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Were Cut and Paste Jobs Common in Antiquity? Guest Post by Brent Nongbri

I have been talking about 2 Corinthians and Philippians, both of which may well represent instances in which earlier letters were cut and pasted together.    A number of readers of the blog have asked me if this kind of thing was ever/often done in the ancient world.  As it turns out, one of the blog members is an established New Testament scholar, Brent Nongbri (PhD from Yale; visiting associate professor at Aarhus University), who is interested in this kind of question. (He’s also the author of Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept and God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts.)  Unsolicited, he sent me the following note: asking and then answering the question, with a link to a fuller study.

These are his words:


“Do we know whether or not this kind of editing was a common practice during the first three centuries?”

I had this very question a few years ago, specifically regarding 2 Corinthians. I’ve read a lot of ancient letters, and I had never really seen like what scholars say is going on with 2 Corinthians: 2 (or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6!) letters all anything fused into one. So I carefully looked into the question: Did this kind of thing happen often in antiquity? Short answer: Sort of.

Many people in the Roman world …

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Paul’s Views of Women
More Cutting and Pasting? Paul’s Letter to the Philippians



  1. Avatar
    anthonygale  January 9, 2018

    Despite the “sort of” answer, I think this supports the plausibility that Paul’s letters could have been combined. It provides evidence that letters were archived, sometimes out of order. It also provides examples of other possible splice jobs.

    I don’t see why the examples being personal business or professional correspondence should be a limiting factor. I have boxes in my basement filled with letters from childhood friends (back when people still wrote each other), every card my wife has ever given me, and loads of other keepsakes with and without dates. Were ancient people any less sentimental? I doubt it. Were they better organized? I doubt that to, but if you look in my box in the basement, there will probably be letters with pages missing or out of order. That happens when you clean house, move, dogs chew, or things leak/spill over many years.

    I realize that whether someone would be “inclined” to combine letter fragments is another question. Especially into a relatively well integrated whole, as opposed to simply copying whatever letters are stacked on top of one another (Paul’s letters seem more likely the former). But “if” people were so inclined, it’s not surprising they would have made a few seams. Back then, didn’t people write without paragraphs or spaces between words, let alone consistently date letters or write page numbers? Simply dropping a stack of papers could have been disastrous.

  2. Avatar
    tcasto  January 9, 2018

    Tilt! The link requires a sign on. There seems to be a pdf of the chapter, just not readily available.

    • bnongbri
      bnongbri  January 11, 2018

      Sorry about that–The site is a platform that a lot of scholars use to exchange articles; I didn’t realize it was behind a wall, though. If you would like a copy, just send me an e-mail [brent.nongbri@gmail.com].

  3. Avatar
    ardeare  January 9, 2018

    A very interesting piece by Profesor Nongbri. My initial reaction is to believe that there were multiple letters that became chronologically compromised. One possible explanation would be as follows: An issue was ordered that multiple copies be distributed to the general membership. Once the book was memorized and commonly referred to in sermons and lessons, the need to rearrange them to a chronologically correct dating became largely unimportant, particularly in light of the tremendous missionary activity that was happening.

    Next, copies would have been prepared for other churches and the need to correspond with the letter at the church in Philippi was customary by intention. I don’t think this is something that would have escaped the membership in Philippi. They must have been fully aware of it. I also have a hard time believing that some of these mysteries were left unnoticed until the last 2 or 3 centuries. I think it most plausible that nearly everyone in Philippi and the majority of Christians in the early churches were aware of this but the lack of importance to members along with church hierarchy becoming more assertive led people to stop passing on information that wasn’t explicitly implied by church leaders. In that sense, riddles such as this had to be rediscovered by relatively recent scholarship.

  4. Avatar
    Gary  January 10, 2018

    Off topic question.

    I am currently in a conversation with a Christian about what the majority of NT scholars believe constituted the earliest “Jesus Story”. I agreed with him that the majority of NT scholars hold that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus had been bodily resurrected and that they also believed that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to them…in some fashion…shortly after his death. What I was not willing to agree to was my Christian friend’s claim that the majority of NT scholars, including yourself and Larry Hurtado, hold that the earliest Christians believed that they had seen a resurrected BODY.

    Here is what he said: “I see your point about the virgin Mary [that people claim to see the Virgin Mary when what they mean is that they saw the very real, living, and present Virgin Mary…in the shape of a cloud, or shadow, or bright light…one does not need to see a body to believe that one has truly “seen” Mary], and it may well be true, but it is not relevant to what we have been discussing. Remember we agreed that there was a difference between the core beliefs of the early Christians and what we each think actually happened? I have been talking about their core beliefs, i.e. what the historians can tell us. So when you say ”People can claim to have seen a dead person without claiming to have seen a body.”, you are clearly right, but it seems that scholars like Bart Ehrman and Larry Hurtado don’t think that was the case with Jesus, as the quotes I gave show. They say the claim was that they actually saw Jesus, which obviously means his body, alive. Whether you believe they didn’t is secondary to the historical conclusion that that was the early core belief.

