Can They Be Trusted?

Today there are about two billion people that call themselves Christian, who carry a little black book with them: the Bible. Most are unaware of just how that book came down to them, yet they would be the first to claim that it is inspired by God and fully inerrant, namely, possesses no errors, mistakes, or contractions. Herein, we will take a brief look at how the early Christians went about the work of making copies of what would become known as New Testament books, books that they felt were Scripture, just like the inspired Hebrew Scriptures. Such background cannot only build confidence that we have been carrying the very Word of God, but it also affords us the opportunity to ‘be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.’ (1 Pet 3:15) One might say that the 127 New Testament papyrus manuscripts that have survived up unto today[1] are hardly a notable amount. When we consider they wrote on perishable materials, we understand why few have been preserved to our day. Further, early Christianity suffered much persecution. Both Emperor Nero (64 C.E.) and Domitian (95 C.E.) persecuted Christians, but this likely did not greatly affect manuscripts. However, other Roman emperors throughout the second and third centuries C.E. persecuted Christian on an empire-wide scale, which did greatly affect manuscript survival.


As we have seen in previous chapters, many scholars tend to speak disapprovingly of the work of the early Christian copyists. They say that they (1) did not see the importance of accurately copying the manuscripts, resulting in many mistakes; and (2) they were untrained in the act of making copies, resulting in more copyist errors. However, as we have seen and will see shortly, this observation just is not the case. We are not here to say that the early copyists were error free, or that they were inspired. However, professional and semi-professional scribes copied many of the early New Testament manuscripts, with most being done by one that had experience making documents.[2] Nevertheless, copyists, who had no training whatsoever, did copy some manuscripts. If a person was not trained as a copyist of documents, he would have made minor errors because his attention would have been focused on the sense of what he was copying, as opposed to the exact words, because of the subconscious mind.

Therefore, some of the early Christian copyists, because they were untrained in the task of making copies, did make errors. However, were these errors significant? No. Again, what we can say is that the vast majority of the Greek text is not affected by variants at all. Of the small amount of the text that is affected by variants the vast majority of those are minor slips of the pen, misspelling words, or using one synonym in place of another, or using a pronoun for a noun, and the like, and we are certain what the original reading is in these places. Of a minute portion of our small amount of our Greek text, we can be very certain what the original reading was. However, of our small amount, an infinitesimally insignificant number of variants are difficult in establishing the original reading. Lastly, there is but a handful of variants where we would say we are uncertain as to the original reading. Nevertheless, these latter two affect no doctrine; moreover, variant readings can be placed in a footnote, giving the reader the original by means of either the main text or the footnote.

One may wonder why more New Testament manuscripts have not survived. We can recall from the above that the Christians suffered horrible persecution intermittently for the first 300 years from Pentecost 33 C.E. With this persecution from the Roman Empire came many orders to destroy their texts. In addition, these documents were not stored in such a way as to secure their preservation; they were used by the Christians and in the congregation and were subject to wear and tear. Furthermore, moisture is the enemy of papyrus, causing them to disintegrate over time. This is why the manuscripts that have survived have come from the dry sands of Egypt. Lastly, it never entered the minds of those early Christians to preserve their documents, for their solution was just to make another copy. This coupled with the transition of making copies with a more durable animal skin, which would last much longer, has given textual scholars 5,838 Greek manuscripts have been cataloged. Of those that have survived, especially those from 300 C.E. and earlier, are the path to restoring the original Greek New Testament.

Public Reading Suggests Importance of New Testament Books


The public reading is yet another important inference that the first-century Christian congregation valued the books that were being produced by the New Testament authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude.

Matthew 24:15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

15 “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand),

This parenthetical “let the reader understand” is a reference to a public reader within the congregations.

1 Timothy 4:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.

Only the privileged owned scrolls of the Holy Scriptures. Most Christians in the first-century gained access to God’s Word, as Paul explains here in his first letter to Timothy, by “the public reading of Scripture.” Public reading was a major part of Christian meetings, a traditional practice of the Jews from the time of Moses and which was carried over into the Christian congregation. – Acts 13:15; 15:21; 2 Corinthians 3:15.

Revelation 1:3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Blessed is the one who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

This reference to “he who reads and those who hear” is to the public reader of those in each of the seven mentioned congregations. Another factor is how the writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures viewed their own published works.

2 Peter 3:16 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Here, about 64 C.E., we have the apostle Peter, who has just canonized Paul’s letters, grouping them together as a collection. This is evidence of their being viewed as having authority. At 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20, both the apostles Paul and Peter appear to be referring to both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Christian Greek writings as [graphe] “Scripture.” Please take note that Peter is comparing Paul’s letters to “the other Scriptures. What exactly does that mean?

Both Jesus and the other writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures often used graphe in their references to Moses’ writings and the prophets, viewing them as having authority from God, being inspired. Many times Jesus designates these Old Testament books as a whole as graphe, i.e., “Scripture.” (Matthew 21:42; 22:29; Mark 14:49; John 5:39; Acts 17:11; 18:24, 28) At other times, the singular for “Scripture” was used when quoting a specific text to make a point, referring to it as a whole of writings encompassing our 39 books of the Hebrew Old Testament. (Rom. 9:17; Gal. 3:8) Still, at other times graphe is used in a single text reference, such as Jesus’ reference when dealing with the Jewish religious leaders: “Have you not read this [graphe] Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’” (Mark 12:10) Jesus’ use of graphe in such an authoritative way only strengthens the point that immediately the writings of the New Testament authors were viewed as graphe, namely, Scripture.

From an Oral Gospel to the Written Record

Jesus had commanded his disciples to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20, ESV) Nevertheless, how was this gospel (good news) to be made known?

During the forty-day period between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, Jesus instructed his disciples in the teaching of the gospel. Accordingly, he prepared them for the tremendous task that awaited them on and after Pentecost.[3]

There were only ten days after Jesus ascension and Pentecost, when “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus put it this way, in his words, it being only “a few days.” This time would have been filled with the process of replacing Judas Iscariot, prayer, and the established gospel message, which would be the official oral message until it was deemed necessary to have a written gospel some 10 to 15 years later. The gospel message was quite simple: ‘Christ died for our sins, was buried, and he was resurrected on the third day according to Scripture.’ – 1 Corinthians 15:1-8

1 Corinthians 15:1-2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

15 Now I make known to you, brothers, the gospel which I proclaimed to you, which you have also received, in which you also stand, by which you are also being saved, if you hold fast to the message I proclaimed to you, unless you believed in vain.

From Pentecost 33 C.E. up unto the destruction of Jerusalem by General Titus of Rome in 70 C.E., all of the books of the Greek New Testament were written, with the exception of those penned by the apostle John. Reliable history of Christianity has the Gospel of Matthew being penned first. It was published between 44 and 50 C.E., with the Gospel of Luke coming about 56-58 C.E., and the Gospel of Mark between 60 to 65 C.E. These are known as the synoptic Gospels, as they are similar in content, while the Gospel of John chose to convey other information, being that he wrote his gospel to the second generation of Christian in about 98 C.E. Luke informs us of just how the very first Christians received the gospel message. Very few translations make explicit the exact process.

Luke 1:1-4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been fulfilled  among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty concerning the things about which you were taught orally [Gr., katechethes].

Acts 18:24-25 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

24 Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 This man had been orally [katechethes] instructed in the way of the Lord, and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, knowing only the baptism of John.

Galatians 6:6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

The one who is orally [katechethes] taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches.

We can see clearly from the above that both Theophilus and Apollos received the initial gospel message, just as all Christians did in the early years, and even after the written gospels were available, being taught the gospel of Jesus by oral instruction (katechethes). In time, it was deemed that there was a need for a written record, which is the reason Luke gives for his Gospel. This was not to discount what Theophilus had been orally taught, but rather to give credence to that oral message that he had already received. Of course, the New Testament was not limited to these gospels.

