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1.Manuscripts and History of the Greek New Testament


The Manuscripts

As we learned earlier in our discussion of the text of the Old Testa­ment, a manuscript is simply a handwritten document. We also learned, however, that the term is used elastically; that is, a "manu­script" is often used to describe documents other than the handwritten type (e.g., a printed copy of the O.T. text). 

The same can be said of New Testament documents. While mention will be made of "manu­scripts", the student must realize the term is often being used generically.


There are four kinds of "manuscripts" (abbrev.= MSS) which witness to the Greek New Testa­ment:


Papyri ? Manuscripts written on papyrus leaves. The papyri are written in the uncial script (modified capital letters) with little or no separation be­tween words. Many of what are classified papyri are among the oldest manuscripts we possess. None of them, however, contain the entire N.T. Most of the earliest and most important papyri were discovered or acquired by two men, Sir Chester Beatty and M. Martin Bodmer (and subsequently published) between 1934 and 1961.Papyri are labeled with a capital P and a corresponding number. The most important papyri (all 3rd century) are:

P45, P46, P47, P52, P66, P72


Uncials ? Manuscripts written on vellum (animal skin).These MSS are also written in the uncial script (hence the name).Some of the most important witness to the Greek N.T. are in this class. In fact, the most important witness we have (Sinaiticus; contains the whole N.T.) is an uncial. The most significant uncials are:


(aleph)= Codex Sinaiticus (350 A.D.)

B= Codex Vaticanus (325 A.D.)

A= Codex Alexandrinus (475 A.D.)


Minuscules ? Manuscripts written in small, cursive Greek letters. This script was faster to write and hence aided copying.Most of the MSS of the Greek N.T. are in this class.


Lectionaries ? Manuscripts which are actually portions of the Greek N.T. arranged in daily or weekly readings or lessons. This is the second largest group of MSS. They are written in both the uncial and minus­cule script.


Aside from manuscripts, New Testament textual critics also look to ver­sions (translations) of the Greek N.T. in their quest to determine the original reading of the N.T. Obviously, they are of secondary value. Ancient versions of the N.T. are the Old Latin, the Latin Vulgate, Old Syriac, the Syriac Peshitta, Coptic, Armenian, and Ethiopic. 

The last source for N.T. textual critics are quotations (in Greek) of the Greek N.T. in the writings of the early church fathers.The primary value of the quotations of the fathers lies in the fact that when they quote from an existing manuscript of their time, the reading they quote then has a fixed date, since we know when the fathers lived. Unfortunately, however, the fathers are at times unreliable, for they (like us) often quoted from memory and thus made mis­takes.


2. Introduction to "Text Types"


As D.A. Carson comments:


"The aim of the textual critic is to ascertain, as precisely as possible, what reading of any particular passage is closest to the original, or accu­rately reflects the original. The first step is to classify the manuscript evidence in such a way as to make it manageable. As the church became more institutionalized, certain definable manuscript traditions tended to become standards within more or less defined areas . . . 

The Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are generally grouped together into "text types." This means that the manuscripts belonging to a particular text type all reflect the same sort of errors, the same variants at crucial passag­es, the same general pattern of development. Of course, because all of the manuscripts in any one text? type have themselves been hand? copied, no two manuscripts in any one textual tradition are precisely identical. Nevertheless a manuscript can often be assigned to one text?­typeor another; and if a manu­script reflects two or more text types, it is said to be mixed" (D.A. Carson, The King James Version Debate, pp.25?26).


In discussing the same issue, Gordon Fee states:


"The immense amount of material available to the NT textual critic, exceeding all other ancient documents by hundreds of times, is both his good fortune and his problem. It is his good fortune because with such an abundance of material he can reasonably certain that the original text is to be found somewhere in it ...

However, the abundance of material is likewise the textual critic's prob­lem, because no two copies are exactly alike, and the greater the number of copies, the greater the number of variants among them . . .

. . . Although it is true that no two MSS are identical, it is equally true that many are so much alike that they tend to group themselves into three (some textual critics think four) major families of texts (text?types)" (Gordon Fee, "The Textual criticism of the New Testament," in Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol.1, p.423).


