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The Text of the New Testament: Are the Textual Traditions of Other Ancient Works Relevant?

I have had three debates with Dan Wallace (author of Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament and Reinventing Jesus) 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!

For the “Original” Text: What Kinds of Manuscripts Would We Need?
Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier



  1. Avatar
    vinnyjh57  April 30, 2012

    I have a very difficult time reconciling this with your statement that we can be certain “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt” that Jesus existed based on Gal 1:19. If we cannot be sure what happened to the text between the autographs and the earliest extant manuscripts, how certain can we be that Paul didn’t write “I saw none of the other apostles—only James,” and that some scribe copying the letter around 125 AD helpfully added “the brother of the Lord” so that readers wouldn’t be confused about which James it was that Paul met on his first visit. I understand that there is presently no evidence of a variant in Galatians 1:19, but can we be certain beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that nothing happened to it during those first 150 years? Isn’t the point that there were undoubtedly some changes that we will never discover simply because we don’t have the necessary evidence for a period in which we can reasonably expect that the rate of variants was even higher than it was later?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 30, 2012

      Yes, in theory a later scribe *may* have altered the text. But as with all matters text-critical and historical, one really needs to have some reason to think so. And as all the manuscripts of Galatians are completely agreed at this point, apart from some hopeful or wishful thinking, I don’t know what reason there would be, in this case, for thinking so (especially since Paul does mention Jesus’ brothers elsewhere, and since we know from other sources that the James who headed the church in Jerusalem was in fact known to be the brother of Jesus). But still, your point is well taken.

      • Avatar
        vinnyjh57  April 30, 2012

        I can accept that the historian needs some positive reason before he says that the text was more likely than not to have been altered, however, I think that the historian can and should assign a non-trivial probability to the possibility of tampering based simply on the lack of manuscripts from the first 150 years of transmission and the fact that it is pretty easy to come up with plausible reasons why some scribe might have wanted to add “the brother of the Lord” even if Paul had only identified the man he met as “James.” The historian studying the origins of Christianity is like someone trying to put together a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle with only about 75 of the pieces. No matter how carefully and logically he analyzes each piece and no matter how many other historians agree with his analysis, he can never overcome the uncertainty created by not having all the pieces.

        I think this becomes particularly important when a conclusion becomes a premise. Even if the probability of tampering is only 5%, it is a source of uncertainty that carries over when the conclusion “Galatians 1:19 is genuinely Pauline” becomes a premise in the argument “Paul knew the biological brother of Jesus.” The historian’s certainty about his conclusion cannot be greater than his certainty about any one of his individual premises, and unless the certainty of the various premises is perfectly correlated, the certainty of the conclusion is going to be less than the certainty of any of the individual premises.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 1, 2012

          It seems to me that the historian has to use whatever evidence he has. Galatians 1:19 is one of your 75 pieces of the puzzle, and unless you have some compelling reason to think it was interpolated, then I don’t see how you can come up with any number at all (5%? 20% .001%) for the likelihood that it was changed. All we can do is go with the evidence we have, and this *is* some of the evidence.
          There is, by the way, now a complete and exhaustive study of the manuscript of tradition of Galatians by Stephen Carlson, a real expert in the field; you might ask him his opinion of it.

          • Avatar
            vinnyjh57  May 1, 2012

            I agree that the historian has to use the evidence he has, but I think that he also has to acknowledge its limitations and problems without claiming any greater degree of certainty than the evidence can fairly support. Isn’t the fact that there is no rational way to assess the probability of tampering the very reason that many scholars decline to even talk about what the original texts looked like? The most that can be done is to express an opinion about what the texts looked like closer to the time of the earliest extant manuscripts.

            Here’s what you said in your 2008 debate with Dan Wallace:

            Can we trust that the copies of Galatians we have are the original copies. No. We don’t know. How could we possibly know? Our earliest copy of Galatians is p46 which dates from the year 200. Paul wrote this letter in the 50’s. The first copy that we have is 150 years later. Changes were made all along the line before this first copy was made. How can we possibly know that in fact it is exactly as Paul wrote it. Is it possible that somebody along the line inserted a verse? Yes. Is it possible that someone took out a verse? Yes. Is it possible that somebody changed a lot of the words? Yes. Is it possible that the later copies were made from one of the worst of the early copies? Yes. It’s possible. We don’t know….

