Is It the Original or the Earliest Text of the New Testament?

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

This article may be somewhat controversial because many modern textual scholars are not certain that we can get back to the original text. Again, when we use the term “original” reading or “original” text on this blog, it is a reference to the exemplar manuscript by the New Testament author (e.g. Paul) and his secretary (e.g. Tertius)–if he used one–from which other copies were made for publication and distribution to the Christian communities. While this chapter will focus on the textual criticism process as a whole, its main focus will be the early text of the New Testament, namely, the first three centuries of Christianity. In other words, we will be considering the text of the New Testament from the middle of the first century up to the close of the fourth century C.E.

Whether it was in commentaries, the footnotes within our Bibles, or from the elder or pastor on Sunday, we have all read or heard something like “the original Greek word …” For example, the original Greek word here is hagiazo, meaning, “to set apart to a sacred use” (Matt. 6:9). The original Greek word here is kleros and is related to the word kleronomia, “inheritance” (Col. 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:3). Perhaps the author or pastor is trying to provide a little Bible background, such as pointing out that the cubit is the original Greek word pechus in Matthew 6:27, which literally means “forearm.” The publication or pastor may be emphasizing the nuances of different words for Christian services, such as the original Greek verb diakoneo (Matt. 20:26). One original Greek verb may emphasize the subjection that is involved in serving, such as a slave (douleuo; Col. 3:24), another could be the sacredness of service (latreuo; Matt. 4:10), while another might be focused on the public nature of the service provided (leitourgeo; Acts 13:2).

When incorporating a source, the author or pastor may mention something like Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. It will be used to explain the original Greek word, such as epikaleo, which means, “to receive an appellation or surname to call upon, invoke to appeal to.”[1] Paul used this same word when he declared, “I appeal to Caesar!” (Acts 25:11, NASB) A common way of expressing it is, “in the original Greek, this term basically “denotes” (the meaning, especially a specific or literal one) or “connotes (to imply or suggest something in addition to the literal or main meaning).” When Paul wrote about “the mind of the spirit,” he used an original Greek word that denotes ‘a way of thinking’ or ‘mindset.’ The original Greek word for our English transliteration “amen,” connotes ‘certainty,’ ‘truthfulness,’ ‘faithfulness,’ and ‘absence of doubt.’ We can see that getting back to the word in the original language can add considerable insight into the Scriptures. Therefore, our getting back to the actual words of the original language that the New Testament Bible author penned is, indeed, the goal of some remaining textual scholars.

The importance of the actual words is constantly evident when we examine the text of the original. Let’s look at one example, a story that we all know. On the return trip home after the festivals in Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary thought that Jesus was somewhere with the family, so at first, his not being present was no cause for alarm. Three days later, when Mary and Joseph came back to Jerusalem to find Jesus, he was in the temple, “sitting in the midst of the teachers and listening to them and questioning them” (Luke 2:44-46, UASV). Other translations read, “Listening to them and asking them questions” (RSV, NASB, ESV, LEB, and HCSB). However, that rendering does not really capture the original language word.

Luke 2:46 English Standard Version (ESV)

46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Luke 2:46 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

46 Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.

Luke 2:46 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

46 Then, it occurred, after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers and listening to them and questioning them.

This was no 12-year-old boy asking questions out of curiosity. The Greek word erotao is the Greek word for “ask,” “question,” and is a synonym of eperotao. The latter of the two was used by Luke and is much more demanding, as it means, “to ask a question, to question, interrogate someone, questioning as used in judicial examination” and, therefore, could include counter questioning. Therefore, Jesus, at the age of twelve, did not ask childlike questions looking for corresponding answers but was likely challenging the thinking of these Jewish religious leaders. What was the response of those Jewish religious leaders? The account goes on to say, “And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers” – Luke 2:47, NASB.

4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

What Is Meant by ‘Establishing the Original Text’?

Because the terms original and autograph are used interchangeably, it can cause confusion at times if not differentiated. As was explained in the introduction, 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 might have done so in shorthand.[2] 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 Holy Spirit did not move 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 reference to the text that is correctly attributed to a biblical author.  This is a looser distinction, one that does not focus on the process of how a book or letter was written. Once more, the term “original” reading or “original” text on this blog is a reference to the exemplar manuscript by the New Testament author (e.g. Paul) and his secretary (e.g. Tertius) from which other copies was made for publication and distribution of the Christian communities.

An original is what the author was inspired, moved along by the Holy Spirit to write either by himself or in conjunction with a scribe (Paul and Tertius; Peter and Silvanus). When they were done, it is possible that Tertius, who was not inspired made a scribal error that Paul would fix, not years later but at once. Once it was what Paul was explicitly inspired to write, it was published, put out into the public, sent to the recipient. If anyone copied even a month later at the congregation it was sent to and that copiest made a mistake or did not make a mistake, it is not an original. It is a copy of an original. And if a year from then a congregation used that copy of an original to make a copy, this second copy is not a copy of the original, it is a copy of a copy of the original. There is only one original, the one published by the author.

