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Scribes Who Changed Their Texts on Purpose

I’ve been browsing through some old posts and came upon this one from years ago, about this time.   It’s an interesting topic that people on the blog frequently ask me about:  did scribes really change the texts of the NT on purpose, and how can we know?    The answers are simply: almost certainly yes and it’s difficult!

Here’s an example I talked about back then, one of the most intriguing instances in the Gospel of Mark, where the scribes who changed the text ended up having almost NO effect on Bible translations today; most translators agree on the “original” form of the text.  But the change is really interesting, and can show the sorts of reasons scribes were doing this kind of thing.

Here’s the original post, slightly edited.


I have started giving some instances of what appear to be “intentional” changes made by scribes, as opposed to simple, accidental, slips of the pen.  Here’s another instance of the phenomenon I stress that these alterations “appear” to be intentional since, technically speaking, we can never know what a scribe intended to do (they aren’t around for us to ask about their intentions).   I use the term I simply to mean an alteration to the text that a scribe appears to have made on purpose because he wanted to change it for one reason or another.  Part of the historical task is trying to reconstruct what might have been a plausible 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…

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Can We Reconstruct the Entire New Testament from Quotations of the Church Fathers?
Is History a Four-Letter Word?



  1. Avatar
    Nichrob  August 4, 2019

    If an original Gospel of Mark were to be found with many many changes (and wouldn’t that be awesome…), what do you think the Fundamentalist would do with this information? What would you do with this information?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2019

      They would say that the text that had been found was not Mark but some other Gospel. (!)

  2. Avatar
    godspell  August 4, 2019

    Really fascinating post, Bart. Were there any copies of Mark that left out the famed lamentation altogether? Although I’ve long believed that Jesus would have to have said something like this for it to be in there at all, I must admit one could argue that such a powerful and nigh-existential statement might stay in even if there was no collective memory of Jesus having said it. Mark’s gospel is written in such a way as to make it very hard to edit it without diminishing its power.

    And since we’re on the subject of Aramaic, do you have a strong opinion, one way or the other, as to whether there were early Christian texts in that language that might have influenced Mark and the other evangelists, and were later lost to posterity? I’ve read some scholarship that argues for this, but I know it’s not a universally held view.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2019

      No, all the manuscripts have it. And no, I don’t think there were written Aramaic Gospel sources. It wouldn’t change much for my views of anything if it turns out there were, but I just don’t happen to think so (mainly because I don’t see any evidence of them; I *do* see solid evidence for Aramaic oral traditions behind the Gospel accounts in places, e.g., in individual sayings of Jesus; but not of any connected Aramaic narratives)

      • Avatar
        godspell  August 5, 2019

        A while back, after reading your posts about the Barabbas story, I found an article by Roger David Aus (“The Release of Barabbas”), which argued that the story originally came from a Passion narrative written by a Palestinian Jewish Christian in Aramaic, who transposed an earlier event from before Jesus’ time, that involved Herod putting down an uprising in Jerusalem, provoked by his putting a Roman eagle above the temple, and his son later tried to restore good relations by releasing prisoners who had defied the elder Herod. Aus believed Mark had used this narrative for some of the more puzzling stories we find at the end of his gospel, but that the author he was drawing upon may have been writing in a less literal vein than Mark realized His argument is rather intricate, and of course open to question, but it was ingenious.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 6, 2019

          As it turns out, I had lunch with Roger Aus three days ago at a conference in Marburg, Germany. Very nice fellow. I hadn’t read his article, but it sounds interesting.

          • Avatar
            godspell  August 6, 2019

            I had the pleasure of visiting Marburg myself, a few years back, while staying with a friend who lives in a nearby village. Lovely old town. Paid my respects to Friedrich Schiller.

  3. JMJ
    JMJ  August 4, 2019

    This verse has always been confusing to me whether it be ‘mocked’ or ‘forsaken’. According to various stories about martyrs as well as the recent posts on martyrdom without pain or suffering, it makes me wonder why God wasn’t there to the end for Jesus like He seemed to be for the martyrs. I truly believed, and still believe (for the most part even though the recent posts on martyrdom haven’t confirmed my belief) that the stories about the martyrs being tortured without suffering physical pain were made up to recruit more pagans into the Christian fold, because God didn’t seem to be there until the end for His only Son.

