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The Letters of Paul: Mailbag April 1, 2016

In today’s Readers’ Mailbag, I will be answering questions connected with the writings of Paul: what is the earliest manuscript of his letters; did the author of Acts know Paul’s letters; and is Paul described as a heretic in the Dead Sea Scrolls.



Bart, early in your book Misquoting Jesus (p. 4) you wrote a sudden, shocking surprise (to many born-again Christians) when you said “As we learned at Moody in one of the first courses in the curriculum, we don’t actually have the original writings of the New Testament.” I’ve witnessed my own neighbor’s disbelief and visible anger when I pointed this out to him. … My interest is your response to my question “How old are the earliest copies we have of Paul’s letters 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians.” … As you know, these books describe, in part, the resurrection of Jesus.



It is a little difficult for me to know the question behind this question, so first let me answer the direct question and then to respond to what I *think* might lie behind it.   The brief answer: our earliest manuscript of Paul’s writings is called P46 – named this because it is the 46th New Testament papyrus (hence the P in the P46) to be discovered and catalogued.   It is usually dated to around 200 CE (plus or minus 25 years).  It contains portions of most of the Pauline epistles (including parts of 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians), but the section containing 2 Thessalonians and Philemon is missing.  It appears not to have had the Pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus – which is very interesting indeed.

Now for what *might* be the question behind the question:  if our earliest manuscript of Paul is from around 200 CE, and this is the earliest description of the resurrection, doesn’t that mean that Christians weren’t talking about the resurrection for nearly 200 years?   The answer to that is,

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  1. Avatar
    godspell  April 1, 2016

    Mark, given that the earliest copy we have of the Pauline epistles was written down well over a century after they were first composed, isn’t it possible that for a long time after their composition, they simply were not widely distributed?

    First of all–did Paul keep copies of each letter he sent to a Christian community? That’s a lot of extra work, given that he has to write out each copy by hand. If he did make copies, it’s not like he had an office filing cabinet to store them in. Or even an office. Or maybe even a cabinet. So given his peripatetic lifestyle, and the very real chance that he was executed (as Acts proclaims), his copies (if any) could have been lost, or scattered.

    So in that case, we’d be talking about scattered groups of Christians, each holding onto a treasured copy of a letter from the most respected living evangelist of their faith, with the possible exception of Peter (whose epistles are widely believed to have been written by someone else).

    Now if they were anything like later Christians, each community could have been a bit jealous of such a relic, since it gave them a certain special status. Maybe copies were rarely made, and closely guarded. After all, they were directives to that specific community, that would only later have been seen as theological treatises, founding documents of a new religion.

    So hardly surprising if it was a very long time before they were collected (with a few posthumous additions, and quite a few letters lost forever). Perhaps the author of Acts had only read a few of them; perhaps he’d never had the chance to read any, or could only briefly scan someone else’s copies (which could have been of varying quality). As you say, given his devotion to Paul, he certainly would have read them if they were available to him. But even if he knew Paul, traveled with him (and that should not be assumed) there’s no guarantee he’d seen them, if Paul didn’t have copies himself. Paul could hardly have read them back from memory. We’ve talked about the failings of human memory quite a lot here recently.

    It may not be a literal miracle that we still have any of them, but it’s a wonder, that’s for sure.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  April 1, 2016

    Dr. Erman, I’m in the middle of reading the Dead Sea Scrolls extra-canonical documents right now (as translated by Geza Vermas), and I must say that they are far more apocalyptically oriented than most people seem to think. If anything, it would be far more appropriate to surmise that Jesus was influenced by the men who wrote and read the DDS — and the zeitgeist they fostered, and the insurrection they fomented — than vice versa. There’s one passage in the hymns that I’m assuming some scholars have interpreted as Paul; namely, the passage that starts:
    “I have been a byword to traitors,
    the assembly of the wicked has raged against me;
    they have roared like turbulent seas
    and their towering waves have spat out mud and slime.”

