Three Things to Know about New Testament Manuscripts

Matthew Ferguson has been blogging brilliantly lately on how to study the New Testament from the perspective of classical literature (just check out his blog; you’ll find weeks of must-read articles lined up there, all fascinating stuff). But even his older stuff is awesome. Way back in 2012 he published Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context, and it long reminded me of how non-experts can be manipulated by Christian apologists, because laypeople don’t know basic things about paleography that we experts take for granted (so much that we forget not everyone is aware of them). This includes new things, developments in the field, that aren’t found in most books because those books were written a decade ago or more.

Christian apologists exploit this fact often. Just as when they keep citing “experts on Josephus” saying the Testimonium Flavianum (or TF) must derive from some authentic core, even though the “experts” they are citing are either long dead or expressed their only opinions on the matter a decade ago or more and may have changed their minds since—because more recent developments have radically altered the data; and only experts aware of those developments can have informed opinions worth counting. For example, a flurry of positive opinion arose about ten or twenty years ago from excess enthusiasm over the purported discovery of an earlier version of the text in Arabic translation that supposedly “proved” the passage predated Eusebius and said something different. But by 2008 that “discovery” had been debunked in the peer reviewed literature by Josephus expert Alice Whealey: that Arabic translation was in fact of a Syriac translation of Eusebius, and the changes were thus made after him, either by a telephone game of transmission error or by scribal attempts to make the passage more believable. This means all those published opinions before were based on a falsehood. Those opinions therefore can no longer be cited in favor of the passage. Expert opinion has to be re-polled. And obviously, only experts aware of this development should be polled.

This has happened in New Testament (or NT) studies, too. For example, many papyrus fragments, once dated overly early, have been dated decades or even a century later than previously claimed, after the poor logic and unchecked bias of earlier estimates was exposed. This was well reported by Neil Godfrey, in New Date and More on Dating, which articles are also very educational on what the peer reviewed literature says about the problems dating NT manuscripts. (BTW, Wikipedia will often keep you more up to date than many experts are, with a wonderful catalog of entries on all New Testament papyri, uncials, minuscules, and lectionaries.) As another example, sixteen years ago David Trobisch published evidence changing the way we understand extant NT manuscripts; and it’s taken a decade for his results to filter into expert knowledge. Interestingly, Trobisch has been tapped to curate Hobby Lobby’s new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., despite him in no way being a fundamentalist but an actual legit scholar and justifiably renowned expert on biblical manuscripts. Anyway, his book in 2000 presents evidence that makes a significant difference in how we interpret the surviving manuscripts of the Bible.

Today this will be my lesson number one. My lesson number two will highlight the similarly field-changing work of paleographers who’ve established that the earliest NT manuscripts were also the least professionally copied, producing a startling fluidity of errors and alterations at a faster pace than was typical for most other books in antiquity, which would more typically be transmitted by polished professionals, often working for supervised publishing houses, a development that would not reach Christian publishing until the end of the third century. My lesson number three will then draw on Ferguson’s article about counting manuscripts, which I just referenced above, thus tying the end of my article to its beginning.

1. Everything We Have Comes from the Same Edition

The first thing to know about NT manuscripts is that, so far, every single one we have is a copy (of a copy of a copy of a copy…) of the same single edition, organized and edited by a single person or focus group, and published between 140 and 170 A.D., in part as a response to an earlier edition (produced by Marcion around 140 A.D.), the first ever known, that has been completely lost (see this excellent article at the Westar Institute for more on that backstory). This has tremendous significance. A significance I may have to explain for the average reader. Now, this is not saying that the books of the NT were written by these people and at that time. Rather, what we are talking about is an organized edition. Meaning, someone made a choice of which books to bundle together, and how to alter or arrange them (and even how to name them), and then started knocking out and disseminating copies of that. And that edition completely displaced all other editions and textual traditions before it.

In Trobisch’s book The First Edition of the New Testament, as Robert Price puts it in his review, “Trobisch argues that the New Testament canon of 27 writings that we use today originated not in the fourth century as the result of a prolonged and anonymous process of debate and ossifying custom, but rather as the work of a single editor and publisher in the late second century.” That means the canon we know was chosen in the mid-second century, and not by any broad-based committee, but by a single person or local group, from a single sect. And not only did they choose what books would go in it (and thus what books wouldn’t go in it), they also chose which manuscripts would be canonized. That is, many manuscript traditions existed, with all kinds of variant readings, all with their own alterations, interpolations, errors, deletions, harmonizations, and everything else. The publisher of the “canonical” edition chose which manuscripts would be treated as authoritative, and thus ossified every error and distortion they contained.

Now, most atheists think they want the reverse to be the case, that the canon not being decided until a committee got at it hundreds of years after the fact is the more embarrassing theory, and gives greater authority to the books excluded. Often they think this was done at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., since the myth that that council chose the canon is weirdly common for some reason, but Nicea only decided the creed, and indeed invented the one we now know by merging several others through a committee process, producing an impossible construct whose value was solely political and whose theological meaning was literally vacuous. Nothing at all was discussed about the canon at Nicea. The first time any clear assertion of a canon came from Christian leadership was a letter by Athanasias in 367 A.D., and all he did was endorse the canon already widely in use (against attempts to usurp or alter it). But actually, that the canon was decided a century and a half earlier is almost worse. Because it means fewer people, and less discussion, was involved in its selection and preservation.