The publishing of these New Testament books in written form would have come about in the following stages:

  • the inspired author would have used a well trusted, skilled Christian scribe, to take down what they were inspired to convey, some believe by shorthand;[4]
  • The scribe would then make a rough draft if it had been by shorthand. If shorthand had not been used, this first copy would have been the rough draft;
  • which would then be read by both the scribe and author, making corrections because the copyist, though professional or at least skillful at making documents, was not inspired;
  • thereafter, the scribe would make what is known as the authorized text, to be signed by the author,
  • which would then be used as the official exemplar to make other copies.

Both Tertius and Silvanus were very likely skilled Christian scribes, who assisted the writers of the New Testament. (Rom. 16:22; 1 Pet. 5:12) It is unlikely that Paul personally wrote any of his letters that were of great length. It is clear that Peter used the trained Silvanus to pen his first letter, and likely, the second letter was possibly the result of Jude’s penman skills, as it is very similar in style to the letter by Jude. This may explain the differences in style between First and Second Peter. As an aside, it is not possible that the inspired author would give some latitude to their skilled Christian scribe and coauthor, as to word choices, as some have suggested. While we know that Mark was the author of the gospel that bears his name, it is likely that he wrote as Peter spoke. It is Silvanus (Silas), who penned the letter from the elders in Jerusalem, to the congregation in Antioch, which we find in Acts chapter 15.

Papyrus or Parchment?

The Hebrew Old Testament that would have been available to the early Christians was written on the processed hide of animals after the hair was removed, and smoothed out with a pumice stone.[5] Leather scrolls were sent to Alexandria, Egypt in about 280 B.C.E., to make what we now know as the Greek Septuagint.[6] Most of the Dead Sea scrolls that were discovered between 1947 and 1956 are made of leather, and it is almost sure that the scroll of Isaiah that Jesus read from in the synagogue was as well. Luke 4:17 says, “And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written.”

Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah (1QIsa), dates to the end of the second century B.C.E., written on 17 sheets of parchment, one of the seven Dead Sea Scrolls that were first recovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947. The Nash Papyrus is a collection of four papyrus fragments acquired in Egypt in 1898 by W. L. Nash, dating to about 150 B.C.E. It contains parts of the Ten Commandments from Exodus chapter 20, along with some verses from Deuteronomy chapters 5 and 6. It is by far one of the oldest Hebrew manuscript fragments.

Both leather and papyrus were used prior to the first-century Christians. Vellum is a high-quality parchment made from calfskin, kidskin, or lambskin. After the skin was removed, it would be soaked in limewater, after which the hair would be scraped off, the skin then being scraped and dried, being rubbed afterward with chalk and pumice stone, creating an exceptionally smooth writing material. During the first three hundred years of Christianity, the secular world viewed parchment as being inferior to papyrus, it being relegated to notebooks, rough drafts, and other non-literary purposes.

A couple of myths should be dispelled before continuing. It is often repeated that papyrus is not a durable material. Both papyrus and parchment are durable under normal circumstances. This is not negating the fact that parchment is more durable than papyrus. Another often-repeated thought is that the papyrus was fragile and brittle, making it an unlikely candidate to be used for a codex, which would have to be folded in half. Another argument that should be sidelined is asking which was more expensive to produce, papyrus or parchment. Presently there is no data to aid in that evaluation. We know that the papyrus was used for all of the Christian codex manuscripts up to the fourth century, at which time we find the two great parchment codices, the Sinaiticus, and the Vaticanus manuscripts. Parchment of good quality has been called “the finest writing material ever devised by man.” (Roberts and Skeat, The Birth of the Codex 1987, 8) Why then did parchment take so long to replace papyrus? This may be answered by R. Reed, Ancient Skins, Parchments, and Leathers,

It is perhaps the extraordinary high durability of the product, produced by so simple a method, which has prevented most people from suspecting that many subtle points are involved… The essence of the parchment process, which subjects the system of pelt to the simultaneous action of stretching and drying, is to bring about peculiar changes quite different from those applying when making leather. These are (1) reorganization of the dermal fibre network by stretching, and (2) permanently setting this new and highly stretched form of fibre network by drying the pelt fluid to a hard, glue-like consistency. In other words, the pelt fibres are fixed in a stretched condition so that they cannot revert to their original relaxed state.  (Reed 1973, 119-20)

Where the medieval parchment makers were greatly superior to their modern counterparts was in the control and modification of the ground substance in the pelt, before the latter was stretched and dried … The major point, however, which modern parchment manufacturers have not appreciated, is what might be termed the integral or collective nature of the parchment process. The bases of many different effects need to be provided for simultaneously, in one and the same operation. The properties required in the final parchment must be catered for at the wet pelt stage, for due to the peculiar nature of the parchment process, once the system has been dried, and after-treatments to modify the material produced are greatly restricted.  (Reed 1973, 124)

This method, which follows those used in medieval times for making parchment of the highest quality, is preferable for it allows the grain surface of the drying pelt to be “slicked” and freed from residual fine hairs while stretching upon the frame. At the same time, any process for cleaning and smoothing the flesh side, or for controlling the thickness of the final parchment may be undertaken by working the flesh side with sharp knives which are semi-lunar in form… To carry out such manual operations on wet stretched pelt demands great skill, speed of working, and concentrated physical effort.  (Reed 1973, 138-9)

Enough has been said to suggest that behind the apparently simple instructions contained in the early medieval recipes there is a wealth of complex process detail which we are still far from understanding. Hence it remains true that parchment-making is perhaps more of an art than a science.  (Reed 1973, 172)


The Christian Codex

Going back to the first-century once again, let us take a moment to deal with the invention of the codex. Was it the first-century Christians, who invented the codex, or at least put it on the stage of the world scene?

The writing tablet of ancient times was made from two flat pieces of wood, held together by a thong hinge, which looks something like our modern book. It had its limits, because of the impracticalness of fastening more than a few such tablets together. The center of the tablet pages would have been slightly hollowed, to receive a wax coating. A stylus is a standard instrument used to write on these waxed tablets. The stylus was made of metal, ivory or bone, and was sharpened to a point on one side, while having a rounded knob on the other, for erasing, and making corrections. This is the oldest form of writing of the Greeks, who borrowed it from the Hittites. History and evidence credit the Romans with replacing the wooden tablet with the parchment notebook. The apostle Paul is the only Greek writer of the first-century C.E. to mention the parchment notebook.

2 Timothy 4:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left behind in Troas with Carpus, and the scrolls,[7] especially the parchments.[8] [Gr., membranai, parchment notebooks]

However, it should be recognized that the parchment notebook was not used for literature in the first two centuries before the Christian era (B.C.E.); this went to the roll or scroll. Even though the codex was commonly used for books, the first indication that it was going to displace the roll came toward the end of the first century C.E.  (Roberts and Skeat, The Birth of the Codex 1987, 24) Thus, again, the Jews of the late first century C.E. and thereafter, used scrolls, while the Christians, on the other hand, used codices. One must consider that many of the first Christians were Jewish and likely read their Old Testament from a scroll. Before becoming a Christian, the apostle Paul was a Pharisee and would have use scrolls. However, at least until about the end of the first century C.E. Christians used primarily scrolls. The apostle John referred to the book of Revelation at 22:18-19, which he wrote about 96 C.E., rendered as a “book” (Gr. biblion) by the ASV, RSV, NASB, ESV, HCSB, and others, but is likely a reference to a “scroll.” (NIV) “In the NT βιβλίον designates a book, a scroll, or a document.”[9]

Only a handful of manuscripts of the New Testament that are still in existence were written on scrolls. (P13, P18, and P98) However, these were written on the back of other writings, so they were not composed in the scroll form. P22 was written on a roll, and we await more research there, as it is a peculiarity among the group of papyri. All other New Testament manuscripts were written on codices. As there is evidence that, the second-century Christians were trying to set themselves apart from the Jews, so they likely made the transition in part, because they wished to be different. We say in part because it is quite evident that the first Christians grouped their writings together, the gospels and Paul’s letters. The codex affords them the means of doing this, while a scroll of the gospels would be far too long and bulky, and finding or locating a portion of desired text, would be near impossible. For example, P46 dating to about 150 C.E., contained ten of Paul’s letters. P45 dates to about 225 C.E. and originally contained all four Gospels and the book of Acts. In the end, it can be said that the Christians adopted the codex (1) to be different from the Jews, (2) to have the Gospels and the Apostle Paul’s letters all in one book, (3) because of the ease of being able to find a portion of text, and this made the spread of the good news much more convenient.

