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What Is the “Original” Text?

In my debates with other scholars about whether we can know (for certain) (or at they sometimes put it, with 99% certainty) what the original words of the New Testament were, I always argue that we cannot “know,” and they argue we can.   Let me explain one reason that I find their position highly problematic by dealing with a broader issue.  What exactly *is* the original text of a document?  If we can’t agree on that very basic and fundamental question, then we can’t very well agree on the possibility of getting back to the original.

I’ve dealt with this problem on the blog before, but let me approach if from a different angle this time.  I have just finished my recent book on how memory studies can help us think about the oral traditions of Jesus that were in circulation in the years and decades before the Gospels were produced.   The book will be called Jesus Before the Gospels, and should be published sometime in the spring.

So in 20 years, looking back on things, what will people imagine is the “original” text of that book?   Or, say, of a chapter of the book, e.g., Chapter 1?  Here is the reality.   I had an extensive outline of what I wanted to say in chapter 1, which i had worked on for weeks.  I then wrote the chapter over the course of two days.  After finishing it on the second day I went back and revised it, rearranging some material, correcting spelling and grammatical mistakes, rewording sentences, restructuring paragraphs, and so on.   About two weeks later, I went back to it, and revised it again.   After I finished the whole manuscript, I went back and revised the whole book, including chapter 1, again.   Is one of those drafts or revisions “the original”?

I then sent the book off to friends, colleagues, and other readers (including some on the blog!) and they made suggestions.  I took their suggestions to heart, and made edits.   I then read the whole thing through one last time, tweaking it here and there.  I then sent it to my editor.  He had lots of comments and wanted me to change things:  add things, remove things, alter things.  I did so, on his advice.  And then I went through it one last time to make final adjustments in style to make it absolutely as good as I could.  Is one of these revisions “the original”?

I have now…

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Irrelevant Arguments and the So-called Tenacity of the Tradition
Arguments that We Have the Original Text



  1. bbcamerican  September 2, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I always find your daily writings riveting, but this one really made me reflect on the writing process itself. How many of us have, say, been overly emotional or “in the moment” and fired of a letter or email, and then later, once we’ve relaxed a bit, looked back at the email and realized that it should never have been sent or that it would come across in a way that was not intended? Or the converse is that we write “what we really think/feel” the first time around, and then go back afterwards and pacify it, make nice and/or less offensive, etc. Might not the first version be what I really thought and the second a politically-corrected copy?

    That’s how people write. So, to think that a letter written by Paul on, say, Monday when he was perturbed by something would be worded the same on Tuesday after he had a chance to “sleep on it” is pretty unlikely, when you think about it in terms of how people actually write. And I don’t think anyone could accuse Paul of being short on passion or emotion.

    I hadn’t really considered this issue, but it throws the whole discussion of “original texts” even further the the wind than before!

    Good stuff!

    • Judith  September 5, 2015

      “How many of us have, say, been overly emotional or “in the moment” and fired off a letter or email, and then later, once we’ve relaxed a bit, looked back at the email and realized that it should never have been sent or that it would come across in a way that was not intended?”

      That happens here among some of us! If only Steven Ray could provide a way to delete such comments before Dr. Ehrman sees them, it would resolve that problem and maybe even cut back on the deluge of messages he has to face every single day. It would be wonderful if Steven could do that for us. If it’s not possible, then we can develop a little more self-control.

      • Bart
        Bart  September 5, 2015

        Yes, I vote for the self-control, since I have to pay Steven by the hour. 🙂

  2. shakespeare66  September 2, 2015

    I used to call these writings “process writings” to my students because they were going through the process of arriving at a final copy. Their final copy, to me, was their original writing, their final attempt at getting said what they wanted to say. If their very first draft of a writing was the original, there would be a dramatic difference between it and the final writing. So it was with my students whose “process writings” were all included as part of the “package” so I could see that they were going through the “process” of making changes to their writings ( they usually did two drafts and a final copy). If they did not exercise the “process” ( as you well know), then it is not likely that the writing will say what the author wanted to say. Often, time needs to elapse to give the writer the opportunity to “see” the writing with fresh eyes. Hopefully, other eyes as well. Again, as you well know, others must offer feedback in order to get the perspective of a reader who did not write the work. Is it clear? Where is it confusing? What must be done to make it more clear? And so on. So I am with you: the original that is put in front of me, the grader, is the original and the others just “process writings.” I think it is quite important for all students to see what a professional goes through to write a book. By seeing what the different steps are, it makes them realize that much more work needs to be exercised on a paper before it is submitted. I am sure you would like to see that more from your own students. Great post!

