Receive the Word

Edward D. Andrews

As Luke, Paul, Peter, Matthew, James, or Jude handed their authorized text off to be copied by others, i.e., published, what would it have looked like? What is the process that the New Testament writers would have followed to get their book ready to be published, that is copied by others? Once they were ready for publication, how would they be copied throughout the centuries, up until the time of the printing press of 1455 C.E.?[1] As we open our Bible to the Gospel of Matthew, or the letter to the Romans, or any of the 27 books of the New Testament, how can we have confidence that what we are reading is a reflection of the original in our language? If we were to bring home from a bookstore a copy of the HCSB, ESV, GNB, NLT, MSG, NASB, UASV or any of the other one hundred plus English translations, could we have confidence that what we are reading is the Word of God? Some translations have footnotes throughout that say, “Other ancient MSS[2] read …. What exactly does that mean, and which is the Word of God: the words in the main text of our Bible, or the others below in the footnote?


The science and art of textual criticism has answered these questions, and more. It is a science because there are rules and principles, as well as a method or process that is to be followed if the textual scholar is to get back to the original reading.[3] It is an art because the human agent needs to be balanced with his use of those rules and principles. It is like driving a car. The driver needs to follow all driving rules as he stays between the lines of his side of the road to reach his destination. So too, the textual scholar needs to stay within the rules to reach his destination. However, the designers of the roads were not rigid to the point of making those two lines so narrow that there was no room for the driver to miss obstructions, which might be in his path. This extra room would help the driver to avoid objects that could result in a crash. The same holds true of the textual scholar having room within the lines of his field, to prevent a wreck, causing him not to be able to reach his desired destination, i.e., the original reading.

From ancient times until 1455 C.E., anything that was penned was done so literally, by hand. A “manuscript” is a handwritten text. It did not matter if it was a poem, letter, receipt, book, or anything else; it would still have been produced and copied by hand. In addition, it would mostly have been done one copy at a time in the early decades of Christianity. In the second century C.E., it may have been copied in a scriptorium, i.e. a room in a monastery for storing, copying, illustrating, or reading manuscripts. In the scriptorium, there would have a lector who would have read aloud slowly as multiple scribes or copyists took down what he was saying.

Scroll of the Book of Esther

Scroll of the Book of Esther, Seville, Spain.

The Scroll or Roll Book

A scroll is a roll of papyrus, parchment, or other material, used for a written document. The scroll was generally divided up into pages, even though it was continuous, by gluing separate sheets at the edges. Usually, the reader or lector, as well as the writer unrolled, the scroll one page at a time, leaving it rolled up on both sides of the current page that was showing. The scroll is unrolled from side to side, with the text being written or read, from lines of text, from the top to the bottom of the pages. If it were Hebrew for example, it would be written from right to left, and one would open that scroll by rolling to the right. On the other hand, if it were Greek it would be written from left to right, or even an alternating direction with other languages. Boustrophedon is an ancient method of inscribing and writing in which lines are written alternately from right to left and from left to right. Usually, professional scribes would justify the pages on both sides, with both left and right margins aligned. On the papyrus scroll, Harold Greenlee writes,

Papyrus scrolls are mentioned several times in the New Testament; references are usually translated as “book.” Luke 4: 17 speaks of the scroll (biblion) of the prophet Isaiah. John uses the same word to refer to his gospel in John 20:30. The “books” or “scrolls” mentioned in 2 Tim 4:13 may be either parchment scrolls or leather scrolls of the Old Testament. Rev 6:14 describes the sky as vanishing like “a scroll when it is rolled up.”[4]

Manuscript Chart_Greenlee

Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, (p. 23)

The scroll was the first form to receive writing which was in a format that could be edited by the author or scribe and was used in the Eastern Mediterranean ancient Egyptian civilizations. The parchment scroll that was used by Moses to pen the first five books of the Old Testament goes back to about the late sixteenth-century B.C.E. The codex (bound book) got its start by Latin authors in the first-century C.E. (widely used in the second-century), some 1,500 years after the scroll. The early Christians popularized the codex in the second-century C.E. Some would even argue that it was the Christians who invented the codex. However, it appears that Christians mainly used the roll, or scroll, at least until about the end of the first century C.E. However, from the close of the first to the third century C.E., there was a struggle between those who encouraged the use of the codex and those preferring scrolls. Traditionalists, familiar and comfortable with using the scroll, were unwilling to give up deep-rooted conventions and traditions. Nevertheless, the popularization of the codex played a significant role in the displacement of the scroll. However, the scroll continued to be used for centuries.

