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Responses to Misquoting Jesus: Readers’ Mailbag

As I understand the question in this Readers’ Mailbag, it is about why my claims about scribes who changed the texts they were copying are so controversial, with some (conservative evangelical) scholars claiming that I overemphasize the differences in our New Testament manuscripts.  Here is the question:



I was wondering how textual critics can even know how the text of the New Testament probably wasn’t corrupted a lot as you would say. What would make it probable?

One of the most interesting things in the rather loud and vociferous denunciations of my book Misquoting Jesus by conservative Christian scholars is that rarely (I can’t remember a single instance, in fact – maybe someone else knows of some) did they dispute any of the facts I marshal in the book.  So far as I know, the facts are not in dispute.

There were three books written in response to my book, one called Misquoting Truth; another called Misquotes in Misquoting Jesus; and another called Lost in Transmission.  I think there was another as well, but I can’t recall the title.   These books were all written to assure people (mainly believers) that the changes of the New Testament in the surviving copies are not overly significant.

Before getting to the point of significance, let me say something about the facts that I marshal:

  • We have something like 5500 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, some of them tiny fragments; some of them entire, complete copies.
  • The earliest of these manuscripts date, probably, from the first part of the second century (some decades after the originals). These, however, are only fragmentary scraps.  We do not get anything like full pages of this that or the other NT writing until the early 3rd century, and we do not get full and complete manuscripts until the middle of the fourth century.
  • Of all our manuscripts, 94% date from the ninth century or later – that is, from 800 -1400 years after the originals were put in circulation.
  • We don’t have any originals, or copies of the originals, or almost certainly copies of copies of the originals. Our copiers are later generation copies.
  • We don’t know how many differences (scribal alterations) there are in these thousands of manuscripts, but there are lots Some scholars say 300,000, some say 400,000.  Since I wrote the book a new scholarly article has appeared claiming that there are more likely about 500,000.THE REST OF THIS POST is for MEMBERS ONLY.  If you don’t belong yet, JOIN!!!  You’ll get incredible benefits for not much money.  And every nickel goes to help the hungry and homeless!  So JOIN!
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    Major Scribal Corruptions in the New Revised Standard Version
    Drew Marshall Show – Jesus Before The Gospels



  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  February 6, 2017

    Bart, I have the three books you mentioned above. That you can’t recall the “other” may be because there were only three soft and hard-cover books responding to “Misquoting Jesus.”

  2. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  February 6, 2017

    From my experiences with Christian Fundamentalists and this book and your work in general is that to them you render the New Testament untrustworthy and unreliable. That produces so much cognitive dissonance within them that they have to reject your work no matter the facts you may present. I think that is the inherent problem with historical study of religion, or Christianity specifically, because so much of belief that believers have is tied into an emotional foundation rather than a fact based or evidence based foundation.

  3. Avatar
    doug  February 6, 2017

    I imagine some people are offended by your writings because you give strong evidence that the Bible is not inerrant. Once the Bible is seen as having been written by fallible humans, it is no longer as effective as an authoritarian control mechanism for coercing people into obedience to religious dogmas.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  February 6, 2017

    “My sense is that most of my critics objected to my tone.”

    Dr. Ehrman, I can’t help but shake my head at what drama queens your fundamentalist critics are. There’s a passage from Celsus’ polemic against Christianity — paraphrased by Origen — that shows that a very vitriolic and trenchant criticism of Christian was well underway as early as the 2nd century (and, I would contend, a quite accurate criticism of Christian beliefs, as well).

    The quote goes something like this: “The son of God [i.e. Jesus] also adds, that it is not fit to pay attention to Satan, because he is a seducer, but that himself [i.e. Jesus] alone is worthy of belief. This, however, is evidently the language of a man who is an imposter earnestly endeavouring to prevent, and previously guarding himself against, the attempts of those who think differently from and oppose him.”

