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


When you say earliest and “best” manuscripts, what do you mean by “best”?



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” text of any passage, if the passage is worded differently in different manuscripts?  How do we choose which manuscripts to trust?

So there’s a long answer to that question which would take a book to explain and justify, and there are shorter versions of that long answer.  Here let me give a very brief version.

Suppose you have two friends and you ask each of them for a piece of information.  One of these friends cannot, as a rule, be trusted.  She lies a lot, tends gets facts confused in her head, and generally – whenever you are able to fact-check what she says – gets things wrong.  The other friend has never been known to tell a lie, is clear-headed and accurate, and is right just about every time you have a chance to fact-check her.  You have now asked for some information, and it’s about something that you cannotfact-check.  They give you two different answers.  Which of the two are you more likely to trust?

It is kind of like that with manuscripts of the New Testament.  There are places where you can see if a manuscript is internally consistent with itself; you can see if it is prone to making mistakes; you can see if it is susceptible to making errors.  How can you tell?  Well, suppose the manuscript regularly spells words in different ways, or leaves out words or phrases inadvertently (you know it’s inadvertent because the sentence, without that words, doesn’t make any sense), or changes things around in ways that are incoherent?  Suppose there are places where you have almost absolute certainty what the “original” wording was, and this manuscript gives something else?

Another manuscript, on the other hand, shows that its scribe was highly attentive and careful, did not leave out words or phrases, and never presents a passage with a wording that is incoherent.  When you are virtually certain what the original text must have been, this manuscript gives that wording, virtually every time.

The logic of saying some manuscripts are “best” is that some manuscripts are like the latter, and some are like the former.   And so, what about places where you don’t know with relative certainty what the original was?  Which manuscript do you trust?  The one you know makes lots of mistakes or the one that hardly ever makes a mistake?

And what if instead of just two manuscripts, you have, say twelve, nine of which are the “bad” kind and three are the “good” kind?  In that case, even if there are more manuscripts attesting one form of the reading, you are more likely to think the reading attested by the fewer manuscripts is probably the original.

That’s basically what I mean by saying that the “best” manuscripts do not have the passage.



Was Jesus interested in radical social justice transformations (economic equality, gender equality, etc.)?   Do you think advocating for such changes is an inherent part of the Christian religion?



I will answer the second question first.  No, I do not think social justice is an inherent part of the Christian religion.  I do think that it *should* be, but it is not.  Why do I think it is not?  Because there are lots and lots of Christians who are very committed to their faith who don’t care at *all* about issues of social justice.  That’s a pity, but it’s true.  So to be a Christian, you don’t have to give a toss about social justice.  Apparently.

But I do think social justice was indeed inherently part of the message of Jesus.  It’s a little complicated, but it works like this:

Jesus believed that the world he lived in was corrupt, controlled by evil powers that were opposed to God.  That is why there is so much misery and pain in this world.  There are natural disasters (famine, drought, epidemics), birth defects, starvation, poverty, war, violence, and on and on and on.  But ultimately God was in control and very soon God was going to act to destroy the forces of evil and reverse their effects.  There is a good age coming, in which there will be no more suffering, pain, or misery, no earthquakes, no plagues, no hunger, no physical defects or ailments or suffering, no war, no violence.   And no injustice.

Moreover – and this is the key point – Jesus thought that people who followed him should begin to implement the ideals of that future age in the present.  There will be no illness in the future age, so people should heal the sick now; there will be no demonic forces in the future age, so people should cast out demons now; there will be no hatred in the future age, so people should love one another now; there will be poverty in the future age, so people should give of their possessions to help the poor now; there will be no outcasts on the margins of society in the future age, and so people should welcome the downtrodden and the dispossessed now; there will be no inequalities in the future age, so people should break down the barriers between rich and poor, master and slave, powerful and weak, men and women now.

The fact that there will be no inequalities in the future age means that we should work for equality now.  I think that was a central component of Jesus’ message.

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My Milwaukee Mythicist Debate
Mythicists: Did Nazareth Exist?