            What I have said to my colleagues is that we are as close as we can hope to be to what we might imagine as the earliest text. What I have said in popular audiences is we don’t know if we can get back to the original text. And I stand by both statements. We don’t know what Paul originally wrote to the Galatians, and we no hope of getting any closer in the future than we are already now. We have no evidence that can get us any further back than we have already gotten and our earliest evidence is from the year 200, 150 years later. So can we know for certain? No. We can’t know for certain that the text is reliable. You might want to think it is. You might want to hope it is. You might want to say there are intelligent people who say it is so probably it is. But think about it. There are people copying these texts year after year, decade after decade.

            Whatever degree of certainty you assign to the text of Galatians, clearly it must be less than “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt,” mustn’t it? As a result, any conclusion you draw that takes as one of its premises that some words in Galatians are genuinely Pauline must necessarily be less than “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt.” That doesn’t even take into account the possibilities, which again must be non-trivial, that Paul was somehow mistaken or that he meant something other than biological brother.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 1, 2012

            Yes, I take your points, and agree to an extent, obviously. But I do think that there really needs to be some *reason* to doubt something for it no longer to be beyond a shadow of a doubt. I’ve never been in favor of doubting something just because we can. When it comes to the words of the New Testament, if all the evidence points in one direction (as it does with respect to the words you’re challenging: they are in every surviving manuscript of the book), then there needs at least to be some *reason* to doubt that they were originally part of the text. Otherwise we’re not doing the work of the historian but are just inventing views that fit our agendas. So, in this particular case: if you want to posit that the words were not originally there — what are your reasons for thinking so? (And why are those reasons stronger than the reasons for accepting the only evidence at our disposal?)
            Or to put it differently, with a feeble attempt at humor, if *every* historical/textual possibility is as plausible as any other, then why not argue that originally in Galatians Paul said that he met with Josephine, the sister of the Lord?

          • Avatar
            vinnyjh57  May 1, 2012

            I would say the fact that Acts does not corroborate that this James was the biological brother of Jesus is some reason to consider other possible reasons for the reference to “the brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19. Another reason is that Paul never seems to make any reference to any of his contemporaries knowing Jesus prior to the crucifixion or having any interactions with him other than through revelation or appearances of the risen Christ. Paul never says that Peter was Jesus’ closest disciple or that he was a disciple at all or that Jesus even had disciples during his earthly ministry or that he even had an earthly ministry. Nor does Paul say anything to indicate that a biological relationship with the earthly Jesus would have had any significance for Paul. I think my reasons for positing the possibility of an interpolation (or some alternate interpretation of “brother”) are the kinds of reasons that scholars look to when considering any possible interpolation; is the passage corroborated and is it consistent with what Paul writes elsewhere?

            Moreover, the fact that a particular piece of evidence is the only evidence on a question doesn’t strike me as justifying any more than provisional or qualified certainty at best about any question. After all, there is no evidence that identifies anyone other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors of the canonical gospels. There is no evidence that makes anyone other than Joseph of Arimathea responsible for Jesus’ burial. There is no evidence that places Jesus’ birth anywhere but Bethlehem. Why would a historian ever care about corroboration or multiple independent witnesses if a single piece of evidence on an issue justified certainty beyond a reasonable doubt?

            To paraphrase my favorite New Testament scholar, We might like to be more certain, but if our sources don’t allow it, our sources don’t allow it.”

      • Avatar
        Steven Carr  May 1, 2012

        ‘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.’

        So can we trust that we know that Paul wrote ‘brother of the Lord’ in Galatians 1:19?

        And if we can trust that we know that Paul wrote ‘brother of the Lord’, can we trust ‘beyond reasonable doubt?’

        if the texts were changed, is there a ‘reasonable doubt’ that this text may also have been changed?

        ‘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.’

        Do we have ‘some’ assurance that we know what the original version of Galatians 1:19 said?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 1, 2012

          We have pretty good assurance: every single manuscript of Galatians has this form of the text, without exception to my knowledge. That’s about as good of evidence as we can get. The only reason for suspecting it is probably unrelated to the actual evidence, but is being driven by some other agenda, I would suspect.

      • Avatar
        Steven Carr  May 1, 2012

        ‘ and since we know from other sources that the James who headed the church in Jerusalem was in fact known to be the brother of Jesus).’

        Out of curiosity, which sources would they be? Luke/Acts, the Epistle of James, Jude? Does Josephus ever claim James was the head of the church?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 1, 2012

          In the NT, just Acts. But later traditions of the second century are uniform in making this claim, I believe. And they got the idea from *somewhere*!

