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Early Manuscripts of Biblical Writings? What’s at Stake?

January 27, 2015

In light of the renewed hubbub about a supposed first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark, I’ll offer some comments about why people get all excited (or exasperated) about the matter and other such incidents.

For any text of antiquity, scholars prize early copies, the earlier the better.  In the transmission process (hand-copying) every copy to be made presented the possibility of accidental or deliberate changes (variants) being introduced.  So, in principle, the closer we can get to the origin of the text, the fewer such opportunities we have to consider, and the closer we might get to the text as it originated.

To take a well-known example, until the Qumran find, the oldest copy of the Hebrew scriptures we had was from the 10th century AD.  In the Qumran manuscripts, however, scholars found copies of writings of the Hebrew scriptures that were dated (palaeographically) to the 1st century BC, i.e., some 1000 years earlier than the previously oldest Hebrew copy of these writings.  That’s a monumental gain, and both scholarly studies and even recent translations (e.g., the NRSV) reflect some of the import of this.

Given that our only copy of Mark from the first three centuries is in “P45” (the Chester Beatty Gospels codex), which is commonly dated to ca. mid-3rd century AD, any additional copy of Mark from the pre-Constantinian period would be most welcome by all scholars.  We know that the transmission of Mark resulted in many variants (although nearly all of them are small changes in word-order, tenses, etc., i.e., more stylistic than of any substance).  The most well-known Markan variation-unit, of course, is the ending, where we have as many as four variant-endings reflected in the extant evidence.  So, particularly because the early manuscript evidence for Mark is so limited, any additional copy from the earliest centuries would be greeted with great excitement.

But (you may ask) how useful can a mere fragment of a manuscript be for judging the transmission-history of a given writing?  Well, of course, we’d always prefer a full/complete copy.  But fragments of a manuscript can still tell us a lot.  As to the text-critical question, although only a portion of the writing remains, what remains is at least a sample, and, very importantly, a random sample.  That is, what remains hasn’t been determined by scholars but by the accidents of history.  That randomness actually enhances the usefulness of a fragment.  For a random sample may be indicative of the skill, care, ability of the copyist generally.  If the portion of text in the exhibits a number of variants, perhaps variants that indicate carelessness in copying, then we may well suspect that the fragment reflects a larger copy of a text made by a copyist with limited skill or care.

If, however, the preserved portion of text seems to be fairly free of variants, and reflects a form of the text that seems to have been copied with some accuracy and care, then it’s fair to judge that the larger copy from which the fragment derives had those characteristics.  So, although fragments only give us “snapshots” (so to speak) of ancient texts, they are still valid evidence on which to base judgements.

In the current flurry of excitement over the putative 1st-century fragment of Mark, there are obvious agendas at work.  That both Dan Wallace and Craig Evans mentioned the item in debates and settings appealing to Christian apologetics clearly reflects one agenda:  to emphasize the extent of evidence available for judging the early transmission and textual integrity of NT writings.  But this particular agenda was formed in response to another, and equally suspicious purpose and agenda, reflected, e.g., by some rhetorical flourishes by some other scholars (e.g., Bart Ehrman, et al.), in which it is asserted that the chronological distance between extant copies of NT writings and the time of likely composition is such as to make it almost impossible to say whether extant copies resemble with any great faithfulness what the authors actually wrote.  This sort of claim, too, is a kind of apologetics, in the service of scoring points in a religion-debate, in an effort to unsettle those (esp. traditional Christians) who revere the NT writings as scriptures.

As a former inter-scholastic debater (in high school days), and a fairly good one at that, I find these “debates” (e.g., Ehrman vs. this or that Evangelical) not the most productive way to engage the issues involved.  I’ll simply point out that there are TWO agendas in play, TWO opposing apologetic-aims, and that there seems to me to be the danger (and incidence) of exaggeration and distortion on BOTH sides.

So, let’s all chill a bit, tone down the rhetoric, and allow the scholarly process to proceed.  As to what we can make of early evidence about the early transmission of NT writings, I’ll refer readers to my essay published in 2006, “The New Testament in the Second Century:  Texts, Collections and Canon”, the pre-publication version (and the publication facts) available here.

