Having started work on the textual criticism of the NT only a few years ago, my knowledge has exploded due to the life long work of Bruce Metzger, who has done more for the knowledge and understanding of the text of the NT than any singular scholar in the last 200 years. Much of my own understanding and growth is due to his work, and the continued work of Daniel Wallace (his personal blog) and David Alan Black (his personal blog).
Today, the study of the Biblical manuscripts collects information from more sources, more techniques, and more researchers than in the entire history of the discipline. The subject of textual criticism of the Biblical text makes for widely read works even today. Bart Ehrman’s release of his book, Misquoting Jesus, garnered massive media attention from the day time talk circuit to late night variety shows. (For educated and confessional dissents from Ehrman, read The Gospel According to Bart by Daniel Wallace, and also Misquoting Truth by Timothy Paul Jones.) People are interested in the nuts and bolts of what went into the text of the Bible even today. However, the study continues to be plagued by problems in all areas especially the application of recent discoveries. Controversies and groups such as King James Onlyism, the reliability of the New Testament text, pseudonymous gospels, and the Jesus Seminar reach into textual criticism in order to buttress preconceived theological positions. What should be a sincere and robust examination of the evidence has instead descended into a petty and misleading battleground. The need is greater for rigorous standards in processing the facts and determining the truth. This study will examine only a small surface area of the study, but will set forth correct methods and questions when examining the evidence, it will find the scope of the research, and it will answer basic questions. The three basic issues at question are: did an autograph exist, is that autograph recoverable, and is there evidence to suggest a Divine author.
The issues of truth and fact are important both to the confessional scholar and the secular scholar in setting the rules of the road for the study of the New Testament text. Facts are proven statements about physical reality, either scientific or historical in nature. All facts, by the nature of being a fact, are true. However, not all truths are facts. For example, my mother loves me. That is true, but it is not a fact. I can prove that my mother has done things for me. That she smiles when she sees me. However, there is no fact in that she loves me, it is a truth shown by facts. Put another way, truth is the conclusion to reasoning through facts. Much of the data that will be presented here are facts, however that same data is used by others to come to a vastly different conclusion, or truth claim. The difference is not always in the data presented, but in the reasoning and arrangement of that data in order to come to a truth claim.
How this works out in New Testament textual criticism is far more simple than popularly stated. Bart Erhman states in his work, Misquoting Jesus, that there are more than 400,000 textual variants in the Bible.1 This data point is accurate, however without a context it is easily, and invariably, misleading. This is the difference between fact and truth. A fact is scientifically or historically provable, while a truth claim is the product of accurate reasoning through facts. Students of textual criticism have to differentiate between truth claims and issues of fact in order to argue accurately and persuasively.
As well, there is a Biblical law of correspondence that is often overlooked by students of Scripture. Genesis 1.1 declares that, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.” If the Scriptures are accurate, then what is found in Scripture should correspond to the reality around it. If not, then either reality is in error, humanity’s understanding of reality is wrong, or the Scriptures are wrong. For confessional believers, the last option is impossible, the first is improbable, therefore confessional students argue for a change in the understanding of reality. Without ruining the attempt at being unbiased, it will be argued in this study that the text of the New Testament is Divine in authorship.
In order to conduct a proper investigation into the New Testament textual critical issues, an understanding of how investigations are conducted is in order, for this example criminal investigations. Usually, a criminal report of an incident takes place, an investigator is sent to the scene, accesses the scene and the report of an incident, decides which questions are central to the incident, collects evidence, examines the evidence, and then comes to conclusions about the questions at the core of the reported incident.
In New Testament textual criticism, the report or awareness of an incident is the existence of writings which purport to be Scripture. The Bible had to come from somewhere; textual criticism discovers where it came from and how. The scene of the occurrence of the New Testament is the 1st century to 15th century Mediterranean region of the world. The evidence is the extant manuscript evidence, and historical documentation of their provenance.
Speaking specifically of the New Testament, 5,838 manuscripts are currently extant.2 A brief catalog of them is contained in the introductory materials of the UBS Greek text.3 Also, the Alands have included two very detailed chapters with extensive lists of the manuscripts and versions of the New Testament in their work on the New Testament text.4 (When looking for a free resource, Wikipedia maintains extensive lists of NT papyri, NT Unicals, NT minuscules, and NT lectionaries.)
The types of manuscripts are divided among different Greek writing styles such as uncials and minuscules. Capital Greek script was generally used on inscriptions and was block style, and is related to the Uncial Greek script. However, Uncials were written from the 2nd century to the 8th with a more accentuated line than that were used for capitals. This accentuated script was used for handwriting rather than inscriptions. Today, around 100 Uncial papyri manuscripts of the New Testament are extant along with 266 Uncial manuscripts written on parchment. The script poses problems for researchers in that it does not contain any space breaks between words. (See this work on Luke 3.36 as an example of a possible problem copyists had during the copying process.)
