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Small Differences that Make a Difference

Here is something different on the significance of textual variants for understanding the Greek New Testament.   Most of the hundreds of thousands of variations are completely insignificant in the big overall scheme of things (e.g., misspelled words and slips of the pen); others involve enormous differences that matter a lot (the story of the woman taken in adultery).  Lots of others are between the two, small differences that are interesting for how they might change the meaning of a passage slightly but possibly significantly.

This semester I’m teaching an intermediate Greek class for the Classics Department with some exceptionally bright undergraduates who are already proficient in the ancient language.  Yesterday we in class we translated the birth narrative of Luke 2, and I realized anew how a slight change can be important.

Among the changes attested in our manuscripts is one whose significance had never registered with me.  Luke 2:1-5 indicate that Caesar Augustus send out a decree for “the entire world” to be enrolled, and that Joseph needed to enroll in the town of Bethlehem because he was from the lineage of King David (who had been born in Bethlehem).  So he goes there, taking with him his betrothed Mary.

In Luke 2:6 we are told that (this is the literal translation): “And when they were there, the days of her giving birth were fulfilled, and she gave birth to her son….”

So that is fairly straightforward: they made a trip to Bethlehem and after they arrived Mary gave birth.   (It goes on to say that she laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.)

But there is a textual variant in one of our oldest manuscripts of Luke, called Codex Bezae (from around 400 CE).  This variation changes …

I’m afraid if you need to keep reading to find out what this is all about, you’ll need to join the blog.  The good news is that (a) it doesn’t cost much and (b) all the money goes to important charities.  So why not join???

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How Was Jesus *Really* Born? The Proto-Gospel of James
Jesus Kissing Mary Magdalene: A Blast From the Past



  1. Avatar
    Seeker1952  February 7, 2018

    When you were a liberal Christian, were you as involved in or as outspoken about-as you are now-bringing the results of NT historical-critical scholarship to the laity? Of course, even if you had higher priorities or interests at that time, you might still have felt the same way about how important it is. I’m just curious if becoming an agnostic/atheist made you more interested in reaching the laity.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018

      Not so much, but only because I was focused on my scholarship on the textual history of hte Greek New Testament.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  February 7, 2018

    What’s the estimated date of the Proto-gospel of James? I ask because I find it interesting that the Immaculate Conception of Mary and her perpetual virginity may have had an early origin. But then I’m sure the pagans coming into Christianity liked the idea of a female deity. And if Mary had to be holy to bear Jesus, then Anna must have been holy to bear Mary, then Anna’s mother…etc.!

  3. Avatar
    godspell  February 7, 2018

    You know, I always used to wonder about the Catholic tradition of the grotto.

    That’s a three dimensional nativity scene set in a cave.

    I could not figure out what a cave was doing in downtown Bethlehem, or wherever it was. (Though, in fact, grottos are often found in cities–I remember seeing one in West Belfast.

    There’s no mention of the manger being in a cave in Matthew or Luke.

    There is something a bit magical about caves–you find so many stories about them. A story about a cave can be found in The Koran, as well as Plato’s Republic.

    Maybe some ancestral memory, dating from when our ancestors lived in caves.

  4. Avatar
    doug  February 7, 2018

    There must have been early Christians who believed some gospels to be true, altho those gospels would not make it into the NT and were later declared heretical. Considering there are people today who believe the Bible is inerrant, it’s interesting that the early Christians had no way of knowing which books would make it into the NT (or that there would ever be a NT).

  5. Avatar
    jakethedog  February 7, 2018

    I understand there are older fragments of the gospel of Luke. Is the Codex Bezae the oldest manuscript of the birth narrative or is there an older Luke fragment which has Jesus born in Bethlehem?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018

      The full story is found in both Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, of the mid fourth century.

  6. Avatar
    Abongile Mafevuka  February 8, 2018

    If the major doctrines of Christianity was derived from so many different and conflicting manuscripts in some cases one extra different text won’t shake it at all but it does raise the question of legitimacy and credibility. In a modern world of fake news this kind of issue won’t even raise and eyebrow. It is a sad indictment of how things such a religious doctrine which should be central in the lives of people and guide them towards a moral path becomes just another brick in the wall and the pageant and tradition becomes main stream

  7. Avatar
    Silver  February 8, 2018

    I have always been struck by your comment that when you were a student you tried to explain the error in Mark 2:26 re Abiathar only to be given pause for further thought by your tutor’s dismissive remark.
    Is there anywhere I can read all your hard work in setting about reconciling this passage with the OT? It would be fascinating to see your mental gymnastics.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018

      Ha! No, it was simply a term paper I wrote when I was 24!

  8. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  February 8, 2018

    Could one account, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and another account, that Jesus being born on the way to Bethlehem, both be examples of the oral tradition that was changed and distorted due to people’s faulty memories?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018


    • Avatar
      godspell  February 9, 2018

      Faulty memories, religious agendas (the Messiah can’t be born in Galilee), and the desire to tell a bigger richer story.

