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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!

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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 though we have so many (tons!) of manuscripts of the New Testament, we do not have many (ounces!) that are very close to the time of the originals, and it is impossible to say whether the texts were altered a bit, or a lot, between the time the originals were penned and our first manuscripts appear.

My guess, as I said, is that they probably were not altered lots and lots and lots, but there really is no way to know.   This doesn’t matter for most of us.   We simply create a little fiction in our minds that we are reading the actual words of Mark, or Paul, or 1 Peter, and get on with the business of interpretation.  It’s a harmless fiction, and very useful for all sorts of reasons that I may discuss in another post.

For this post I want to discuss briefly Dan’s typical counter-argument.  It is that we have SO many more manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other ancient author, that we are FAR better situated to know what these early Christian authors wrote than for any other work from antiquity.  His point is that we don’t sit around agonizing over whether the words we read in the dialogues of Plato are actually what Plato wrote; the same for the plays of Euripides, the histories of Livy or Tacitus, the epics of Homer, and so on.   If we have no problem accepting that we have something like the “originals” of these writings, why not for the New Testament?

Dan goes on and gives the statistics.   For some classical authors we have only one manuscript; or a dozen; or if we’re lucky a hundred.  In some VERY luck instances, such as Homer, we have hundreds of manuscripts (though never a thousand) And for the New Testament?  We have over 5560 manuscripts – just in the original Greek.   Way, way, way, way more than for any other classical author!  And so, as Dan puts it, for the New Testament we have “an embarrassment of riches.”   Since we don’t doubt what these other authors wrote, why are we creating special problems for the New Testament  authors and claiming that we can’t know what they wrote?

Let me make just three points about this claim.

First, it is not true that scholars are confident that they know exactly what Plato, Euripides, or Homer wrote, based on the surviving manuscripts.  In fact, as any trained classicist will tell you, there are and long have been enormous arguments about all these writings.   Most people don’t know about these arguments for the simple reason that they are not trained classicists.   Figuring out what Homer wrote – assuming there was a Homer (there are huge debates about that; as my brother, a classicist, sometimes says: “The Iliad was not written by Homer, but by someone else named Homer” ) – has been a sources of scholarly inquiry and debate for over 2000 years!

Second, and more important: just because we are WORSE off for other authors than for those of the New Testament does not in itself mean that we can trust that we know what the NT authors wrote.    I am a lot stronger than my five-year old granddaughter.  But I still am not able to bench-press a half-ton truck.  Yes, but you are MANY TIMES stronger than her!  It doesn’t matter.  I’m nowhere near strong enough.   We have far more manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other ancient writing.   But that doesn’t mean that we can therefore know what the originals said.  We don’t have nearly enough of the right kinds of manuscripts.  Leading to my third point.

Third, even though we have lots and lots of manuscripts, the vast majority of them are comparatively late in date and not the kinds of manuscripts we would need to know with confidence that we have a very, very close approximation of the “original” text.   94% of our surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament date from after the ninth Christian century.   That is 800 years (years!) after the so-called originals.   What good do these late manuscripts do us?  They do us a lot of good if we want to know what text of Mark, Paul, or 1 Peter was being read 800 years after the originals were produced.  But they are of much less value for knowing what the authors themselves wrote, eight centuries earlier.

As I will explain in my next post, the kinds of manuscripts we would really need to be able to say with some assurance that we know what the “originals” said – very early and very extensive manuscripts – simply don’t exist.

So it is absolutely true that the New Testament is far better attested than other ancient writings – pagan, Jewish, and Christian.  But it is also true that this mere fact in itself cannot provide us with assurance that we know what the authors originally wrote.

My next two posts on this topic will be in the members site, under Bart Revisits the Debates.   Please join!

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Can Teaching Be Objective?
Teaching the Bible as a Historical Book

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Comments

  1. doug  April 30, 2017

    Regarding the number of manuscripts, quantity does not necessarily = quality. But quantity of variations can = more confusion.

  2. plparker  April 30, 2017

    Religious writings also seem to be much more susceptible to alterations from the original to further one’s particular religious beliiefs than secular classical writings are.

