was possible to learn Greek at Oxford, and just possible to pick up Hebrew, and he did so. Tyndale was refused permission to publish a translation in England, [...]

So Which Text is Original?? My View of 1 Thessalonians 2:7

  I am about ready to wrap up my discussion of the textual problem of 1 Thessalonians 2:7.  When recalling his time with the Thessalonians, when he had worked hard not to be a burden with any of them, did Paul indicate that he and his missionary companions had become "as infants, as a nurse tending her children" or that they had become "gentle, as a nurse tending her children."   It is not an obvious decision, whether you think the change was made accidentally or on purpose.  (If you think it *is* obvious, look at the preceding two posts).  It seems like it might go either way.  I myself have an opinion on the matter (textual scholars tend to have opinions); but I"ll hold off on that for a minute. First: some of you might be wondering--which of these readings do the best surviving manuscripts actually suggest?  Is one of the readings ("infants" or "gentle") better attested than the other?  Which reading do our oldest and best manuscripts have? Here, as it turns out, the [...]

2022-11-27T15:43:52-05:00November 30th, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts, Paul and His Letters|

Do We KNOW What Paul Wrote? If You Think So, Answer This….

Do we really KNOW what the authors of the New Testament wrote?  Sometimes we just can't decide -- despite what apologists almost always say (Most apologists, btw, have never actually studied the problem; I'm not trying to be snide or rude when I say that -- it's an empirical fact; even most PhD's in New Testament Studies have not been trained to determine which actual words of the surviving manuscripts probably go back to the authors). I am now looking at a case in point, a single word in a single passage of  Paul's first epistle to the Thessalonians (see the previous post).  The decision of what he wrote comes down to a single letter in the word. Scholars (especially, as it turns out, those few who ARE deeply trained to figure these things out) can't agree about the single letter. And the decision determines the meaning of the passage.  Did Paul remind the Thessalonians that when he and his missionary colleagues were with them they became like “infants” among them rather than great, powerful, [...]

2022-11-23T16:26:43-05:00November 29th, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts, Paul and His Letters|

How Changing a Single Letter of a Single Word Can Change the Meaning of a Passage

Now that I have discussed the purpose of 1 Thessalonians I would like to discuss a scribal change of the text - a change that involves just a single letter of a single word.  Which did Paul originally write?  The word *with* the letter or the word *without* it?   How you decide the question changes the meaning of the passage.  Yikes.  A single letter? The passage occurs in an earlier part of the book where Paul is reminding the Thessalonians of the time that he had spent with them when he converted them to their new faith.  This is a very joyful part of the letter, one of the most sentimental passages of all of Paul’s letters, where he speaks of the relationship he had with his converts when he was there. But the description is a bit hard to pin down, in part because of the presence or non-presence of just one letter of the alphabet.  Some manuscripts have it, and others don’t.  And it is very hard to decide which reading is [...]

2022-11-23T17:25:08-05:00November 27th, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts, Paul and His Letters|

What Is Paul’s First Surviving Letter All About? 1 Thessalonians

In my two previous posts I discussed a textual variant that could be explained either as a scribal accident or as an intentional change.   I thought it might be interesting to point out a few other variants that also could go either way.   These are all intriguing problems in and of themselves, and by talking about them I can illustrate a bit further the kinds of quandaries textual critics find themselves in when trying to decide what an author wrote when we have different versions of his words in different manuscripts.   My plan right now is to look at three variants in three different mini-threads (all of them subsumed under the larger thread of why I wrote The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture).   Today is one of my favorites, a particularly thorny issue found in 1 Thessalonians 2:7. I can’t get to a discussion of that issue without providing some important background; just the very basics of the background will take me two posts, before I can even start to explain the textual problem. First Thessalonians [...]

2022-11-19T20:13:40-05:00November 25th, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts, Paul and His Letters|

Why Would Scribes Mess with Mark’s Very First Verse?

In yesterday’s post I discussed a textual variant in Mark 1:1 that could be explained either as an accidental slip of the pen or an intentional alteration of the text.   We’re plowing into some heavy waters here, but it involves some intriguing stuff that I can say with assurance you didn't ever learn in Sunday School... Just by way of basic review (basics not involving heavy waters, but that you *also* didn't hear in Sunday School), there are thousands of textual witnesses to the NT (Greek manuscripts, manuscripts of the versions, writings of the church fathers who quote the text); these witnesses attests hundreds of thousands of variants among themselves; the vast majority of those differences are immaterial and insignificant and don’t matter for much of anything; some of them are highly significant indeed.  Most of the changes were made by accident.  Some were consciously made by scribes who wanted to change the text. And in Mark 1:1 we have a variant where it is hard to tell which it is.  At issue are the [...]

2022-11-23T10:21:41-05:00November 19th, 2022|Canonical Gospels, New Testament Manuscripts|
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