          • Avatar
            Steven Carr  May 1, 2012

            Acts claims that James the brother of Jesus was a church leader. Where does it say that?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 1, 2012

            Ah good point. Acts does indicate that James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and it does differentiate this James from the disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee, but it never explicitly says he was Jesus’ brother.

          • Avatar
            vinnyjh57  May 1, 2012

            And which is the more natural reading: (a) the James in Acts 15 & 21 is the previously mentioned son of Alphaeus, but the author doesn’t bother to mention his father because James the son of Zebedee was killed off in Acts 12 (?) and there is only one James left in the story; or (b) the James in Acts 15 &21 is a third James that is being introduced into the narrative and the author doesn’t distinguish him by mentioning that he is the James who is Jesus’ biological brother?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 2, 2012

            Well, if everyone knew who James was, there may in fact be no reason to identify him — especially if it is his custom to identify some other James (son of Alphaeus) with an identifying marker precisely becuase he wsa *not* well known.

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    aigbusted  April 30, 2012

    “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.”

    In other words, you’re saying that no book of the New Testament was radically rewritten. But think about that for a minute: How could we possibly characterize the gospels of Matthew and Luke except as radical rewrites of Mark?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 30, 2012

      Ah, good point! But what I would argue — this is the standard view of such matters — is that Matthew and Luke were doing something different with Mark than a scribe was doing. They were using Mark as a source for their own accounts of the life of Jesus; the scribe — even a sloppy, careless, or possibly ill-intentioned scribe — is doing something else: copying the text in front of him. It’s the difference between a thorough redactor and a copyist. A big difference I think! Even if the scribe chose to change things here and there, he is not trying to create his own literary text (the way, say, Luke admits he was doing in Luke 1:1-4).

      • Avatar
        aigbusted  May 1, 2012

        “Even if the scribe chose to change things here and there, he is not trying to create his own literary text.”

        That’s true, although I’d say that any scribe who bothered to do a complete overhaul in the process of copying a text is by definition not a mere scribe but a redactor or a new author. And I also think that at least a couple of big redactions happened outside the known manuscript tradition (for example, the gospel of John seems to have an extra chapter tacked on the end). Am I mistaken or have you not said that you thought the book of Revelation contained material from a previous (now lost) book from the first century?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 1, 2012

          Yes, I think we’re on the same redacted page here….

  3. Avatar
    John  April 30, 2012

    I’d like to add that having an abundance of manuscript evidence doesn’t validate the truth of the gospels either. I’ve read too many apologist attempts to verify the trustworthiness of the gospels due to manuscript evidence.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 30, 2012

      I completely agree! Apologists who say things like “There are more manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other book from antiquity, and thererore we can trust it,” have committed a rather serious error (a non sequitur). An analogy: there are lots of books that have far more “copies” from within a century of their production than we have of the New Testament. We have millions of “copies” of Das Kapital, e.g. But having lots of copies simply means that you can probably know what the author originally wrote (either fully, or reasonably fully). It has nothing to do with whether you can trust what he wrote! Das Kapital may or may not convey “the truth.” But the fact that you know what the original text said has nothing to do with the trustworthiness of its contents.

      • Avatar
        Bryanna  April 30, 2012

        The last posters remark is exactly what I thought. Particularly when considering that so many people purposes to legislate NT teachings and or insist upon it as the basis for the only true religion and means to avoid an eternity in hell.

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    James Dowden  April 30, 2012

    I would add that Homer has the twin advantages as far as surety goes of:
    1) stock phrases — dawn is *always* rosy-fingered
    2) being in verse — only so many potential readings will scan.

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    Mikail78  April 30, 2012

    John and Bart, back in my days as an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian, I used this same exact argument. In an effort to convert people, I would basically tell them that since the New Tesatment has SO many mansucripts, more than any other work, it MUST be reliable. But even as a Christian using this argument, I remember thinking and asking myself in the back of my mind, “What the hell am I talking about?!?!?!?!”

    Bart, in your latest book, you call this argument a “non sequitur.” You couldn’t be more right.

