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Why Textual Variants Matter for the Rest of Us

In this thread I am discussing why it matters that there are so many variants in our surviving manuscripts of the New Testament.  It does not matter because there are any “fundamental Christian doctrines” at stake, per se, but for other reasons.  As I sketched in my previous post, it should matter for anyone who believes that God gave the very words of the Bible, since the facts that we don’t *have* the original words in some cases and that in many other cases the words themselves are in doubt, should call that belief into question.  (I should point out that with the Hebrew Bible we are in MUCH worse shape in knowing what anything like the “original”  — whatever that might be – was.  The textual situation there is really quite dire.)

The second group that the variants should interest would include just about anyone — whether scholar, student, or general reader – who is interested in knowing what the various authors of the Bible had to say about this, that, or the other subject.   I would assume that this group would include almost every member of this blog.

One of the fundamental insights of modern scholarship is that the different authors of the Bible all have different points of view, perspectives, theological investments, opinions, ways of looking at things.   The Bible is not ONE thing.  It is lots of different things.  Just sticking with the New Testament:  Matthew’s understanding of Jesus is very different from John’s; John’s is very different from Luke’s; Luke’s from Paul; and so on.  The understanding of the ongoing importance of the Jewish law and the relationship of Christians and Jews is different, depending on whether you are reading Matthew, John, or Paul.   The understanding of how one is put into a right relationship with God (be saved”) differs significantly between Matthew, Luke, Paul, and James.   And so on and on.

And so the differences of these books matter.   You can’t simply lump them all together and derive “the” teaching of the New Testament – on many, many issues.

But that means that it really matters what each individual author has to say.   If it WERE the case that the “lumped-together” view was all that mattered, then textual variants would be far less interesting and important.  If Mark can be shown to say one thing in a particular passage that is at odds with Luke and Matthew, then a “lumped-together” view would smooth over the differences.  But letting each author have his own perspective, point of view, and theology means that if textual variants are taken seriously, the *differences* among the authors actually become more profound and significant.

Here are just some examples of places that it matters….

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Radio Debate with Pete Williams on Textual Variants
Fundamentalists and the Variants in our Manuscripts



  1. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  June 21, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman, if anyone asks me which NT textual differences scholars ponder over, I always tell them to go to Barnes & Noble’s Bible section. Look at an edition of the NIV or NRSV and look at the other references to variations the editors ex/included with those bible passages. Is that a good start for someone “brand new” who just wants to know the variations or am I way off-base? Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 22, 2014

      Good idea!

    • Avatar
      RonaldTaska  June 22, 2014

      Brad, I have done this with a number of Bible contradictions including the three different accounts of the conversion of Paul given in Acts and have been stunned with the way the NIV translation somehow wipes away many of these contradictions. So, I too like your idea. Ron

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    jhague  June 21, 2014

    Maybe you can have a post on the worse condition of the Hebrew Scriptures?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 22, 2014

      Good idea! I think I will!

      • Avatar
        shuhan  June 23, 2014

        Dr. Ehrman, I think the problem of the Hebrew scriptures as you’ve stated yourself is far more difficult, but I am dissatisfied with the Documentary Hypothesis. I myself lean towards the Supplementary camp. Could you do a blog post about this issue?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2014

          I may do. I’m not really up on the most recent (highly technical!) debates, and when I teach this stuff, I teach JEDP and say that its probably far more complicated than that! But that’s complicated enough for undergrads….

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    Matt7  June 22, 2014

    One thing that helps me understand why these variants matter is to focus on just one variant at a time and think about the logical consequences. For example, even the most conservative publishers have a statement like this after Mark 16:8 (Zondervan, NIV): [The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.]. This means that at least some of the scribes felt the freedom (or even obligation?) to make major changes to the texts they were copying in order to make the texts say what the scribes wanted them to say (or thought they should say). And since later scribes felt they had this freedom to modify the texts, maybe the earlier scribes did, too. And since the original writings were based on oral tradition, maybe the people passing along the stories by word of mouth also thought they were free to change the stories in whatever way seemed appropriate to them. So even though there are probably no major doctrines that are dependent on Mark 16:9-20, the logical consequences of just this one scribal change would seem to cast doubt on our ability to be *certain* of almost any doctrine.