  4. Avatar
    brenmcg  August 4, 2019

    If the codex bezae gets a few things right that all other greek manuscripts get wrong, musnt its writer have had access to some very early versions and shouldnt its inclusion if the pericope adulterae be taken more seriously?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2019

      Yes, it’s taken very seriously, and weighed as part of the evidence.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  August 6, 2019

        Whats thought to be the reason though for bezae getting some things right which everyone else gets wrong? Must the writer have had access to very early copies?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 6, 2019

          Yes, that’s the normal thinking: the scribe had access to earlier manuscripts (all scribes did), and in some rare instances he (this particular scribe) had access to manuscripts that had the correct reading. Most of the time not (easily demonstrated); but sometimes possibly yes.

  5. Avatar
    doug  August 4, 2019

    “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” seem like one of the strangest things attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. I know it’s also found in Psalm 22:1. Is it likely Jesus actually said that on the cross? And if not, of all the last words someone could have put on Jesus’ lips, why have Jesus accuse God of forsaking him?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2019

      I don’t think there’s anyway in the world that anyone would know what Jesus said on the cross. Romans crucifying him weren’t paying attention and not one else could be allowed near enough to hear whatever he gasped.

      • Avatar
        godspell  August 5, 2019

        The soldiers guarding him would know. There was some interaction between them and the local populace, not all of it hostile in nature. Whether such information would be reliable is a question you would ask of any such historical expostulation. Did Caesar actually cry out “Et tu, Brute?”

        What basis is there for assuming you couldn’t get near a crucified person? Wasn’t the point of crucifixion to impress the power of Rome on the local population? Public executions have traditionally allowed people to hear the last words of the person being killed.

        What we can be pretty sure of is that the male disciples weren’t there. But early accounts say that female followers of Jesus were.

        The stories about the crucifixion had to come from somewhere. If not real events, then somebody going to some pains to invent them, or borrow them from another source. Or perhaps all three.

        • Avatar
          mannix  August 7, 2019

          How common would it have been that Roman soldiers knew Aramaic? Perhaps if some of them were local recruits. If not,that would leave female followers as the source of info. Kind of ironic in view of the patriarchal nature of society at that time.

        • Avatar
          dannawid  August 11, 2019

          First of all, the soldiers guarding the cross were Romans and are not likely to understand aramaic. second, the soldiers would not allow any crowd to stand nearby for fear of interfearence with carrying out their duties. Third, the soldiers will chase away any one attempting to get close to the crucified person, fearing that he may be taken down. This is all assuming that Jesus was actually crucified.

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  August 5, 2019

        Dr Ehrman, do we have evidence that there was strict law which said that people weren’t allowed near the place of punishment?

        And when the unclean spirit [pneuma] had torn him, and cried out with a loud voice [phone-megas], he came out of him. (Mark 1:26)

        And cried with a loud voice [phone-megas] . . . and the unclean spirits [pneuma] went out . . . (Mark 5:7-13)

        are these wordless loud cries?
        if yes, then did jesus go out with a wordless loud cry refuting luke who says that jesus said with loud voice “father…..”


        • Bart
          Bart  August 6, 2019

          No, there were not laws about any such things. The Roman world didn’t have a lot of laws, by comparison with us today.

  6. Avatar
    qditt  August 5, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I find your insights extremely helpful in my study of Christianity. I believe you have stated you are Agnostic, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion, and I’m extremely curious as to your thoughts on our human origin? There are endless debates on nature v nurture, evolution to varying degrees, creation by one God, creation by man God’s, etc., etc., etc., and you can tack on as many of those as you like. The more I study the less I seem to know, which is both frustrating and exhilarating.

    I’m assuming your answer might be you just don’t know, and nobody can, but is there something you would hope to be true, or believe, as pertaining to our origin? Many thanks as always.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2019

      Oh, agnostics are hugely opinionated — and sometimes even well-informed! I obviously don’t believe in creationism, since I don’t believe in a Creator, or a God at all. I believe in the Big Bang, unbelievable improbability (but reality) of the generation of life, and the evolution of species. I’m a materialist all the way down. Do I “know” it in the sense that I can “prove” it? No, of course not — no one can (even those who say they can.) Do I “know” it in the sense that I am completely convinced of it? Yes indeed.

