Replicant: Part Two of a Study of the Transmission of the NT with Focus on the Autographs, Copies, and their Recovery

Continuing from last week’s research into NT textual criticism, this week we will examine the provenance of the NT manuscripts and the methods of NT textual criticism.


The text of the New Testament geographically matches the spread of Christianity throughout the ancient world. This means that the distribution of the materials range all across the Mediterranean region of southwestern Europe, southeastern Asia, and northern Africa. These locations provide various data points to the provenance of the materials due to climate considerations, nature of the local church copying procedures, and likely connections due to travel and commerce. Text families were formed by the 4th century, and they represent regions of Alexandrian, Byzantine, Caesarean, and Western.

Beach in Cyprus.


These regions/text families are rated according to date, accuracy, and the independence of each witness. Concerning the date, the earliest is obviously preferred due to the likelihood of having less opportunity for error in the copying process. The issue of accuracy in the text family has to do with the smaller errors of transposition of letters and others. These sort of smaller error seem to point toward a faulty copying process. The independence of text families is complicated to explain, but basically has to do with sources within the text family and how they relate to each other. If a source is related to another source, then they are probably sharing an earlier source, and their numerical value should be viewed as one source rather than multiple.

For example, there are ten student copies of the notes versus one teacher copy of the notes. Does that mean a researcher should deduce because there are more student copies that they are the correct copy of the original simply because they are more numerous? That would simply be incorrect.

So these general rules allow researchers to more accurately represent the textual evidence. This orders the text families from most accurate/reliable from best to worse as: Alexandrian, Byzantine, Western, and Caesarean.

The textual evidence for the New Testament ranges in time from from the late 1st century until the 17th century. Wallace cautiously notes that a manuscript currently in the collection of Dallas Theological Seminary might be from the later 1st century.1 At minimum, papyri from the Gospel John, specifically P52, has been confirmed to be from the early 2nd century.2 This confirms evidence of a written work exists within 50 – 75 years from the writing of the book. Evidence this old and in this level of agreement with later manuscripts defeats arguments for both multi-valence, multiple “originals” that were finally compiled into an approved original, and for a Johannine community edition, the erroneous belief that the disciples of John wrote John’s gospel.

The condition of the various manuscripts ranges from remarkably well preserved and extremely ornate with gold leaf and designs all the way to tattered fragments with many of the earliest being extremely fragile. Due to their condition, most manuscripts remain in the care of universities and special collections in order to preserve them for future generations.3 Today’s advanced computer technology allows digital photographs to be taken of the manuscripts and for instant sharing of digital images of the manuscripts for researchers all over the globe.4


The actual method of ancient writing fell into two simple methods: writing by the actual author himself or transcribing by an official scribe, also known as an Amanuenses (see Rom. 16.2; 2 Thess. 3.17). These are the only two methods that are given Biblical support. There is no Biblical nor extra biblical support for writing committees producing “originals.”

However, the copying process varied. The first and by far the most secure option was the paying of a professional scribe. A professional was highly trained and was paid at a rate based on the quality of his work which produced a highly motivating incentive to accurately copy.  The early church faced the large expense of paying a scribe for only one copy of a text.5

The second option, also very reliable, was the usage of a scriptorium.  A scriptorium was copying of a text using multiple scribes at one time being led by a reader.  This was also fairly expensive, however, this method was not available en masse until the later centuries. The scriptorium thrived during the monastic period as many professionally minded and Biblically literate men were sequestered into the monastery system.

The final method is personally copying a text. Church leaders and members would naturally want a copy of, for example, a letter from Paul, and would set about to do it themselves in order to have a part of the Scripture for personal use. These were usually of a slightly poorer quality than a professional scribe, but some have been preserved and are viable witnesses themselves.

Furthermore, in the copying process, sometimes a copyist would perform a Recension. This recension was a critically edited copy of a text that brought together the manuscripts available to the copyist, and he would appraise them to find the correct reading if there was a variant. Some NT Manuscripts show signs of being critically appraised and edited. As well, new methods such as MRI technology are being used on the extant texts to further enhance the knowledge of the New Testament corpus.

Next week, we will examine the practice of NT textual criticism and start answering some of the important questions surrounding the study in part three of Replicant.


1He is being too cautious in the opinion of this researcher.

2Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999).

3The UBS text and the Alands provide the location data for the various manuscripts along with their lists. See notes 3 and 4.

4The Center for the Study of the New Testament Manuscripts is organized around that principle, and provides digital photographs of the manuscripts on their website at http://www.csntm.org/.

5Wegner, 1999, 208

Aphrodite’s Rock (Petra tou Romiou) in Cyprus, by Nino Verde, published under a Creative Commons License.

0 comments on “Replicant: Part Two of a Study of the Transmission of the NT with Focus on the Autographs, Copies, and their RecoveryAdd yours →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *