Examining the Scriptures Daily

Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places. As we will see later in this book, these copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Misquoting Jesus (p. 10)

As one reads this little section of intensity, he gets a sense of hopelessness, because ‘all feel lost, for there is certainly no way to get back to the originals.’ As you will see before we finish this book, Ehrman hangs, even more, hopelessness on the back of the Christian, for he asserts that even in the few minute places that we might be certain about the wording, we cannot be certain about the meaning.

Blinded by Misguided Perceptions

It seems that Ehrman has been very blinded by the fact that we do not have the originals or immediate copies. Here we have a world-renowned textual and early Christianity scholar, who is suggesting all throughout his book that we do not have the originals, nor the immediate copies, and there are so many copyist errors, it is nigh impossible to get back to the Word of God at all. Even if by some mere fortune that we do, we cannot know the meaning for sure. Ehrman is saying to the lay reader; we can no longer trust the text of the Greek New Testament as the Word of God.

Ehrman has been so busy over exaggerating the negative to his readers; he has failed to mention what we do have. Dr. Mark Minnick assesses what we do have quite nicely, “Doesn’t the existence of these variants undermine our confidence that we have the very words of God inspired? No! The fact is that because we know of them and are careful to preserve the readings of every one of them, not one word of God’s word has been lost to us.”[1] The wealth of manuscripts that we have for establishing the original Greek New Testament is shameless, in comparison to other ancient literature. We can only wonder what Ehrman does with an ancient piece of literature that has only one copy, and that copy is 1,000 years removed from the time of the original.

Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.) wrote the Aeneid between 29 and 19 B.C.E. for which there are only five manuscripts dating to the fourth and fifth centuries C.E.[2] Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 C.E.) wrote The Jewish Wars about 75 C.E., for which we have nine complete manuscripts, seven of major importance dating from the tenth to the twelfth centuries C.E.[3] Tacitus (59-129 C.E.) wrote Annals of Imperial Rome sometime before 116 C.E., a work considered vital to understanding the history of the Roman Empire during the first century, and we have only thirty-three manuscripts, two of the earliest that date 850 and 1050 C.E. Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.E.) wrote his Gallic Wars between 51-46 B.C.E.,[4] which is a firsthand account in a third-person narrative of the war, of which we have 251 manuscripts dating between the ninth and fifteenth centuries.[5]

The Greek New Testament evidence is over 5,750 Greek manuscripts, over 9,284 versions, and over 10,000 Latin manuscripts, not to mention an innumerable amount of church father quotations. This places the Greek New Testament in a world of its own, because no other ancient document is close to this, except the Hebrew Old Testament. However, there is even more. There are over 100 papyri manuscripts that date to the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. Moreover, these early papyri manuscripts are from a region in Egypt that appreciated books as literature, and was copied by semi-professional and professional scribes, or at least a highly skilled copyist. This region produced what is known as the most accurate and trusted manuscripts.

Were the Scribes in the Early Centuries Amateurs

We could go on nearly forever talking about specific places in which the texts of the New Testament came to be changed, either accidentally or intentionally. As I have indicated, the examples are not just in the hundreds but in the thousands. The examples given are enough to convey the general point, however: there are lots of differences among our manuscripts, differences created by scribes who were reproducing their sacred texts. In the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs and as such were more inclined to alter the texts they copied—or more prone to alter them accidentally—than were scribes in the later periods who, starting in the fourth century, began to be professionals. Misquoting Jesus (p. 98)

Let us take just a moment, to discuss Ehrman’s statement, “in the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs.” In chapter four of this book, we established just the opposite. Here is a summary paragraph of that evidence. Some of the earliest manuscripts that we now have established that a professional scribe copied them. Many of the other papyri give evidence that a semi-professional hand copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being done by a copyist that was literate and experienced. Therefore, either literate or semi-professional copyist did the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being done by professionals. As it happened, the few poorly copied manuscripts came to light first, establishing a precedent that was difficult for some to shake when the truckload of evidence came forth that showed just the opposite. (Aland and Aland 1987, 18-19)

Ehrman is distorting the facts to his readers when he goes off the rails, to say, “We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.” The way this is worded, he is saying that we do not have copies that are third or fourth generations removed from the original. Ehrman cannot know this because we have fifteen copies that are 75-100 years removed from the death of the apostle John in 100 C.E. There is the possibility that any of these could be only third or fourth generation removed copies. Moreover, they could have been copied from a second or third generation. Therefore, Ehrman is misstating the evidence.