    Sound familiar? Sound a bit like a certain current President of the United States? Sorry, I don’t mean to bring politics into this. But I do think that this point by Celsus and his astute measure of Jesus’ intention — should the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ admonitions be accurate — match perfectly with our understanding of the modus operandi of cult leaders throughout history, from Muhammad to the Crusaders to John Calvin to L. Ron Hubbard and Jim Jones. Delegitimize your opponents and suddenly your message is the only one that’s true.

    So when you criticize the fundamentalists’ convictions, you’re always going to be an opponent whom they feel they must delegitimize, so that their message, and their message only, is the truth. It’s a typical cultic tactic.

  5. Avatar
    Gary  February 7, 2017

    The three scribal alterations that you mention are devastating to naïve fundamentalists. My deconversion from fundamentalist Christianity began when I read “Misquoting Jesus” in 2014. I was SHOCKED to learn that God had allowed his Holy Word to be so blatantly tampered with after he had promised that not one jot or tittle of his Word would ever change. I’m sure that sounds hilarious and down right stupid to moderate/liberal Christians who have no problem with an occasional scribal addition in their Bibles. But it was unimaginable to me as a fundamentalist. The inerrantist bubble around the Holy Bible had been popped. Four months later I was an agnostic.

    But what about discrepancies in the facts regarding the same event as recorded by the ORIGINAL AUTHORS, in particular, the alleged discrepancies in the four resurrection stories in the Gospels?

    Some moderate/liberal Christian say that these discrepancies were perfectly acceptable within the literary genre of these four first century books: Greco-Roman biographies. So if one author had a “young man” inside the Empty Tomb and another author had an angel outside the Empty Tomb this was perfectly acceptable within this literary genre. First century readers would not have seen this as an error. And the same with whether the disciples were instructed to go to Galilee or to stay in Jerusalem. First century readers would not have been bothered by this “discrepancy” whatsoever. Therefore, all the “discrepancies” found in the four Gospel Resurrection stories can be disregarded as they are perfectly acceptable variations to a retelling of the same event, found in four separate Greco-Roman biographies about the same man.

    Is this true?

    Second, if this is true, then isn’t it also entirely possible, within this literary genre, that the entire Empty Tomb pericope was also a literary embellishment? My last pastor was a moderate who blamed my deconversion on my fundamentalism. He is trying to get me to accept the “discrepancies” in the four Resurrection stories as “literary inventions/variations”. But if I am willing to accept his view, I think it only fair that he admit that the Empty Tomb may be a literary invention. And without the Empty Tomb, his evidence for a “bodily resurrection” is reduced to the believability of appearance stories.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2017

      Yes, I think the books really do need to be read in a non-fundamentalist way, and yes, I think the empty tomb narrative is a later legendary development. I agree, once you stop reading the texts literally, it opens up the possibility for many of the accounts being non-historical.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  February 7, 2017

      Four months? That’s a steep slope.

  6. Avatar
    bensonian  February 7, 2017

    What I hear and read from conservative scholars is that they don’t disagree with the facts, rather, that you put a spin on the facts that would suggest to the reader that the scriptures are corrupt and therefore not trustworthy. What I hear you saying, please correct if I am wrong, is that we cannot know because the majority of what we have was written 8-12 centuries after the originals, and that we don’t have any of the originals. So you are not trying to make a case that the scriptures are corrupted or not trustworthy; rather you are making the case that we cannot know whether or not they were corrupted since obviously, we don’t have the originals, and that what we do have contains an incredible amount of minor textual variation. Is this a fair summary?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2017

      Yes, I think that’s a pretty good summary of things.

  7. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  February 7, 2017

    I received Dalley’s “Myths from Mesopotamia” in the mail yesterday and was reading in the introductory material that newly discovered tablets have quite significantly changed and added to scholars’ understanding of Gilgamesh and other epics. It seems pretty exciting to me that these discoveries are happening in our lifetime. What would you consider the most exciting textual discovery in your field of research since your first published work?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2017

      Yes, that’s an eye-opening book. The most important *recent* discovery is the Gospel of Judas.