We do learn quite a bit from the New Testament. The apostle Peter writes, “… just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters …” (2 Pet 3:15-16, about 64 C.E.) This shows the earliness of having Paul’s letters together. The apostle John wrote, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to come to you and talk face to face so that our joy may be complete.” (2 John 12, about 98 C.E.) This shows that John used papyrus in writing to a sister congregation. The Greek word chartou means “papyrus,” “a sheet of paper.”  The apostle Paul wrote Timothy and asked him, “when you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books [likely scrolls of OT books], and, above all, the parchments [codices].” (2 Tim 4:13, about 65 C.E) While it is thought by most scholars that Paul was talking about two different items here, it is very possible; he was referring to only one, which is Skeat’s position. Let us look at the verse again:

2 Timothy 4:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

13 When you come bring … the scrolls,[10] especially the parchments.

When you come, bring … the books, that is my parchment notebooks.

If the second version above is true, Paul was looking to get some of his notebooks, possible rough drafts that he had left behind. The Old Testament books could have been located right where he was, but he would have been highly interested in unpublished works that he wanted to get out before his execution. Of course, this latter thought is the formation of judgments based on the incomplete or inconclusive information. However, one thing is certain, that either Paul was asking for codices in complete book form or notebook form. This tells us that Paul was the first to have his books collected into codex form. We can draw some conclusions, even on our limited evidence:

  • The codex was being used by the end of the first-centuryE.
  • The Christians were using the codex at the end of the first century.
  • Point 2 is because all extant (still in existence) early Christian manuscriptswere written on the codex.
  • The Greek New Testament
  • The Old Testament for Christian use
  • Noncanonical (not authorized or not inspired) writings
  • The Church Fathers
  • Other theological writings

Trustworthiness of Early Copyists

Throughout much of the twentieth century, it was common to suggest that the earliest copyists were of three sorts:

  • The first three centuries saw copyists, who were semiliterate and unskilled in the work of making copies.
  • Copyist in these early centuries felt as though the end was nigh, so they took liberties with the text in an attempt to strengthen orthodoxy.
  • The early centuries saw manuscripts that could be described as ‘free,’ ‘wild,’ ‘in a state of flux,’ ‘chaotic,’ ‘a turbid textual morass, i.e., a “free text” so the Alands.

The first in the above would undoubtedly lead to many unintentional changes while the second would certainly escalate intentional changes. J. Harold Greenlee had this to say,

In the very early period, the NT writings were more nearly “private” writings than the classics . . . the classics were commonly, although not always, copied by professional scribes, the NT books were probably usually copied in the early period by Christians who were not professionally trained for the task, and no corrector was employed to check the copyist’s work against his exemplar (the MS from which the copy was made) … It appears that copyist sometimes even took liberty to add or change minor details in the narrative books on the basis of personal knowledge, alternative tradition, or a parallel account in another book of the Bible … At the same time, the importance of these factors in affecting the purity of the NT text must not be exaggerated. The NT books doubtless came to be considered as “literature” soon after they began to be circulated, with attention to the precise wording required when copies were made.[11]

Greenlee had not changed his position 14 years later when he wrote the following,

The New Testament, on the other hand, was probably copied during the earliest period mostly by ordinary Christians who were not professional scribes but who wanted a copy of the New Testament book or books for themselves or for other Christians.[12]

The Alands in their Text of the New Testament saw the New Testament books as not being canonical, i.e., not viewed as Scripture in the first few centuries, so they were subject to changes. They wrote, “not only every church but each individual Christian felt ‘a direct relationship to God.’ Well into the second century Christians still regarded themselves as possessing inspiration equal to that of the New Testament writings which they read in their worship service.” Earlier they wrote, “That was all the more true of the early period when the text had not attained canonical status, especially in the early period when Christians considered themselves filled with the Spirit.” They claimed that it was “until the beginning of the fourth century the text of the New Testament developed freely.” (Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament 1995, 295, 69)

Generally, once an established concept is set within the world of textual scholars, it is not so easily displaced. During the start of the 20th-century (1900–1930), there were a handful of papyri discovered that obviously represented the work of a copyist who had no training. It is during this time that Sir Frederic Kenyon, director and principal librarian of the British Museum for many years, said,

The early Christians, a poor, scattered, often illiterate body, looking for the return of the Lord at no distant date, were not likely to care sedulously for minute accuracy of transcription or to preserve their books religiously for the benefit of posterity.[13]

The first papyri discovered showed this to be the case (P45, P46, P66). However, as more papyri became known, especially after the discovery of P75, it proved to be just the opposite, prompting Sir Frederic Kenyon to write,

We must be content to know that the general authenticity of the New Testament text has been remarkably supported by the modern discoveries which have so greatly reduced the interval between the original autographs and our earliest extant manuscripts, and that the differences of reading, interesting as they are, do not affect the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.[14]

Even though many textual scholars were crediting the Aland’s The Text of the New Testament with their description of the text as ‘free,’ that was not the entire position of the Alands. Yes, they spoke of the different texts types, such as the “normal,” “free” “strict” and the “paraphrastic.” However, like Kenyon, they saw a need based on the evidence, which suggested a rethinking of how the evidence should be described,

We have inherited from the past generation the view that the early text was a ‘free’ text, and the discovery of the Chester Beatty papyri seemed to confirm this view. When P45 and P46 were joined by P66 sharing the same characteristics, this position seemed to be definitely established. P75 appeared in contrast to be a loner with its “strict’ text anticipating Codex Vaticanus. Meanwhile the other witnesses of the early period had been ignored. It is their collations which have changed the picture so completely.[15]

While we have said this once, it bears repeating, as some of the earliest manuscripts that we now have evidence that a professional scribe copied them.[16] Many of the other papyri confirm that a semiprofessional hand copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being produced by a copyist who was literate and experienced. Therefore, either literate or semiprofessional copyists did the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being done by professionals. As it happened, the few poorly copied manuscripts became known first, establishing a precedent that was difficult for some to shake when the enormous amount of evidence came forth that showed just the opposite.

Distribution of Papyri by Century and Type
150 P52 P90 P104 0 0 0 0
200 P32 P46 P4/64/67 P66 P77 0189 0 0 0 0
250 P1 P5 P9 P12 P15 P20 P22 P23 P27 P28 P29 P30 P39 P40 P45 P47 P49 P53 P65 P70 P75 P80 P87 0220 0 0 P48 P69 1
300 P13 P16 P18 P37 P72 P78 P115 0162 0 0 P38 0171 1
Acts 14 0 0 0 4

What does all of this mean? Of course, we cannot know absolutely, but textual scholars such as Philip W. Comfort[17] and others believe that the very early Alexandrian manuscripts that we now possess are a reflection of what would have been found throughout the whole of the Greco-Roman Empire from about 85–275 C.E. In other words, if we were to discover early manuscripts from other regions (Rome, Greece, Asia, and Palestine), they would be very similar to the early Alexandrian manuscripts. This means that these early papyri can play a major in our establishing the original readings, and we are in a far better position today than were Westcott and Hort in 1881.

