Tag Archive: Original Manuscripts

Quote of the Day: Do We Know the Original Words of the New Testament? by Bart Ehrman

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My conservative opponents sometimes press the fact that we are well informed about the text of the New Testament in a ridiculous way – ridiculous possibly because they simply don’t know any better. They point out that with all this evidence for the New Testament, if I (crazy liberal that I am) don’t think we can know exactly what the authors of the NT wrote (in places) then I’d have to say the same thing about Plato, or Homer, or Cicero, or … or any other author!

Their view is that any such claim would be on the face of it completely bizarre and that this is why, in their view, no one says any such thing. Which shows that they simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

Most of my conservative opponents were trained in theological seminaries and teach in conservative evangelical settings, not in research universities, and their academic ties tend to be with scholars who work in theological fields: church history, systematic theology, and the like.   They don’t work in a secular setting where the natural ties are more in the fields of classics and ancient history.  Anyone who says that scholars don’t have any questions about what Plato, Homer, Cicero, or any other author actually (which words they used) is simply ignorant.

I don’t mean that they are being willfully stupid; I just mean they (apparently) just don’t know any better.   Reconstructing the words of any ancient author is massively complicated, given their problematic textual histories, and there are indeed scholars who devote their lives to the task for one author or another.  It’s *much* harder to establish the text of Homer than the text of the New Testament, and no one is completely confident we have the “original” wording of the Iliad or the Odyssey.  That’s true for all ancient books.  (And by the way, is especially the case with the Hebrew Bible!)

My second response to this claim that we already know what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote is that I simply can’t see how that could be true.   Take Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  He wrote it probably in the early to mid 50s of the common era.  The first copy we have it of it is called P46 (called this because it is written on papyrus – hence the P – and is the 46th papyrus to have been discovered and catalogued).    It dates from around 200 CE.  That is, the letter was copied, recopied, and recopied for 150 years before we have a copy.  And P46 is not a complete copy.  The first full and complete copy of Philippians we have is codex Vaticanus from the middle of the fourth century – some three hundred years after the original.

So it’s great (really, I mean it, it’s *great*) that we have so many hundreds of copies of Philippians from the Middle Ages.  That shows us how the letter was being copied, say, seven hundred or a thousand years or more after the original.  But what we are interested in is knowing how it was copied, say, one year after the original.  And for that how much evidence do we have?  We have zero evidence.

How old was the copy that the 200-CE P46 itself was copying?   Was it from the year 190?  150?  130?  We don’t know.  How old was the copy *that* copy was copying?  We don’t know.  How old was the copy that *that* copy of a copy was copying?  We don’t know.  And worse, we don’t know how close to the original wording any of those copies was, how accurate its scribe was in what he copied, or how accurate the copyist of the copy that he copied was.

Suppose Paul sent his letter to Philippi in 56 CE.  Someone there wanted a copy and so made it.  Two other people decided they wanted copies of that copy.  So they copied that copy, rather than the original (maybe the original had been sent do Thessalonica or someplace).  And then copies of those copies were made.  And the original – this is hypothetical, but *any* reconstruction is hypothetical – was lost in a house fire.  That would mean that all the copies of the copies of the copies go back not to the original but to the first copy.  What if the first copyist changed things?  What if he changed a lot?  What if he decided to whomp up a section or two of Paul’s prose?  What if he really didn’t like one paragraph/passage (or more) and so simply omitted it?   We would have precisely NO way of knowing.  The entire manuscript tradition in this case descended from the copy, not from the original.

That is one hypothetical to show how we don’t *KNOW* what the original said.  I could easily come up with a hundred other hypotheticals without thinking hard that would lead to the same result.

….

— Bart Ehrman, Do we KNOW the Original Words of the New Testament? February 5, 2018

Bart Ehrman’s latest book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, is now available.

It Only Takes One Errant Word to Destroy the Inerrancy of the Bible

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According to most Evangelicals, the Bible is not only inspired (breathed out) by God, it is also infallible and inerrant. Since the Bible was written by men moved by the Holy Spirit or dictated by God, it stands to reason — God being perfect in all His ways — that the Bible is perfect, without error. Some Evangelicals take the notion of inerrancy even further by saying that the King James Bible is without error. And some Evangelicals — the followers of Peter Ruckman — take it further yet by saying that even the italicized words inserted by the translators of the King James Bible are divinely inspired. Other Evangelicals, thinking of themselves as more educated than other Christians, say that the “original” manuscripts from which English translations come are what is inerrant. Translations, then, are reliable, but not inerrant (even though pastors who believe this often lead churches that are filled with people who believe their leather-bound Bibles are without error). The problem with this belief is that the “originals” don’t exist. Over the years, I ran into countless Christians who believed that these so-called “originals” existed “somewhere” and that they safely stored “somewhere.” Recently, one such ignorant Evangelical told me that I should read the Dead Sea Scrolls. In doing so, I would see that Christianity is true. Evidently, he didn’t know that the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t mention Jesus, and those who “see” Jesus in the Scrolls are either smoking too much marijuana or are importing their biased theology into the texts. Such is the level of ignorance found not only in pulpits, but in church pews.

Is the Bible in any shape or form inerrant? Of course not. Such a belief cannot rationally or intellectually be sustained. It is nothing more than wishful thinking to believe that the Bible is inerrant — straight from the mouth of God to the ears of Christians.