      Think about superhero origin stories in the comics.

      No faulty memory there. No religious agenda there. But what always happens is, the origin starts out very simple and stark, and over time, new generations of writers inherit these characters, keep retelling the origin, adding details, trying to make the original story match up with this more complex layered story they want to tell. (It’s never 100% convincing there either).

      Early aren’t telling these stories as a way of documenting history. They’re telling them to signify what they would consider a higher truth. They believe something remarkable happened in connection with Jesus’ birth, because clearly Jesus was remarkable. You can find fanciful birth and childhood stories relating to much more modern historical figures, like Lincoln

      I’m not convinced there was anything terribly out of the ordinary about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, but ANY birth is a dramatic event in the life of a family. And there will be stories told about it. And they will grow in the telling.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 8, 2018

    One of the best things about you is that you keep learning and changing your views based on evidence. That is such a nice thing since we seem to be in an “alternative” world where most people, using confirmation bias, change the evidence to fit their already established views and never change their minds about anything regardless of even overwhelming evidence, I think evidence still matters..

  10. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  February 8, 2018

    do scholars believe with certainty that the historical Jesus really thought that the end of the world was going to be happening in his disciples life time ? other than the argument of embarrassment what other arguments are used? was everybody back then thinking that the end is near?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018

      I lay out the basic arguments in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Among other things, Jesus makes this kind of proclamation thorughout Mark and Q and in M and L.

      • Avatar
        mockferret  February 20, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman – the link in talmoore’s comment here is to a pdf copy of Geza Vermes complete translation and commentary on the Dead Sea Scrolls. I’m not sure this should really be shared here seeing as his work is in copyright.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 10, 2018

      “was everybody back then thinking that the end is near?”
      Well, not literally everybody, but a heckuva lot of Jews did believe that, yes. I highly recommend reading the non-canonical Dead Sea Scrolls translated by Geza Vermes. It’ll give you a good idea of how apocalyptic Jews were thinking back then. link –> http://www.thechristianidentityforum.net/downloads/Complete-Scrolls.pdf

      Also, consider the fact that not just Jesus but John the Baptist, as well, were telling Jews that they needed to repent (return to God) Now! Now! Now! Before it’s too late! Why the urgency if the Messianic Age was still a ways off? That’s not how doomsday preachers work. For them the apocalypse is *always* right around the corner. That’s their entire raison d’etre.

  11. Avatar
    Tony  February 8, 2018

    My guess is that the author of he proto-gospel took Luke’s fabricated birth narrative at face value, but simply did not realize the prophetic significance of a Bethlehem birth.

    But I’m curious, are the exceptionally bright undergraduates in your class also 100% motivated Christians? What are their thoughts on their future careers? Do they take a God-inspired attitude toward NT scripture? Do they accept that both birth narratives, genealogies and much more, are fabrications?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018

      I don’t really know what their religious beliefs are. It’s not something we talk about (since it’s not relevant to the class).

      • Avatar
        jdub3125  February 11, 2018

        Professor are you ever invited to speak at the student Christian organizations at Duke or Carolina, such as Wesley Foundation, FCA, or whatever is on campus there? And maybe on rare occasion you’ve chatted with a student while standing in a concession line at a Tar Heels basketball game in the Dean Dome ?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 11, 2018

          Not for a very long time. But I certainly chat with students all the time!

          • Avatar
            jdub3125  February 11, 2018


  12. Avatar
    Silver  February 8, 2018

    I struggle with the difference between hermeneutics and exegesis. Please can you give simple definitions of each and, if possible, examples so that I may get to grips with these terms?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018

      One way to look at it is that hermenetics is the theory of how to interpret, and exegesis involves the practice of doing an interpretation.

  13. talmoore
    talmoore  February 8, 2018

    My guess would be that some Christians decided to make a pilgrimage to 2nd century Bethlehem, and when they arrived and saw what a dump it was they concluded that there was no way in heck the Christ was born here.

  14. Telling
    Telling  February 8, 2018


    It has been noted by some historians that Jesus is the only Master of the several major ones recorded in history whose teachings are ambiguous. A primary reason for this, I believe, is that historically Western scholars focus primarily on the man himself, not his teachings, on the idea that we are saved by the Man, not his teachings, or that only God (undefined) can answer the important questions. The other religions teach of the the nature of reality and of methods for progressing toward the singular goal of overcoming certain death. The Hindu and Buddhist texts could be riddled with errors and false stories, but the teachings are identified and would not change.

