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New Testament Texts and Manuscripts

A Major Argument That We Can Be Sure We Have the Original Text

There is one particularly interesting argument sometimes used by those who believe we can know with good certainty what the original text of the New Testament books said.  This is the argument called the “tenacity of the tradition.”  The argument is prefaced on the very interesting phenomenon that whenever papyri manuscripts are discovered – say from the third or fourth Christian century – they almost *never* contain new variant readings that we did not already know about from later manuscripts, of say the seventh to fifteenth centuries.  Instead, the readings of these early manuscripts re-appear in later manuscripts. The conclusion that is sometimes drawn, then, is that that tradition is “tenacious.”  That is to say, later manuscripts did not invent their variant readings, but in almost every instance replicated variant readings that they got from earlier manuscripts.   And one corollary that is sometimes drawn, then, is variant readings do not disappear but continue to be replicated in later witnesses.   If that is the case, then the “original” readings almost certainly still survive somewhere in the [...]

2024-05-08T11:51:02-04:00May 16th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

Dubious Arguments That We CAN Get to the “Original Text”

When I have public debates with scholars over whether we can know the original text of the New Testament or not, I stake out the claim that we cannot, and they stake out the claim that we probably can.  Part of my argument is always the one I started to outline in the previous post.  If we take something like the Gospel of Mark, our first complete manuscript of Mark is 300 years after Mark was first produced and put in circulation.  So how can we know if that manuscript is extremely close to the original?  We don’t have an original to compare it to in order to find out.  And we don’t have earlier manuscripts to compare it to in order to find out, except for one remarkable, but highly fragmentary manuscript about a century and half earlier (dating from around 200 CE), which does contain differences from the complete one. So given this fact, how does my opponent typically argue his case?  Normally he cites two important data.  There is no disputing either [...]

2024-05-08T11:57:30-04:00May 15th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts|

Don’t the MOST Manuscripts Show What An Author Wrote?

Suppose you have thousands of manuscripts of a New Testament book and a particular verse is worded in one way in 98% of them but another way in just 2%?  Surely the 98% is right, right?  That was an issue I addressed many years ago on the blog, and to some of you, the answer may be surprising.  Here's how I said it then. ****************************** Early on in my study of textual criticism I came to understand one of the major issues confronting scholars in the field – an issue that scholars have been contending with since the eighteenth century.  For the past hundred years or so the vast majority of experts have been convinced by a solution to the problem, but the solution was slow in coming, for all sorts of reasons.  But when I was first introduced to the problem I learned there were two sides that were being taken, and I wrote a paper about it (my first year in college, at Moody Bible Institute).  I continued to be interested in the [...]

2024-05-10T11:51:50-04:00May 14th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts|

Even If We Can Imagine an “Original” Text, How Could We Know if We Had It?

Scholars sometimes debate whether we can know that we have reconstructed the original text of the New Testament at every point – or even every important point.  To me the answer was and is self-evidently, no, of course not.  Many of my conservative evangelical critics think that I’m being overly skeptical, that since we have thousands of manuscripts of the NT, we can surely know better what the authors of the NT said than any other authors from the ancient world.  My view is that this might be true, but that simply shows that we can’t know what *most* authors of the ancient world actually said, word for word. Why does that matter?  I’ll explain in a second, for the bulk of this post.  But first let me put the matter in very simple form, at least insofar as I can.  Suppose Matthew’s Gospel was circulated for the very first time in Antioch of Syria around the year 85 CE.   We’ll call that first circulated copy the “original.”  Someone copied the original in his church.   [...]

2024-05-08T15:14:28-04:00May 12th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

Is There an Original Text Even of One of MY Books??

  Here's a way to think about what it can even mean to talk about an "original text," from a post many years ago, published when I was just finishing up one of my books. ****************************** In my debates with other scholars about whether we can know (for certain) (or at they sometimes put it, with 99% certainty) what the original words of the New Testament were, I always argue that we cannot “know,” and they argue we can.   Let me explain one reason that I find their position highly problematic by dealing with a broader issue.  What exactly *is* the original text of a document?  If we can’t agree on that very basic and fundamental question, then we can’t very well agree on the possibility of getting back to the original. I’ve dealt with this problem on the blog before, but let me approach if from a different angle this time.  I have just finished my recent book on how memory studies can help us think about the oral traditions of Jesus [...]

2024-05-06T23:41:53-04:00May 11th, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

How Can We Even IMAGINE an “Original” Text of the Gospels?

QUESTION: When it comes to the gospels, how do we define the ‘original text’? Do we define it as the original manuscript that was first penned by the author, or do we define it as the gospels in their most settled canonical form?   RESPONSE: As it turns out, this is a complicated and endlessly fascinating question that, so far as I have been able to work out over the past twenty years of thinking about it, has no clear and obvious answer! By way of very simple background for readers not completely on top of the textual situation we are confronting when it comes to the Gospels (or any of the other books of the New Testament) (or of any ancient Christian writings at all) (or, in fact, of any writings of any kind at all that come down to us from antiquity) we do not have the “originals” (however we define that term: see below!).  What we have are copies made from copies, which were themselves made from copies.  Most [...]

Two KINDS of Originals. How Do We Know We Have Either?

I have recently been asked about how we know we have the originals of the books of the Bible.  By that, the questioner meant both how do we know the words we think the authors wrote were actually the words he wrote and how do we know the books we have are in the shape they were when they were written -- that is, is it possible chapters or passages have been added here or there or that several books were combined into one book even before scribes started copying what we have today? I've decided to deal with BOTH issue in a series of posts, and I've realized that many years ago I dealt with both issues very briefly TOGETHER in a single post, based on a question I received way back then when the world was younger.  So I'll begin my thread with that post: *******************************   How can we absolutely know whether we have the original words of the New Testament?  And weren’t books of the Old Testament edited progressively over time, [...]

An Astounding Quran Manuscript Discovery

In my previous posts I've mentioned the course I'll be doing on the Quran and the NT with scholar of Islam, Javad Hashmi.  In the course I won't myself be dealing with the Quran, since it's not my expertise and I prefer as a rule talking about things I know about.  But in past years on the blog I have published some posts on aspects of the Quran and Islam that I AM able to say something about, and thought this would be a good time to re-air them.  Here's one of them: ****************************** Those of you who follow the news have heard that a truly great manuscript discovery has been made public this week, coming out of the University of Birmingham, England.   The university has a very important collection of manuscripts, and for New Testament scholars it is famous for its Institute devoted to the study, analysis, and editing of Gospel manuscripts, an institute headed by my long-time friend and colleague David Parker, indisputably one of the top NT textual scholars in the world. [...]

2024-04-21T16:28:52-04:00April 23rd, 2024|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

No Virgin Birth? Was Jesus ADOPTED by God to be His Son?

Did Luke originally have the story of Jesus’ virgin birth? In my previous post I gave reasons for suspecting that Luke did not originally have chs. 1-2 (the birth narratives), but that it started (after what is now the preface in 1:1-4) with what is now 3:1. One of the reasons it is hard to know for certain is because we simply don’t have much hard evidence.  Our two earliest two manuscripts of Luke, P75 and P45, are lacking portions of Luke, including the first two chapters.  We can’t say whether they originally had them or not.  Our first manuscript with portions of the opening chapters is the third century P4.  But our earliest patristic witness is over a century earlier.  As it turns out, the witness is the heresiarch Marcion, and as is well known he didn’t have the first two chapters! As early as Irenaeus’s Adversus Haereses (1. 27. 2) Marcion was accused of excising the first two chapters of his Gospel because they did not coincide with his view that Jesus appeared [...]

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, [...]

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