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What Is the Original Text of the Gospels?


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?



As it turns out, this is a complicated and endlessly fascinating question that, so far as I have been able to work out over the past twenty years of thinking about it, has no clear and obvious answer!

By way of very simple background for readers not completely on top of the textual situation we are confronting when it comes to the Gospels (or any of the other books of the New Testament) (or of any ancient Christian writings at all) (or, in fact, of any writings of any kind at all that come down to us from antiquity) we do not have the “originals” (however we define that term: see below!).  What we have are copies made from copies, which were themselves made from copies.  Most of these copies are hundreds of years after the books were put in circulation, and all of the surviving copies contain mistakes of one kind or another.  The task is to use the surviving copies – some of which are in all certainty  more reliable than others – to determine the original text.

But what is the original text?

Here’s the problem, or at least part of it.   You might think – for years I thought – that the answer is very simple.  The “original” is …

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  1. godspell  November 14, 2017

    Yes, but nobody other than scholars gets excited over the original text of Plato’s Republic or Cicero’s letters. Even though both have exercised a powerful influence on posterity. Everybody gets excited about the gospels. Because, you know, they’re supposed to be gospel. When we use that word now, we’re at least as likely to mean “the unvarnished truth” as “good news.”

    Fundamentalist Christians want to believe that the text they read–in their own language–is the text. Period.

    And some non-believers just want to pare away at the text because it would bother the Christians, and because they’d like to just keep paring away until there’s nothing left, even the memory of Jesus. It’s an attack on the very principle that these words represent anything other than myth.

    But of course, texts everybody now acknowledges as myth have the same problems, and so do texts we all acknowledge are based on the deeds of genuine historical figures. (And not just from ancient times, either.)

    But at its core, this should be a matter for the scholars–the ones who want to know the answers for no other reason that they are the answers. The ones who want to know the gospel truth. For the truth shall set ye free.

  2. RonaldTaska  November 14, 2017

    Well, as you once wrote me, you can interpret “a” Bible literally, but there is no “the” Bible to interpret literally.

  3. Lev
    Lev  November 14, 2017

    This is absolutely fascinating – many thanks, Bart!

    Do you know what the usual practice was for reproducing and circulating the written gospels when first produced?

    Were copies commissioned privately by wealthy Christians who wanted a copy for their church, for example, or did early centres of Christianity such as Rome, Ephesus and Antioch sponsor the reproduction of gospels to send out to smaller churches?

    I ask, as it would be interesting to know if there was an ‘official’ hand behind the reproduction and circulation of gospels, as this may tell us if the larger churches had a part to play in authorising certain gospels, and perhaps editing them further.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2017

      Early on they would have almost certainly been circulated informally: when someone saw or knew of a Gospel that would be useful for his/her church, they figured out a way to get someone to copy it and then take it back home. It was only much later (third century?) that leaders became more active in procuring copies. For an insightful study of the circulation and distribution of early Christian literature, see Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church.

  4. Jim  November 14, 2017

    I think the original was the one where John was at his desk, looked up and saw bright multicolored lights in the sky above his house. His pupils retracted to reveal glowing aqua-colored sclera and his hand began to write at lightning speed. After a few minutes, the multicolored lights disappeared and his eyes returned to normal, though his hand was still smoking a bit. And when he looked down at his desk, there it was, a complete inerrant gospel. That one’s the original.

    • godspell  November 16, 2017

      I hate to quibble with such a convincing account, but there is zero evidence anyone in that era of history used desks.


  5. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  November 14, 2017

    Did the Church Fathers ever quote from the Gospels or Paul’s letters anything that isn’t in the NT today?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2017

      Yes, there are quotations, for example, that appear to derive from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of the Hebrews, and other books.

  6. webo112
    webo112  November 14, 2017

    Yes, Fascinating.

  7. ask21771  November 14, 2017

    Are the claims that Satan and demons can manipulate minds biblically supported

  8. seahawk41  November 14, 2017

    Well put!

  9. HenriettePeterson  November 15, 2017

    Most of the major changes in manuscripts were done by 300 CE. Can you or scholars in general estimate how many more changes had been done during the time we have no record of anything? I mean the time “before” oldest manuscripts we have were made and before church fathers writings etc. (How many changes, how big, simply what can we say about the original text’s sad childhood life?)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2017

      Many/most (?) of these pre-300 changes are in fact not found in mss from before 300. (On a big scale, for example, the woman taken in adultery and the last twelve verses of Mark: these problems are unattested before 300 — that is, we don’t have mss from then that evidence either the presence or absence of these verses, so that is “before we have a record” of anything, technically speaking). We know that the problems were created then for other reasons, that I’ve outlined earlier on the Blog.

      • HenriettePeterson  November 15, 2017

        Okay, now I understand that it is complicated to use “time scale”. You based your blog from Nov 5th on my question (thank you, btw.) that’s why I’m trying to formulate the second part of it in a way that it would make sense. I understand it this way – scholars have ways to come to something that is closest to the “original manuscript”. This is based on all the evidence that we have. Can you estimate how much does “this version they can get to” differ from the original version? Can you estimate how many scribal modifications are present “since the original”? You cannot say because there’s no evidence, but you probably do not think there are no more modifications just because there’s no evidence.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 17, 2017

          No, as you point out, I’m afraid there is simply no way to know. I think I’ll put the question in my mailbag and address it in a longer post.

      • Bstevens  November 16, 2017

        If you’ve answered this elsewhere, please post the link and I will read it. If our earliest actual manuscript is p-52 (minus the elusive 90 ace mark segment only wallace & craig know about 😊) and that has been dated early to mid 2nd century, how do scholars say that the gospels were written 45 – 65 years after jesus death? What is the earliest dated manuscript of an entire gospel that we posses? Minus radiocarbon dating and paleography that are used to date the papyrus and other material the texts are written on, what criteria do scholars use to take way older dated findings and ascribe them to earlier dates & times?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 17, 2017

          For every work from antiquity, the date is decided on grounds *other* than the ealriest surviving manuscript. Many of the Greek and Roman classics, for example, are found only in manuscripts of the middle ages. But the originals were necessarily many many centuries earlier than that. And so there are other grounds. I have talked about the “dating of the Gospels” before on the blog; if you search for that term, you’ll find some of the posts.

  10. Pegill7  November 15, 2017

    This is absolutely off the point, but I am reminded of an incident that happened to a friend of mine. The French department at her university brought to campus a young French woman to add to their faculty. But it was quickly discovered that her spoken English was not good enough to put her in the classroom right away. She was therefore given duties in the department office until her English improved. My friend had an idea for her next exam. She would write an essay in French containing all kinds of mistakes and pass these to her students with instructions for them to correct all the errors. Within a few minutes the best student in the class informed her that the essay was in perfect form, nary a mistake! My friend quickly looked at the essay and to her horror discovered that the student was right–there were no mistakes. Then it dawned on her that she had given the test to the young French woman to type and guess what….?

  11. SidDhartha1953  November 16, 2017

    Are there any mss to support the possibility that more than one “original” ms got circulated? Suppose “John” never reused the papyrus on which one of his early drafts was written and it was found and circulated after his death

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2017

      Ah, I have a theory about this with respect to the Gospel of John. I’ll add the question to the mailbag.

  12. JoeRoark  November 16, 2017

    I saw a man who was arrested on TV say, ‘I didn’t kill nobody’. Which, of course is a confession that he killed someone. That is probably not what he meant to communicate of course, so the newspaper story the next day reported that he had said that he had not killed anyone, which is the opposite of what he said, but probably what he meant to say.

    The original had him guilty.

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