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What Text Are the Translators Translating?

What is it that Bible translators translate when they are translating?  Let me focus on the New Testament, my main area of expertise.   When a translator wants to make an English version of, say, Mark (what I say about Mark will be true of all the books of the NT), what does she actually translate into English?

Obviously she cannot take Mark’s original manuscript and translate it, since we don’t have it.  Or the first copy of the original, or a copy of the copy of the original.   We have hundreds of copies of Mark.  Does she just choose one that seems good and translate that?

No, as it turns out, that’s not how it works at all.  She translates a critical edition of the Greek text of Mark as it has been reconstructed by textual scholars.  This will take a good bit of explaining.

From near the time in the fifteenth century when printing with moveable type was invented there have been scholars interested in producing printed versions of the Greek New Testament (and of the Hebrew Old Testament and of the Latin Vulgate version of both testaments etc.).  The scholars engaged in this endeavor were naturally in a difficult situation.  They knew that, before the invention of printing, books had circulated in hand-written copies (the definition of “manuscript”).  So they had to print the books of the New Testament based on a manuscript.

But they realized as well that manuscripts had differences among themselves.  Most of the differences were not …

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Can Biblical Scholars Be Historians?
What Do Translators Translate?



  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  January 11, 2017

    Bart, why is it that the Greek (Septuagint) translation of the Old Testament differs significantly in meaning in several places from the Masoretic Hebrew text. Were the translators using inferior Hebrew manuscripts, or did they just make a bad job of it?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      The debate is over whether they had inferior mansucripts, or possibly superior ones! But almost certainly different ones (in places)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 13, 2017

      It might have something to do with the fact that the Septuagint was created some time during Ptolemaic control of Judea, ca. 3rd century BCE, while the Masoretes were working with Hebrew texts compiled by the scribes who emigrated to the Galilee after the Temple was detroyed, almost 400 years later. A lot can change in 400 years.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 11, 2017

    As always, you give a very clear discussion (your gift) of a very complicated problem. Thanks

    Clearly, there is no “the” Bible.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  January 11, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, it sounds like the “critical” text has something like a Theseus’ Paradox situation going on. For those unfamiliar, Theseus’ Paradox, a.k.a the Theseus’ Ship Paradox, goes something like this: Every time a piece broke off of Theseus’ ship he would replace it, and, eventually, every original piece of Theseus’ ship was replaced; so, the question is, is it still the same ship? A similar paradox is the Atomic You. If we were to replace every atom in your body with a different but atomically the same atom — i.e., all your hydrogens are replaced with new hydrogens; old oxygens with new oxygens; old carbons, new carbons, etc — would you still be you?

    We seem to have a similar problem with the “critical” version of the Greek NT. If the critical text is a pastiche of thousands of versions, is it really the NT? Can we reasonably call it THE New Testament?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      Right! The difference, I guess, is that given the ship has been replaced, can we rebuild what it originally looked like?

  4. cheito
    cheito  January 11, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Is there any particular reason why you designated the translator as ‘she’?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      No, not really. Would there be a particular reason for designating the translator as “he”?

  5. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 11, 2017

    I assume only the Greek manuscripts are used to determine the original text? I vaguely (mis?)remember in Misquoting you said the original KJV used a Latin manuscript?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      No, the KJV translators were working directly with Hebrew and Greek. But yes, to determine the original text scholars look at the ancient translations of the text into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and so on, since these ancient translations were based on Greek manuscripts that do not otherwise survive, so reconstructing them by rendering the Latin (etc.) back into Greek can give us access to Greek manuscripts we can’t access otherwise.

      • Rick
        Rick  January 14, 2017

        Do I recall correctly that the Greek printed text translated into the KJV was,,,,, less than the best text because it was produced from ,,few and again less than the best manuscripts; and, that a small part was even “backed into” Greek from the Vulgate for lack of an available Greek manuscript?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 16, 2017

          Just the final verses of the book of Revelation. But yes, it happened there.