Bart Ehrman recently answered a question on his blog about whether believing the Bible has errors leads to agnosticism/atheism. Here is part of what Ehrman had to say:

I have never thought that recognizing the historical and literary problems of the Bible would or should lead someone to believe there is no God.   The only people who could think such a thing are either Christian fundamentalists or people who have been convinced by fundamentalists (without knowing it, in many instances) that fundamentalist Christianity is the only kind of religion that is valid, and that if the assumptions of fundamentalism is flawed, then there could be no God.  What is the logic of that?  So far as I can see, there is no logic at all.

Christian fundamentalism insists that every word in the Bible has been given directly by God, and that only these words can be trusted as authorities for the existence of God, for the saving doctrines of Christianity, for guidance about what to believe and how to live, and for, in short, everything having to do with religious truth and practice.   For fundamentalists, in theory, if one could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that any word in the original manuscripts of the Bible was an error, than [sic] the entire edifice of their religious system collapses, and there is nothing left between that and raw atheism.

Virtually everyone who is trained in the critical study of the Bible or in serious theology thinks this is utter nonsense.  And why is it that people at large – not just fundamentalists but even people who are not themselves believers – don’t realize it’s nonsense, that it literally is “non-sense”?  Because fundamentalists have convinced so much of the world that their view is the only right view.  It’s an amazing cultural reality.  But it still makes no sense.

Look at it this way.  Suppose you could show beyond any doubt that the story of Jesus walking on the water was a later legend.  It didn’t really happen.  Either the disciples thought they saw something that really occur, or later story tellers came up with the idea themselves as they were trying to show just how amazing Jesus was, or … or that there is some other explanation?  What relevance would that have to the question of whether there was a divine power who created the universe?  There is *no* necessary relevance.  No necessary connection whatsoever.  Who says that God could not have created the universe unless Jesus walked on water?  It’s a complete non sequitur.

The vast majority of Christians throughout history – the massively vast majority of Christians – have not been fundamentalists.  Most Christians in the world today are not fundamentalists.  So why do we allow fundamentalists to determine what “real” Christianity is?  Or what “true” Christianity is?  Why do we say that if you are not a fundamentalist who maintains that every word in the Bible is literally true and historically accurate that you cannot really be a Christian?

While I question how someone can be a Christian and not believe all that the Bible says is true (perhaps this is the result of a Fundamentalist hangover), hundreds of millions believe nonetheless. I am not, contrary to what my critics suggest, anti-Christian. I am most certainly anti-Fundamentalist, but I am indifferent to the beliefs of billions of people as long as those beliefs don’t harm others. Unfortunately, many Evangelical beliefs and practices ARE harmful, and it is for this reason that I continue to write about Evangelicalism.

Inerrancy is one such harmful belief. Believing that every word of the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and true leads people to false, and at times dangerous, conclusions. Take young earth creationism — the belief that the universe was created in six literal twenty-four days, 6,022 years ago. Men such as Ken Ham continue to infect young minds with creationist beliefs which, thanks to science, we know are not true. The reason the Ken Hams of the world cannot accept what science says about the universe is because they believe the text of the Bible is inerrant. According inerrantists, the Bible, in most instances, should be read literally. Thus, Genesis 1-3 “clearly” teaches that God created the universe exactly as young earth creationists say He did. This kind of thinking intellectually harms impressionable minds. While little can be done to keep churches, Christian schools, and home schooling parents from teaching children such absurdities, we can and must make sure Evangelical zealots are barred from bringing their nonsense into public classrooms.

Peel back the issues that drive the culture war and what you will find is the notion that God has infallibly spoken on this or that social issue. Think about it for a moment: name one social hot button issue that doesn’t have Bible proof texts attached to it. Homosexuality? Same-sex marriage? Abortion? Premarital sex? Birth control? Marriage and divorce? Prayer and Bible reading in public schools? Every one of these issues is driven by the belief that the Bible is inerrant and that Christians must dutifully obey every word (though no Evangelicals that I know of believe, obey, and practice every law, command, precept, and teaching of the Bible). Removing the Good Book from the equation forces Evangelicals to contemplate these issues without appeals to Biblical authority and theology.  As a secularist, I am more than ready and willing to have discussions with Christians about the important social issues of the day. All that I ask is that they leave their Bibles at home or stuffed under the front seats of their cars. In a secular state, religious texts of any kind carry no weight. What “God” says plays no part in deciding what our laws are. Evangelicals have a hard time understanding this, believing that their flavor of Christianity is the one true faith; believing that their infallible interpretation of a religious text written by their God is absolute truth. It is impossible to reach people who think like this.

While I at one time believed the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, it was not until I considered the possibility that the Bible might not be what I claimed it is, that I could then consider alternative ways of looking at the world. This is why I don’t argue about science with Evangelicals. I attack their foundational beliefs — that the Bible is not inerrant; that the Bible is not what they claim it is. Once the foundation is destroyed, it becomes much easier to engage Evangelicals on the issues they think are important. Given enough time, a patient agnostic/atheist can drive a stake into the heart of their Fundamentalist beliefs. As long as Evangelicals hang on to their “inerrant” Bibles, it is impossible to have meaningful, productive discussions with them. All anyone can do for them is present evidence that eviscerates their inerrantist beliefs. Since heaven and hell are fictions of the human mind, I am content to let knowledge do her perfect work. I know that most Evangelicals will never abandon their faith, but some will, so I am content to continue fishing for the minds of women and men. Using reason and knowledge is the only way I know of to make the world a better place. Part of making the world a better place is doing all I can to neuter Fundamentalist beliefs. Inerrancy is one such belief.

(Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?)

Want to read more about the text of the Christian Bible? Please check out the writings of Dr. Bart Ehrman.