There is a parallel case with the manuscripts of Josephus, particularly of the Jewish Antiquities. In a peer reviewed article I wrote for the Journal of Early Christian Studies (reproduced in Hitler Homer Bible Christ), I demonstrated a variety of things that alter how experts must review the evidence for Christianity in Josephus, but I also clearly showed that all extant manuscripts of the Antiquities are copies (of copies of copies of copies…) of the same singular manuscript owned and used by Eusebius at his own Christian library in Caesarea. This means we cannot expect any versions of the text different from or predating that single manuscript to be available to us in any manuscript there is today.

This means all variants prior to that (including the original form of the text as Josephus wrote it) are permanently lost and invisible to us. Every error and distortion and mistaken “correction” that got into the text in that one single Eusebian manuscript, from its own copying from an earlier manuscript in that same library (used by Origen), which said significantly different things, and every error and distortion and mistaken “correction” that got into the text in the long process of transmission down through numerous reproductions before Origen even acquired his copy, will never show in the surviving record. All manuscript evidence there would have been proving those variant readings, has been 100% lost. Probably forever.

That the entirety of all Josephan scholarship is only trying to reconstruct the text as it was in the single centuries-late manuscript held by Eusebius in the early 4th century, and cannot ever reconstruct any version of the text prior (down to and including the original text as known to Josephus in the late 1st century), is an extremely significant thing to realize. Trobisch has given us exactly the same shocking discovery for the NT. This includes evidence like the way the Gospels are named. As Trobisch points out, calling any book “The Gospel According to” was extremely unique and bizarre in the history of ancient literature, so much so that there is no possible way the four Gospels all came to have such a peculiar title form, consistently throughout all known manuscripts, by accident.

Accordingly, this means whoever produced this singular c. 150 A.D. edition (I’ll just call it the C150 edition), also named the four Gospels. And chose to do so by the coy method of declaring them anonymous while seeming to assign them authors, as if to fool the commonly uneducated hearer (since “according to” in Greek was not how authors were designated, but how authors designated their sources; so whoever produced this edition was declaring the contents of the Gospels to be “according to” a named but never actually identified source, while slyly not telling us the name of who actually wrote them).

The evidence verifying Trobisch’s thesis extends far beyond that, and includes aspects of how the materials are arranged in the surviving manuscripts themselves, including specific marking and abbreviation techniques, and order and contents. As Price summarizes:

[Trobisch] has delineated a paradigm that makes good, inductive sense of many hitherto-puzzling bits of evidence. He notes that the New Testament books appear, with very few exceptions, in four groups of codices, and that within each the order of presentation is virtually always the same. There are the four gospels, almost always in the familiar order Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. There is the Acts plus the seven Catholic/General Epistles, again always in the same order. There is the Pauline canon including Hebrews. And then there is the Revelation. (Sometimes the Pauline Corpus precedes Acts/Catholic Epistles.) Such an arrangement is hardly inevitable or obvious. Had various New Testament writings simply circulated independently and then been compiled by different scribes at different times in different regions, we would never see near-uniformity like this. Why would Hebrews be included among the Paulines so often, when Paul’s name never appears in the text? Why would everyone have concluded that what we call Ephesians and Romans were written to those churches when some copies show no destination city? Would every scribe have thought the Corinthian and the Thessalonian Epistles belong in the order in which they always appear? Surely some would have labeled our “First” Thessalonians as Second Thessalonians, they are so much alike.

In a subsequent article Trobisch even made a case that the editor of this edition of the NT, the sole ancestor of all other versions known to us, in all other manuscripts, may have been the Christian leader Polycarp himself. I’m not as certain, but the case he makes for that conclusion is good enough to warrant at least the suspicion.

This then is why we will likely never find surviving descendants of any manuscript that contained the original text of 1 Thessalonians 2, by which we could verify the obvious interpolation there. Because the editor of the C150 edition chose to use a manuscript that included the interpolation. And the resulting version eclipsed all others in the surviving record. Thus, just as we will never find a version of Josephus that lacks the Testimonium Flavianum, because the Testimonium Flavianum was in the one Eusebian manuscript, and yet all surviving manuscripts today are descendants of that same manuscript (indeed we know the TF was not in the manuscript Origen was using in the very same library a century before—yet the Eusebian manuscript was a copy of that one, or at best a copy of a copy of it), so also we will never find a version of 1 Thessalonians that lacks its anti-semitic interpolation, because all surviving manuscripts of that letter derive from the single manuscript chosen for the C150 edition. The earlier, original version was thus lost forever.