However, Epp asks, “If Westcott-Hort did not utilize papyri in constructing their NT text, and if our own modern critical texts, in fact, are not significantly different from that of Westcott-Hort, then why are the papyri important after all?”[18] From there Epp goes on to strongly advice that the papyri should play an essential role in three areas: (1) “to isolate the earliest discernable text-types, (2) assisting “to trace out the very early history of the NT text,” and, (3) “Finally, the papyri can aid in refining the canons of criticism―the principles by which we judge variant readings―for they open to us a window for viewing the earliest stages of textual transmission, providing instances of how scribes worked in their copying of manuscripts.”[19] We should add that the early papyri have changed the decision of textual scholars and committees so that they have not retained the reading of Westcott and Hort at times.

To offer but one example, both Metzger, and Comfort inform us that it was the external evidence of the papyri that resulted in the change in the NU text, adopting the reading that was in the Textus Receptus, as opposed to what was in the Westcott and Hort text.

Matthew 26:20 (WH)

20 μετα των δωδεκα μαθητων

With the twelve disciples

Matthew 26:20 (TRNU)

20 μετα των δωδεκα

With the twelve

Metzger writes, “As is the case in 20:17,[20] the reading μαθηταί after οἱ δώδεκα is doubtful. In the present verse [26:20] the weight of the external evidence seems to favor the shorter reading.” (B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 1994, 53) Comfort in his New Testament Text and Translation writes, “Even though both P37 and P45 are listed as ‘vid,’ it is certain that both did not include the word μαθητων because line spacing would not accommodate it. P37 has the typical abbreviate for ‘twelve,’ as ̅ιβ; and P45 has it written out as [δω]δεκα. P64+67 is less certain, but line lengths of the manuscript suggests that it reads ̅ιβ (see Texts of Earliest MSS, 69).” Comfort more explicitly explains what Metzger hinted at; “The testimony of the papyri (with B and D) created a change in the NU text. Prior to NA26, the NU text included the word μαθητων (“disciples”). But the early evidence shows that this must have been a later addition.” Comfort goes on to write, “Such an addition is not necessary in light of the fact that Jesus’ closest followers were often designated by the gospel writers as simple “the twelve.” (P. W. Comfort 2008, 77)

Again, many textual scholars prior to 1961 felt as though, the early copyists of the New Testament papyri were of those, who were untrained in making documents (P45, P46, P47; P66 and P72 in 2 Peter and Jude), having the impression they were texts in flux.[21] It was not until the discovery of P75 and other papyri that textual scholars began to think differently. Nevertheless, the attitude of the 1930s through the 1950s is explained well by Kurt and Barbara Aland,

Of special importance are the early papyri, i.e., of the period of the third/fourth century. As we have said, these have an inherent significance for the New Testament textual studies because they witness to a situation before the text was channeled into major text types in the fourth century. Our research on the early papyri has yielded unexpected results that require a change in the traditional views of the early text. We have inherited from the past generation the view that the early text was a “free” text,[22] and the discovery of the Chester Beatty papyri seemed to confirm this view. When P45 and P46 were joined by P66 sharing the same characteristics, this position seemed to be definitely established. (Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament 1995, 93)

Before P75, scholars were under the impression that scribes must have used these manuscripts of untrained copyist, to make a recension (critical revision, i.e., revised text), which, according scholars prior to 1961, this is how Codex Vaticanus (B) came about. In 1940, Kenyon inferred the following:

During the second and third centuries, a great variety of readings came into existence throughout the Christian world. In some quarters, considerable license was shown in dealing with the sacred text; in others, more respect was shown to the tradition. In Egypt, this variety of texts existed, as elsewhere; but Egypt (and especially Alexandria) was a country of strong scholarship and with a knowledge of textual criticism. Here, therefore, a relatively faithful tradition was preserved. About the beginning of the fourth century, a scholar may well have set himself to compare the best accessible representatives of this tradition, and so have produced a text of which B is an early descendant.[23]

While Kenyon was correct about the manuscripts coming up out of Egypt being a reasonably pure text, he was certainly mistaken when he suggested that Codex Vaticanus was the result of a critical revision by early scribes. P75 put this theory to rest. Agreement between P75 and codex B is 92% in John and 94% in Luke. However, Porter has it at about 85% agreement.  Zuntz, on the other hand, went a bit further than Kenyon did. Kenyon believed that the critical text had been made in the early part of the fourth century, resulting in our having Codex Vaticanus. Zuntz believed similarly but felt that the recension began back in the mid-second-century and was a process that ran up into the fourth-century. Zuntz wrote:

The Alexander correctors strove, in ever repeated efforts, to keep the text current in their sphere free from the many faults that had infected it in the previous period and which tended to crop up again even after they had been obelized [i.e., marked as spurious]. These labours must time and again have been checked by persecutions and the confiscation of Christian books, and counteracted by the continuing currency of manuscripts of the older type. Nonetheless they resulted in the emergence of a type of text (as distinct from a definite edition) which served as a norm for the correctors in provincial Egyptian scriptoria. The final result was the survival of a text far superior to that of the second century, even though the revisers, being fallible human beings, rejected some of its own correct readings and introduced some faults of their own.[24]

P75, as we can see from the above, influenced the thinking of Kurt Aland. While he said, “We have inherited from the past generation the view that the early text was a ‘free’ text,” he was one of those saying that very thing. However, as he would later say, “Our research on the early papyri has yielded unexpected results that require a change in the traditional views of the early text.” Yes, P75 very much affected the Alands, Kurt said, “P75 shows such a close affinity with the Codex Vaticanus that the supposition of a recension of the text at Alexandria, in the fourth century, can no longer be held.”[25] Gordon Fee clearly states that there was no Alexandrian recension prior to P75 (175-225 C.E.) and the time of Codex Vaticanus (350 C.E.), as he stated that P75 and Vaticanus “seem to represent a ‘relatively pure’ form of preservation of a ‘relatively pure’ line of descent from the original text.”[26] For many decades now, New Testament textual scholarship has been aware that P75 is an extremely accurate copy. On the copyist behind P75, Colwell said, “his impulse to improve style is for the most part defeated by the obligation to make an exact copy.”[27] Colwell went on to comment on the work of that scribe, who made P75,

In P75 the text that is produced can be explained in all its variants as the result of a single force, namely the disciplined scribe who writes with the intention of being careful and accurate. There is no evidence of revision of his work by anyone else, or in fact of any real revision, or check.… The control had been drilled into the scribe before he started writing.[28]

We do not want to leave the reader with the impression that P75 is perfect, as it is not. On this Comfort says, “The scribe had to make several corrections (116 in Luke and John), but there was no attempt ‘to revise the text by a second exemplar, and indeed no systematic correction at all.’[29] The scribe of P75 shows a clear tendency to make grammatical and stylistic improvements in keeping with the Alexandrian scriptorial tradition, and the scribe had a tendency to shorten his text, particularly by dropping pronouns. However, his omissions of text hardly ever extend beyond a word or two, probably because he copied letter by letter and syllable by syllable.”[30]

As the early Nestle Greek text moved from edition to edition, it became more interested in the New Testament papyri. It was the son of Eberhard Nestle, Erwin, who added a full critical apparatus in the thirteenth edition of the 1927 Nestle Edition. It was not until 1950 that Kurt Aland began to work on the text that would eventually become known as the Nestle-Aland text. He would begin to add even more papyri evidence to the critical apparatus of the twenty-first edition. At Erwin Nestle’s request, he looked over and lengthened the critical apparatus, adding far more manuscripts. This ultimately led to the 25th edition of 1963. The most significant Papyri and recently discovered Uncials, (i.e., 0189), a few Minuscules (33, 614, 2814), rarely also lectionaries were also considered. However, while the critical apparatus was being added to and even altered, the text of the Nestle-Aland was not changed until the 26th edition (1979). Many of these changes to the text were a direct result of the papyri.

