Category Archives: Textual Criticism

Was Mark the First Gospel Written?

Although we may never know for sure, the majority of biblical scholars think that Mark was the first Gospel written, and that the other Gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, used Mark as a source. Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), why this view is the dominant one.

Markan priority appears to be the most prudent position for several reasons: (1) Mark’s literary style sometimes lacks the sophistication and polish often seen in Matthew and Luke. This phenomenon is more easily explained in terms of Matthean and Lukan improvement upon Mark, rather than Markan degradation of Matthean and Lukan style.

(2) In the Markan Gospel Jesus and the disciples are sometimes portrayed in a manner that appears undignified. More often than not these potentially embarrassing passages are touched up or omitted altogether by Matthew and Luke. Again, it is easier to explain the phenomena in terms of Matthean and Lukan improvements upon Mark, rather than the reverse.

(3) The phenomena of agreements and disagreements among the Synoptic Gospels are more easily explained in reference to Markan priority. Among other things, we observe that where there is no Mark to follow (e.g., no infancy narrative, no ‘Q’ material) this is where Matthew and Luke diverge from one another. This observation is more easily explained in terms of Markan priority and Matthew’s and Luke’s independence from one another than in terms of Mark writing last and making use of Matthew and Luke. Markan priority also avoids the problem of trying to explain Luke’s inconsistent use of Matthew.

(4) The small amount of material that is unique to the Gospel of Mark also supports Markan priority. This material consists of 1: 1; 2: 27; 3: 20– 21; 4: 26– 29; 7: 2– 4, 32– 37; 8: 22– 26; 9: 29, 48– 49; 13: 33– 37; 14: 51– 52. In reviewing this material we should ask which explanation seems most probable, that Mark added it or that Matthew and Luke found it in Mark and chose to omit it. The nature of the material supports the latter alternative, for it seems more likely that Matthew and Luke chose to omit the flight of the naked youth (14: 51– 52); the odd saying about being ‘salted with fire’ (9: 48– 49); the strange miracle where Jesus effects healing in two stages (8: 22– 26); the even stranger miracle where Jesus puts his fingers in a man’s ears, spits, and touches his tongue (7: 32– 37); and the episode where Jesus is regarded as mad and his family attempts to restrain him (3: 20– 22). If we accept the Griesbach-Farmer Hypothesis [that Matthew was written first], we would then have to explain why Mark would choose to add these odd, potentially embarrassing materials, only to omit the Sermon on the Mount/ Plain, the Lord’s Prayer, and numerous other teachings and parables found in the larger Gospels.

(5) The final consideration that adds weight to the probability of Markan priority has to do with the results of the respective hypotheses. The true test of any hypothesis is its effectiveness. In biblical studies a theory should aid the exegetical task. The theory of Markan priority has provided just this kind of aid. Not only has Synoptic interpretation been materially advanced because of the conclusion, and now widespread assumption, of Markan priority, but the development of critical methods oriented to Gospel research, such as Form and Redaction Criticism, which have enjoyed success, has also presupposed Markan priority.

In countless studies, whether dealing with this or that pericope, or treating one of the Synoptic Gospels in its entirety, it has been recognized over and over again that Matthew and Luke make the greatest sense as interpretations of Mark; but Mark makes little sense as a conflation and interpretation of Matthew and Luke. The evidence is compelling that Mark represents the oldest surviving account of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. What sources the evangelist Mark made use of, if any, will in all probability remain a mystery. That he made use of some written material seems likely. That he made use of some eyewitness testimony is also probable; it cannot be ruled out.

How Do Other Ancient Texts Compare to the New Testament? #10 Post of 2012

Post Author: Bill Pratt

When considering the trustworthiness of the New Testament (NT) documents, the first question we need to ask is, “Have these documents been accurately transmitted to us since they were originally written?”

In order to answer this question about the textual transmission of documents of the ancient world, historians look at the number of existing manuscript copies (MSS) of the original text and they look at the time gap between the earliest existing MSS and the date when the original document was written.  The more MSS, the better we are able to reconstruct the original.  The shorter the time gap, the better we are able to reconstruct the original.  This is referred to as the bibliographical test.