  8. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 7, 2017

    What effect, if any, do you think textual variants “should reasonably have” on Christian beliefs and doctrines? I think many, including myself, automatically find the sheer number of variants, and the importance of a small number of them, to be significant evidence against the truth of Christianity – or at least to the more conservative versions of it.

    Also, do you think it’s fair to say that one of the biggest doubts that these textual variants throw on Christianity is on the basic, general notion that the Bible is divinely inspired – rather than on any specific doctrines or belief? Would you agree that the textual variants are strong evidence against divine inspiration?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2017

      My sense is that the variants are fairly devastating for a strictly fundamentalist form of Christianity, but not for any other kind of faith. But they are *important* for these other kinds of faith — just not destructive.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 7, 2017

    Another great post in a great series of posts. Beliefs are, indeed, hard to change and, as shown in our recent presidential election, “facts” don’t always matter that much. People believe what they what to believe and what fits in with their particular group or tribe.

  10. Avatar
    john76  February 8, 2017

    1. Seneca said religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers.

    2. In a way, Paul expresses a similar sentiment when he says “Brothers, consider the time of your calling: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. (1 Cor 1:26).”

    3. Religion has always had as its proper place the duping of the unruly, gullible, superstitious, lower classes into thinking there is more to life than just their rotten circumstances. The masses are kept in line in this way.

    4. Religion truly is the opiate of the masses.

    • Avatar
      john76  February 10, 2017

      The ruling class has always known the value of religion.  For instance, Serapis (Σέραπις, Attic/Ionian Greek) or Sarapis (Σάραπις, Doric Greek) was a Graeco-Egyptian god. The cult of Serapis was cleverly introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm.  As Seneca said, the wise rejected knowledge claims about gods.  For instance, pre Socratic philosopher Protagoras said, in his lost work On the Gods, that: “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be.”  Some, such as Xenophanes, ridiculed the way we create Gods, saying “But if cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, horses like horses and cattle like cattle also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have.  Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed [σιμούς] and black, Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.”  Is it coincidence that the Christian God and Jesus exemplify “Love,” the most noble of the human traits?  Similarly, Socrates rejected the idea that we know what happens after we die, saying “death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness or a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.” While some might fear the nothingness, Socrates does not—he regards it as a great gain, like a sleep undisturbed even by dreams (The pre Christian Jewish belief echoes this first option of Socrates: Ecclesiastes 9:5 says “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.”) The other option, as Socrates sees it, is even better: what we would now regard as a heavenly afterlife in which one is judged by those “who were righteous in life” and is, for good measure, happy and immortal.  So Socrates rejects the idea that we have knowledge of life after death.  There is a continuum from annihilation to bliss, and no one knows what the truth is.  The Greeks saw the value of claiming knowledge and persuading people about the divine, but these were noble lies.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  February 11, 2017

      Recent translations of and commentaries upon Marx suggest he was less critical of religion than your quotation in 4 (“opiate of” is sometimes translated “opium for”) implies. Marx was not so much condemning religion as the pain inflicted upon the masses by the ruling class, which could only be relieved by the delusional opium of a loving creator with a mysterious plan to make all things right in a future paradise.

  11. Avatar
    JoeRoark  February 15, 2017

    Was the other book ‘Misrepresenting Jesus’ by Edward D. Andrews?

  12. Avatar
    PhilipS  February 18, 2017

    I have a question for a possible reader’s mailbag. A muslim friend of mine claims that John 16:12-13 may be referring to the prophet Muhammad. I am wondering what the verse actually refers to according to most critical scholars. Thank you.

    12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. “

    • Bart
      Bart  February 19, 2017

      The Spirit is clearly referring to the Holy Spirit (as in ch. 14), as given by Jesus to his disciples in John 20:22 (and as narrated in a different account in Acts 2)

  13. Avatar
    PeymanSalar  December 18, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, did Paul knew about Gospel of Mark or Luke? If not why he quote them in his letters?

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