Returning to the First-Century

The writers of the 27 books comprising the Christian Greek Scriptures were Jews.[31] (Romans 13:1-2) Either these men were an apostle, intimate traveling companions of the apostles, or were picked by Christ in a supernatural way, such as the apostle Paul. Being Jewish, they would have viewed the Old Testament as being the inspired, inerrant Word of God. When Paul said, “all Scripture is inspired of God,” he was likely referring to the Septuagint as well as the Hebrew Old Testament. These writers of the 27 New Testament books would have viewed the teachings of Jesus, or their books expounding on his teachings, as Scripture as well as the Old Testament. The teachings of Jesus came to most of these New Testament writers personally from Jesus, being taught orally; thereafter, they would be the ones who published what Jesus had said and taught orally. When it came time to be published in written form, it should be remembered that Jesus had promised them “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” – John 14:26, ESV

The early first-century Hebrew Christian [or Gentile] copyists were very much aware of the traditions that the Jewish scribes followed in meticulously copying their texts. These copyists would have immediately understood that they were copying sacred texts. In fact, our early papyri show evidence of shared features with the Jewish Sopherim, those men who copied the Hebrew Scriptures from the time of Ezra in the fifth-century B.C.E. to Jesus’ day and beyond. They were extremely careful and were terrified of making mistakes.[32] We will find common features when we compare the Jewish Greek Old Testament and the Christian Old Testament with the Christian Greek Scriptures, such things as an enlarged letter at the beginning of each line, and the invention of the nomen sacrum[33] to deal with God’s personal name. Instead of penning the Tetragrammaton from the Greek Septuagint in front of them, the copyists invented the nomen sacrum. Marginal notes, accents, breathing marks, punctuation, corrections, double punctuation marks (which indicate the flow of text); all of this indicates an adoption of scribal practices of the Sopherim by Jewish Christian writers and scribes.

With the exception of Matthew, all writers of the New Testament published their books in koine, the common Greek of the day. Matthew initially published his Gospel in Hebrew, and shortly thereafter in koine Greek. In his, work concerning Illustrious Men, chapter III, Jerome says, “Matthew, who is also Levi, and who from a publican came to be an apostle, first of all composed a Gospel of Christ in Judaea in the Hebrew language and characters for the benefit of those of the circumcision who had believed.”[34] Early in the third century C.E., Origen, in discussing the Gospels, is quoted by Eusebius as saying that the “first was written . . . according to Matthew, . . . who published it for those who from Judaism came to believe, composed as it was in the Hebrew language.”[35] Initially, the primary focus of the first seven years of Christianity was to bring in fellow Jews; thereafter, the Gentile population became more the target audience. Therefore, we see that Matthew’s publishing of his Gospel in two languages was simply responding to two audience needs.

We might ask if these writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures were bringing their material to their audience in any way different from the other writers of their time. The Apostle Paul’s formal letters were styled after such Greek notables as Isocrates and Plato. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John followed the form of the Greek historian Herodotus. Many of these New Testament writers used professional scribes to bring their works to market: Tertius with Paul, possibly Timothy with Paul,[36] Silas with Peter, Silas composing the letter from the governing body of elders in Jerusalem to Antioch, Theophilus funding Luke’s two productions. Philip Comfort helps us to appreciate the following:

As recorded by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3:24:5–7), Irenaeus tells us that Mark and Luke “published their Gospels” using the Greek word ekdosis, the standard term for the public dissemination of any writing. Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3:1:1) also said, “John, the disciple of the Lord, he who had leaned on his breast, also published [ekdoke] the Gospel, while living at Ephesus in Asia.” For John to publish his Gospel means that he (with the help of the Johannine community) made a distribution of multiple copies of his Gospel.[37]

Former evangelical Christian, now agnostic New Testament Bible scholar, Dr. Bart D. Ehrman writes,

Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places. As we will see later in this book, these copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. (B. D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why 2005, 10) (Bold mine)

As we read this little section of intensity, we get a sense of hopelessness, because ‘all feels lost, for there is certainly no way to get back to the originals.’ Right? Ehrman has had a long history of creating hopelessness for his readers, disguised as his alleged truth quest. He asserts that even in the few very small number of places that we might be sure about the wording, we cannot be certain about the meaning.

Blinded by Misguided Perceptions

It seems that Ehrman has been very impacted by the fact that we do not have the originals or immediate copies. Here we have a world-renowned textual and early Christianity scholar, who is suggesting all throughout his book(s) that we do not have the originals, nor the direct copies and there are so many copyist errors, it is nigh impossible to get back to the Word of God at all. Even if by some mere fortune that we do, we cannot know the meaning for sure. Ehrman is saying to the lay reader; we can no longer trust the text of the Greek New Testament as the Word of God. Therefore, by extension, he is saying the English translations as well.

Ehrman has been so busy over exaggerating the negative to his readers; he has failed to mention what we do have. Dr. Mark Minnick assesses what we do have quite nicely, “Doesn’t the existence of these variants undermine our confidence that we have the very words of God inspired? No! The fact is that because we know of them and is careful to preserve the readings of every one of them, not one word of God’s word has been lost to us.”[38] The wealth of manuscripts that we have for establishing the original Greek New Testament is shameless, in comparison to other ancient literature. We can only wonder what Ehrman does with an ancient piece of literature that has only one copy, and that copy is hundreds or even over a thousand years removed from the time of the original.

Tacitus (56 – 117 C.E.) was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. His work is only known in three manuscripts, with the earliest copy being around 1100 C.E., 1000 years removed. Thucydides (460 – 395 B.C.E.) was a Greek historian and author from Alimos. His work is only known in twenty manuscripts, with the earliest copy being around 900 C.E., 1300 years removed. Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria. His work is only known in seventy-five manuscripts, with the earliest copy being around 50 to 100 C.E., 400 years removed. Plato (424/423 – 348/347 B.C.E.), was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates. His work is only known in seven manuscripts, with the earliest copy being around 900 C.E., 1200 years removed.

The Greek New Testament evidence is over 5,800 Greek manuscripts that have been cataloged, over 9,284 versions, and over 10,000 Latin manuscripts, not to mention an innumerable amount of church fathers quotations. This places the Greek New Testament in a world of its own, because no other ancient document is close to this, except the Hebrew Old Testament. However, there is even more. There are Sixty-two Greek papyri, along with five majuscules manuscripts that date to the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E.[39] Moreover, these early papyri manuscripts are from a region in Egypt that appreciated books as literature, and was copied by semiprofessional and professional scribes, or at least a highly skilled copyist. This region produced what is known as the most accurate and trusted manuscripts.

Were the Scribes in the Early Centuries Amateurs?