  3. John4
    John4  September 2, 2015

    Well, saying “that the ‘original’ is the first form of the text that was placed in circulation” sounds like a pretty easy answer to me, Bart. True, the question shouldn’t be ignored. And, sure, we might be able to think of a better term than “the original” for “the first form of the text that was put into circulation”. Maybe we should call it “the first” instead of “the original” with the understanding that “first” means “the first form of the text that was placed in circulation”?

    But, so what? Why are you irritated about this? There must be something more to this than quibbling over a term. From your post, though, it’s not clear to me what that something more is.

    Many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2015

      Not sure what you’re asking about. I’m not irritated! I’m simply dealing with the claim that we can know what the original text was.

      • John4
        John4  September 5, 2015


        My mistake then, Bart.

        I’m glad you’re not irritated. 🙂

  4. Mhamed Errifi  September 2, 2015

    hello Bart

    How many years did Mark take to write his Gospel ? if he was not an eye witness who told him what happened and how he was sure they were not making things up . why do christians call letters of Paul to be the word of God when he is the one speaking in those letters and not God

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2015

      I’m afraid we know nothing about Mark or his writing process.

  5. Jeff
    Jeff  September 2, 2015

    You are about the best I know at ‘splainin’ (as Ricky Ricardo would say) arcane and esoteric things to laymen. However, I find your illustration here uncompelling. Here’s why:
    I can’t imagine any creator/publisher of literature–in any era–allowing drafts of his work to be publicly circulated. After all, drafts are “internal” communications, not for public consumption, and of no further use once the final form is produced and published.
    *Ipso facto*, wouldn’t Tertius/Paul have simply discarded the draft(s) (or, alternatively, cleaned and reused the writing medium) after the reviewing, editing, changing, and production of the final manuscript?
    In other words, OF COURSE the first form of the text to be put in circulation (i.e., published) is the original!

    Once again, thanks for the all delightful intellectual stimulation you provide here at C.I.A.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2015

      OK, but that means that there were versions before the original, and something doesn’t seem right about the original not being the oldest form of the text.

      • Adam Beaven  September 5, 2015

        if we are to assume that the passion narrative was changing every five years and then mark put the story to paper 40 years later , then he will be working on an EVOLVED narrative . wouldn’t it be absolutely impossible to date what the original story was like?

      • Jeff
        Jeff  September 5, 2015


  6. gabilaranjeira  September 3, 2015

    Even if scholars agree on what the definition of “original” is, how would anyone be able to recognize the “original” if it is ever found?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2015

      Ha! Good point. I don’t know how they *would* be able to.

  7. Jason  September 3, 2015

    Wouldn’t it be great if we not only had the originals of the gospels/epistles but also had numerous rough drafts leading up to them, maybe where Jesus returned to the temple after his resurrection and beat up Caiphas with Kung fu and nunchaku, or where Paul makes an offer to Philemon like “Tell you what-Onemesius is kind of scrawny and has bad teeth-I’ll give you three As for him.”?

  8. Mark  September 3, 2015

    “But” and “and” are fine ways to start a sentence. And em-dashes are terrific for interjecting information without confusing the reader. Stick to your guns.

  9. rbrtbaumgardner  September 3, 2015

    Then there is the question of whether or not the writer actually succeeded in expressing what he or she meant. Was a statement ambiguous or poorly expressed? I’ve certainly had the experience of believing something I wrote was entirely clear to me but not to my reader. I’ve always wondered if the Bible were the inerrant word of God why we would need textual critics, historians, translators, interpreters, etc. in order to understand it.

  10. RonaldTaska  September 3, 2015

    Good post! But didn’t God inspire the writing of a perfect text? So, let’s use the one that God inspired! Now, let’s see, which one was that? Sorry, to be so sarcastic, but I get very tired of the “literal” view which just cannot be supported by the evidence. The last church I attended has finally decided, after a 10–year debate over the literal interpretation of two scriptures, that a woman can preach a sermon this month. Praise God! But over a third of the congregation has left the church in protest of this decision. I left long ago in silent protest over the “literal” interpretation of ancient books written before there was any science and before there was much real history and before there was any way to copy and, hence, “preserve” texts with the printing press and computers.

  11. Jim  September 3, 2015

    I think it would be easy to identify the autograph of say the gMark. If he was like any normal author, the original would have started out with “It was a dark and stormy night …”

    Would you consider doing a few posts covering known interpolations found in the gospels and Paul’s authentic letters?