  6. Avatar
    Tony  January 11, 2017

    The other interesting question is where “Mark” got his information about Jesus.

    The standard historicist explanation is through some sort of transmission from people who were witnesses. Unfortunately, that is not supported by any secondary sources and that includes the earlier letters of Paul who knows nothing about an earthly Jesus, an itinerant preacher with twelve disciples, or where or when Jesus was executed.

    According to the mythicism hypothesis “Mark”, or some predecessor of Mark, fabricated his story and placed his Jesus between the known historical figures of the Baptist and Pilate. Prime sources for his story were Paul’s letters, real historical events and conditions, the Septuagint, pagan myths, and a very creative mind. All other Gospels are directly or indirectly based on Mark.

    But where did Paul’s Jesus come from? The evidence, based on Paul’s letters, points toward some version of “the ascension of Isaiah”. Here Christ the Son is send by God down to the lower heavenly region where he is mistakenly sacrificed and nailed to a tree by Satan and his demons. This act spells the end of Satan. Jesus is resurrected on the third day and triumphs over death.

    The question now becomes whether either the historical or the mythicist model is a better fit for the evidence contained in the NT.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      This is the topic of my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  January 13, 2017

      It’s not accurate to claim that Paul knew nothing about the earthly Jesus. Bart points out elsewhere that Paul knew the following:
      • Jesus had a real, human birth to a real human mother (Galatians 4:4)
      • He was born as a Jew (Galatians 4:4)
      • He was a descendant of King David (Romans 1:3-4)
      • He had brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5)
      • One of whom was named James (Galatians 1:19) (Paul knows him personally)
      • His ministry was to and among Jews (Romans 15:8)
      • He had twelve disciples (1 Corinthians 15:5)
      • One of whom was Cephas/Peter (Paul knows him personally as well)
      • He was a teacher, and Paul knows some of his teachings (1 Cor. 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:22-24)
      • He had a last supper with his disciples at which he predicted his coming death (1 Cor. 11:22-24)
      • He was crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2 and millions of other places)
      • This was on orders of the civil authorities (1 Corinthians 2:8)
      • At the instigation of the Jewish leaders in Judea (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15)
      • He was then buried (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

      • Avatar
        Tony  January 14, 2017

        I’ll deal with the first three points in my response to Dragonfly on the same post.

        Point 4,5: Based on other evidence in Paul’s letters, the “Brothers of the Lord” designation likely refers to the status they had obtained through adoption by God the Father and therefore becoming, “Brothers of the Lord”. This term does not refer to biological brothers.

        Point 6: Rom 15:8 refers to the sacrificial service of Christ and not to any ministry. Note that “Christ has become”, and not “was”.

        Point 7: Please show me where the word “disciples” is used in 1 Cor 15:5. This is what happens when Gospel information is read back as factual content into Paul’s letters.

        Point 8: Cephas if definitely not part of the twelve as per 1 Cor 15:5. Nowhere does Paul refer to Cephas as a disciple. In fact, Paul never uses the word or the concept.

        Point 9: Paul claims he had ongoing visions of Jesus Christ. He usually, but not always, announces these with “for I received…”. Paul adamantly states that he received his Gospel information by revelation directly from Jesus Christ and not from any human, Gal 1:11-12. Nowhere does Paul state that Jesus was a teacher.

        Point 10: See above. Again, where does it say that the Lord Jesus had the bread and wine “with his disciples”? Btw, the actual word “betrayed” is never used in 1 Cor 11:23. The original Greek means “handed over”. Once more, this is reading the Gospel into the letters.

        Point 11: Paul describes that Jesus was hung from a tree Gal 3:13. Paul does not say where or when this happened. However, hanged from a tree will translate as “crucified”. The Roman execution method is not likely the one Paul refers to.

        Point12: The “rulers of the age” does not refer to civil authorities, but to Satan and his Demons. They mistakenly killed Christ, who had taken on human form, in their world as per “The Ascension of Isaiah”.

