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New Testament Texts and Manuscripts

Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 6

Q. Mythicists seems to often uses the interpolation theory to explain away NT texts that are inconvenient to their agendas. Yet it is also true that some NT scholars use interpolation theories to the very same end, even when there is apparently no textual basis for the interpolation theory. Explain how the mythicists appeal to interpolation is special pleading, whereas it is not when some NT scholars resort to such a theory (take for example the case of 1 Cor. 14.33b-36, which is displaced in some manuscripts but to my knowledge there are no manuscripts that omit it altogether). A.   A theory of interpolation argues that there are passages in the New Testament that were not originally there, even though they are still found in all the surviving manuscripts.   When a passage (whether several verses, a single verse, or part of a verse) is not found in one or more manuscripts, then the decision whether it was originally in the NT is based on textual criticism.  Scholars have to decide then which manuscript(s) more likely [...]

Should We Change the Canon of Scripture?

QUESTION: Given the criteria used to determine what would go on to constitute the New Testament canon, how is it that Hebrews and the book of Revelation remain part of the canon? I understand that Christians came to believe that they were authored by the apostles which is why they made it into the canon, but we now know that they weren't authored by Paul or John..so why are they still in the NT? RESPONSE: Interesting idea!   I sometimes get asked what I would exclude from the canon if given the choice, and I almost always say 1 Timothy (because of what it says about women in 2:11-15, and how the passage has been used for such horrible purposes over the years).  But, well, it ain’t gonna happen.  I don’t get a vote. And that’s the problem with Hebrews and Revelation – and all the other books that were admitted when Church Fathers (wrongly) thought they were written by apostles of Jesus (in this case Paul and John).  No one is going to give any [...]

Which Bible Translation Do I Prefer?

QUESTION: Dr. Ehrman, most of your readers in the ancient languages that the Bible was written in, therefore must rely on translations. Clearly no one translation is conclusive, but for clarity of reading and reliable research, can you recommend some translations to us? Conversely, do you have any that readers should avoid, because of clear bias or a little too loose?   RESPONSE: When I published Misquoting Jesus, I received a lot of emails from a lot of people asking a lot of questions.  But the one question I got asked more than any other was this one (in various forms):  which translation of the Bible do I recommend?   I should have answered it in the book itself; it would have made my life oh so much easier. There are lots and lots of good translations that are available today.  The first thing to stress about them is that just about every one of them (just about!  I’m sure there are exceptions, although offhand I can’t think of any) has been done by bona [...]

Question on How We Got the Canon of the New Testament

QUESTION: I just read Jesus, Interrupted … and have now seen that you have written quite a few books and articles. I am particularly interested in how the books of the New Testament were chosen and why/how the others were not. Can you recommend a good read for this?   RESPONSE: Ah, this is one of the BIG questions of early Christian studies! I have been interested in it for over 35 years. My first PhD seminar in graduate school was devoted to just this question, and I started thinking about it years even before that! I do address the question in several of my books. As you know from having just read Jesus Interrupted, I devote a good chunk of chapter 6 to it; in particular it is the overarching subject of Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (that book is my long version of the answer!). FOR THE REST of my response, log in!  If you don't belong, please join today! It only takes a small contribution [...]

2020-04-03T19:42:44-04:00May 24th, 2012|New Testament Manuscripts, Reader’s Questions|

Did the Gospels Originally Contain Miracle Stories?

QUESTION: I have looked up the content of all the papyri I'm aware of (off of links on wikipedia, so who knows if they're accurate). It is my understanding that although p52, p90, and p104 are dated around 125-150 AD, they contain fragments of John 18 and Matt 21 only, and that it's not until 200 AD that manuscripts emerge which actually contain accounts of supernatural actions by Jesus. So, it's possible that accounts of miracles existed in copies that got destroyed, but is it fair to say that the earliest available copies of accounts of Jesus's supernatural actions date from around 200 AD? In other words, assuming people on average had kids by age 20 back then, and thus 20 years counts as a generation, is it fair to say that the earliest available accounts of miracles by Jesus were written by the great, great, great, great, great, great, grandson of somebody who would have been alive at the same time as Jesus?   RESPONSE: This is an interesting question!   It is true that we do not start getting [...]