Let us do a short review of two very important manuscripts: P75 and Vaticanus 1209. The “P” in P75 (also known as Bodmer 14, 15) stands for papyrus document, an ancient manuscript written on papyrus. Papyrus is writing material used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans that was made from the pith of the stem of a water plant. These are the earliest witnesses to the Greek New Testament. P75 contains most of Luke and John, dating from 175 C.E. to 225 C.E The Vaticanus is designated internationally by the symbol “B,” and is known as an uncial manuscript, written on parchment, a creamy or yellowish material made from dried and treated sheepskin, goatskin, or other animal hides. The Vaticanus is of the mid-fourth-century C.E., originally contained the entire Bible in Greek. At present, Vaticanus’ New Testament is missing parts of Hebrews (Hebrews 9:14 to 13:25), all of First and Second Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Revelation. Originally, this codex probably had approximately 820 leaves, of which 759 remain.

What kind of weight or evidence do these two manuscripts carry in the eyes of textual scholars? Vaticanus 1209 is a key source for our modern translations. When determining an original reading, this manuscript could stand against other external evidence that would seem to the nonprofessional as being so much more. P75 also is one of the weightiest manuscripts that we have, and is virtually identical to Vaticanus 1209, which dates 175 to 125 years later, about 350 C.E. When textual scholars B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort released their critical text in 1881, Hort said that Vaticanus preserved a “not only a very ancient text but a very pure line of a very ancient text.” (Westcott and A., The New Testament in the Original Greek, Vol. 2: Introduction, Appendix 1882, 251) However, later scholars have argued that Vaticanus was a scholarly recension; a critical revision carried out on Vaticanus, an edited text. However, P75 has vindicated Westcott and Hort, because of its virtual likeness with Vaticanus, establishes that Vaticanus is essentially a copy of a second-century text, and likely, a copy of the original text, with the exception of a few minor points.

Kurt Aland,[6] wrote, “P75 shows such a close affinity with the Codex Vaticanus that the supposition of a recension of the text at Alexandria, in the fourth century, can no longer be held.”[7] David C. Parker,[8] says of P75 that “it is extremely important for two reasons: “like Vaticanus, it is carefully copied; it is also very early, and is generally dated to a period between 175 and 225. Thus, it pre-dates Vaticanus by at least a century. A careful comparison between P75 and Vaticanus in Luke by C.M. Martini demonstrated that P75 was an earlier copy of the same careful Alexandrian text. It is sometimes called a proto-Alexandrian. It is our earliest example of a controlled text, one which was not intentionally or extensively changed in successive copying. Its discovery and study have provided proof that the Alexandrian text had already come into existence in the third century.” (D. C. Parker 1997, 61) Let us look at a few more textual scholars, just to nail the coffin shut, J. Ed Komoszewski; M. James Sawyer; Daniel Wallace.

Even some of the early manuscripts show compelling evidence of being copies of a much earlier source. Consider again Codex Vaticanus, whose text is very much like that of P75 (B and P75 are much closer to each other than B is to [Codex Sinaiticus]). Yet the papyrus is at least a century older than Vaticanus. When P75 was discovered in the 1950s, some entertained the possibility that Vaticanus could have been a copy of P75, but this view is no longer acceptable since the wording of Vaticanus is certainly more primitive than that of P75 in several places.’ They both must go back to a still earlier common ancestor, probably one that is from the early second century. (Komoszewski, M. Sawyer and Wallace 2006, 78)

Ehrman suggests that the early Christians were not concerned about the integrity of the text, its preservation of accuracy. Let us visit the second-century evidence by way of Tertullian.[9]

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones[10] of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places,[11] in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally.[12] (Bold mine)

What did Tertullian mean by “authentic writings”? If he is referring to the Greek originals, which it likely seems that he is, according to the Latin, it is a reference that some of the original New Testament books are still in existence at the time of his penning this work. However, let us say that it is simply referring to copies that were well preserved. In any case, this still shows that the Christians valued the preservation of accuracy.