      • Avatar
        godspell  August 5, 2019

        I would say the very large number of brilliant scientists of past and present who have been devout Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc, are likewise well-informed, but of course you knew that. 🙂

      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  August 5, 2019

        Being a materialist doesn’t mean that one believes in a world that can’t have surprises or mysteries. I’ve been trying to keep up with the latest research and theories in quantum mechanics. The latest issue of SCIENCE has an article in which it is argued (with evidence) that the world we experience is pretty much an illusion. Nothing exists but information. And a recent experiment has demonstrated that an experimental outcome can vary, depending on the observer. One observer says “A” happened and another observer says “NOT-A” happened and they are both right! Strange stuff! Since the stuff that actually constitutes matter, at the most fundamental level, has some rather spooky and paradoxical properties, being a “materialist” is becoming a rather complicated proposition! Certainly not boring!

        • Bart
          Bart  August 6, 2019

          I completely agree — the world is mind-blowing in every way.

        • Avatar
          godspell  August 6, 2019

          Yes, but I still tend to side with Dr. Johnson, who when asked by Mr. Boswell how he’d refute Bishop Berkeley’s statement that reality was an illusion (not a new idea!) said “I refute it thus!” and kicked a stone down the road.

          Our perceptions are of course unreliable, but that’s no reason to assume material reality is as well. Whatever we believe can and should be questioned (and not just religion), but the stone still flies down the road when we kick it.

      • Avatar
        qditt  August 5, 2019

        Thank you for your honest feedback. Always appreciated!

  7. Avatar
    Maciej Owczarzak  August 5, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    That’s kinda relevant to the post. Its about scribes who changed Testimonium Flavianum..
    Is it true that the phrase “eis eti te nun” is basically the same thing as “eis eti nun” ?
    Dr. Richard Carrier claims that “te is a particle that isn’t grammatically relevant to the phrase’s meaning (it’s more like punctuation in Greek, and means something like a very soft “and,” marking the relation of the clause to the surrounding sentence structure; it has its own meanings and other uses, but here it’s just a punctuator). The actual phrase is eis eti nun.”

    It is significant because “When you search just the phrase in the TLG, without the incidental particle, it appears 99 times…93 of them in Eusebius alone!”
    I wonder because professor Louis Feldman also argued that “eis eti te nun” is an Eusebian phrase, it has only 2 matches for Eusebius in the TLG. Was he unaware that you should also try “eis eti nun” or is Dr. Richard Carrier wrong? If he is right then it seems like a pretty good argument for Eusebian autorship of TF, but it sound too good to be true.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2019

      te in Greek is a postpositive conjunction that simply means something like “and.” It is usually used, in prose composition, simply to join clauses together. So yes, this is a distinctively, though not uniquely, Eusebian phrase. Of course, one would need to consider whether Eusebius, if quoting Josephus, is tweaking it for style in places, as people usually do when quoting (think of all the people who more or less quote the Bible). But I don’t have a sustained argument to make on the point.

  8. Avatar
    J.J.  August 6, 2019

    Hey Bart. Why do you think proto-orthodox scribes would only change Mark’s wording on Mark 15:34, not Matthew’s also, especially since Matthew seems to have been the more popular gospel?

    Sure Matthew has a birth narrative and Mark doesn’t so anti-Separationists wouldn’t tend to appeal to Matthew to support their views. But it seems that if an attempt to galvanize proto-Orthodoxy was the main motive behind a change in Mk 15:34, then it would actually create more problems than it solved by “disharmonizing” such a famous statement as Mark 15:34–it is Jesus’ famous last words in Mark after all–from Matthew’s parallel, especially when Matthew was such a popular and well known Gospel.

    Obviously, one of the more frustrating things about the Gospels for early Christians was the simple fact that they weren’t harmonious. And Porphyry (assuming he’s the anonymous critic behind the apokritos) takes early Christians to task for this very statement being out of sync with the other concluding statements of Jesus from the cross. Just seems (to me, at least) that slightly altering the wording of Mark 15:34 to thwart a separationist viewpoint would create too many problems. Not only does it disharmonize to Matthew’s parallel, but it also botches the quotation of Ps 21.2 LXX or the translation of the Aramaic transliteration that Mark 15:34 provides. Thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2019

      It’s hard to tell. Scribes didn’t implement any kind of consistent policy on making changes. It was a purely ad hoc affair, done here and there and inconsistently — up and down the line, throughout the manuscripts.

