The Text of the New Testament


by Wayne S. Walker

     For years the traditionally accepted text of the Greek New Testament was the Textus Receptus based mainly on the Byzantine family of manuscripts and used by the King James translators in 1611. However, many more materials are available today. The documents used by textual scholars are the Greek manuscripts, early versions, and "patristics" or quotations from the early "church fathers." The manuscripts are the most important materials of textual criticism. They fall into four categories: papyri, discussed in the last article of this series; uncials, written in all capital letters; minuscules or cursives, written in small letters with a running hand; and lectionaries, small portions designed for daily or weekly readings. Bruce M. Metzger also mentions that 25 ostraca, or pieces of broken pottery used for writing sections of scripture, have been catalogued.

     The oldest manuscripts are uncials. The Codex Sinaiticus, dating from A.D. 350, was found by Constantine Tischendorf in the Convent of St. Catherine located at the foot of Mt. Sinai beginning from 1844 to 1859. It contains the entire New Testament and was purchased from the Tsar of Russia by the British Museum of London, where it is now housed. The Codex Vaticanus also dates to around A.D. 350, and was placed in the Vatican Library at Rome shortly after its discovery in 1448. Of the original 820 leaves, 61 have now been lost, and the New Testament portion ends at Hebrews 9:14. The Codex Washingtonianus belongs to the fourth or fifth century. It was purchased by Charles F. Freer, of Detroit, MI, from a dealer in Cairo, Egypt, in 1906, and is now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

     The Codex Alexandrinus is usually ranked after the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus in importance. It dates from the close of the fourth century or the beginning of the fifth. Presented to the Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, in 1073, it was taken to Constantinople in 1621 and then given as a present to King Charles I of England in 1627 by Cyril Lucar, Patriarch of Constantinople. Containing the New Testament with some wide gaps, it is in the British Museum. The Codex Ephraemi is kept in the National Library of Paris. Lacking 2 Thessalonians, 2 John, and parts of other books.  It is a palimpsest rescriptus, a manuscript in which the original was rubbed off, probably in the twelfth century, and the sermons of Ephraem, a Syrian from the fourth century, written over it. The Biblical text is from the fourth or fifth century and was first successfully read in 1840-1841. The Codex Beza, from the fifth or sixth century, is a bilingual (Greek and Latin) manuscript written in southern France or Italy. It was discovered in 1562 by Theodore Beza and is at Cambridge, England.

     The majority of manuscripts are the miniscules. By the eighth and ninth centuries, the codices began to appear in the cursive style of writing with capital and small letters. The total number of miniscule manuscripts is over 2,500. Because they are later, they are often considered less important than the older, uncial manuscripts. However, the earlier cursives were copied from uncials, so the text of a cursive may not necessarily be later than that of an existing uncial. Thus, some early cursives must be treated like older uncials. There are also about 1,700 lectionaries, which were reading lessons for use in the public services. They do not have a continuous text but can be compared to manuscripts to check the accuracy of specific passages.

     As the gospel spread, the New Testament had to be translated into other languages. Every such version provides information about the Greek text from which it was translated. The ancient versions chiefly used by critics include the Old Syriac, dating from the second century A.D., although only two fragmentary manuscripts remain; the Syriac Pe****to, dating to the fourth century A.D.; the Old Latin translation, made in North Africa, also in the second century (some say as early as A.D. 150); and the Latin Vulgate, made by Jerome from A.D. 382-385, using the most ancient Greek manuscripts and representing a Greek text much older than itself, older, in fact, than any now available.

     Coptic versions were made in the ancient Egyptian language. Portions of the Bible are available in six Coptic dialects, the two most important of which are the Sahidic and Bohairic. The first sections of the New Testament were rendered into Sahidic about the beginning of the third century. Other ancient versions were the Gothic (A.D. 350), Armenian (A.D. 400), Georgian (fifth or sixth century), Arabic (tenth century), Slavonic (1499), and Persian.

     The final source of material used by textual critics is patristic quotations. These are the writings of church leaders who lived from the end of the apostolic period to the fifth century A.D. They cited as authoritative every book of the New Testament. Also, it is said that all but eleven verses of the New Testament are found in quotations from the second and third centuries, so that if every other source were destroyed, almost the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from this one. These men include Polycarp, Hermas, Aristides, Diognetus, Ignatius, Papias, Barnabas, Tatian, Justin Martyr, Marcion (a heretic), Ireneaus, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, Clement of Rome, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, and Jerome. Their writings can be found translated into English in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (10 volumes) and The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (14 volumes). (—taken from With All Boldness; May, 1999; Vol. 9, No. 5; p. 18)


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