  3. mjt  April 30, 2017

    This is why I think, maybe, the gospels were copied more or less accurately.

    –Matthew and Luke copied Mark word for word in a lot of places, with just minor adjustments.
    –Probably no one had a copy each of Matthew Mark and Luke in the year 100–so they were each copied separately for at least a couple centuries.
    –Centuries later, the parallel stories were still nearly identical.
    –If the gospels had been copied poorly, the nearly identical stories in the synoptic gospels would vary wildly from one another. Since they didn’t vary, at least those stories were copied accurately. This would imply that maybe the rest of the gospel stories were copied accurately.

    Are any of my premises wrong?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2017

      I think the problem is that Matthew and Luke were not copying Mark. They were creating Gospels using Mark as one of their sources. And they do indeed change Mark radically.

      The year 100 is only about 20 years removed from the three Gospels, not a couple of centuries.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  April 30, 2017

    “The Iliad was not written by Homer, but by someone else named Homer.”

    And Homer wasn’t even his real name. It was Ralph!

  5. Mhamed Errifi  April 30, 2017

    hello Bart

    were there any ancient people who knew the bible by heart word for word like we have in islam for the koran ? . do you think controlled text like koran is better idea for the preservation of the orginal or freely text like they have for the bible

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2017

      No evidently not. It’s an interesting question why Christians didn’t control their texts the way Muslims did. It doesn’t meant the Qur’an is more *true*. It simply means we know what the Qur’an said closer to the time of its composition.

      • PeteSammataro  May 1, 2017

        I wonder whether early leaders in the Muslim faith were aware of the issues with Christian writings and, therefore, tried to preempt similar problems with Islam’s sacred writings by controlling the text.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 2, 2017

          Interesting idea. There’s no evidence, of course. But still, it’s interesting.

  6. Phil  April 30, 2017

    Bart,

    Can you elaborate on why you think the texts weren’t altered a lot? From, my uneducated point of view, I would have thought it was the opposite – that the originals were almost certainly changed by the time the copies we have were made. I would assume this from two main points:
    – The later copiers definitely did make changes, so, if anything it is more likely that the first few copiers made more changes, both because they were less likely to be professional scribes (so more careless mistakes), but also because they didn’t know they were copying the bible that ideally needed to be maintained word-for-word, so they would be much more likely to try and get the “story right” rather than copy it exactly (so more deliberate alterations).
    – We have evidence that some of the very earliest copiers made a lot of changes. One could think of Matthew and Luke are copies of Mark and they obviously had no issues making lots of changes. Isn’t it just as likely that the first few copies of Mark had similar editing and harmonizing before they reach Matthew and Luke? Maybe some of the M and L material were really just in the different versions of Mark that they used.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2017

      Yes, later copyists did make lots and lots of changes (that, of course, is what I argue in my books!) But it’s also worth nothing that *most* of the changes are completely insignificant, immaterial, and matter for nothing other than to show that ancient scribes could spell no better than modern students. By its very nature, copying is a “conservative” practice. Scribes are “conserving” a manuscript. So they do change it in places, but not massively. I don’t think Matthew and Luke really count as evidence, since they were not copying Mark per se, but using Mark as a source for their accounts. That’s very different.

  7. ronrule  April 30, 2017

    Do we have any comparable ancient manuscripts for which we have both the originals and their copies through the ages? Can we then measure their “rate of degradation” or something similar? Might give us quantifiable estimates on hour accurate our biblical manuscripts are.

  8. Pattylt  April 30, 2017

    Would we be able to recognize an original even if we found one? Is dating it going to be accurate enough and what would you look for to recognize it as extremely early or original?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2017

      Yes, I’ve long pointed this out: even if we found an original, it would be very difficult indeed to prove that it *was* the original.

  9. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  April 30, 2017

    Dionysus .. son of Zeus… the humble down to earth god.. the god who comes….. the one who dances in Zeus’s hand.. Zeus is known as the punisher … From what is it said.. deny his son and fear for your soul.. forget what you have on earth… when the gods are here, it is a different story … as far as my eyes can see. hear what I hear and see me!!! For all things I say come true … touched by king Zeus…. Dionysus… God of alcohol…God of freedom… God of no worries….. a member of the olympians…. If he was back.. you would know it.. You would feel it.. In your heart…

  10. epicurus
    epicurus  April 30, 2017

    I think one of the reasons we don’t agonize over whether the words of Plato are really his or whether Julius Caesar really wrote anything is because there is no threat of enternity in Hell for getting it wrong or believing the wrong things about them. When Christian apologists wonder why people want more evidence for the Bible than Caesar they conveniently ignore that.