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    Bernard Muller  April 30, 2012

    Dr Ehrman,
    I have been studying interpolations and editing of the earliest Christian texts and I am confident enough to make these conclusions:
    a) Many interpolations and editing were done very early, before the earliest copies available to us were written. Later the uninterpolated texts were not recopied because not deemed “complete”. That would explain why many interpolations appear in all early surviving manuscripts.
    b) Interpolations were about latter critical issues and important beliefs not addressed in the texts. Often these additions show as highly concentrated wording and with notions against what the same author wrote elsewhere several times. Other things to watch are: different vocabulary, abrupt digression, discontinuities, notes (from margin to text body), etc.

    I found interpolations (all of them justifiable according to b) above) which do show in every ancient manuscripts. Here are most of the important ones:
    Mk15:40-16:8, 16:9-20; Mt28:8b-11a, 28:16-20; John’s gospel: many additions and reshuffling on a work in progress with took decades to complete, starting when the author knew about gMark, then gLuke, etc.;
    Rom16:25-27, Cor1:4-9, 14:33b-35, 15:3-11, 15:23-28; 2 Cor6:14-7:1; Gal2:7-8; Php3:20b; 1Th1:10, 2:14-16; Heb9:27-28 and several in chapt13; Revelation: started as a Jewish apocalypse then considerably added on by Christians some 20 years later.
    It is also obvious to me (with evidence) that 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians and Philippians are the product of combining three epistles into each of the canonical ones.
    Once we extract these nine letters, and the interpolations, with some help from ‘Acts’ and Josephus’ works, we have a clearer picture for the beginning of Christianity.

  7. Avatar
    Adam  April 30, 2012

    Wow, only 6% of our surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament date before the ninth Christian century? I didn’t realize it was this low. Hopefully someone will find a (largely complete!) copy of any of the books of the NT!

  8. Avatar
    cozmot  April 30, 2012

    Bart, this is admittedly off topic, but i dont kmow where else to post it that others can read and opine on (assuming yiu post this). I’m getting a little perplexed over your business model for your blog, and while I defended it earlier, based on what I’ve observed, I think your need to change it.

    Your have, and continue to post significant and *complete* articles on he public forum for matters that you think are worthy of every interested reader’s attention. If you’re going to have. “pay wall,” then I think your should be consistent. Give non-subscribers a taste of an article, then require them to subscribe to read further. But this doesn’t serve your best purpose in dialogue on scholarship. It also makes some of us feel that we’re paying for exclusive content that others are getting free.

    A better model, I believe, would be one of voluntary contributions. Many web sites use this model, asking that if you feel you’re getting value, to make a contribution, and they can click on a PayPal icon. Some, like Wikipedia, make occasional appeals. My guess is that you’d get a wider audience, and more contributions. And advance your scholarship. Please give this some thought.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 1, 2012

      Thanks for your suggestion. I don’t think voluntary contributions would work, at all! I’m posting solid posts to the public site to lure people into the membership site, and that does seem to be working just fine. But thanks for thinking it through with me!

      • Avatar
        Adam  May 1, 2012

        The public posts lured me in!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 1, 2012


          • Avatar
            Mikail78  May 2, 2012

            Bart, I’m liking your idea of charging for membership with the money going to charity more and more every day. First of all, our money is helping people. Second, I think this weeds out most to all of the people who aren’t interested in rational discussion and just want to troll and make personal and ad hominem attacks. Now I hope people don’t misunderstand me. There will be times when those of us who are part of this community will disagree with one another. In fact, I think this has already happened. This should be expected and welcomed. However, far too often, at least on the internet, disagreements turn into pissing matches. Could that happen here? Well, anything is possible. However, with the system that Bart has set up, the likelihood of it happening is not nearly as strong, at least in my opinion.

    • Avatar
      jimmo  May 7, 2012

      I do that for my own site and there are simply too many freetards out there that want everything on a silver platter and never donate no matter how good they think the site. In my case all of the donations go to a child I sponsor in Indonesia, but despite 50,000 unique visitors per month, I get less than $50 a year in donations. People are simply not going to donate.

      I look at the articles you get with a membership like the “thank you” gift you get for donating to public TV. There is useful content for free and you get something extra if you make a donation. Then there is the added fact that all of the membership goes to charity and not to pay salaries, etc like it does with public television.

  9. Avatar
    Jiri Severa  May 1, 2012

    Ehrman to Steven Carr: “Ah good point. Acts does indicate that James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and it does differentiate this James from the disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee, but it never explicitly says he was Jesus’ brother.”