Scrolls were used for literary works: continuous rolls twenty or thirty feet long, and nine to ten inches high. (Psa. 40:7) The text was written in columns, which formed the pages. (Jer. 36:23) In fact, our English word “volume” literally means something rolled up. Imagine being in the synagogue of Nazareth, when Jesus was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, where he skillfully unrolled with one hand while simultaneously rolling it up with the other hand until he reached the place he wanted to read. (Lu 4:16-17; Isa. 61:1-2) The ink that was used on the surface of the scrolls had to withstand being rolled and unrolled. Therefore, a special ink was developed. In addition, the Jews would discard any scroll that had too many letters missing from wear and tear. It was not until about the fifth century C.E. that the codex finally outnumbered the scroll by a ten to one margin in Egypt. When we consider the surviving examples, we also see that the scroll had almost vanished by the sixth century C.E.

The Codex Book

four-leaf quire

A typical four-leaf quire can be formed from a single sheet of papyrus, parchment, or paper by folding and then cutting the sheet

A codex is a collection of ancient manuscript texts, especially of the Biblical Scriptures, in book form.[5] It is made up of sheets of papyrus or parchment inscribed with handwritten material, which is created by folding a single sheet of standard-sized pages, giving the scribe two leaves or four pages.

The first codices were made with waxed-coated wooden tablets. The people of Greece and Rome used waxed tablets before the Christian era. Schoolboys were sometimes given waxed tablets on which the teacher had written letters in model script with a stylus. Today, we have the blackboard (UK) or chalkboard (US), which was originally made of smooth, thin sheets of black or dark gray slate stone. In the early part of the 20th century, schoolchildren even had smaller slate tablets. They had a reusable writing surface on which text or drawings could be made with sticks of calcium carbonate, i.e., chalk.

waxed tablet

Roman wax tablet and stylus

To make the waxed tablets of Jesus’ day, one would slightly hollow out a flat piece of wood and fill that void with wax. These tablets were also used for temporary writing like modern chalkboards. They were also commonly used for corresponding with others. Greenlee writes, “They were also used at times for legal documents, in which case two tablets would be placed face to face with the writing inside and fastened together with leather thongs run through holes at the edges of the tablets. In one of his writings St. Augustine mentions some tablets he owned, although his were made of ivory instead of wood.”[6] An example of temporary writing is found in the Gospel of Luke. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who had temporarily lost the ability to speak, was asked what name he wanted his son to have. Luke 1:63 (NASB) reports, “And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, ‘His name is John.’”

Polyptychs [pol·yp·tych ˈpälipˌtik] is an arrangement of three or more panels with a painting or carving on each, usually hinged together. Some were discovered at Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town near modern Naples that was destroyed along with Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E.

In time, sheets of foldable material replaced rigid tablets. The codex has been viewed as the most significant advancement in the development of the book, aside from the printing press.[7] Some of the earliest surviving codices were made of papyrus, being preserved in the dry sands of Egypt.

When we consider the thought of unrolling and using a scroll as opposed to the codex, we can likely think of many advantages of one over the other. The codex has the capacity to contain far more written material; it is much easier to carry and more convenient. Some in the early days of the codex even mentioned these advantages but were slow to move away from the long use of the scroll. Again, the Christians played a major part in the eventual death of the scroll. Their evangelism would have been far more cumbersome without the codex.

Devil_codex Gigas

The Codex Gigas, 13th century, Bohemia.

In comparison to the scroll, the codex was also far more affordable, because both sides of the pages could be written on, getting more value for one’s money. Moreover, instead of having one book with each scroll, one could have the whole of the old or New Testament. The fact that one could find Bible passages far easier and faster added to the codex’s success. This was true for Christians, but also for lawyers and the like. When we think of the early Christians, we are reminded that they evangelized to the point of going from 120 disciples in the upper room, to more than one million Christians spread throughout the Roman Empire at the beginning of the second century C.E. In addition, early Christians were evangelists, who used pre-evangelism, i.e. apologetics. They could have what we now call proof texts, easily located, to make their arguments to pagans and Jews alike. Then, the fact that the codex book had a wooden cover, making it more durable than the scroll, added to its advantages. Codices were useful, sensible, and likely effective for personal reading. The Christians of the third century C.E. actually had parchment pocket Gospels.

