This article continues the series on the Book that most today call "the Bible." In Part 1, we looked at the Hebrew Tanakh ('Old Testament'), and a bit of its history. We examined not only the prevalent Masoretic Text, but also the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Samaritan Pentateuch. In Part 2, we saw how the Hebrew Tanakh was then translated into three major versions: The Greek Septuagint (LXX), the Syriac Aramaic Peshitta, and the Latin Vulgate. In Part 3 we briefly discussed the Aramaic Targumim, or "translations" that were written throughout the centuries, and examined some of the interesting facets of these texts. In this fourth part, we will transition over into the Greek Apostolic Writings, most commonly called the "New Testament." If you're wondering why I'm talking about it and not about the Aramaic New Testament, please see the article Aramaic Primacy of the New Testament for a full discussion.
Today, our New Testament contains 27 books, most of which are epistles. An epistle is, essentially, a letter. The division of the New Testament in the majority of Bibles is split into the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) followed by Acts, the Pauline Epistles, the General Epistles (also called the Catholic Epistles), and lastly Revelation. The Assyrian Church of the East utilizes a different order of the books, and indeed, many early manuscripts contained them in a different order.
I noted in a previous article that the Hebrew Tanakh (OT) contains very few variances. That is, for the most part, the Hebrew texts all contain the same words, with only a handful of known differences between them. For the Greek New Testament however, there are a great deal of variances. It is estimated that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 textual variants between the ~5,800 Greek texts. Now don't be alarmed, most of these are typographical. That is, most of them are differences of word order (such as, "And Yeshua said to Peter" as opposed to, "And said Yeshua to Peter") and spelling (such as "Aram" as opposed to "Ram" in Matthew's Genealogy of Messiah). In fact, there are really only just a handful of variances that can cause major differences theologically.
It has been said in the past that none of these variances cause any difference when it comes to forming doctrine. This is only half true. For instance, the oldest Greek texts available to us read, in John 1, "the only-begotten Elohim, who was in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him." Meanwhile, later texts read, "The only-begotten Son…" Notice the difference? Here, one may argue that Messiah the Son is actually Messiah Elohim, thus making a case for the Divinity of Yeshua. Others, however, would argue that "Son" is original, proving only that Messiah is the Son of Elohim, not actually Elohim Himself.
However, either doctrinal point can also be made from OTHER NT writings. So although the difference in John 1 is a MASSIVE variation, the case for or against Messianic Divinity can still be made from other texts. That is what is meant when scholars state that there is no variant that affects doctrine.
No, before going further into those variances, let's step back for a moment. The entire NT was written somewhere between 40 and 100 CE. The earliest book written is usually thought to be Paul's letter to the Galatians, written between 48 and 50 CE. This is estimated around the same time as 1 Thessalonians, written between 50 and 52 CE. The last book written was Revelation, and is usually given a date of 90 to 100 CE. This is one of the reasons why Revelation is the most disputed book in all the NT canon. There are other early books that did not make it into the NT canon that, in some cases, are thought to predate the books of the NT, written within the first 10 years after Yeshua's resurrection. Those will be discussed in a later article in this series when addressing the NT canon.
Note that each date range provided above is an estimate, a best guess. Scholars use multiple methods of trying to determine these dates, but we cannot place an exact date on them. Writing style, text-type, attributed author, contemporary writings, quotations, and even radio-carbon dating are all common methods. For example, if we come across a manuscript that gets carbon dated (despite its vague accuracy) to the 7th century, and the text-type and writing style is common for something of the 7th century, we can safely assume this text is at least as old as the 7th century. But now let's say that Origen, the church father and scholar, quoted from this book in the year 200 CE. That means that although the only copy we have of the manuscript is from the 7th century (say, 650 CE), the original is at least as old as 200 CE, since Origen quoted from it at that time.
This brings us to the next topic
Textual type (Text-type) is a term used in NT scholarship to classify and describe the texts. There are three basic text-types: Alexandrian, Byzantine, and Western. Many scholars also split Western into two separate types: Western and Cesarean. For our purposes however, we will focus on the broader three.
All Greek manuscripts are grouped into these categories. Many of them actually fit into multiple categories. For instance, Codex Vaticanus is a prime example of the Alexandrian text-type, while Codex Alexandrinus is actually mixed. It contains mostly Alexandrian readings, with more Byzantine readings in the Gospels. Here are the major differences.
(Image: Codex Vaticanus, a 4th century Alexandrian text)
Alexandrian texts are called such because they are associated with Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was a hub of secular and religious learning, and contained the largest population of Jews in all of Egypt in the ancient world. Alexandria was also home to the library of Alexandria prior to its destruction, which housed a countless number of scrolls and books, most which are now no longer extant.
