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New Testament Texts and Manuscripts

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|

Do We Know How Mark Began His Gospel? Another Scribal Change

I have been talking about different kinds of changes made in our surviving New Testament manuscripts, some of them accidental slips of the pen (that’s probably the vast majority of our textual variants) and others of them intentional alterations.  One of the points that I’ve been trying to stress is that at the end of the day it is, technically speaking, impossible to know what a scribe’s “intentions” were (or if he had any, other than the intention of copying a text).  None of the scribes is around to be interviewed, and so – as with a lot of history – there is a good bit of scholarly guess-work that has to be done. This guess work is not simply shooting in the dark, however.   And it is dead easy for a highly trained expert to tell the difference between informed guesswork and just plain guesswork.   But at the end of the day we are always talking about historical probabilities, not historical certainties, when it comes to figuring out why a scribed decided to change [...]

Did God Mock Jesus on the Cross? A Scribal Change?

I've started to show that scribes sometimes changed the New Testament texts they were copying in ways that certainly seem “intentional” (in addition to making many more simple, accidental, slips of the pen).  I last gave an example from the beginning of Mark's Gospel that appears to be a case where scribes altered a text because it seems to make a mistake. Here I’ll give a second instance, this time from near the ending of Mark, a passage that is exceedingly interesting but for a comletley different reason. One of the most intriguing variations in Mark’s Gospel comes in the Passion narrative, in the final words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel.   Jesus is being crucified, and he says nothing on the cross until he cries out his final words, which Mark records in Aramaic:  “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”   Mark then translates the words into Greek:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”   Jesus then utters a loud cry and dies. What is striking is that in one early Greek manuscript BREAK  (the [...]

2022-11-06T12:05:14-05:00November 16th, 2022|Canonical Gospels, New Testament Manuscripts|

An Error in Mark? Did Scribes Change It?

In a previous post I discussed "accidental" changes of the text by scribes who appear simply to have made a mistake.  There are other changes that almost certainly were not made by a slip of the pen (as when an entire verse is added!) and it seems clear in these instances that scribes changed the text because they chose to do so, for one reason or another.  You can never tell for certain, of course -- the scribes aren't around to interview about the matter; so it's often a judgment call.  And often the judgment is rather difficult to make and involves an interesting issue (or two). I'll be illustrating the issue (how to tell if a change was an accident or made on purpose) by dealing with three of the most interesting textual variants in the Gospel of Mark, one of which is an easy problem to solve, one that is a bit more difficult, and one that has generated a lot of discussion over the years and no firm consensus. The one textual [...]

2022-11-09T22:56:35-05:00November 15th, 2022|Canonical Gospels, New Testament Manuscripts|

Intriguing Scribal Errors Made by Accident

As I stressed in my most recent post, the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of differences among out surviving manuscripts (and versions, and patristic citations) are of very little or no importance in trying to establish what the authors of the NT originally wrote.  There are others that matter, and matter a lot.  Those tend to be the ones that are the most interesting.  But there are many, many more differences that are easy to detect and of no real significance. Most of these differences appear simply to be accidental scribal errors.  We can never be absolutely certain, of course, if a change was made by accident or not.  But in a huge majority of cases, there seems to be little reason to doubt it. Why Are There Mistakes in Manuscripts? The *reasons* mistakes were made are not hard to detect, but are nonetheless  hugely interesting for a reason I will explain in my next post.  The reality is that scribes were human beings and they made mistakes.  Of course, in theory, they [...]

2022-10-31T10:27:42-04:00November 12th, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts|

How Did Scribes Change Their Manuscripts?

As I have indicated in my recent posts, we have far more copies of the NT than of any other book from antiquity –and as a result, far more differences among our copies (i.e. more mistakes).  In addition. we have ancient translations of the NT (the early “versions”) and quotations of the NT in the writings of church fathers.  These also provide further pieces of evidence – as well as further variations in wording. As a result, it is a very complicated business trying to establish what the authors of the NT originally wrote.  Scholars continue to debate the precise wording of this that or the other verse. In some cases we simply will never know. Two points are critically important when considering all these differences.  The first is one that I always state, even though my evangelical debate opponents frequently pretend that I never say it at all.  But, in fact, I always say it: the vast majority of these (hundreds of thousands!) of differences are insignificant, immaterial, and don’t matter for thing other [...]

2022-10-31T09:57:06-04:00November 9th, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts|

Do Church Fathers Show What the Authors of the NT Actually Wrote?

What other resources do we have to figure out what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote, if we don't have their actual writings themselves? In this post I move into a very brief discussion of one other area of evidence for the text of the New Testament, the Patristic sources.  The term “patristic” stands for “fathers” (Latin: patres) of the church – that is, the early church authors who quoted the books of the New Testament in the course of their writings.  This too is an exceedingly thorny area of scholarly investigation, and one that I have long been deeply interested in.  It is the area that I did my PhD research and dissertation in. So here’s the deal.   As I have pointed out before, we don’t have complete manuscripts of the New Testament until the middle of the fourth century – some 300 years after the books were written.  We do have earlier fragmentary papyri manuscripts of this, that, or the other part of the NT, and for that we are all [...]

