New Testament Manuscripts
172, 2017 January)
New Testament (NT) manuscripts are defined as those manuscripts
that are still extant that were copied manually prior to the invention
of the printing press. This article gives an overview of the New
Testament manuscripts. It is a summary of a talk that I gave at
"Early New Testament Manuscripts by Kevin Rogers”)
New Testament Papyri,
Highly Significant Papyri,
The great uncial codices,
Criticisms of the manuscript record, and
The significance of the NT manuscripts.
early New Testament manuscripts were recorded on papyrus, parchment
was made from the pith of papyrus plants. The method originated
in Egypt in 4th millennium BC and papyrus was originally used in
scrolls. In the 1st century the scrolls were cut into sheets to form
codices (described later). The writing implements were reed pens made
from straw or bamboo and the ink was most commonly made from soot, but
they sometimes used octopus ink.
was made from animal skins, such as calf, goat or sheep. It
originated in the 24th century BC in Egypt. It was cheaper than papyrus
and gradually displaced it.
was a type of parchment, which was made almost exclusively from
calf skin, which was higher quality. It was treated by scraping and
other processes and the animal skins were from young or stillborn
manuscripts were recorded on scrolls, wax tablets and codices.
were made from sheets of papyrus or parchment that were glued
together, divided up into pages and then rolled into scrolls at both
ends. They were written on one side only and could only be read
tablets originated in about the 14th century BC. They were made of
wood on which was a layer of wax. They were portable and reusable, as
the text could be erased by melting the wax. The writing
implement was a stylus that was used to scratch grooves into the wax.
Early sources underlying the gospels most probably were recorded on wax
tablets in Aramaic that was subsequently translated into Greek and
recorded in codices. In "Jesus, evidence and argument or Mythicist
Myths”, Maurice Casey gives an argument for why this could be so. Luke
11:42 states, "But woe to you Pharisees, for you tithe mint and rue and
every herb and pass over justice and the love of God”, whereas Matthew
says "dill and cumin”. So one says rue and the other says dill. The
Aramaic words are both 4 letter words that differ only by one character
that can easily be confused on a wax tablet. Casey describes several
other examples that account for minor differences between Matthew and
is Latin for "book”. The codex was invented by Romans in the 1st
century and was the forerunner of the modern book. A codex was made
from sheets of papyrus or vellum, bound in book form and written on
both sides. Hence any fragment written on both sides was immediately
recognisable as being from a codex. It allowed random access rather
than being read just sequentially. The codex was associated with rise
of Christianity and most of the early codices were Christian writings.
Thus any fragment that was double sided was almost exclusively
Testament manuscripts are generally dated using palaeography or
radio carbon dating. Palaeography is the study of ancient handwriting
and exploits the fact that language, alphabets, characters and
abbreviations vary over time. The date ranges for date estimates are
between 25 to 125 years. Radio-carbon dating provides date ranges from
10 to 100 years.
New Testament papyrus is a copy of a portion of the New Testament
made on papyrus. These are the earliest witnesses to the original text
of the NT.
papyrus fragment is identified by a numbering system that was
introduced by Caspar Rene Gregory (1846-1917). He used the gothic
Blackletter B, but P is commonly used, e.g., P52. The number indicates
the order of registration, not the date of the manuscript. The number
of papyri that have been discovered in the last 100 years has increased
significantly. In 1900 9 were known, in 1963 76 were known and in 2015
131 were known. A full list of the known papyri is available at
Chester Beatty Papyri and the Bodmer Papyri are 2 highly
significant collections of papyri.
Chester Beatty Papyri are a group of Greek, papyrus, biblical 2nd
& 3rd century codices. They were bought from an Egyptian dealer by
Alfred Chester Beatty who announced the collection in 1931. They
include P45, P46 and P47. They are now mainly housed in the Chester
Beatty Library in Dublin and the University of Michigan.
Bodmer Papyri were discovered in Pabau, near Dishna in Egypt in
1952. They were supposedly stolen from the Pachomian monks (who were
followers of St Pachomius) and smuggled to Switzerland. They in fact
were purchased by Martin Bodmer (1899-1971). They include 22 papyri
including P66, P72 and P75. In 2007, they were transported from
Switzerland to the Vatican in "an armed motorcade surrounded by people
with machine guns", and are now kept in the Vatican Library.
Testament manuscripts are usually classified into 3 text types:
Alexandrian text types are from the region of Alexandria in Egypt.
