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How Manuscripts Matter for Knowing What an Author Wrote

In this thread I am addressing the question several readers have asked me about: if I think that the Christ poem of Philippians 2:6-10 is not something Paul himself wrote (as I have argued; see for example https://ehrmanblog.org/how-ancient-is-the-idea-of-christs-incarnation/), but has been quoted by him from some other text, why not just think a scribe inserted it into Philippians?  That is, maybe it wasn’t in the letter in the first place; why not thing a scribe stuck it in after the letter was placed in circulation?

It’s an extremely important issue.  If the passage (or any other passage) was not originally in the letter, then we don’t know if it represents what Paul himself thought; moreover, we can’t know when the ideas of the inserted passage originally appeared — an important issue when trying to figure out how quickly Christians developed their theological views.  Did Christians think of Jesus as a pre-existent divine being already in the 50s CE?  Or was it not until 100 CE or so?  Etc.

I have differentiated between “textual variants” and “interpolations.”  A “textual variant” involves a passage, or a sentence, or a phrase, or even just a word that is different in our various surviving manuscripts.  (QUICK refresher: we have over 5600 Greek manuscripts of the NT; they date from the 2nd to the 16th c.s; they all have differences among them; these differences are called textual variants;  including all the really completely minor ones like misspelled words, there are hundreds of thousands of them; the “textual critic” tries to figure out the original wording at every point, seeing which variant is “original” and which is a later alteration).    Interpolations are changes of a writing that do NOT have any manuscripts supporting them.  That is to say, suppose every manuscript has a passage (say, Phil. 2:6-10); but scholars have good reason to think the passage was NOT what the author wrote, but was inserted by an editor or copyist later.  They would then be calling the passage an interpolation rather than a textual variant (since there are no variants in any of our surviving texts: they all have the passage).

Having said that, to explain how a scholar would argue that a passage is in fact an interpolation requires me to explain how scholars argue about textual variants.   This will take a few posts, and will have the merit of showing how “textual criticism” works (that’s a technical term for the attempt to establish what an author originally wrote when you have different manuscripts with different wording — an important enterprise not just for the NT but for all ancient literature, and even for Shakespeare and …. modern writers!).  But it will also set up what I want to say about how / why we might suspect that in some places there are interpolations (before turning to see if Phil. 2:6-10 is one of them).


Suppose you have a verse that is worded in two very different ways in various ones of the surviving manuscripts.  How do you decide which of the two ways is how the author originally wrote the verse, and which is a change committed by a scribe?    Scholars appeal to all sorts of evidence, each one important.   Here are some criteria that have been appealed to over the years.   These criteria are typically divided into two categories: those dealing with external evidence (those look at which manuscripts support one reading over the other) and the other dealing with internal evidence (looking at which reading is inherently superior for one reason or another).   I’ll deal with the former in this post, the latter in the two that follow.

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Did Jesus Sweat Blood? “Intrinsic” Evidence for Textual Variants
Intimate Relationships: Nonbelievers and Believers



  1. Avatar
    Thespologian  March 9, 2020

    In contrast to the incarnation theory: Has anyone ever interpreted verse 7 as a modifier to verse 6? In other words, Has consideration been given to the idea that “form of God” in verse 6 does refer to human form in fact, but enlightened? And despite a self-knowing preeminence, Jesus chose to be a servant of mankind anyway. “Being made in the likeness of men… Being found in appearance as a man” could be creative descriptors for a man so remarkable, one would consider him otherworldly. This kind of phrasing isn’t unheard of even today. Or is this unlikely given the original text’s language? As it stands in translation, I don’t see a rigid argument for incarnation, particularly in view of how the term “grasped” was used in early Jewish text — It seems plausible this refers to a person in the flesh.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2020

      I think the problem is that it says “even though” he was in the form of God and then goes on to say he “emptied himself” to take on the appearance of a human. That seems to presuppose a different state in a higher form before the incarnation. See what I mean?

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    anthonygale  March 9, 2020

    All this is very interesting. With all the variables though, it seems like there is quite the room for confusion and perhaps error. I suppose if nearly all the methods point in the same direction, you can be fairly sure. But how often does that actually happen? Instead, how often do some criteria point one direction and other criteria in another?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2020

      It usually happens. But not usually in the really key variants most of us are concerned about. That’s why textual critics continue to do hteir work — teh criteria often split, and so one has to make an argument. Some arguments are better than others. But they are involved. One of my first serious articles was a forty-page argument over one four letter word in the book of 1 John. (!)