Larry Hurtado, in his blog (The Codex and Early Christians: Clarification & Corrections), writes,

Bagnall offered figures (pp. 72-74) comparing the number of non-Christian and Christian codices from Egypt datable to the early centuries, also giving the percentages of Christian codices of the total.  His own data show, e.g., that Christian codices amount to somewhere between 22-34% of the total for the 2nd-3rd centuries CE.  Yet Christian books overall amount to only ca. 2% of the total number of books (codices and rolls) of these centuries.  Of course, there are more non-Christian codices, but the first point to note is that Christian codices comprise a vastly disproportionate percentage of the total number of codices in this period.

The very data provided by Bagnall clearly show that Christians invested in the codex far more than is reflected in the larger book-culture of the time.  That is, the early Christian preference for the codex is undeniable, and this preference is quite distinctive in that period.  Bagnall actually reached the same judgment, stating, “Christian books in these centuries (2nd/3rd) are far more likely to be codices than rolls, quite the reverse of what we find with classical literature.” (p. 74)

My second point also stands, and is supported by Bagnall:  the early Christian preference for the codex seems to have been especially keen when it came to making copies of texts used as scripture (i.e. read in corporate worship).  For example, 95+% of Christian copies of OT writings are in codex form.  As for the writings that came to form the NT, they’re all in codex form except for a very few instances of NT writings copied on the back of a re-used roll (which were likely informal and personal copies made by/for readers who couldn’t afford a copy on unused writing material).  Here again, Bagnall grants the same conclusion, judging that, although they were ready to copy “the Christians adopted the codex as the normative format of deliberately produced public copies of scriptural texts” (p. 78), but were ready to use rolls for other texts (76).

The Making of a Codex

Skin of a stillborn goat

The process of making a codex began with a dried and treated sheepskin, goatskin, or another animal hide. “The pelts were first soaked in a lime solution to loosen the fur, which was then removed. While wet on a stretcher, the skin was scraped using a knife with a curved blade. As the skin dried, the parchment maker would adjust the tension so that the skin remained taut. This cycle of scraping and stretching was repeated over several days until the desired thinness had been achieved. Here, the skin of a stillborn goat, prized for its smoothness, is stretched on a modern frame to illustrate the parchment making process.”[8] The first step for preparing the pages to receive writing was to set up the quires, i.e. a bundle of sheets of parchment folded together for binding into a book, especially a four-sheet bundle, folded once to make eight leaves or sixteen pages. Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham point out that “the quire was the scribe’s basic writing unit throughout the Middle Ages.”[9]

The Craft of the Scribe

The recto is the front side of a sheet of papyrus or parchment while the verso is the back of a page. If the scribe were writing on a sheet of papyrus, he would write his script on the horizontal lines of the fibers on the recto side of his sheet. If the scribe were using a sheet of parchment, the manuscript had pinpricks placed in it, so that it could be ruled with lines, to better accommodate writing. In some of the manuscripts, we can still see faintly visible lines. It was similar to modern day tablet paper, with horizontal lines running across the page to receive text, and vertical lines, which served to mark the boundaries, to have justification on both sides. The scribal schools had different techniques for ruling manuscripts, and sometimes a textual scholar can identify the school of a particular manuscript, based on how it was ruled, giving us the place of its origin. The hair side of the parchment was darker than that of the flesh side, so scribes placed the quires so that the hair side faced the hair side of the corresponding page, making it more reader friendly.

Student of Ancient Handwriting

The study of ancient handwriting and manuscripts is an essential skill for paleographers, but also for the textual scholar as well. The style of the characters that make up an alphabet change every fifty years or so; thus, it is essential to have knowledge of the eras of different styles. Moreover, scribes use abbreviations and contractions for various reasons. Therefore, the student of ancient handwriting must know how to interpret them. For example, various contractions and abbreviations are found in our earliest manuscripts of the Christian Greek New Testament.[10]

The abbreviations that are most relevant to this discussion are what have become known as the sacred names, or nomina sacra (nomen sacrum, singular), such as Lord Lord,[11] Jesus Jesus Christ Christ_ Christ_02 God God and Spirit Spirit These sacred names are abbreviated or contracted by keeping the first letter or two and the last letter. Another important feature is the horizontal bar placed over these letters to help readers recognize that they are encountering a contraction. The early Christian writers had three different ways that they would pen a sacred name: (1) suspension, (2) contraction, and (3) longer contraction. The suspension was accomplished by writing only the first two letters of “Jesus,” for example (ιησους = ιη), and suspending the remaining letters (σους). The contraction was accomplished by writing only the first and last letter of Jesus (ιησους = ις) and removing the remaining letters (ησου).