    But in the very same collection of hymns we find a passage like:
    “Thou wilt blot out all injustice and wickedness for ever,
    and Thy righteousness shall be revealed
    before the eyes of all Thy creatures.”

    Which is pretty much as directly apocalyptic as one can get. If anything the DDS proves that the Holy Land was rife with messianic fervor at that time, from Galilee to the Judean desert, and that Jesus just so happened to live in a time and place that was a powder keg ready to exploded at any moment (which it eventually did in 66CE).

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2016

      Yes, they are indeed heavily apocalyptic; that has always seemed to me to be one of the most important things about them. My sense, though, is that they embody apocalyptic views similar to those of Jesus and his followers (and John the Baptist) not because of a direct influence but because all these figures were participating in a broadly held set of views, assumptions, and world view of their day and age.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 1, 2016

    Suggested by Question 1: I’d never questioned that some of Jesus’s followers became convinced he’d been resurrected in the days immediately after his death. But…what would you say is the strongest *evidence* for that?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2016

      What’s the evidence that they became convinced? I guess the fact that Christianity started.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 3, 2016

        But the question is about *when* they became convinced.

        I later gave some more thought to it. Assuming there wasn’t a discovery of an empty tomb – or if there was, the disciples had already fled to Galilee, and didn’t hear about it until much later…

        I thought, “Well, they were convinced by ‘visions.’ So it must have happened before the disillusioned disciples *scattered*, so the first person who had a ‘vision’ could share it with others. And then, it’s quite possible that the power of suggestion caused more of them to have and share ‘visions.’ ”

        So that seems to be strong evidence. It must have happened within a day or two of the crucifixion, right?

        Not necessarily! Because even if the disciples did “scatter,” they probably all wound up back in Galilee, where they lived in close enough proximity that they’d still be “running into” one another. It could have been weeks – or months! – before they began sharing “vision” stories.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 4, 2016

          Ah, my view is that we can’t know when they became convinced. I doubt if it was three days later — especially if they fled to Galilee first. The idea that it was “on the third day” is based on a fulfillment of Scripture (e.g., Jonah being in the belly of a fish for three days).

          • Avatar
            tcasto  April 7, 2016

            Given the 40 year or so of oral tradition that followed, I think the idea of the resurrection evolved years after the crucifixion. If we accept that there was a Jesus character, an apocalyptic preacher who spoke of the coming of the Son of Man, we can see how, decades later, followers would transform that into Jesus being the Son, and coming again.

            As other sections of this blog have addressed, the notion of Pilate presiding over the trial of Jesus is pretty preposterous. Likewise, it seems to me equally preposterous that the body of any person subjected to crucifixion would be allowed to be taken down on the same day and removed for burial. So it follows, to my reasoning, that all of the resurrection stories came to be long after the supposed events.

  4. Avatar
    toejam  April 1, 2016

    Another minor-detail Greek question for you. During the Temple-Storming incident in John 2, I am trying to determine whether Jesus chases people as well as animals with the whip, or just the animals. John 2:15a (NRSV) says: “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle”. In English, this is a little weird. The “them” could be referring to the money changers mentioned the previous verse, but then the “both the sheep and the cattle” seem to change that to maybe mean that it’s only the sheep and the cattle that he chased with the whip. What’s going on in the Greek? “καὶ ποιήσας φραγέλλιον ἐκ σχοινίων πάντας ἐξέβαλεν ἐκ τοῦ ἱεροῦ τά τε πρόβατα καὶ τοὺς βόας, καὶ τῶν κολλυβιστῶν ἐξέχεεν τὰ κέρματα καὶ τὰς τραπέζας ἀνέστρεψεν”. Is Jesus chasing people as well as animals with the whip, or is it slightly ambiguous like the NRSV’s translation that might suggest only the animals?