  12. gorlim  September 3, 2015

    There’s a great modern example that illustrates the problem of deterimining the “original” or “correct” text: the textual history of the published versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”, which turns out to be extremely complex. (And that’s ignoring the development of Tolkien’s original drafts of the book, which is an even more complex story. Or the histories of *translations* of the book into other languages.)

    Starting with the typescripts Tolkien submitted to his publisher in the early 50’s:

    The copy-editors made many “corrections” to the submitted manuscript, including many that Tolkien disapproved of, for instance, changing Tolkien’s prefered terminology of “dwarves” and “elven” to “dwarfs” and “elfin”. Tolkien fixed many of these in the proofs, but missed some others, so these errors appeared in the first edition, and were sometimes not corrected until decades later.

    Tolkien’s publishers were uncertain how successful his book would be (if at all). So for the first volume (Fellowship of the Ring), they ordered a small initial print run from the printer. They also asked the printer to hold on to the set-up blocks of type of the Fellowship , in case another printing would be needed. For whatever reason, the printer didn’t do this. So when the publishers asked for another print run, the printers *secretly* reset the type from scratch. In doing so, they of course inserted many small errors. Neither Tolkien, his publishers, nor anyone else, knew this had been done until less than a decade ago! Some of these errors were noticed by Tolkien, who, not knowing how they had arisen, then “corrected” them in later editions them to a *different* reading than was in his original manuscript or in the original first printing. So which version is the right one?

    Because of a copyright dispute, Tolkien prepared a “Second Edition” for American paperback edition in the mid 60’s. Tolkien introduced many small changes to the text, and the American paperback publisher Ballentine reset the type of the book (introducing new errors, of course). These changes were imported into the British editions, though not completely and not always correctly; some corrections to the American paperback second edition never made it to the British editions. The new American hardcover edition was (mostly) identical to the new British edition: so the American hardcover and paperback versions of Lord of the Rings had many small differences between them, which persisted for decades afterwards.

    More corrections were submitted by Tolkien at various times, separately to each of the publishers. When he died, there were three different published versions (British, American hardcover, American paperback). Which one is the “correct” text? All of them had obvious errors, some of which were corrected by his son Christopher. (Although these corrections didn’t always make it into all of the three versions.

    In 1994 the text was computerized and standardized on the “best” version, together with corrections from other editions. More corrections were made (and new errors introduced, including whole lines being accidentally omitted!), and all new published editions were standardized on this text. Errors are still found and corrected when they can be (including some which entered with the bad second printing of the Fellowship I mentioned above, which was only discovered recently).

    Even so, there are some readings in the Lord of the Rings which have persisted since the very first editions, which are obviously not intended by the author (e.g., very minor plot inconsistencies). If Tolkien had ever noticed these problems, he could have easily fixed them, and certainly would have fixed them. You can even trace from Tolkien’s original manuscripts how these errors came in to the text. Should these be “fixed”? It’s a problem.

    Of course, none of these variant versions have any effect whatsoever on the story of the Lord of the Rings. Only a few are of importance, and are really only of interest to Tolkien geeks.

  13. flcombs  September 3, 2015

    You may have already said elsewhere, but one of your statements really caught my eye in some implications. Bible supporters try to explain textual differences that would indicate a different author of some letters by claiming it was dictated and it reflects the scribe’s personal style. In Romans we have a letter accepted as by Paul and with an acknowledged scribe. So how different is Romans from other of Paul’s letters from a textual criticism point of view (word usage, sentence structure, etc.)? I would think if it is very similar, it should be evidence that the scribe doesn’t change the wording to their personal writing style. If different, it would be evidence to support apologetic views.

  14. screwtape  September 3, 2015

    The original documents of the New Testament were divinely inspired and thus perfect on the very first draft.

    Although God didn’t preserved the originals, he didn’t need to. He only needed to preserve the essential truths of the faith. The very small amount of detail left to argue about is of no significance and it’s nothing but nitpicking.

    I don’t believe that for a moment but I thought I was doing a pretty good impression of fundamentalist thinking.

  15. prairieian  September 4, 2015

    I have to say that my instinct is nicely framed in your final paragraph. With regard to your book, the original is what hits the bookshops. The drafts that preceded it are just that, drafts.

    Of note, a goodly number of the drafts focus less on meaning and intent and more on style, grammar, word choice, and matters, by and large, of taste. This is not to suggest the work of editors is not essential, but the work of the author establishes meaning and intent (always subject to the rabbit hole of interpretation and Mr Derrida) sufficient unto him or herself. How readers respond and understand is up to them.