A "text type", then, is simply a family of manuscripts.


Text types are identified on the basis of two main criteria (Fee, p.423):


(1) The percentage of agreement which manuscripts have with each other.

(2) The percentage of agreement in variant readings.






Derives from 

* this type contains most of the papyri. 

* as a result, this type contains the oldest

manuscript witnesses to the NT.

* since the papyri date in the 200's A.D.,

this text?type was formed at the latest

by mid?fourth century



a.The oldest manuscripts belong to this group

b.All of the papyri are in this group




P66= the gospels (c. 200 A.D.)

P46= Paul (c.225 A.D.)

P72= Peter and Jude (c.275 A.D.)

Codex B (Vaticanus)

Codex A (Alexandrinus); except gospels

Codex a (Sinaiticus); to some degree


According to Fee, the Alexandrian text type is "considered a carefully preserved transmission" (p.423).Carson adds, "the Alexandrain text has excellent credentials, far better than its harshest critics have been willing to concede" (KJV Debate, p.27).However, as we shall see, oldest does not always mean best, for most errors in MSS got there in the first three or four centuries after the apostolic period.



* also called the "majority" text?


* over 80% of all extant MSS are in

this family

** MSS with the type of variants

peculiar to this type do not 

appear in any MS before 475 A.D.  


Origin of the type

This type shows up in quotations 

in the writings of church fathers

who were associated with the church

at Antioch. Therefore, it's assumed

that this type began at Antioch

(a church with direct apostolic



Main witness:

Codex A (Alexandrinus); gospels only

(c. 475 A.D.)


The origin of this type is not clear, but "what is known is that such a text was available by A.D. 350, that it had partially begun to influence the text of Alexandria and Rome (Jerome), that it was carried by Chrysostom from Antioch to Constantinople, and that probably through his influence it became the dominant text in the Eastern church." (Fee, p.424)




(the periodization and much of the material for this discussion is from Fee's article and J.Harold Greenlee's Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism)




Labeling this period in the above fashion is justifiable in light of the ex­tremely unsystematic and unprofessional way the NT Scriptures were copied during this time. We must remember that the original NT docu­ments were distributed over a wide geographical area, so distribution meant unsupervised copying by copyists of varied skill. In the context of persecution, some member of a local church probably took it upon himself to copy the Scriptures in the face of the prospect that it could be taken or destroyed at any time. The mere fact that copies had to be done by hand (there was no printing press) made errors inevitable, and once errors were made, they were passed along in the copies.

In his treatment of this period, Gordon Fee states:


"The vast majority of errors in the NT MSS occurred during the period that is also the most difficult to reconstruct  the first four Christian centu­ries.

"Much of the difficulty stems from the work of the earliest Christian copyists. In a time when the majority of people were illiterate and when Christianity periodically underwent severe persecution, there were probably few professionally trained scribes in the service of the church . . . [these untrained scribes] introduced thousands of changes into the text. To be sure, the majority of their errors were unintentional and are easily discern­ible slips of the eye, ear, or mind. Hundreds of changes in the text were, however, made intentionally . . .

" . . . early scribes (and sometimes later ones) often 'smoothed out' the Greek of the biblical writer by adding conjunctions, changing tenses of verbs, and changing word order . . .

"During the second century in particular, when each NT book was being transmitted indepen­dently of the others and when there was wide geo­graphical distribution of these documents with little or no 'controls', such scribal errors proliferated" (Fee, p.425).  




Two events after A.D. 400 had a great influence on the transmission of the Greek NT – the rise of the Byzantine (Eastern) half of the Roman Empire to prominence after the fall of the western half (Rome itself) in 476 A.D., and the rise of Islam as a religion.

What this meant was that the center of manuscript production became Constantinople (Byzanti­um).Transmission of the Greek NT was therefore limited to the Eastern church and the Byzantine text type. The years 400?1516, then, is nothing more than a the history of the copying of the Byzantine MSS.