What Are Ancient “Versions” of the New Testament?

Do we know the original wording of the New Testament?  Here I continue! When scholars try to establish what an ancient author wrote, they can do so only on the basis of the surviving evidence.  That seems, well, rather obvious, but the reality is that most people have never thought about that.  It just seems that if you pick up a copy of Plato, or Euripides, or Cicero, that you’re simply reading what they wrote.  But it’s not that simple.  In none of these cases, or in any other case for any other book from the ancient world, do we actually have the person’s actual writing.  All we have are later copies, and invariably these copies are filled with scribal mistakes.  Scholars who are “textual critics” try to reconstruct the text that the author produced, to the best of their ability. I have been talking about the challenges of doing that with the New Testament.  In many, many ways we are much better situated with the New Testament than with any other ancient book (or [...]

2022-10-26T17:28:27-04:00November 5th, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts|

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.  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 [...]

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

The Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament

I have begun to explain the field of “textual criticism,” the academic discipline that tries to establish what an author actually wrote if you don’t have his original but only copies made from later times. In this post I begin to summarize some of the most important information about the textual “witnesses” to the text of the New Testament.  I won’t be going into this information at any serious length.  We could have many, many, many posts on virtually every single detail that I mention.  You don’t want that.  Trust me. There are three kinds of witnesses to the text of the New Testament, that is to say, three kinds of documents that can help us establish what the authors actually wrote. First, obviously, are the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.   These are copies of the New Testament in the language in which the books were originally written, produced by later scribes, who were copying earlier copies that had been made by scribes who were copying earlier copies that were made by scribes….  [...]

2022-10-18T14:11:31-04:00October 29th, 2022|Book Discussions, New Testament Manuscripts|

The Strange World of Textual Criticism

I've been asked a good bit lately by readers of the blog and random emailers how we can know, or if we can know, what the authors of the New Testament actually wrote -- if we don't have their original copies.  By far my best selling book (Misquoting Jesus) is about that, as is my best known scholarly book (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture).  It's the issue I first got most interested in (as an 18 year old!) when it came to serious scholarship, and its the field of study I devoted nearly twenty years to it as a scholar.  So, well, I'm interested! It's been over seven years since I gave anything like a full explanation of the entire field of New Testament "textual criticism" (which does not mean what a lot of people think!), and I've decided it's high time I go over it again.  This will take a number of posts! ****************************** The first thing to emphasize is that the term “textual criticism” is a technical term with a very specific meaning.  [...]

2022-10-18T14:11:11-04:00October 27th, 2022|Book Discussions, New Testament Manuscripts|

How Useful Are Our Earliest New Testament Manuscripts?

It is interesting that as recently as twenty years ago almost *no one* outside a small cohort of textual geeks (like me) had much interest at all in the actual manuscripts of the New Testament.  Even the majority of NT scholars (a very *large* majority) just weren't interested.  And most non-NT scholars had never heard that there was even an issue / problem.  That has changed a lot.  Now it's something people seem to want to talk to me about all the time. I've long thought about the issues that are involved (starting when I was 17!  Seriously).  Here are some reflections that I made some time ago, which I ran across again recently and thought summed up one of the big problems rather neatly. ****************************** It’s a little hard to get one’s mind around the irony of our early manuscripts (the term means: "hand-written copies," i.e., *all* the copies before the invention of printing).  To reconstruct the “original” text of the New Testament – by which, for my purposes here, I mean the text [...]

2022-09-18T16:18:59-04:00October 1st, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts|

Specious Arguments for the Truth of the Bible

Professors who have taught the same subject for decades often get tired with covering the same material time after time and, as a result, answering the same questions time after time.  I've had friends who teach New Testament tell me: "If I have to teach the Synoptic Problem ONE MORE TIME I am going to SCREAM…." I've never felt that way. It's probably just a matter of personality and brain chemistry.  For me, teaching someone who doesn't know something that I’ve taught for many years just means they haven’t had the chance to learn it. It’s the same outside the classroom with questions/comments I get – the same questions all the time. I’ll admit that often in the first nano-second I sometimes think: Why don’t they just GET IT?  But then I remember: Wait a second.  This person hasn't heard the answer.... Here is a question that comes to me all the time.  I got it again a few days ago.   QUESTION: I have a brief question. I was a biblical studies major in college [...]

2022-07-27T10:26:09-04:00July 24th, 2022|Bart's Critics, New Testament Manuscripts|

Does Luke Get Rid of the Atonement?

In my previous post I tried to argue that the longer version of the account of Jesus’ Last Supper in Luke could have been created by a scribe who wanted to make the passage sound more like what is familiar from Matthew, Mark, and John, and to stress the point made in those other accounts as well, that Jesus’ broken body and shed blood are what bring redemption.   The passage as you recall reads like this: 17 And he took a cup and gave thanks, and he said: “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I say to you that from now on I will not drink from the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.” 19 And taking bread he gave thanks and broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body that is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  20  Likewise after supper (he took) the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood that is shed for you.  21 [...]