Christians have pointed out for decades that the NT documents are far superior in both dimensions of the bibliographical test.  There are more existing MSS and the time gap for those MSS is the shortest when compared to other documents of ancient history.

Clay Jones, professor at Biola University, has recently updated the data that compares the Greek NT documents (as a group) to other documents of ancient history in an article published in the Christian Research Journal.  Below are the results of his research:

Author Work Date Written Earliest MSS Time Gap Number of MSS
Homer Iliad 800 BC c. 400 BC 400 1757
Herodotus History 480-425 BC 10th C 1350 109
Sophocles Plays 496-406 BC 3rd C BC 100-200 193
Plato Tetralogies 400 BC AD 895 1300 210
Caesar Gallic Wars 100-44 BC 9th C 950 251
Livy History of Rome 59 BC-AD 17 Early 5th C 400 150
Tacitus Annals AD 100 AD 850 750-950 33
Pliny, the Elder Natural History AD 49-79 5th C fragment: 1; Rem. 14-15th C 400 200
Thucydides History 460-400 BC 3rd C BC 200 96
Demosthenes Speeches 300 BC Some fragments from 1 C BC 1100+ 340
Greek NT AD 50-100 AD 130 40 5795

The table illustrates that the Greek NT does extremely well with both the time gap (40 years) and the number of MSS (5795), as compared to all the other documents in the table.  But the situation is even better for the NT because we haven’t yet mentioned all the MSS of the NT in other languages.

Jones reveals that there are over 2000 Armenian, almost 1000 Coptic, 6 Gothic, more than 600 Ethiopian, more than 10000 Latin, more than 350 Syriac, 43 Georgian, and more than 4000 Slavic manuscript copies of the NT.

The only conclusion one can reasonably reach is that we have more confidence in the textual transmission of the NT than in any other document of ancient history.  To question the transmission accuracy of the NT texts we have today is to question all of ancient history.

What Are the Most Common Myths About Bible Translation? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this two-part series, we looked at a few myths about Bible translation, cited from Daniel Wallace’s blog post.  Below we review a few more.

According to Wallace, another misconception is that

modern translations have removed words and verses from the Bible. Most biblical scholars—both conservative and liberal—would say instead that the KJV added words and verses, rather than that the modern ones have removed such. And this is in part because the oldest and most reliable manuscripts lack the extra verses that are found in the KJV.

The important thing to remember about the original KJV is that those translators were missing many of the biblical manuscripts that translators have in their hands today.  There is simply more manuscript data available today than in the seventeenth century.

Next, Wallace addresses the red letter editions of the Bible.  The myth about them is that

red-letter editions of the Bible highlight the exact words of Jesus. Scholars are not sure of the exact words of Jesus. Ancient historians were concerned to get the gist of what someone said, but not necessarily the exact wording. A comparison of parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels reveals that the evangelists didn’t always record Jesus’ words exactly the same way. The terms ipsissima verba and ipsissima voxare used to distinguish the kinds of dominical sayings we have in the Gospels. The former means ‘the very words,’ and the latter means ‘the very voice.’ That is, the exact words or the essential thought. There have been attempts to harmonize these accounts, but they are highly motivated by a theological agenda which clouds one’s judgment and skews the facts. In truth, though red-letter editions of the Bible may give comfort to believers that they have the very words of Jesus in every instance, this is a false comfort.

Finally, Wallace turns to the myth that the chapters and verses in the Bible are inspired.

These were added centuries later. Chapter numbers were added by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the early 13th century. Verse numbers were not added until 1551. Robert Estienne (a.k.a. Stephanus), a Parisian printer, added verse numbers to the fourth edition of his Greek New Testament. The pocket-sized two-volume work (which can be viewed at www.csntm.org) has three parallel columns, one in Greek and two in Latin (one Erasmus’s Latin text, the other Jerome’s). To facilitate ease of comparison, Stephanus added the verse numbers. Although most of the breaks seem natural enough, quite a few are bizarre. Neither chapter numbers nor verse numbers are inspired.