        Point 13: 1 Thess 2:14-15 has been identified by many, if not the majority, of secular scholars as a later forgery by orthodox scribes.

        Point 14: Paul never says where Jesus was killed, buried or resurrected. Mythicist view the location as the world of Satan as per “The Ascension of Isaiah”.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  January 13, 2017

      “… Paul who knows nothing about an earthly Jesus, an itinerant preacher with twelve disciples, or where or when Jesus was executed.”

      Mythicists keep saying this sort of thing. Have they actually read Paul’s letters? Paul thought Jesus was “born of a woman” and “descended from David according to the flesh”. The evidence, based on Paul’s letters, is pretty clear that Paul thought Jesus was a flesh-and-blood human before being crucified. There is no evidence that any Christian ever believed Jesus never had an earthly body, or that he was crucified by Satan.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  January 14, 2017

        …or at least any NT author. There were Christians, if I understand correctly, before the 4th century, who believed Jesus was an apparition, that as divine, he could not take on a.material body. This was the whole controversy between the fully human and fully God camps.

      • Avatar
        Tony  January 14, 2017

        I’ll take it one step further and state that Paul’s Jesus has never been on earth. Paul often writes about the imminent arrival of Jesus, but never about the Lord “returning” or “coming back” or any other phrase that indicates an earlier, earthly residency.

        Mythicists have read Paul’s letter and have the audacity to claim to have read them more objectively than historists. The mythicist claim that Paul’s Jesus is not the Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospels, but that Paul’s Jesus was nevertheless the basis for the later fabricated Gospels.

        Paul’s belief is a “lost Christianity”. “the Ascension of Isaiah” seems to fit many of Paul’s statements about Jesus. Most of the identified difficulties with Paul’s letters disappear once we accept that Paul’s Christ is completely unrelated to the Gospel one.

        The “born of a woman” is allegorical. Paul uses the word genomenos in this context and he also uses it in reference to Adam. It means made of a woman. Irenaeus writes about this belief in “Against All Heresies” where heretical Christians sects believed in celestial woman being impregnated.

  7. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  January 11, 2017

    Sounds like she knows what she’s doing!

  8. Avatar
    ComputersHateAndrewLivingston  January 11, 2017

    Doc, I hope this won’t take you more than a few paragraphs but I very much want to know. Perhaps if worst comes to worst you could save it for a Reader’s Mailbag.

    I was wondering if you could briefly tell me how we know the correct order for the seven real Pauline epistles? For instance: “1 Thessalonians came first because (one or two sentences giving the best reason how we know for this), followed by Galatians (quick reason why this came next),” and so forth.

    You’re good at that kind of thing so I figured it wouldn’t inconvenience you too much. Sorry if it does.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      Ah it’s very very tricky. It involves looking closely at the chronological off-the-cuff statements Paul makes in his letters, for example, “three years later” I did this and “then fourteen years later” I did that, or other remarks such as “this is the second time I will come to you” or “I have now completed all my work in this region” and so on. If you take all such comments in all the letters and arrange them together you can get a rough chronology of which books were written first (probably 1 Thessalonians) and last (almost certainly Romans) and in relation to each other (1 Corinthians almost certainly before 2 Corinthians; Galatians almost certainly before Romans) and so on. It’s a complicated business and, frankly, not one I have any particular expertise in.

  9. Avatar
    Robby  January 12, 2017

    Speaking of moveable type and the printing press, I’d heard that that had helped usher in the enlightenment period and moved us away from papal/kingdom authorities who had all the knowledge and into free thinkers who were now able to get access to the Bible, read it for themselves and start questioning what was being taught by that current church organization. As a result of this period, many advances were made including the rise of critical biblical scholarship and advanced us forward in knowledge. Did I understand and get this correct?

