Every literary work put into writing before 1456, when Gutenberg’s Latin Bible rolled off the presses, had to be copied by hand. With long works, such as the Bible, this was not only a tedious process, it also resulted in many variations (of greater and lesser degree) in the text. Today, well over 5,000 of these hand-copied manuscripts of part or all of the Greek New Testament survive, not to mention over 10,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate New Testament. Much as an archaeologist removes layers of a tell, carefully considering every scrap of evidence, a textual critic “digs” through the mountains of manuscript evidence and carefully “weights” every variation in the text as he or she searches for the exact wording of the original. In addition to the Greek and Latin manuscripts mentioned above, there are also hundreds of manuscripts of other early versions (such as the Coptic and Syriac), and an untold number of quotations from the New Testament in the writings of the early church fathers, all of which can assist textual critics in their search. It should be noted that the principles and tools of the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible differ so markedly from those of the New Testament that only the latter will be dealt with in this article.
The oldest manuscripts of the New Testament that have survived until today were written on papyrus, a reedlike plant which grew along the banks of the Nile. The plant’s pith was pressed together to form sheets of “paper.” Very few (comparatively speaking) papyri manuscripts have survived the ravages of time; indeed if it were not for the arid climate and hot sand for the none would exist today. The fragments of approximately 90 different New Testament papyri—all of which have come to light in this century—are by no means the only papyri yielded by the deserts of Egypt; countless secular documents, deeds, letters, literary works and Old Testament papyri have also been found.
Of the New Testament papyri, two collections rank as the most important. The first of these, owned by Sir Chester Beatty, consists of three manuscripts known to scholars as
The four manuscripts (
One other papyrus manuscript deserves mention.
It should be noted that all the papyri manuscripts of the New Testament that have been found thus far are in codex (i.e., book) form—as opposed to scroll form. It would seem that from its earliest days the Christian church preferred that its sacred writings be contained in books, just as the Jewish community preferred scrolls. Why this was so has never been fully explained, although both economic reasons and ease of finding specific passages have been suggested.3
Unlike the papyri, manuscripts written on parchment have proven to be much more 008durable. Although its use dates to at least the first century B.C., parchment (the treated hides of cattle, sheep, goats or even antelope) began to replace papyri as the favored material for New Testament manuscripts around the fourth century. This was probably due to the new status accorded to Christianity in the Roman empire during and after the reign of Constantine. Parchment, being more expensive than papyrus, was only affordable to Christians on a large scale after Constantine made Christianity the officially favored religion.
In antiquity, literary works, such as the New Testament, were written in a formal Greek style known as uncial (or majuscule). Beginning in the ninth century, this was replaced by minuscule, a “running” form of writing. Uncials are similar to our capital letters, and minuscules to our cursive.4
Because of their age and relatively good state of preservation, the oldest uncial manuscripts are enormously important. Altogether 274 uncials survive today and, of these, four or five deserve our attention. The Codex Vaticanus (known to scholars as B or 03) is generally considered to be the most important of the uncials. As its name indicates, it is housed in the Vatican library. Not only does it contain the New Testament, but also most of the Old Testament as well, that is, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint. However, the New Testament breaks off in the middle of Hebrews 9:14; the rest of Hebrews and all of 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon and Revelation are missing. Ranking next to Codex B in importance is the Sinaiticus (or aleph or 01). Discovered by the German savant Konstantin von Tischendorf in 1859 at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai (thus the name Sinaiticus), it contains most of the Old Testament, all of the New Testament and two early Christian writings: the so-called Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. Both the Vaticanus (B) and the Sinaiticus (aleph) were copied sometime in the fourth century, with the Vaticanus being slightly older. Surviving from the fifth century is the Codex Alexandrinus (A or 02), which also contains both Testaments. Textual critics generally regard Codex A to have an inferior text of the Gospels, but of the rest of the New Testament to rank just below that of B and aleph. A Greek-Latin uncial usually dated to the fifth (but sometimes to the sixth) century, named for Calvin’s successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza (who once owned the manuscript), also deserves mentioning. Codex Bezae (D or 05) contains the four Gospels and the Book of Acts and a small fragment of 3 John. Its text differs somewhat—in some places radically—from that of most other manuscripts. Indeed, in the Acts of the Apostles its text is nearly one-tenth longer than that of B, aleph or A. Yet, while most scholars dismiss the peculiarities of D, they believe that it preserves a very ancient form of the New Testament and thus may at times preserve a correct reading not found elsewhere. Finally, the Codex Claromontanus (Dp or 06), dating from the sixth century, is an important witness to the Pauline Epistles.
