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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Interviews With the Authors: Myths and Mistakes—Zachary J. Cole

Series Introduction: Leigh Ann Thompson | Interview: Sarah Allen and Zachary J. Cole

In November the book Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism—edited by Peter Gurry and Elijah Hixson— hit the shelves. Each chapter in the book considers a “myth” about manuscripts and the text of the New Testament and offers a response with helpful information for apologists and lay people who are interested in how data about manuscripts influences our understanding of the reliability of the text of the New Testament.

Some of the authors of Myths and Mistakes have kindly participated in interviews with the CSNTM interns about their contributions. Over the next few weeks we will post these written interviews here on CSNTM’s blog. We hope you enjoy learning from the book’s contributors, and we highly recommend purchasing the book for yourself!

Zachary J. Cole (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the author of the chapter entitled “Myths About Copyists: The Scribes Who Copied Our Earliest Manuscripts” in the recently published work, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. Cole currently serves on faculty at Union Theological College in Belfast, equipping students in the areas of New Testament and Greek. He also is an active minister in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. He earned his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh and authored the book Numerals in Early Greek New Testament Manuscripts: Text-Critical, Scribal, and Theological Studies.

What benefits have you experienced in your own research and teaching by studying the habits of New Testament scribes?

One clear benefit of studying the habits of New Testament scribes is that it improves one’s ability to solve textual problems. Getting to know the tendencies of particular copyists allows a more nuanced consideration of textual problems because we learn something about how they worked. If you know, for example, that one scribe in particular was more prone to omit text than to add it, then this knowledge might change the way you assess the work of that scribe in a another textual problem. This takes us back to Westcott and Hort’s famous (and sound) principle: “knowledge of documents should precede final judgement upon readings.”1  

Another benefit is the cumulative effect of seeing that the vast majority of New Testament scribes were good at what they did and that they were mainly interested in copying text not creating it. That is, we might get the impression that scribes played fast and loose with the text, editing it and changing it as they pleased. However, the more I study the work of New Testament scribes the more I see a different picture. By and large, most scribes aimed to make good, reliable copies of their texts, not new literary creations. We can see this fact demonstrated in a number of studies, but anyone can observe it for themselves if they take the time to examine the work of a scribe.

What are the main fallacies embedded within the common generalization that scribes were “unprofessional?” 

The main fallacy here is an uncritical use of the word “professional.” We need to be clear about exactly what that word is supposed to mean. Does “professional” here mean competent or trained or skilled or scribes by trade? Or something else?

It is perhaps true that most of the early scribes were not “professional” in the sense of being scribes by trade, but this by no means implies that these copyists were untrained or incompetent. On the contrary, in the ancient world we see that a range of individuals were able to competently transcribe, take dictation, copy, and produce texts, not just “professional scribes.” For example, many slaves and freed-persons working in sizeable households were fully capable of producing accurate, carefully made texts and did so on a regular basis. Such individuals may not have been “professionals” in the sense of being scribes by trade, but they were nonetheless routinely entrusted with a wide range of tasks involving copying texts, and they were often highly trained for the task. 

When we examine our earliest manuscripts of the New Testament, there is not much evidence to suggest that they were made by copyists who were scribes by trade. There may be some exceptions. P46, for example, has marginal stichoi counts, which suggest the scribe was paid for the work. Nevertheless, these very same manuscripts are quite obviously the work of experienced, skilled copyists who knew what they were doing. Were they “professional” scribes? Probably not. Were they competent? Definitely.

For a helpful discussion of this issue, see Kim Haines-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature (Oxford University Press, 2000).

We know that some scribes displayed great consistency in their copies. Why would it be significant for their accuracy to be attributed to an ability to sit for long stretches of time versus the possibility of consistent breaks?

