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Were All Textual Changes Made by Scribes by 300 CE? Readers’ Mailbag November 5, 2017

For today’s Readers’ Mailbag I deal with an interesting and important question about the changes that scribes made in their manuscripts.



In several of your books you mention that most modifications in the NT manuscripts happened in first 3 centuries. If I’m correct we have no manuscript from 1st century and only few from the 2nd. That means we can say almost nothing about changes during this time. This is however more than half of the “greatest modifications” historical period.



This comment is more of a statement than a question, but the question is clearly implied: how do we know (or why do we think) that almost all of the changes in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament as found in later manuscripts were made early in the history of the tradition, in the first three centuries, if we don’t have many manuscripts from that period to prove it?  Great question.   But with an answer that I think just about every textual scholar agrees with.

To begin with: when textual scholars say that virtually all the important textual changes were made by 300 CE or so, they are NOT talking about accidental changes made by scribal mistakes, such as misspelled words or accidentally deleted letters or words.  Surely some words were simply misspelled, for example, by scribes of the 12th century that had not been misspelled by the 3rd century – fair enough.   So we’re talking about changes that matter for something.

And another point is that there are a couple but only a couple of well-known exceptions to this rule, well-known precisely because they are so exceptional.  The famous “Johnannine comma” – the two verses found in older translations of 1 John 5:7-8, where the Trinity is explicitly affirmed (in the only explicit statement of the entire New Testament) first came into the tradition after 300 CE.  But this is a truly exceptional case.

Virtually all the other “significant” changes – that is, ones that affect the meaning of the text in one way or another – appear to have been made prior to 300.  But how do we know that, if we don’t have manuscripts from that period?

There are several points to note, the last of which is the most important.

First: ….

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More on 666: The Number of the Beast: A Blast from the Past
Did Jesus Mean that Literally? Rewards and Punishments in the Afterlife



  1. Avatar
    godspell  November 5, 2017

    I can think of two explanations for this.

    1)There were more and more highly capable scribes copying the manuscripts, several centuries on, so mistakes in reproduction became uncommon.

    2)The texts themselves, originally perceived as devout literary works that expressed views particular to certain sects within Christianity, became perceived as the inviolate word of God, as memory of their actual authors vanished (and people began to believe they really had been written by their purported authors). So tampering with them in any way would be sacrilege.

    Bit of both?

  2. Lev
    Lev  November 5, 2017

    Very interesting analysis, Bart.

    When it comes to the gospels, how do we define the ‘original text’? Do we define it as the original manuscript that was first penned by the author, or do we define it as the gospels in their most settled canonical form?

    All four gospels seem to have large sections added to them over time, the opening two chapters of Matthew and Luke, most of Mark 16 and John 8 and all of John 21, but NA28, which seeks to reproduce the original Greek text of the NT, contain these chapters.

    So how do scholars define what is and isn’t part of the original text?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      It’s a big problem. The big movement these days is to get away from the “original” text (since, well, how would you define it) and to talk about the “initial” text — the form/wording of the text that is the foundation for the text as it was subsequently submitted in the surviving mss, whether or not that is what the author actually wrote.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  November 6, 2017

        You did just ‘define it’, though: what the author originally wrote. Don’t you think that’s what virtually everybody means by ‘original text’?

        Isn’t figuring that out the whole point?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 7, 2017

          Ah, but which author? I think I’ll address this on the blog in a post or two.

          • Avatar
            HawksJ  November 7, 2017

            I look forward to it! But, yes, if there are multiple authors, I want to know that too – and what those individuals ‘originally wrote’. I realize that may be unknowable in some (all?) cases, but that’s noteworthy in it’s own right as well.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 8, 2017

            It’s even more complicated than that. If Matthew used Q for his Sermon on the Mount, who is the original author — the author of Matthew or the author of Q? And if Q got the sayings from somewhere else….

      • Lev
        Lev  November 7, 2017

        Ooooh… that is *very* interesting! I had not heard of that development.

        If modern scholarship has moved in this direction, essentially abandoning the original text in favour of the initial text, wouldn’t this mean we’re stuck with 2nd or 3rd-century church texts, rather than the 1st?

