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Rapid Fire Questions and Answers on Biblical Manuscripts

I recently responded to a request from a European journalist writing an article about how we got the Bible and what we can say about the collection and illicit sale of manuscripts.  When I get these requests, I’m usually tempted to send back a list of books and tell them to do some homework.  But, well, they have deadlines and it ain’t gonna happen.  So I went ahead and gave some brief answers to some rather important questions.  I thought blog readers might enjoy this kind of very condensed (but very simple) exchange.   Here are it is, questions in black, responses in red.



-Why do you think that some apocryphal books were not included in the Bible? What was the selection criteria? Do you know when the Bible like we know today were completed?

     Church father debated for centuries which books to include.  The side that “won” the debate applied several criteria: 

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Why Do Smart People Make Stupid Arguments?
Problems with Thinking That Luke Wrote Luke (and Acts)



  1. Avatar
    veritas  January 29, 2020

    I was recently reading on where most discoveries are made and was somewhat surprised that Egypt was listed as number one, as you attested in one of your answers above. I would of thought the majority would have been in the Israel-Jordan-Syria region. Are there any explanations, that you know of, why most discoveries are in Egypt ? You also mentioned the oldest fragmented manuscript of John. That is the P 52 I gather. Does that mean the fragment that Obbink tried to sell to the Green’s,, claiming to be first century, never authenticated as such?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 31, 2020

      It’s entirely because of the climate. Organic material will survive in climate that is *constant* in terms of the humidity — very dry as in Egypt, or very wet as in, say, a bog. But not where humidity goes up and down. Obblink’s fragment is not P52; that has been around for many decades, and is housed in the John Rylands Library in Manchester. It is entirely legit.

  2. Avatar
    SGoldleaf  January 29, 2020

    You pass the short-answer quiz!

  3. Avatar
    Zak1010  January 29, 2020

    Dr Ehrman,

    Doubt and indifference amongst the early church fathers is still debated today with no resolution. Who got it right and who got it wrong. Which books should be in or out and why?

    Did the Bible establish the Doctrine or did the Church fathers establish their own Doctrine? and for what reason? Are the Bible Doctrines followed or the Church Fathers’ Doctrines followed? and Why?
    Mistakes / re-wording /adding / deleting text for $$.

    All this is mentioned in an unchanged book over 1440 years ago, when the Bible commerce was not rampant. Good read.

    Dr Ehrman,
    Rapid question. Why is The Holy Bible ( in revised editions ) omit the word Holy and just call it… The Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 31, 2020

      You may want to read my book Lost Christianities, where I deal with these issues. I suppose they didn’t call it the Holy Bible because they realize that people other than believers would want to read it. Holy is a qualitative, evaluative term.

  4. Avatar
    cristianp  January 29, 2020

    It may be just my thought, but I have the impression that the journalist was more interested in the commercial value of the fragments than asking about the historical origin of the Bible. I think the journalist has wasted a good opportunity to ask good questions. He was simply not well prepared, or only received editorial orders

  5. Avatar
    fishician  January 29, 2020

    Secular manuscripts are also forged for profit, like Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius,” but it’s a shame that people claiming to honor Jesus and God are willing to turn ancient manuscripts into a commercial enterprise that facilitates forgery and fraud. And for what? Think of all the people who have believed over the centuries without ever seeing even a scrap of an ancient document.

  6. Avatar
    PBS  January 29, 2020

    You state: “Some differences are quite significant, though, and most of these are ones that scribes appear to have made intentionally, changing the text to make it say what they want it to say.”

    What are the most significant examples?


    • Bart
      Bart  January 31, 2020

      This is what my book Misquoting Jesus is about. Two big examples: the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8) and the last twelve verses of Mark (Mark 16): neither were original; both were added by scribes.

      • Avatar
        PBS  January 31, 2020

        Thank you. I’ll get the book!

      • Avatar
        PBS  January 31, 2020

        P.S. Both of these examples strike me as quite inconsequential. As for the woman caught (set up?) in adultery account, whether true of Jesus or not, it doesn’t present an alternative Jesus from that of the one described in the gospels. As for the longer ending of Mark, due to its sole occurrence and non-prescriptive nature, it also does nothing to alter core NT teachings. Agree? Disagree?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 2, 2020

          Sure, it completely depends on what you mean as “consequential.” I could make a good case that if the books of 1 Chronicles, Zephaniah, 2 Thessalonians, and 1 Peter were to DISAPPEAR over night, simple vanish out of existence without leaving a trace, it would have no major consequence on the Christian faith. Wold it be IMPORTANT? Uh, yes indeed. I myself don’t gauge consequence on whether it’s going to change your main theological views or not!