We could go on nearly forever talking about specific places in which the texts of the New Testament came to be changed, either accidentally or intentionally. As I have indicated, the examples are not just in the hundreds but in the thousands. The examples given are enough to convey the general point, however: there are lots of differences among our manuscripts, differences created by scribes who were reproducing their sacred texts. In the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs and as such were more inclined to alter the texts they copied—or more prone to alter them accidentally—than were scribes in the later periods who, starting in the fourth century, began to be professionals. (B. D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why 2005, 98) (Bold mine)

Let us take just a moment, to discuss Ehrman’s statement, “in the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs.” In this book, we established just the opposite. Here again, is a summary paragraph of that evidence. Some of the earliest manuscripts that are extant have established that a professional scribe copied them. Many of the other papyri provide evidence that a semiprofessional hand copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being done by a copyist that was literate and experienced. Therefore, either literate or semiprofessional copyists did the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being done by professionals. As it happened, the few poorly copied manuscripts became known first, establishing a precedent that was difficult for some to shake when the truckload of evidence came forth that showed just the opposite. (P. Comfort 2005, 18-19)

Ehrman is distorting the facts to his readers when he goes off the rails, to say, “We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.” The way this is worded, he is saying that we do not have copies that are third or fourth generations removed from the originals. Ehrman cannot know this because we have fifteen copies that are 75 to 100 years removed from the death of the apostle John in 100 C.E. There is the possibility that any of these could be only third or fourth generation removed copies. Furthermore, they could have been copied from a second or third generation. Therefore, Ehrman is misstating the evidence. Moreover, this rhetoric is ended by the above fact that we now have “seven New Testament papyri, [which] had recently been discovered, six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first.”[40]

Let us do another short review of two very important manuscripts: P75 and Vaticanus 1209 (B). P75 is also known as Bodmer 14, 15. As has already been stated, papyrus is writing material used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans that was made from the pith of the stem of a water plant. These are the earliest witnesses to the Greek New Testament. P75 contains most of Luke and John, dating from 175 C.E. to 225 C.E The Vaticanus is designated internationally by the symbol “B,” and is known as an uncial manuscript, written on parchment, a creamy or yellowish material made from dried and treated sheepskin, goatskin, or other animal hide. The Vaticanus is dated to the mid-fourth-century C.E. [c. 350], originally contained the entire Bible in Greek. At present, Vaticanus’ New Testament is missing parts of Hebrews (Hebrews 9:14 to 13:25), all of First and Second Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Revelation. Originally, this codex probably had approximately 820 leaves, of which 759 remain.

What kind of weight or evidence do these two manuscripts carry in the eyes of textual scholars? Vaticanus 1209 is a key source for our modern translations. When determining an original reading, this manuscript could stand against other external evidence that would seem to the nonprofessional as being so much more. P75 also is one of the weightiest manuscripts that we have and is virtually identical to Vaticanus 1209, which dates 175 to 125 years later than P75. When textual scholars B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort released their critical text in 1881, Hort said that Vaticanus preserved “not only a very ancient text but a very pure line of a very ancient text.” (Westcott and Hort 1882, 251) However, later scholars have argued that Vaticanus was a scholarly recension; a critical revision carried out on Vaticanus, an edited text. However, P75 has vindicated Westcott and Hort, because of its virtual likeness with Vaticanus; it establishes that Vaticanus is essentially a copy of a second-century text, and likely, a copy of the original text, with the exception of a few minor points.

Kurt Aland[41] wrote, “P75 shows such a close affinity with the Codex Vaticanus that the supposition of a recension of the text at Alexandria, in the fourth century, can no longer be held.”[42] David C. Parker[43] says of P75 that “it is extremely important for two reasons: “like Vaticanus it is carefully copied; it is also very early, and is generally dated to a period between 175 and 225. Thus, it pre-dates Vaticanus by at least a century. A careful comparison between P75 and Vaticanus in Luke by C.M. Martini demonstrated that P75 was an earlier copy of the same careful Alexandrian text. It is sometimes called a proto-Alexandrian. It is our earliest example of a controlled text, one which was not intentionally or extensively changed in successive copying. Its discovery and study have provided proof that the Alexandrian text had already come into existence in the third century.” (Parker 1997, 61) Let us look at a few more textual scholars, just to tie all loose ends, J. Ed Komoszewski; M. James Sawyer, Daniel Wallace.

Even some of the early manuscripts show compelling evidence of being copies of a much earlier source. Consider again Codex Vaticanus, whose text is very much like that of P75 (B and P75 are much closer to each other than B is to [Codex Sinaiticus]). Yet the papyrus is at least a century older than Vaticanus. When P75 was discovered in the 1950s, some entertained the possibility that Vaticanus could have been a copy of P75, but this view is no longer acceptable since the wording of Vaticanus is certainly more primitive than that of P75 in several places.’ They both must go back to a still earlier common ancestor, probably one that is from the early second century. (Komoszewski, M. Sawyer and Wallace 2006, 78)

Philip comfort comments on how we can know that Vaticanus is not a copy of P75, “As was previously noted, Calvin Porter clearly established the fact that P75 displays the kind of text that was used in making codex Vaticanus. However, it is unlikely that the scribe of B used P75 as his exemplar, because the scribe of B copied from a manuscript whose line length was 12–14 letters per line. We know this because when the scribe of Codex Vaticanus made large omissions, they were typically 12–14 letters long.[44] The average line length for P75 is about 29–32 letters per line. Therefore, the scribe of B must have used a manuscript like P75, but not P75 itself.”[45]

Ehrman suggests that the early Christians were not concerned about the integrity of the text, its preservation of accuracy. Let us visit the second-century evidence by way of Tertullian.[46]

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones[47] of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places,[48] in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally.[49] (Bold mine)

What did Tertullian mean by “authentic writings”? If he was referring to the Greek originals, which it likely seems that he was, according to the Latin, it is a reference that some of the original New Testament books are still in existence at the time of his penning this work. However, let us say that it is simply referring to copies that were well preserved. In any case, this still shows that the Christians valued the preservation of accuracy.

We need to visit an earlier book by Ehrman for a moment, Lost Christianities, in which he writes, “In this process of recopying the document by hand, what happened to the original of 1 Thessalonians? For some unknown reason, it was eventually thrown away, burned, or otherwise destroyed. Possibly, it was read so much that it simply wore out. The early Christians saw no need to preserve it as the `original’ text. They had copies of the letter. Why keep the original?” (B. D. Ehrman 2003, 217)

Here Ehrman is arguing from silence. We cannot read the minds of people today; let alone read the minds of persons 2,000 years before we were born. It is a known fact that congregations valued Paul’s letters, and Paul exhorted them to share the letters amongst differing congregations. Paul wrote to the Colossians, and in what we know as 4:16, he said, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” The best way would be to send someone to a congregation, have them copy the letter and bring it back to their home congregation. On the other hand, someone could make copies of the letter in the congregation that received it, and delivered it to interested congregations. In 1 Thessalonians, the congregation that Ehrman is talking about here, chapter five, verse 27, Paul says, “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.” What did Paul mean by “all the brothers”? It could be that he meant it to be used like a circuit letter, circulated to other congregations, giving everyone a chance to hear the counsel. It may merely be that, with the ability to read being so low, Paul wanted a guarantee that all were going to get to hear its contents, and it simply meant that every brother and sister locally would have had a chance to hear it in the congregation. Regardless, even if we live with the latter, the stress that was put on the reading of this letter shows the weight that these people were placed under concerning Paul’s letters.[50] Philip Comfort also comments on how Paul and the others would view their apostolic letters,