The longer contraction would simply keep the first two letters instead of just one, as well as the last letter (ιης). After penning the suspension or contraction, the scribe would place a bar over the Name. This practice of placing a bar over the name was likely carried over from the common practice of scribes placing bars above contractions, especially numbers, which were represented by letters, e.g. IA  = eleven.

When students of ancient handwriting have knowledge of these individual letter forms, ligatures,[12] punctuation, and abbreviations, it enables them to read and understand the text. Of course, textual scholars must know the language of the manuscripts they are studying–in our case, Greek. They need to be an expert in the forms of the language, the various styles of handwriting, writing customs, and able to identify different hands within the same manuscript, and scribal notes and abbreviations. They also need to study the development of the language over the years and its history, to better analyze the texts. As we have discussed, students of ancient handwriting must have knowledge of the writing materials as well, which will enable them better to identify the period in which a document was copied.[13] One of the primary goals of paleographers is to ascertain the date of the text and its place of origin. For these reasons alone, they must consider the style and formation of a manuscript, as well as the style of handwriting used therein.

Berlin Papyrus 9875

Detail of the Berlin Papyrus 9875 showing the 5th column of Timotheus’ Persae, with a coronis symbol, to mark the end.

We have, for example, what is known as the Ptolemaic Book Hand, and how it developed is difficult to say because we have so few examples, which are not datable. It is not until we reach the third century B.C.E. that we can have confidence. The hands of this period are stiff, awkward, and sharply defined (e.g., EΣ, and Ω). Moreover, the letters evidenced no consistency in size. At times, there was a fineness and pleasing subtlety attained. When we arrive at the second century B.C.E., we find the letters becoming more rounded, as well as more uniform in size. However, one can detect a loss of unity in the first century. On this, Comfort writes, “Paleographers date the emergence of the Roman Uncial as coming on the heels of the Ptolemaic period, which ended in 30 BC. Thus, early Roman Uncial begins around 30 BC, and the Roman Uncial hand can be seen throughout the first two to three centuries of the Christian era. The Roman Uncial script, generally speaking, shares the characteristics of literary manuscripts in the Roman period (as distinct from the Ptolemaic period) in that these manuscripts show a greater roundness and smoothness in the forms of letters and are somewhat larger than what was penned in the Ptolemaic period. Furthermore, the Roman Uncial typically displays decorative serifs in several letters, but not all. (By contrast, the Decorated Rounded style aims at making the decorations rounded and replete.)”[14]

Majuscule Hand

During the Byzantine period (300-650 C.E.), the dominant type of book-hand became known as the biblical hand. It had its earliest beginnings toward the end of the second-century C.E., being used by all, not necessarily having any connection to Christian literature. In addition, manuscripts from Egypt, of vellum or papyrus dating to around the fourth century C.E., contained other forms of script, i.e., a sloping rather unpolished hand resulting from the literary hand, which continued until about the fifth century C.E. The three early great codices, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus of the fourth century C.E. and Alexandrinus of the fifth century C.E., were penned in majuscules of the biblical hand. The hand that produced Vaticanus is the least demonstrated, as the letters are characteristic of the biblical hand but do not possess the heavy look of the later manuscripts, with a greater roundness to them. Sinaiticus, which was copied shortly after that, has larger, heavier letters. In Alexandrinus, we notice a development in the form, a definite distinction between thick and thin strokes.


Vaticanus, From Page Matthew 1:22-2:18

Sinaiticus_From Page Matthew 2.5-3.7

Sinaiticus, From Page Matthew 2:5-3:7

Codex Alexandrinus of the fifth century

Codex Alexandrinus of the fifth century, The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

Once we enter the sixth century C.E., we notice in the manuscripts, vellum or papyrus, that the heavier hand became the standard, but still possessed an attractive appearance. However, in the centuries to come there was a steady decline, as the writing appears to be done artificially, i.e., as a matter of duty or custom, without thought, attention. The thick strokes became heavier; the cross strokes of T and Θ and the bottom of Δ were equipped with sagging spurs. This era of an unpleasant hand followed in sequence, morphing from sloping to upright.

