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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|

Were All Textual Changes Made by Scribes by 300 CE? Readers’ Mailbag November 5, 2017

For today’s Readers’ Mailbag I deal with an interesting and important question about the changes that scribes made in their manuscripts.   QUESTION In several of your books you mention that most modifications in the NT manuscripts happened in first 3 centuries. If I’m correct we have no manuscript from 1st century and only few from the 2nd. That means we can say almost nothing about changes during this time. This is however more than half of the “greatest modifications” historical period.   RESPONSE This comment is more of a statement than a question, but the question is clearly implied: how do we know (or why do we think) that almost all of the changes in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament as found in later manuscripts were made early in the history of the tradition, in the first three centuries, if we don’t have many manuscripts from that period to prove it?  Great question.   But with an answer that I think just about every textual scholar agrees with. To begin with: when textual [...]

Do Later Manuscript Discoveries Ever Support Proposed Interpolations?

It is fine, I think, for a post on the blog every now and then to get technical and into the nitty-gritty of scholarship.  And so I have no qualms about the following. Yesterday I posted a response to a question about “textual emendation” by Jan Krans, a New Testament textual expert who teaches in the Netherlands.  The same blog reader had a second question that I have also directed to Jan, and here I give both the question and the answer. The question has to do with my claim that there are some words/passages in the New Testament that *look* like they were added after the original was published, but for which we have NO manuscripts that lack the words/passage (so that there is no hard evidence that they were added after the text was originally published).   But has it ever happened that after a scholar suggested such a thing, a manuscript has turned up that provides actual evidence?  Here’s the interesting question about that, and Jan’s intriguing response. QUESTION: Do you know of [...]

Are There Passages Where *Every* NT Manuscript Gives the “Wrong” Reading?

In this post I deal with an interesting question that a reader has asked me, with reference to the post I made last week where I explained a complicated situation that appears sometimes to have occurred in our surviving manuscripts of the New Testament, when every single manuscript we have may have the “wrong” reading – that is, when every one of the manuscripts appears to an alteration from what the author original wrote.  Here is what I said. Another reason interpolations and scribal corruptions overlap is because – here it gets even more tricky — there are places where scholars are convinced that there were scribal alterations made very early in the history of the transmission of the text that occurred *after* the book was originally put in circulation in the textual form that has come down to us but that affected *all* of our surviving manuscripts.  In other words, in these places (no one can agree where it has happened!) all of our manuscripts have the wrong reading, but not because of an [...]

2020-04-03T02:04:02-04:00August 21st, 2017|New Testament Manuscripts, Reader’s Questions|

Interpolations and Textual Corruptions: The Blurry Lines

After the past two posts, I am now in a position to answer the question that led to this brief hiatus in my discussion of the afterlife, involving the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke.  To refresh your memory, here is the question:   QUESTION: If, in your suspicion, the original Gospel of Luke began at 3:1 and the infancy narrative found in 1:5-2:52 is a later addition, do you think that should be indicated in NT reconstructions and translations in a way similar to how Mark 16:9-20 is often bracketed?   RESPONSE: Different scholars will have different opinions on this question, in no small measure because the majority of scholars (I would imagine) are reluctant to say that Luke 1-2 were originally lacking from the Gospel.   But suppose the majority were convinced?   Would they say that brackets should be placed around the story, as happens, typically, with passages otherwise recognized as probably not belonging in the New Testament, such as the ending of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:9-20) or the story of the [...]

My Role in Editing My Most Important Book that No One Has Heard Of.

Just one question in this week’s blog, about a book that I edited that most readers of the blog have never heard of, let alone read, but that is probably one of the most important books I’ve ever been involved with.   QUESTION: Dr. Ehrman, in your first and second edition of The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis that you co-edited with Dr. Michael Holmes, what was your role in editing, especially since some articles were beyond your admitted expertise? - Dr. Michael Holmes is also the author of The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations and The Greek New Testament, among other works.   RESPONSE: This is actually a terrific question, but before addressing it directly I need to provide a bit of background.  The book this person is asking about is in the field of “textual criticism” in its technical sense, that is, the study of how to reconstruct the original text of the New Testament given the fact that we don’t have the [...]

Mythicists and the Virgin Birth: Readers’ Mailbag May 6, 2017

I’ve been devoting the blog to some autobiography recently, so in this Readers Mailbag I’ll make a shift to a couple of academic questions, one about Mythicist claims on the virgin birth and the other about the usefulness of ancient translations of the New Testament for establishing the original text.   QUESTION: I often read mythicists argue that Jesus was a mythological figure because he (allegedly) has many parallels in pagan gods. One of the parallels, of course, is him being born to a virgin. My question is: do mythicists realize that the concept of the virgin birth is a much later development?   RESPONSE: I have spent time with Mythicist groups, and have always enjoyed myself, finding the people friendly, eager to talk, cordial, and interesting.  But the general lack of basic knowledge about the Bible is shocking, even among the most outspoken among them.  What is shocking is not that they don’t know much about, say, the New Testament – that’s true of most people on the planet  -- but that they have [...]

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|

My “Preparation” to Teach in a Secular Research Institution

Wednesday is my last lecture of the semester in my undergraduate Introduction to the New Testament class.  It will be something different.  I have made it an optional class, for anyone who wants to hear me talk about what I really believe, personally, about the material we’ve been covering in the class.  I’ve done this in years past, and usually it is the best attended class of the semester.  I’m not sure what that says about my teaching otherwise…. In a subsequent post I’ll talk about that upcoming talk.  In this post I’d like to set it up by talking about my views about teaching religion/religious studies in my particular environment.  It’s very different from other environments. Here’s a scary factoid about myself.  I never ... The Rest of this Post is for Members Only.  If you don't belong yet, you better join, or you'll never know!  It doesn't cost much, it gives a lot, and every dime goes to charity.  So JOIN!!! I never set foot in a secular university classroom until my first [...]

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 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, [...]

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