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For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.413-423; R.H.Gundry, pp.88-93; 116-135. Further reading: F.F.Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, pp.176-190. [1]

The accuracy of the OT text is due to the meticulous care taken by rabbinical scholars as they copied the sacred Scriptures.  The fidelity of the text is represented by the Massoretic tradition and is confirmed by the Dead Sea scrolls.  By way of contrast, the fidelity of the NT text rests on a different basis, that is, on a massive manuscript support (beginning with over 5000 partial and complete Greek manuscript portions that were copied by hand).


Language and materials
F.F.Bruce has written extensively on the biblical canon.  He say of the NT:

"The NT books were written in Greek within the first century after the death and resurrection of Christ.  The original documents were probably written on papyrus in ink.  (These two writing materials are mentioned in 2 John 12.) The shorter writings (like the Epistle to Philemon, the second and third Epistles of John and that of Jude) would require a papyrus sheet of convenient size; the longer works would be written on papyrus rolls. The longest of all the two parts of Luke's history and the Gospels of Matthew and John - represent about as much writing as could conveniently go on to a papyrus roll of normal length.  The letters and book of Revelation, when written, were sent to the individuals or churches for whom they were intended; Luke's two volumes were presumably sent to Theophilus; the other Gospels were probably deposited with the churches of Rome, Antioch and Ephesus." [2]

Copying the autographs
All the original documents or autographs are lost, but they were copied before they became worn or illegible.  The transcription of manuscripts (MSS) was always open to errors, due to faulty eyesight, faulty hearing, or faulty understanding.  Errors could be honest, but they could also be dishonest. Note these examples:

  1. The wrong division of words. Uncial MSS had no word spaces or punctuation, so copyists had to decide on them.

  2. Omissions due to successive words having the same endings (homoeoteleuton). Sometimes this may cause the omission of whole lines.

  3. Omission of words or syllables having the same beginnings (homoearton).

  4. The repetition of a word, phrase or line (dittography).

  5. The omission of a syllable or word which should be repeated (haplography)

  6. Intentional errors could have dogmatic reasons (e.g., harmonisation).


There are greater resources for reconstructing the text than for any document of the classic age (these include Greek MSS, versions, citations of the church fathers, lectionaries and ostraca).  Textual critics deal with the evidence in four stages:

  1. First, the individual MS is studied and obvious mistakes eliminated.

  2. Then the MSS are compared in order to arrange them into families. A common archetype may be logically arrived at, e.g., by community of error. Four families are discerned by scholars: Alexandrian, Caesarean, Western and Byzantine.

  3. A provisional text can be constructed by comparing the archetypes.

  4. Conjectural emendation completes the process.


The earliest MSS took the form of papyrus rolls or codices.  From c.A.D. 200 they were made from vellum or animal skins (parchment), which were more durable.  The earliest documents were written in capitals or uncials.

The papyri
Extant copies of the papyri of the NT in uncials are few and often fragmentary. Note:

  1. The John Rylands' papyrus (p52).  The earliest fragment. Date: c.A.D. 100-150.

  2. The Chester Beatty papyri (p45; p46; p47).  Date: c.A.D. 250.

  3. The Bodmer papyri (p66; p72; p75).  Date: c.A.D. 200.

The uncials These are the major uncials:

  1. Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph, 01) is the treasured possession of the British Museum. It is a parchment copy of the Bible in Greek.  Date: 4th century.

  2. Codex Alexandrinus (A, 02) is also in the British Museum.  Date: 5th century.

  3. Codex Vaticanus (B, 03) is in the Vatican.  Its text is similar to that of the Codex Sinitaicus. Date: 4th century.

  4. Codex Ephraemi (C, 04).  A palimpsest.  Date: 5th century.

  5. Codex Bezae (D, 05) is a bilingual MS (Greek and Latin).  It is a Western text containing longer readings, especially in Acts.  Date: 5th century.

The cursives or minuscules
A smaller flowing or cursive style of writing was used from the ninth century. The majority of these contain the standard Byzantine text.  They are notated by the letter 'f' with a number, for example: fl, f13, f33 (the Queen of Cursives).


Quite often translations are important as they are based on the Greek text. By translating a version back into Greek the text can be used as part of the process of comparing texts.

Syriac versions
In his Diatessaron Tatian sought to harmonise the Gospels in c.A.D.170.  The Old Syriac version is represented by the Curetonian MS and the Sinaitic MS.  Rabbula's work, the Peshitta, became the standard Syriac version in A.D. 411.

Latin versions
The NT world was bilingual.  Latin was the language of the State.  The Old Latin version is represented by MSS from Africa, Europe and Italy.  The Latin translations became so numerous that in A.D. 384 Pope Damascus commissioned Jerome to produce a new standard Latin Version.  He worked with the oldest Greek MSS to hand and produced the Vulgate (common) version, which became the standard version of the Roman church.

Other versions
The Egyptian tradition is represented by the Sahidic and Boharic versions. The Armenian version and the Georgian versions are also valuable.


Citations from the church fathers from the first few centuries total over 36,000 and include nearly every verse in the NT.  They can relate to textual families. [3 ]

  1. Latin fathers: Tertullian, Cyprian, Lucifer of Cagliari, Ambrosiaster, Priscillian, Augustine, Primasius

  2. Western Greek writers: Justin, Marcion, Irenaeus, Hippolytus

  3. Eastern Greek writer: Eusebius Syrian fathers: Tatian, Aphraates, Ephraem

  4. Alexandrian fathers: Clement, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril

  5. Others: Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom.


The lectionaries were readings from the Gospels and Epistles used in church worship. These are notated by the letter 'l') and a number (e.g., l59).  A few scattered texts have been found inscribed on pottery that served as note pads. [4]


Significantly, the Bible has not only been preserved in the largest number of MSS of any book from the ancient world, but it also contains fewer errors in transmission - and none of these affect any basic doctrine of Christian truth.  Variant readings are supplied in the critical apparatus of Greek New Testaments. (Modern English translations may also add critical notes.) These notes indicate honest scholarship.


1. F.F.Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, revised, London, Pickering & Inglis, 1971. Detailed works on the text of the NT include: A.Souter, The Text and Canon of the New Testament, revised by C.S.C.Williams, London, Duckworth, 1954; B.M.Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, Oxford, OUP, 1987.

2. F.F.Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, p.176.

3. See: N.L.Geisler and W.E.Nix, A General the Bible, p.460.

4. The Christian church followed the Jewish church in the public systematic reading of Scripture. This practice should be adopted universally by the church today.

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Copyright 2007 Vernon Ralphs

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