  11. llamensdor  May 1, 2017

    Your brother’s comment reminds me of something that was printed in the New Yorker Magazine more than 50 years ago. It ran something like this: “The works generally attributed to William Shakespeare were not in fact written by him, but somebody else with the same name.”

  12. davitako  May 1, 2017

    Dan Wallace is a fairly intelligent scholar and a very experienced one. He knows that the vast majority of manuscripts come from many centuries later, that we have only a few manuscripts from second and third centuries (none which I complete books, as far as I know). And the earliest manuscripts are the worst ones! And there is no way we can demonstrate that earlier copiers were better. In fact, as you’ve pointed out, they were probably even worse.

    Bart, given all this, do you think statements like “I am sure that originals are somewhere in manuscript traditions”, “nothing has been lost!” etc. stem from theological convictions rather solid historical reasons? Are there non-believer scholars who hold on to the same views?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2017

      Yes, I think those views are theologically driven. I don’t see any logic behind them, or hard evidence.

  13. RonaldTaska  May 1, 2017

    More copies mean more copying and more copying errors.

  14. flcombs  May 1, 2017

    Regarding differences in accounts: I don’t mind people thinking differently than I do but It is funny to watch the often inconsistency in the standards when it comes to the Bible and other ancient literature. Logic not accepted in daily life or for other ancient literature is fine for holy books. Say I owed someone $1000 and told them, “I’m not certain of the day or what time of day I will pay you, but it will be next week and I’ll be driving a new red car and everyone will see it.” After that week, even Christians I know would say “Where is my money. You said you would pay that week!” But if in the Bible they say “Well it said it wasn’t certain what day or hour…” and ignore I said I would pay THAT week and no one noted the red car. I’m waiting for the next one to use that argument so I can ask for the money and tell them I’ll pay them back by that standard.

    Say someone was on trial for a bank robbery and there were three witness against them saying “He was by himself, wearing a red shirt”; “He was with two men and wearing a blue shirt”; “He was with a woman and wearing a white shirt”. Any Christian I know would say “I’m innocent. You can’t trust the witnesses: their accounts are so different and obviously aren’t right.” But regarding the bible they say no contradiction: “It was probably a shirt that was red in front, blue on back and white on the sides. Each witness had a different perspective.” Or “He probably came out the door three times and changed shirts each time.” “The witnesses were colorblind.” “If there were three men then certainly there was one man.” “The woman obviously looked like a man to the other witness”. I don’t know any Christian that would say, “The different accounts and details don’t matter. They all agreed it was me so I’m pleading guilty.” Ironically for them, even the Bible cites differing accounts by witnesses as reason to discount them regarding accusations against Jesus: Mark 14:56-59 which emphasizes how the witnesses against Jesus “disagreed”. So we should ignore witnesses against Jesus when they disagree, but for some reason totally trust those that disagree when they testify FOR him?

    Funny that people don’t allow that kind of logic when looking at the holy books of others. Of course you would think from the inerrant/conservative position God would have known and guided the writers better!

  15. HawksJ  May 1, 2017

    Bart, off-topic question/comment:

    I was listening to your 6-year-old discussion with Mike Licona on Unbelievable (a great episode, btw – I have a great deal of respect for Mike although I disagree with him) and the exchange at about the 54 minute mark struck me because you said something that I’ve been trying to pull out of you for as long as I’ve been on this blog; that is, your perception of what the earliest form of Christianity looked like, especially vis-a-vis ‘evangelical Christianity’ (in the generic sense you use it in this exchange). (Your basic point was that Jesus and the Apostles wouldn’t recognize, as ‘Christians’, evangelical Christians of today.)

