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What Is the Original Text of the Gospels?

QUESTION: When it comes to the gospels, how do we define the ‘original text’? Do we define it as the original manuscript that was first penned by the author, or do we define it as the gospels in their most settled canonical form?   RESPONSE: As it turns out, this is a complicated and endlessly fascinating question that, so far as I have been able to work out over the past twenty years of thinking about it, has no clear and obvious answer! By way of very simple background for readers not completely on top of the textual situation we are confronting when it comes to the Gospels (or any of the other books of the New Testament) (or of any ancient Christian writings at all) (or, in fact, of any writings of any kind at all that come down to us from antiquity) we do not have the “originals” (however we define that term: see below!).  What we have are copies made from copies, which were themselves made from copies.  Most of these copies [...]

2020-04-03T01:49:05-04:00November 14th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

Why Do Translators Include Passages They Know Are Not Original?

Based on what I have said about the textual variant of 666 and 616 in the book of Revelation, several readers have asked a distantly related question.  Here is how one of them phrased it:   QUESTION: If the biblical scholars know with certainty that Mark 16:9-20 and John 7.53-8.11 were added by later scribes, why are they still in the modern bibles, that is, why are they not *completely* removed? I know these verses were removed in the RSV but added back in the NRSV.   RESPONSE: This is a great question.  On one level it doesn’t make sense.  If textual scholars go to all the trouble of trying to figure out what the “original” text of the New Testament was, and they decide that some passages were not originally there in the originals, why do translators (who are often themselves the textual scholars who have made these decisions!) include such passages in their translations? The problem is exacerbated by looking carefully at what translators have done, because strictly speaking they are not consistent.  [...]

2020-04-03T01:49:38-04:00November 8th, 2017|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

666 and Scribal Changes of the Text

I have received a number of queries about my post concerning the recently discovered papyrus P115 which indicates that the number of the Beast (the Antichrist) in Revelation 13 was 616 rather than 666.  Some of them I addressed in my post of yesterday.  But some readers have inquired about something slightly different: how do discoveries like this affect our translations of the New Testament?   Here is one of those questions and my respons.   QUESTION: I thought the NIV Bible kept up-to-date with newer papyrus discoveries. Yet, it too shows 666 (and not 616) for REV 13:18. Why might that be?   RESPONSE: Ah, good question.  When I indicated that the reading 616 is now found in an early manuscript, I did not mean to say that therefore it is more likely to be the reading that the author originally wrote.  That is a different question. As is true for a lot of verses in the New Testament, different manuscripts have different wordings for this verse.  There are five different forms of the text [...]

2020-04-03T01:50:00-04:00November 7th, 2017|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum, Revelation of John|

The Text of the New Testament: Are the Textual Traditions of Other Ancient Works Relevant? A Blast From the Past

Funny how some topics keep recurring in my head.  Here is a post from exactly five years ago, on a topic I still get asked about a lot.  The really interesting bit of it starts about four paragraphs down.  Turns out, I still think the same things today! **************************************************************************   I have had three debates with Dan Wallace on the question of whether or not we can know for certain, or with relative reliability, whether we have the “original” text of the New Testament.   At the end of the day, my answer is usually “we don’t know.”   For practical reasons, New Testament scholars proceed as if we do actually know what Mark wrote, or Paul, or the author of 1 Peter.   And if I had to guess, my guess would be that in most cases we can probably get close to what the author wrote.  But the dim reality is that we really don’t have any way to know for sure.   Our copies are all so far removed from the time when the authors wrote, that even [...]