We need to visit an earlier book by Ehrman for a moment, Lost Christianities, in which he writes, “In this process of recopying the document by hand, what happened to the original of 1 Thessalonians? For some unknown reason, it was eventually thrown away, burned, or otherwise destroyed. Possibly, it was read so much that it simply wore out. The early Christians saw no need to preserve it as the `original’ text. They had copies of the letter. Why keep the original?” (B. D. Ehrman 2003, 217)

Here Ehrman is arguing from silence. We cannot read the minds of people today; let alone read the minds of persons 2,000 years before we were born. It is a known fact that congregations valued Paul’s letters, and Paul exhorted them to share the letters amongst differing congregations. Paul wrote to the Colossians, and in what we know as 4:16 he said, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” The best way would be to send someone to a congregation, have them copy the letter and bring it back to their home congregation. On the other hand, someone could make copies of the letter in the congregation that received it and delivered it to interested congregations. In 1 Thessalonians, the congregation that Ehrman is talking about here, chapter five, verse 27, Paul says, “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.” What did Paul mean by “all the brothers”? It could be that he meant it to be used like a circuit letter, circulated to other congregations, giving everyone a chance to hear the counsel. It may merely be that, with the ability to read being so low, Paul wanted a guarantee that all were going to get to hear its contents, and it simply meant that every brother and sister locally would have had a chance to hear it in the congregation. Regardless, even if we live with the latter, the stress that was put on the reading of this letter, shows the weight that these people were placed under concerning Paul’s letters.[13]

Peter also had this to say about Paul’s letters, “there are some things in them [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Pet 3:16) Peter just compared Paul’s letters to being on the same level as the Old Testament that was referred to as Scripture. Jumping ahead, about 135 C.E., Papias, an elder of the early congregation in Hierapolis, put what he had to tell into a book.

Papias explains: “I will not hesitate to set down for you, along with my interpretations, everything I carefully learned then from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. In addition, if by chance someone who had been a follower of the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders–what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and abiding voice.” (Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations 2007, 565)

As an elder in the congregation at Hierapolis in Asia Minor, Papias was an unrelenting researcher. Moreover, he was also a thorough compiler of information, he exhibited intense indebtedness for the Scriptures. Papias determined properly that any doctrinal statement of Jesus Christ or his apostles would be far more appreciated and respected to explain than the unreliable statements found in the written works of his day.—Jude 17.

Therefore, the idea of that the “early Christians saw no need to preserve it as the `original’ text,” is far too difficult to swallow when we consider the above. Moreover, imagine a Church in Middle America getting a visit from Billy Graham. Now imagine that he wrote them a warm letter, but filled with some stern counsel. Would there be little interest in the preservation of those words? Would they not want to share it with others? Would other churches not be interested in it? The same would have been true of early Christianity receiving a letter from an apostle like Peter, John, or Paul. There is no doubt that the ‘original’ wore out eventually. However, they lived in a society that valued the preservation of the apostle’s words, and it is far more likely that it was copied, to share with others, and to preserve. Moreover, let us assume that their imperfections took over as well. Paul would have become a famous apostle that wrote a few churches, and there were thousands of churches toward the end of the first-century. Would they have not exhibited some pride in that they received a letter from the famous apostle Paul, who was martyred for the truth? Ehrman’s suggestions are reaching and contrary to human nature. It is simply wishful thinking on his part.