      • Avatar
        J.J.  August 7, 2019

        Thanks. True, although harmonizing seems to be such a noticeable and dominant motivation for so many changes. I know you favor some western readings, such as Luke 3:22—-and btw, I agree on that one, and actually for the same factors I see at play in Mk 15:34. I think the reading which harmonized to the other Synoptics won out decisively long term in the manuscript tradition, and it’s less likely (at least in my mind) that a later scribe “disharmonized” a well known verse.

        This variant has long intrigued me because either way, it’s hard to explain why a scribe changed “forsake” to “reproach” or the author initially chose “reproach” instead of “forsake.” If a scribe was attempting to make a textual change to thwart Separationist notions, there are 100 better ways it could’ve been done–why this verb, and why with “reproach”? But OTOH, it’s also hard to explain why the gospel author would’ve used “reproach” (a rather noticeable non-traditional rendering of a title verse to a Psalm), unless as Harnack thought, the author was trying to play up the “reproach” aspect since the “reproach of Christ” eventually became almost a technical term (eg, as in Hebrews).

        Well, anyway. This variant has always been a head scratcher to me.

        Right now, and that’s open to change, I lean toward “reproach” as the initial reading. And since there was disconnect with the Aramaic and its translation (not unlike Mk 3:17 and 5:41), I think Matthew polished Mark’s quote, and then early on Mark’s text was corrected to match Matthew and LXX. And the double strength of that harmonization is why little evidence remains of the initial reading “reproach.”

        Well, anyway. Thanks. Appreciate your thoughts on this.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 9, 2019

          Yes, *kinds* of changes (harmonization, e.g.) were common. But even these were made with wild inconsistency….

  9. Avatar
    Brand3000  August 6, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I am mainly interested in Paul’s 7 authentic letters. Do you agree with this evaluation?

    When churches received letters from Paul in the mid-first century CE, the congregants there would have read it aloud in gatherings, then followers who recognized the value of Paul’s words produced handwritten copies of the letter to pass around to a wider audience. By the end of the first century, Paul’s letters were being copied as a collection. Material from the seven undisputed letters are quoted or mentioned by the earliest of sources, and are included in every ancient canon, including that of Marcion (140 CE). There was no scholarly doubt about the authorship of any of the seven until Baur in the 19th century. Papyrus 46, one of the oldest New Testament manuscripts (200 CE), contains the last eight chapters of Romans; virtually all of 1–2 Corinthians; all of Galatians, Philippians, and two chapters of 1 Thessalonians. We can be more certain that when we read Paul’s seven authentic letters in a modern standard New Testament that the material originates from Paul himself (with the exception of a few possible interpolations), than we are certain of the writings of Caesar, Plato, Artistotle and Homer, which are based on far fewer copies and written much longer after the events.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2019

      I agree with some of this, but not all of it. E.g., we don’t know when the first collections of Paul’s letters were made; ther eis nothing to suggest that the original collectionsn contained only the seven undisputeds; the Ebionites and others like them did not include Paul’s letters in their canon; Baur was not the first to disput some of them. I think I agree with the last sentence, with an emphasis on relative rather than absolute certainty.

  10. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  August 10, 2019

    dr ehrman

    Even if the roman soldiers heard jesus say a few words, where is the evidence they would have repeated the words and told other? did the soldiers repeat the words of crucified people and tell others ? Isnt this a case of “jesus was so famous that all cameras were on him because anonymous mark tells us” ?

  11. Avatar
    Brand3000  August 12, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In one book, some members of the Jesus Seminar have cited the following verses as interpolations. Aside from 1 Cor. 14:33-38 (Women speaking issue), Rom. 16:20 (Crushing Satan), and Rom. 16:25–27 (Final Doxology), which are noted in the NRSV as questionable, do you consider these others to be interpolations? If not, do you think it maybe has more to do with arbitrarily rejecting verses that these scholars personally did not like?

    Rom. 5:6-7
    “For while we were still weak….someone might actually dare to die.”

    Rom. 13:1-7
    “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…”

    1 Cor. 4:6
    “I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters, so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, “Nothing beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.”

    1 Cor. 11:2-16
    “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, …we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.”

    2 Cor. 6:14-7:1
    “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers…let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.”

    Rom. 16:17-20
    “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses…The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”

    1 Cor. 14:33-38
    “for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches… Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.”