These are early well-regarded texts that were produced using a
carefully controlled copying process. These are the basis of most
western text-type is also called the Caesarean text type. These
manuscripts are also very early texts, but come from the regions of
North Africa, Italy and Gaul (France). They were less well-controlled
and used more paraphrases and included corruptions.
Byzantine text-type is also called the Koine text-type, as it was
from the Greek part of the Roman empire, where Koine Greek was the
predominant language. This is a late tradition and comprises 95% of all
New Testament manuscripts. They contain the most paraphrases and
additions and are the basis for Reformation era translations (such as
the King James version) and they are also the basis of the
textus-receptus, which was used to produce the German Luther Bible.
Highly Significant Papyri
section briefly describes some of the highly significant Papyri.
Rylands Library Papyrus P52 is also called the St John's Fragment.
This has writing on both sides, which made it immediately identifiable
as a Christian papyrus codex. It was purchased in 1920 at an Egyptian
market and stored in the Rylands library in Manchester. In 1935 CH
Roberts identified it and realised its significance. He dated it to
about 125 AD. It contains 2 texts on either side from the gospel of
John, which are both from the trial of Jesus:
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned
Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?” "Is that your own
idea,” Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?” "Am I a
Jew?" Pilate replied. "Your own people and chief priests handed you
over to me. What is it you have done?" (John 18:31-33), and
"You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus
answered, "You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and
came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of
truth listens to me." "What is truth?" retorted Pilate. With this he
went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, "I find no basis
for a charge against him. John 18:37-38
was from Egypt, which is a long way from the source of writing
(supposedly Ephesus). Thus the original must have been written
is part of the Bodmer collection, which was discovered in 1952. It
contains much of the gospel of John. It has been dated variously to 150
AD, 200 AD or the 4th century. It omits the account of the woman caught
in adultery (7:53-8:11).
is part of the Chester Beatty collection. It is dated about 250 AD
and comes from Egypt. The original codex would have contained 220
pages, but only 30 survive. It contains sections from the 4 gospels and
is highly significant. It is an Alexandrian text-type and is also
part of the Chester Beatty collection. It is mostly dated 175-225 AD
but others date it earlier in the range 150-175 AD. It contains most of
Paul's letters plus Hebrews. In particular, it contains 8 chapters of
Romans (the remainder were in lost pages), virtually all of 1 & 2
Corinthians, 2 chapters of 1 Thessalonians, all of Ephesians,
Galatians, Philippians and Colossians, but it doesn'
t include the
pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus).
is part of the Bodmer Collection and is dated 175-225. It contains
most of Luke and John and 102 of the original 140 pages have survived.
other significant early papyri are:
P47, Parts of Revelation, 3rd century,
P90 (late 2nd Century that contains John 18:36 to
P104 dated 150 AD and contains Matthew 21:34-37.
This is the earliest surviving text of Matthew.
P98: Revelation 1:3 to 2:1, 2nd century
P4: Luke 1-6, 175-250.
interesting recent development is accessing texts from mummy masks.
Pharaohs had gold masks, rich people had gold plated masks but
middle-class Egyptians made masks from paper-mache. In other words,
they used unwanted documents to form the masks. Researchers have now
developed a technique to chemically treat the masks and recover the
original documents without destroying the writing. This could become a
major source of ancient manuscripts of all sorts.
has been claimed that a fragment of Mark from the 1st century has
been recovered, but this is yet to be confirmed. So it looks as though
a lot of poor mummies are going to lose face for the sake of manuscript
great uncial codices
describes a style of Greek writing. Words are constructed
using rounded, single stroke, connected capital letters, which is a
forerunner of the cursive style. There are no regular gaps between
words. The great uncial codices are virtually complete Greek copies of
the Old and New Testaments. The major documents are:
Codex Sinaiticus (from Sinai),
Codex Vaticanus (held in the Vatican),
Codex Alexandrinus (from the Alexandrian region),
Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus.
documents were written on vellum by professional scribes and were
based on the most accurate texts of the time. They used a different
order of books from what we know, as they were written before the NT
canon was finalised.