    While it can be of great academic interest to follow draft versions of some document or book in order to see the intellectual development of an argument, or how a story was modified and changed to its published form, for me at least the published version is definitive. Or as definitive as definitive can be.

    In ancient times, my view is similar. Once Paul gave the thumbs up to his secretary, then the final copy would be produced and sent. That’s the original. Of course, we don’t have that, never will, and so we’re off to the wonderful world of transcription, transmission and editorial ‘fiddling’ to clarify the obscure.

    I agree that we will never have an original from the ancient world.

  16. dragonfly  September 4, 2015

    I think we need to differentiate between copies and revisions. We’re not trying to establish first drafts or interim revisions here. We’re trying to establish the original text that was copied. Now even this gets complicated when scribes intentionally change the text, because is that a copy or another revision? And what if Luke puts his gospel in circulation and then later edits it to include a birth narrative and releases it again? What’s the original there?

    But the biggest problem for me is the lack of early manuscripts. What about this scenario. Mark produces his gospel which is read out in his church. Then someone from another church copies it and takes it to their church. Then other people make copies of that copy. Then those copies are all copied. And so on. Then the original is lost or damaged or whatever. That would mean every manuscript we have comes from that first copy. What if there were mistakes in that first copy? How could we know if this happened or not?

  17. Airick  September 4, 2015

    Point well made I’d say. Although most people probably working with the definition that the “original” is the copy as it was first put into circulation and “signed off on” by the author.

    I think the solution is rather straightforward though. The true “original” is simply the version of the text inserted directly into the head of the author by the Holy Spirit!

    Or in the case of chapter one of your book, perhaps more sinister forces… 😉

  18. Robert  September 4, 2015

    “If it were just up to me, I would say that the “original” is the first form of the text that was placed in circulation.”

    I think most text critics would agree with this. Thus, today’s post does not seem to directly address the argument about the the “tenacity of the tradition,”* which you promised to address today. Is that still coming?

    *”One very interesting piece of evidence for this view involves a fact that is not widely known outside the ranks of the professional textual critics. It is this: new papyri manuscripts – relatively very old ones – do show up all the time (several in the past few years). Whenever a new papyrus turns up, it almost NEVER contains a textual variant that is completely new. The variants are almost always variants that we know about from our later manuscripts. This shows, the argument goes, that variants were not created later. Our later manuscripts preserved variants, they didn’t create them. And this shows, it is argued, that all of the earlier variants are to be found even in the later manuscripts.

    This is a terrific argument, and very interesting. On the surface, it seems pretty convincing. But in fact, in my view, it does not actually show that we have the original reading or that we can know that we do. I will explain why in the next post.”

    To directly and most effectively address this argument, it seems to me that you should present examples of newly discovered early readings that are not found in the later manuscripts. There may be other good arguments you have that are less effective than clear counter-examples but nonetheless directly address the ‘tenacity of the tradition’ argument. Yes?

  19. athena  September 7, 2015

    maybes we could call them drafts.

  20. Michael Sommers  November 6, 2015

    I see no problem with there being versions earlier than the “original”. Suppose you write the first line of a book, notice a spelling error, and immediately correct it. Is the misspelled word “original”? That seems rather extreme. Each time you type a new letter, is that a different version? That, too, is unreasonable. If the absolute earliest version is the “original”, then every work has the same original: a blank sheet of paper (or empty computer file).

    The “original” should be, as you said, the first published form (or these days, the final form sent to be typeset since typesetting can introduce errors).

  21. Johnstone2016  May 5, 2016

    Just a quick clarifying question:

    When discussing the books of first and second Peter, you state that dictating would be virtually unheard of as a reason to explain how Peter could have been the author, but it seems common with Paul. Is this because Paul is speaking Greek and it’s being written down in Greek by the scribe whereas in the case of first and second Peter, the author is speaking Aramaic and it’s the unlikely chance of it being translated into Greek at the time of dictation?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2016

      I probably didn’t express myself very well. Dictation was very common in antiquity, and Paul certainly dictated some, or maybe even all, of his letters. What did *NOT* happen, so far as we can tell, is that an author would ask someone else to write a letter-essay in his name and someone else would do it, with impunity, and sign the other person’s name. I discuss this, and all the options, in my book Forged.

      • Johnstone2016  May 6, 2016

        Thanks for taking the time to clarify! I have recently discovered you and all of your work within the past few months and it has been quite liberating for me. We have extremely similar backgrounds. I have read Misquoting Jesus and I am almost finished with God’s Problem. The Great Course The History of the Bible: The making of the New Testament canon has been and incredible audiobook resource for me. Thank you for all the hard work you have put in!

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