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Why Textual Criticism Seemed to Be on Death’s Door


In last week’s readers’ mailbag I started to answer a question that I never finished – in fact, I never got around to the question!  Here it is again.


Is there a story (post) about your move from textual criticism to other things?


In my two-part (non-)response to this question I first explained that my training in graduate school actually was not in textual criticism, but was mainly in the interpretation of the New Testament and the history of earliest Christianity.  But my passion was textual criticism — that is, analyzing the surviving manuscripts of the New Testament – and related textual witnesses [early translations of the NT into other languages; and especially the quotations of the NT in the writings of early church fathers] – in order to determine both what the authors originally wrote and figuring out how, why, and when the text came to be changed by scribes who were copying it.

It was precisely because my training was actually in something different from my passion that I ended up taking a different path in textual criticism than most of the scholars who had worked in the field before me.   When I got into the field seriously as a graduate student in the late 1970’s, the whole enterprise was, frankly, a bit moribund.  Most New Testament scholars wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.  Figuring out what the wording of this verse or that originally was, in the face of many, many manuscripts that might have (mainly) slight differences among them was seen to be a highly technical and exceedingly boring task that was the realm of specialists, not for New Testament scholars at large.

Moreover it was widely thought – almost universally – that …

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University Professors and their Research
Pursuing My Passion for Textual Criticism



  1. Avatar
    John Murphy  February 17, 2019


    Unlike the great majority of people in the world, your studies and subsequent career were intertwined with your religious beliefs as a young man (you lost those beliefs entirely only when you were well established in your career). I was just wondering whether you’ve ever thought about the study/career path you’d have taken if you had been brought up in a non-religious family/community? Do you know of any biblical scholar who never had *any* faith at *any* stage in his or her life?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2019

      Think about it all the time! Almost certainly I would have ended up in business of some kind. I had no clue what I wanted to do…. Good question about biblical scholars. But yes, even some of my graduate students who have earned PhD’s have come at it from no faith backgrounds at all.

  2. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  February 17, 2019

    I can (or think I can) see how textual criticism would be an aid to your interpretation of the texts. An edge that perhaps your contemporaries in academia did not have.

  3. Avatar
    EldonTyrell  February 17, 2019

    Off topic question, but when is a good guess about the historical Jesus’s 2,000th birthday? If he was born in 4 BCE, then his 2,000th birthday would’ve been in 1996, correct? Similarly, when would be a good guess for the 2,000th anniversary of his death? It’s got to be coming up in the next 10 years or so. 2,000 seems like such a benchmark, but I’ve heard virtually nothing about these anniversaries. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2019

      Yup, all guess work. But if he died around 33 years of age (my view is that we have absolutely no way of knowing), and he was born in 4 BCE (again…), well, you’re right, do the math!

      • Avatar
        EldonTyrell  February 18, 2019

        In doing the math it seems that we could say, almost definitively, that the historical Jesus was walking the earth 2,000 years ago from today’s date , February 18, 2019. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks that the “precisely 2,000 years ago” benchmark is rather cool?!? I guess I’ll blame my Southern Baptist roots – I recall that they tended to focus on the 2,000 years ago timeframe. 😁

    • Lev
      Lev  February 18, 2019

      It seems most scholars opt for 30 AD as the year of his death, but a sizable minority believe it to be 33 AD.

      So, in 11 years time would be the (first) 2000th anniversary of the resurrection.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  February 17, 2019

    I’m so glad you ended up going the direction you did, because your books have been immensely helpful to me and I’m sure many others. The purists would probably have never gotten such interesting information out to the public!

  5. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 17, 2019

    Are the Q passages in the same order in Matthew and Luke?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2019

      No, that’s one major reason for thinking that Matthew didn’t get the from Luke or vice versa, since if they had, it would mean they pretty much kept Mark’s sequence but whenever they ran across something not in Mark they stuck it in somewhere else. Hard to see the logic of that.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  February 18, 2019

        I see. But it also raises the puzzle – if they both got it from a document ‘Q’, why didn’t they both use the order in the document? Maybe ‘Q’ was really an oral tradition, stories passing around the community about Jesus?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 19, 2019

          Probably not oral, because the agreements are so widely verbatim, which indicates copying. Usual explanation: Q does not have any narrative framework — this happened then that and then that — so that the sayings are just given one after the other, fit to be plugged into a narrative wherever they seem fit. (Take a look at the Gospel of Thomas for example).

          • Avatar
            AstaKask  February 19, 2019

            True, true. Too bad. I came up with a model that did away with Q, L, *and* M, but it relied on oral transmission and your argument seems solid.

  6. Avatar
    jwesenbe  February 17, 2019

    I applaud your work, and your scholarly abilities. I have read many of your books and find them facinating. How though do you do this so calmly, knowing that so many people remain like peasants in the dark ages when it comes to religion? That studing the Bible means to them reading and memorizing the Bible, but not the background, context or investigating the actual authors of the texts. That everything you study is interesting lititure, just as Shakespeare is (and just as real). When I read Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins they seem a bit more militant about the ridiculousness and danger of faith. How do you know the truth and yet remain so calm is hard to understand.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2019

      I try breathing exercises and meditation. 🙂

      • Avatar
        JohnDaugherty  February 18, 2019

        Now that you brought up meditation–I read a post of yours that mentioned the practice that you have. In the post (not sure how long ago), you had worked 3 years of meditating on your body and the 4th year meditating on your mind. I’m quite interested in your meditation practice. Would you be willing to share more about that (or if you have already, where could I find that)?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 19, 2019

          I’ll think about it. I’ve evolved even more, working now to meditate on consciousness itself, with no other mental distractions. Not easy!!