The C150 edition was, of course, still repeatedly meddled with afterward, as we see countless variants and distortions across all surviving manuscripts. For instance, the 150 A.D. edition ended Mark at verse 16:8; the five different revisions to that unsatisfying ending (as I thoroughly document in my chapter on the Markan endings in Hitler Homer) were innovated into subsequent copies of that edition. They therefore do not derive from any earlier manuscript or tradition. It may be remotely possible they did (because, perhaps, someone tried to “fix” the C150 edition against previous textual traditions available to them), but the evidence we have of the overwhelming potency of the C150 edition in eclipsing all others across the whole body of surviving manuscripts, numbering in the thousands, does not make that likely enough to ever count on. What changes had before then and by then been made to the original books (all interpolations, deletions, word substitutions, harmonizations, and beyond) were thus ossified in the edition all our copies today are copies of.

I’m often asked, of course, if someone did thus choose the four Gospels of the known canon to release them in a single edition (with all the other books chosen for the same collection), even indeed to win a propaganda war with competing versions and editions, why did they choose four Gospels that were so contradictory, in both content and constituency? And I have often replied: Politics.

Once Marcion started trying to take over hearts and minds with the idea of a “canon,” a fixed body of scripture of his own choosing and design, his opposition needed to escalate the arms race with their own weapon in kind: they needed their own canon, and they needed it to eclipse his in popularity. The most strategically effective way to do that was to select books for inclusion in it that would win over the largest number of constituents (from all the diverse scattered congregations across three continents), while still not producing so many contradictions (either to each other or to the desired doctrine being fought for) that it no longer became possible to wash them over with clever exegesis and apologetics. Since every region or congregation had likely chosen one or another Gospel as its authoritative holy text, then to bring in the most regions and congregations, the editor of C150 cobbled together a political alliance among the largest possible number of those, using the four Gospels found in our canon. Hence those four were chosen. Because when their constituents were added up, they far outnumbered Marcion’s.

And thus by fierce natural selection, C150 won the popularity contest, and all its competing species went extinct. All Gospels more deviant than those were, of course, rejected. Just like the Council of Nicea cobbled together a contradictory and unintelligible creed in order to unite more factions than the opposition could claim in turn (elegantly shown in the last chapters of Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God), so the editor of the C150 Bible cobbled together a contradictory and unintelligible canon in order to unite more factions than the opposition could claim in turn. Thus, the Bible we have: Chosen based on political expediency and doctrinal bias; not by applying any historical investigation or textual science to determine the most original or authentic books or versions.

2. For at Least Two Hundred Years, Christian Scribes Were Sloppy Amateurs

Long ago I debated J.P. Holding on the reliability of the text of the New Testament (video)(slides). Among my arguments were the fact that it is a standard principle in the science of textual criticism that the first decades to a century of a text’s transmission witness the highest rates of distortion in the text (due to it being easier to eclipse competing texts, and easier to get away with it, when so few exist), and the fact that Christians were not professionally transmitting their C150 edition of the Bible for at least a century after it was first published.

The C150 edition’s publication was an amateur affair. And remained so for a century and a half. And that edition was published more or less a century after the books in it were written. Yet there is no evidence any professional efforts to preserve those texts spanned that period either. In fact, if the C150 edition wasn’t being professionally transmitted, despite having the backing of the largest and wealthiest commonwealth of churches, its very unlikely its predecessors and competitors were either. And yet this amateurism resulted in even greater distortions of the text than would be typical for most other books (like the Antiquities of Josephus, which would more commonly have been transmitted by professional scribes and publishing houses and libraries even from the very first autograph edition). This makes the NT in its first two centuries more akin to the so-called vulgar texts of Homer, which, being reproduced by amateurs, deviated considerably and rapidly from the controlled authoritative editions of professional houses (a comparison already made in John Van Seters, ed., The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the Editor in Biblical Critism in 2006; see also pp. 133-35 of vol. 1 of A History of Classical Scholarship by John Edwin Sandys).

This is, again, another new discovery in the evidence that has changed our understanding of the New Testament. Studies have been done with regard to internal evidence of scribal quality and professionalism on the earliest manuscripts and their descendants. And they show increasing professionalism over time observably corresponded with a decreased professionalism in the earlier centuries, resulting in much higher documented rates of accidental error in transmission during that period, and a higher variability of the text (such as freer spelling deviations and harmonizations). This scholarship is surveyed Robert Stewart, ed., The Reliability of the New Testament (esp. 115-16, discussing the work of Barbara Aland) and the chapter in that same anthology by Sylvie Raquel (pp. 173-86), who specializes in these very studies. And as we can see, the poor quality of scribes attending to the task of copying NT manuscripts in its first two centuries would only have increased, not decreased, the rate of error.

By the 4th century Bibles started being produced (not solely, but started) in professional copy-houses, with the standards of quality control and error correction known for most other ancient literature (which standards and practices were developed and had already become the norm for most secular literature in Greek during the 3rd century BC, which disseminated into Latin literary production a century or two later: see Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, now in its 4th edition). Eusebius, in fact, may have been the first to have begun professional Bible reproduction, in the early fourth century. Thus receiving a commission from Constantine to a production run of some fifty Bibles at state expense. Before that, it appears, only house amateurs were tasked with creating Bibles for local use or distribution.