Again, if you are interested in reading about all 15 myths, check out Wallace’s post.

What Are the Most Common Myths About Bible Translation? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace recently wrote an informative blog post on what he considers to be the fifteen most common myths about Bible translation.  While I suggest you read his post in its entirety, I have picked out a few of the myths that I think are the most important to debunk below.

Wallace’s first myth is

that a word-for-word translation is the best kind. Anyone who is conversant in more than one language recognizes that a word-for-word translation is simply not possible if one is going to communicate in an understandable way in the receptor language. Yet, ironically, even some biblical scholars who should know better continue to tout word-for-word translations as though they were the best.

The goal of a translator is to take the meaning of the original language and capture that same meaning in a new language.  Since grammatical rules and vocabulary vary greatly from language to language, word-for-word translation will often fail to achieve that goal.

Another myth Wallace debunks is the idea that the original King James Version was a literal, or word-for-word translation.  Wallace explains:

The preface to the KJV actually claims otherwise. For example, they explicitly said that they did not translate the same word in the original the same way in the English but did attempt to capture the sense of the original each time: “An other thing we thinke good to admonish thee of (gentle Reader) that wee have not tyed our selves to an uniformitie of phrasing, or to an identitie of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men some where, have beene as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not varie from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places (for there bee some wordes that bee not of the same sense every where) we were especially carefull, and made a conscience, according to our duetie.”

Even the KJV translators sought to capture the meaning, or sense, of the original language. They were not attempting a word-for-word translation.

Wallace also addresses the Apocrypha and the claim that those books are

found only in Roman Catholic Bibles. Although the Apocrypha—or what Catholics call the Deutero-canonical books—are an intrinsic part of Roman Catholic translations of scripture, a number of Protestant Bibles also include them. Even the King James Bible, a distinctly Protestant version, included the Apocrypha in every printing until the middle of the nineteenth century. To be sure, the apocryphal books were placed at the end of the Old Testament, to set them apart (unlike in Roman Catholic Bibles), but they were nevertheless included.

While Protestants deny that the Apocrypha are inspired Scripture, we still maintain that they are edifying reading.  They should not be completely ignored, as they provide valuable perspective on the Jewish people in the centuries before Jesus was born.

In part 2, we will look at a few more myths that Wallace debunks.

Who Wrote the Fourth Gospel? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this series, we looked at a blog post written by Timothy McGrew where he presents external and internal evidence for the authorship of the fourth Gospel.  Part 1 summarized the external evidence, and part 2 will summarize the internal evidence.

McGrew starts off the presentation of the internal evidence with the following:

Here, we can close in on the question with a series of concentric arguments, starting further out (with facts that limit the authorship somewhat, but not too specifically) and then tightening the description until only John is left.  This method of solving the problem was made famous by B. F. Westcott, and I will make use both of his outline and of many of his examples as we zero in on John the son of Zebedee.

McGrew’s outline consists of 5 steps (he provides a lot of evidence to back each of these up in the blog post):

  1. The author was a Jew.  He is intimately familiar with Jewish opinions and customs.
  2. He was a native of Palestine.  He give us an unerring portrait of the distinct role that the hierarchical class (the Sadducees, whom he never calls by their name) played in the religious life and legal deliberations of Judaism. He also shows effortless precision in his knowledge of places and topography.
  3. He was an eyewitness of many episodes that he records.
  4. He was one of the “inner circle” among Jesus’ disciples.
  5. He was John, the son of Zebedee.

Here are some of the details McGrew presents in support of outline item 5:

Throughout the Gospel, we read of one disciple who goes unnamed (e.g. 1:35, 37, 40) but is later described simply as “the beloved disciple.”  At the very end (21:24), we are told outright that he was the author.  And going back over the places where he is recorded as being present, we find that they are the particular places where the scenes are recorded with particular vividness and detail—the conversation at the last supper, for example, or the scene by the fire at night in the hall at Caiaphas’s house.  There is no reason to doubt that this identification of the beloved disciple with the author of the fourth Gospel is correct.  But who was the beloved disciple?