  10. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 12, 2017

    If manuscript C is different from B and clearly later than B, is it ever likely that C simply corrects changes that B made to a no longer extant A that is hypothetically earlier than B? In other words C changes B to make C conform to A. In this way a later manuscript, C, could be closer to the original than an earlier B.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      Yes indeed — as it turns out, that appears to happen a lot.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  January 13, 2017

        Bart, what do you make of the claims in the following quoted text from theOrthodoxFaith.com–especially the part I capitalized:
        “….the Jews essentially reestablished the canon of the Old Testament. They disavowed the Septuagint and declared the only true Scriptures to be written in Hebrew. They removed all the books that they thought were not first written in Hebrew and THEY INTENTIONALLY CHANGED VERSES THAT WERE IN AGREEMENT WITH CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE. This created an environment where Jews considered the Septuagint to be the “Christian” Old Testament and full of lies. After all, due to all these changes, the Hebrew Scriptures didn’t look exactly the same as the Septuagint anymore”?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 14, 2017

          Yes, that’s a very slanted and inaccurate description. If someone claims this, you might ask them for some clear examples.

  11. Rick
    Rick  January 12, 2017

    So, in creating a “well advised” eclectic text you obviously give up some consistency. Is that a major bone of contention? Is there any …. meaning lost from that consistency – perhaps in usage of slang? I am reminded of Cours beer Company literally translating their “Turn it loose” slogan into Spanish when they advertised their product in Mexico, where that was slang for having loose bowels! Did not help their sales.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      The key is to recreate the original consistency. But yes, it generates considerable debate.

  12. Avatar
    wostraub  January 12, 2017

    Comparing thousands of versions of scriptures seems akin to scrutinizing hanging chads by hand. Has anyone ever considered using computers to do the work?

  13. Avatar
    tskorick  January 12, 2017

    Excellent! I love revisitation of the basics from time to time. This should be required reading for everyone with even a passing interest in the NT.

  14. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  January 12, 2017

    I took an OLLI class called “The Making of the Bible” from Orthodox scholar, rector/peacemaker, Laurent Cleenewerck. He rejected the claim that Mark originally ended at 16:8. He dismissed the “oldest and best mss” argument but I’m not sure he explained why. Aside from it being convenient having one more attestation to post-resurrection appearances, how do scholars argue against the claim that verses 9-19 were added later?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      The arguments are much more extensive than “oldest and best mss” — they involve as well the literary style and character of the verses. Every now and then someone disputes the claim that they were added by a scribe, ut not often. The evidence really is overwhelming.

  15. Avatar
    kentvw  January 12, 2017

    Bart.. I really thank you for the site and for the education.. I wonder something though.. Why a man a smart as you didn’t go into another profession when he realized it was all a pile of nonsense..

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      Because it’s an amazing profession dealing with the most important book (the Bible) and the most important human institution (the Christian church) in the history of Western Civilization!

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  January 13, 2017

        I agree

      • Avatar
        Tony  January 13, 2017

        I certainly understand the reason why the Bible is the most important book for Western civilization for you and others.

        For me, that book would be “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. While the Bible and Christianity had a significant impact on Western civilization, it’s debatable whether it was for the better. Probable depends on individual perspectives.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 14, 2017

          Yes, it’s obvoiusly a hugely important book. But there aren’t 2.2 billion people on the planet who consider it a revelation from God!

  16. Avatar
    Jason  January 12, 2017

    How big of a problem is the legibility (be it due to faded ink, poor handwriting, etc.) of the various mss in this context?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      For some manuscripts it’s an *immense* problem! For others, not a problem at all.

  17. Avatar
    toejam  January 13, 2017

    A quick question which I’m sure I know the answer to, but just want to snag a quote from you in order to reply to a mythicist who believes you have not read the Talmud or the Toledot Yeshu. Have you read them? 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      Yes of course. But not the entire Talmud!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 13, 2017

      I haven’t run across any mythicists who have extensively read any rabbinical literature, apart from mere snippets here and there that, ostensibly, support their mythicism. In fact, when I read or listen to the most prominent mythicist scholars, such as Richard Carrier and Robert Price, it’s blatantly obvious to me that not only have they not read from rabbinical literature in-depth — never mind reading them in the original Hebrew or Aramaic — but it’s quite clear that they do not understand ancient Judaism, Semitic languages, Semitic culture, or the cultural milieu of Palestine during Jesus’ purported time and place in general. Pretty much everything they say or write is a giant misconception that anyone who is thoroughly educated on this topic can see right through.

