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Irrelevant Arguments and the So-called Tenacity of the Tradition

A couple of posts ago I promised to deal with an argument sometimes used by those who believe we can know with good certainty what the original text of the New Testament books said.  This is the argument called the “tenacity of the tradition.”  If you recall, the argument is prefaced on the very interesting phenomenon that whenever papyri manuscripts are discovered – say from the third or fourth Christian century – they almost *never* contain new variant readings that we did not already know about from later manuscripts, of say the seventh to fifteenth centuries.  Instead, the readings of these early manuscripts re-appear in later manuscripts. The conclusion that is sometimes drawn, then, is that that tradition is “tenacious.”  That is to say, later manuscripts did not invent their variant readings, but in almost every instance replicated variant readings that they got from earlier manuscripts.   And one corollary that is sometimes drawn, then, is variant readings do not disappear but continue to be replicated in later witnesses.   If that is the case, then the [...]

What Is the “Original” Text?

In my debates with other scholars about whether we can know (for certain) (or at they sometimes put it, with 99% certainty) what the original words of the New Testament were, I always argue that we cannot “know,” and they argue we can.   Let me explain one reason that I find their position highly problematic by dealing with a broader issue.  What exactly *is* the original text of a document?  If we can’t agree on that very basic and fundamental question, then we can’t very well agree on the possibility of getting back to the original. I’ve dealt with this problem on the blog before, but let me approach if from a different angle this time.  I have just finished my recent book on how memory studies can help us think about the oral traditions of Jesus that were in circulation in the years and decades before the Gospels were produced.   The book will be called Jesus Before the Gospels, and should be published sometime in the spring. So in 20 years, looking back on [...]

2020-04-03T13:22:41-04:00September 2nd, 2015|New Testament Manuscripts|

Arguments that We Have the Original Text

When I have public debates with scholars over whether we can know the original text of the New Testament or not, I stake out the claim that we cannot, and they stake out the claim that we probably can.  Part of my argument is always the one I started to outline in the previous post.   If we take something like the Gospel of Mark, our first complete manuscript of Mark is 300 years after Mark was first produced and put in circulation.    So how can we know if that manuscript is extremely close to the original?  We don’t have an original to compare it to in order to find out.  And we don’t have earlier manuscripts to compare it to in order to find out, except for one remarkable, but highly fragmentary manuscript about a century and half earlier (dating from around 200 CE), which does contain differences from the complete one. So given this fact, how does my opponent typically argue his case?  Normally he cites two important data.  There is no disputing either [...]

2020-04-03T13:22:59-04:00September 1st, 2015|Bart's Critics, New Testament Manuscripts|

Contradictions and Silly Claims by Textual Critics

A couple of posts ago I mentioned a comment that I used to make (and still would be happy to make) that rankled some of my colleagues and has led some of my conservative evangelical critics to claim that I’m contradicting myself and can’t figure out what to think.   Or, rather, they claim that I present one view to scholars and a different view to popular readers in order to sensationalize the truth in order to sell books, presumably so I can make millions and retire in a Swiss villa in the Alps.   The comment, as you recall, ran something like this:  “Barring spectacular new discoveries (such as the originals!) or radical developments of new methods, we will never get any closer to the original writings of the New Testament than we already are.” I explained in my previous post why I used to make some such statements (and why I continue to stand by them).  In short, despite all the discoveries over the past 135 years, and all the revolutions in method, the basic [...]

2020-04-03T13:23:07-04:00August 31st, 2015|Bart's Critics, New Testament Manuscripts|

Ruffling the Feathers of My Fellow Textual Critics

I seem to get under the skin of a lot of my fellow textual critics.  Or at least a lot of them find my views somewhere between troubling and irritating.   That became most clear when I published my book Misquoting Jesus.   From what I can gather, the most common complaints about the book were about its perceived “tone.”  Some scholars thought that I made the situation of our manuscripts to be worse than it really is.  I, on the other hand, am not so sure about that. What has probably struck me the most in the years since the book was published (it’s been ten years now!  Very hard to believe….) is that critics almost never say that anything I claimed in the book is actually wrong.  In fact, so far as I know, everything I said in the book is completely right.  How many books are attacked for not saying anything wrong? Here are the main points that I stress in the book. We do not have the originals for any of the books [...]

2020-04-03T13:23:15-04:00August 28th, 2015|Book Discussions, New Testament Manuscripts|

A Variant in Mark 1:1 — Accidental or Intentional?

I have been talking about different kinds of changes made in our surviving New Testament manuscripts, some of them accidental slips of the pen (that’s probably the vast majority of our textual variants) and others of them intentional alterations.  One of the points that I’ve been trying to stress is that at the end of the day it is, technically speaking, impossible to know what a scribe’s “intentions” were (or if he had any, other than the intention of copying a text).  None of the scribes is around to be interviewed, and so – as with a lot of history – there is a good bit of scholarly guess-work that has to be done. This guess work is not simply shooting in the dark, however.   And it is dead easy for a highly trained expert to tell the difference between informed guesswork and just plain guesswork.   But at the end of the day we are always talking about historical probabilities, not historical certainties, when it comes to figuring out why a scribed decided to change [...]

An Intentional Change in Mark 15:34

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.  In my previous post I pointed to an example in Mark 1:2, in which scribes appear to have altered a text because it seems to embody an error.   If I’m wrong that this is the direction of the change – that is, if the text that I’m arguing is the “corruption” is in fact the original text – then there is still almost certainly an intentional change still involved, but made for some other reason.   But either way, the change does not appear to have been made simply by inattention to detail. Here I’ll give a second instance from Mark of what appears to be an intentional change.  I stress that these alterations “appear” to be intentional since, technically speaking, we can never know what a scribe intended to do.   I use the term I simply to mean an alteration to the text that a scribe appears to have made [...]

2020-04-03T13:28:51-04:00August 2nd, 2015|Canonical Gospels, New Testament Manuscripts|

Illustration of a Textual Change: Did Mark Make a Mistake?

I have started discussing “intentional” changes of the text of the New Testament – that is alterations found in manuscripts of the New Testament that appear to have been made by scribes who *wanted* to change the text, presumably in order to make it say (more closely) what they wanted it to say.   Let me illustrate my discussion by dealing with three of the most interesting textual variants in the Gospel of Mark, one of which is an easy problem to solve, one that is a bit more difficult, and one that has generated a lot of discussion over the years and no firm consensus.  This will take a couple of posts. In a still later post I will talk about the criteria and arguments that scholars typically use in order to resolve these questions.  I will be alluding to those criteria and arguments here in my explanations of why one form of the text appears to be what the author originally wrote, and the other form of the text appears to be the scribal [...]

2020-10-16T21:54:02-04:00July 31st, 2015|Canonical Gospels, New Testament Manuscripts|

Accidental Scribal Changes

As I stressed in my most recent post, the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of differences among out surviving manuscripts (and versions, and patristic citations) are of very little or no importance in trying to establish what the authors of the NT originally wrote.   There are others that matter, and matter a lot.  Those tend to be the ones that are the most interesting.   But there are many, many more differences that are easy to detect and of no real significance. Most of these differences appear simply to be accidental mistakes.  We can never be absolutely certain, of course, if a change was made by accident or not.   But in a huge majority of cases, there seems to be little reason to doubt it. The *reasons* mistakes were made are not hard to detect, but are nonetheless  hugely interesting for a reason I will explain in my next post.  The reality is that scribes were human beings and they made mistakes.   Of course, in theory, they didn’t *have* to make mistakes.   Throughout the [...]

2020-04-03T13:30:02-04:00July 24th, 2015|New Testament Manuscripts|
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