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Why Intentional Changes of the Text Might Matter

In doing the research that led up to my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, I came to see that the variations of our manuscripts were important not only because they could tell us what the original writers said in the books that later became the New Testament, but also because they could tell us about what was influencing the anonymous and otherwise unknown scribes who produced the copies of these books in later times.

As I pointed out in a previous post, scholars have long thought – with good reason – that most of the intentional changes of the text (that is, the alterations that scribes made on purpose – at least apparently on purpose – as opposed to simple scribal mistakes) were made sometime in the first two hundred years of copying.  If these changes were indeed made intentionally, then the scribes who made them must have had a reason for wanting to make them.  They were consciously changing their texts in places.

They weren’t doing that in millions of places, but in a few, here and there.  Sometimes they made changes for fairly obvious reasons, among which are the following (these have long, long been noted by textual scholars):

  • If the text scribes were copying appeared to contain a contradiction with another text in the Bible, they would often “correct” it.
  • If the text had…



  1. Avatar
    nacord  September 16, 2015

    You bring up the work of Kim Haines-Eitzen on gender issues affecting scribal work (her studies are fascinating!). I’d love to hear more on this subject if you feel like working it in. I see that 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 is riddled with textual variants and– along with I Timothy 2:11-15–seems to be some of the more outlandish stuff attributed to the Apostle Paul. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2015

      OK, I’ll think about posting on these passages. (They aren’t textual variants because they are found in all our mss; but they may not be original to Paul anyway….)

      • Avatar
        nacord  September 17, 2015

        Ah, I was reading my textual apparatus incorrectly. I see now that the 1 Cor passage is simply relocated in some manuscripts–not omitted altogether.

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    Tom  September 16, 2015

    Good material, Dr. E.

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    Paul  September 16, 2015

    When you talk about scribes making basic mistakes, I can certainly see that, anyone copying that amount of information is bound to make mistakes. I guess I am left with the view that the typical scribe was a copyist. Basically they could recognize symbols and copy them. They could possibly even recognize various words and maybe a sentence. But to make any kind of theological changes to the text seems beyond their capabilities. Your thoughts? Ultimately I guess my point is I don’t think it was your “typical” scribe making these theological changes it had to be the elite highly educated church leaders.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2015

      I think they were fully capable of making theological changes — since they did! They were far more highly educated than the average church person, since they could read and write.

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    shakespeare66  September 16, 2015

    Well, perhaps the young scholars you are training will take up the challenge and provide even more insight. No doubt you have much more to say as well!!

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    hgb55  September 16, 2015


    I recently read a book chapter written by a Jesus mythicist. He claims the passages about John the Baptist in Mark, specifically Mark 6:14-29, and much of the prologue of Mark, specifically Mark 1:2-14a, including the idea that Jesus came from Nazareth, are interpolations or later forgeries. The main arguments used to support this view are that these passages break the continuity and smoothness of the narratives about Jesus and that they sometimes have a jumbled sense of time and order.

    Accordingly, the original first two verses of Mark, from the New International Version, would have been Mark 1:1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Mark 14b Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.

    Likewise, removing the alleged interpolation from chapter 6, we get Mark 6:12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. 30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.

    How plausible do you think these claims and views are?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2015

      I think they are grasping after straws. I don’t know of a single bona fide expert on Mark’s Gospel who thinks this. (But maybe the author cites some?)

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    Everythingmustgo65  September 16, 2015

    Can you suggest any books that cover the role of magic in early Christianity?

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    smackemyackem  September 17, 2015

    Can we gain access to the writings of your students? Has anyone written something relating to the magic you speak of? These would be interesting topics to read about!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2015

      The two books I’ve mentioned by Wayne Kannaday and Kim Haines Eitzen are in print and can be purchased online.

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    Stephen  September 17, 2015

    Is there an example that comes to mind of where you think scribes made the text more difficult?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2015

      None comes to mind — except changes made by accident (that make the text *very* difficult, since often the change results in nonsense)

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    RonaldTaska  September 17, 2015

    Once again you have explained something very clearly. Scribes changed texts to harmonize them, correct errors, and support theological views.

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    RonaldTaska  September 17, 2015

    Let’s say you wanted to track down all of the scribal changes in the Sermon on the Mount in texts written before the 9th century and wanted to put them in order by date in order to compare them. How would you go about finding this information?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2015

      You couldn’t do it unless you knew the Greek. Anyone who knows the Greek could do it by using the Greek Textual Apparatus produced by Reuben Swanson

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    silvertime  September 17, 2015

    Assuming that it was common for scribes to change text to correct apparent discrepances among narratives in various books: how did they leave so many obvious discrepances that we find today?

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    rbrtbaumgardner  September 18, 2015

    Is there any way of know whether the scribes who made intentional changes did so at the direction of their community or used other available sources? Or did they simply make the changes on their own?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2015

      There’s no evidence that there was any centralized effort at scribal alterations of the text.

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