The significance of this is that when we look at later centuries (the period of even professional duplication), we can count up an observed rate of known distortion per century. That observed rate will already be smaller than the actual rate (because we only have a small sample of the manuscripts that existed in any given century; thus the distortions we can add up in what we observe, must be a great many times smaller than the actual rate of their occurrence). Yet I found that, for the NT as a whole, the rate of interpolations was at least twenty per century; of harmonizations (sneaking verses from one Gospel into another to eliminate contradictions or fabricate corroborations), also at least twenty per century. I didn’t attempt a count of significant spelling errors (errors that actually change the meaning of a passage), but many of those are known as well; and observed spelling errors in general number in the thousands per century.

Of harmonizations, for example, many early manuscripts (including our earliest whole Bibles, both Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus) have Matthew agree with John that Jesus was struck by a soldier’s spear and out came blood and water (in Matthew 27:49). Of interpolations, for example, just a random selection from the Gospels includes John 7:53-8:11 (the Pericope Adulterae, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” etc.), John 5:3-4 (someone added a line about an angel stirring the pool of Bethesda), Luke 22:43-44 (someone added a line about Jesus sweating blood), Luke 23:53 (someone added a line saying Jesus’s tomb had “a door that took twenty men to open”), and so on. Of significant spelling errors, my favorite is the accidental dropping of a single letter, that changed the original “peace on earth for those whom God pleases” to “peace on earth and goodwill toward men,” the latter being the mistake! (I discuss this instance, and much else amusing about Biblical criticism, textual and literary, in my Drunken Bible Study video.)

So if the observed rate of error and distortion over the five centuries after the year 300 was 20 harmonizations, 20 interpolations, and possibly 20 significant spelling errors per century (and this isn’t even including deletions and word substitutions, two other common causes of distortion and error), and the text of the NT went a whole century before being ossified into the single manuscript of the original C150, which single manuscript all surviving manuscripts are copies (by descent), then there are, we can expect, at least 20 interpolations, 20 fake harmonizations, and 20 significant spelling errors in the NT that will have no manuscripts telling us that. Which means, any given verse you are looking at, might be one of those. We have no way of knowing.

And mind you, I said at least. Remember, that rate is an undercount of the actual (due to the paucity of surviving manuscripts), and is for professional reproduction, in the later (and thus most stable) centuries of textual transmission. Since textual critics know that for all books, the rate is higher in its first century of transmission than later centuries, and since we know that, even worse, Christians were using amateurs to reproduce their texts and were not substantially engaging professional reproduction controls (and we can observe today this was producing a higher rate of distortion), the NT error rate in its first century must have been substantially higher than the already-expected 20 interpolations, 20 harmonizations, and 20 substantive spelling errors.

It just gets worse when we try to check the manuscripts against quotations in the Church Fathers. Because…guess what? The patristic texts have also been subject to error and distortion, and in fact we have documented their manuscripts were particularly prone to being re-harmonized to later versions of the Biblical text! In other words, we can’t cite, say, Irenaeus as confirming an early reading of an NT book…because medieval scribes may have altered what Irenaeus wrote to “agree” with their text of the Bible! Yup. (See Hitler Homer, pp. 290-91 for scholarship on this embarrassing revelation.)

3. Counting Manuscripts Is as Useless as Counting Xeroxes

Finally, the third thing to know, is that the number of manuscripts we have of the NT is largely useless. It allows us to see through some of the distorting filters of the Middle Ages. But it doesn’t help us with the crucial two to three first centuries of the text’s transmission, because the text was so hugely subject to distorting pressures (being perpetually at the center of a propaganda war), transmitted unprofessionally, and all textual traditions preceding the single manuscript of the C150 archetype are lost. Their numerical count today is zero. And yet those are the manuscripts we most desperately need to see to establish what the original authors wrote.


As Wikipedia puts it:

Parts of the New Testament have been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work, having over 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian.


As Ferguson puts it:

Ever hear the argument that our earliest copy of the historian Tacitus’ Annals (c. 116 CE) dates to the 9th century, seven hundred years later, but we have early copies of the Gospels dating to only a couple centuries after their composition? How about that we only have 9 Greek manuscripts of the historian Josephus’ Jewish War, but we have over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament? Clearly we trust the historical information of Tacitus and Josephus, so we should trust the New Testament too, right? Wrong. Once more, apologists have blown up a big number, divorced it from context, and created a misleading argument that can be torn down by three simple points of clarity.

Ferguson focuses on the incorrect conclusions often launched from these numbers (such as confusing textual accuracy with historical accuracy). But even the numbers are a trick pulled on the unaware. As Ferguson says (my emphasis):

When it comes to the “mountain” of 5,800 Greek NT manuscript copies, even conservative textual critic Dan Wallace acknowledges, “it should be pointed out that most of our manuscripts come from the second millennium AD, and most of our manuscripts do not include the whole New Testament.” Here is a summary of the the distribution of the Greek NT manuscripts by date:

Graph illustrating the point made in the text.

