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    Bible-Origins  Main-Page

1. What is the Bible?

2. What is the historical background of the Bible?

3.Is the Bible Inspired?

4. How was the Bible written?

5.What are the books of the Old Testament?
(The Canon)

6.The Apocrypha, The Septuagint LXX, and the Canon

7. Who decided what books are in the New Testament? (Cannon)

8.  How was the Old Testament Transmitted?

9. How was the New Testament Transmitted?

10.  Old Testament Manuscripts and Textual Criticism

11. New Testament Manuscripts and Textual Criticism

12. History of the English Bible


               11. New Testament Manuscripts and Textual Criticism


Introduction to New Testament Criticism

             When either the Old or New Testament is read in English, the reader needs to understand they are reading a translation.  The translation is based on manuscripts, copies of copies, which were transmitted over time by humanity.  Since the original autograph does not exist, we depend on faithful transmission of the text. Textual Criticism understands with the human process of translation, there exists the potential of transmittal errors. 

            The purpose of textual criticism is  to restore as near as possible the words of the autograph.  This is done by examining the evidence, the manuscripts, comparing the manuscript to manuscript.

            The New Testament manuscripts contrasted to the Old Testament manuscripts has a greater quantity, closer to the date of authorship but lower in quality. There are about 5400 Greek New Testament manuscripts, which allows us to verify the transmission of the Greek manuscripts.  

            The dynamic links between manuscripts, manuscript transmission and textual criticism can clearly be illustrated in the commonly known, Textus Receptus[1], which is the Greek text used in the translation of the King James bible of 1611.


 Textual Criticism of the New Testament


            In textual criticism of the New Testament, we need to understand the role Greek New Testament manuscripts play.  Since the New Testament was written in Greek, the Greek manuscripts are the closest point to the original autographs. During the transmission process, variations occur, because manuscripts are copied by hand, these copyist variations, then copies of the manuscript over time.  These variations allow us to trace families of manuscripts because of similarities contained with the documents.




Just what is a variation?  The vast majority of variations have very little impact on the meaning of the manuscript.  A variation is just what means, if one manuscript spells the word different there is a variation. If one manuscript has different punctuation, that is a variation. 

            To put these variations between manuscripts in context, Paul Wagner writes,



      “The verbal agreement between various New Testament manuscripts is closer than between many English translations of the New Testament and that the actual number of variants in the New Testament is small (approximately 10 percent), none o which call into question any major doctrine.

        The greatest number of variants are differences or errors in spelling.  For example, the author of Codex Vaticanus spells “John” with only one n instead of the common spelling with two. This type of variant makes no difference in the meaning of the text.

        The second largest group arises because of omissions of small Greek words or variations in word order. For example, in Greek a person a person’s name may or may not be preceded by an article (“the”). And the phrase the good man could also be written in Greek as “the man, the good one” although in English both phrases are translated “the good man.” These types of variants also make no difference to the meaning of the text.[2]


Textual criticism’s goal is to reach back to the autograph, examining the variations to determine, what exact words would have been in the autograph. 




Procedure for New Testament Textual Criticism


1. Collecting the evidence

            Like the Old Testament, the purpose of Textual Criticism is to try to restore as near as possible the original autograph, by examining the manuscript evidence.  So the procedure would be to first to collect the available evidence.  The three primary sources of this evidence are:

1. New Testament Manuscripts

2. The writings of the Church Fathers

3. Early translation versions




2. Evidence evaluation


Human beings copied the Old Testament, and they also copied the New Testament, the errors of Old Testament copyist are the same as those in the New Testament.



3. Determine the most plausible reading

There are six principles used to determine the most plausible reading, when comparing the evidence of a verse.

1. Manuscripts must be weighed, not counted

2. Determine the reading that would most likely give rise to the others.

3. The more distinctive reading is usually preferable.

4. The shorter reading is generally favored.

5. Determine which reading is more appropriate in its context (examine literary contexts, grammatical or spelling errors, historical context).

6. Examine parallel passages for any differences and determine why they may appear.[3]


History of New Testament Textual Criticism


            From the autographs, the New Testament spread throughout the Greek speaking world, as manuscript copies were made by the various growing Christian communities. As Christianity became more established, copies of manuscripts continued to be made, some more careful then others.  As the Christian faith reached the non-Greek speaking world, translations of the New Testament scriptures also came into existence.


The Latin Vulgate

            One of the first languages, which the New and Old Testaments were translated into was Latin, specifically Old Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire.  When Constantine, the Roman Emperor became Christian (A.D. 312), Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire.  Accordingly, the Greek scriptures were translated into Old Latin, since Latin was the official language of Rome.  By A.D. 382, the variations of in the Old Latin translations reached an unacceptable point. 

            In 382, Pope Damascus appointed Eusebius Hieronymus, known as St. Jerome, the Biblical scholar of his day to  conform the Latin text with the Greek text.  Jerome used textual criticism, by comparing the Latin manuscripts to the Greek manuscripts, making sure the Latin translation was in line with the Greek, this process took 2-years (382-390). Bruce Metzger, refers to the process of Jerome translation, which later became known as the Vulgate (“common”).