From the lists of those present in some of the scenes (1:35 ff; 21:2), including cross references with the Synoptic Gospels, he must have been either Andrew, Peter, James, or John.  He cannot be Andrew, since Andrew appears with him in the opening chapter.  He cannot be Peter, since he appears with Peter in the closing chapter.  James was martyred too early to have written the Gospel (Acts 12:1).  By process of elimination, we arrive at the conclusion that he was John.

Again, remember that all of the internal evidence is gathered from the text of the fourth Gospel.  We are looking for clues from the text that would indicate who the author is, and McGrew has done a nice job compiling some of the highlights.  He ends the blog post by reiterating,

The evidence, internal and external, is really quite overwhelming. To use a phrase of Paul’s from the book of Acts, “God has not left Himself without witness”—he has provided plenty of evidence!

And with him, I wholeheartedly agree.

Who Wrote the Fourth Gospel? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

There is much hay made in skeptical circles of the fact that none of the four Gospels were signed by an author, that if we reconstruct the original texts from the copies we have, there are no sentences in the texts that explicitly say something like, “This Gospel was written by John, son of Zebedee.” 

Yet church tradition does claim that the four authors were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all of them apostles or companions of apostles of Jesus.  I have written previously on the authorship of the first Gospel, but today I want to quote from an outstanding blog post written by Timothy McGrew which makes a compelling case that the author of the fourth Gospel is indeed the disciple John.

If you want the full treatment, go to McGrew’s post.  What I will do is summarize some key points from his post below.  McGrew starts with the following:

I am persuaded that the fourth Gospel was written by John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee. There are quite a number of reasons for thinking this, and that means that this is going to be a rather long note.

So here’s the short answer:

1. Every scrap of evidence we have from the writings of the early church indicates that the fourth Gospel had always been known to be written by John. And we have lots.

2. A careful examination of the Gospel itself shows that it must have been written by a Jew who was a native of Palestine and an eyewitness of numerous events, including many where only Jesus and the disciples were present. From internal clues, we can pretty safely narrow it down to John.

The first group of evidence is called the external evidence, as it consists of evidence external to the Gospel text itself.  McGrew lists several early, ancient authors and documents that mention John as the author of the fourth Gospel and/or quote passages only found in the fourth Gospel (this second line of evidence is important because it establishes that the fourth Gospel was considered apostolic very early, and thus more likely to be written by an apostle such as John).  In his post, McGrew provides background information on each of these sources, but I will only list the sources themselves.

  1. Eusebius (~AD 325)
  2. Origen (~AD 220)
  3. Tertullian (~AD 200)
  4. The Muratorian fragment (~AD 180)
  5. Irenaeus (~AD 180)
  6. Tatian (~AD 160)
  7. Justin Martyr (~AD 145)
  8. Anti-Marcionite Prologue quoting from a work of Papias (~AD 125)
  9. The Apology of Aristides (AD 117 – 138)
  10. Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, book 7, quoting early second century heretic Basilides
  11. Ignatius (~AD 107)

McGrew finishes up this section of external evidence with the following summary:

These are the primary pieces of early external testimony to the authorship of John, though I could easily double the size of the list by pulling out more obscure quotations from the so-called Second Epistle of Clement, Hermas, Hegisippus, Athenagoras, Polycrates, etc.  But they make the point sufficiently clear.

There is no other tradition of authorship for the fourth gospel.  There is no record of any uncertainty about it at any time; we have one brief mention of some gnostics (not even named) who claimed it was written by Cerinthus, the founder of their heretical sect—but they are mentioned only to be dismissed.  It does not appear that any Christian group ever had the slightest doubt about this work.

 In part 2 of this series, we will look at the internal evidence that McGrew presents.

