Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Were the Early New Testament scribes mostly zealous amateurs, or were they well trained and careful Professionals?

The Book, Whose Word is it?: The Story Behind  Who Changed The New Testament and Why by Bart Ehrman, one of the most intelligent agnostics and former evangelical New Testament scholar has been a huge controversy for many people. His book is often quoted by various Christian Apologists in defending the reliability of the New Testament. 

Bart Ehrman’s criticisms are severe because he censures copies of the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament considered by Christians as treasure. Ehrman claims the manuscripts has many errors since the early scribes were not trained and not careful which resulted in many mistakes. The arguments of Bart Ehrman are frequently used by detractors of the Bible including our Muslim friends.

Ehrman even quoted the statement of Origen, in his book, Misquoting Jesus on page 52:
“The difference among the manuscripts have great, either the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.”
Origen as a text critic himself was very precise about textual difference in the early Third Century, differences that he was aware of.  Today, we have an array of witnesses (thousands of them) through independent lines that lets us know the history of the text to a significant degree. We are aware of what the differences are in the history of the text; including what the best options is where we do not know exactly what the text is.  

So Ehrman’s spin and conclusion here is misleading when he spins great doubt about the text we have today. There are places where there is discussion but we know what the choices are and what that means. 

Origen's words say nothing about the competency or training of early scribes, but rather about negligence and audacity. Also, Origen clearly speaks of "some scribes," not all or even most. 

What is a “Scribe”?

This person is a copyist or secretary. Scribes were employed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greco-Roman empire and Palestine.  

If a church decided, for example, that it wanted a copy of a biblical book made that they already owned a scroll or codex (book form) for, they would find someone who would hand-write another copy on parchment or papyrus.

Bart Ehrman used Acts 4:13 to prove that Apostle Peter was illiterate since he was only a fisherman.

In Bart Ehrman’s book Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are
"In short, Peter’s town was a backwoods Jewish village made up of hand-to-mouth laborers who did not have an education. Everyone spoke Aramaic. Nothing suggests that anyone could speak Greek. Nothing suggests that anyone in town could write. As a lower-class fisherman, Peter would have started work as a young boy and never attended school"(Acts 4:13).

I have two rebuttals for the arguments of Ehrman. 

First, Apostle Peter’s native language was probably Aramaic not Greek. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t communicate truth in Greek. Jews knew Greek starting after the conquest of Alexander the Great in 333BC. 

Second, Apostle Peter was uneducated as a fisherman but it could not have stopped him from using scribes for documentation. In biblical times, scribes were frequently engaged by all kinds of citizens. If Apostle Peter and Apostle John employed scribes, does it mean they were not authors of the books accredited to them?

A Textual Criticism scholar, Philip Comfort wrote about the tasks of scribes during biblical times. 
 “In biblical times, the scribe undertook a wide range of writing tasks. Often the scribe sat at the gate of the city or in an open area undertaking numerous kinds of writing tasks for illiterate citizens, correspondence, writing of receipts, and contracts. More officially, he kept records and wrote annals. Religious scribes copied the Scriptures” (Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism, Philip Comfort, p.18).

In the previous page, Comfort clarified, In the earliest centuries of the church, copies of New Testament books probably would have been produced one by one. Many of those who made such copies were literate and trained (in some fashion or another) in Alexandrian scribal practices and/or Jewish scriptural practices. Of course, there were degrees of training…”(Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism, Philip Comfort, p.17).

Regarding the issue of early Christian scribes being zealous amateurs, let us read what a scholar, Colin H. Roberts wrote and often quoted by textual criticism scholars. Many of them agree with the evaluation of Roberts. The problem is many still don’t understand his arguments and points. 
“What I think they all, in varying degrees, have in common is that, though the writing is far from unskilled, they are the work of men not trained in calligraphy and so not accustomed to writing books, though they were familiar with them; they employ what is basically a documentary hand but at the same time they are aware that it is a book, not a document on which they are engaged. They are not personal or private hands; in most a degree of regularity and of clarity is aimed at and achieved. (p. 14, COLIN Η. ROBERTS 1977 PUBLISHED FOR THE BRITISH ACADEMY BY OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS 1979 H. Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt)

There are assumptions that unpretentious scripts of early New Testament papyri reveal an unprofessional standard of copying. But this is not really the actual argument and point of and the understanding of others is not right. Roberts does not claim this, nor is it evident from any other study. 

According to analysts, Roberts proved Christian scribes were trained to copy these documents. Early Christian scribes were really trained! The copyists of documentary papyri were indeed scribes. They needed training, proficiency, and capability to perform the work of professional scribes.