Oh, and one final note:  One of my recent PhD students, Lonnie Bell, produced a study of all pre-Constaninian copies of the Gospel of John as his thesis (successfully defended last year).  He’s currently preparing the thesis for submission to a publisher.  I won’t “steal his thunder” here, but his analysis seems to me an important contribution to questions about the early transmission of this writing (and perhaps other NT writings).  I think it should be published and that scholars will find it a cogent and valuable study, with perhaps a few surprises.

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  1. mini1071 permalink

    It is not a random sample unless every possible sample element had an equal probability of being the one found. Accidental, haphazard, without known bias, perhaps but not random.

    • OK. I stand corrected. Not “random” in what I take is the technicalities of statistics. But my point stands. The preserved bits can be taken as representative of the copyist across the larger body of the text copied.

  2. Why would Dan Wallace and Craig Evans hide this fragment though for so long? Why wouldn’t they let actual experts test it? Why will it only be shown in 2017(?) now?

    • First, neither Wallace nor Evans has the item. Both were simply repeating a second-hand report. The present ownership and location of the item is unknown to me or to them. Hence, my exhortation that we (scholars) shouldn’t say anything about it, as without it being made available there’s nothing to say . . . except that it’s not available!
      Second, the typical procedure is for a manuscript to be put into the hands of a competent manuscript-expert for analysis, palaeographical dating, transcription, and full “autopsy” inspection, in preparation for the “editio princeps” (or formal publication-edition). That analysis can take some time, as well as the publication process. This is especially the case when an individual item is to appear in a volume in which multiple items are to appear (as seems the plan in this instance).

      • Ok but so why are the actual owners hiding it and proceeding in such a big secrecy then? Is that typical for this kind of scientific research?

      • I have no idea of what the circumstances are, where the item is, whether it’s been acquired, who has it . . . nothing. But it’s not uncommon for scholars to be allowed to do their work before they make an item public. The problem in this case is that people started making claims about the item before the scholarly analysis was done and published.

  3. Jeff permalink

    An excellent post. I like the analogy of fragments as “snapshots” or random samples.

    Incidentally, if your student is still looking for a publisher, he’s welcome to consider the company I work for. We’ve published other studies in early manuscripts, as well as revised dissertations in E.C. (

  4. I’m always praying sincerely to God for more. The Qumran find was awesome for the Hebrew scriptures. Now, I hope for more light on early Christian writings. I’d love to know more if your student’s thesis regarding the Gospel of John is published. I hope you will keep us posted, Professor Hurtado. Thank you!

  5. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H,
    Both in this blog and the previous one, your usual level-headedness has prevailed. I appreciate the caution to not overreact to unconfirmed reports and the observation, which in my option is well founded, that both sides in these debates bring an agenda.

    Finally, Donald should let Dr. Ehrman speak for himself, he has said often that the beginning of his “fall” from evangelicalism was the discovery of so many errors (variants) in the NT manuscripts.


  6. Great post! Great content in the article referred to in the post! Finally, great responses in the discussion-exchange in your comments! You set a high example for scholars and the rest of us.

  7. Denis Campbelk permalink

    Many thanks for your wisdom & restraint.

  8. Some of the scroll material from Qumran is actually dated to the 3rd century BCE.

  9. Donald Jacobs permalink

    There is a clear problem with the argument for seeing Ehrman and his interlocutors as two sides of the same apologetic coin, and that is that an agnostic worldview does not require that the NT be written late or that its text be unreliable. If the evidence stacks that way so be it, but if not it changes little. However for many believers who revere the Bible as inspired it matters a great deal for the maintenance of their worldview which way the evidence points on this particular issue.

    Ehrman has stated that it is the problem of suffering that pushes him to agnosticism. Whether the NT text is reliable or not has no bearing on that. That the evidence points to unreliability of the text is a problem for literal minded believers in a way that the converse would simply not be the case for non-believers such as Ehrman. Talk about both sides having their “agenda” obscures this crucial difference.