How Brittle Are Your Christian Beliefs?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman wrote in his book, Misquoting Jesus, that his Christian beliefs began to fall apart when he realized that there was a mistake, an error, in the Gospel of Mark.  Now, I think that the alleged mistake is not a mistake, but let’s assume for a minute that we just don’t know for sure – maybe Mark made a mistake, and maybe he didn’t.

Is this any reason to jettison your belief in Christianity?  That has not been my reaction when I’ve been faced with many of the same kinds of difficulties in the Bible.  Why does Ehrman feel that he has to give up the whole show when he finds one error?

There are a few Christians who have been upset with me when I’ve talked about the fact that the 5,800 Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament differ from each other so that we are unsure of about 1% of the text in the New Testament.  These verses have nothing to do with any major Christian doctrine, but nonetheless they believe it is unacceptable to have any uncertainty at all.  Their faith is threatened by the science of textual criticism, even when textual criticism is practiced by conservative Christians.

Other Christians claim only the King James Version of the Bible is correct, that all the others are full of significant mistakes.  They feel their faith threatened by the other versions.

What do these people all have in common?  New Testament scholar Darrell Bock referred to these kinds of Christians as brittle fundamentalists.  They are brittle because when one of their cherished beliefs are challenged, their faith either falls apart, like Ehrman, or they retreat deep into isolation so as not to deal with anyone who disagrees with them.

I have a deep concern for the brothers and sisters who hold these beliefs.  They are majoring on the minors of Christianity.  They are making secondary things primary things.  There are certain teachings of the church that have always been recognized as the essentials, the things that form the core of our faith.

Holding on to the essentials, we need to make room for the findings of history, science, and philosophy that help us better understand our faith.  We need to be willing to learn about our faith, and maybe even change some of our secondary beliefs.  If your understanding of a Bible passage has never changed, if your understanding of a secondary doctrine has never changed, you are not growing and your Christianity may be brittle.

I have been studying the tough issues that face Christians for 7 years now, and I have had to modify several of my secondary and non-essential ideas about Christianity.  It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but what has happened to me is that the core beliefs I hold have become stronger and stronger, the more I learn.

I hope the same will happen for you.  We have nothing to fear.  We really don’t.

Is Mark 16:9-20 the Original Ending to the Gospel of Mark?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

We don’t know.  Scholars divide sharply on this issue, although it seems that the majority of New Testament scholars believe that verses 9-20 were not part of the original Gospel written by Mark.

Why?  Because the two oldest manuscripts containing Mark’s Gospel (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) do not contain these verses, church fathers Eusebius and Jerome both said that these verses were missing from Greek manuscripts they knew of, the style and vocabulary of verses 9-20 are decidedly different from the rest of Mark, and it would make sense for later writers to add to the Gospel because verse 8 seems like an abrupt ending.

On the other hand, most manuscripts from the fifth century on contain the verses and second century church fathers Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Irenaeus quoted verse 19, thus supporting its early existence.

One popular compromise view is presented by John D. Grassmick in The Bible Knowledge Commentary:

A view which seems to account for the relevant evidence and to raise the least number of objections is that (a) Mark purposely ended his Gospel with verse 8 and (b) verses 9-20, though written or compiled by an anonymous Christian writer, are historically authentic and are part of the New Testament canon . . . .

In other words, the early church accepted the tradition represented in Mark 16:9-20 even though many understood that Mark did not write it himself.

Again, we do not have enough data to determine the answer with certainty, so dogmatism is unwarranted.  Whether or not you believe that verses 9-20 were part of the original Gospel, according to Timothy Paul Jones in Misquoting Truth,  should not affect “Christian faith or practice in any significant way” because the concepts found in these verses echo ideas found in other Old and New Testament passages (see Luke 10:19; Isaiah 11:8; Psalm 69:21, 29 for references to protection from snakes and poison).

How Do Textual Critics Choose Among New Testament Manuscript Variants?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Textual critics are the scholars who study the manuscript evidence for the New Testament and determine which readings among the various manuscripts are likely to be the original (see previous post for background).  Although the vast majority of the variants are simple spelling or word order errors made by copyists, there are some variants in the manuscripts that are more significant.