Paul knew the importance of authorized apostolic letters, for he saw the authority behind the letter that came from the first Jerusalem church council. The first epistle from the church leaders who had assembled at Jerusalem was the prototype for subsequent epistles (see Acts 15). It was authoritative because it was apostolic, and it was received as God’s word. If an epistle came from an apostle (or apostles), it was to be received as having the imprimatur [approval/authority] of the Lord. This is why Paul wanted the churches to receive his word as being the word of the Lord. This is made explicit in 1 Thessalonians (2:13), an epistle he insisted had to be read to all the believers in the church (5:27). In the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul indicated that his epistles carry the same authority as his preaching (see 2:15). Paul also told his audience that if they would read what he had written, they would be able to understand the mystery of Christ, which had been revealed to him (see Eph. 3:1–6). Because Paul explained the mystery in his writings (in this case, the encyclical epistle known as “Ephesians”), he urged other churches to read this encyclical (see Col. 4:16). In so doing, Paul himself encouraged the circulation of his writings. Peter and John also had publishing plans. Peter’s first epistle, written to a wide audience (the Christian diaspora in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia—see 1 Pet. 1:1), was a published work, which must have been produced in several copies from the onset, to reach his larger, intended audience. John’s first epistle was also published and circulated—probably to all the churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor. First John is not any kind of occasional epistle; it is more like a treatise akin to Romans and Ephesians in that it contains John’s full explanation of the Christian life and doctrine as a model for all orthodox believers to emulate. The book of Revelation, which begins with seven epistles to seven churches in this same province, must have also been inititally published in seven copies, as the book circulated from one locality to the next, by the seven “messengers” (Greek anggeloi—not “angels” in this context). By contrast, the personal letters (Philemon, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 John, 3 John) were not originally “published”; therefore, their circulation was small. Second Peter also had minimal circulation in the early days of the church. Because of its popularity, the book of Hebrews seemed to have enjoyed wide circulation—this was promoted by the fact that most Christians in the East thought it was the work of Paul and therefore was included in Pauline collections (see discussion below). The book of Acts was originally published by Luke as a sequel to his Gospel (see Acts 1:1–2). Unfortunately, in due course, this book got detached from Luke when the Gospel of Luke was placed in one-volume codices along with the other Gospels.[51]

Peter also had this to say about Paul’s letters, “there are some things in them [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Pet 3:16) Peter just compared Paul’s letters to being on the same level as the Old Testament that was referred to as Scripture. Jumping ahead, about 135 C.E., Papias, an elder of the early congregation in Hierapolis, put what he had to tell into a book.

Papias explains,

I will not hesitate to set down for you, along with my interpretations, everything I carefully learned then from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. In addition, if by chance someone who had been a follower of the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders–what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and abiding voice.[52]

As an elder, in the congregation at Hierapolis, in Asia Minor, Papias was an unrelenting researcher, as well as a thorough compiler of information; he exhibited intense indebtedness for the Scriptures. Papias determined properly that any doctrinal statement of Jesus Christ or his apostles would be far more appreciated and respected to explain than the unreliable statements found in the written works of his day. Please see Jude 1:17, where Jude exhorts his readers to preserve the words of the apostles.

Therefore, the idea of that the “early Christians saw no need to preserve it as the ‘original’ text,” is far too difficult to accept when we consider the above. Moreover, imagine a Church in Middle America getting a visit from Billy Graham. Now imagine that he wrote them a warm letter, but filled with some stern counsel. Would there be little interest in the preservation of those words? Would they not want to share it with others? Would other churches not be interested in it? The same would have been even truer of early Christianity receiving a letter from an apostle like Peter, John, or Paul. There is no doubt that the ‘original’ wore out eventually. However, they lived in a society that valued the preservation of the apostle’s words, and it is far more likely that it was copied with care, to share with others, and to preserve. Moreover, let us acknowledge that their imperfections took over as well. Paul would have become a famous apostle that wrote a few churches, and there were thousands of churches toward the end of the first-century. Would they have not exhibited some pride in that they received a letter from the famous apostle Paul, who was martyred for the truth? Ehrman’s suggestions are reaching and contrary to human nature. It is simply wishful thinking on his part.

The idea of getting back to the original seems not to be so far removed from the mind of Ehrman, who pens the fourth edition of The Text of the New Testament, with Bruce Metzger. They wrote,

 Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic compares numerous scriptural quotations used in commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament. (Metzger and Ehrman 2005, 126)

How are we to view the patristic citations? Well, let us look at another book that Bart Ehrman coauthored with other textual scholars. The following is from chapter 12, written by Gordon Fee (The Use of the Greek Fathers for New Testament Textual Criticism),

In NT textual criticism, patristic citations are ordinarily viewed as the third line of evidence, indirect and supplementary to the Greek MSS, and are often therefore treated as of tertiary importance. When properly evaluated, however, patristic evidence is of primary importance, for both of the major tasks of NT textual criticism: in contrast to the early Greek MSS, the Fathers have the potential of offering datable and geographically certain evidence. (B. D. Ehrman 1995, 191)

In closing out this chapter, we have certainly established that Ehrman is once again, painting a picture that is not quite the truth of the matter for the average churchgoer, while saying something entirely different before textual scholars. We have also established that the manuscript evidence is not as far removed as he suggests with his sarcasm. Moreover, he does not help the reader to appreciate just how close the New Testament manuscript evidence is to the time of the original writings, in comparison to other ancient literature, many of which are few in number and hundreds, if not a thousand years removed.

In addition, he has exaggerated the variants in the Greek New Testament manuscripts by not qualifying the level of variants. In other words, he is not explaining how he is counting them to get such high numbers. In addition, Ehrman’s unqualified statement, “In the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs,” has been discredited as well, because it is a statement without explanation. True, there were amateur scribes in the first few centuries, but the manuscript evidence suggests the opposite is true when it comes to copying the New Testament manuscripts. Again, some of the earliest manuscripts that we now have established that a professional scribe copied them. Many of the other papyri give evidence that a semiprofessional hand copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being done by a copyist that was literate and experienced. Therefore, either literate or semiprofessional copyists did the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being done by professionals.


[1] First, there are close to one million papyrus fragments in various libraries throughout the world that have not been published. Since only about one percent of all papyri have been published (about 10,000), there is a very high degree of probability that some of the remainder will be NT fragments. The last NT papyrus to be published was papyrus 127 or P127, a fifth-century fragment of Acts. It was discovered in 2009. Therefore, when we speak of how many have “survived,” we can understand that the question is not that easy to answer.

NT scholars use the term “extant” to describe MSS that have survived. It means that some have survived and are known to exist. With that definition, you might think that 127 is the number. However, there is a slight problem with that, too. Some fragments, such as P64 and P67, were later determined to belong to the same manuscript. This happens a few times for NT MSS, but mostly for minuscules (of which we now have extant about 2900). However, most scholars do not wrestle with such details. Therefore, 127 is the answer you are looking for.

As for dates, the papyri range in date from early second century C.E. to early seventh century C.E.. I have worked up a chart of all NT MSS through the 8th century: as much as 43% of all the verses of the NT are attested by the end of the third century in the extant papyri.–Dr. Daniel B. Wallace of The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.

[2] C. H. Roberts wrote, “In the second century, locally produced texts such as the scrap of The Shepherd [of Hermas] on the back of a document from the Fayum or the Baden Exodus-Deuteronomy might be carefully collated and corrected; the numerous duplications and omissions of the first hand of the Chester Beatty Numbers-Deuteronomy codex were put right by the corrector. This scrupulous reproduction of the text may be a legacy from Judaism and reminds us that no more in this period than in any other does quality of book production go hand in hand with quality of text.” (C. H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society, and Belief in Early Christian Egypt 1979, 22)

[3] Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, vol. 17, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-2001), 47-48.

[4] “I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.” (Rom. 16:22) “By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it.” (1 Pet. 5:12)

[5] A very light porous rock formed from solidified lava, used in solid form as an abrasive and in powdered form as a polish.

[6] A Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible started in about 280 and completed about 150 B.C.E. to meet the needs of Greek-speaking Jews outside Palestine.

[7] Lit little books; Gr biblia

[8] I.e., the leather scrolls

[9] Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 217.

[10] Lit little books; Gr biblia

[11] J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Revised Edition, 1995), 51–52.