    There is a saying from the financial world that I think can be applied to discussions about the Bible and Christian doctrine. When listening to a CEO discuss his or her company’s financial figures, investors listening to the presentation are often reminded of this maxim: “figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” The word ‘liar’ is too strong but it helps get the point across. Applying this to the Bible, we could say that writings don’t lie, but liars write; copies don’t lie, but liars copy; translations don’t lie, but liars translate; and interpretations don’t lie, but liars interpret.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 22, 2014

    Terrific post!

  5. cheito
    cheito  June 22, 2014


    With all due respect, why are you quoting Matthew and Mark. You might as well quote the gospel of Peter or the gospel of Thomas. I don’t quote Matthew nor Mark because I understand the authors of these books were not eyewitnesses. It wasn’t Matthew nor Mark who wrote these books. Tradition is inaccurate about who wrote these books. So the variants in these books are immaterial as evidence. As for Luke it was obviously altered. The genealogy and other passages are proof of the perversion of his original words. Luke was written to Theophilus. We have no idea who handled this book after his death nor how the church possessed it. The bottom line is that unlike Paul, John, and Peter, Luke was not an eyewitness.

    As for the Old Testament, Jeremiah in his generation testified that the words of the living God had been perverted. So I ask you DR EHRMAN, why are you surprised by the variants in the Old Testament? Do you reject Jeremiah’s testimony? What words of God was Jeremiah referring to? Could the unregenerate understand what Jeremiah was prophesying about regarding the words of God? the Priests, Prophets and scribes altered the words of the living God and Jeremiah testified about it. So why does it astound you that they did the same with the words of Christ?

    Are you also rejecting the testimony of the genuine ‘eyewitnesses’? Was Paul, John and Peter hallucinating and speaking fairy tales when they testified publicly that God raised Jesus from the dead? Are you willing to pursue this line of thought considering all the knowledge you have? Your argument is baseless because you know the facts about the canonical gospels.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2014

      None of the authors of the NT was an eyewitness.

      • cheito
        cheito  June 23, 2014

        What about 1 Peter? James? Paul did see Jesus if we are going to believe his letter to the Galatians. And the author of John states that he received his account from “him who saw.” Also 1 John clearly says that he was an eyewitness. The fact that you don’t believe it doesn’t mean that it’s not rue. I respectfully disagree with you DR EHRMAN! John, Peter, James and Paul saw Jesus after His resurrection from the dead. That is what the scriptures testify to.

        JOHN 19:35-And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.

        JOHN 21:24-This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

        Galatians 1:11For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

        1 John 1:1-What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—

        2-and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—

        3-what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 24, 2014

          1 Peter was almost certainly not written by Peter, nor James by James. See my Forgery and Counterforgery. Paul was not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus itself.

    • Avatar
      shakespeare66  June 23, 2014

      In the typical way in which those of you who think you know more than the professor, you open your mouth just enough to share with us that Paul was a witness to the teachings of Christ. Paul wrote at least 30 years after the death of Christ, so he was not an eyewitness to his teachings. Your condescending tone just demonstrates the level of your ignorance. When you become a scholar, then you can debate Dr. Ehrman about these topics, but until then, show some respect for the enormous work the man has put in to draw these conclusions. The point is that these variants show that the Bible is NOT the inerrant word of God, but the work of a lot of men who had an agenda. They manipulated the words to suit their own purposes, and we eventually get the Gospel of John, a real fabrication. Read When Jesus Became God and you will have a much better understanding of the years that this whole thing evolved in before making any judgments.

      • cheito
        cheito  June 24, 2014


        In the typical way in which those of you who think you know more than the professor, you open your mouth just enough to share with us that Paul was a witness to the teachings of Christ. Paul wrote at least 30 years after the death of Christ, so he was not an eyewitness to his teachings.

        MY COMMENT:

        According to 1 Corinthians 15:8 Paul includes Himself as one of the Apostles who SAW Jesus in the same manner Peter also SAW Him. I’ll accept that you don’t believe it. That doesn’t make you right. Read it for yourself. 1 Corinthians is an undisputed writing of Paul and I accept his witness that he saw Jesus literally just as Peter saw jesus literally.

        Also in Galatians, another undisputed letter written by Paul, He points out that he did not receive his teaching from man, but received it directly from Christ. How did Paul receive Christ teaching? Remember that Paul testifies that he saw Jesus just as peter Saw Him. Paul did see the resurrected Lord. I’ll accept that you and Dr Ehrman don’t believe it. I do believe Paul’s testimony based on what is recorded in Galatians and 1 Corinthians. I don’t have to be a scholar to understand what Paul was saying.