Alexandrian texts are the oldest ones available to us, some even dating to the 2nd century CE. Among its characteristic features, the Alexandrian texts tend to be shorter, contain more spelling errors (usually in names), paraphrase little or none, and contain more "difficult" readings. Difficult in the sense of being, in some cases, hard to understand.
Most modern textual scholars give preference to the Alexandrian texts because of these factors. Now, you may be wonder WHY something that is harder to read, and contains misspelled names would be preferred. The reason is due to scribal tendencies. Scribes tend to add, not delete (though both do occur). Scribes also tend to make texts easier to read, not more difficult. Scribes tend to "harmonize" passages, including standardizing spelling.
Since the Alexandrian texts are older, they are closer to the original autograph than later texts. Since they tend to be more difficult, and contain less harmonization, it is generally assumed that they more closely represent the original text than the later text-types. The Coptic NT is one of the earliest translations made form Greek, and it was made form the Alexandrian text-type. Coptic is a Hellenistic-Egyptian language, written with the Greek alphabet. The two most complete fragmentary manuscripts of the Gospels in Old Syriac, Syriac Sinaiticus and the Curetonian Gospels, have a mix between Alexandrian and Western readings. The vast majority of early papyri manuscripts are Alexandrian text-type. The brittle fragments were best preserved in Alexandria due to its warm, dry climate.
The Alexandrian text-type eventually fell out of circulation after the 10th century, and as such very few copies are known to have been made after that time. Of the approximately 60 texts from the first four centuries CE, 47 of them are Alexandrian, 4 are Western, and the rest represent an eclectic mix of various non-Byzantine and Egyptian readings.
(Image: Codex Bezae, a 5th century Western text)
Western texts are called such because they originated in the Western part of the Roman Empire. Alexandrian texts are also old, with some being dated to as early as the 3rd century. The characteristics of Western texts include a tendency to paraphrase (sometimes quite heavily), longer and "easier" readings, and a tendency to harmonize sections, primarily in the Gospels.
While its older date gives it some level of credence, its tendency to paraphrase causes it to be avoided by many scholars. The Western text-type is also mostly represented in Latin and Syriac texts, predominantly in the Old Latin and Old Syriac texts. There is only one major Greek manuscript that presents the Gospels and Acts in the Western text-type, Codex Bezae. Meanwhile, its Epistles are generally in line with the Alexandrian text-type.
Some papyri fragments contain the Western type. This text-type mostly fell out of use by the 4th century, and is best attested in the Old Latin, as well as a few Greek texts from the 3rd and 4th centuries.
(Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus, a 6th century Byzantine text)
Byzantine texts are called such because they originated during the Byzantine Empire. This text-type could just as simply be named the Antiochian text-type, as it is traced in its earliest forms to Antioch in Syria (Turkey). The Byzantine text-type began to rise in the 5th century, and became almost exclusive during the 10th century, when the other text-types began to fall out of circulation.
Some Byzantine texts were even made to be extravagant works of art, such as Codex Petropolitanus Purpurpeus (pictured above), which was written on purple-dyed vellum with silver ink. Though most were not nearly as fancy.
The characteristics of the Byzantine type are smooth, well-refined Greek, fewer discrepancies, and much "easier" passages. Roughly 3/4 of all NT manuscripts are representative of the Byzantine text-type. This may seem excessive, but consider that these are mostly less than 1,000 years old. Meaning the oldest texts, though more than 1,500 years old, had a much longer time to become destroyed due to persecution and neglect.
The Byzantine text-type is often called the "Majority Text" because it represents such a large margin. Most of these are in miniscule form, which will be discussed next. In the vein of textual criticism, there are generally three schools of thought regarding these texts. One view supports a text known as the Textus Receptus (see Collation below). This view, which once dominated the scholarly community, has now been all but abandoned by textual scholars. The second view supports what is called the Majority Text, made up by taking whichever reading occurs more than any other, thus forming a "majority." Thus taking the "weight of evidence" seems to be a good practice. The last view supports the text called the Critical Text. This view now dominates the scholarly world, and for good reasons. The Byzantine text-type is best represented by both the Textus Receptus and the Majority Text, while the Alexandrian text-type is best represented by the Critical Text.
There are no known Byzantine manuscripts prior to the 5th century.
We have looked at text-type, which describes the characteristics and readings of the manuscripts. Now we will look at the manuscripts themselves. There are Unicals (Majuscules), Minuscules, Papyri, and lectionaries. Lectionaries are collections of certain writings, primarily from the Gospels, which are used for liturgical purposes in worship services. This is an early form of what eventually would become a catechism, as well as a hymnal. Since lectionaries are not complete manuscripts but rather small selections from different texts, we will ignore them for now. They have very little impact on textual criticism as a whole anyway.