Publishing Industry of the Ancient World

Most people today would not imagine the ancient world’s having a large publishing industry, yet this was the case. The ancient writings of famous authors were great pieces of literature that were highly sought after from the moment they were penned, much as today. Thus, there was a need for the scriptorium[15] to fill orders for both pagan and civil literature, as well as the Bible books. There was a need for hundreds of copies, and as Christianity displaced paganism, the need would grow exponentially.

The Autograph (“self-written”) was the text actually written by a New Testament author, or the author and scribe as the author dictated to him. If the scribe was taking down dictation (Rom. 16:22; 1 Pet. 5:12), he may have done so in shorthand.[16] Whether by shorthand or longhand, we can assume that both the scribe and the author would check the scribe’s work. The author would have authority over all corrections since the Holy Spirit did not inspire the scribe. If the inspired author wrote everything down himself as the Spirit moved him, the finished product would be the autograph. This text is also often referred to as the Original. Hence, the terms autograph and original are often used interchangeably. Sometimes textual critics prefer to make a distinction, using “original” as a general reference to the text that is correctly attributed to a biblical author.  This designation does not focus on the process of how a book or letter was written.

The original can also be referred to as the first Authorized Text (Archetypal Manuscript), i.e., the text first used to make other copies. We should also point out that some textual critics debate whether the original or autograph of any given book was actually the first text used to make copies, and they prefer to call the latter the Initial Text instead, not requiring that it actually be the autograph. Conservative critics would maintain that they are the same. Neither term should be confused with what is known as an ordinary Exemplar, any authorized text of the book from which other copies were made. The original text necessarily was the very first exemplar used to make copies, but after that other copies of high quality were used as exemplars. We will frequently use this term to refer to any copy that a scribe employed as his text for making another copy. Usually, a scribe would have a main or primary exemplar from which he makes most of his copy and one or more secondary exemplars with which to compare what he found in his main exemplar. As we will see, scribes sometimes substituted text from other exemplars for what they found in their main exemplars.

We have mentioned the Scriptorium, a room where multiple scribes or even one scribe worked to produce the manuscript(s). A lector would read aloud from the exemplar, and the scribe(s) would write down his words. The Corrector was one who checked the manuscripts for needed corrections. Corrections could be by three primary persons: (1) the copyist himself, (2) the official corrector of the scriptorium, or (3) a person who had purchased the copy. When textual scholars speak of the Hand, this primarily refers to a person who is making the copy, distinguishing his level of training. Paleographers have set out four basic levels of handwriting. First, there was the common hand of a person who was untrained in making copies. Second, there was the documentary hand of an individual who was trained in preparing documents. The third level was the reformed documentary hand of a copyist who was experienced in the preparation of documents and copying literature; and fourth was the professional hand, the scribe experienced in producing literature.[17]

We must keep in mind that we are dealing with an oral society. Therefore, the apostles, who had spent three and a half years with Jesus, first published the Good News orally. The teachers within the newly founded Christian congregations would repeat this information until it was memorized. Thereafter, those who had heard this gospel would, in turn, share it with others (Acts 2:42, Gal 6:6). In time, they would see the need for a written record so Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John would pen the Gospels, and other types of New Testament books would be written by Paul, James, Peter, and Jude. We can see from the first four verses of Luke that Theophilus[18] was being given a written record of what he had already been taught orally. In verse 4, Luke says to Theophilus, “[My purpose is] that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.”

The appearance of the written record did not mean the end of oral publication. Both oral and written would be used together. Most did not read the written records themselves, as they would hear them read in the congregational meetings by the lector. Paul and his letters came to be used in the same way as he traveled extensively, but was just one man and could only be in one place at a time. It was not long before he took advantage of the fact that he could be in one place and dispatch letters to other locations through his traveling companions. These traveling companions would not only deliver the letters but would know the issues well enough to address questions that might be asked by the leaders of the congregation to which they had been dispatched. In summary, the first century saw the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as well as his death, resurrection, and ascension. After that, his disciples spread this gospel orally for at least 15 years before Matthew penned his gospel. The written was used in conjunction with the oral message.

In the first-century C.E., the Bible books were being copied individually. In the late first century or the beginning of the second century, they began to be copied in groups. At first, it was the four gospels and then the book of Acts with the four gospels, as well as a collection of the Apostle Paul’s writings. Each of the individual books of the New Testament were penned, edited, and published between 44 and 98 C.E. A group of the apostle Paul’s letters and the gospels were copied and published between 90 to 125 C.E. The entire 27 books of the New Testament were not published as a whole until about 290 to 340 C.E.