“He used a relatively good Latin text as the basis for his revision, and compared it  with some old Greek manuscripts.  He emphasizes that he treated he current Latin text as conservatively as possible, and changed it only where the meaning was distorted.” [4]


Jerome’s Vulgate NT translation became the standard Bible for the Roman Empire for the next 1000-years, despite the fact copyist were included in the transmission of the Vulgate.

The Latin Bible was well established in Europe as the official Bible, however the only ones who could read and understand its message, were clergy and those fluent in the ancient languages.  Several events would occur in the 15th century, which would change the status quo of the Latin translation.


The Greek Text Revisited

            The excessive ecclesiastical control over catholic nations and abusive clergy brought about a reformation movement, which was fueled by the printing press developed by Johann Gutenberg (1398-1468), in 1466.  Gutenberg printed the Latin Vulgate, but for the first time the possibility of less expensive books (manuscripts) became a reality. 

            On May 29th, 1453 Constantinople fell to the Turkish armies, this caused many of the Greeks, who were part of the eastern church to flee to the west with their Greek manuscripts.  Until this time the Latin Vulgate translations stood unchallenged as authority of scripture for both the Catholic church and clergy.  In Germany, England and other European countries, movements to translate scripture into vernacular languages began to take hold. Advances in printing made Bibles more accessible available for the common man.  The rebirth of the scripture caused a need for a Greek text of scripture. What


Erasmus’s Greek New Testament

Like Jerome a thousand years earlier, translators could use the Vulgate, or they could look at the available Greek manuscripts as the source of their translation work.  In Italy by 1471, there were two versions of an Italian Bible, in Spain the Bible was translated in 1478, in France 1487 and a Dutch version in 1477.  A revival of scripture had taken hold in Europe pitting many of its leaders against the established Catholic Church.  The Greek text of scripture had yet to be published yet, this was about to change with Desiderius  Erasmus of Rotterdam ( 1466-1536), who is credited preparing the first Greek text in 1516.

      Erasmus was born the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest and a physicians daughter. Both parents died at an early age, his guardians sent him to a school in Hertogenbosch conducted by the Brethren of the Common Life, a religious group which taught the virtue of monastic life. Erasmus became a monk in the Augustine order (1485-92).

            Erasmus became known for his scholarship in Latin and his disdain for corruption of the church.  He was released from his vows and went on to teach at Cambridge, where he saw he need to learn Greek.

            The Swiss printer Froben asked Erasmus to prepare a copy of the Greek New Testament, which he agreed. Erasmus left for Basel Switzerland in July 1515, to begin this work. The publisher was in a rush to finish the project, knowing Cardinal Ximenes was also preparing a Greek text for publication, later known as the Complutum Polygot.

         Erasmus had hoped to just find one Greek manuscript for the whole volume and publish it along side his new Latin translation this was not the case.  He was saw the manuscripts needed correction, he ended up using a half dozen Greek Minuscule including Codex 1, a tenth century, which often agrees with the earlier uncial texts, this he used least.  The work was completed in ten months and had hundreds of typographical errors.  These errors were corrected in later editions.

            One of the early disputes about the work of Erasmus was the verse I John 5:7-8, Erasmus did not include the words “the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth”.  Erasmus was accused of removing God’s word, Bruce Metzger records his reply:


Erasmus replied that he had not found any Greek manuscripts containing these words, though he had in the meanwhile examined several others besides those on which he relied when first preparing his text. In an unguarded moment Erasmus promised that he would insert the Comma Johanneum, as it is called, in further editions if a single Greek manuscript could be found that contained the passage.  At length such a copy was found [now designated Greg. 61]—or was made to order!  As it now appears the Greek manuscript had probably been written in Oxford about 1520 by a Franciscan friar named Froy (or Roy), who took the disputed words from the Latin Vulgate. Erasmus stood by his promise and inserted the passage in his third edition (1522), but he indicated in a lengthy footnote his suspicions that the manuscript had been prepared expressly in order to confute him.[5]


Erasmus Greek Text had five editions, Luther used the second edition in his translation of the German Bible in 1522 and William Tyndale used the third edition for his English translation. The fourth edition was the superior work, the text had three parallel columns, the Greek Text, the Latin Vulgate, and Erasmus’s own Latin translation.  Erasmus incorporated some of Cardinal Ximenes translation work in his fourth edition seeing the advantages the Complutum Polygot, Ximenes Greek translation. He used it to modify his translation.  His text became the standard text for about four hundred years, though there were better.


 Robert Estienne (1503-1559) (Stephanus)


            Estienne is also known as Stephanus in Latin, this Paris publisher published four editions of the Greek New Testament (1546, 1549, 1550, 1551).  The first three were prepared for the French government in Paris, the fourth edition was after Robert Estienne made a confession of his conversion to the Protestant faith.