Sinaiticus is an Alexandrian text-type that was written in the
4th century. It was discovered by Constantin von Tischendorf in the
19th century at Saint Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula and
was supposedly retrieved from the rubbish in the monastery. Tischendorf
visited the monastery from 1844 and retrieved the manuscript in 1859,
which he delivered to Alexander II, the Tsar of Russia. The text was
published in 1862. The Soviet Union sold the codex to the British
Museum in 1933 and the complete document is now available online. There
was controversy over the acquisition process but it is one of the most
valuable resources for establishing the original NT text.
Vaticanus has been conserved in the Vatican Library since the
15th century. It is dated to the 4th century, it is one of best texts
and is a leading example of the Alexandrian text-type. The provenance
is debated, but it may have been brought from Constantinople at the
fall of the Byzantine Empire (1438-1445).
Alexandrinus is held in the British Library and is dated from 375
AD to the 5th century. It was brought from Constantinople in 1621 and
presented to James I in 1624. The provenance is unknown but it is most
probably from Alexandria.
Ephraemi Rescriptus was supposedly composed by Ephrem the Syrian.
It was written on recycled parchment that originally contained
scriptural texts. The prior text was washed off and the Biblical text
written over the top, although the prior text is still largely visible.
It is held in the National Library of France and dates from the 5th
century. Some bits are missing and it is mainly Alexandrian text-type.
It was brought to Florence from Constantinople at its fall 1453 and
presented to Catherine de Medici in 1550.
are a huge number of NT manuscripts but relatively few from the
2nd and 3rd centuries. Why are there not more? Two reasons are the
Roman destruction of Christian books and natural attrition.
was the Roman emperor from 284 to 305. He instigated the
Great Persecution in 303 AD, which was eventually ended by Constantine
through the edict of Milan in 313 AD. Diocletian rescinded the legal
rights of Christians. Christians were forced to comply with Roman
religious practices or face imprisonment or execution, but the
application was mixed, depending on the attitude of the local Roman
administrator. Diocletian ordered the Manicheans to be burnt alive
along with their scriptures. He ordered the destruction of all
Christian scriptures, but Christians often offered apocryphal works
instead and hid their genuine scriptures.
half of all early fragments have been discovered at a single
location at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. A large group of manuscripts were
discovered in a rubbish tip by Bernhard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt (among
others) in the late 19th century. The manuscripts were dated from the
1st to the 6th century and included OT and NT documents, some 2nd
century and many 3rd century. The reasons that so many were discovered
at that particular location were the hot dry climate and the fact that
it did not flood. Oxyrhynucs was a fair way from the Nile and received
its water supply via a canal. It was a prosperous regional capital, but
after the Arab invasion in 641 the canal system fell into disrepair and
the city was abandoned and left untouched. There is still a huge amount
of potential excavation under the existing town. However, this example
shows that documents were only preserved in the best of circumstance
and indicates the huge manuscript loss rates that occurred elsewhere.
of the manuscript record
criticisms of the NT manuscript record are:
There are no originals
The copies are not close to the events
The text was corrupted by Chinese whispers
There are a small number of copies
The majority of the copies are late
the above is true of all major ancient documents, but much
more so. The situation for the NT is far better than any other ancient
document. There are well over 20,000 NT manuscripts prior to the
invention of the printing press in 1440. There are over 5,600 Greek
manuscripts and the remainder are translations in other languages, such
as Latin, Coptic, Syrian, Armenian and Georgian. In addition, all of
the NT, except for 11 verses, is quoted by the early church fathers and
it is virtually possible to reconstruct the entire NT just from the
early church fathers who had access to more early copies than we do.
next best text is the Iliad, which has 1,757 copies. Even more
poorly represented are the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Aristotle,
Julius Caesar, Pliny, Tacitus, Josephus and other great figures from
history, for which we have more like a dozen manuscripts each. The
earliest NT copies are also much closer to the originals (35 to 100
years) than other documents. The earliest copy of the Iliad is 500
years after the original. Other major documents are in the range 750 to
are over 20,000 manuscripts prior to printing press but the
number does indeed increase with time. Most are late. The early ones
are more important and the latter ones are less important but there are
more of them. The family of NT manuscripts is like the trunk, branches,
twigs and leaves of a tree. Textual critics can compare the leaves,
twigs and branches and identify the trunk.
of the NT manuscripts
New Testament text is far better attested than any other ancient
document. Its accuracy is far better than 99%. There are some
uncertainties but most of these are trivial. So we can have a high
level of confidence that what we now read is very close to what the
original authors wrote. Does that make it true? Of course not, but that
is another issue.
Reasonable Faith Adelaide.