The Irony of our Earliest Manuscripts

                It’s a little hard to get one’s mind around the irony of our early manuscripts, as I was alluding to in my earlier post.   To reconstruct the “original” text of the New Testament – by which, for my purposes here, I mean the text that the author himself produced and put into the public sphere by “publishing” (or sending) it – we would love to have lots of early manuscripts to look at.  Unfortunately, we don’t have lots of early manuscripts.  94% of our manuscripts are 800 years after the fact.  We have only a handful of manuscripts, at best, that can plausibly be dated to the second century.   These are all *highly* fragmentary (the oldest is just a scrap with a few verses on it).  And even these are decades after the authors were all dead and buried. The problem is that every time a manuscript gets copied, mistakes – either intentional or accidental – are introduced.   And then when that manuscript serves as an exemplar for the next scribe, its mistakes are [...]

2020-04-03T19:45:17-04:00May 2nd, 2012|Bart's Debates, New Testament Manuscripts|

For the “Original” Text: What Kinds of Manuscripts Would We Need?

                As I pointed out in my previous post, in my debates with Dan Wallace I have stressed that we simply don’t have the kinds of manuscripts we need in order to know with certainty (let alone complete certainty!) what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote.   Dan will typically argue that we have so many more manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other ancient author, that of course we can know the originals.  My reply is that what we have – even though we have 5560 or so Greek manuscripts – is not enough.   Out of some frustration, Dan or a member of the audience during the question –answer period sometimes asks, “Look!  What exactly do you want?!? ” It’s a fair question.  What do I want? Of course, what I really want are the originals.  But it seems unlikely that I’ll ever be getting them.   They disappeared long ago, probably within a couple of centuries of their being written, at the latest (the great textual scholar of the early third [...]

2020-04-03T19:45:26-04:00May 1st, 2012|Bart's Debates, New Testament Manuscripts|

The Text of the New Testament: Are the Textual Traditions of Other Ancient Works Relevant?

I have had three debates with Dan Wallace (author of Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament and Reinventing Jesus) on the question of whether or not we can know for certain, or with relative reliability, whether we have the “original” text of the New Testament.   At the end of the day, my answer is usually “we don’t know.”   For practical reasons, New Testament scholars proceed as if we do actually know what Mark wrote, or Paul, or the author of 1 Peter.   And if I had to guess, my guess would be that in most cases we can probably get close to what the author wrote.  But the dim reality is that we really don’t have any way to know for sure.   Our copies are all so far removed from the time when the authors wrote, that even though we have so many (tons!) of manuscripts of the New Testament, we do not have many (ounces!) that are very close to the time of the originals, and it is impossible to say whether the texts were altered [...]

2020-04-26T23:34:56-04:00April 30th, 2012|Bart's Debates, New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

First-Century Copy of Mark? – Part 1

On February 1, I had a public debate in Chapel Hill with Daniel Wallace, a conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar who teaches at that bastion of conservative dispensationalist theology, Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the author of several books, including Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament and Reinventing Jesus. I have known Dan for over thirty years, since we were both graduate students interested in similar areas of research: my field (at the time I too was an evangelical) was textual criticism, the study of the ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and of what they can tell us about the “original” writings of the New Testament; his field was the grammar of the Greek New Testament. The term “textual criticism” is a technical term. It does not refer to any study of “texts.” It is specifically the study of how to establish what an author wrote if we do not have his or her actual writings, but only later copies of them. In the case of the New Testament we [...]

2020-06-03T15:41:12-04:00April 6th, 2012|Bart's Debates, New Testament Manuscripts|

Ben Witherington Critique

Probably more than any of my other books, Misquoting Jesus provoked a loud and extensive critique from scholars – almost exclusively among evangelical Christians, who appear to have thought that if readers were “led astray” by my claims in the book (in many instances, these critics pointed to claims that in fact I never claimed!) they might be in danger of losing their faith – or worse – changing what they believed so that they would no longer be evangelical. I’m not so sure there is really much danger in presenting widely held scholarship to a lay-readership, and so I was a bit surprised at the vitriol I received at the hands of some of my evangelical critics. There were four entire books written to refute my discussion: (1) Dillon Burroughs, Misquotes in Misquoting Jesus: Why You Can Still Believe; (2) Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus"; (3) Nicholas Perrin, Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus; and (4) Gregory Koukl, [...]

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