    Dr Ehrman,
    I am afraid the news is worse than that: there is no mention of Jesus brother by the name of ‘James’ anywhere in Luke/Acts. And by that source, you do not have the luxury of arguing the Catholic version of James the Just either. After Jerome they have believed that the church leader in Jerusalem was James the Less (the son of Alphaeus), one of the twelve apostles. Because Mary was a perpetual virgin, James was really a ‘cousin’ to Jesus. This is a nice theory except it does not get any support from Luke. Even if you allow ‘adelphos’ to stand as generic ‘kin’ to Jesus the big problem is that in Acts 1:13-14 that James is put explicitly with the apostles and Jesus ‘kin’ with his mother.

    The legend that James the Just was related to Jesus by blood has no early witness within the church. Gal 1:18-24 is likely an interpolation, but even if it is not, it 1:19 can hardly be interpreted as indicating blood relation between Jesus and that James. When Paul mentions ‘the brothers of the Lord’ in 1 Cor 9:5 he places them in the company of other Jerusalem dignitaries. The idea that temple worshipping Jews would have allowed non-titular ‘Lord’ in describing themselves vis-a-vis a venerated martyr would strike Jewish scholars as unreasonable.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 2, 2012

      Yes, I’m aware of that about Luke-Acts.

      I know of no argument, reason, or evidence to suggest that Gal 1:18-24 is an interpolation. We can’t simply get rid of verses because they’re are inconventient for what we want to think! Scholarship doesn’t work that way. (Otherwise, there’s a *boat load* of verses I too would like to get rid of!!)

      • Avatar
        Jiri Severa  May 2, 2012

        I understand that to claim interpolation without textual proof is a very difficult business in academia. It is, they tell me, sticking one’s neck out. I appreciate your honesty.
        Nonetheless, you know well that we have situations where the texts blatantly contradict each other. One of my favourite examples is 1 Thess 2:14-16: not only the passage knows nothing of Paul’s theology of the atoning death of Christ, by crudely suggesting that Jews did him in, but makes Paul deny the ghastly deeds attributed to him as Saul in Acts persecuting and “driving out” the brothers out of Jerusalem. So how does one deal with that ?
        Similarly with our passage of Gal 1: I find it mind-boggling to think that Paul going to Jerusalem eleven years after the first visit, does not know who to do business with in Zion. He speaks of a course of action (2:2) he received by revelation, to seek out “those of repute” in the church to explain his gospel. But that does not make sense, does it ? He knew Cephas and James personally, calling them “apostle” and “brother of the Lord” respectively. He evidently knew of other “apostles” even though he did not meet them. Worse still, Paul seems bitter, even hostile, calling his principal interlocutors, “so-called pillars” and claiming they “added nothing to me”. How could that be ?
        Did he not spend two weeks with Cephas before to be “informed” about the church ? Did he not make oaths of speaking the truth that he met James ? Obviously, it must have been a great honour.
        So, when Paul forswears he is speaking the truth here, I tend not to believe him, partly because he makes the same oath in 1 Ti 2:7, and partly because professor Ehrman made some clever and apropos observations about Paul’s impersonators in “Forged”.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 2, 2012

          OK, thanks for your thoughts. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the 1 Thessalonians passage is an interpolation either.

      • Avatar
        vinnyjh57  May 4, 2012

        I don’t think that anybody is getting rid of any verses. As far as I know no one is trying to claim that Galatians 1:19 isn’t found in the earliest extant manuscripts. They are simply recognizing that there is more than one possible explanation for why a particular word or passage might appear in the earliest extant manuscript: (1) it was originally in the autograph and was copied correctly, (2) it was added sometime during transmission, (3) it was originally in the autograph but was emended or altered during transmission.

        Obviously the earliest extant manuscript is likely to provide us with our best evidence, but does that make it strong evidence, and if so, how strong? The period for which we lack manuscript evidence is one in which copying practices were poor, theological doctrines were unsettled, disputes among rival groups were frequent, and numerous documents were forged in the names of figures who were viewed as authoritative. Should we even have a presumption in favor of the text of the earliest extant manuscript also having been the text of the original, or should we be neutral on the question until we have some positive reason to think that a particular phrase of passage does go back to Paul? Might we not want multiple appearances of the same idea in the Pauline corpus, or consistency with general themes and concerns, or outside corroboration before we conclude that something goes back to Paul? Might not that also be a scholarly approach?

