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What Text Are the Translators Translating?

What is it that Bible translators translate when they are translating?  Let me focus on the New Testament, my main area of expertise.   When a translator wants to make an English version of, say, Mark (what I say about Mark will be true of all the books of the NT), what does she actually translate into English? Obviously she cannot take Mark’s original manuscript and translate it, since we don’t have it.  Or the first copy of the original, or a copy of the copy of the original.   We have hundreds of copies of Mark.  Does she just choose one that seems good and translate that? No, as it turns out, that’s not how it works at all.  She translates a critical edition of the Greek text of Mark as it has been reconstructed by textual scholars.  This will take a good bit of explaining. From near the time in the fifteenth century when printing with moveable type was invented there have been scholars interested in producing printed versions of the Greek New Testament (and [...]

2020-04-03T02:37:29-04:00January 11th, 2017|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

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 [...]

Is the New Testament Authentic? Readers’ Mailbag December 4, 2016

QUESTION Dr Ehrman, I found this attack against you: Bart likes to deceive his listener by claiming more variations and more copies give birth to less authenticity. Actually flip that and you’ll begin to “see the light”.  The Bible manuscripts were transmitted not in a linear way, as in “Chinese whispers” but geometrically as in 1 produced by 5 others which in turn then produced, say 20, etc. I think you already dealt with this claim, but I am unable to find your post.   RESPONSE I have to admit that I have a hard time responding to this objection because I don’t know what the person is talking about.  Maybe someone else can enlighten me.   For openers, I’m not sure what he means that I “like” to deceive my listeners – I think that must mean I do this a lot.  And the “deception” appears to be that I think lots of variations in the manuscripts of the New Testament make something “less authentic.”  But what does the person mean?   Exactly what is less [...]

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 [...]

How I Discovered Textual Criticism

It was at Moody Bible Institute that I first became interested in the textual criticism of the New Testament.  Let me stress a definitional point that some readers on the blog have not gotten or understood (I’ve said it a lot, so apologies for those who have gotten it! But even though I keep saying this, some people still don’t get it).   Textual criticism is NOT the study of texts to see what they mean.  For the last time (well, probably not): it is not the interpretation of texts.  Textual criticism, instead, is the attempt to determine what an author actually wrote if we do not have his one and only original copy.   It is independent of the question of what the author might have actually *meant* by what he wrote. Textual criticism is done on all texts – even modern ones.  There are textual critics who work on Wordsworth.  They try to determine if it’s possible to know the actual words of his original poems (given the fact that we have different editions and [...]

My Work as a Historian and Paul in Conflict with the Jerusalem Church: Readers’ Mailbag August 20, 2016

Some people (conservative Christians who don’t like my scholarship) maintain that I’m not a historian, a view I find very odd since virtually all of my scholarship (for well over twenty-five years) is historical.  I address the question in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag, along with a question that many readers will find more interesting (since it’s more germane to anything), of whether Paul and the Jerusalem church were on the same page theologically or if there were tensions between them. If you have any questions you would like me to address in a future Mailbag, let me know!   QUESTION:  In a debate online a Fundamentalist friend said you were a textual critic and not an historian. I said you wore both hats. Do you also consider yourself a historian?   RESPONSE: Anyone who thinks I’m not a historian simply has never read any of my books – including my books on textual criticism!   The vast majority of my books are not even about textual criticism, but about the history of early Christianity (first to [...]

Knowing the “Original” Text — of the NT or of Isaiah. Weekly Readers’ Mailbag July 17, 2016

How can we absolutely know whether we have the original words of the New Testament?  And weren’t books of the Old Testament edited progressively over time, so that their texts were even more fluid than those of the New Testament?  These are the two questions I address in this week’s Readers’ mailbag.  If you have a question you would like me to address, let me know!   QUESTION “So that there are some places where specialists cannot agree on what the text originally said, and there are some places where we’ll probably never know.”  I’ve both heard – and read – you saying the above on multiple occasions, and I’ve always wanted to ask: if we ‘don’t have the originals, or even copies of the originals, or even copies of copies of the originals’, as you often say, then why do you say ‘there are [merely] some places where we simply don’t know what the original text said’?  If we don’t have the originals (or copies and so on), then we don’t REALLY know what [...]

