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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


               9.  How was the New Testament Bible Transmitted?


Introduction to New Testament Transmission


            The New Testament like the Old Testament has no surviving autographs, and relies on the transmission of scripture over the generations.  However, there are several differences between the New and Old Testaments regarding scripture transmission. 

            The period of New Testament transmission is much shorter then the Old Testament, stretching from A.D. 50-100 to 1450’s, about 1400 years. The Old Testament range is 1800 to 2800 years (1450 B.C. to A.D. 1400’s). Additionally, there are many more New Testament manuscripts nearer to the original autographs, (A.D. 40-100) some dating to within 60-years.  Even though the Hebrew manuscripts are smaller in number, they tend to be of higher quality.

            The purpose of the New Testament manuscripts was to transmit the Gospel message to the church of Jesus Christ.  The last two verses in the Gospel of John speak for much of the Gospels and the New Testament. 


24 This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true. 25 And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen. John 21:24-25           

The disciple John recorded in written format his personal witness of life of Jesus Christ for later generations.  The process to bring this forward to future generations was the process manuscript transmission.  

Late or Early date?

             Critics of the Bible have attempted to assign a late date to the New Testament manuscripts claiming, they were committed to writing in the early third century, after a period of oral transmission.  Archeological discoveries have frustrated many of their claims; one notable skeptic was Sir William Ramsay.

            Ramsay (1850’s) regarded as one of the greatest archaeologist ever was a skeptic of the early dates attributed to the books of the bible.  He dated Acts and Luke to the mid 2nd century.  After doing a topographical study of Asia Minor and using the writings of Luke, he was forced to change his mind. He wrote,

 “I found myself brought into contact with the “Book of Acts” as an authority for the topography, antiquities and society of Asia Minor.  It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth”.

             The intricate details in the New Testament, including people, places and geographic markers, make a late date a virtual impossibility.

            In addition to Archeological evidence, manuscript evidence also point to an early date.  The John Rylands Fragment (P52), which is dated between A.D. 117-138, makes late date for the Gospel of John seem rather silly. Manuscripts such as the Chester Beatty Papyri (P52, P46, P47) (A.D. 250) and the Bodmer Papyri  (P66, P72, P75) (A.D. 200) cement an early date to the New Testament books, with the latest book being Revelation revealed during the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96).

 Oral or Written transmission?

 The transmission of the Gospels, Epistles and the rest of the New Testament was not an oral transmission but a written transmission.  The book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament was a written letter to the seven-churches in Asia.  John is specifically told to write down, what he sees and send it to the seven-churches, meaning the scripture is God-breathed or “inspired”.


11 saying, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last," and, "What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea." Revelation 1:11

 Luke like John wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, with the purpose of documenting the events in a written format for future generations.  

1 Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus Luke 1:1-3 

At the point, when the scripture was committed to paper, the witness of the apostles was apostolic witness of past events, was not the result of human effort, but inspiration from the Holy Spirit. 

26 "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.John 14:26


How was scripture written?

From the time of Moses, to the close of the Old Testament, the method of writing varied in the land of Israel.  The more permanent form being words recorded in stone, clay and metal, which could last thousands of years.  Stone and clay was limited in mobility and content, only so much could be written on a stone, and the material written, eventually the weight limited its ease of use.

            Leather and Papyrus followed clay and stone, Leather lasted longer then Papyrus but cost more, both were easier to use, but less permanent then stone and clay.  The Dead Scrolls contained scrolls written on leather, Papyrus and copper, demonstrating living recorded of how documents were prepared and transmitted in the first century. 

            The New Testament manuscripts, transmitted on papyrus and leather scrolls initially, with papyrus being the more likely alternative.  The earliest surviving New Testament manuscripts are made of papyrus. 

           During the 2nd century, the technology of writing advanced with the development of the Codex versus the scroll.  The codex was the early form of the book, which solved many problems with ease of use.  Papyrus sheets were stacked upon each other and stitched down the center, with writing on both sides.  The earliest manuscript (P52) has writing on both sides, which suggest it was an early Codex manuscript.  

            In addition to Papyrus scroll and codex, parchment, other materials were also used to transmit the scriptures.



Other materials which scripture was transmitted


Vellum: animal skins from lambs and young goats, which was rather costly, finer then parchment and more costly, the materials was soaked in lime, giving it a white sheen, which allowed a cleaner and then regular animals skins.  Velum was sometimes obtained from animals not yet born.


Parchment: The name is derivived from the city of Pergamum in Asia Minor, which was a major manufacturer of the material. The material was used by the 2nd century B.C. for scripture, as the Dead Sea scrolls demonstrated. Like Vellum, parchment was soaked in lime to give it whitish clear look.