Thus we have the 27 books of the New Testament that were penned individually in the second half of the first century. Each of these would have been copied and recopied throughout the first century. Copies of these copies would, of course, be made as well. Some of the earliest manuscripts that we now have indicate that a professional scribe copied them. Many of the other papyri provide evidence that a semi-professional hand copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being made by a copyist who was literate and experienced at making documents. Therefore, either literate or semi-professional copyists produced the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being made by professionals.

Sadly, we do not have the autographs. Even if we did, we would have no way to authenticate them. We do however have copies of New Testament manuscripts that go back to the second and third centuries C.E. Over the centuries this copying of copies continued. The authors were inspired so that the originals were error-free. However, this is not the case with those who made copies; they were not under the influence of the Holy Spirit while making their copies. Therefore these copies must have contained unintentional mistakes, as well as intentional changes, differing from the originals and from each other. However, this is not as disconcerting as it may first appear. By far, most of the copyist errors are trivial, such as differences in spelling, word order and such. Moreover, they are easily analyzed and corrected, so that we know what the original did state. It is true that other copyist errors, a very small portion, are noteworthy, arising from the copyist’s desire to correct something in the text that he perceived as erroneous or problematic. However, these changes have little to no effect on doctrines because other passages addressing the same doctrines provide the means to analyze and correct the copyist’s “corrections.”

In the language of textual criticism, changes to the original text introduced by copyists are called “variant readings.” A variant reading is a different reading in the extant [existing] manuscripts for any given portion of the text. The process of textual criticism basically is an examination of variant readings in various ancient manuscripts in an effort to reconstruct the original wording of a written text. These variants in our copies of the New Testament manuscripts are largely the reason for the rise of the science of textual criticism in the 16th century. Thereafter, we have had hundreds of scholars working very hard over the following five centuries to restore the New Testament text to its original state. Keep in mind that textual criticism is not just performed on the Old and New Testament texts, but in all other ancient literature as well: Plato (428/427–348/347 B.C.E.), Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 B.C.E.), Homer (Ninth or Eighth Century B.C.E.), Livy (64or 59 B.C.E.–17 C.E.), Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.), and Virgil (70–19 B.C.E.). However, as the Bible is the greatest work of all time, which has directly influenced the lives of countless Christians, it is the most important field.

Wilkins and Andrews has even vindicated the Bible against its critics_Misquoring Jesus_Ehrman_The Text of the New Testament

It is here that we should also expound a little more on the “criticism” portion of the term textual criticism. It may be helpful if for a moment we address biblical criticism in general, which is divided into two branches: lower criticism and higher criticism. Lower criticism, also known as textual criticism, is an investigation of manuscripts by those who are known as textual scholars, seeking to establish the original reading, which is only available in the thousands of extant copies. Higher criticism, also known as literary criticism, is the investigation of the restored text with the goal of identifying any sources that may lie behind it. Therefore we can say the following:

Lower criticism (i.e., textual criticism), has been the bedrock of scholarship over the last 500 years. It has given us a master text, i.e., a critical text, which is a reflection of the original published Greek New Testament. It has done nothing but contribute to the furtherance of Bible scholarship, removing interpolations, correcting scribal errors, and giving us a restored text, allowing us to produce better translations of the New Testament.

In contrast, higher criticism (i.e., literary criticism) has attempted to provide rationalized explanations for the composition of Bible books, ignoring the supernatural element and very often eliminating the traditional authorship of the books. Late dating of the composition of Bible books is very common, and the historicity of biblical accounts is called into question. It would not be an overstatement to say that the effect has often been to challenge and undermine the Christian’s confidence in the New Testament. Fortunately, some conservative scholars[19] have rightly criticized higher critics for their illogical or unreasonable approaches in dissecting God’s Word.

Importance of Textual Criticism

Christian Bible students need to be familiar with Old and New Testament textual criticism as two of the most important foundational studies. Why? If we fail to establish what was originally penned with reasonable certainty, how are we to do a translation, or even to interpret what we think is the actual Word of God? We are fortunate in that there are far more existing New Testament manuscripts today than any other book from ancient history. This gives New Testament textual scholars vastly more to work with in establishing the original words of the text. Some ancient Greek and Latin classics are based on one existing manuscript, while with others there are just a handful and a few exceptions that have a few hundred available. However, for the New Testament over 5,838 Greek manuscripts have been cataloged,[20] 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and an additional 9,300 other manuscripts in such languages as Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic, and Armenian.