As can be seen, the vast majority of these texts date to after the 9th century [A.D.], which was a time when Christian monks were dominating the apparatus of textual transmission in Europe. It is thus not surprising that more copies of the New Testament were produced than other literary works during this period. If one excludes later medieval manuscripts, Wallace notes that only approximately 124 manuscripts “come within the first 300 years,” which is a considerably smaller number. [Credit to Bob Seidensticker for supplying the chart.]

And all of those manuscripts come from Egypt, a single province and region of the Roman Empire. More importantly, almost every single one of those manuscripts is not really a Bible or even a book, but just a fragment, often just a tiny shred, in some cases containing hardly even a single whole word. For example, the earliest fragment, P52, now dated to around 150 A.D. (and thus possibly from the first run of the C150 edition), is a tiny rip of papyrus, barely the size of a credit card, containing only 31 words (front and back)—and apart from “and,” “the,” “from,” “so,” “that,” and “him,” only two of those words appears complete, the words “said” and “anyone.” Not exactly a bonanza of evidence. As you can see for yourself, not a single manuscript from before the time of Eusebius contains even a whole book, other than P46 (and it only has some of the Epistles, many still damaged or fragmentary) and P66 (most of the Gospel According to John), both dated to around 200 A.D., and P87 (just the paltry Epistle to Philemon), dating to about 250 A.D. Of anything like near complete Bibles, only a handful predate the Middle Ages.

In fact, let’s fully consider what that “5,800 manuscripts” really means (and thus how it’s a scam to cite it as if it meant anything):

  • Nearly five thousand of those are actually copies of manuscripts we already have, and are therefore useless. Since we actually have the originals they copied from, so we don’t need them. This is akin to xeroxing an existing manuscript of Tacitus a million times and claiming we have “a million manuscripts of Tacitus, which is totes more than the Bible!” Although unlike xeroxing, we can use those otherwise superfluous hand-copied manuscripts to study the rate and nature of errors and alterations in transmission, akin to studying the distortions caused by the Xerox machine; but they don’t tell us anything useful at all about the one Eusebian manuscript we are able to try and reconstruct from its surviving descendants. So we shouldn’t even be counting them.
  • When we look at the thousand or so remaining manuscripts, nearly all of them are from the Middle Ages, in fact most by far are eight or more centuries later than the original texts they purport to contain. All they show us is how the text was transformed by error and alteration in the Middle Ages, representing the stabilization of the text that medieval Christendom wanted, rather than any effort at determining their accuracy in respect to the originals. Some of those medieval manuscripts will by accident preserve early readings, which makes them at least useful as a check against some of the errors and meddlings of all the others, but again, only in respect to dermining what the text looked like in that one single late 2nd century manuscript created and edited for propaganda purposes. Though it’s theoretically possible some preserve corrections to that text in later copies against earlier copies, but that’s both unlikely and impossible to ever determine has happened.
  • That leaves us with that paltry 124 manuscripts that are not Medieval and not copies of manuscripts we already have. So we’ve gone from nearly six thousand to barely more than a hundred
  • And almost all of those are just tiny random scraps, not full manuscripts of even a single book. Some of these (the smallest at least) could derive from pre-C150 edition manuscripts (as does, for example, the aberrant Egerton Gospel, which may be an earlier version of John: OHJ, p. 492, n. 217), but there is no way to tell, and they contain too little information to be of much use even if they did.

As for the manuscripts in other languages, as translations they are almost all late productions, and almost all Medieval, and often highly deviant. Indeed especially the earliest, tend to be the weirdest (as I show for the endings of Mark, for example, in Hitler Homer). And for all we can tell, they, too, are just translations of the standard C150 edition, or derivations therefrom. They can put a check on later Medieval excesses. But they aren’t much useful beyond that.

In final analysis, the number of manuscripts we have that contain even a whole book of the NT and aren’t Medieval and thus just as comparably late as almost any other book from antiquity, is maybe closer to the same number as we have for Josephus. The one advantage we have for them, is that they are earlier. But that advantage is wiped out by the fact that unlike Josephus, the NT manuscripts were under intense pressure to alter them, and were unprofessionally transmitted for centuries in the throes of a continual propaganda war. And hundreds of variant readings remain for which we cannot be sure what was in even that one anti-Marcionite manuscript; and scores more deviations from the originals must exist for which we will have no manuscript evidence at all.

So again, all we can determine from extant NT manuscripts (no matter how many we have) are the decisions of a single person or focus group around 150 A.D., who chose, for each book they selected to include, a single manuscript from all those in circulation at the time, which they themselves may well have edited further, and all based on accident (the manuscript that just happened to be known to them or close at hand) and their own peculiar dogma and politics (their current political needs and doctrinal presuppositions, which all differed substantially from those of the original authors), and not on paleographic science—even though that science was invented in antiquity and well available to them, had they wished to apply it.