            In the first and second editions, Robert Estienne used Erasmus’s work and Cardinal Ximenes’s Complutum Polygot and combined their readings. The third edition, included a apparatus with various readings from 14 Greek manuscripts in the margins. The fourth edition was of Estienne Greek text was flanked on both sides by the Latin Vulgate and Erasmus’s Latin translation, this edition is also the first to appear with modern verse divisions.


Theodore de Beza (1519-1605)


Theodore de Beza succeeded Calvin in Geneva as the leader of the Reformed Protestant movement. Early in his life, his family wanted him to be a priest, he however choose to be married, and secretly married Claudine Desnoz in 1548.  At twenty-nine he renounced the Catholic faith and went to Geneva where he publicly married Claudine Desnoz.  He published nine editions of the Greek New Testament during his life.  Beza text was very similar to Stephanus fourth edition (1551).

            The work of Erasmus, Estienne and Beza would be the underlying Greek which would be used in the King James bible and every English Bible until 1881.



The John Rylands Fragment John 18:31-33 (117-138 AD)


The earliest known copy of any portion of the New Testament is from a papyrus codex (2.5 by 3.5 inches).  It dates from the first half of the second century A.D. 117-138.  (P.52)The papyrus is written on both sides and contains portions of five verses from the gospel of John (18:31-33,37-38).  Because this fragment was found in Egypt a distance from the  place of composition (Asia Minor) it demonstrates the chain of transmission.  The fragment belongs to the John Rylands Library at Manchester, England




Chester Beatty Papyri (250 AD)


This important papyri consists of three codices and contains most of the New Testament. (P.45, P.46, P.47).  The first codex(P.45) has 30 leaves (pages) of papyrus codex. Two from Matthew, two from John, six from Mark, seven from Luke and thirteen from Acts, originally there were 220 pages measuring 8x10 inches each. (P.46)The second codex has 86 leaves 11x6.5 inches from an original, which contained 104 pages of Paul’s epistles.  P.47 is made of 10 leaves from Revelation measuring 9.5 by 5.5 inches, there were 32 leaves in originally, chapters 9:10-17:2 remain. P.47 generally agrees with the Alexandrian text of Codex Sinaiticus (a)))).


Bodmer Papyri (200 AD)


Dating from 200 A.D. or earlier the Bodmer Papyri Collection (P.66,P.72,P.75P.66 104-leaves containing the Gospel of John 1:1-6:11, 6:35-14:26, 14-21.  The text is a combination of Western and Alexandrian Text types, twenty alterations belong to the Western family text type.  This papyri was prepared by four scribes and was part of a private collection, it measured 6 x 5 ¾  inches and is affiliated with the Alexandrian text tradition. P.72 has the earliest know copy of Jude, I Peter, and 2 Peter also contains other Canonical and apocryphal books. P.72 measures 6 x 5.75 inches. P.75 is 102 pages measuring 10.25 by 5.33 inches. It contains most of Luke and John dated between A.D. 175 and 225.  P. 75 has the earliest known copy of Luke, the text is  very similar to the Codex Vaticanus. (B)



CODEX SINATICUS  (340 AD) (a) Unical Text)


Considered by many, to the most important witness to the Greek text of the New Testament dated in the 4th century.  Sinaiticus is highly valued because of its age, accuracy and completeness. Found at St. Catherine’s monastery at Mt. Sinai by Von Tischendorf (1815-1874), it was acquired for the Czar of Russia. Sinaiticus contains over 1/2 of the Old Testament (LXX) and all of the new except for Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11..  Also contains the Old Testament Apocrypha. Sinaiticus is written on 364.5 pages measuring 13.5 by 14 inches. The material is good vellum made from antelope skins. Sinaticus was purchased by the British government for $500,000 in 1933.  The type text is Alexandrian with strains of Western.



Codex Vaticanus (325-350 AD) (B) (Unical Text)


Vaticanus was written in the middle of the 4th century and was not know to textual scholars until 1475 when it was catalogued in the Vatican Library.  For the next 400-years scholars were prohibited from studying it. It includes most of the LXX version of the Old Testament and most of the New. It contains 759 leaves measuring 10 by 10.5 inches. In 1890, a complete photographic facsimile was made available.  Missing from the Codex Vaticanus is Hebrews 9:14 to the end of the New Testament and I Timothy through Philemon, some of the OT Apocrypha is included. Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 were omitted intentionally from the document. Vaticanus is owned by the Roman Catholic Church and is housed in the Vatican Library, Vatican City. Vaticanus is considered an excellent example of Alexandrian script.


[1] Textus Recptus means the “received text” and was the common term for the Greek Text, which was published by Elzevir family of Leiden, the term was used as an advertising blurb.

[2] Paul D. Wegner,  The Journey from the Text to Translation, Baker Academic, Pg. 215,217,  1999

[3] Ibid,  pg. 224

[4] B.M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, 3d enlarged ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) , pg. 76

[5] Metzer, the Text of the New Testament, pg. 101