J. Harold Greenlee captures the historical context of the early sixteenth century which so affected the way the text of the New Testament was transmitted from the Reformation period onward:  


"In the middle of the fifteenth century the world of literature was revolu­tionized by the invention of printing from moveable type. For the first time it had become possible to reproduce a document in an unlim­ited number of copies, and to have these copies absolutely identical in their text. The difference which this invention made for the civilized world is almost beyond compre­hension.

"The age of manuscripts was virtually at an end. This does not mean that every scribe laid down his pen as the first printed sheet came from the press; some manuscripts continued to be copied for generations. Yet the printing press signaled the beginning of the new age in which literature would no longer be dependent upon single copies tediously made by hand" (Greenlee, Introduction to NT Textual Criticism, p.69).


This period of textual transmission, then, was characterized by the "mass" production of printed editions of the Greek New Testament. As such, a certain amount of textual criticism (the comparing of MSS with one anoth­er) went into this production. Unfortunately, however, these editions were dependent on very few MSS for some elementary rea­sons:(1) there were few MSS known at the time ? all of the MSS which we regard today as the "best" witnesses to the NT were not yet discovered in the 1500's; (2) Just obtaining the MSS which were available was a difficult task for logistic reasons. There was no "postal service"! As a result, these editions were often based on one family or text type ? the type which was geographically closest.


Printed Editions of the Greek New Testament


1514= Erasmus' first edition (did not contain the Trinitarian formula of I John 5:7 due to its absence in all the materials he had – and in fact, it's absence in any manuscript prior to the Middle Ages)

1522= Erasmus' third edition – contains the above wording; the one the KJV is ultimately based on

Erasmus' text relied exclusively on later (12th?13th cen­tury) Byz­antine minuscules.

Of Erasmus' edition, Kurt Aland notes:


"[Erasmus' sources reflect] the most recent and poorest of the various New Testament text types, and his suc­cessors [used] the same . . . The sourc­es used by Eras­mus for his edition are known. He took manuscripts readily available to him in Basel for each part of the New Testament (the Gospels, the Apostol­os [Acts and the Catholic letters], the Pauline letters, and Revelation), entered correction in them where he felt it neces­sary, and sent them directly to the printer . . . Erasmus was unable to find in Basel any manuscript of the Revelation of John, so he borrowed one from his friend Johann Reuchlin.Because its ending was mutilated, Erasmus simply translated Rev.22:16?21 from Latin back into Greek (introducing several errors).He modified the text elsewhere as well, conforming it to the Latin version"



This period can be nicely divided into two eras:


a.The Accumulation of Textual Evidence (1633?1831)  


The activity of this period is concisely summarized by Gordon Fee:


"The next period in the history of the NT text was one in which scholars made great efforts to amass new information from Greek MSS, the ver­sions, and the fathers. Yet the texts published during this period [to 1831] continued to print the time-honored TR; the new evidence, especially that from much earlier MSS, was relegat­ed to variant readings in the apparatus (i.e., critical notes)." (p.426)


There are several important individuals to take note of who worked during this period 


J.A. Bengel (1734) =

J.J. Wetstein (1751?52) =

J.J. Griesbach (1774?1807) =


b.Work of Constructive Criticism (1832?1881)

Again Fee summarizes what went on during this second portion of the period under discussion:

"The period that followed Griesbach was to see the overthrow of the TR and the rise of the new critical editions based on the more signifi­cant MS finds and the principles of criticism pioneered by Wetstein and Griesbach" (p.427).

* This was the period in which many of the key UNCIALS of the NT text were discovered or made accessible to scholars. This greatly affected the quality of the text editions.

Important Figures/Achievements During This Period:

Karl Lachman


* first to attempt to produce a Greek

text using a scientific method 

rather than just counting MSS.

* first to set aside the TR

Constantine von Tischendorf

* published 8 critical editions

* his last edition was in 1872; his

critical apparatus in this edition

tried to list the variants of all

known uncials

** DISCOVERED many MSS unknown until

his day.The most significant

of these was Sinaiticus (1844,

1853, 1859; 1911, 1922)


B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort

* easily the most important figures

of the period, and two of the most

important in the history of textual

criticism.As Fee notes:


"Although many others made contributions during this period . . . the Greek text edited by B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort (1881) was to super­sede all others in significance. So thoroughly and well did they do their work that almost all subsequent textual criticism is defined in relationship to it. Their forte was the refinement and rigorous applica­tion of a scientific methodology to the NT text. The result was issued in two volumes as The New Testament in the Original Greek. Volume 1 contained their resultant Greek text; volume 2 comprised a lengthy Intro­duction, written by Hort, and an Appendix, in which certain problem passages were discussed" (Fee, p.427).