So when Christian apologists make hay out of the big number of Bible manuscripts, they are pulling wool over your eyes (and the eyes of their congregations, and possibly even themselves). That number is meaningless. It has nothing to do with the reliability of transmission or the reliability of the surviving texts. Similarly, all the manuscripts we have of Josephus all derive from the single manuscript used by Eusebius around 300 A.D. at the Library of Caesarea, a library he curated. Thus, two hundred years of manuscript variants for Josephus are lost to us. And no amount of citing how many manuscripts we have can get us passed that choking singularity. All those manuscripts of Josephus that we have, can only help us reconstruct what was in the one single manuscript of Eusebius in 300 A.D. (and often, not even that, as many readings remain obscure or undecidable among the variants known, just as is the case with the NT).

Likewise, no count of NT manuscripts can get us passed the choking singularity of the Anti-Marcionite Edition of about 150 A.D., and all its transmission errors and political and doctrinal choices, changes, and idiosyncrasies. All those manuscripts we do have, can only help us reconstruct that single manuscript. A manuscript dating one to two whole lifetimes after the books in it were written. A manuscript assembled and edited by persons with a definite propagandistic agenda, and no professional or scientific concern to ascertain its textual accuracy. And, like for Josephus, in many cases we don’t even have that. For there remain countless instances in the NT where we do not know which variants known to us actually appeared in that edition. And in some cases, it’s statistically possible, none of the variants extant today is what was originally in it. And yet what was in it, is just what was in it. What was in the original versions of the books it assembled, we literally cannot know. At most we can bank on the probability that massive changes might have been unsuccessful; but countless small ones would have; and we know for a fact they were—as in the case of the Christian edition of the OT, the Christians kept insisting it had passages in it that Jewish versions didn’t (see OHJ, pp. 90-92), which of course they blamed (implausibly) on the Jews changing their versions. Because everyone’s edition was, when their own, “obviously” the unsullied original.

So those big numbers? Useless. Meaningless. Showy fantastical blather.

And so also goes into the bin the claim that the Christians carefully and meticulously and reverently preserved even that edition. They doctored and meddled with it repeatedly. And did so more blatantly and recklessly in its first hundred years of publication, as in that period they didn’t even employ professionals to oversee the accuracy of its reproduction. Such professional care only entered the scene in the 4th century. And even then errors and alterations remained common.

Like I said when someone at the Holding debate asked me why I don’t distrust secular manuscripts, like the Annals of Tacitus, for the same reasons I distrust the Bible: the Annals are also lousy with transmission errors and possible interpolations and deletions. “If the Annals of Tacitus were instructions for building a rocket, I would not get on that rocket.” I wouldn’t base my life on it. It would be foolish to. I trust it to a certain probability, because as an ancient historian I don’t need to be certain of anything I reconstruct about ancient history, I can be fine with balances of probability; I’m comfortable with ambiguity. But for a worldview instruction manual, on which you will gamble your entire life, and govern your entire conduct, and use as an overriding rule over all your opinions, the Bible would only be trusted in such a capacity by a fool. Because it would be foolish to trust even Tacitus in that capacity. And the Bible is far worse. The Annals of Tacitus were not transmitted for a century and a half by unprofessional amateurs before benefiting from professional publishing controls. And the Annals of Tacitus were not edited and transmitted for hundreds and hundreds of years by persons obsessed with altering it to suit their ever-changing fanatical, political, and doctrinal needs. And above all, the one edited variant of the Annals of Tacitus that we get any chance of seeing was not chosen two lifetimes after Tacitus by a single person or cabal obsessed with using it to win a political propaganda war with the convenience of its contents.

So here we are. Three things you should know about the New Testament manuscripts…their number is useless, they all come from the same late and flawed edition, and they are more riddled with error and distortion than the most competently transmitted of secular texts would have been. And that is the very worst kind of book to base your life on. Even besides all the stupid and shitty things it says.


  1. Richard Johnson September 23, 2016, 2:42 pm

    I’m confused. You seem to be saying that the earliest version we have is from about 150AD, and that this was cobbled together some 1-2 lifetimes after the fact, however wouldn’t this mean that at least some manuscripts were written very close to the supposed time of Jesus? I’ve read elsewhere, I thought even in your own writings, that the earliest we have is Paul’s letters and that the gospels were written long after that. I’m obviously confused on this time frames here. Can you clarify?

    1. The earliest manuscript archetype, i.e. the one manuscript all other manuscripts that we have descend from. All the books of the NT had already been written by 150 A.D. (some may have been written at that time, specifically for the special edition, e.g. some scholars argue the Pastoral Epistles were forged at that time, or that Acts and some of the other Epistles were significantly altered at that time, by the same editors of that C150 edition, but that’s more speculative; those forgeries/alterations could predate the C150 by a few years or decades).

      So I’m not sure what you are asking. The death & resurrection of Jesus is depicted as in the 30s A.D. (even, we might infer, by Paul). Paul’s Epistles were written in the 50s A.D. and the Gospels at various different times between 70 and 140 A.D. The other books at different times (e.g. Revelation most likely in the 90s; the Pastorals, as I said, sometime in the first decades of the second century; Hebrews, IMO, sometime before the late 60s; etc.). I’ve always maintained these facts (see Chapter 7 of OHJ).