I’m not sure we know enough about ancient scribal habits to discern the importance of being able to sit for long stretches of time. At least I don’t. What we can see, however, is that experienced scribes demonstrate a consistency in handwriting that extends for long stretches of text. That is, inexperienced writers tend to get sloppy as the work goes on, such that the end of a letter or text will become increasingly illegible. Frankly, their hands get tired. Experienced copyists, however, are able to maintain a consistency of legibility for long portions of text. This fact is demonstrated by Roger Bagnall and Raffaella Cribiore in their book Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt: 300 B.C.–A.D. 800 (University of Michigan Press, 2006). They show that even brief letters—consisting of just a few paragraphs—illustrate this decreasing legibility when penned by inexperienced writers. 

What is important to note, and not very well appreciated, is that our earliest New Testament papyri of substantial length show a remarkable ability to maintain legibility and clarity of script for considerably long stretches, chapter after chapter. Notable papyri such as P45, P46, P66, and P75, for instance, exemplify an impressive consistency in script for very long stretches that we hardly even notice—perhaps because we are accustomed to seeing it in modern printing. This overlooked feature provides additional support for the assertion that our early copyists were experienced and well trained for the task.

Why is it important to understand that a scribe’s ability does not necessarily determine the care he or she might give to their copy?

Scribes were humans. This of course means that they could be inconsistent, physically tired, or prone to migraines. Some scribes may have been capable of brilliant calligraphy but relatively unconcerned with accuracy on a given day. Evidently, this was a widespread problem in antiquity; the best looking books were not always the most carefully copied books. On the other end of the spectrum, some scribes used unpretentious scripts and produced books that were visually unimpressive but nevertheless accurate and reliable. Given this complexity, when we evaluate the work of the scribe we need to be careful to observe not just the scribe’s ability to produce attractive work, but also their ability to produce accurate work. Some scribes achieved both; some didn’t.

A further complicating factor is the nature of the text that the scribe was intending to copy. Sometimes, scribes accurately copied bad texts; that is, he or she received a poor copy of a book but faithfully reproduced that poor copy. Identifying such instances can be tricky.

All in all, it can be extremely difficult to untangle these issues when it comes to a particular manuscript. We need to resist the urge to psychologize, impute motives to a scribe, or say more than the available evidence actually allows. We should be thorough in our research and cautious in our conclusions. 

How do you personally deal with the tension between the known and the unknown concerning the study of scribal habits?

Before we knew anything about scribal habits, we still had a good, reliable text of the New Testament. That should be enormously encouraging, and it should keep things in perspective. The more we learn about scribal habits and manuscript history, the more we are able to make minor adjustments here and there in the text; but it has remained remarkably stable in substance. That is something to be thankful for.


1The New Testament in the Original Greek: Introduction-Appendix (Macmillan, 1882)

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Interviews With the Authors: Myths and Mistakes—James Prothro

Series Introduction: Leigh Ann Thompson | Interview: Sarah Allen and James Prothro

In November, the book Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism—edited by Peter Gurry and Elijah Hixson— hit the shelves. Each chapter in the book considers a “myth” about manuscripts and the text of the New Testament and offers a response with helpful information for apologists and lay people who are interested in how data about manuscripts influences our understanding of the reliability of the text of the New Testament.
Some of the authors of Myths and Mistakes have kindly participated in interviews with the CSNTM interns about their contributions. Over the next few weeks, we will post these written interviews here on CSNTM’s blog. We hope you enjoy learning from the book’s contributors, and we highly recommend purchasing the book for yourself!

James Prothro is the author of the chapter entitled “Myths about Classical Literature” in the recently published work, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, in which he explains the need for apologists to clarify the content of the number(s) of manuscripts they present in comparative arguments. Classicists use a “functional manuscript count” that eliminates some existing documents which do not contribute to their textual decisions. New Testament textual critics, on the other hand, often include the number of all known artifacts in their count, called an “inclusive manuscript count.” Prothro earned his PhD from the University of Cambridge and studied classics at Washington University in St. Louis. He currently serves as an assistant professor of theology at Ave Maria University and as a sub-editor of The Religious Studies Review.