        If so, Mary’s virginity remains intact and Jesus was Christ from birth. We’re being sold a Lucasfilm special edition of the Gospels!! #HanShotFirst I don’t want this paganised version of Christ, Bart! I want the original cut!

        • Bart
          Bart  November 8, 2017

          It doesn’t mean we are stuck with a 2nd or 3rd century text — but we may be stuck with a text some years after the original had been circulated. THe initial text could be, a copy of the original that itself was copied more than the original, which was eventually lost, e.g.

          • Lev
            Lev  November 8, 2017

            The problem I have is that there is an increasing amount of evidence to show that the virgin birth stories (which accounts for 4(!) chapters in the gospels) were inserted in the second century – which is where the ‘initial’ text is found.

            I’ve watched your lectures covering this and I agree with you – having Jesus born divine changes who Jesus was and the Christian story significantly. The 1st C text would present Jesus progressing through his natures – first human, then a human Christ at his baptism, then a divine Christ (Son of God) at his resurrection.

            It’s a little heart-breaking that this 1st-C depiction of Jesus became a heresy in the second century (after the virgin birth story was inserted in the gospels) because this makes Christianity in its original form a heresy and the paganised version of Christ (which should be a heresy) becomes the orthodox teaching.

            This is so important for open-minded Christians like me who prefer to follow the evidence rather than the established doctrines of the church because we want to know the truth! We don’t want to follow a 2nd C paganised version of Christ, we want to follow the original 1st C Jewish version of Christ.

  3. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  November 5, 2017

    with this new new manuscript of Revelation reading 616. Is there any plan to make any change in the current book of revelation in the Bible reading 666?

  4. Avatar
    saeed319  November 5, 2017

    Hi Bart. I thought the NIV Bible kept up-to-date with newer papyrus discoveries. Yet, it too shows 666 (and not 616) for REV 13:18. Why might that be?

  5. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  November 5, 2017

    since its being discovered that the story of the and the woman caught in adultery were not part of the earliest manuscripts we have why are they still included in recent revised Bible?

    • Avatar
      John Uzoigwe  November 5, 2017

      forgive my typos. I mean the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      I’ll deal with that in a blog post!

  6. Rick
    Rick  November 5, 2017

    Does the …theory (fact?) that the first 3 centuries CE were perhaps the most theologically unsettled times in the church – heresies and pro orthodox defenses abounding – influence the subject conclusion, or perhaps vice versa?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      Not directly, but indirectly. There was less control generally in those early centuries — not only over “correct” doctrine but also over scribal practices.

  7. Avatar
    bruce  November 5, 2017

    Thanks Bart. If the earliest manuscripts show the number as 616 then where or how did 666 come into the reading?
    Also, we’ve heard that 666 stands for Nero. If it’s actually 616 then does that change the meaning?

  8. Avatar
    Silver  November 5, 2017

    An off-thread question if I may please. Today at church the preacher spoke about the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:1-23). He addressed the issue of Jesus explaining the meaning of the parable to the disciples privately but he did not comment on Matt 13:10-11 where he appears to be saying he deliberately speaks in parables so that people do NOT understand. (This is made more explicit in Mark 4:12).
    Do you think there are elements of gnosticism in these passages in that Jesus excludes many from the knowledge which he secretly shares with his inner circle?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      Good question, but no, I don’t think Gnosticism existed yet when these books were written. Later Gnostics, though, certainly appreciated passages like this!

  9. Avatar
    twiskus  November 5, 2017

    Would the woman caught in adultry also be a rare case of something appearing after 300CE for the first time like the Johannine Coma?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      It’s a bit harder to tell in that case; we do have a manuscript from around 400 CE that has it; was it in earlier copies? in the 380s Didymus indicates that it could be found “in some Gospels”

      • Lev
        Lev  November 6, 2017

        Eusebius quotes Papias (c100) who claimed the story appeared in the Gospel according to the Hebrews. The Diatessaron (c170) doesn’t include it. Pope Callixtus I (c220) seems to cite the incident from a “gospel” – he doesn’t identify which one, but he’s likely quoting from a canonical gospel. Didascalia Apostolorum (c230) cites the story, but without identifying a source. It looks like it appeared in the canonical gospels in the early 3rd century.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 7, 2017

          I have a full discussion of all this in my article “Jesus and the Adulteress” in New Testament Studies 34 (1988) 24-44

  10. Avatar
    stokerslodge  November 5, 2017

    Bart, when the early church fathers quote the New Testament, is it always from a Greek text (and not a Latin one) ?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      The Greek fathers all quote it in Greek; Latin fathers, though, in Latin.