  1. Avatar
    Pattylt  October 23, 2016

    Regarding manuscripts, what happens if the opposite of the above scenario occurs? Suppose the oldest manuscript has a story that the best manuscript doesn’t? Would your primary assumption be that it was removed ( maybe due to theological concerns) or that the older one added a story that the later but better manuscript never knew? Are there any cases of this? I know the tendency of scribes was to alter what the story said rather than remove it completely but do we have evidence that that entire stories were ever removed?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2016

      Yes, that does happen a good deal. And then the critic needs to evaluate and balance all the arguments for and against. It is a long and complicated process, variant by variant.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  October 23, 2016

    When Jesus was promoting ‘social justice’ was it only within the circle of his followers? Or was it within the greater circle of all ‘righteous’ Jews? Or was it within the even greater circle of all “Israel” (i.e. all Jews)? Or was it within the ever more greater circle of all righteous people in general, both Jew and Gentile alike? Or was it within the greatest possible circle of each and every human being on earth, Jew or Gentile, sinner or saint?

    (Personally, I think it was most likely the very first case, with a slight possibility of the second case, but almost certainly not for the all the cases subsequent. Moreover, when the early church reinterated Jesus’ teachings of peace and love and harmony, it was primarily with the purpose of establishing peace and love and harmony *between other Christians* rather than between Christians and non-Christians. In other words, most of the peace and love talk from Jesus within the NT is there to serve the purpose of preventing and mending rifts within the early church (cf. every letter by Paul!), first and foremost, and only later became a prescription for Christians’ interaction with non-Christians.)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2016

      My sense is that he was speaking principally to his own followers.

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    clipper9422@yahoo.com  October 23, 2016

    How can Christians promote social justice without violating separation of church and state and imposing their values on others? I would say it’s because social justice is a human value. Christianity supplies additional motivation, whether it’s promise of reward in heaven, hope that God will eventually bring complete social justice, hope that bodily resurrection will permit one to personally experience complete social justice, or gratitude after experiencing God’s love and wanting the experience of love to be more widespread in the world. But there are still good human reasons for promoting social justice without Christian belief.

    Jesus’ s proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom seems to lead directly to concern about social justice as a central component of that kingdom. The caveat is that God’s kingdom comes about mainly through God’s action rather than through human action, which is more of a preparation for that kingdom.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2016

      The constitutional division of church and state does not require that Christians, individually or as groups, avoid working for social justice!! The church cannot run the state (or the state the church), but it can certainly express its views and act on its own.

  4. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 23, 2016

    In an earlier post ,you said that For apocalypticists there would be justice , Not in this life or this age, but in the resurrection, in the age to For apocalypticists there would be justice. Not in this life or this age, but in the resurrection, in the age to come. God would raise all people from the dead, bodily, to give them an eternal reward or an eternal punishment.

    Now you say social justice in this life was a central component of Jesus’ message.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2016

      That’s right. We should work to make this life model, as best we can, the age to come.

  5. Avatar
    doug  October 23, 2016

    I imagine that most people, including those who believe the Bible is inerrant, don’t realize that there are many manuscripts for each of the books in the Bible, and that the manuscripts for each book contain differences.

  6. tompicard
    tompicard  October 23, 2016

    Dr Ehrman,

    How do you know what Jesus expected the new world to be like?

    That there would there be no earthquakes, no birth defects, no pain and no plagues? [ no physical death?]
    I don’t know anywhere Jesus promised anything like that. [ Nor any place else in the Bible that I can think of at the moment ]

    There would, for sure, still be poverty (Matt 26:11)

    But I do know the people who live in that world would be people who behaved in the manner Jesus taught.
    So I agree with you that that new age that Jesus foresaw would be a world of no hatred, no war, no violence and no injustice.

    Therefore it could rightly be said to be a world where the forces of evil have been destroyed and a world where God is in control.

    just my thoughts . . .

  7. tompicard
    tompicard  October 23, 2016

    also . . .

    “Jesus believed that the world he lived in was corrupt, controlled by evil powers that were opposed to God. That is why there is so much misery and pain in this world. ”

    Did he believe it was ‘evil powers’ or ‘evil people’?

    the demons he exorcised I suppose were ‘evil powers’, but I think Jesus saw the ‘evil people’ as the primarily cause of so much misery and pain in the world.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2016

      My sense is that he thoguht evil people were controlled by evil powers.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  October 27, 2016

        so saying ‘the misery in the world is due to evil powers’ is a metaphor?