Uncials, also called Majuscules, are Greek manuscripts that are written in all upper-case letters. In the first four centuries, nearly all known Greek manuscripts were written in Uncial type. Not only this, but they were written without spaces, with three columns per page. This, along with a set of abbreviations, helped to save space and paper, as these manuscripts were quite large. A collection of manuscripts, be it the entire New Testament, or even the entire Bible, is usually called a Codex.
The Text would appear, as mentioned, in three columns, and is written like: ΕΝΑΡΧΗΗΝΟΛΟΓΟΣΚΑΙΟΛΟΓΟΣΗΝΠΡΟΣΤΟΝΘΕΟΝΚΑΙΘΕΟΣΗΝΟΛΟΓΟΣ. Without spaces, it can sometimes seem hard to read. However, consider this: CANYOUSTILLREADTHISEVENWITHOUTSPACES? If you can, then you see that for someone fluent in Greek, it really isn't that difficult. (Note: the above quote in Greek is John 1:1).
Of all Greek manuscripts that are used for Bible translations today, there are four Uncials that are generally called "The Four Great Uncials." These all date to between the 4th and 6th centuries. They are Codex Vaticanus (because it was found locked away inside the Vatican library), Codex Sinaiticus (found in a monastery on Mount Sinai), Codex Alexandrinus (found in Alexandria, Egypt), and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, which is a Palimpsest (see below). These four codices form the basis for most text-critical work in modern translations.
There are, of course, also Byzantine and Western uncials, but most of the early ones are Alexandrian.
Minuscules are Greek manuscripts that are written in a minuscule or "lower-case" script. Some of these later began to incorporate spaces between words, though many still did not. Most minuscules are Byzantine, as they came about later on.
By the 10th century, virtually every Greek NT text that was copied was copied into the minuscule form in the Byzantine text-type. This was due to the opening of Scriptoreums, where professional scribes could spend all day copying texts, in mass numbers. This also explains why there are for more Byzantine manuscripts, and far more minuscules.
Along with both Uncials and minuscules, there are also copies of NT texts preserved on papyrus. Papyrus is a plant-based medium, usually made from reeds. It was most common in Egypt, where the material to make it was abundant, and there was a large school and library. Similarly, the dry and arid Egyptian climate also helped to preserve the texts. There are, at the time of this article, 134 NT papyri texts that have been cataloged. Most of these are quite small, some containing less than an entire verse. Others, though, contain entire sections of Scripture.
Of these Papyri, 44 are representative of a purely Alexandrian text, while 24 represent an exclusively Egyptian text (similar to the Alexandrian, with a few differences. These tend to favor the Coptic version of the NT). Only one (1) out of all 134 represent the Byzantine text. The others fall somewhere between eclectic (containing varied readings) and Western.
The last category is generally considered the least important, though still noteworthy nonetheless. A lectionary is a book (or even a sheet) of specific Scripture readings for specific days. They are found written in either Uncial or minuscule, and on various types of medium (parchment, vellum, etc.). The earliest known lectionary is from the 6th century, though most are from much later dates, from the 10th to 17th centuries. Think of them as an early form of a Catholic missal of sorts.
Due to their late composition, most lectionaries contain Byzantine readings, though some diverge.
A Palimpsest is a manuscript that has had its original text washed (or scraped) off, and written over. This was usually done to conserve parchment, as it could get very expensive. The two most famous Palimpsests are Ephraemi Rescriptus and Syriac Sinaiticus.
Ephraemi Rescriptus, as mentioned above, is one of the Four Great Uncials of the first 6 centuries. It contains readings from all NT books except 2 Thessalonians and 2 John, and parts of 6 books of the OT. It was written around 450 CE, but sometime in the 12th century it was taken and had its text washed away. The culprit then wrote Greek translations of 38 treatises by Ephrem the Syrian (a Syrian Church of the East 'Church Father' who wrote many poems, treatises, and other works in Syriac) on the washed manuscript. Later in the 19th century when it was discovered, scholars worked diligently to bring up the text underneath. They were eventually successful, and we are now able to read both the Greek NT text as well as what was written over it.
The other most famous Palimpsest, Syriac Sinaiticus, is one of two major copies of the Gospels in Old Syriac (aka 'Old Scratch'), along with the Curetonian Gospels. Syriac Sinaiticus was, like Codex Sinaiticus, found at a monastery on Mount Sinai. It is fragmentary, though still contains a good portion of the four Gospels, preserving a good representation of the earliest Syriac translations. It was written late in the 4th century, around 380 CE or so. About 778 CE the text was scraped, and a biography of female saints and martyrs was written over it.