In our analysis, many scholars analyzed the early Christian scribes. Because of their in-depth analysis, these scholars saw the level of training and capacity of early Christian scribes. They were trained, competent and not zealous amateurs as claimed by agnostics. 

According to Dr. Kim Haines-Eitzen, a Professor of Religious Studies with specialties in Early Christianity in her book, Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature: Literacy, Power and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature on page 75:
"What is striking about our earliest Christian papyri is that they all exhibit the influences of literary and documentary styles, and they all seem to be located in the middle of the spectrum of experience and level of skill. The scribes who produced these copies fit well into the portrait of multifunctional scribes — both professional and nonprofessional — whose education entailed learning how to write a semicursive style"  (Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature, Kim Haines-Eitzen, p. 75)

Dr. Haizen-Eitzen carefully examined the evidence of early Christian scribes found in the literature and papyri. 

This means the early Christian papyri was not the work of “amateurs” but that of “multifunctional” scribes. Haizen-Eitzen used the word “multifunctional” to depict the scribes as being capable of producing works of literature and documentary texts. It shows many early Christians scribes were trained professionals. 

She also said: "the fact that Christian papyri (as well as many classical papyri more generally) all exhibit the influences of documentary and literary styles indicates scribes who were either comfortable with and experienced in both styles or trained in more general styles of writing that could be adapted in rather simple ways to different tasks; it seems to me that the latter scenario is more likely since had these scribes had extensive training in literary book hand, their hands would have manifested this training. Since experience, by its very definition, is based upon practice, we might well suppose that the earliest copyists of Christian literature were trained professional scribes, whose multifunctionality may well have been suited best for a private context" (Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature, Kim Haines-Eitzen, p.68).

In other words, there was no doubt that the early scribes were competent, trained, and experienced. 

In fact, four of the ancient manuscripts show the work of trained scribes.

Experts say P4 or Papyrus 4 was written in the second half of the 2nd century. 

According to the book of  Philip Comfort on page 43, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts:
“probably the work of a professional scribe or at least one trained in producing literary texts; displays a text very close to P75 and B.” 


P39 was written in the first half of third century.According to the book of  Philip Comfort, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, on page 147, “Grenfell and Hunt said P39 generally agrees with Codex Vaticanus. In fact, it agrees verbatim with Vaticanus and nearly so with P75. The Alands consider P39 to have a “strict” text."


P75 according to experts on manuscripts was written in the early third century. It has 144 pages. 

According to Comfort, “The copyist of p75 was a professional, Christian scribe. The professionalism shows through in his tight calligraphy and controlled copying. According to Martin and Kasser, “The writing is an attractive vertical uncial-elegant and well-crafted”  (The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, Philip Comfort, 503).

Comfort also said in his book, Encountering the Manuscripts on page 20 that P75 is “the work of an extremely well-trained scribe.” There are many other manuscripts that we can show. Just read pages 19-21 of Encountering the Manuscripts by Philip Comfort and we can see the manuscripts produced by well-trained scribes.


P104 was written in the beginning of the second century.  According to page 643 of the book by Philip Comfort, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, “The handwriting is carefully executed in what could be called the Roman uncial with a rounded letters and to finish every vertical stroke with a serif or decorated roundel.”

The manuscript in image were taken from The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.  You can visit their website at

For those studying textual criticism, you can see the consistency, legibility, and clarity of scripts over long periods of copy. The ability of scribes to be consistent regardless of how short or long they wrote proves that scribes are competent.  

Starting the 4th century, majority of New Testament manuscripts are obviously done by competent and well-trained scribes. Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are good examples of this trend. But my argument in this article, however, was on the early manuscripts (that is, prior to the fourth century). 

1.  Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism ( IVP Academic (November 5, 2019)) pp. 132-38, Edited by Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry
2. Bart D. Ehrman, Who word is it?: The Story Behind Who Changed The New Testament and Why, (Bloomsbury Academic (March 1, 2006)) p.71
3. Bart D. Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, (HarperOne; 1st edition (March 22, 2011) p.87
4. Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism, (B&H Academic; First Edition edition (November 15, 2005) p.18
5. Colin H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief in early Christian Egypt (The Schweich lectures of the British Academy ; 1977), p.14
6. Kim Haines-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature, (Oxford University Press; 1 edition (December 7, 2000)), p. 75
7. Philip Comfort, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts,  Tyndale House Publishers

No comments:

Post a Comment

Was Jesus Crucified on a Cross or Stake?

 1.) According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Lord Jesus was crucified on a torture stake and not the cross.  Their view is not based on the la...