  11. Avatar
    dws  November 5, 2017

    Thanks Bart. For me, this was a very satisfying entry. I’ve read several of your books which include this discussion, but having it laid out here so cleanly and tersely makes it easier to understand and remember.

  12. Avatar
    fishician  November 5, 2017

    How do your believing colleagues rationalize that these scattered and sometimes incongruous ancient writings were really the best way for the supreme intelligence of the universe to communicate his nature, his incarnation and his will to all future generations, especially given the deep divisions in Christianity, and among all the world religions? Maybe a few more personal appearances might help?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      My believing colleagues don’t think about the Bible as a result of God trying to figure out how best to communicate with humans. They have much more sophisticated views than that.

  13. Avatar
    dws  November 5, 2017


    This is a question on a different topic. I’ve read Friedman’s “Who wrote the bible?” and, recently, Kugel’s “How to read the bible.” Kugle says that the documentary hypothesis as described by Friedman doesn’t have a consensus anymore and that a more complicated picture has emerged. He doesn’t seem to think this is important for his purposes, but I’m curious. Would you recommend a good book for the untutored reader? My search via the web has only confused me. Many thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      I’m afraid I know only of hard core scholarship that is very difficult to plow thorugh — I don’t know of anything for us mere mortals.

  14. Avatar
    Stephen  November 5, 2017

    I’ll try to make this question as brief as possible (how many times have you heard that?). I work in design and testing of computer software so I am aware of attempts to use computer analysis for NT textual analysis. In my reading I encountered “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method” as a way to classify manuscripts. However when I pursue it online the sites that I find assume a lot of previous text critical knowledge. Care to define it for a non-textual critic?

    Sorry if this is way too far down in the weeds!


    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      I’m not sure it’s possible. It establishes the genealogical relationship of all the witnesses at each unit of variation, one at a time, and then produces a stemma of mss, at each place, leading to an overall stemma showing which variations were primary in the tradition and which corruptions.

  15. Avatar
    Judith  November 5, 2017

    Very interesting1

  16. Avatar
    LWH  November 5, 2017

    There is an essay by DAVID BENTLEY HART in Nov. 4 NYT about the early Christian church during the first 300 years that interprets “koinonia” as meaning communitarian or communist. This is not the first time I have encountered this view of the early church and I have no reason to disagree with Hart’s interpretation. But I am interested in your view of the nature of the early church as contrasted with Hart’s view.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      I think the problem is that “communist” has too many modern associations to be of much use.

  17. Avatar
    ask21771  November 6, 2017

    How much did love play a part in Jesus’ message

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      It was absolutely central. Love of God; Love of neighbor; that sums up the Torah.

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 6, 2017

    Really interesting. Thanks for continuing to educate me.

  19. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  November 6, 2017

    Is the following an accurate, simple explanation? Or too simple?
    In the first 3 centuries, we did not have arabic numerals (1, 2, 3 etc.) we have today, so letters were given numerical values, like Roman numerals.
    Emperor Nero was called “Nero Kaisar” in the 1st century, based on an Aramaic 1st century scroll from Muabba’at.
    Each letter has a numeric value, so in Greek “NRON QSR” adds up to 666.
    But Latin drops the N with a value of 50, so “NRO QSR” adds up to 616.
    The “Mark of the Beast” number depends on if it is a Greek or Latin source?
    Thanks Bart for all you do for us struggling amateurs!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      I’ts in the ball park, but not quite there. See today’s post.

  20. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  November 6, 2017

    I’ve read about that 616/666 variant. More interesting to me than the question which is the original reading, is the question of the meaning of the number. Do you think the discrepancy actually strengthens the argument that the number refers to Nero, since variant spellings, Nero/Neron Caesar, have the numerical values 616 and 666, respectively?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      See today’s post. It wouldn’t mean that the *author* had Nero in mind, but it would mean that the later scribe understood that he did.

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