What makes a good understanding of the classics so important when doing textual criticism and considering the reliability of the Bible?

For textual criticism, knowing classics can help us appreciate the task that New Testament textual critics have and also appreciate how hard they are working on their methods. There is a plethora of New Testament manuscripts, in all probably around five thousand. Most classical works have far fewer, and most of them are copies made much later than some of the early manuscripts we have for the New Testament. Many classicists, therefore, do their work by whittling down their manuscripts to a smaller number of ones they really need to use to get at the best, earliest text. For the New Testament, it is much more complex, so it requires a more complex kind of method. This is also important for apologetics. People defending the reliability of the NT regularly suggest that if we trust classical works then we have to trust the NT since the NT scholar has more to work with to get the words right. But usually they give an inaccurately low number for classical works, citing a functional, whittled-down number that doesn’t actually reflect the number of manuscripts that exist for classics. Understanding how classical text criticism works can help apologists compare numbers more fairly.

You mention in your chapter that the growing number of New Testament manuscripts should affect the arguments used by apologists. How do you think they should rephrase their statements?

The numbers of all manuscripts—both of the New Testament and of classical texts—should be accurately presented if they are going to be presented, especially if someone is going to hang the New Testament’s reliability on it. But more importantly, I think that the larger number of New Testament manuscripts presents a great opportunity for an apologist to talk about text-critical method, how we use what we have to choose what words most probably go where in our printed Greek Bibles and ultimately in people’s translations at home. Having more manuscripts doesn’t necessarily mean we have got the right text. What it means is that we have more to work with. What makes the real difference is whether our methods are up to the task of helping us sift through the material and come to a sufficiently reliable conclusion about what’s most likely the earliest recoverable text in a given line of the New Testament. And we do have good methods and are improving them to the best of our knowledge. This is a great jumping-off point for an apologist to highlight the methodological refinements of the coherence-based-genealogical-method and the work of the INTF or the CSNTM. Explaining that helps people know that we don’t just have more stuff; we have the tools to make the best use of it and achieve a reliable text.

You acknowledge that apologists are strapped for time in fact-checking their numerical data research and that the variety of data out there is immense. What resources should apologists use on the classics to better ensure that the data they use is accurate?

My chapter in Myths and Mistakes suggests several places to go for better data. The Leuven Database of Ancient Books is a helpful place to start—though one can’t just count down the page and have the true “number” (it is more complicated than that). Apologist Clay Jones has also gone to the trouble to update numbers for apologists, and my chapter has references to recent articles by papryologists and others. Better, I would suggest citing a classicist, and to remember that you may be reading a functional rather than exhaustive number of manuscripts even there. But my more enthusiastic advice would be not to get too specific about numbers. Defending a particular number may take time better spent elsewhere, and even a perfectly accurate number will change with the next discovery. Even counting the New Testament manuscripts can be dodgy when we get overly specific (Jacob Peterson’s chapter in Myths and Mistakes illustrates this well.) More important, the apologetic point of the comparison doesn’t need that many numbers: it can be established just on the basic claim that there are more manuscripts of the New Testament and that we have manuscripts of relatively earlier date compared to classics. If one wanted to be more specific about numbers, I would maybe offer one or two examples and give more specific information about the state of this or that classical text. Focusing on fewer allows apologists to do more work with less material and show their work to the audience rather than reproducing charts from other apologists with questionable numbers.

Based on what you believe to be the goal of New Testament Textual Criticism, what is the most effective way to count manuscripts?