2017-09-20T22:24:44-04:00April 30th, 2017|Bart's Debates, New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

The First Textual Variant in the Gospel of Mark

I have been talking about some of the textual variants in Mark, and wanted to address the very first one that can be found in our textual witnesses, one that occurs in the first verse of the Gospel.  I have decided to do so by showing how a relatively hard-core argument is made by textual scholars.  To do that I have copied in my discussion of the passage in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.  This was not a Barnes & Noble book, but was written for academics.  But I think it’s useful to get a sense for that kind of discourse on occasion (OK: rare occasion) on the blog.  So here it is.  As you’ll see, it presupposes some knowledge of adoptionistic Christologies, the topic of yesterday’s post.  (I have eliminated part of the discussion that gets particularly technical, involving the surviving manuscripts that evidence the textual variant) (And apologies for the odd spacing...) ***************************************************************** The vast majority of manuscripts introduce the Gospel of Mark with the words: “The beginning of the Gospel [...]

2020-04-03T02:34:16-04:00February 27th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

How Variant Readings are Noted in the Greek New Testament

In this post I’m going to try to do something I’ve never done before: actually explain by way of example the extent and kind of variations you find in our surviving Greek manuscripts.  In doing so I hope to show: (a) there are lots of variations and (b) most of them involve nuances of meaning but rarely anything of huge significance (and lots of them don’t affect the meaning at all). By way of introduction: I have previously indicated that virtually all translators use the Greek text established by an international committee of scholars for the United Bible Societies.  I have also mentioned that this form of the text comes in two published versions.  One is for translators around the world who are translating the NT into various languages into which it has not yet appeared.  This is the kind of “student” edition that many first year Greek students use.  That one is called the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament, and it is now in its fifth edition.  That’s the one I’ve been describing. [...]

2020-04-03T02:34:41-04:00February 21st, 2017|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

A Text That Doesn’t Exist! What Do NT Translators Actually Translate?

In my previous post I began to explain that virtually all translators of the New Testament – except fundamentalists who continue to appeal to the Textus Receptus (the inferior form of the Greek text based on the original publication of Erasmus back in 1516, which does not take into account, obviously, discoveries of newer manuscripts) – rely on the form of the Greek text established by an international group of scholars from 1955-1965.  This edition has been revised since then, but not significantly.  The text is pretty much the same now as then, with a few changes here and there. Two points I would like to stress about this United Bible Societies text of the New Testament.  The first point is in response to a question I received, by someone who asked with understandable incredulity: do you mean every translator simply takes the committee’s word for it?  Do they simply translate what others have decided was the original text?  The answer to that question is both yes and no.  It’s actually not quite that simple. [...]

The Standard Greek New Testament Today

All of these threads within threads are connected with the question that I started with a long while ago: when translators today produce a version of the Bible in English (or any other modern language) what is it that they are translating?  One of the manuscripts?  Several of the manuscripts?  Something else? The answer, in virtually every instance, is the same.  They are translating an edition of the Greek New Testament published since 1965 (with revisions since then) produced by a small but international team of textual scholars assembled and commissioned by the United Bible Societies (various countries have a Bible Society – an organization devoted to the distribution of Bibles and the promotion of knowledge about the Bible: there is one in America, one in Britain, one in Germany, one in the Netherlands, etc; the “United” Bible Societies is the overarching organization with representatives of each country). The team was assembled in 1955 in order to produce a standard edition of the Greek New Testament, based on an intense study of the available Greek [...]

A Major Controversy in New Testament Textual Criticism

After my post yesterday about the 1707 publication by John Mill of his edition of the Greek New Testament, in which he identified some 30,000 places where the manuscripts known in his day differed from one another, my plan was to talk about Greek editions available now, over three centuries later.  But it occurred to me that some readers might be interested in the controversy that was stirred by Mill’s rather alarming publication.  So that’s what this post will be.  Again, this is from my book Misquoting Jesus.   ***********************************************   The impact of Mill’s publication was immediately felt, although he himself did not live to see the drama play out.  He died just two weeks after his massive publication, the victim of stroke.  His untimely death (said by one observer to have been brought on by “drinking too much coffee”!) did not prevent detractors from coming to the fore, however.  The most scathing attack came three years after Mill’s publication, in a learned volume by a controversialist named Daniel Whitby, who in 1710 published [...]