* Westcott and Hort took 28 years to produce these two volumes!

* the result of their work was the complete overthrow of the TR as the

standard Greek text (in Fee's words, they "laid the TR to rest").

* With this rejection of the Byzantine text type, Westcott and Hort chose

the Alexandrian text as that which was most authentic. In their 

terminology, theAlexandrian was the "neutral" text type; Hort called the 


* It is important to note that Westcott and Hort had what are currently 

regarded the most significant MS witnesses to the NT at their disposal 

(Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus); this was a first in text critical


** Westcott and Hort's conclusions regarding the TR and the Byzantine 

("Syrian") text in general are very important.Basically, they listed three 

reasons as to why the Byzantine text was to be regarded inferior to the 



(1) "The Syrian text type is filled 

with conflate readings" (readings

that combine the elements found

in the two earlier types; Fee,


(2) "The readings peculiar to the

Syrian text type are never found

in the ante Nicene Fathers, neither

East or West" (Fee,p.427).

(3) Internal evidence (comparison of

peculiar readings to readings in

the other text types).




New Discoveries Since Westcott and Hort


By far the most important discoveries for NT text-critical stud­ies during the last 100 years is the "discovery" (in some cases, "acquisition" would be more apt) of the papyri. As Kurt Aland comments:


"Not until the twentieth century did the New Testament papyri achieve the special prestige they enjoy so widely now . . . only nine papyri were known or edited by the turn of the century, and only one of those was cited in the critical apparatus of any edition(P 11, cited only partially by Constantin von Tischendorf).By the 1930s the number of known papyri had grown to more than forty without any of them arousing any special attention, despite the fact that many of them were of a quite early date.Then came the discovery of the Chester Beatty papyri:P45, P46, and P47.The excitement aroused by these manuscripts had not yet subsided when in 1935 Colin Henders­on Roberts published P52 dating from about A.D. 125.The problems raised by these papyri were still being debated when the Bodmer papyri P66, P72, and P74 were published between 1956 and 1961)" (Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, revised and enlarged edition, Eerdmans/E. J. Brill, 1989, p.84).


Summary of Greek MSS, Text types, and the Bases for printed editions of the Greek N.T.

Greek MSS Data:


Text types and Greek MSS:

Alexandrian Text?

* witnessed by ALL the important papyri (P/ 46,66,72,75)

* witnessed by ALL the most important uncials ( a, B, A [except the gospels])

Byzantine/Majority (Hort=Syrian) ?

* oldest witness = the gospels of A (475 A.D.)

* early consistent type seen in8th?9th century minus­cules

* the type behind Erasmus' editions (and hence the later TR)


For our purposes, the other significant printed editions of the Greek NT are:


Stephanus' 3rd ed. (1550) ? based on Erasmus' 3rd ed.

Beza's 1588?89, 1598 eds. ? based on Erasmus and Stephan­us

Elzevir brothers' 1633 ed., the TR ? based on Stephanus and Beza, and therefore mirrors Erasmus. Since the connection with Erasmus is so profound, the TR and the Erasmian text are nearly the same. This is why, despite the 1633 date, many link the KJV to the TR.

Tischendorf's 1872 ed. ? based on known MSS ofthe day, NOT only Byzantine text/minuscules. Had Sinaiticus at his disposal.

Westcott and Hort's 1881 ed. ? based on all known MSS of the day; all the major uncials.

UBS 3rd ed. (1975) ? follows Westcott and Hort; use of the papyri

Nestle?Aland 26th ed (1979, 1987) ? follows Westcott and Hort; use of the papyri

Hodges and Farstad (1982) ? follows the Byzantine text type preserved in the TR and Erasmus' 3rd ed.