    Gary: Who is correctly interpreting your position, Dr. Ehrman? Is it possible that all the early claims of appearance by Jesus were real experiences, just real experiences (such as vivid dreams illusions, false sightings) that were incorrectly perceived and interpreted? Do you believe that the earliest Christians claimed to see a walking/talking/fish eating body with two arms, two legs, and a head?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2018

      It’s complicated because there were different opinions among the early Christains: some thought the disciples saw a real body (that could eat food); others thought they had seen a phantom/spirit; others thought they had seen a “heavenly” body, and so on. There wasn’t just one view.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 11, 2018

      I think this depends on what you mean by what “the earliest Christians believed”.

      A) Did they believe that Jesus was resurrected into a solid body (i.e. not into some kind of phantasmal ghost)? They must have believed this, because this is what they would have brought with them from their Jewish eschatology (it was the common belief amongst Pharisees and Essence). They would have taken this as a given, regardless of whether they actually saw Jesus in a solid body post-resurrection.

      B) Did they believe that *they saw* Jesus in his resurrected solid body? This would depend on the nature of their visions. If they saw Jesus in their dreams, or otherwise in their heads, then clearly they didn’t see him in a solid body (this depends on what they believed the nature of dreams are: material or immaterial?) However, if they saw visions of Jesus while they were awake, such as in moments of ecstasy (possibly brought on by “the Holy Spirit”), then it’s possible that they believed they were seeing Jesus in a solid body.

      In other words, they would have believed Jesus was resurrected in bodily form, just as they believed *everyone* would be resurrected in bodily form before the Judgment, and so, of course, that was a given. But whether or not they saw Jesus in bodily form in their visions of him, that depends on the nature of their visions. And, either way, the nature of those visions wouldn’t change their belief in bodily resurrection, because that was foundational to their beliefs even before Jesus’ death.

  5. Avatar
    Tobit  January 10, 2018

    Fascinating, my thanks to Brent for this information.

    It seems to make the two-letter hypothesis very plausible, with two chronologically close letters being stuck together. But 4 to 6 letters all from different times being turned into a patchwork composite? That looks like a stretch to me.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 10, 2018

    Thanks Dr. Nongbri. That they have a term for this pasting is quite interesting.

  7. Avatar
    Seeker1952  January 10, 2018

    I sometimes come across a phrase that’s something like “the oldest strata of the New Testament.” Does this mean something different than-or in addition to-doing the best job of meeting the criteria for historicity? If so, how does one determine that some strata are older than others, e.g., given two strata that are equally “historical” (according to the criteria), how does one determine that one strata is older than another?

    If there is a difference (between “oldest strata” and “most historical”), is there a guide as to which are the oldest strata in the New Testament?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2018

      It depends which part of the NT you’re talking about. But earliest strata generally means the oldest layer of the text as established by historical criteria. It doesn’t mean, though, that the information in that strata is necessarily historically accurate.

      • Avatar
        Seeker1952  January 11, 2018

        Thanks. That’s an important distinction that you give.

        Is there a guide to what are the oldest layers of the NT? I think that would be interesting even if it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything in that layer is deemed to be historical.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 13, 2018

          No, not that I know of. It’s probably too complicated to have a simple list of some sort — the oldest layer would differ from one book to the next and different scholars would have different opinions.

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    Stylites  January 10, 2018

    I found this to be a most interesting piece of research of a most interesting puzzle. Thank you.

  9. Lev
    Lev  January 10, 2018

    Off topic question: When are you getting back to the afterlife thread? I’m really curious to know where you’re going with that Lukan parable.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2018

      Yes, I got side tracked and then my side track got side tracked and then…. But I’ll bet back to it. So many interesting things to talk about!

  10. Avatar
    reedm60  January 10, 2018

    Dr Ehrman,

    Will your new book be available for purchase at your upcoming talk at the Smithsonian on February 6th? If so, will you be signing them? I can’t wait. You always give a great presentation.

    Mike Reed

  11. Avatar
    Silver  January 11, 2018

    2 questions re Paul, please.
    1. In Gal 6:17 when Paul says he bears the wounds of Christ do you see these as the stigmata that mystics claim to exhibit or is Paul simply saying that he is scarred because he has been beaten for Jesus?
    2. In Acts 19:11 we read that handkerchiefs, seemingly touched by Paul, had the power to heal the sick. Is this passage the source for the veneration of relics by Catholics?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2018

      1. He is referring to being beaten; 2. I don’t really know if anyone made that connection in the early days of relics. These would not be relics since he’s not dead.

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