    To clarify, this is all about the use of the whip. Clearly in all versions he chases people out, but who did he use the whip on?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2016

      It appears he used the whip to drive out the animals.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 3, 2016

        I don’t believe Jesus appeared with a whip in the Temple–no guard who saw him would have let him in. I Also don’t believe they were selling large animals in the Court of the Nations. Maybe birds, maybe small animals, but sheep and cattle? Inconceivable. Those were being sold in the markets adjacent to the Temple. Also, some writers, for example Bill O’Reilly turn the money-changers into money-lenders, and include agents of the High Priests as participants in this business. I have no doubt that the top level of priests were very wealthy, but I’m dubious that they were using the Temple treasury and the half-shekel tax to use as capital in lending to poor peasants at usurious rates. This seems to me as basically an Anti-Semitic attack.
        There also seems to be some doubt about whether Jesus incited a major riot or simply a disturbance in a limited area of the court. I think that Jesus was not reacting to the idea that there were money-changers there–a necessary service–but that some were fleecing their customers by charging an outrageous exchange rate. Once, Jesus started protesting, even overturning a cart, other people chimed in, and the struggle spread. Of course, the courtyard was enormous, but once a confrontation begins, it is far from inconceivable that it spreads over a huge area very rapidly. When people begin shouting and shoving and punching, a riot may certainly ensue. The Temple guards might have been unable to cut it off immediately–they might even have stood by for a variety of reasons.

        • Avatar
          godspell  April 5, 2016

          I’ve long assumed the whip of cords was an addition to the story (which I doubt we have a fully accurate account of in any gospel). John’s gospel is the least reliable, and the Jesus it presents is barely human most of the time. He’s less messiah than superhero. Obviously Mel Gibson’s favorite.

          It’s out of character for Jesus to use violence of any kind. Overturning a table would be a very extreme act for him (still not a direct attack on another person), but he was a provincial, not used to the way they did things in Jerusalem. And he was, as we know, very opposed to any confluence between religion and money. “Render unto Caesar.” Maybe he knew what he’d find there, merely intended to inveigh against it, but once he saw it–people doing business right there in the Temple courtyard, wrapped up in buying and selling, as people always are on any kind of market day–he was overcome with anger at how badly what he saw as the true practice of Judaism had been corrupted.

          How can these poor people hope to be saved when the day of reckoning comes? So he wants to do more than just preach or tell them a story. He wants to make a visual point. Something memorable. It was memorable, all right. But the story grew with the telling of it. Your scenario makes sense to me, but it could be there wasn’t even a riot. Just a minor ruckus.

          However, it wouldn’t have seemed minor to the Temple Authorities, sensitive to any challenge to their authority, and this could be what led to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, more than anything else. They decided he could not be reasoned with, and pointed him out to the Romans as a troublemaker. Just a mutual lack of understanding. We don’t know much of anything about what kind of business was conducted there, or how it was conducted, and whether Jesus had a legitimate beef, or simply was overreacting because he believed the Kingdom was coming soon, and people were wasting their time sacrificing doves and livestock

          And honestly, weren’t they? Most modern Jews would say yes. Religious practices change over time. The story of Abraham and Isaac is believed by some to be a metaphor for the transition from human to animal sacrifice by the ancestors of early Jews, who didn’t want to admit directly they had engaged in such barbarism (as all or nearly all our ancestors did).

          Jesus does not seem to have engaged in animal sacrifice–I doubt this was because he felt sorry for the doves and livestock. I think he just felt like it was a way to get around offering up what God really wanted–yourself. He made that point pretty visually as well.

          So they crucified him, but I don’t think you could find a Jewish temple on the planet now where money is lent, or animals are sold. Call it a belated victory.

  5. Avatar
    john76  April 1, 2016

    Both the Teacher of Righteousness and Jesus were opposed by someone called The Liar.

  6. Avatar
    smackemyackem  April 1, 2016

    Would you agree that the DSS are at least “very similar” in their context? Very christian “like” in their apocolyptic world view?…and some of their other language?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2016

      No, I would not say they are Christian-like. I would say the Christians had apocalyptic views very similar to other Jews living before them.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 2, 2016

    Go Tar Heels!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2016

      Good game last night! But Villanova looks amazing. Tomorrow tells all!