        I can agree with that being Jesus’ understanding and teaching
        Words such as the devil being the ‘god of this world’, pharisees as ‘wishing to do the will of their father the devil’, etc

        But then, in like manner, I can understand Jesus teaching of ‘Kingdom of God’ or a world where God is in control, to be a metaphor for his apocalyptic vision being a world populated by wise/good people i.e those who listen to Jesus words and practice them. [even if, in that world, earthquakes might still occur and where physical death is a natural end of physical life]

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 24, 2016

    Two more good questions with two more good answers. The high quality of this website over 4 years really amazes me. I have followed several similar websites over the years and this is, by far, the best both in quantity and quality. It is not even close.

  9. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  October 24, 2016

    Will you please post your thoughts on the debate?

  10. Avatar
    drussell60  October 24, 2016

    I do not believe Jesus even had a plan to end poverty insofar as he stated that “the poor you will always have with you.” I’ve heard from many Christians that they believe Jesus had a desire to crush poverty, yet if that is true, his statement doesn’t sound like much of a game plan.

    • Avatar
      nassergayed  November 7, 2016

      Poverty will not end in this world. The only way to combat poverty is charity. Jesus did and does motivate his followers (even the ones at the margin like Prof. Ehrman) to be charitable.

  11. Goat
    Goat  October 24, 2016


  12. Avatar
    Stephen  October 24, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    Do you plan to post about the debate with Robert Price? I look forward to watching it at some point when it becomes available. It would be interesting to hear your experience with meeting these folks face to face.

    The funniest comment I’ve heard about it so far was on a hardcore mythicist website. I’m paraphrasing (and not being entirely generous) but the gist of the response was ” You might think Ehrman won the debate if you didn’t already know we are right.”

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 24, 2016

    I’m not disputing that social justice was, as you say, inherent in Jesus’s teachings. But he doesn’t seem to have had a praiseworthy motive.

    It seems as if he was urging people to do things we’d consider morally desirable, not because they were morally desirable, but because doing them would supposedly hasten God’s establishing His “Kingdom” – which would benefit the people he was addressing (not to mention himself). He was presumably encouraging them to believe they’d be spared the experience of death, live eternally in “improved” bodies, and be reunited with deceased loved ones who’d be restored to life.

    • Avatar
      Lms728  October 26, 2016

      There’s an important distinction to be made between saying we “should begin to implement the ideals of that future age in the present” and saying that implementing those ideals will hasten the arrival of the future age/kingdom. I don’t have the sense that Jesus thought that doing what was morally desirable would bring about God’s kingdom more swiftly. It’s the same problem Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians, no? God’s spirit dwells in you because you belong to Christ so you’d better act like a just and decent human being, not some selfish and arrogant lout. But the “destruction of death” will occur when and how God wills it. Paul tells the Corinthians to be “steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” But nowhere does he say that “excelling” will make death’s destruction come about any sooner. Both Jesus and Paul emphasize the duty to love, even in the current evil age; and out of love comes justice. These were the ideals taught by the Law and the prophets. This was their heritage. Just as hope for a future cataclysmic “day of the Lord” was. The best either could say was “be ready.”

  14. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 24, 2016

    At a future time could you comment on who was Jesus’ biological father.

    Did Early Christian Scholars have evidence Jesus was frequently called as ‘ben Panthera’. I read An early Christian historian named Adamantius Origen (185.c-251.c) confirmed that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a paramour, a Roman soldier named Panthera. Later, during the 17th Century, the commentary of Origen was erased from the oldest Vatican manuscripts and other codices under church control.

    Is that true?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2016

      We don’t know, but I assume it was Joseph. No, Origen abstolutely did not believe the Panthera legend.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  October 27, 2016

        Have you heard it said that the pharisees’s statement in John 8:41 “We’re not illegitimate children” was a sarcastic insult toward Jesus, cause there were rumors that Joseph wasn’t his dad?

  15. Avatar
    Hume  October 24, 2016

    1. How do you deal with the nervousness before a debate?

    2. Who was the most difficult debating opponent?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2016

      1. Usually don’t have too much. A glass of red wine (no more than that!) and deep breathing helps.

      2. Hmmm… Don’t know. Dinesh D’Souza?

      • TWood
        TWood  October 25, 2016

        You mean James White wasn’t difficult?! I’m kidding… but what about Bill Craig? (I’m not asking if you like him or you think he ever “beat you”), but that guy is hard to deal with as a critical scholar because he knows an incredible amount of philosophy that he uses to frame his opponents’ arguments to seem debunked in a macro sense (I suppose Dinesh does that too). Do you agree with that at all?