Textual critics use some basic criteria to help determine which readings are most likely the original and which variants were added or modified by copyists.

The first category of criteria is external.  External evidence has to do with the kinds of manuscripts that support a reading.

The first criteria is the age of a manuscript.  Generally, the older the manuscript, the more likely it contains the original text.

Second, the number of manuscripts that support a reading must be taken into consideration.  If we only have a variant reading in a single manuscript, it probably was not in the original text.

Third, the geographical range of a textual variant must be considered.  If a variant reading can be found in manuscripts from many different locations, it is more likely original.  A reading found in manuscripts from only one geographical region is more suspect.

Fourth, many, but not all, textual critics favor the readings from the Alexandrian family of manuscripts, as opposed to the Byzantine and Western families of manuscripts.  Why?  They argue that the Christian scribes in Egypt were more careful copyists.

The second category of criteria is internal.  Internal evidence has to do with the actual words of the text.

The first criteria has to do with intrinsic probabilities, probabilities based on what the author of the text most likely would have written.  Textual critics study the vocabulary, writing style, and theology of an author and see if the textual variant is something that author would have written.  If the text in question is completely different in style, vocabulary, and theology, it renders the reading somewhat suspect.  The opposite is, of course, true.

The second internal criteria is called transcriptional probability.  This criteria asks whether a textual variant is more or less likely to have been created by a scribe or copyist.  Copyists generally tended to harmonize texts that appeared contradictory and expanded upon shorter texts.  So when there are two variants to be compared, the shorter one which does not attempt to harmonize is to be preferred.  Another way to state this is that readings which are more difficult to explain and which are shorter in length are usually preferred.

None of these criteria can be applied in isolation, but these are the kinds of questions that textual critics ask.  It is obviously not an exact science, but most of the time these kinds of questions can lead scholars to the most likely reading of a text.  In fact, no essential doctrines of Christianity are in question because of textual variants.  There is almost no question that we have the words of the original authors in 99+% of the text of the New Testament.

If you’re interested in some of these variants, many of them are found in the footnotes of most English Bible translations.  Check them out for yourself!

Where Does the English New Testament Come From?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Christians are often confused about this question, so I want to give a quick summary.

The 27 books of the New Testament (NT) were originally written in the common Greek language of the first century.  They were all hand-written, likely on papyrus.  These hand-written manuscripts were then copied, by hand, for hundreds of years by various Christian laypeople, professional scribes, and even monks.  In the middle of the 15th century, the printing press was invented and the NT, from that time onward, was primarily copied on printing presses.

All of the original NT documents have been lost, mostly because papyrus decays rapidly, and must be stored under dry conditions to last more than just decades.  However, we have many hand-written copies of the words of the NT that were produced between about A.D. 100 and A.D. 1450.

The words of the NT were preserved in three ways.  First, we have copies of partial and complete NT books written in Greek, the original language.  We have discovered about 5,800 of these.  Second, we have copies of partial and complete NT books written in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and other ancient languages.  These manuscripts number around 19,000 and were produced starting in the late second century.  Third, we have the writings of church leaders from the first few centuries.  We have enough quotes from the NT in the church fathers (thousands of them) that we could reconstruct a good bit of the NT with just this material.

Modern scholars (called textual critics), using these three sources, then construct a Greek New Testament.  Since there are textual variants among the manuscripts, textual critics must apply tests to determine which variants likely represent the original writing of the NT authors (more about these tests in a future blog post).

There are a couple major versions of this Greek New Testament that are used by scholars and Bible translators today: Nestle-Aland (NA 27th edition) and United Bible Societies (UBS 4th edition).

The publishers of an English Bible will use these Greek New Testaments to create their particular translation.  Each translation also must decide how they will translate — word-for-word or thought-for-thought or something in between.

Typically a large committee of scholars will actually create the English translation.

It is important to understand that most English translations are using the same Greek New Testament as their source, so the differences among English versions come down to the method of translation employed by the translation committees.

That’s it in a nutshell.  Now you know the basics!