      A perfect example is when a supposed “scholar” such as Carrier will uphold the theory that Paul never expresses any notion that Jesus was anything other than a spiritual being, that Paul doesn’t actually think Jesus was ever a flesh and blood human being. But anyone who actually reads every single word of Paul’s authentic epistles, from beginning to end, would be left scratching her head that a “scholar” such as Carrier could arrive at a such a ridiculous notion, because Paul regularly talks about Jesus literally being a flesh and blood human being who walked the earth. So one can only assume that Carrier is being willfully obtuse or disingenuous or both.

  18. Avatar
    Jana  January 13, 2017

    The reason that I asked whether Jesus and his disciples spoke/taught first in Aramaic is that I’m trying to understand just how convoluted (unsure this is the best word) the New Testament is … I keep trying to get an overview .. Please correct me as I try to put pieces together. It seems to me that even before you get to translating manuscripts, the translation and interpretation from possibly Aramaic to Hebrew and memory dependent oral history to written (your last book … and I just don’t know Dr. Ehrman which is why I asked) then to Greek (and you’ve demonstrated in other blogs how mistranslating a single word skews meaning) convolutes even more. Now in this blog you are into even finer points. I haven’t read Jesus before the Gospels yet. I’m sorry if I sometimes go off topic …. I’m just trying to get an overview on authenticity … Reading this blog seems to me to represent another layer of potential convolution. Regardless, I’ll do better to stay on current topic.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2017

      Yes, it’s a very complicated situation. Jesus spoke Aramaic. His words and deeds circulated in Aramaic. They were changed as they were told. They were eventually translated into Greek and continued to circulate orally and continued to be changed. They were written down in Greek. Later authors changed what hte earlier ones said. These books were circulated until made into the New Testament. Our English translations are of those later books. Lots of room for alteration, interpretation, and change!

      • Rick
        Rick  January 14, 2017

        That stimulated an off the wall question,,,, were diaspora Jews of the first century more likely to have been Greek speakers than Aramaic speakers in comparison to Palestinian Jews? Could an increased spread of the oral traditions in Greek before thay were written into Gospels twisted any residual historical accuracy up even further than same language transmission?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 16, 2017

          Yes, that’s right. Aramaic would have been the language principally of Jews in Palestine; in the Diaspora Jews would have spoken their indigenous languages (much like today)

      • Avatar
        Jana  January 14, 2017

        Thank you for your patience and elucidation. I’m finally getting the over all picture of just how amorphous and complicated the New Testament formation really is … Stunned only begins to describe how I feel emotionally Dr. Ehrman .. after all I was brought up that the New Testament was the word of God and instead the Words are interpreted and misinterpreted from seemingly hordes of known and unknown people/translators spanning centuries … none in the first person. None of whom were witnesses. In this blog I learn that instead of one manuscript there were thousands … Thank you again for your patience. I was reflecting last night with respect how you keep the threads clear and separate. Thank you.

  19. Avatar
    Jana  January 14, 2017

    I also made an assumption which if I read what you wrote correctly is a false assumption. I assumed that because Jesus’s disciples and followers were Jews that the Aramaic would have been first translated into the “elite” language of Hebrew even as an oral language as well as written before being translated into Greek. But this is not true. Aramaic went directly into Greek. Am I understanding this correctly? These are questions. The layers you’ve exposed are belief boggling. Thank you.

  20. Avatar
    Stylites  January 15, 2017

    Many years ago I did a small amount of work with Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica and Nestle’s Novum Testamentum. These were pretty much the standard works of their day. In quality how would say they compare with more recent efforts to produce a complete text of the Old and New Testament?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2017

      The editions today are based on those and are not significantly different.

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