      • Avatar
        tcasto  April 7, 2016

        My mind is already spinning from the erudite exchanges on early Christianity and suddenly POW!, we’re into March Madness. And my Blue Devils are nowhere to be seen…..

  8. Avatar
    nichael  April 2, 2016

    This is a bit off topic, but given the recent focus on memory I’d like to briefly return to a topic that was mentioned a few months back: How is the reading of Proust going?

    [Someone once wrote that you finally enter middle age once you admit to yourself that you’re never going to finish Proust. 😉 ]

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2016

      Ha! I read Swan’s Way and absolutely loved it. But then went on to other things. (Just finished two Kate Atkinson novels; decided to move to modern times for a [short] while…) But I knew in my 20s that I would never get through all of Proust….

  9. Avatar
    Omar6741  April 2, 2016

    Professor Ehrman,
    I have just been reading the “Didache”, and I have noticed two things. First, many are willing to date the text as early as 50– 70 CE, and secondly, it contains references to following rules and instructions as one can find them in ‘the gospel of the Lord”.
    Given the plausibility of the early dates mentioned here, what is meant by “gospel of the Lord”? The canonical gospels were most likely not written by then.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2016

      I think the Didache is usually dated to aroudn 100 CE or so. The “gospel” here appears to refer to the proclamation of and by Jesus.

  10. Avatar
    ask21771  April 2, 2016

    when jesus talked about gehenna was he using it as a metaphor for hell

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2016

      It depends what you mean. Jesus does not seem to have an idea of a place of eternal torment by demons somewhere down below the earth. His views of eternal punishment seem to be rather vague, at least in his surviving sayings.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  April 3, 2016

        Dr. Ehrman, maybe the questioner is referring to Gehenna originating from Gehinnom, which itself comes from the valley just south of Jerusalem — Gei ha-Ben Hinnom, “Valley of the Son of Hinnom” — which is where (supposedly) the bodies of the slain unrighteous are going to be burned following the battle on the Day of the Lord, i.e. following the battle in the “Valley of Jehoshphat” (the Qidron), as told in Joel 3, all of which is part of the general conflagration on earth predicted by the Prophets, (e.g. Joel 1:19-20). Anyway, I think the questioner is asking if this imagine, specifically, is a metaphor.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 4, 2016

          Yes, that’s what I took him to be referring to as well. But he wanted to know (I thought) whether htat was meant to be metaphorical for something else.

      • Rick
        Rick  April 3, 2016

        Was not gehenna or Ge Hinnom the Jerusalem dump which was always smoldering as dump fires do? So, how would a Galilean peasant know about Jerusalem’s dump?

  11. Avatar
    bobnaumann  April 2, 2016

    Bart, this is off the subject, but I just got an email from a friend that says that fragments of what is thought to be the Q-document have been found? Have you heard about his? I would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this.

  12. Avatar
    Phrygia  April 3, 2016

    A mailbag question: In Mark 1:2-3, what figure do you think the writer is referring to there? The Son of God, the Messiah, both? And what do you think the prophets he’s quoting were referring to? Would the figure be different among those prophets and would it be different between those prophets and Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2016

      He appears almost certainly to be referring to John the Baptist, the one who preceded Jesus (in his view).

      • Avatar
        Phrygia  April 5, 2016

        Ha, I’m sorry, I meant the figure that the messenger is preparing the way for. In those passages from Malachi and Isaiah, which Lord are they referring to?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 5, 2016

          Ah. I think they mean the “coming of God” when he intervenes on the Day of the Lord.

  13. Avatar
    tpsouers1976  April 15, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I often hear Christians say that, if the Gospels were false, then people in Jerusalem would have confirmed this in their lifetime. Do historians know the extent to which the Gospel stories circulated in Palestine after Jesus’ death? Can we assume that people living in Palestine were familiar with the same Jesus that Paul and the Gospel authors wrote about? Or, rather, do we know if the Jerusalem church was similar in belief to the hellenistic churches to which Paul was writing? Regards

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2016

      We don’t know! But I deal with all this in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

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