2020-04-03T02:35:26-04:00February 10th, 2017|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

Better Editions of the Greek New Testament

I have been dealing with a thread within a thread within a thread, and now I want to get back for a few of posts to the thread itself.  My initial question was about what it is translators are translating when they translate the New Testament into English.  I have talked about the fact that there are thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament that are now known; and I have indicated that the King James Version was based on only a few of these manuscripts, and these ones were not of high quality.  . But what is it that modern translators -- for example for the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version or the Jerusalem Bible or any one of the other gazillion translations now available -- actually translate?  Do they choose one of the manuscripts?  A couple of them?  Which ones?  Why?  Or do they do something else? They do something else.  They translate a printed text of the Greek New Testament that is widely available today, one you yourself [...]

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:   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? RESPONSE: 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 [...]

The Ending of Mark in the King James Bible

I have been talking about passages of the New Testament that can be found in the King James Bible but were not in the “original” text of the New Testament.  I should stress, there are not thousands of these:  among the hundreds of thousands of differences among our manuscripts, most are not significantly expanded texts that hugely affect a passage/book.  But some areAmong those is the entire ending of the Gospel of Mark, as found in later manuscripts and the KJV.  Here is what I say about it in my book Misquoting Jesus.   The Last Twelve Verses of Mark The next example that I will consider may not be as familiar to the casual reader of the Bible, but it has been highly influential in the history of biblical interpretation and poses comparable problems for the scholar of the textual tradition of the New Testament.  This example comes from the Gospel of Mark, and concerns its ending. In Mark’s account of Jesus’ passion, we are told that he is crucified and then buried by [...]

2020-04-03T02:40:06-04:00February 4th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

The Woman Taken in Adultery in the King James Version

Among the most popular stories about Jesus that you will find in the King James Version is one that, alas, was not originally in the Bible, but was added by scribes.  This is the famous account of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery.  The story is so well known that even most modern translations will include it – but place it in brackets with a footnote indicating there are doubts about its originality or, in some translations, making an even stronger note that it probably does not belong in the New Testament. In fact, even though it is technically true that the passage “probably” does not belong in the New Testament, the reality is that it is not a debated point among textual scholars and translators.  The passage was not part of the Gospel of John originally.  Or any other Gospel.  People know it so well principally because it appeared in the KJV Here is what I say about the passage in my book Misquoting Jesus. ****************************** The Woman Taken in Adultery The story [...]

The Trinity in the King James Bible

I’ve mentioned several problems with the King James Version in previous posts.  Arguably the most significant set of problems has to do with the text that the translators were translating.   The brief reality is that in the early 17th century, Greek editions of the New Testament were based on very few and highly inferior manuscripts.   Only after the King James was translated did scholars begin to become aware of the existence of older, and far better, manuscripts. As I have stressed on the blog before, prior to the invention of printing, the NT (and all other books) circulated in manuscript form (the word manu-script literally means “written by hand”), as scribes copied the text by hand, one page, one sentence, one word at a time.   All scribes copying long texts made mistakes; and anyone who copied a manuscript that had mistakes replicated the mistakes and made some of his own, and this process went on for centuries.   I should stress that most scribes did their best to make faithful reproductions of the copies they were copying, [...]

What Do Translators Translate?

What do translators of the Bible actually translate?  This has been the question in the back of my mind for the thread that has been going on over the past couple of weeks.  The question has two components.  (1) Which books do they translate and call “the Bible”?  And (2) when they decide on those books, where do they find what they need in order to translate it?  Do they translate certain manuscripts?  Which ones?  How do they decide?  And when the manuscripts have differences among themselves, which ones do they follow?  And on what grounds? These are among the enormous number of fundamental questions that translators have to deal with even before they translate the first word of the Bible.  But let me be clear and emphatic: they are all questions with which every decent modern translator is intimately familiar, and these scholars always know all the ins and outs of all the issues.  I want to stress this point because about once every other week I get a question on email in which [...]