          • Avatar
            PBS  February 5, 2020

            Fair enough (& good rejoinder). But, is it a category error of sorts to compare the disappearance or omission of whole books or letters to one short story (woman in adultery) and a hapax legomenon (snake handling) that only comprises a few sentences?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 6, 2020

            jewish interpreters in antiquity called this kind of argument “from the greater to the lesser.” If a MASSIVE change is not regarded “consequential” then it follows that one can’t expect an important but much smaller one to be considered such either. The fact that some people might say it doesn’t matter doesn’t mean that it really doesn’t matter. But the bigger point is that these two passages do matter a good deal. The story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery is widely used to show his views of sin and forgiveness (foriginv is more important than keeping the Law of Moses) But what if it wasn’t originally inthe Bible. As to the ending of mark, lots of people have died handling snakes becasue they thought it was part of he world of God.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 29, 2020

    Your widespread activities continue to amaze me.

  8. Avatar
    Silver  January 30, 2020

    You have said in the past that other scholars tend to look down their noses at your writing for a popular audience with your trade books. How do you think academia will greet your venture into the world of the graphic novel textbook?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 31, 2020

      Much the same way! But luckily I’m also producing a very serious scholarly monograph now as well, that hopefully will help provide some counterbalance.

      • Avatar
        doug  February 1, 2020

        Thank you making your scholarship comprehensible to those of us who are not scholars. And then we can help spread the info to others (and/or have a better defense against Fundamentalists’ arguments).

  9. Avatar
    Silver  January 30, 2020

    Your recent post about the Apostolic Fathers reminds me that it has been claimed that the NT could be reconstructed from quotations to be found in patristic writings. (I believe that Metzger was of that opinion). Please are you able to give your view on that possibility? (I assume that if it were possible it would only be in terms of allusions rather than direct quotes)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 31, 2020

      Yes, but not from those particular authors. And yes, he meant direct quotatoins — but he’s thinking mainly of writers living centuries later.

  10. Avatar
    Silver  January 30, 2020

    In my reading I come across the name St Augustine. I now realise that there are two so named saints – Hippo and Canterbury, the former earlier than the latter. Sometimes, however, they do not seem to be easily distinguished by name and so I wonder if you would excuse my ignorance and perhaps give me a rule of thumb as to how I can best determine who is likely to have said what?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 31, 2020

      The one almost *always* quoted is Augustine of Hippo, arguably the most important theologian of Christianity ever, after the NT period, and quite prolific.

  11. Avatar
    AstaKask  January 30, 2020

    What is the most bizarre answer you have gotten on an exam?

  12. Rick
    Rick  January 30, 2020

    Professor, based on your response I looked up P52 and am impressed there apparently is, or may be, a surviving manuscript that close perhaps to its autograph. Apparently it is said to be at least one step from the autograph. Is that because it is two sided and thus probably from a codex? It seems to makes sense the author Would not have written it two sided?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 31, 2020

      I don’t think there is any way to say it is one step from the autograph. It could be 20 steps from the autograph just as easily. But yes, it is from a codex and the original would have been on a roll. Brent Nonbgri on the blog, btw, one of the top world experts in dating manuscripts, doesn’t think we can date it to the early second century; it could be much later.

  13. Avatar
    leobillings@cox.net  January 30, 2020

    Why do you have such a vendetta against Hobby Lobby?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 31, 2020

      I don’t have a vendetta. I just think they have been massively unscrupulous in their purchase and display of biblical manuscripts. There is remarkable agreement on that point among everyone except conservative evangelical scholars who support their mission. I am not at *all* opposed to conservative evangelical scholars. I’m opposed to unscrupulous practices to promote one point of view or another.