These are without question the most important of the uncials. There are, of course, many others, yet because of their age and good state of preservation these remain preeminent.
Nearly ten times as many minuscule (cursive) manuscripts as uncials have survived—2795 to be exact. Since the minuscule script was not introduced until the ninth century, none of the cursive codices can claim the antiquity of most of the uncials. However, some were copied directly from very ancient manuscripts and thus preserve a much more ancient text. For example, Codex 33, long known as “the Queen of the cursives,” a manuscript of the entire New Testament except Revelation, contains an excellent text, in many places very similar to that of aleph and B, even though it wasn’t copied until the ninth century. Further, Codex 1739, an excellent text of the Acts, the Pauline and Catholic Epistles, which dates from the tenth century, must have been copied from a fourth-century manuscript; in the codex’s margins are numerous quotations from the church fathers Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius and Basil, all of whom lived before the end of the fourth century.
Minuscules, like uncials, are found almost exclusively on parchment, although near the end of the Middle Ages paper, introduced in the West from China, was also used.
Heretofore we have discussed only continuous text manuscripts. There are also a large number (2209)5 with texts that are divided and arranged according to liturgical usage, very much like modern lectionaries. While some lectionaries were written in the uncial style, nearly 90 percent of those that have survived are minuscules. The vast majority of them date from the eighth century or later. They are generally considered to be of little importance in determining the original text of the New Testament.
Palimpsests and Purple Manuscripts
In an age of daily newspapers, weekly and monthly journals and “pulp” novels, it is hard to appreciate how rare writing materials could often become, and how valuable books were thought to be. Evidence of these two facts are found in palimpsests and deluxe, or “purple,” manuscripts.
Often, when parchment was scarce, the original writing was scraped off a manuscript and its leaves were washed. Then another text was written on the parchment. Yet it was impossible to erase completely the original writing. Thus, today scholars with the 009help of chemicals, ultraviolet light lamps and a great deal of eyestrain can decipher the “underwriting” of these palimpsests. (The word palim-psest derives from two Greek words meaning to scrape again or, rescraped). Without question, the most famous of these is the important Codex C, or Ephraemi Syri Rescriptus. Having been copied in the fifth century, it originally contained both the Old and New Testaments. Sometime in the 12th century it was erased and rewritten with sermons by the Syrian church father Ephraem; thus its name. (As one pundit put it, that was not to be the last time the Word of God was covered over by sermons!) Codex C was first deciphered by Tischendorf, the discoverer of the Sinaiticus and remains a very important witness to the New Testament text. Altogether there are 55 uncial palimpsests of many different varieties. For example, the underwriting of one manuscript is known as the uncial
Often parchments were dyed purple and written on with gold and silver inks. The result was beautiful and expensive books affordable only to the very wealthy. These deluxe manuscripts were not a ways appreciated; against such extravagance Jerome wrote: “Parchments are dyed purple gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are decked with jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying.”6 A number of the purple uncials, such as Codices, N, O, sigma and phi, date from the sixth century. These, as with most deluxe manuscripts, are of inferior value textually; however, minuscule 565, a ninth-century purple codex which, according to Metzger, is “one of the most beautiful of all known manuscripts,”7 contains a very good text, though by no means comparable to the great uncials B and aleph.
Every literary work put into writing before 1456, when Gutenberg’s Latin Bible rolled off the presses, had to be copied by hand. With long works, such as the Bible, this was not only a tedious process, it also resulted in many variations (of greater and lesser degree) in the text. Today, well over 5,000 of these hand-copied manuscripts of part or all of the Greek New Testament survive, not to mention over 10,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate New Testament. Much as an archaeologist removes layers of a tell, carefully considering every scrap of evidence, a textual critic “digs” […]