      Average life expectancy in antiquity was 48 years for anyone who survived to adulthood (and only adult witnesses in the 30s, e.g. 15 years old and up, would matter significantly). So someone who was an adult in the 30s would most likely be dead before the 70s, and almost certainly dead before the year 100. Likewise the author of any Gospel written in the 70s would on average be dead before even the year 100, and well certainly dead before 150, which is 80 years time, which, counting the at least 15 years age of the author, puts the C150 beyond two lifetimes after the fact; and any author of a Gospel written in 100 would on average be dead well before 150, 50 years being more than one average lifetime (even before considering that the author wouldn’t have been a year old in 100 to begin with).

  2. The caption of the chart “Number of Known Greek NT Manuscripts” states that the majority of copies date from “after the 9th century BCE”. One would hope that _all_ copies would do so. The chart does show the majority postdate the 9th century _CE_, which is the point, I believe. Is it not you who is in favor of using BC and AD to avoid problems like this?

  3. Very interesting! Thanks! I definitely plan on reading Trobish’s book. There is one thing that puzzles me though. Even in the context of anti Marcionite propaganda, how did one mid 2nd century bible, C150, come to so quickly dominate and supercede all other manuscripts and become the source for all later manuscripts of the NT?

    1. The very strategy I mention: they won by appealing to the largest number of Christian congregations they could, to outnumber Marcion and dictate policy and doctrine over him. They no doubt also rapidly disseminated copies for that very reason, to overwhelm his competing volumes, likely the very reason they couldn’t wait for or limit themselves to the costly and time consuming process of professional publishing and just had as many people as could run off as many copies as quickly as possible, creating a deliberate “Cambrian Explosion” as it were of that version. Quite easily they could have generated in just a few decades more manuscripts of C150 than existed in the whole world up to that point.

      If, for example, and as is most likely, there were only, say, one or two manuscripts per congregation and only, say, seventy congregations or so (a reasonable number, indeed even an optimistically high number, given how small and invisible Christianity was in the early second century, on which point see Chapter 18 of Not the Impossible Faith), then there were fewer than 140 manuscripts of each NT book (and of non-Gospels, probably far fewer than that). The C150 supplanted the manuscript of each book in one go (as it bound them all together; one reason to use the codex format, to force their conjoint publication and use; scrolls could be picked and chosen among, defeating the edition’s purpose) and if they mass-amateur-produced a run, they could easily have generated seventy copies in one year (and certainly within two years), and delivered one to every known congregation. Against any one competing manuscript of each book, there would then be thirty to seventy C150s; against the whole world of scattered manuscripts, there would be only a 2:1 advantage against the C150, but only in the first couple of years.

      The ensuing popularity of the C150 then resulted in people copying it, rather than the manuscripts it supplanted (which were probably not bound together in codex form, not being collected yet into a canon; except for possibly Marcion’s canon). And as this then started to win out (the propaganda war over who was a “heretic” started to sway more and more toward the Catholic tradition, partly indeed because of the C150 strategy), more manuscript copies would have been made of the C150 than of competitors, in order to accommodate previously-resistant but now-joining congregations, and as more new congregations were created by Catholics than competitors (simply by virtue of even starting out with more congregations and thus more evangelists as all competitors combined, much less any competitor singly), all as Christianity continued to grow at the standard rate of all evangelistic religions in history (as discussed, again, in Chapter 18 of NIF).

      Thus, the C150 would not only explode with dozens of times more manuscripts than each competing textual tradition within just a couple of years, it would then over the next decades be replicated at a faster rate (as more congregations dump their old stuff in favor of the C150; and as more congregations form who start out with the C150 than any competitor), while competing manuscripts would start to decline in rate of replication along with their “heretical” endorsing congregations. Geometric progression could get us over ten times more C150’s by the year 200 than any competing tradition (as clearly happened to the only other canon competing with it: Marcion’s, of which not even a single manuscript has survived; not even, so far as we know, the merest scrap); and easily a hundred times more by the year 300.

      The congregations that resisted this, died out (and with them, their libraries, since no one would remain who cared to preserve their “deviant” and “heretical” texts). The Middle Ages only preserved the C150, as it won out as the standard everywhere in all major churches. As we see even with non-canonical texts, extremely few of those survived at all, and only as novelties, or by blind chance; and even then, they had the advantage of not being in C150 and thus the economics of just copying and re-editing the C150 instead (which resulted in eclipsing all competing textual traditions) would not interfere with their preservation alongside it in some places.

      A classic example of the latter effect is the Nag Hammadi library, which was a twelve-volume set of “heretical” treatises only. In all twelve codex volumes, not a single item in them was a variant edition of any book in the orthodox canon. Someone was thus preserving a multi-volume set of “alternative” literature, evidently assuming the four volume C150 known and available everywhere was adequate to preserve the books it includes and thus requiring no competing volume of different versions of its texts (or else, by strange coincidence, whatever volumes contained their variants, was not stashed at Nag Hammadi).