        P.s. I think you accidently left out “no” in your statement “there will be poverty in the future age, so people should give of their possessions to help the poor now”

        • Bart
          Bart  October 26, 2016

          I don’t know how good a philosopher he is. I would say he’s not a great historian.

      • Avatar
        turbopro  October 25, 2016

        If I may follow-up prof, s’il vous plait, but I am curious as to why would you consider DD to be your most difficult debating opponent?

        I have seen that debate betwixt DD and you.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 26, 2016

          He’s unusually smart and you can’t tell what he will say next!

          • talmoore
            talmoore  October 26, 2016

            Dinesh D’Souza can make what he’s saying *sound* smart, but the actual content of what he says is often mindblowingly unintelligent. Case in point, watch D’Souza debate Daniel Dennett on the topic of evolution, and anyone unfamiliar with the science behind the theory of evolution may come away thinking D’Souza may be very well educated on the topic, but anyone with a freshman biology student’s understanding of evolution can readily see that D’Souza has absolutely no understanding of what the theory of evolution is, how it works, and why the scientific evidence for it is so compelling. And when arguing other matters out of his wheelhouse, D’Souza is just as misleadingly specious. For instance, in one debate on the topic of whether God exists, D’Souza used the “fine-tuning of the laws of physics” argument as evidence of God’s existence, and anyone who is unfamiliar with the modern theories of cosmology in physics may think he knows what he’s talking about, but an actual physicist listening to D’Souza can tell right away that D’Souza has a layman’s understanding of cosmological physics at best, and a grade schooler’s understanding of modern physics at worst. Suggesting that the reason a proton is 1,900 times more massive than an electron is that “God did it” isn’t evidence for the existence of God. It’s only evidence that we do not yet know why a proton is 1,900 times more massive than an electron!

          • Bart
            Bart  October 27, 2016

            Yes, I agree. He is very quick and has lots of “facts” that most people don’t think about and often he says things that make you simply scratch your head.

  16. Avatar
    mjt  October 24, 2016

    Trying to wrap my head around what Jesus thought about the future of planet earth–since he said ‘the first will be last and the last first’, doesn’t that mean that in the kingdom, there still will be inequality–but the people on top now are going to be on the bottom later?

  17. Avatar
    Rogers  October 25, 2016

    “Jesus believed that the world he lived in was corrupt, controlled by evil powers that were opposed to God. That is why there is so much misery and pain in this world.”

    This description bears some similarity to second century Christian Gnostics – with their view that the world was indeed a miserable place due to being the product of either a malevolent or deficient demiurge and a possee of archons.

    But instead of expecting a dramatic intervention from the good God (the apocalyptic expectation of Jesus and his ilk), they came to a view of breaking out of being captive to this enslaving delusion via becoming knowleable of the big picture and then inward transformation (the kingdom of God/Heaven within) of the self toward spiritual beneficence. The bad world gets transformed bit by bit and one escapes the captivity of this delusion.

    Maybe Gnostics were some folks that gave up waiting for the big Day of the Lord and decided to see things in a different light.

  18. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 25, 2016

    Bart, I just want to bring this to your attention. I am donating $25 a month to the blog now – *and* I just made a $100 donation to Doctors Without Borders, which I almost certainly wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t thought of the good example you’re setting for us. So in considering the value of the blog, you can tell yourself that in addition to the good it’s doing directly, it may be doing more *in*directly, that you don’t know about!

  19. Avatar
    mdwyer  October 27, 2016

    Did Jesus believe that God’s kingdom and the changes brought about from it would come soon, like even in his lifetime? I think that timetable is very relevant to the issue of social justice in Jesus’ teaching, and in the social justice activities of Christians today.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2016

      I think certainly in his own generation (Mark 9:1; 13:30)

  20. Avatar
    MajorBilly  October 30, 2016

    What do you consider the “best” English translations of the “oldest and best NT manuscripts” to be?

    (I would define “best translation” to be the English translation that comes closest to communicating what the author meant to say)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2016

      My preferred translation is the New Revised Standard Version, which I prefer in an annotated edition, such as the HarperCollins Study Bible.

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