The Best Manuscripts and Social Justice: Readers’ Mailbag October 23, 2016

Question: When you say earliest and “best” manuscripts, what do you mean by “best”?   Response: This question was asked in response to my statement, with respect to the famous story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8 (where Jesus says, “Let the one without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her), that we know it was not originally in the Gospel of John in part because it is not to be found in the “oldest and best manuscripts.”  And so the question is, “how do we know what the best manuscripts are?” It’s a great question and one that has, as you might imagine, occupied textual scholars for a very, very long time.  In fact, for as long as there have *been* textual scholars (i.e., hundreds of years!)   The problem, in a nutshell, is this.  If we have hundreds, or thousands, of manuscripts (centuries ago we knew of hundreds, now we know of thousands), how do we know which ones are more likely to preserve the “original” [...]

Why Textual Criticism is “Safe” for Conservative Christians

It is probably not an accident that when I was a very conservative evangelical Christian who wanted to get a PhD in New Testament studies, I chose to focus, in particular, on textual criticism, the study of manuscripts in order to establish the wording of the original text.  That was, and is, a fairly common “track” for evangelicals who want to be biblical scholars.  Maybe it’s not as common now as it used to be.  But it used to be common. As it turns out, most of the scholars who work in the field of New Testament textual criticism in North America either are or used to be committed evangelical Christians.   You might think that the findings of textual criticism would drive evangelicals away from their faith.  But just the opposite is the case.  I know very few people who have found their faith challenged by their knowledge of the textual problems of the New Testament.  Very few indeed.  I was a bit of an oddball that way.  (I’ll say more about that in a [...]

Do Most Manuscripts Have the Original Text?

Early on in my study of textual criticism I came to realize one of the major issues confronting scholars in the field – an issue that scholars have been contending with since the eighteenth century.  For the past hundred years or so the vast majority of experts have been convinced by a solution to the problem, but the solution was slow in coming, for all sorts of reasons.   But when I was first introduced to the problem I learned there were two sides that were being taken, and I wrote a paper about it (my first year in college).  I continued to be interested in the problem for a long time, and it ended up being the subject of the Masters’ thesis I wrote under the direction of Bruce Metzger. The problem is this.   We have thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament – at last count, somewhere around 5600 manuscripts in Greek alone (that includes everything from small fragments the size of a credit card with just a few letters written on them to [...]

2020-04-03T03:06:09-04:00September 8th, 2016|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

My Original Interest in Textual Criticism

As I have indicated, my interest in textual criticism – the scholarly attempt to reconstruct what the authors of the New Testament actually wrote, given the fact we don’t have the originals but only altered copies – did not originate with my going to Princeton Theological Seminary to study with Bruce Metzger.   On the contrary, I went to study with him precisely because that had been an area of fascination for me starting in my first year of college, as an eighteen year old. I mentioned already that I had a course at Moody Bible Institute that dealt with the questions of biblical inspiration (how God had inspired the biblical writers to say what they did), the formation of the canon (how God had ensured that we got the right twenty-seven books), and the problem of the text (the fact we don’t have the copies produced by the authors themselves).   I was deeply interested in all three areas, but was especially intrigued by the third, for a couple of reasons. One reason was theological.  I [...]

Becoming a Textual Critic

Back to my narrative of how I got interested in biblical studies, and specifically textual criticism.   I was just thinking last night about how people (on the blog or elsewhere) sometimes report to me that they have heard my conservative evangelical critics say that I’m not a biblical interpreter (exegete) or a historian, but I’m a textual critic (someone who studies the manuscripts of the New Testament).  And I started thinking about all my training in the Bible and the history of early Christianity. I did three years at Moody studying mainly Bible and theology; I did a two year completion degree at Wheaton majoring in English; I then did a three-year Master’s of Divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary; and finally a four-year PhD in New Testament also at Princeton Seminary.  Over the course of all those years I must have taken, what?   70 or 75 courses?  How many of those courses were on textual criticism? I had one class at Moody that was maybe ¼ devoted to the topic.   And one class in [...]

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