  14. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  February 1, 2020

    The relationship between Greek culture and early Christianity is very interesting:
    “Both Judaism and Islam were spared the direct mediation of Greek culture and ideas because both Judaism and Islam developed geographically and linguistically isolated from the Greek influences during the reception of their scriptures. Are there cognitive effects of religion and metaphysics on the development of modern science ? ”
    “Science and Metaphysics in the Three Religions of the Book”
    By Toby Huff
    A must read!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 2, 2020

      I don’t know about Islam, but it’s demonstrably not true at all about Judaism, which was *heavily* — massively — influenced by Greek culture and ideas, as is repeatedly documented and discussed in ancient Jewish documents (just read 1 Maccabees or Josephus!)

      • Avatar
        Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  February 2, 2020

        True what you say about “which [Judaism] was * heavily * – massively – influenced by Greek culture and ideas”, but what this historian of early Christian, Arab-Islamic and Jewish science refers to, is the reasons why those that Judaism and Islam were not able to give rise to – or contribute to – the birth of modern science, due to metaphysical reasons.

        “In a word, Philo approached the sacred Jewish scriptures as a believing Jew but at the same time he used the philosophical apparatus of Plato and the Timaeus, to elucidate the Scriptures, thereby fusing Judaic belief with an implicit permission, even injunction, to undertake philosophical exegesis According to Philo’s account, philosophy as understood by Plato and Aristotle had really been invented by God through Moses, and therefore, there was no reason to deprive Jews of this great intellectual blessing. nor later generations of Jews were receptive to his innovation. Rabbis remained wary of the dangers of indulging in philosophical speculation. Had this not been so, Maimonides, twelve centuries later, would not have adopted such a cryptic and convoluted style of exposition when he wrote the Guide of the Perplexed, nor would his writings have provoked such controversy.
        Put in slightly different terms, Judaic thought was to remain transfixed by the Torah, the oral tradition of the Mishnah, and the great compilations of commentaries known at the Talmud. Accordingly, theology as an enterprise in its own right, and natural philosophy, were considered (throughout the period we are dealing with) as extraneous additions that bordered on the impious. Within the Jewish community philosophical speculation remained dangerous. ”
        Two more issues:
        a) Judaism was never an orthodoxy but an orthopraxis and
        b) Mainly for that reason, Judaism never developed a natural theology that allowed the birth of the so-called “natural philosophy”, the origin of modern science.
        The theology of the Pentateuch (and of the entire Old Testament) is “historical,” in more precise terms, it is historical-salvific. It cannot be isolated – denaturalized – from the history of the believing people, who, debating “between fear and hope,” becomes aware of divine choice precisely in the historical deed of its constitution and survival as a people. That theology did not serve for philosophical free speculation, necessary for the birth of natural theology and natural philosophy or modern science.
        (To be continued)

    • Avatar
      Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  February 2, 2020


      Toby Huff continues:

      “In the meantime, Philo’s work became unknown in the Jewish
      community, not to be recovered until the sixteenth century. In a word, the attempt to fuse traditional Jewish thought with metaphysical speculation derived from Athens during this period, was a failure. This brings us to the advent of Christianity”

  15. Avatar
    Tempo1936  February 2, 2020

    Why do scholars believe the gospels and Paul’s epistles were written in the 1st century when the earliest surviving manuscripts are 2nd or 3 rd century?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 2, 2020

      Dating documents are difficult and complicated, though scholars do massive detailed research to do it. But it’s the same with all ancient documents. We almost NEVER have manuscripts from anywhere near the time they were written (pick your author or book: Genesis; Isaiah; Homer; Plato; Cicero; Irenaeus; Tertullian. Literally, pick your author or book!) So writings are never ever dated principally on when the manuscripts occur. They are dated on other grounds, for example, when they are *mentioned* by another author who can be dated. If Ignatius in 110 CE mentions the letters of Paul, then Paul’s letters had to be written before 110 CE — that kind of thing. But by examining every single piece of evidence. Complicated business, but once you see the evidence, it’s pretty compelling….

  16. Avatar
    clerrance2005  February 9, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, please can you throw a little more light on ‘Catholicity’ as a criteria for the canonization of the New Testament.

    Again, what would be its correlation to the Catholic faith (as in the Roman Catholic Church)?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2020

      Ah, yes, it has no connection with the Catholic Church. The Greek word “catholic” just means “universal.” The criterion is that a book had to have universal appeal among Xn churches (i.e throughout the Christain world); it couldn’t just be a local favorite.

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