  3. Avatar
    Stephen  March 9, 2020

    When I asked before about CBGM you didn’t seem too keen on it. Yet it’s designed to address just the issues you’ve raised in your post. I’m afraid I’ve only read partisans who think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Nothing from its critics. If you haven’t warmed up to it would you mind describing what it is about it that you object to?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2020

      Yes, the critics have not started publishing their work yet. But it’s on the way. My sense, frankly, is that the method is too complicated for most people to follow, even experts.

  4. Avatar
    forthfading  March 9, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Often when you are discussed by others concerning textual criticism, your teacher and mentor Dr. Metzger seems to come up. It’s kind of humorous because the evangelicals will site you with such contempt but site Dr. Metzger with the utmost reverence. Quite often Dr. Metzger is referred to as one of the most prominent New Testament scholars or as a world renowned textual critic. I know you have immense love and appreciation for your teacher due to your history and close scholarly work, but putting that aside can you explain why he is regarded so highly?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2020

      He was brilliant and knew everything about textual criticism. He was not a deep thinker in terms of theology or philosophy (as he himself said, on several occasions, to me personally); but he had billions of facts in his head and was a superb linguist, philologist, translator, and so on. He was also a highly committed Christian, and so highly committed Christians are very passionate about him still.

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    Bernice Templeman  March 10, 2020

    It would be interesting to know who the writers were and what their motives were. They knew Greek and were educated so they were in the small elite percentage. Rome had banned Christianity for the first several centuries so they were risking their lives… why? Rome finally made Christianity their official religion… why?
    The common thread we may find in all is how we were all born… equal, good, loving-kindness. We learn religion, inequality, violence, abuse, and suffering. We learn to look outside of ourselves for power over others instead of empowering ourselves as equals and being kind to each other. Some religions may contain some of the truth and some of the false limiting beliefs and suffering. The problem is you need to spend more time on the positive beliefs to change and there may be way more negatives. Even some prayers maybe half negative and half positive which may be leaving people in negativity.
    Some religions have divided people. Some ancient rulers claimed gods to rule people and to keep it in their family. There were different Jewish sects at the time the New Testament was written. Different sects of Christianity were created, Rome, German, England, Greek, etc.

    I think a religion based on Unity, Equality, and Loving-Kindness would unite people instead of dividing them.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2020

      Intersesting questions! But no, Rome did not ban Christainity for the first several centuries and the vast majority of Christains were not at all risking their lives. I explain all this and show what the actual evidence is in my book The Triumph of Christianity.

      • Avatar
        Bernice Templeman  March 11, 2020

        It was a history professor that said Tome banned Christianity. I am trying to remember the word used to describe Christianity and why they said it was banned.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 13, 2020

          Nope. Not till the emperor Valerian in the 250s. You might want to read my book Triumph of Chrsitianity where I devote a chapter to these issues.

      • Avatar
        Bernice Templeman  March 11, 2020

        I keep tweeking my version of the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead/going forth/ eternal life. My own triumph story.

        There are some things in some prayers that seem like Rome read the book of the dead. There are some phrases that sound familar. Then there is the total opposite from not sinning (Ancient Egypt) to being sinners (and unable to change being sinners in Christianity). Jews and Christians may be able to reduce some of their suffering by changing their prayers and stories.

        Genesis 1 I can handle. We were all born equal and in the light… good. Most people learn inequality and sin.
        You need to spend more time on the positive/empowering than the negative/disempowering. The Bible has some truths and stuff you don’t want to create in your life.

  6. Avatar
    Niceguy  March 14, 2020

    Early Christians weren’t risking their lives at all, in fact, it seems their rulers preferred “faith” for us.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2020

      I”m not sure what you’re saying. Some Christians were of course persecuted.

  7. Avatar
    karlpov  March 25, 2020

    This is not exactly about the Bible, but…. You mention that some variants are simply misspellings. My question is, does the concept of “spelling” really apply to a society in which literacy is limited and writings must by someone writing copies? Were spelling bees possible in the First Century CE or were there simply different ways of spelling the same word depending on, say, dialect variants?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2020

      There were discussions of how to spell things, but no dictionaries, etc. So teh issue of spelling is different from today a bit. But people did spell and thought that some things were to be spelled in one way and not another. The biggest problem is that some words — if represented by one set and sequence of letters — can be taken to be other words — if the set or sequence is changed. And even ancients would say, NO, that’s not the right word!

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