For apologetics, the best way to count the manuscripts is to research in the right places and, always, be generous. One of my favorite quotes from Ambrose of Milan is “No one heals himself by wounding another.” It’s a comparison but not a competition. And the actual reliability of the New Testament isn’t helped by making it one. It’s tempting to drive down the classical numbers to suggest that people who believe they know what Herodotus recorded should at least believe what Luke did, which can be an effective argument, but at the end of the day Christian apologists don’t want people to believe Luke the same way they want them to believe Herodotus (and I wouldn’t believe everything in Herodotus even if I had an ancient sound recording of him confirming that he actually said it). And if we are quite blunt—returning to your question—counting manuscripts comparatively actually has nothing to do with the goal of textual criticism because knowing how many more manuscripts we have of John than Plato’s Republic does not help us reconstruct the earliest recoverable text of John. The comparison with classics can offer people something good to chew on, but the real question of the text’s reliability is done by the real work of critical method, and talking about that is the best way to get others to consider whether they should trust that the scholars are doing a good job.

Friday, January 24, 2020

You Can Donate Stock to CSNTM, and Now May Be the Time!

Did you know that there are ways to partner financially with CSNTM besides giving cash?

One such way is by giving stocks or bonds. Here are some of the benefits:

  1. For many donors whose assets have increased in value, stock and bond contributions can yield significant tax savings—allowing you to receive the most benefit for your generosity. Now may be the right time for you to make a stock donation. After a year of strong performance and the major U.S. markets hitting record highs, you might be facing capital gains taxes in the future. Making a gift of stock may be a way to invest in the Center’s mission and capitalize (intentional pun) on the impressive yields your own account may have brought you.
  2. Just like a cash gift, donations of stocks or bonds directly support the Center’s mission to digitally preserve Greek New Testament manuscripts. CSNTM stands at the head of the stream of Bible translation and scholarship around the globe. The images we digitize are utilized by scholars to produce new and improved editions of the Greek New Testament; the very editions used by Bible translators, pastors, missionaries, and students to impact the world. Moreover, through initiatives like our internship program, CSNTM has helped train 30% of the past decade’s rising New Testament textual scholars! The true impact is incalculable.

This way to give may be a strategic opportunity for you and your family to meet your giving and financial goals. We know that you give out of the kindness of your heart and because you believe in preserving manuscripts so that we can study the New Testament more. Public tax benefits are one important aspect of determining when and how to give. At CSNTM, we hope the opportunity to give stocks and bonds directly will serve you well. 

We’ve already received our first stock donation—a generous gift worth nearly $500. Will you join this friend and partner with CSNTM with a stock donation?

Here’s how it will work. If you’re interested in giving stock, you can fill out this form or contact Andrew Patton, CSNTM’s Development Manager. He will provide the information and support that you need to execute the transfer from your broker to CSNTM. Once you’ve followed your financial institution’s process for making a transfer, please alert us about the incoming contribution so that we know it is from you. Then the Center will gratefully receive your donation and direct your gift toward our upcoming projects.

(972) 941-4521

We sincerely appreciate your ongoing generosity and commitment toward our mission!

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The information on this website is not intended as legal or tax advice. For such advice, please consult an attorney or tax advisor. Figures cited in any examples are for illustrative purposes only. References to tax rates include federal taxes only and are subject to change. State law may further impact your individual results. You should consult with your financial planner regarding the best options for managing your assets and giving to charitable causes.

CSNTM is a US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with the Federal Tax ID: 30-0121808.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

SMU Debate Between Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman Is Now on YouTube

The second debate between Dr. Bart D. Ehrman and Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, held at SMU, is now available to view on YouTube. The two scholars debated the issue of whether or not we can trust the text of the New Testament on October 1, 2011.

The debate was an exciting event. At the time, it was the largest attended debate on the text of the New Testament ever. In the first few days of ticket sales, the venue sold out—a site on SMU's campus with a capacity of 500. So, the debate location was changed to the McFarlin Auditorium to accommodate the 1500+ people who signed up.

The debate video not only includes the remarks and rebuttals by Drs. Ehrman and Wallace, but also includes Q&A from the audience and post-debate interviews with attendees. Dr. Mark A. Chancey, Professor of Religious Studies at SMU, served as emcee.