        1 CORINTHIANS15:5-and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6-After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;
        7-then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; 8-and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

        GALATIANS 1:11-For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12-For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

        I could say a few other things but first you have to deal with the two scriptural references above.

        NOTE: I don’t accept the entire bible as inspired by God but I do believe we have the words of God, although altered to some degree, some books altered more than others. I believe DR EHRMAN knows somewhat what I believe. This is not the first time I’ve written to him on this blog. The bible is not one book but a collection of books and not all these books are inspired by God. I will accept that you don’t believe any of these books originate from the mind of God. I don’t agree with you. Call me ignorant if you will.

        • Avatar
          webattorney  August 17, 2014

          i don’t think you are ignorant but making valid arguments. I woild like someone to respond to your points.

  6. Avatar
    shakespeare66  June 23, 2014

    ‘It matters if in the Gospel of Luke – this is a big one, for my money – Jesus does *not* understand his upcoming death as an atonement for sin. In fact, it matters whether Luke even *has* a doctrine of the atonement, or if he understood the importance of Jesus’ death in a completely different way.’

    Does the idea the atonement come from the Old Testament, and if so, can you tell me why this is so. How does the death of Jesus Christ “atone” for the sins of man, and what about all the sins after his death? This whole thing is confusing to me.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2014

      I think it all has to do with sacrifices being necessary to restore a right standing with God. Jesus’ death came to be seen as a sacrifice.

      • Avatar
        shakespeare66  June 23, 2014

        It also then implies that the restoration of the right standing with God is done for the Jews since the Christians are not even in existence per se. So then is Christ making things right with God for the Jews? The whole thing looks like a payment made for sins performed by humanity, so why does God sacrifice his Son for the sins of humanity? Shouldn’t humanity pay for their sins in some way instead of the sacrifice of God himself? Now I can see why this has ties to the idea of transubstantiation in Catholicism….it is a perpetual sacrificing of body and blood for the sins of humanity. So because he sacrificed for the sins of humanity both past and I suppose future, we should pay him homage for that. “don’t you know he died on the cross for you, so please show your respect and worship him.” Worship the sacrificial lamb? The whole business of sacrificing ( which has taken place for eons in religion) is still there and the whole business of eating of the body and blood ( a kind of cannibalism that the Aztecs used to exercise) is just transferred to a different figure at a particular time and place and we have the basis for the founding of a new religion. Obviously this whole thing was not worked out in a day, and there are many years of different views on the matter before arriving at an orthodox view, only to have men trample on it for another view of what this was all about. It is a bit complicated, a bit dramatic, a lot traditional, and it all harkens back to a long history of “religious” practices that evolved over time as well. Am I making sense here?

      • Avatar
        willow  June 25, 2014

        Was it the sacrifice, or the repentance that preceded the sacrifice that atoned for one’s sin? If sacrifice alone atoned, why the need for repentance when the mere killing of a goat would suffice? It’s my understanding that sacrifice was a sign/symbol of one’s having already repented, which seems consistent with Jesus’ own teachings.

        I tend to liken sacrifices to baptism. Repentance always came first. Baptism was but a sign of such repentance.

        “Repent!” How many times did he insist upon that?

        In Mathew, 9:13 Jesus quotes Hosea saying, “Go learn what this means,’I require mercy and not sacrifice.”

        In the book of Jeremiah it is written: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat meat. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 7:21-22).

        Psalm 40:6-8 states “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire; my ears you have opened. Burnt offering and sin offering you did not require. Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God, and your law is within my heart.”

        As such are but a few of the examples consistent with that which Jesus taught. Not sacrifice, but repentance and obedience. Or so is my understanding.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 27, 2014

          Repentance alone would not do the trick — otherwise there’d be no need for the sacrifice. But different ancient Israelites (and authors) had very different understandings of the need for (and function of) the sacrifices — there is not a single view.

          • Avatar
            willow  June 27, 2014

            I agree that repentance alone was not enough; but, repentance accompanied by obedience was, even according to Jesus. No?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2014

            Yes, I believe it was for Jesus. Although he was almost certainly not opposed to keeping the laws of Torah, which included regulations for sacrifice.

          • Avatar
            richard gills  June 30, 2014

            do you think that the mind that wrote the book of jeremiah assumed that repentance alone would do the trick?
            was the author of jeremiah getting sick of flesh sacrifices?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 30, 2014

            A number of the prophets think that moral action — living life as God demanded — should not be given short shrift in lieu of sacrifices.

