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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 presents the oldest form of the text.  But when all the manuscripts agree, and one wants to claim that they are all wrong with respect to the oldest form of the text, that involves arguing that at a very, very early stage of the transmission of the text (when it was being copied), someone inserted a verse (or verses, or part of a verse) that came to be found in all our surviving manuscripts.  That would be what we mean by an interpolation.

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Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 7
Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 5



  1. Avatar
    jasha  June 18, 2012

    Dr Ehrman,

    I’ve head it suggested that perhaps the identification of Jesus with Nazareth was a misunderstanding on the part of Gospel authors. The claim is that rather than being from Nazareth that in fact Jesus was a ‘Nazirite’, which I gather was some sort of 1st century Jewish sect. Do you think this is at all possible or likely?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 19, 2012

      Nope, I don’t think it’s likely. I don’t believe the words are related etymologically (even though they look so similar in English).

      • Avatar
        Teamonger  June 21, 2012

        Do you think it possible that Matthew got Nazarene confused with Nazirite (thinking of Judges 13:5) when he claimed there was a prophecy, “He shall be called a Nazarene”? (This is a side issue of course, and has no bearing on whether Nazareth existed.)

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

          Yes, that’s one common explanation. A more common one is that Matthew is thinking of Isaiah 11:1 (taken to be a prophecy of the Messiah): “A stump will come from the stump of Jesse [the father of King David], and a branch will grow out of his roots.” The word for “branch,” in Hebrew, is NZR (written Hebrew doesn’t have vowels) — which could be where the idea of NaZaRene came from.

          • Avatar
            Teamonger  June 22, 2012

            Thanks for the reply. It’s a tough choice; on the one hand, the form of the Judges passage roughly matches Matthew as “the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth;” On the other, Paul refers specifically to the Isaiah passage in Rom 15:12. Making either into meaning someone from Nazareth would be typical Matthew: wishful misinterpretation.

  2. Avatar
    Peter  June 18, 2012


    You’re obviously correct in saying that Jesus’ existence is not contingent on Naz.’s existing at the start of the 1st C. However, I think the reason mythicists are so keen to prove it didnt exist at that time is that it would show that something could pass the criteria of dissimilarity AND multiple attestation with flying colours yet be untrue. If they could show that Naz. didnt exist at the time of Jesus, they would be able to say that the reasoning behind using these criteria, which are considered by scholars to be very important in judging the historicity of Jesus’ words and deeds, is seriously undermined and that ANY claim about Jesus which depends on these criteria could therefore be dismissed much more easily.
    Could I also say that while I accept your assurances regarding the existence of Naz. at the time of Jesus is not disputed by archaeologists, I find the section in your book that deals with this question a little bit weak (no offence!!). I also have found it very difficult to come across interviews with or articles by archaeologists that set out the evidence in a clear and compelling manner. When they are questioned, it almost comes across as, “look, we have the evidence; trust us”. I realise it must be very frustrating for dedicated and reputable professionals to have their lives’ work second-guessed by amatuers, but I think that until the evidence is set out more clearly for the lay-man, the mythicists will continue their attacks(although I’m sure you would argue that the attacks will continue in any event!).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 19, 2012

      That’s an interesting argument — I don’t recall (it could be my faulty memory!) — running across it in any of the mythicist books (for example, R.Salm’s lengthy study). Do you know who makes it?

      On the question of documentation, I also don’t recall archaeologists simply saying “trust us.” I give bibliography in my book of archaeologists who marshall the evidence. Are you thining of others?

  3. Avatar
    Dennis Steenbergen  June 19, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What sort of response have you received from Mr. Witherington on these answers?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 19, 2012

      He suggested we write a point-counterpoint book together….

  4. Avatar
    Peter  June 20, 2012


    No, I haven’t come across it in any books by mythicists; it just struck me (while I was cutting the grass!) as being a reasonable explanation, and I wanted to see if you thought this might be the reason for the focus of the mythicists on the existence of Naz. While it wouldn’t necessarily follow from any proof that Naz. didnt exist that Jesus wasn’t a historical figure, I can’t think of anything that would diminish more the value of multiple attestation and dissimilarity as criteria for establishing historicity than such a proof emerging(with the exception of evidence showing that Pilate didn’t exist, which obviously isn’t going to happen).

    My point re. archaeologists is that I have yet to come across an interview or article that presents the evidence for Naz.’s existence for the layman in a clear and compelling way. While you’ve been sticking your neck out the last couple of years and taking on the mythicists with your countless interviews, lectures, and articles, the archaeologists, who you say have no doubts about Naz.’s existence, seem to have been very quiet; I don’t think it would take much effort for one of them to write an article, for the layman, that would put the mythicists’ claims to bed rather than just saying that these claims are obviously wrong. I think the bit in your book where you wrote that Yardena Alexandre (from the IAA) ‘verbally’ confirmed the existence of coins isn’t very compelling and is exactly the kind of thing mythicists thrive on. That’s the ‘trust us’ attitude I was referring to(which I have come across in other interviews with other scholars). To put it another way: if archaeologists were to follow your lead and spend even a small fraction of the time you have taken to educate the layman, doing likewise, I don’t think the mythicists would have a led to stand on! I hope you realise this is a constuctive criticism…and not of you. 🙂

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2012

      You might try Jonathan Reed’s book on Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus. It is written at an accessible level, I think, and deals with Nazareth from an archaeological perspective.

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