The books of the New Testament share in common the fact that they were all originally written in Greek. Although the original parchments used by Paul, Luke, John, and the other apostles have long been lost, history has left thousands upon thousands of New Testament manuscripts (NT MSS). These manuscripts are a witness to the enduring character of the text and message of the Bible. But they’re also a source of continual debate and discussion concerning the origin of Christianity, the reliability of Scripture, and the nature of divine revelation.
- What are NT MSS?
- Why are NT MSS important for biblical studies?
- What additional resources are available for studying NT MSS?
What Are NT MSS?
New Testament manuscripts are handwritten copies of the biblical text dating from the second century (AD 200) up to the mid-nineteenth century. The majority of NT MSS, however, were published prior to 1454 when Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized book publishing. Ever since the first apostle set pen to parchment, faithful believers have been copying (or commissioning scribes to copy) the books of the New Testament for their use in church and home. Since at least the second century, translations of the Greek NT were being made into Latin and Syriac as well as Ethiopic, Gothic, Armenian, and Georgian. Since Greek NT MSS are the foundation of faithful Bible translation, they will be the focus of this article. The number of Greek NT MSS is astounding relative to any other written texts from antiquity, often described as an “embarrassment of riches.” While copies of Homer’s Iliad—arguably the most important text in Greco-Roman society—currently number 1,535 manuscripts, the Greek NT MSS alone number close to 6,000. These MSS can be subdivided into four distinct groups:
The fewest in number (approximately 155), the papyri are a classification of manuscript in which the text is written on sheets of papyrus. Mostly found in Egypt where hot, arid climate has preserved the papyri, they date from the second to seventh centuries. They are identifiable in an NT apparatus as “P” + a number (i.e., P46).
The majuscules are parchment manuscripts written in an uppercase Greek form throughout. These number approximately 338 and date from the fourth to eighth centuries. In an NT apparatus, they are indicated by a zero followed by a number (i.e., 0234).
Numbering approximately 2,958 manuscripts, the minuscules are the largest category of NT MSS. They are written in a lowercase form of Greek. The earliest of these is dated from AD 835 and written on parchment. From the twelfth century on, paper was used.
Lectionaries were used for reading in a church setting and date from the eighth to the sixteenth century. They differ from the papyri, majuscules, and minuscules in that they include segments of NT books; the previous three categories include entire books normally in proper order. They were written in the majuscule (uppercase) script and number approximately 2,501 manuscripts.
Coptic Liturgical Codex - Egypte en Christelijk
While the most NT MSS include portions or fragments of NT books, if portions of the parchment have been lost, there are four significant manuscript witnesses that contain the entire text of the Bible. These codices (or entire “books”) include Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Alexandrinus, and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus.
Although the total number of manuscripts from every category is large, a few NT MSS are more critical due to age, condition, and provenance: Chester Beatty Papyri P45—third century P46—c. 200; oldest witness of Paul’s Epistles P47—late third century Bodmer Papyri P66—third to fourth century; portions of John P75—third to fourth century; portions of Luke and John P127—fourth century; book of Acts Codices Codex Sinaiticus (01)—mid-fourth century Codex Alexandrinus (02)—fifth century Codex Vaticanus (03)—mid-fourth century Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (04)—mid-fifth century. Original biblical text lies under later addition (a palimpsest) Codex Bezae (05)—c. 400 Codex Claromontanus (06)—sixth century Majuscules 032 (The Freer Gospels)—fifth century 041—ninth century Minuscules 1—twelfth century 1582—c. 948 13—thirteenth century 35—eleventh century 1739—c. 948
A little over half a dozen new NT MSS have been discovered every year over the past two decades. One highly publicized and recent find is the earliest known fragment of Mark 1, known officially as P137 (or P. Oxy. LXXXIII 5345) discovered in 2011. Although initial reports indicated a possible first-century date, later analysis suggests a date range of AD 150–250. While not from the first century, P137 brings the total number of NT MSS dated from the second century to 19. Further research may discover copies from the first century itself. Nonetheless, the text underlying our Bibles today in any translation will likely never change by any significant degree. Most of the earlier discoveries cohere entirely with the vast majority of other Greek NT MSS.
