Bart Ehrman on What It Would Mean If We Had the “Original” Gospels

Over on his blog, NT scholar Bart Ehrman addresses the question, “What if we had the ‘original’ Gospels?” Apologists seemingly believe that if we had an original copy of Mark or Matthew that it would give what they wrote some degree of credibility. In essence, they do think we have the original reading of these texts, albeit in a veritable jigsaw of assorted manuscripts with hundreds of thousands of variants. But as Ehrman points out, whether we have an original reading or even the original texts themselves has no bearing on whether what they record is true. He writes,

Suppose we could say for certain we have every single word that Mark originally wrote about Jesus. That has no bearing on the fact that the stories he heard had been exaggerated, modified, expanded, even invented during the period of the oral tradition.  That can be shown.  It is the subject of one of my recent books, Jesus Before the Gospels.  In it I show that contrary to what people always seem to say, oral traditions in the ancient world were not always preserved accurately in anything like our sense, and were not meant to be.  They were constantly being changed.  And it can proved that the stories in the Gospels had been.

This should seem obvious but for many it isn’t. Consider Homer’s Iliad. Suppose by some miracle we found the original copy of the poem. Would this mean that the Greek gods are real? That the sack of Troy occurred exactly as it is described? Of course not. It is the same with the Gospels. No doubt, some material in them is true: Jesus’ baptism, his reputation as an exorcist, his apocalyptic outlook, and his death all seem very likely. But many stories have been, in the words of Ehrman, “exaggerated, modified, expanded, and even invented.” Thus, a degree of skepticism is warranted when reading the Gospels. 

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