      That this is what happened is evinced by the manuscripts themselves: we have none that can’t be traced back to C150. So evidently, whatever process was engaged, it made the C150 supremely successful in out-numbering and eclipsing competing editions.

  4. I’ve seen you claim that all modern NT manuscripts derive from a manuscript written in 150 AD. Now, this seems like such an extreme, inconceptually radical position that is just literal insanity. How on Earth do you defend this? Different lines of NT copying had already been circulating around Rome, next year we’re probably going to get a Mark fragment published to the 80’s AD, which according to some of the Scholars I’ve seen talking about this, would push the Gospel to the 40’s and 50’s AD. They are also goin to publish something like 6 2nd century manuscripts. We have Clement of Rome in 70-96 AD, which I’ve seen you agree with, quoting countless books of the New Testament, as well as Papias alluding to some portions, Ignatius is quoting and alluding to it like crazy who is somewhere around 95-110 AD, and a number of others. These people loved all across Rome. Depending on where your ship landed in Rome, you would probably have ten different NT transmition lines by 150 AD. I find this position utterly untenable in every manner, unless I’m radically misinterpreting these (pseudo) claims. Although it is true that most manuscripts come post-900 AD, by the very chart you show that I have seen elsewhere, you’ve got hundreds of manuscripts by 900 AD, and according to the CSNTM, I can instantly scroll though 60 NT manuscripts dating to the 3rd century, which is more then most other collections of virtually any other text in general. Did these innumerable pre-150 AD manuscripts across Rome magically disappear so only one lead to everything else? Can you name the kind of extraordinary evidence needed to support this extraordinary claim? Do any other Scholars agree with this or have published even a single paper on this?

    1. You evidently aren’t reading the article you are responding to. Or Trobisch’s book or evidence either. I’m posting your query even though you aren’t a patron to illustrate how ignorant people can be, spouting off arguments like yours that aren’t even responding to what’s just been said.

      Please try reading an article before responding to it. And please try examining and thus discussing the actual peer reviewed published evidence for a position.

      And also please try to know what you are talking about.

      (1) The claim of a forthcoming “80s A.D.” manuscript of Mark has been made by Craig Evans since 2012 and still no hint of any peer reviewed evidence this is actually going to happen. It’s clear he doesn’t actually know what he is talking about, and no such demonstration of date has actually been made for any manuscript of the NT. But certainly if in future we find a manuscript whose text does not derive from the C150 edition (which was not published “in 150 A.D.,” as you’d know if you would actually read the article you are responding to; nor was it “written” in the mid-2nd century but copied out from prior exemplars then, as again you’d know if you would actually read the article you are responding to), then we would have a manuscript whose text does not derive from the C150 edition. But that hasn’t happened yet. Hence, every manuscript presently published derives from the C150. As Trobisch proved.

      (2) Clement never quotes any NT book (at most Clement comes close to saying something similar to Hebrews etc., but we can’t tell if that’s because Clement and Hebrews are quoting a shared source, or Clement is using Hebrews, or Hebrews is using Clement, and in no case is there any exact quote). See OHJ, pp. 271-72, and Ch. 8.5, esp. pp. 311-12.

      (3) Likewise, Papias never quotes any NT book. He refers to some of them existing, but doesn’t quote them or even say what’s in them (so we can’t establish any content in them from him); in fact he doesn’t even seem to know much at all about them, and what he says about them is wrong. See OHJ, Ch. 8.7. And again, you seem to be confusing publishing an edition with composing the text. You might better understand the difference and its significance if you would actually read the article you are responding to. And please don’t just read it, but pay attention to what it actually says instead of hallucinating it saying something else.

      (4) Meanwhile Ignatius is also dated by many experts to well after 110 A.D. In fact, some of the top experts on Ignatius suspect those letters were composed as late as the 140s. See OHJ, Ch. 8.6. And again, Ignatius never quotes any NT book, so we can’t reconstruct any NT text from him; when he comes at all close to maybe mentioning what they might have said, we can’t even establish that he is referring to any of the Gospels in the canon. In fact he sounds like he is referring to different texts than we have! See, Hitler Homer Bible Christ, Ch. 13; with, again, OHJ, Ch. 8.6.

      (5) “Did these innumerable pre-150 AD manuscripts across Rome magically disappear so only one lead to everything else? Can you name the kind of extraordinary evidence needed to support this extraordinary claim? Do any other Scholars agree with this or have published even a single paper on this?” Yes. Trobisch. Hence I cite and discussed Trobisch in the article you claim to have read (but clearly you didn’t–which makes you a liar; please ask yourself why you preferred to tell a lie, than to actually learn or understand something). His peer reviewed work established that all those earlier textual traditions did indeed vanish. They were eclipsed by a sea of copies of the more popular and more vociferously published C150 edition. If you would actually read my article you would know this and not have to ask a foolish question that proves you didn’t even read the article you are trying to answer. Do you want people to know you are the sort of person who doesn’t even pay attention to evidence or what is being said? Why would you yourself even want to be such a person? Why are you such a person?


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