Why Are NT MSS Important for Biblical Studies?
Oxyrhynchus Papyri (Wikipedia)
Biblical studies are enriched by the overwhelming number of NT MSS in at least three specific ways. First, the NT MSS are a tangible witness to divine providence. God chose to give his people a written record of his words through divine inspiration of human authors, and this written record has persisted for over two millennia. The NT MSS, including their number and agreement, demonstrate God’s preserving activity in history.
Second, the NT MSS are a witness to the persistence and activity of the gospel message. Since the apostles first wrote their Gospels and epistles, faithful followers of Jesus have seen in these texts the power to live as new creations in Christ. The lectionaries are one good example, demonstrating that Christians throughout history considered these texts important enough to read publicly as an essential sacrament in the gathered church. Third, the NT MSS are a witness to ancient textual practice. The discipline of textual criticism compares the many manuscripts with each other to ascertain the earliest and most reliable form of the NT. Such research has clarified the history of how such passages were received—like the ending of Mark 16 and the pericope of the adulterer in John’s Gospel (John 7:53–8:11). The discipline has also helped us to understand ancient scribal tendencies, the identification of Jesus as Lord by earliest Christians, and the influence of Christianity on the important transformation of publication from parchments to codices to the printing press.
- The Basics of New Testament Textual Criticism Dan Wallace of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts presents a series of courses on NT textual criticism, including prolonged discussion of NT manuscripts.
- Manuscripts of the New Testament vs. The Gnostic Gospels Faithlife past resident scholar Mike Heiser discusses the reliability of the NT MSS and their history of transmission.
- Is the Original New Testament Lost? In this highly professional debate, Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman discuss the origin, transmission, and reliability of the NT MSS. The debate concludes with an extended Q&A.
The Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition is a recently published introduction to textual criticism, variant readings, and more intended for the uninformed layperson.
The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts contains transcriptions of 69 of the earliest known NT MSS. This resource is intended for readers educated in textual matters who can engage with the Greek.
Manuscripts and the Text of the New Testament is a good introduction to the topic for those without any prior knowledge. The author addresses important questions like the beginning and end of Mark’s Gospel and the addition of the pericope in Luke.
- Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) – The CSNTM was founded by Dan Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary in 2002 and has since produced hundreds of thousands of digital images of NT MSS—and discovered dozens more. The CSNTM seeks to bring the latest technology to bear on the study of NT MSS.
- Digitized Manuscripts, the British Library – This searchable database by the British Library contains over 600 NT MSS, with plans to add more.
- Text and Canon Institute – Based at Phoenix Seminary, the Text and Canon Institute is devoted to the study of ancient OT and NT MSS, including text criticism and the history of the canon.
- Codex Sinaiticus Online – Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest Christian Bible in existence and contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in Greek. This online resource contains high-definition, searchable images of the entire codex.
- Evangelical Textual Criticism – This online resource is a “forum for people with knowledge of the Bible in its original languages to discuss its manuscripts and textual history from the perspective of historic evangelical theology.” The contributors are some of the biggest names in evangelical scholarship, and the topics include both OT and NT MSS.
Additional Logos Resources
The New Testament Manuscript Explorer is a powerful resource in Logos Bible Software that enables the user to access all the extant Hebrew manuscripts and filter by date, contents, holding institute, and more. Plus, users can access high-quality images of the manuscripts online.
The Center for New Testament Textual Studies’ New Testament Critical Apparatus is a massive digital database totalling over 17,000 pages of information on every NT MSS, containing information not published elsewhere. This is the most detailed and comprehensive NT MSS critical apparatus available today.
For the serious researcher, A Bibliography of Greek New Testament Manuscripts is an exhaustive resource covering approximately 3,500 Greek NT MSS, including important information about related books, articles, collations, and facsimiles.
Mobile Ed: NT308 The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts – Dr. Craig Evans discusses the trustworthiness of the NT MSS in this concise but informative course, giving a history of the documents and their relationship to other ancient texts.
Mobile Ed: Text of the Bible Bundle – The numerous courses in this bundle from Mobile Ed give a full account of the ancient texts that underlie the Bible as we have it today. Topics include translation, transmission, textual history, and reliability with related activities.