Redressed parchment: After the original writing became faded, the parchment could  be used again after the original writing was erased.  These became known as palimpsest (Greek, “rubbed again”) rescriptus (Latin, “rewritten”). Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus ( C ) is an example of this type of manuscript.


Paper: Invented in China in second century A.D, it was manufactured in Arabia in the eighth century, introduced into Europe in the 10th century, manufactured in Europe in the 12th century, and  became common by the 13th century.

 Manuscript types


            There are four main manuscript types for the New Testament documents.   These four types of manuscripts are used to classify the 5,336 (5222)[1] New Testament manuscripts, which are known to exist. These four types are, Papyri MMS, ( P1-88)  Unical MSS (01-274), Minuscules MSS (01-2795)and Lectionaries (01-2209).

Papyri MMS (P 1-88) ) (2nd-3rd century)

The earliest Greek NT manuscripts are Papyri manuscripts, all including the earliest one (P-52) are from a codex format.  The manuscripts number 88, and are delineated by a letter P followed by the manuscript number. John Rylands Fragment is P 52.

Uncial MSS (4th- 9th century) 

            These manuscripts number about 274; they are some of the most important, if not the most important manuscripts of the New Testament. They include Codex’s, Sinaticus, Vaticanus and Alexandrinus among others. These manuscripts appeared after Constantine authorized the making of multiple copies of scripture after the council of Nicea A.D. 325.

            They utilize Greek capital letters with curves so they could be written on the common writing materials.  There are no breaks between words or sentences and no punctuation marks, these manuscripts utilize a style known as scripta continua (“continuous script”).

            These manuscripts are identified by a capital letter, mainly Latin letters, also Hebrew and Greek. Codex Sinaiticus is identified by the Hebrew letter aleph ( a)), Codex Vaticanus by the letter ( B) and Codex Alexandrinus by the letter (A).

            About one in five Uncials are palimpsest manuscripts, which are reused parchments. When the scripture text became worn, it was erased and used for another purpose. Some of the early texts have been recovered, which lie underneath a later writing.  One example is the Ephraemi manuscript dated to A.D. 345, of the New Testament was written over by in the twelfth century and replaced by the 38 sermons of a 4th century Syrian church father Ephraem.

Minuscules MSS (9th-15th century)

Following the Uncial type of manuscript was the Minuscule, which used a smaller cursive script developed at the close of the ninth century.  These manuscripts number 2,745, about eight times the number of Uncials manuscripts.  They were written from the 8th to the 15th century.  The earliest Minuscule manuscript is dated to the year A.D. 835 and contains the four Gospels, located in Leningrad State Public Library.

Lectionaries MSS

The church developed a lectionary, so both Old and New Testaments could be read over the course of a year.  Lectionaries was the scripture reading in the church, they also stand as a witness to the scripture, but in a secondary nature.  They number about 2,209, Lectionaries are hard to date, since they were used throughout Church history, and they still used the Uncial writing long after the Minuscule had taken over.  Regarding their value, Geisler writes,


It must be admitted, however, that lectionaries are only of a secondary value in establishing the New Testament text. (1.) They contain all the New Testament many times over, with the exceptions of Revelation and parts of Acts.  (2) As a result of recent scholarship on the lectionaries, they are assuming a more significant role in establishing the true text.  Lectionary text types are predominantly Byzantine, but there are certain groups that are characterized b Alexandrian and Caesarean readings.[2] 

Are the New Testament Manuscripts reliable?


            The large number of Greek manuscripts often leads to the question, how reliable is the New Testament?  When we compare the Greek manuscripts for the New Testament to other ancient books, and their manuscript witness nothing even comes close to what the New Testament offers. The Greek historian Herodotus, whose is called the father of history, wrote in the 5th century B.C., the earliest surviving work is almost 1000-years after his lifetime, with only eight known manuscripts existing. Compare this to the NT, with over 5000 manuscripts.

            Secondly, the time between the autograph and the manuscript copy is extremely short when we compare the New Testament to other works, which are not even questioned as to their authenticity.  Caesar’s war commentary on the Gallic Wars, which is dated to 44 B.C., has only 9 to 10 existing manuscripts surviving.  The earliest manuscript is almost 1000-years after the events. Compare this to the New Testament, which has some manuscripts dated to 60-years or earlier to the actual autograph, and copies of the each book of the NT, dated less then 200-years from the autograph.  In addition, we have entire New Testaments, written 300-years from the NT period.