Readers’ Mailbag December 4, 2015

  It is time for my weekly Readers’ Mailbag.   I can’t answer these questions by devoting long threads to them – even though they each deserve a thread; but I can give quick responses, and hope that will be enough for now.  If you have a question you would like me to address in the future, please attach it as a comment to this post.     QUESTION: It is not surprising that Jesus was an apocalyptic end-of-times messiah figure, because we have such people at least once each generation (often leading their people to disappointment if not disaster). Any thoughts on why this is such a persistent theme, even though every previous apocalypticist has been wrong?   RESPONSE:  Yes,  a lot of my students think that the end of the world will happen sometime in their own lifetimes, that we are living at the end of time, that things taking place in our world are happening in fulfillment of Scripture, that these are the last days proclaimed by the prophets.  And why wouldn’t they [...]

2020-04-03T13:05:53-04:00December 4th, 2015|Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Readers’ Mailbag November 27, 2015

  I hope everyone had a fulfilling (and fillingful) Thanksgiving! Now it is time to answer some questions I have received over the past couple of weeks, in short rapid-fire order.   If you have a question you would like me to address, please ask it in a comment to this post.  I am keeping a list and deal with the questions, weekly, more or less in the order in which I receive them.   And I’m running low on questions!  So ask away!     QUESTION:  Why do you think Jesus remained single his whole life? Could that have been part of the reason he was seen as a divine being? Ordinary people marry, not highly esteemed divine beings? RESPONSE:  That’s an interesting hypothesis, but I don’t think it is “it.”  Let me start with the necessary preliminary: I do indeed think that Jesus was, in fact, unmarried.  People have disputed that (most notably that inestimable authority on ancient Christianity, Dan Brown, in the Da Vinci Code!) but the evidence is very strong.   I have dealt [...]

Why Bother With Anything *Except* the “Original” Text??

In this post I would like to tie a couple of strings together that have been more or less hanging.  In a couple of earlier posts I asserted my view that we were probably as “close to the originals” of the New Testament writings as we are ever likely to get, that barring some spectacular new discoveries (such as the original themselves!) or some fantastic changes in method, we simply are not going to be able to know whether we are right or wrong in the textual decisions we have made about which among the many thousands of textual variants (most of which are completely insignificant and meaningless, but some of which are very important indeed) are probably original and which are later scribal alterations. It’s not that I think we must now have the original text.  I don’t think we be sure.   But I also don’t think we will come to know how close we are to the original any better in the future than we do now -- unless something drastically changes. And [...]

On “Knowing” the Original Words of the NT

I have been discussing the question of whether we can know that we have reconstructed the original text of the New Testament at every point – or even every important point.   To me the answer is self-evidently, No, of course not.   Many of my conservative evangelical critics think that I’m being overly skeptical, that since we have thousands of manuscripts of the NT, we can surely know better what the authors of the NT said than any other authors from the ancient world.  My view is that this might be true, but that simply shows that we can’t know what *most* authors of the ancient world actually said, word for word. Why does that matter?  I’ll explain in a second, for the bulk of this post.  But first let me put the matter in very simple form (I keep trying to explain this in a way that’s satisfying to myself.).   Suppose Matthew’s Gospel was circulated for the very first time in Antioch of Syria around the year 85 CE.   We’ll call that first circulated copy [...]

2020-04-03T13:20:03-04:00September 7th, 2015|Bart's Critics, New Testament Manuscripts|

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|

Textual Criticism Syllabus

This semester I am teaching my PhD seminar in precisely the topic I've been discussing for the past number of weeks, New Testament textual criticism.  Here, for your reading pleasure, is the syllabus for the class.     Reli 809: New Testament Textual Criticism   Instructor:  Bart D. Ehrman    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill    Fall 2015   Course Description This class focuses on one of the foundational disciplines of biblical studies.  New Testament textual criticism has experienced a significant resurgence over the past twenty years or so, as scholars have begun, again, to recognize its importance for exegesis, theology, and the history of Christianity, and have realized, contrary to general perception, how much of real significance is yet to be done in the field. Your work for this seminar will assume sundry forms.  A substantial portion of it will be devoted to the study of a significant textual problem, on which you will write a term paper.  The basic task, of course, is to establish the earliest form of the text.  But [...]

2020-05-11T13:03:09-04:00August 29th, 2015|New Testament Manuscripts, Teaching Christianity|
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