An example of Greek Uncial Script from Codex Sinaiticus:
A cursive script developed around the 3rd century in order to shorten the writing needed for Greek. This cursive script lasted until the 9th century which coincided with the emergence of the Minuscule script which is a lower case Greek script that continued until the 15th century, and of which 2,754 are in existence today.5
The types of writing implements and media varies throughout the period of textual transmission. The first texts were written on and copied to papyri which was the most prevalent writing media in the first century, and for centuries before, dating back to 3000 B.C. Egypt (cf. Job 8.11). Papyri was the pressing together, gluing, and drying of stripes of the papyrus plant that is common along the Nile Delta in Egypt, in order to create a pliable, lightweight writing surface as an advancement over clay or stone.6 Papyri lacked durability of stone or clay, and degraded rapidly in other climates. This downside as a writing medium led to the loss of countless manuscripts over the centuries to fire, water, and climate damage. There are currently roughly 120 papyri in existence today.
An example of a very ancient papyri dating back to pre-Christian times. The Egyptian Book of the Dead showing Orisis during the Weighing of the Heart ceremony.
The downside of papyri is obvious as papyri degraded at a fast rate. Eventually, vellum was developed. Vellum is the creation of a durable writing medium using animal skins (leather) after a long, arduous process. Due to issues of the nature of the skins, the materials used in the process, and the timing in the process, the quality of vellum varies widely. In order to differentiate between good and poor quality, researchers generally refer to high quality as vellum and low quality as parchment (cf. 2 Tim. 4.13). Due to the higher quality of a writing surface, vellum was embellished with extravagant gold leaf, color ink, and artistic designs. Parchment only lasted into the 14th century with the development of paper introduced to Europe from China.7
An example of very late, embellished vellum from a psalter.
The next pertinent difference in writing media is the scroll and the codex. For centuries, papyri were rolled up into scrolls for ease of storage and transportation, however rolling out a scroll in order to look up an item in the manuscript was time consuming and cumbersome. It is believed that the rise of a literate culture during the Roman period led to the need for an easier to use writing medium. From this need, the codex was developed. Instead of rolling up a piece of papyri, several leafs were sewn together in order to create a simple binding, and thus produce the first book medium. This was an incredible advancement and heightened the ability to research large works such as Roman law and long religious texts like the Bible. The codex became very popular for the writing of the New Testament for the obvious reasons of ease of use and higher durability. The majority of the current extant manuscripts are or are fragments from codices.8
Three further special types of manuscript evidence need to be mentioned. In the eastern Roman empire, known as the Byzantine Empire, the church adopted the use of a lectionary system for use in church worship. During the weekly church observances, the church would have a reader read from sectioned portions of the Bible that were selected according to theme and to calendar observances rather than the accepted order of the canon. These lessons were complied and sent to all the Eastern Orthodox churches so that each congregation was reading the same texts being read across the entire empire. Lectionaries are difficult for researches due to their thematic order, need for rearrangement to provide an example of the work in question, and the vast number of them numbering now at 2,135.9
The second special type of manuscript evidence are ancient versions. With the growth of Christianity in the later centuries, missionaries found themselves in lands and among people who did not know Greek but desired to know and read the Scriptures. These early Christian missionaries set about to translate the Greek manuscripts on hand into the languages of the people they ministered to. Due to their painstaking work, the New Testament has vast attestation in other languages ranging from Coptic, to Syriac, to Latin, to Gothic, to Armenian, to Ethiopic, to Georgian, to Slavonic, and to Arabic.10
One final witness to the New Testament does not come from actual texts of the New Testament but from quotations of it mentioned by Church Fathers. Church Fathers naturally had a high view of the New Testament, and based much if not all of their teachings upon it. They quoted liberally from it, and therefore they act as another useful witness to the New Testament.11 In fact, there is a whole category of studies known as Patristics that delves into the Church Fathers. One special wing of this area of study focuses on the quotations of the Bible in the Church Fathers.
As one of my professors expressed, many see tradition as the dead religion of the old, while it should be seen by the Modern Church as the old religion of the faithful dead. It connects us to a faith tradition that stretches back centuries, and is lined with believers who practised their faith amidst a hostile world. They stand as examples the Modern Church should follow.
The second part of Replicant will be published next week.
1Bart D Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007) 89.
2Daniel Wallace, “Latest Greek New Testament Minuscules: Gregory-Aland 2916, 2925, and 2926,” DanielWallace.com, August 26, 2013, http://danielbwallace.com/2013/08/26/latest-greek-new-testament-minuscules-gregory-aland-2916-2925-and-2926/. See also Appendix A.
3United Bible Societies, The UBS Greek New Testament, 4th rev. ed. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2007) 1-45.
4Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995) 72-221.
5Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999) 210-213.
6Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005) 4-7.
9Ibid., 46-47, and Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations, 239.
10Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005) 94-126.
Photo of Codex Sinaiticus in the Public Domain.
Antique papyrus, showing the god Osiris and the weighing of the heart. Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt. Taken by Hajor, Dec.2002, under a Creative Commons License.
Two franciscans reading on a leaf from a franciscan psalter on vellum illuminated by Giovanni di Antonio da Bologna from nothern Italy, circa 1430-1440 at the Antiquarian book and print fair in 2013 at the Grand Palais in Paris, France, published under a Creative Commons License.