The other difference between the New Testament manuscripts and those of the classics is that the existing copies of the New Testament date much closer to the originals. In the case of the Greek classics, some of the manuscripts are dated about a thousand years after the author had penned the book. Some of the Latin classics are dated from three to seven hundred years after the time the author wrote the book. When we look at the Greek copies of the New Testament books, some portions are within decades of the original author’s book. Sixty-two Greek papyri, along with five majuscules[21] date from 110 C.E. to 300 C.E.

Distribution of Greek New Testament Manuscripts

  • The Papyrus is a copy of a portion of the New Testament made on papyrus. At present, we have 127-catalogued New Testament papyri, many dating between 110-350 C.E., but some as late as the 6th century E.
  • The Majuscule or Uncial is a script of large letters commonly used in Greek and Latin manuscripts written between the 3rd and 9th centuries C.E., that resembles a modern capital letter but is more rounded.
  • The Minuscule is a small cursive style of writing used in manuscripts from the 9th to the 16th
  • The Lectionary is a schedule of readings from the Bible for Christian church services during the year, in both majuscules and minuscules, dating from the 4th to the 16th centuries C.E.

We should clarify that of the approximate 24,000 total manuscripts of the New Testament, not all are complete books. There are fragmented manuscripts which have just a few verses; but there are manuscripts that contain an entire book, others that contain numerous books, and some that have the entire New Testament, or nearly so. This is to be expected since the oldest manuscripts we have were copied in an era when copying the whole New Testament was not the norm, but rather a single book or a group of books (i.e., Paul’s letters). This still does not negate the vast riches of manuscripts that we possess.


What can we conclude from this short introduction to textual criticism? There is some irony here, in that secular scholars have no problem accepting the wording of classic authors, with their minuscule amount of evidence. However, they discount the treasure trove of evidence that is available to the New Testament textual scholar. Still, this should not surprise us as the New Testament has always been under-appreciated and attacked in some way, shape, or form over the past 2,000 years.

On the contrary, in comparison to classical works, we are overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of existing New Testament manuscripts. We should also keep in mind that seventy-five percent[22] of the New Testament does not even require the help of textual criticism because that much of the text is unanimous and thus we know what it says. Of the other twenty-five percent, about twenty percent make up trivial scribal mistakes that are easily corrected. Therefore, textual criticism focuses mainly on a small portion of the New Testament text. The facts are clear: the Christian, who reads the New Testament, is fortunate to have so many manuscripts, with so many dating so close to the originals, with 500 hundred years of hundreds of textual scholars who have established the text with a level of certainty unimaginable for ancient secular works.

Atheist commentator Bob Seidensticker, after discussing the amount of New Testament manuscripts available, writes, “The first problem is that more manuscripts at best increase our confidence that we have the original version. That does not mean the original copy was history ….”[23] That is, Seidensticker is forced to acknowledge the reliability of the New Testament text as we have it today, and can only try to deny what it says. He also says of the New Testament, “Compare that with 2000 copies of the Iliad, the second-best represented manuscript.”[24] Of those 2,000 copies of the Iliad, how far removed are they from the alleged originals? The Iliad is dated to about 1260–1180 B.C.E. The most notable Iliad manuscripts are from the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries C.E. That would make these manuscripts over 2,000 years removed from their original.

The Range of Textual Criticism

The Importance and scope of New Testament textual criticism could be summed up in the few words used by J. Harold Greenlee; it is “the basic biblical study, a prerequisite to all other biblical and theological work. Interpretation, systemization, and application of the teachings of the NT cannot be done until textual criticism has done at least some of its work. It is, therefore, deserving of the acquaintance and attention of every serious student of the Bible.” (Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism 1995, 7)

It is only reasonable to assume that the original 27 books written first-hand by the New Testament authors have not survived. Instead, we only have what we must consider to be imperfect copies. Why the Holy Spirit would miraculously inspire 27 fully inerrant texts, and then allow human imperfection into the copies, is not explained for us in Scripture. We do know that imperfect humans have had the tendency to worship relics that traditions hold to have been touched by the miraculous powers of God or to have been in direct contact with one of his special servants of old. Ultimately, though, all we know is that God had his reasons for allowing the New Testament autographs to be worn out by repeated use. From time to time we hear of the discovery of a fragment possibly dated to the first century, but even if such a fragment is eventually verified, the dating alone can never serve as proof of an autograph; it will still be a copy in all likelihood.