[12] J. Harold Greenlee, The Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition (2008), 37.

[13] F. Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (1895), 157.

[14] F. Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (1962), 249.

[15] (Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament 1995, 93-5)

[16] Some may argue that we can only be confident that we have good manuscripts of an “early” form of the text but not necessarily of the originally published text. This hypothesis cannot be disproven. However, I think it is highly doubtful for four reasons: (1) The intervening time between the publication date of various New Testament books (from AD 60–90) and the date of several of our extant manuscripts (from AD 100–200) is narrow, thereby giving us manuscripts that are probably only three to five “manuscript generations” removed from the originally published texts. (2) We have no knowledge that any of these manuscripts go back to an early “form” that postdates the original publications. (3) We are certain that there was no major Alexandrian recension in the second century. (4) Text critics have been able to detect any other other second-century textual aberrations, such as the D-text, which was probably created near the end of the second century, not the beginning. Thus, it stands to reason that these “reliable” manuscripts are excellent copies of the authorized published texts.” (P. Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism 2005, 269)

[17] Philip W. Comfort, The Quest for the Original Text of the New Testament (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1992).

[18] The New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts in Historical Perspective, in To Touch the Text: Biblical and Related Studies in Honour of Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S. J. (ed. Maurya P. Horgan and Paul J. Kobelski; New York: Crossroad, 1989), 285 (there italicized) repr. in Epp, Perspectives, 338.

[19] Ibid., 288

[20] 20:17 τοὺς δώδεκα [μαθητάς] {C}

Although copyists often add the word μαθηταίto the more primitive expression οἱ δώδεκα (see Tischendorf’s note in loc. and 26.20 below), a majority of the Committee judged that the present passage was assimilated to the text of Mark (10:32) or Luke (18:31). In order to represent both possibilities it was decided to employ square brackets. (B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 1994, 42)

On 20:17, Comfort writes, “Either reading could be original because they both have good support and because the gospel writers alternated between the nomenclature ‘the twelve disciples’ and ‘the twelve.’” (P. W. Comfort 2008, 60)

[21] Kurt and Barbara Aland write, “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. (Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament 1995, 84)

[22] Early manuscripts (from before the fourth century) are classified by the Alands as “strict,” “normal,” or “free.” The “normal” text “transmitted the original text with the limited amount of variation.” Then, there is the “free” text, “characterized by a greater degree of variation than the ‘normal’ text.” Finally, there is the “strict” text, which reproduced the text of its exemplar with greater fidelity (although still with certain characteristic liberties), exhibiting far less variation than the ‘normal’ text.” (Aland 1987, 93)

[23] F. Kenyon, “Hesychius and the Text of the New Testament,” in Memorial Lagrange (1940), 250.

[24] G. Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles (1953), 271–272.

[25] Kurt Aland, “The Significance of the Papyri for New Testament Research” in The Bible in Modern Scholarship (1965), 336.

[26] Gordon Fee, “P75, P66, and Origen: The Myth of Early Textual Recension in Alexandria” in New Dimensions in New Testament Study (1974), 19–43.

[27] Ernest C. Colwell, “Method in Evaluating Scribal Habits: A Study of P45, P66, P75,” in Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament, New Testament Tools and Studies 9 (Leiden: Brill, 1969), 121.

[28] Ibid., 117

[29] James Ronald Royse, “Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri” (Ph.D. diss., Graduate Theological Union, 1981), 538–39.

[30] (Comfort and Barret, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts 2001, 506)

[31] Some believe that Luke was a Gentile, building this primarily on Colossians 4:11, 14. Because Paul first mentioned “the circumcision” (Col 4:11) and thereafter talk about Luke (Col 4:14), the inference is drawn that Luke was not of the circumcision and therefore was not a Jew. However, this is by no means decisive. Romans 3:1-2 says “Jews were entrusted with the whole revelation of God.” Luke is one of those to whom such inspired revelations were entrusted.

[32] It is true, they did take some liberties with the text, but these few places were the exception to the rule. They intentionally altered some placed that appeared to show irreverence for God or one of his spokespersons.

[33] Nomina sacra (singular: nomen sacrum) means “sacred names” in Latin, and can be used to refer to traditions of abbreviated writing of several frequently occurring divine names or titles in early Greek manuscripts.


[34] Translation from the Latin text edited by E. C. Richardson and published in the series “Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur,” Leipzig, 1896, Vol. 14: 8–9.

[35] The Ecclesiastical History, VI, XXV, 3–6.

[36] Timothy possibly serving as Paul’s secretary, as Timothy appears in the six letters that also bear his name in the greeting – 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1:1 (NASB) Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians …

2 Corinthians 1:1 (NASB) Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth …

Philippians 1:1 (NASB) Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi …

Colossians 1:1 (NASB) Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, …

Philemon 1 (NASB) Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon …

[37] P. W. Comfort (1992), 45.

[38] Mark Minnick, “Let’s Meet the Manuscripts,” in from the Mind of God to the Mind of Man: A Layman’s Guide to How We Got Our Bible, eds. James B. Williams and Randolph Shaylor (Greenvill, SC: Ambassador-Emerald International, 1999), p. 96.

[39] Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, Executive Director of The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM)

On 1 February 2012, I debated Bart Ehrman at UNC Chapel Hill on whether we have the wording of the original New Testament today. This was our third such debate, and it was before a crowd of more than 1000 people. I mentioned that seven New Testament papyri had recently been discovered—six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first. These fragments will be published in about a year.

These manuscripts now increase our holdings as follows: we have as many as eighteen New Testament manuscripts (all fragmentary, more or less) from the second century and one from the first. Altogether, about 33% of all New Testament verses are found in these manuscripts. But the most interesting thing is the first-century fragment.

It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century. If this is true, it would be the oldest fragment of the New Testament known to exist. Up until now, no one has discovered any first-century manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament has been P52, a small fragment from John’s Gospel, dated to the first half of the second century. It was discovered in 1934.

Not only this, but the first-century fragment is from Mark’s Gospel. Before the discovery of this fragment, the oldest manuscript that had Mark in it was P45, from the early third century (c. 200–250 CE). This new fragment would predate that by 100 to 150 years. http://csntm.org/news

[40] http://csntm.org/News/Archive/2012/2/10/EarliestManuscriptoftheNewTestamentDiscovered

[41] (1915 – 1994) was Professor of New Testament Research and Church History. He founded the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster and served as its first director for many years (1959–83). He was one of the principal editors The Greek New Testament for the United Bible Societies.

[42] K. Aland, “The Significance of the Papyri for New Testament Research,” 336.

[43] Professor of Theology and the Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham. Scholar of New Testament textual criticism and Greek and Latin paleography.

[44] Brooke F. Westcott and Fenton J. A. Hort, Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek (New York: Harper & Bros., 1882; reprint, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1988), 233–34.

[45]  (Comfort and Barret, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts 2001)

[46] Tertullian (160 – 220 C.E.), was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa.

[47] Cathedrae

[48] Suis locis praesident.

[49] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 260.

[50] The exhortation ἐνορκίζω ὑμᾶς τὸν κύριον ἀναγνωσθῆναι τὴν ἐπιστολὴν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς (“I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read aloud to all the brothers [and sisters]”), is stated quite strongly. ἐνορκίζω takes a double accusative and has a causal sense denoting that the speaker or writer wishes to extract an oath from the addressee(s). The second accusative, in this case τὸν κύριον (“the Lord”), indicates the thing or person by whom the addressees were to swear. The forcefulness of this statement is highly unusual, and in fact it is the only instance in Paul’s letters where such a charge is laid on the recipients of one of his letters.―Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990), 208-09.

[51] (P. Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism 2005, 17)

[52] (Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations 2007, 565)