          • Avatar
            richard gills  June 30, 2014

            dr ehrman

            the jews at messiah truth forum say:

            ” By giving something of value and realizing that it could easily have been our life that was forfeit instead of the sacrifice. Via kosher sacrifice we experience the emotional response that mortal life is fleeting and can be gone in an instance. We may only sacrifice things we OWN — thus giving up something of value for the betterment of our spiritual selves.

            The value in sacrifice is in giving of ourselves (the best of our selves, read Genesis 4:7) and the understanding that we owe everything, including our very lives, to Him.

            This is why we sacrifice to G-d. Man is the one who NEEDS, not G-d. ”

            so according to the INTERPRETATION from messiah truth forum, animal sacrifice is to help with guilt level. how does a christian help his guilt levels when he celebrates in joy jesus’ alleged resurrection and his happy life with the father in heaven?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 30, 2014

            That’s a rather unusual interpretation. I wonder if they support animal sacrifices to God still today! (Since after all, it’s all about us!)

  7. Avatar
    Hana1080  June 23, 2014

    It seems to me that on the list, ‘Jesus does not understand his death as an atonement for sin (implying if Jesus doesn’t know was there even a connection?”) calling this one the “big money one” is a bit of an understatement given that entire church organizations have arisen (no pun) around this relationship.

    • Avatar
      Hana1080  June 23, 2014

      Presbyterian comes immediately to mind.

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    Scott F  June 23, 2014

    Is it true that the verses commonly published as 19b-20 in Luke appear in different locations in different ancient Greek texts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2014

      I’m not sure which chapter you’re referring to. Chapter 22? Then no, the verses occur only here in the manuscript tradition of the NT (but cf. 1 Cor. 11:22-24).

      • Avatar
        Scott F  June 23, 2014

        I meant that the word order might be different in chapter 22, i.e. the cup that appears after the bread is moved to before the bread in harmony with the other Synoptics.

        • Avatar
          Scott F  June 23, 2014

          * “the cup that appears before the bread is moved to after the bread”

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 24, 2014

          Yes, the Didache has the sequence of Cup-Bread. But 22:19-20 actually has Cup-Bread-Cup

  9. Avatar
    willow  June 24, 2014

    …And, all of this is why I could very well toss out a good half of the Bible and not miss it at all: too many variants; too many mistranslations; too many contradictions; so many secrets; so much confusion; never mind that it is written “God does not give us a spirit of confusion.”

    I have become, over the years, reliant upon NOT what Mathew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, or any one else has said or written, past or present, rather upon the consistencies between Jesus and such as Moses that I look to for assurance and direction; and both Jesus and Moses agreed on one thing, that is, the greatest commandment of all as the means through which we can not only be right with God, but one another as well.

    Everything else seems mere commentary.

  10. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  July 23, 2014

    If they are not against they are for

    The text have different meanings
    For different people

    The text brings feeling of remember
    For some people
    For some people the bible brings comfor
    When every thing is going to your right and left
    When you have no one but god as family
    When every one is
    laughing at you because
    You believe beyond absolute certainty
    ” the say god won’t save you ”
    But I know he will put fear
    And he protects and blesses his people
    The bible has more power
    The just reading it
    It’s called LOVE FOR THE EARTH
    God have you what is yours
    Give him what is his ?

  11. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  July 28, 2014

    why it matters?

    let it be that the last wishes to keep the church living has been accomplished
    for the church lives on, for hope lives on, for love lives on, for the memory of jesus and the existence of the holy spirit lives on. and of course the most important words are from god. god that loves us so much.
    only if we all can feel him having sorrow i like i believe i do. looking over earth at the ones that are lost and have forgotten for we do not seek enough, we do not love enough
    we do not believe enough 🙁

  12. Avatar
    Blackie  October 25, 2014

    These variants may matter most to us who came out of a fundamentalist background where the bible was the literal word of God. So other branches of Christianity where the bible might be a quaint old book of spiritual teachings and allegory and not the infallible word of God -so what does it matter to them. We who lived by every word and tried to reconcile contradictions and finally could not and this led to other conclusions of modified belief or disbelief. This will always have fascination as to the true nature of the composition and meaning of the text in its historical evolution. How can one not want to learn about its origin and teachings and see what it means. I am glad this blog brings us together to discuss the implications of this investigation.

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