The Text of the New Testament

Last time, we looked at the Hebrew manuscripts from which we derive our Old Testament translations.  This time, we will turn our attention to the Greek manuscripts that ultimately result in our New Testament translations.  Getting an understanding of manuscripts, both their discovery and comparison, will help explain why certain translations of the Bible are better than others.

Christianity has been missionary-minded from the beginning.  Jesus was an itinerant preacher who travelled about spreading the gospel of the Kingdom and calling his countrymen to repentance.  It should not surprise us that his early followers committed much to writing for the purpose of spreading the good news far and wide.  Of course, this necessitated a prodigious amount of copying to get the message out to as many as possible.  Now, up until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, scribes had to hand-copy manuscripts.  As we would expect, most of the manuscripts Christian scribes made have long ago fallen to pieces.  However, more than five thousand have survived to our own day, though most of them only contain a portion of the New
Testament (NT).

The oldest NT manuscripts come to us on papyrus, a reed plant that grew along the banks of the Nile River in Egypt.  After laying them out crosswise and pressing them together, ancient scribes used these as paper.  Although this material could not survive very long in wet climates, papyri can remain in good condition for millennia in the right conditions.  So far archeologists and textual critics have catalogued around 130 NT papyri.  “These manuscripts,” Philip Comfort notes, “provide the earliest direct witness to the New Testament autographs [originals].”1  Here are a few of them.

These papyri, designated by the gothic P, occupy the first place of importance for NT manuscripts, since they are so close to the time of the writing of the NT.  However, since they contain only fragments of the NT, we depend on later manuscripts as well.  In the second category, we have 323 uncials, which are manuscripts written on parchment or vellum (animal skins) in majuscule (capital) letters.  These survived better than the papyri, even in wet climates.  Scholars reference them with a numbering system, always starting with a 0.  Additionally, the more famous codices have a letter associated with them.  Here are a few noteworthy examples.

In addition to these majuscules, we have another 2,956 minuscule (lowercase) manuscripts, each designated by a regular number.  This writing style came into use from the 9th and 10th centuries onward.  Here are a few examples:

Lastly, 2,486 lectionaries have survived, designated by a cursive ℓ followed by a number.  These are liturgies—Scriptures arranged in the order that lectors would read them out publicly as part of worship (1 Timothy 4:13).  They include both majuscule and minuscule text types.  Here are some examples of the lectionaries.

Adding the papyri, majuscules, minuscules, and lectionaries together, we have 5,895 Greek manuscripts of the NT today.  Although these manuscripts are locked away in museums all around the world, the dawn of the digital has provided new opportunities to access them online.  Of particular interest is the excellent work that the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CNSTM) has accomplished under Daniel Wallace’s leadership.  Since 2002, they have travelled the world taking thousands of high-quality digital pictures of ancient manuscripts to post online for free access.2  Needless to say, NT textual scholars have a wealth of material to access and analyze.  For the sake of brevity, I have not included physical remains like the thirty amulets with varying portions of Scripture engraved on them, dating from the third to fourteenth centuries.  We will also not cover the thousands of early translations from Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, and Ethiopic sources.

The work of comparing Greek manuscripts to arrive at a complete text began in 1502 when a team of Roman Catholic specialists led by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros gained access to several medieval manuscripts.  After more than a decade, they produced the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, and it included both Old and New Testaments in six volumes with multiple languages in parallel columns.3  Although Cisneros had completed and printed the NT in 1514, he delayed until 1517 when the whole Bible was finished to distribute it.  However, in the meanwhile, a wily priest-scholar named Desiderius Erasmus, rushed his own Greek New Testament (GNT) to print in 1516 after successfully securing the pope’s approval for exclusive publishing rights for a four-year period.  This delayed the Complutensian Polyglot’s publication until 1520, though it was not widely available until 1522.  This deft maneuver insured Erasmus’ place in history as the first one to publish and distribute a Greek New Testament on the printing press.  However, because he rushed the work, his version contained many typos, transcription mistakes, and other errors that he corrected in subsequent editions in 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535.  Sadly, Erasmus’ versions derived from just a few later manuscripts (including minuscules 1 and 2)4 as Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman explain:

Since Erasmus could not find a manuscript that contained the entire Greek Testament, he utilized several for various parts of the New Testament.  For most of the text he relied on two rather inferior manuscripts from a monastic library at Basle, one of the Gospels and one of the Acts and Epistles, both dating from about the twelfth century.  Erasmus compared them with two or three others of the same books and entered occasional corrections for the printer in the margins or between the lines of the Greek script.  For the Book of Revelation, he had but one manuscript, dating from the twelfth century, which he had borrowed from his friend Reuchlin.  Unfortunately, this manuscript lacked the final leaf, which contained the last six verses of the book.  Instead of delaying publication of his edition while trying to locate another copy of Revelation in Greek, Erasmus (perhaps at the urging of his printer) depended on the Latin Vulgate and translated the missing verses into Greek.5

This wasn’t an isolated incident as Hannibal Hamlin and Norman Jones point out: “Erasmus translated passages back from the Latin into Greek…in many other instances whenever he mistrusted the Greek sources.”6  Even though Erasmus’ Greek New Testament (GNT) had these flaws, it provided eager translators like Martin Luther an accessible GNT to make his German translation of 1522 and William Tyndale to put out his English version in 1526.