    I wonder if you’ve thought about this. I believe you’ve clearly said what you believe were the Jesus teachings. This would place our society at a dead end, acceptance of evolution without intelligence guidance, which I think is a significant problem today for particularly young people. Our society offers only poison pills, whether salvation through faith in an illogical story or Evolution where there is no salvation. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

  15. Avatar
    DavidNeale  February 8, 2018

    Off-topic: I just wanted to thank you for recommending Friedman’s “Who Wrote The Bible?” I read it earlier this week and it’s a fantastic book – so interesting and so accessible. (I previously had little knowledge of Hebrew Bible studies.)

    I also read Finkelstein/Silberman’s “The Bible Unearthed”, again on your recommendation, which was likewise an interesting book. I know that aspects of the minimalist view are contentious.

  16. Avatar
    toejam  February 8, 2018

    Interesting that this variant is not noted in Phil Comfort’s “A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament”…

  17. Avatar
    seahawk41  February 8, 2018

    I read something about “manuscript families”. Have you ever commented on that on the blog?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018

      It was the topic of my dissertation, but no, I’ve never talked about it on the blog. Too complicated!

  18. Avatar
    flyboydh1  February 8, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Just a clarification. Micah 5:2 does not say that Messiah will be born in Bethlahem. This verse is mistranslated in Christian Bibles unfortunately and leads many Christians astray. Mathew’s use of this verse is completely taken out of context. Good find in your class’s research translating Luke 2. Fascinating the link between that and the proto james.

  19. Avatar
    madi22  February 9, 2018

    Hi Bart,

    Very insightful, i was wondering though whether you could share another post explaining some of the bigger contradictions/irreconcilable differences that are very problematic to the point of rattling the christian faith?


    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018

      I’m not sure any variants would rattle Christian faith. Their significance lies elsewhere. (E.g., in seeing what an author was trying to say in his book)

  20. Lev
    Lev  February 9, 2018

    Somewhat off-topic question: Is there a consensus amongst historians over when Jesus was born?

    I ask because the birth narratives seem to be later additions and the earliest material concerning his age is Luke’s estimate of 30 years old in Lk3:23 and John’s record of the Jerusalem Jews claiming he wasn’t yet 50 years old in Jn8:57.

    Given how different these estimates are, can they be regarded as passing the criteria of multiple attestation? What’s your view over how old Jesus was when he was crucified?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018

      I think most scholars just punt and say it was near the time King Herod died, so around 4 BCE or so. But we really have no firm way of knowing.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 10, 2018

      The way I think of it is if Jesus were too young he wouldn’t have gained disciples, but if he was too old he would not have seemed such a threat to the authorities. My guess is that Jesus was still military age. And I would guess he was older than or, at minimum, equal in age to his disciples, who were themselves probably in their late teens to late 20s. So I would think it’s fair to guess that Jesus was somewhere within his early 30s, which would place his birth somewhere around the time of Herod’s death.

      • Lev
        Lev  February 11, 2018

        Interesting analysis Talmoore. I largely agree although I think he could have been in his 40s also.

        An obscure document, Eusebius and the Star, has Jesus born four years before Herod’s death (8BC) which would make him 40 years old in 32/33 AD:

        “But Joseph and Mary, when they saw the treachery of king Herod and the envy of the Scribes and Pharisees, arose and took the Child, and went to a foreign country and of a barbarous tongue; and there they dwelt for the space of four years, during which Herod continued to reign after (their flight).” http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_star.htm

        Added to this is Irenaeus, who seems to suggest that the John and other Apostles had taught that Jesus had reached at least 40 years old in Against Heresies. Book 2, ch22, v5: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103222.htm

        Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Moses and Mohammed were 40 when they started their public ministries.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  February 12, 2018

          Well, for starters, I think Jesus was crucified in 30 CE (for reasons I have already given in countless previous comments). Moreover, I think Jesus was still a child (i.e. not of military age) when Judas of Gamla started his rebellion, which was in 6 CE. That would have made Jesus no more than 15 or 16 years old in the year 6 — and at minimum 5 or 6 years old. That would place Jesus at his death somewhere between 30 and 40 years old. That rough estimate is probably the best we’ll ever be able to say.

    • Avatar
      AnotherBart  February 11, 2018

      Working Backwards:
      33 CE Jesus is Crucified
      32 CE Tiberius orders Governors to respect Jewish Customs
      31 CE, Oct 18th, Sejanus’ execution,
      __ CE Jesus is about 30 when he starts his ministry (Luke 3:23)
      28-29 CE John the Baptist begins ministry in 15th year of Tiberius (Luke 3:1) (14+15= 29 C.E. )
      26-27 CE Pontius Pilate becomes Prefect
      26 CE Tiberius ‘retires’ to Capri & Sejanus is ruler de facto
      19 CE Tiberius enlists 4,000 Jewish Males in Rome to military service in Sardinia
      14 CE Tiberius becomes Emperor
      ___ ? Jesus is born (haven’t figured it out yet……

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