You can view the debate video by following the link

The Center has sold copies of this debate for years, and now is making it available for free digitally. Those who still wish to have a physical copy can purchase one online here. We hope you enjoy watching (or re-watching!) the 2011 debate between Ehrman and Wallace.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Interviews With the Authors: Myths and Mistakes—Elijah Hixson

Series Introduction: Leigh Ann Thompson | Interview: Joy Singh and Elijah Hixson

In November the book Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism—edited by Peter Gurry and Elijah Hixson— hit the shelves. Each chapter in the book considers a “myth” about manuscripts and the text of the New Testament and offers a response with helpful information for apologists and lay people who are interested in how data about manuscripts influences our understanding of the reliability of the text of the New Testament.

Some of the authors of Myths and Mistakes have kindly participated in interviews with the CSNTM interns about their contributions. Over the next few weeks we will post these written interviews here on CSNTM’s blog. We hope you enjoy learning from the book’s contributors, and we highly recommend purchasing the book for yourself!

Elijah Hixson is the co-editor of Myths and Mistakes, and he also wrote a chapter on "Dating Myths," that explains the methods scholars use to date manuscripts and the significance of a manuscript’s date. Elijah works as a junior research associate in New Testament Text and Language at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He earned his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh and contributes to the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog.

What inspired or got you interested in the field of New Testament Textual Criticism (NTTC)?

It was really a combination of things that got me into NTTC. For one, I grew up in a church that used a Textus Receptus-based Bible, and most of the churches around us in our area were either KJV-only or liberal. The KJV or at least NKJV were just the default versions that a person used. My youth pastor was KJV-only as well, even if our church wasn’t (though we did use the KJV until I was 12 and then the NKJV after that). I knew that if I broke from this, I needed to be serious and know my stuff really well, because God’s Word is important. Running in parallel to that is that I majored in chemistry as an undergraduate, and I like measuring things and working in a lab. With manuscripts, I can still do that to an extent. It’s more hands-on to argue that a spot of ink is an α not a λ than it is to argue what Paul meant in a random verse in Galatians. Add to that the fact that I realized in seminary that I don’t have a good personality for being a pastor, but I wasn’t bad with Greek, and I loved manuscripts. Everything just came together into NTTC.

You talk about the discrepancy in citing the variants. How do you define a variant? And how does the existence of variants add or detract from the claim to the reliability of the text?

I would define a variant as any place where a manuscript of a work has a different reading than another manuscript/edition/etc. of that work. I don’t think the existence of variants matters very much about the reliability of the text. It would be suspicious if we had no variants—that would look like someone has messed with the text to craft a version of it that they wanted to promote and to silence the opposition. But we don’t see that. What we see is consistent with the way Paul describes our stewardship of the Gospel in 2 Corinthians 4:7, "But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us" (ESV). We see copies of the Scriptures that have mistakes from the copyists, but God never allowed so many mistakes such that God’s truth is lost. A great example of this is that you could have someone using the KJV and someone using the ESV in the same local congregation. In that scenario (a very real one that happens), you’d have two people using two ‘forms’ of the New Testament that are about as far apart as they can be, yet not only are both of them Christians, both of them are part of the same local church. To me, that is a powerful illustration that we do have a reliable text—we can be certain about the vast majority of it, and where we lack complete certainty, it is not as though we have no idea what the original text was. Where there is uncertainty, there is still certainty that the text is usually one of two or (in exceptionally rare cases) three competing readings, and when we start looking at specifics in those places, we realize that nothing in those differences is enough to make a difference in an overall system of belief. In short, the New Testament that we have is reliable.

Robert Price used words and phrases like “probabilistic arguments, ambiguous evidence which is impossible to verify,” to describe his faith-shattering experience of the uncertainty of the text at hand. How would you as the author describe the text at hand today?