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2019

      The only ones with any merit, I think, is 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1, for which there is actually good evidence. Not so much the others, in my judgment. (Some of them simply rankle modern sensitivities, which is not a good reason for thinking Paul didn’t write them)

  12. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  August 25, 2019

    “For one thing, if Matthew’s Gospel indicates that Jesus said “forsaken” and not “mocked” – his source for the passage was Mark! That would suggest that this word is also what Mark had. Moreover, Mark first cites the cry in the original Aramaic. The word in Aramaic for “mocked” is different for the word “forsaken.” The Aramaic word Mark uses is “forsaken.” So why would he even both giving the Aramaic if what he wanted to do was to have Jesus cry out “mocked”? He simply would have given the Greek form of the text.”

    Dr Ehrman,

    if you put your “apologetic hat” on, one could say that jesus, before he was forsaken, cried out “why have you mocked me?,” then later on , he crieed out “why have you forsaken me?”

    now we can ask, like apologists , why would mark make up both questions and put them in jesus’ mouth?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2019

      Yes, one can reconcile anything should one work hard enough at it. But apologists would more likely simply say “mocked” was the corruption of a later scribe.

  13. spencer290
    spencer290  September 19, 2019

    Hi, Dr. Ehrman! Thanks for your dedication.

    Are there other ancient works that have a lot of manuscript copies which we can analyze? I’d like to compare an ancient, non-religious work with a work like one of the gospels to see if people embellished and interpolated when copying ancient non-religious text as well. Any thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2019

      Nothing like for the NT, where we have over 5600 copies. In some instances we have only one! Homer has a lot: I don’t remember the number, just over 640 I think? I’m not sure. But yes, all manuscripts of all ancient authors have mistakes in them, though possibly not so many affected by theological/ideological issues, since these were not books that were “believed”

  14. Avatar
    Zak1010  September 25, 2019

    You mentioned many reasons why texts were changed by scribes in the NT. ( intentional or not ).
    Jesus said in one of his meetings with his students that they couldn’t handle what he had to say or can’t comprehend his teachings. ‘There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now’.

    If there was an original book and I believe there was, and if there was a verse or statement that was incomprehensible to a scribe, he might have changed it to make more sense of it ( innocently ) while the true meaning could have been very meaningful and could have been a true divine sign.

    Allow me this example, In the Quran there is a chapter that starts with 3 verses that could make very little sense to a 7th century arabian scribe.
    ” By the heaven and at-Tariq ( the Knocker ) .But what will let you know what at-Tariq ( the knocker ) is? The Piercing Star.”
    A scribe could have easily said… this doesn’t make any. It should be [ by the heaven and the star, but what will let you know what the star is. The shinning star.] sounds good, why not?
    However, there is no way we can reconstruct the original verses from the second verses. And the significance of that original verses have been lost.

    When looking at the preservation of the Quran, the scribes made no changes at all, allowing the book’s wisdom play out its course until one day it makes some sense.
    Just recently it was discovered with great advanced technology that there is such a star. A star that makes a knocking sound. Not only discovered the knocking sound of the star but in fact the star is piercing. ( Conforms with the verses above ).

    Examining these verses in the Quran which today appear to merely record scientific truth, but which men in earlier times were only able to grasp the apparent meaning or no understanding at all. In some cases, these statements were totally incomprehensible. It is impossible to imagine that, if there were any alterations to the texts, these obscure passages scattered throughout the text of the Quran, were all able to escape human manipulation. The slightest alteration to the text would have automatically destroyed the remarkable coherence which is characteristic to them. Change in any of the text would have prevented us from establishing total conformity with modern knowledge.( science )

  15. Avatar
    Zak1010  September 25, 2019


    One could say there isn’t any religious significance to that, or one could say there is huge significance when God shows a sign of his creation that proves he fashioned it. All that is in the heavens and earth and in between.
    God revealed this and much more 1400 years ago ,,,, for us to just recently discover, is a great reminder who the creator and fashioner is. ( we are just discoverers ).

    Dr Ehrman, In the Dead Sea Scrolls, are there any verses that seem totally out of context but have significant meaning not consistent with the Gospel according to John?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 27, 2019

      I’m afraid the Dead Sea Scrolls aren’t dealing with any of the same things that the Gospel of John is, since it is all aobut the life and death of Jesus, and none of that is mentioned in the DSS.

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