  7. Avatar
    Hon Wai  February 17, 2019

    Has scholarly interest in NT textual criticism blossomed in the past few decades?
    It is very difficult for conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists to do serious historical-critical studies of the Bible, because many of the major findings of this approach are contrary to their conservative theological commitments. Would you say the situation is very different in textual criticism, as theological commitments don’t get in the way of mastering ancient languages, philology, and determining the original biblical texts?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2019

      Yes indeed — it is a vibrant and thriving field now. And yes, lots of evangelicals are deeply interested in it. But not only they.

  8. Avatar
    Ask21771  February 17, 2019

    Would the intended audience for the book of revelation have known hebrew?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2019

      Almost certainly not. They appear to be Christians residing in the western part of Asia Minor — Greek speaking territory.

  9. Avatar
    timber84  February 17, 2019

    From February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, the United Methodist Church will have a special conference session to discuss the issue of homosexuality. As a former UM and with relatives in the UM church, the result of this conference could result in the split of the UM church.
    In Romans 1:26-27, conservative will argue that these verses condemn homosexuality. Liberals will argue Paul is only condemning behavior by Roman male citizens abusing slaves and young boys who had no rights because they were not Roman citizens. Paul is not condemning consensual homosexual relationships.
    I support the right of gays and lesbians to marry but wonder if liberals are allowing their own bias to influence their reading of Romans 1:26-27.
    NRSV Romans 1:27 reads: and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
    The phrase “consumed with passion for one another” does not imply abusive relationships to me, but consensual attraction.
    What do you think of Romans 1:26-27?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2019

      It’s a very very long story. But that is not the only liberal view. (Maybe it is among Methodists??) Most biblical scholars (who are not evangelical) who think that Romans 1 does not condemn homosexuality think that for a far more sophisticated reason: what we think of today as homosexuality was not what anyone thought in the ancient world. Our views of sexuality, which seem so natural and commonsensical to us, almost as if eveyrone has always shared them, are rooted in views of sexuality, sexual difference, and sexual orientation that have been handed down to us with the development of modern psychology starting especially in the 19th century and processed largely through Freud. Ancient people had no idea that there was such a *thing* as sexual orientation, or even “sexuality.” They had no idea at all there there was a “thing” called homosexuality. So they could not very well condemn it. When they condemn same-sex relations it was for very, very different reasons. Looks like I need to post on this!!

      • Avatar
        joncopeland  February 18, 2019

        Would love to read a post on this. Your friend Dale Martin has some good stuff on Romans 1.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 19, 2019

          Yup, a very important article. And yes, I plan to post on it, possibly soon.

      • Avatar
        doug  February 18, 2019

        I’d like to see a post on this.

      • Avatar
        Judith  February 18, 2019

        “Does the New Testament Condemn Modern Practices of Homosexuality? March 16, 16, was insightful, I thought.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 19, 2019

          Ah, I wondered if I had posted on it before!

        • Avatar
          TimKendrick  February 19, 2019

          Well spotted Judith!

          • Bart
            Bart  February 20, 2019

            The woman has a memory like a steel trap!! (I have a memory like a steel sieve….)

          • Avatar
            Judith  February 20, 2019


      • Avatar
        maryn  February 19, 2019

        Please write a blog on his topic. I am a progressive UM, and have been immersed (drowning) in the standard liberal arguments for years. It would be immensely helpful to hear a different perspective, to understand the differences in ancient understandings of sexual practices without knowledge of the terms we throw around, e.g. homosexuality, etc. Can you recommend readings?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 20, 2019

          Will do!

        • Avatar
          maryn  February 24, 2019

          I located your previous blog on this topic, and it makes me even more eager to do some reading related to the ancients’ views of sex: a) lack of established categories of homosexuality, sexual orientation, etc., and the history of how these categories came into use and put people in “boxes”, and how this has led to misunderstanding of biblical prohibitions; and b) established power differentials as a major factor in which sex acts the ancients viewed as okay. I hope you can recommend sources that could educate me on at least some of these topics. The current battle going on within the UMC is prodding me to increase my understanding of the history of the Jewish-Christian belief related to how to interpret and apply verses from the Bible.
          I realize how busy you are, and will understand if this request is more than you can handle these days. I also realize that this topic is far afield from your textual/form criticism scholarship arena.
          Thank you, regardless of what you reply!

          • Bart
            Bart  February 24, 2019

            A couple of places to start are Jeff Siker’s collection of essays, Homosexuality in the Church, relevant articles in his book The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality and Religion, and Dale Martin, Sex and the Single Savior (the latter may be more scholarly than you’d be interested in). Even better, just write Jeff Siker and ask him. Now that I mention it, maybe I’ll ask him to do some guest posts on the subject!

  10. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  February 17, 2019

    So a lot of scholars were in effect saying: Yes, the things I’m studying may be based on wrong interpretations, but I’m busy studying this stuff, don’t interrupt! – ? Why does that sound so familiar?
    Now, I need to know if I’m weird – or how weird. I can’t be the only reader who takes delight in the red ink in the middle of your posts, right? Right? Keep it up! I admire the great restraint shown, too, in avoiding the tactics of promise of eternal reward if they do and eternal punishment if they don’t.

  11. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  February 18, 2019

    Absolutely fascinating post! Thank you so much!

  12. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  February 18, 2019

    Can you briefly share the differences between the Coptic & Syriac rendentions of John 1:16?
    NRSV: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
    Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2019

      Ha! I don’t know of any. I was using it as a hypothetical. But there are hundreds or thousands of differences in their renderings of one verse or another. And lots of difference even between various Coptic manuscripts among themselves, and of Syriac manuscripts among themselves.

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