At the end of the day, we believe what we want to believe. Yes, God works in mysterious ways and uses different kinds of things to bring different kinds of people to faith, but if someone wants to cast aside the Scriptures, there are always excuses for it. But that’s the same with everything, isn’t it? Just last night, someone told me that the only way I could even attempt to make a believable case about an issue was if I responded page-by-page, evidence-for-evidence to every bit of a very specific 300-page book written on that subject in the 1800s. Well, “A fool hath no delight in understanding, but that his heart may discover itself” (Prov. 18:2 KJV). If someone is setting up that specific and exhaustive a standard, then he or she is almost certainly not interested in the truth. It’s similar to people who claim manuscripts are fake because they’ve never been scientifically tested—but testing is often destructive and destruction is against the policies of nearly every library. Without credible reason to subject a manuscript for testing, it will never be needlessly damaged. No amount of evidence is enough to convince someone who is thoroughly committed to disbelief. Only a work of God in someone’s heart can do that. I would say that we can be certain that we have not lost God’s Word, and though there may be cases when the process of textual criticism cannot at present decide between two competing readings (and many of these places are not translatable differences), we can even in those cases be certain that the original text is one of those options (and for a good estimate of how many places those are that make any kind of real difference, simply look at the footnotes in a few modern Bibles that say things like “some manuscripts say…”). And honestly, that’s consistent with the experience of many Christians before the printing press—if a manuscript had a correction where the corrected and the uncorrected reading were sensible, how could a reader know with certainty which reading was correct? Well, you simply had faith in Christ, that he will not let you down, and you trust that one of those readings is correct, and you do what you can in faith, and you trust that whatever you do will not be enough to snatch you out of Christ’s hand.

What impact do you desire to see in the Christian world through this book?

What impact do I desire to see through this book? I would hope that it has a long-term trickle-down effect of helping those who defend the New Testament’s reliability sharpen their arguments. Richard Porson said, “To use a weak argument in behalf of a good cause, can only tend to infuse suspicion of the cause itself into the minds of all who see the weakness of the argument.” Would that we could avoid that!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

From the Library in 2019: In Case You Missed It

Some of our most popular blogs each year are the From the Library posts, so for those of you who are new to CSNTM or might have missed an earlier post we created a summary of the From the Library posts from last year. Enjoy reading (or re-reading!) these four pieces. We look forward to continuing the From the Library series in 2020. 

The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) Digital Library contains hundreds of Greek NT manuscripts, each with its own story to tell. In our From the Library series, we will feature individual manuscripts and common manuscript features using images digitzed by CSNTM. We hope these articles showcase the unique beauty and significance of these fascinating documents. This is part of CSNTM’s mission to make NT manuscripts accessible for everyone.

From the Library: Lectionary 1807

Lectionary 1807, a manuscript from the National Library of Greece in Athens, is particularly noteworthy as an artifact because of its ornate silver covers, carefully crafted in the high middle ages. We examined the various images on its cover including the large scenes of Jesus' death and resurrection.


From the Library: Decorated Letters in Greek New Testament Manuscripts

New Testament manuscripts are not only vehicles of Scripture passed down to future generations through careful copying, but also are repositories of many features that make them unique, beautiful, easy to navigate, and eye-catching. One of the most common features are ektheses—a visual marker that signifies the beginning of a new paragraph or other section by giving the first letter prominence through color, decoration, or position on the page. This post examines different styles of ektheses in five New Testament manuscripts.


From the Library: Eusebian Canons in Greek New Testament Manuscripts

When readers open up the beginning of a Gospel manuscript, whether physically or digitally, they often come across pages of lists that are arranged in columns and made up of Greek letters. These lists are often some of the most decorated pages of Greek Gospels manuscripts. This article explains these elaborate tables—the Eusebian Canons—describing how they functioned in New Testament manuscripts and how they connect to modern New Testaments.


From the Library: Byzantine Lectionaries and Advent

This post looked at readings for Advent in New Testament lectionaries—manuscripts arranged for reading in Christian worship. Byzantine lectionaries recorded the story of Jesus’ birth for reading when Christians gathered to celebrate their Christmas services, and the ordered readings led the congregation and clergy to reflect on the significance of the birth of their holy savior—as Jesus is described in the introduction to the Christmas readings in Lectionary 1957.