    • Donald: You’re quite simply incorrect. There is an agenda in claiming (dubiously) that “the evidence points to unreliability of the text”. Actually, extant evidence points in quite the opposite direction (though, to be sure, we all could wish for more evidence).
      So, given that all remains of earliest NT manuscripts suggest, instead, an impressively good transmission of texts, why the exaggeration?
      And, if colleagues such as Ehrman have no personal stake in the matter, why the repeated readiness to engage in those public debates? Simply the handsome fee involved? Maybe.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Ehrman’s work “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” showed that theological disputes impacted the text as far back as the evidence goes. And it would be naive to assume the same was not true for the earliest period for which manuscript evidence is lacking. So we simply can’t know the extent to which the text was altered in the first couple of centuries.

        I am not saying Ehrman and other non-believers have no agenda whatever. I’m saying they don’t have as much skin in the game as a literal minded believer for whom the accuracy of the text is crucial to their world view. Frankly the words of the resultant NT text could be word for word the same as the autographs (although clearly it is not) yet it would not prove a single claim contained therein to be true. On the other hand if the text is unreliable this is a serious problem for literally minded Bible believers.

      • Correction, Donald: Ehrman (as he himself notes in his book) is able to propose only a handful of possible theologically-motivated variants, out of the tens of thousands in the manuscript tradition (the remainder being mainly small variants of word-order, tense, etc.). But he (and the rest of us too) are able to identify these theologically motivated variants precisely because of textual evidence is so comparatively plentiful and early! If we only had late and few manuscripts, we’d never know that there was variation, and if there was of what kind. So, as text critics (such as Ehrman and yours truly) show, we CAN know the kinds of variants that were produced, and we CAN judge with fair confidence the extent of variation in NT writings.
        So, contrary to your misapprehension of things, on balance, the text of NT writings is actually pretty sound, and any significant variants fairly readily detectable.
        Finally, not even Ehrman or others who make sweeping statements for rhetorical effect, e.g., that we can’t have any confidence in the extant textual evidence giving us access to the NT texts basically as written by the authors, really act as if they believed this. If these claims were so, we wouldn’t be able to write books such as the kind that Ehrman and I and others write in which we draw on NT writings to describe and analyse the earliest Christological beliefs and devotional practices, etc. In short, if the exaggerated claims were treated as true by advocates of them, it isn’t just Christian fundamentalists who would suffer, the whole of NT scholarship would basically have to close shop! And neither Ehrman nor anyone else really acts as if that is justified.

      • bee permalink

        Were variant \heretical texts ever burned?

      • Well, “ever” is a big timeframe! I presume that you mean book-burning by this or that ecclesiastical authority. Well, that couldn’t happen till there were ecclesiastical authorities with state backing, which takes us down into the post-Constantinian period. I know of no reference to burning books in the earlier centuries. And, of course, we know of and have many “heretical” books, and many copies of NT texts with variant readings precisely because they were preserved, for study, for refutation, whatever.

      • There were book burnings in Acts (19:19). It was a common practice I think for some time — consider what is written in Exodus 34:12-14 and Deuteronomy 7:5. And of course, Moses was so angry with the Israelites that were committing idolatry when he came down from the mountain, that he ground up the golden calf and made the people drink it. Not to mention, he took the stone commandments and crashed them to the ground (Exodus 32) in anger. So I guess it’s been going on for a while … that when a person doesn’t agree with an ideology or doctrine or religion, he tries to destroy its existence. It’s a commandment from God in the Hebrew scriptures.

      • Julie: The book-burning episode mentioned in Acts 19 is portrayed as a spontaneous one, not one ordered by church authorities, and is portrayed not as focused on “heretical” books but on magical texts. The OT passages are likewise even more irrelevant, as they don’t concern the destruction of “heretical” books.
        In any case, there is no historical record of Christians burning “heretical” books or texts in the pre-Constantinian period (which is my own period).

  10. Peter Turnill permalink

    Thanks again, Dr Hurtado. Here’s hoping it’s the lost ending of Mark!! (also, with his signature, date and location, and solution to the synoptic problem!)

    • Peter: I hope I presume correctly the irony and fun intended in your comment, e.g., about “the lost ending of Mark”.

      • Peter Turnill permalink

        You presume correctly!

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