Nomina Sacra, Latin for "sacred name" is a term that refers to certain abbreviated words in many Greek texts. Imagine if you had to copy an entire book of the Bible by hand. It would take a while, right? Especially if you had to copy, say, Psalms, or 2 Chronicles. Now imagine copying the entire Torah, and think of how many times you would be writing the same words. Words like YHWH, Elohim, Yisra'el, and so on. Hundreds to thousands of times. This was one of the painstaking issues that the scribes faced. So they devised a system of abbreviations. Whenever words would appear in the Greek text very frequently, they would be written in an abbreviated form to save time and space.
Imagine copying the whole NT by hand, on paper. Now the word "God" (or Elohim, as the case may be) appears MANY times. What if you could shorten the word "God" to just, say, Gd? Or "Elohim" to Elhm? Imagine how much paper you would save in the end, just by leaving out a few characters. Not to mention the number of hand cramps, stress, and overall time you would save by doing so. That is exactly what many scribes began to do. Words in Greek like Theos, Christos, Iesous, Hagia Pneuma (Holy spirit), Israel, Huios (son), Pater (father), and more, began to appear in abbreviated forms, and in many cases are written with a line over the top (as in the image below).
Now some people out there have taken note of these abbreviated forms and come up with all sorts of crazy theories. Theories of "hidden codes" and "secret messages" within these shortened words. Some even say that when Kurios (Lord) is written in short form (KS) it actually stands for YHWH's Name, and thus His Name is still in the NT! This sort of analysis, however, fails to take into account ALL uses of Nomina Sacra, including even when they are not used in reference to our Creator. For instance, in the Gospels, when Yeshua says, "A man cannot serve two masters, for he will love one and hate the other…" the word for "master" IS kurios, and in many texts like Codex Sinaiticus, it DOES appear as KS. So does that mean there are two YHWHs, and we have to choose which one of the two we're going to serve? Of course not.
Others have taken some of the Nomina Sacra out of their context, and inferred rather silly things. For instance, the most common Nomina Sacra abbreviated form of Iesous (Yeshua) is IHS (in Greek, there is no "H" like we have in English. There is an eta (H/η) which makes an "ey" sound). Iesous is spelled iota-eta-sigma-omicron-upsilon-sigma, so the abbreviated form takes the first two letters (iota and eta) and the last letter (sigma) and writes it as IHS. This appears in many Greek texts. Now later on, the Catholic Church and the Jesuits adopted this Nomina Sacra, IHS, as part of their insignia (along with the Chi-Rho symbol they borrowed from Ptolemy of Egypt). Now we have many pseudo-scholars coming out these days saying that IHS is a symbol of the devil, originates in Egypt, and stands for Isis, Horus, and Set, three Egyptian deities. While these are indeed three Egyptian deities, and it is quite possible that the Roman Catholic Church is paying homage to them in many ways, the simple fact is that the Greek letters IHS do not stand for that. In fact, given that IHS are actually Greek letters, the H cannot stand for Horus, since - as I previously mentioned - the H makes an "ey" sound, not a "ha" sound.
These various Greek manuscripts have been studied and collated many times over many hundreds of years. We will discuss these more in-depth in a later article, but for now I will briefly mention what this means.
When you read the NT in an English Bible, you are reading something that has been translated from Greek (unless you're reading a KJV, in which case when you read the last part of Revelation [and 1 John 5:7] you're reading something translated from Greek, to Latin, back to Greek, then into English). Now what you should realize is that not one single Bible version out there is translated from one single manuscript. Before translators can translate the Greek into English, they first have to compile the different texts. Remember, most Greek texts are fragmentary, and many early ones did not contain the same 27-book canon we have today (also to be discussed later).
So where do out Greek texts come from? Scholars collate (compare and combine) the best manuscripts we have available. This means comparing all the known copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and so on and so forth. The ones that these scholars believe to be closest to the original, are then collated into a Greek Critical Text, such as the Nestle-Aland text. The Textus Receptus, the Greek NT that the KJV was translated from, was collated in the 1500s by Desiderius Erasmus, the Catholic Bishop. Erasmus performed a text-critical work, and put together an entire New Testament. The flaws in his text, however, are now apparent. While scholars today have thousands of texts to work from, Erasmus had less than 10, and all of them were the later Byzantine form. In fact, he did not even have a complete Greek NT, as some of the sections of Revelation he took from a Latin text, and translated BACK into Greek.
The other theory regarding manuscript collation is that of the Majority Text view. This view takes whatever reading occurs more often than the others, and uses it; so if 300 manuscripts do not contain John 8:1-11, but 315 manuscripts DO contain it, then the Majority text view says that it does belong in the text.
Again, these issues will be looked at in subsequent articles.
This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive history of the Greek New Testament, but nonetheless should help provide you with an introductory crash course. In the next article we will look at the early translations of the NT into other languages, and how that affected the text and transmission of the NT.
I hope and pray this study has blessed you.
Be Berean. Shalom.