            Sir Frederic Kenyon writes about the reliability of the scriptures,


The interval then between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.  Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.[3] 




Date Written

Earliest Copies

Time Gap

No. of Copies



800 BC

C. 400 BC

400 years




480-425 BC

C. 900 AD

1350 years




460-400 BC

900 AD

1300 years




400 BC

900 AD

1300 years




300 BC

900 AD

1300 years



Gallic Wars

100-44 BC

900 AD

1000 years



History of Rome

59-17 AD

4th Century (Partial), Mostly 10th Century

400 years

1000 years

1 partial

19 copies



100 AD

1100 AD

1000 years


Pliny Secundus

Natural History

61-113 AD

850 AD

750 years


New Testament


50-100 AD

114 Fragments 200 (Books)    250 (Most NT)    325 (Complete NT)    

50 years   100 years 150 years  225 years



The Early Church fathers

Another witness to scriptures are the writings of the early church fathers, who wrote in the early church period and centuries following.  They quote some 36,289 references to the New Testament.  If we lost all the manuscripts, we could reconstruct the New Testament from their citations alone. 




Pauline Epistles

General Epistles



Justin Martyr

(133 AD)





3 (266 allusions)



(180 AD)







Clement (150-212 AD)








(185-253 AD)








(166-220 AD)








(170-235 AD)








(324 AD)







Grand Total







 Text Families


            When the churched spread throughout the Greek, Roman, Asian and African world, the New Testament manuscripts also went with it.  Because of great distances, regional between various parts of the Christian world, centers of influence were established.  From these centers flowed manuscript copies to be used by individuals and churches.  These centers of influence are known as text types, since the manuscript can be traced to a geographic area, which it was copied.  The manuscript families are; 1. Alexandrian 2. Caesarian  3. “Western”  4.Byzantine. 

When a manuscript has a combination of text from different text families, it is known as a mixed manuscript.

            The differences between the text type is minimal and has no effect on doctrinal issues in the church.  In our attempt to find, the best reading of the New Testament, closest to the original, autograph, we need to examine the available manuscripts, and their text families.

            Regarding the variation between copies from the “text families”, Paul Wegner puts this in perspective,


It is important near the beginning of our discussion on New Testament textual criticism to note that 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 is small (approximately 10%), none of 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 of variants arises because of omissions of small Greek words or variations in word order. For example, in Greek a person’s name may or may not be preceded in 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 as “the good man”. These types of variants also make no difference in the meaning of the text.

    It is very rare for a scribe to accidentally make nonsense out of a word or phrase when copying, but it does happen. One scribe accidentally wrote the Greek letter pi instead of phi in Luke 6:41, rendering the text, “Why do you look at the fruit in your brothers eye” instead of “Why do you look at the speck in your brothers eye.” These types of errors are easily identifiable.[4]

 Textual Criticism of the New Testament


            The purpose of textual criticism is to come as close as possible to the original autograph, by examining the available and manuscripts and their texts.  We must however distinguish this from “Higher criticism”. Textual criticism does not question the inspiration of scripture, but is concerned with the text of the Bible, attempting to restore the autograph, from the available manuscripts.

            Jerome the translator of the Latin Vulgate (A.D. 382-390) was an early textual critic of the New Testament. To prepare his translation, he needed to compare various manuscripts to determine the most accurate reading, which to use as the source for his translation. Jerome’s translation was the dominant Latin translation in Europe for almost 1000-years.

            The current debate in many churches has its roots in the source manuscript used in the translation.  In the 14th century, the availability of Greek manuscripts was not like today.  The King James Bible, used a Greek text, commonly known as the Textus Receptus [5]or Received Text. 

            The forth edition of the Textus Receptus was used as the New Testament Greek source for both the King James Bible (1611) and the Geneva Bible (1557 and 1560).  This version used 15-Greek manuscripts giving variant readings in the margins.  The verse divisions of the Textus Receptus was also adopted in the King James translation.




[1] Bruce Metzger (The Text of the New Testament 1961,) numbers the NT manuscripts at 5,336, while Kurt and Barbara Aland (Der Text des Neuen Testaments 1982) differ on the number because the Alands exclude from their list manuscripts whose century of origin is uncertain.

[2]  Geisler & Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, Pg. 418,  Moody Press, Chicago 1986

[3] Ibid,  Pg. 405

[4] Paul D. Wegner,  The Journey from Text to Translation,  Pg.215,217, Baker Books, 1999

[5] The term Textus Receptus originates from the words on the cover page of Greek Bible printed by Robert Estienne (Stephanus), the Royal Printer in Paris. In the fourth edition (1557) the printer announced his conversion to Protestantism.