    I think it’s a fascinating point because we now have dozens of ‘forms’ of Christianity and each and every one of them thinks they do it the way ‘Jesus and the Apostles’ intended (assuming, of course, they intended anything of the sort).

    I suspect your response would be that there wasn’t just one ‘early’ Church/approach, but differing ones. Even if that is what the evidence shows, then that is just as informative as if you were to come back and say, ‘Actually, after looking at it, the Church of Christ has had it right all along!’ (That’s a joke, btw).

    https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-16-Apr-2011-Biblical-evidence-for-the-Resurrection-Bart-Ehrman-Mike-Licona

    Finally, you express an interest in debating this topic. Did/have you ever? Also, I think this would make for a fascinating book – one that should be of interest to anybody who DOES consider themselves ‘Christian’.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2017

      No, I don’t think it ever came up again!

      • dizzy2114  May 2, 2017

        I second his comment about a book being written on that subject by you would be a fascinating read.

      • HawksJ  May 2, 2017

        Well, in that case, and in lieu of a book (!), please consider the question for the mailbag or even a thread of it’s own.

        To clarify: when you said you’d like to debate that, what would you have argued?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 3, 2017

          I”ve never really thought about it, but I suppose I would simply describe what we know about an ancient service of worship and then contrast it with what happens in a modern service, or describe some of the beliefs of ancient Xns and compare with those of modern ones, etc.

  16. webo112
    webo112  May 1, 2017

    It would be an incredible discovery to find even more of Paul’s letters, or even personally written accounts of what Paul’s views and teachings were on Jesus. It would be a game changer either way (whether it showed similar views to what scholars think are his basic ideas of Jesus’ life and ministry – and probably answer many questions) OR if indeed the (new letters etc) were far more detailed, expanded or different than what we get from him and gospels.
    It would be a find that would be a direct link right to the heart of very early Christendom.
    And assuming it was authentic, with no significant debates about it – it would probably also turn the New Testament and it’s centuries of interpretations on its head.

    • HawksJ  May 2, 2017

      {{And assuming it was authentic, with no significant debates about it – it would probably also turn the New Testament and it’s centuries of interpretations on its head.}}

      For Christians or for scholars?

      For the former, I don’t think it would change a thing. If it was similar, it would simply be incorporated into their current theology. If it was radically different, it would never be accepted as authentic, regardless of the evidence.

      • webo112
        webo112  May 3, 2017

        It would change a great deal either way!….change in the sense that previous interpretations, conclusions and discussions/debates would need to be changed- whether that has (immediate) affects on actual new testament cannon and affects on the common Christians depends.
        But it would be huge. A finding like that would and could close many open debates on interpretations of Paul’s words, it could very well show strong contradictions with the 6 disputed (forged) letters of Paul, not too mention really put them in jeopardy. It could answer, change or verify the high Christology view Paul had. It could even show actual contradictions and proven omissions from Paul, such as confirm that Paul really did not know about the virgin birth etc.
        So its not as easy as saying if it was “same” or radical..etc….same as what? to his views in authentic letters? what about if new findings were in fact same/similar to his views and interpretations from authentic letters, BUT contradict his views from disputed letters? e.g what if new findings proved that Paul allowed woman to preach and be apostles of Jesus’ ministry?
        …Not to mention if new findings actually spoke about what Paul’s Revelation from Jesus was, versus what he learned from James, Peter etc….that would be very significant information either way.

        I am of course under the presumption that even if it was “radically” different (radically in a reasonable sense relative to Paul) that it is not judged authentic by just the views- (i.e found with other known (earlier) copies of Paul’s letters etc) Whether it is then accepted theologically or not is a different question. So what I see here is that the new findings could/would be radically different from what modern Christians hold as their faith, but in turn very conforming to Paul’s views (and early Christians) . e.g what if Paul never thought Jesus was God almighty, but instead an incarnation of a highly devine angel from God’s kingdom, and new findings confirm this?

      • webo112
        webo112  May 3, 2017

        Actually, in my opinion finding (authentic) new letters and writings of Paul, would be more significant & extraordinary than finding any other theoretically known writings (that we believe previously *existed* on paper and are now lost). Even more than the Q source, Marcion’s writings etc….not too mention more “explosive”.

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