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      vinnyjh57  May 4, 2012

      I would add to the bad news the fact that Luke uses Mark, but he omits the reference to one of Jesus’ brother being named James. Given the dissatisfaction with previous accounts that Luke expresses in his prologue, I think we have to assume that when he changes something in Mark it’s because he thinks that Mark was in need of correction. One possibility is that Luke didn’t think that Jesus had a brother named James. Another possibility is that Luke was aware that there was some confusion about what had become of Jesus’ brothers and he didn’t want anyone to make the mistake of thinking that any of the men named James in his story were the same James that Mark named.

      I would think that it is just as much poor scholarship to read something into Acts as it is to read something out of Galatians.

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    Christian Lindtner  May 2, 2012

    Dr Ehrman,

    You concluded by stating that it is absolutely true that the New Testament (text) is far better attested than other ancient writings, etc.
    Actually – if you will allow – this view is not correct when it comes to many ancient Buddhist writings (sûtra-s), or “gospels”. Most of these were composed in Sanskrit and/or Pâli about 2000 years ago. At an early date some of them were translated into Chinese and, later on, into Tibetan and other Oriental languages. Many of these texts are still extant (and published) and can thus be compared word for word. They have, in other words, been independently transmitted in the different languages mentioned. In many cases we can therefore confirm the transmitted Indian text (or part(s) of it) with the help of the ancient “external” witnesses.
    If by “original” we mean the earliest transmitted version know to us now, we can speak of a text that is better attested than that of the NT, thanks, as said, to the early translations etc. –
    It may, now that I am at it, interest you and your readers to know that in several cases it can be pointed out that some of these Buddhist sûtra-s also left clear traces in the New Testament. Take the 46 syllables of Luke 10:38 (e-ge-ne-to… etc), for instance.
    You will find the Sanskrit original – which likewise consists of 46 syllables – in my book Geheimnisse um Jesus Christus, Süderbrarup 2005/2011, p. 111. Luke´s context also reflects that of the original Sanskrit (which will tell you more about Mary and Martha than you ever expected!)
    By comparing the Sanskrit original(s) we can, in numerous cases, confirm the readings of the textus receptus of the NT. Moreover, many old problems in the NT can be solved in the light of the Sanskrit texts.
    It takes time to learn Sanskrit, I know; but if we are seriously interested in “Q”, we must. It is a great pity that these Buddhist sources are still being ignored by most NT scholars. Fortunately, the situation is beginning to change!
    Buddhist texts in Greek and Aramaic are known already from the 3rd century B.C.
    Dr. Christian Lindtner

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 2, 2012

      Thanks for this. By “better attested” I meant “more manuscripts” — and yes, I should have clarified, I was referring to books in Western Civilization; I’m not familiar with the textual traditions of other traditions. Are there more than 5560 manuscirpts of the Sutras? (Genuine question! I have no idea)

      • Avatar
        Christian Lindtner  May 3, 2012

        Dr Ehrman,
        Thanks for your R & Q:
        As a rule, we only have very few manuscripts of early Buddhist texts, i.e. if you take manuscripts stricto sensu meaning written by hand.
        But we can also speak of “living manuscripts”, meaning Buddhist monks or missionaries who were able to memorize very long texts. We have early reports from China where Indian monks impressed the Chinese by their ability to go on reciting the sütras for days. This reflected a very ancient Indian tradition. They are decribed e.g. in the famous Lotus Sûtra, as Dharma-reciters (dharma-bhânaka). In such cases “better attested” is a concept not merely defined by “more manuscripts”.
        Even in the case of the more than 5560 MSS of the NT, we do not want to say that “more manuscripts” always means “better attested”. Surely, a few “good” MSS are better than a huge amount of “bad” MSS. All classical scholars are aware of this fact when it comes to the transmission of our Greek and Latin authors. The first thing an editor must do is to collect all available MSS, then collate them, propose a stemma, and eliminate the secondary witnesses. Thus a huge amount can safely be reduced to a smaller amount. Quality counts more than quantity, here as elsewhere.
        When we speak of interpolations, original texts etc., there is, I find, an aspect that has too often been ignored.
        Modern studies of Buddhist gospels as well of the Greek NT (J. Smit Sibinga, M.J.J. Menken et al.) have firmly established that the (unknown) redactors of these gospels carefully counted the number of syllables and words.
        An enormous amount of analytical work remains to be done in this new field of research. (The same goes for the OT, Greek as well as Hebrew.) It has been shown recently that Greek and Sanskrit gospels in some cases share similar numerical patters. They are, therefore, somehow historically related.
        The numerical patterns are objective facts that must not be ignored.
        This means that before we decide about interpolations, original texts etc., we must take the objective arguments provided by numerical analysis into account.
        NT scholars – that is my main point here – can learn a lot by comparing their texts with the Buddhist gospels.