As for errors in all the copies, we have, however, we can say is that the vast majority of the Greek text is not affected by errors at all. The errors occur in the form of variant readings, i.e. portions of the text where different manuscripts disagree. Of the small amount of the text that is affected by variant readings, the vast majority of these are minor slips of the pen, misspelled words, etc., or intentional but easily analyzed changes, and we are certain what the original reading is in these places. A far smaller number of changes present challenges to establishing the original reading. It has always been said and remains true, that no major doctrine is affected by a textual problem. In fact, only rarely does a textual issue change the meaning of a verse.[25] Still, establishing the original text wherever there are variant readings is vitally important. Every word matters!

[1] B.C.E. means “before the Common Era,” which is more accurate than B.C. (“before Christ”). C.E. denotes “Common Era,” often called A.D., for anno Domini, meaning “in the year of our Lord.”

[2] Manuscripts, MS would be singular manuscript

[3] When we use the term “original” reading or “original” text in this publication, it is a reference to the exemplar manuscript by the New Testament author (e.g. Paul) and his secretary, if he used one (e.g. Tertius), from which other copies was made for publication and distribution to the Christian communities.

[4] Greenlee, J. Harold (2008-06-01). Text of the New Testament, The: From Manuscript to Modern Edition (pp. 13-14). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[5] [Late 16th century: < Latin, “block of wood, book, set of statutes”]

[6] (Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism 1995, pp. 8-9)

[7] Colin H. Roberts; T. C. Skeat, (1983), The Birth of the Codex, London: Oxford University Press, p. 1.

[8]The Making of a Medieval Book” The J. Paul Getty Trust. Retrieved Monday September 15, 2014.

[9] Raymond Clemens, Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008, 14.

[10] It should be noted that the early manuscripts were written in what we consider all uppercase letters, known as majuscule, the large rounded letters used in ancient manuscripts. Moreover, there were no breaks between the letters, so a phrase like GODISNOWHERE could be divided as GOD IS NO WHERE or GOD IS NOW HERE.

[11] In the fourth and third centuries B.C.E., the sigma form of Σ was simplified into a C-like shape in koinē Greek.

[12] A ligature is a character that consists of two or more letters joined together, e.g. “æ”. We do not normally find ligatures in majuscule manuscripts. In the minuscule manuscripts, it can be difficult to determine a ligature due to the fact it is a manuscript with a running hand.

[13] Robert P. Gwinn, “Paleography” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropædia, Vol. IX, 1986, p. 78.

[14] Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 110.

[15] A scriptorium was a room for storing, copying, illustrating, or reading manuscripts.

[16] “The usual procedure for a dictated epistle was for the amanuensis (secretary) to take down the speaker’s words (often in shorthand) and then produce a transcript, which the author could then review, edit, and sign in his own handwriting. Two New Testament epistles provide the name of the amanuensis: Tertius for (Romans 16:22) and Silvanus (another name for Silas) for 1 Peter 5:12” Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 06.

[17] Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 17-20.

[18] Theophilus means “friend of God,” was the person to whom the books of Luke and Acts were written (Lu 1:3; Ac 1:1). Theophilus was called “most excellent,” which may suggest some position of high rank. On the other hand, it simply may be Luke offering an expression of respect. Theophilus had initially been orally taught about Jesus Christ and his ministry. Thereafter, it seems that the book of Acts, also by Luke, confirms that he did become a Christian. The Gospel of Luke was partially written to offer Theophilus assurances of the certainty of what he had already learned by word of mouth.

[19] Such Bible scholars as Robert L. Thomas, Norman L. Geisler, Gleason L. Archer, F. David Farnell, and Joseph M. Holden among many others have fought for decades to educate readers about the dangers of higher criticism.

[20] As of January 2016

[21] Large lettering, often called “capital” or uncial, in which all the letters are usually the same height.

[22] The numbers in this paragraph are rounded for simplicity purposes.

[23] 25,000 New Testament Manuscripts? Big Deal. – Patheos, (accessed November 28, 2015).

[24] Ibid

[25] Leading textual scholar Daniel Wallace tells us, after looking at all of the evidence, that the percentage of instances where the reading is uncertain and a well-attested alternative reading could change the meaning of the verse is a quarter of one percent, i.e., 0.0025%