How Do You Decide What an Author Actually Wrote? The Last Supper

In my previous post I started to discuss a textual variant that I covered in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, a very important variant for understanding Luke’s account of Jesus’ last days, for grasping Luke’s view of the importance of Jesus’ death, and for seeing how scribes occasionally modified their texts for theological reasons. The passage has to do with what Jesus said and did at the Last Supper.  Here is the form of the text as found in most of the manuscripts.  (I have put verse numbers in the appropriate places) 17 And he took a cup and gave thanks, and he said: “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I say to you that from now on I will not drink from the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.” 19 And taking bread he gave thanks and broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body that is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  20  Likewise after supper (he took) the [...]

2022-06-20T18:20:35-04:00July 3rd, 2022|Canonical Gospels, New Testament Manuscripts|

What Did Jesus Say at the Last Supper?

Here is a seemingly simple but inordinately complicated question I received from a read on the blog:   QUESTION: Although the gospel of Luke doesn’t have an atonement message, what are your thoughts about Acts 20:28: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood”? This sure sounds like it has atonement implications.   RESPONSE: When I got the question my idea was to give a direct and simple response. But I realized that would be neither easy nor satisfying.  It would take a post.  But then I realized that wouldn’t be enough either: it would take several posts.  So, right – this will be a thread. I begin with some background.  I have dealt with this particular question about Acts 20:28 only once in my life, to my recollection (never on the blog, I believe), in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. To set up that discussion I need to [...]

Teeth Will Be Provided

Teeth will be provided seems like a strange title right? Well, we will get to that soon. I have had a long thread of fairly heavy-hitting posts for over a week now, dealing with whether Matthew and his audience, were Jewish.   I still have a few things to say about related issues (such as whether, at the end of the day, Matthew and the apostle Paul would have been able to see eye-to-eye, and whether rather than being Jewish Matthew should be considered *anti*-Jewish).  But I think it’s time for a break from the hard-hitting discussions for something a bit different and humorous.  And so I have an anecdote to tell about a passage that I quoted in one of my earlier posts from Matthew, where Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.  I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into [...]

2023-02-22T10:29:37-05:00April 10th, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

Do Textual Critics Have to be Radical Skeptics? Guest Post by Kurt Jaros

Here now is the sixth and final video post by Kurt Jaros, connected to my views of Textual Criticism.  As you know, Kurt is a conservative evangelical apologist who, unlike some others, is openminded about issues of biblical scholarship.  May his tribe increase.  Here he argues that the fact we have different manuscripts of the NT with different wording does not necessarily have to lead to a deeply skeptical view of the Bible. ****************************** Misquoting Ehrman – Part Six: Reject Radical Skepticism How does radical skepticism creep into some people's minds when they think about textual criticism? In this last episode of Misquoting Ehrman, I provide an important distinction which demonstrates how radical skepticism does not follow from the manuscript evidence we have. Then, I recap the series. Thanks for viewing!  

2022-03-21T17:46:38-04:00March 31st, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts|

Faith and Inerrancy, In My Case — Did the “Young Ehrman” Get it Wrong?

Here I pick up from my previous post about evangelicals misunderstanding my journey of faith, first by repeating its final paragraph: ****************************** My sense is that there is a simple reason that a lot of evangelical apologists think I “threw the baby out with the bathwater” (the baby of faith with the bathwater of fundamentalism).  I might be wrong about this, but my sense is that taking this view allows them to explain why I left the faith without compelling them to address the ACTUAL reasons I did for themselves.   It is easier to caricature me and what happened and to point out my “mistake.”  I do not think that’s true of Kurt Jaros (see my previous post).  I think he has simply misread what I said.  And I can see how that misunderstanding is understandable, so to say.  Here’s why: In Misquoting Jesus, I say the following: This kind of realization coincided with the problems I was encountering the more closely I studied the surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.  It is one [...]

The “Young Ehrman’s” Faulty Understanding of Inspiration

In my previous post I talked about evangelicals who argue that if I had only had the right understanding of evangelical theology, I would not have left the faith once I realized my (errant) views were problematic.  I would say that this is true of the video about me that Kurt Jaros posted a couple of weeks ago, here: I have enjoyed Kurt’s video posts on the blog very much and really appreciate him setting the record straight for evangelicals who have misunderstood or misrepresented my views on textual criticism.  And I decidedly do NOT think that he has “misrepresented” my views about inspiration (the views of the “young Ehrman”).  But I do think he misunderstood them.  He inferred from things I said that I must have held views that in fact I did not hold. The issue has to with the fact that we have so many manuscripts of the New Testament but there are so many *differences* among them.  Kurt says that when I was shocked to learn this, it directly led [...]

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