The idea of getting back to the original seems not really to be so far removed from the mind of Ehrman, who pens the fourth edition of The Text of the New Testament, with Bruce Metzger: “Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic compares numerous scriptural quotations used in commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” (Metzger and Ehrman 2005, 126)

How are we to view the patristic citations? Well, let us look at another book that Bart Ehrman coauthored with other textual scholars. The following is from chapter 12, written by Gordon Fee (The Use of the Greek Fathers for New Testament Textual Criticism), “In NT textual criticism, patristic citations are ordinarily viewed as the third line of evidence, indirect and supplementary to the Greek MSS, and are often therefore treated as of tertiary importance. When properly evaluated, however, patristic evidence is of primary importance, for both of the major tasks of NT textual criticism: in contrast to the early Greek MSS, the Fathers have the potential of offering datable and geographically certain evidence.” (B. D. Ehrman 1995, 191)

In closing out this chapter, we have certainly established that Ehrman is once again, painting a picture that is not quite the truth of the matter. We have also established that the manuscript evidence is not as far removed as he suggests with his sarcasm. Moreover, he does not help the reader to appreciate just how close the New Testament manuscript evidence is to the time of the original writings, in comparison to other ancient literature, many of which are few in number and a thousand years removed.


In addition, he has exaggerated the variants in the Greek New Testament manuscripts by not qualifying the level of variants and just how he is counting to get such high numbers.  In addition, Ehrman’s unqualified statement, “In the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs,” has been debunked as well, because it is a statement without explanation. True, there were amateur scribes in the first few centuries, but the manuscript evidence suggests the opposite is true when it comes to copying the New Testament manuscripts. Again, some of the earliest manuscripts that we now have established that a professional scribe copied them. Many of the other papyri give evidence that a semi-professional hand copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being done by a copyist that was literate and experienced. Therefore, either literate or semi-professional copyist did the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being done by professionals.

[1] Mark Minnick, “Let’s Meet the Manuscripts,” in from the Mind of God to the Mind of Man: A Layman’s Guide to How We Got Our Bible, eds. James B. Williams and Randolph Shaylor (Greenvill, SC: Ambassador-Emerald International, 1999), p. 96.

[2] Preface | Dickinson College Commentaries. (April 25, 2017) http://dcc.dickinson.edu/vergil-aeneid/manuscripts

[3] Honora Howell Chapman (Editor), Zuleika Rodgers (Editor), 2016, A Companion to Josephus (Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World), Wiley-Blackwell: p. 307.

[4] Carolyn Hammond, 1996, Introduction to The Gallic War, Oxford University Press: p. xxxii.

Max Radin, 1918, The date of composition of Caesar’s Gallic War, Classical Philology XIII: 283–300.

[5] O. Seel, 1961, Bellum Gallicum. (Bibl. Teubneriana.) Teubner, Leipzig.

  1. Hering, 1987, C. Iulii Caesaris commentarii rerum gestarum, Vol. I: Bellum Gallicum.(Bibl. Teubneriana.) Teubner, Leipzig.

Virginia Brown, 1972, The Textual Transmission of Caesar’s Civil War, Brill.

Caesar’s Gallic war – Tim Mitchell. (April 25, 2017) http://www.timmitchell.fr/blog/2012/04/12/gallic-war/

[6] (1915 –1994) was Professor of New Testament Research and Church History. He founded the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster and served as its first director for many years (1959–83). He was one of the principal editors The Greek New Testament for the United Bible Societies.

[7] K. Aland, “The Significance of the Papyri for New Testament Research,” 336.

[8] Professor of Theology and the Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham. Scholar of New Testament textual criticism and Greek and Latin paleography.

[9] (160 – 220 C.E.), was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa.

[10] Cathedrae

[11] Suis locis praesident.

[12] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 260.

[13] The exhortation ἐνορκίζω ὑμᾶς τὸν κύριον ἀναγνωσθῆναι τὴν ἐπιστολὴν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς (“I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read aloud to all the brothers [and sisters]”) is stated quite strongly. ἐνορκίζω takes a double accusative and has a causal sense denoting that the speaker or writer wishes to extract an oath from the addressee(s). The second accusative, in this case τὸν κύριον (“the Lord”), indicates the thing or person by whom the addressees were to swear. The forcefulness of this statement is highly unusual, and in fact it is the only instance in Paul’s letters where such a charge is laid on the recipients of one of his letters. ―Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990), 208-09.