Professor Ehrman is more direct in his assertion: Critical scholars are fairly unified today in thinking that Matthew
did not write the First Gospel or John the Fourth, that Peter did not write
2 Peter and possibly not 1 Peter. No other book of the New Testament
claims to be written by one of Jesus’ earthly disciples. There are books by
the apostle of Paul, of course. Thirteen go by his name in the New
Testament, at least seven of which are accepted by nearly all scholars as
Why, then, do our bibles label the four gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke and
John? Some scholars, Ehrman being just one, suggest something similar to branding—the
modern advertising term for the commercial practice of soliciting celebrity endorsements
to sell the product. 222 Secondcentury Christians who favored these four gospels had a
choice—either acknowledge the gospels’ anonymous authorship or fake it. The bluff
proved irresistible, and they chose to assign the gospels to apostolic authorities, thereby
illegitimately “branding” the gospels as authoritative.
So let’s see—we have no evidence any book of the Bible, gospels included, were
authored by Jesus’ disciples. Furthermore, most scholars accept Paul’s authorship in only
half of the works attributed to him. Regardless of who authored what, corruptions and
inconsistencies have resulted in more manuscript variants than words in the New
Testament. Lastly, even scholars of textual criticism fail to agree. 223 Why? Because
“considerations depend, it will be seen, upon probabilities, and sometimes the textual critic must weigh one set of probabilities against another.”
224 Furthermore, with regard to
the more complex textual problems, “the probabilities are much more evenly divided and
the critic must sometimes be content with choosing the least unsatisfactory reading or
even admitting that there is no clear basis for choice at all.”225
Expanding on this thought, “Occasionally, none of the variant readings will
commend itself as original, and one [i.e., a textual critic] will be compelled either to
choose the reading that is judged to be the least unsatisfactory or to indulge in conjectural
226 Hmm. Conjectural emendation, conjectural emendation—isn’t that
scholartalk for “educated guess”?
So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, just as Jeremiah bemoaned the “false
pens” of the Old Testament scribes, the thirdcentury church father, Origen, bemoaned
the “false pens” of New Testament scribes:
The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either
through 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. That was the voice of a thirdcentury church father, commenting on just the first
couple hundred years. We have to wonder what other corruptions occurred in the
seventeen to eighteen centuries that followed. But whatever happened in the centuries
that followed, by the third century scribes entrusted to copy and preserve New Testament
manuscripts modified them.
Sure, many copying errors were unintentional and/or inconsequential. But
Ehrman tells us many others were not only deliberate, and not only significant, but
doctrinally motivated. 228 And this is the scriptural vandalism we care about—the
additions, omissions and alterations, whether deliberate or not, that changed the intended
message of the New Testament manuscripts.
These changes had tremendous impact on the course of Christianity. The insertion
of the Johannine Comma (as was previously discussed) lent false support to the doctrine
of the Trinity. The addition of the last twelve verses of Mark misguided some
Appalachian sects into snakehandling, and many evangelical denominations into the
unintelligible practice of “speaking in tongues.” The altered spin on Jesus’ existence
steered theology toward deification of Jesus and the doctrine of atonement. In the
process, the scribes didn’t transmit the message of Jesus, they transformed it.
One case in which a corruption has been identified and corrected is Acts 8:37.
This verse is not found in the most ancient manuscripts, and appears to be an insertion by
a later scribe. For this reason, it has been dropped from many modern translations,
including the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version. Should
we look it up, we’ll find the NIV and NRSV, as well as other respected translations,
enumerate Acts 8:37, but leave it completely blank.
Take another example. Bruce M. Metzger tells us Acts 15:34 was unquestionably
inserted by copyists. 229 He is not alone in this opinion. Again, both the New International
Version and the New Revised Standard Version enumerate this verse, but leave it blank.
The New King James, however, retains it, as do the Latin bibles.
In similar fashion, many other New Testament verses have been dropped from the
most reputable bibles, such as the NIV and NRSV, but retained in the New King James
version. The most notable omissions are: Matthew 17:21, 18:11; Mark 7:16, 9:44, 9:46,
11:26; part of Luke 9:56, 17:36, 23:17; John 5:4; Romans 16:24; part of 1 John 5:7. Whereas illegitimate insertions are recognized and omitted by some bibles, others
ignore them. In fact, they not only ignore the illegitimate insertions, but they sanction
Should we wish to document some of these errors, the logical place to start is with
the most respected books of the New Testament, the gospels. We have already disclosed the fact that Jesus’ disciples did not appear to have
authored the gospels. However, even if they had authored the gospels, Jesus did not seem
to feel his disciples could handle everything he wanted to tell them (John 16:12—“I still
have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now”). He considered them to
be of little faith (Matthew 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, and Luke 8:25), lacking understanding
(Matthew 15:16), and despaired over having to bear with that “faithless and perverse
generation …” (Luke 9:41).
So perhaps we shouldn’t be particularly disturbed to learn that the disciples did
not author the gospels. Perhaps they weren’t the best men for the job. After all, those who
should have known Jesus best—his own relatives—thought him crazy (Mark 3:21 and John 8:48), and the very people to whom he was sent rejected him (John 1:11). So the
issue of greatest concern shouldn’t be who authored the gospels, but whether they are
To use the book of Matthew as an example, several passages raise both eyebrows
of the speculative reader. Matthew 2:15 asserts that Jesus was taken to Egypt “to fulfill
what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my
son.’” Well, that’s the proposal. However, exactly which scripture was Jesus’ detainment
in Egypt supposed to fulfill? Hosea 11:1. So what does Hosea 11:1 say, exactly? “When
Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”
A scriptural match—no?
The match only looks good if we stop reading. Should we continue to the next
verse, the full passage reads, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I
called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing
to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:12, NRSV). Taken in context, we
can only apply this passage to Jesus Christ if, at the same time, we assert that Jesus
Similar errors abound. A short two verses later, Matthew 2:17 comments on
Herod’s genocide of the infants of Bethlehem with the words, “Then was fulfilled what
had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing
and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more’” (Matthew 2:17, NRSV).
One minor problem.
The referenced Old Testament passage, Jeremiah 31:15, refers to an actual event
in history, namely the abduction of Rachel’s children, along with those of the Israelite
community, by Sargon, the king of Assyria. The scriptural parallel is not just strained and
stressed, it is nonexistent. So too with Matthew 27:10, which references a quote in
Jeremiah 32:69. In this case, the referenced quote simply isn’t there. Furthermore, Matthew 27:10 speaks of a potter’s field, priced at thirty pieces of silver. Jeremiah 32:69
speaks of Hanamel’s field, priced at seventeen shekels of silver. Both were actual
transactions separate in time and place. Any effort to claim “fulfilment” of previous
scripture is capricious at best.
And the list goes on. We can well understand why some New Testament authors may have sought
validation through claiming fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. However, this tactic
backfires when referenced scripture turns out to be misremembered, misapplied or
frankly nonexistent. Rather than conferring legitimacy, such errors render the document,
as well as the author, sadly suspect.
Having touched on some of these errors, now let’s look at a short (and by no
means complete) list of transparent inconsistencies.