Next, Robert Estienne (aka Roberto Stephanus), a printer and classical scholar, began putting out editions of the GNT in 1528 and 1546.  These were noteworthy for their quality and beautiful typeface, designed by Claude Garamond.  His 1550 edition was the most significant and became known as the Editio Regia (Royal Edition) and the Textus Receptus (Received Text).7  Estienne combined both the Complutensian Polyglot and Erasmus’ version along with fourteen other manuscript sources.  Furthermore, his version was the first to include a critical apparatus (i.e. footnotes), wherein he placed variant readings, as well as verse numbers.  His masterpiece quickly became the dominant critical text used by translators in Europe, holding sway until 1880.  Most of his sources were late minuscules, though he also used Codex Bezae (5th c.) and Codex Regius (8th c.).  Even though Estienne’s text was a huge leap forward, it did not take into account the papyri or any of the majuscules (apart from Bezae and Regius), since they were either undiscovered or inaccessible to the Europeans doing this work.  Unfortunately, this Textus Receptus version of the GNT grew in popularity to such a degree that subsequent attempts to improve it based on earlier manuscripts sometimes fell on
deaf ears.

For the next two centuries after the 1550 Textus Receptus came out, scholars “ransacked libraries and museums, in Europe as well as the Near East, for witnesses to the text of the New Testament.”8  Then in the late 18th century, Johann Griesbach boldly parted from the Textus Receptus and arrived at a better Greek critical text by applying a list of objective criteria to the manuscripts available to him.  Next, in the mid-19th century, Lobegott Friedrich Constantin von Tischendorf dedicated his life to locating and publishing early NT manuscripts.  He worked on a number of texts in the Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library) at Paris, including Codex Ephraemi.  Then, in 1844 he visited St. Catherine’s monastery next to Mount Sinai and noticed some manuscripts in a wastebasket that the monks were using to start fires.  Tischendorf immediately recognized the antiquity and good condition of the Greek OT manuscripts and convinced them to allow him to take 43 leaves with him.  On subsequent visits, he discovered Codex Sinaiticus, arguably the oldest complete GNT on the planet, and negotiated for them to allow him to present it as a gift to the Russian Czar so that scholars could access it.  Later, in 1933, the Soviet Government sold it to the British Museum where it now resides, though these days one can readily access the digital
version online.9

Then in 1881, Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort, working from the many discoveries found since Estienne’s Textus Receptus, built upon the work of Griesbach to produce a “truly epoch making” critical text that was “doubtless the oldest and purest text that could be attained on the basis of information available.”10  Next came Eberhard Nestle who continued the efforts of Westcott and Hort to produce a widely used pocket GNT for the Württemberg Bible Institute in Stuttgart, Germany in 1898.  This GNT went through many important subsequent editions.  Nestle’s son, Erwin, took over the revisions with the thirteenth edition in 1927, continuing his father’s work.  In 1963, Kurt Aland came on board and expanded the work to include many additional manuscripts in the critical apparatus for the 25th edition.  Since new manuscripts kept coming to light, this work has persisted to our own day, culminating in the 28th edition, published by the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft (Germany Bible Society) in 2012 (edited by Barbara and Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce Metzger).  This Greek critical text of the NT (The Nestle-Aland 28th Edition) is what most translators use as a source for our English NTs, though work is underway to produce several other Greek critical texts.

As with the OT, so with the NT, the pursuit of manuscripts along with their careful comparison (textual criticism) over the last couple of centuries has worked wonders in improving our access to earlier and less corrupt forms of the GNT.  Thus, someone studying the GNT today is seeing a text more accurate than someone reading from a manuscript a millennium ago.  Now, I cannot deny that this seems paradoxical, since someone living so long ago was so much closer to the time when the NT came into existence.  However, our text goes back to manuscripts from the fourth, third, and even the second centuries, making them older and better than what most people had access to a thousand years ago.  This is one reason why we should prefer newer English translations over older ones.  Now, I want to be clear that the differences in manuscripts affect no major doctrines.  This doesn’t mean the differences aren’t important, but it does mean that we don’t need to doubt our salvation over such matters.  Hopefully in future articles we can explore a couple of the most significant changes.

Notes

1Philip Comfort and David Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, vol. 1, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2019), p. 10.
2 Access their online database at csntm.org.
3 For the OT, the polyglot had Hebrew, Latin, and Greek in parallel except in the Torah where it included the Aramaic from Targum Onkelos as well as a Latin translation.  The NT had Greek and Latin columns.
4 Philip Comfort, Essential Guide to Bible Versions (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000), p. 102.
5 Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 200), p. 99.
6 Hannibal Hamlin and Norman Jones, The King James Bible after Four Hundred Years, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 111.
7 The translators of the 1557 Geneva Bible used either Stephanus’ 1550 edition or Jean Crispin’s slight revision.
8 Metzger and Ehrman, p. 153.
9 See codexsinaiticus.org.
10 Metzger and Ehrman, p. 183.

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