        Dr. Christian Lindtner (Denmark)

        • Avatar
          Christian Lindtner  May 4, 2012

          Dr Ehrman,

          It struck me, when I considered the matter a bit further, that one and the same Buddhist sûtra has often been transmitted in two, three, four or more different recensions. When you juxtapose them, you are immediately reminded of the three different versions/recensions of basically the same story/gospel “according to” Matthew, Mark and Luke. So, as Buddhist scholars, we can certainly speak of synoptic gospels/sûtra-s. To begin with, the transmission was oral – the “living manuscripts”. It may be useful to keep this in mind when we consider the synoptic problem as NT scholars. Basically the same gospel, but according to different lines of transmission. –
          You can take almost any Buddhist sûtra(m) – even in a modern translation – and you only have to read a few pages to see that any NT eu-aggelion belongs to the very same genre. The Buddhists often understood sûtram as su + uktam, well spoken (by the Lord)”. San. su- is Greek eu-, of course.
          It all gets even more disturbing when I add that the names of our evangelists can also be traced back to Buddhist sources. Our MaRKoS, for instance, is KuMâRaS. This chap is said to have been kolobo-daktulos (Lat. colobo-dactylus). The – likewise – extremely rare Sanskrit compound (only attested in the instrumental case) is kutila+angulikayâ.
          Why KuMâRaS had (a) crooked finger(s) is explained well in the Buddhist source – he used his finger(s) as a hook to pull a very heavy bowl. Why Mark had this problem with his finger(s) we can only guess – unless we know Sanskrit.

          Regards from Denmark

          Dr. Christian Lindtner

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    jimmo  May 7, 2012

    For me the biggest problem with arguments like Dr. Wallaces is that no one bases their worldview on Homer (or Shakespeare in the case of Randal Rauser’s argument). As I said on Randal’s site, no one goes around with “Macbeth 3:16″ painted on their face. If someone tried to pass laws based on what was in “Taming of the Shrew”, people would laugh at him. Shall we apply that same standard to the bible?

    it simply doesn’t matter that either Homer and Shakespeare have been changed. Wars are not started over whether Hamlet actually said “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well”.

    If Daniel Wallace, Randal Rauser or Matt Slick (on the carm.org site) want to argue over over a beer who said what in the NT, that’s OK and I will grant them the argument that we should treat the NT the same way we treat Shakespeare or Homer. However, if they want to impose laws or force behaviour based on any of them, then the standard we use *must* be much higher.

    For me the best analogy is the difference between a civil and a criminal case, with the standard for the NT being like in a criminal case. I don’t see the NT as having even a preponderance of evidence to support inerrancy, devine inspiration, etc. The case for the NT most certainly has not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

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      ntuser  May 8, 2012

      I think you’re right that Christianity is way more relevant than Homer to the lives of people today (especially in the West). But what difference would there be for the issues you mention if we had all the originals of the NT? Would it then be right for people to enforce a worldview or their beliefs on others? Would biblical inerrancy be more valid? Wouldn’t a person believing that they had the inerrant word of god be just as delusional with the original text from an historical point of view? Even if we had every words in these texts exact arguments would still be the same about the validity of these ancient texts, if they have any relevance to us today, can we have this or that supernatural belief, or their meaning in an ancient context. Christian fundamentalists would still be just as annoyed or challenged by historical-critical analysis concluding forgery, charlatanism, and that ancient writers just made things up. Isn’t how exactly we know the original text of the NT an issue of historical interest at this point just the same a Tacitus or Homer albeit with many more interested people looking on?

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    David  May 14, 2012

    This is a very common argument, especially made by evangelical scholars.

    In actual fact there are around 1500 continuous text manuscripts of Homer’s Illiad. Reference is Martin. L. West, Studies In The Text And Transmission Of The Illiad, (Munich-Leipzig 2001), page 86.

    There are hundreds more quotation etc…

    In perspective, that is more evidence than any book of the New Testament excepting the gospels. Remember the New Testament is not a single book, but a collection of 27.

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    Zboilen  October 20, 2016

    Hi Bart. 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?

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