Some readers may find it disconcerting that ancient copies of the New Testament are not inspired, and thousands of variations crept into them over the first fourteen centuries. This is not the complete picture, however, because we have the next five centuries of restoration work done by hundreds of textual scholars around the world. If asked, “Are our copies inspired, without error?” the short answer would have to be no. But what if we have the exact representation of the original?

If we can get back to what was written in the original 27 books that were first published, would we not have a copy of the inspired original? We know that 2 Timothy 3:16 informs us, “all Scripture is inspired by God,” meaning that the actual words in the autographs were a product of inspiration. Moreover, the inspired authors were as 2 Peter 1:21 informs us, “men [who] spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Nevertheless, if dictation were the process of composition for some of the New Testament books, they would have still needed to be checked for scribal errors, because the amanuensis, i.e. the author’s scribe (secretary), was not moved along by Holy Spirit in the same sense. Therefore, the author would review the dictated draft if he used a scribe, making any corrections necessary. After that, the scribe would make a corrected copy, which if approved by the author, would become the officially published edition, and would have been signed by the author. In the final analysis, a textual committee e.g. NA28/UBS5 has the potential to give us the exact wording of the original, and would, in essence, be giving us the restored edition of the original. Even so, I would argue that between the Westcott and Hort 1881 critical text and the 2012 Nestle-Aland critical text we have a 99.99% restoration. Most good literal translations are going to have readings of the alternative reading anyway, so the reader is not going to miss out on the actual original reading.


Today we have a storehouse of external evidence: original language manuscripts, versions, apostolic quotations, and lectionaries that take us ever closer to the recovery of the original. Textual scholar Paul D. Wegner, author of A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible, has addressed this for both the Old and the New Testaments:

Careful examination of these manuscripts has served to strengthen our assurance that our Modern Greek and Hebrew texts are very close to the original autographs, even though we do not have those autographs. (2006, 301)[3]

The traditional goal of scholars within textual criticism has been to get back to the original through the practice of applying the rules and principles of textual criticism. These rules and principles go back to the early textual scholars such as Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812),[4] Friedrich Constantin von Tischendorf (1815-1874), Brook Foss Westcott (1825-1901, Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892), Frederick G. Kenyon (1863-1952), Kirsopp Lake (1872-1946), Eberhard Nestle (1851-1913),[5] and his son Erwin Nestle (1883-1972).  Kurt Aland (1915-1994) is the lynchpin between the older generation of textual scholars and modern textual scholarship. Bruce M. Metzger (1914-2007), Ernest Cadman Colwell (1901-1974), Jacob Harold Greenlee (1918-2015), Gordon D. Fee (1934- ) and Philip W. Comfort (1950- ) join Aland, among many, many others.

J. Harold Greenlee wrote, “Textual criticism is the study of copies of an ancient writing to try to determine the exact words of the text as the author originally wrote them.”[6] This is the fundamental thought found in almost all introductory-intermediate textbooks on textual criticism throughout the twentieth century. The traditional approach was to look at all of the evidence, internal (largely contextual) and external (e.g. dating); however, the priority or weight in determining the original reading was given to the oldest manuscripts, which also display the harder readings, contributing to their trustworthiness. Most modern critical texts were the product of this approach. However, the Alands and others have shifted the emphasis to internal evidence,[7] as opposed to external evidence.[8]

The Spread of Christianity


The early Christian congregations were not isolated from one another. The Roman roads and maritime travel connected all the regions from Rome to Greece, to Asia, to Syria and Palestine, and Egypt.[9] Following the days of Pentecost 33 C.E., Jewish or Jewish proselyte Christians returned to Egypt with the good news of Christ (Acts 2:10). Three years after that, the Ethiopian eunuch traveled home with the good news as well (Acts 8:26–39). Apollos of Alexandria, Egypt, a renowned speaker, left Egypt with the knowledge of John the Baptizer and arrived in Ephesus in about 52 C. E. (Acts 18:24-25) The apostle Paul traveled approximately 10,282 miles throughout the Roman Empire establishing congregations.[10] The apostles were a restraint to the apostasy and division within the whole of the first-century Christian congregation (2 Thess. 2:6-7; 1 John 2:18). It was not until the second century that the next generation of Christian leaders gradually caused divisions.[11] However, the one true Christianity that Jesus started and the apostles established was strong, active, and able to defend against Gnosticism, Roman persecution, and Jewish opposition.

It is conceivable that by 55 C.E. there would have been a thriving congregation in Alexandrian Egypt, with its huge Jewish population.[12] “Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen went through as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.” (Acts 11:19) While this indicates a traveling north to Antioch, it does not negate a traveling south to Egypt. Antioch obviously is mentioned because it played a significant role as a commencement for first century Christianity, in particular for the apostle Paul.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

The Coptic Church claims the Gospel writer Mark as its founder and first patriarch. Tradition has it that he preached in Egypt just before the middle of the first century. At any rate, Christianity spread to Egypt and North Africa at an early date. In fact, it became a prominent religious center, with a noted scholar named Pantaenus, who founded a catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt, about 160 C.E. In about 180 C.E. another prominent scholar, Clement of Alexandria, took over his position. Clement put this religious, educational institution on the map as a possible center for the whole of the Christian church throughout the Roman Empire. The persecution that came circa the year 202 C.E. forced Clement to flee Alexandria, but one of the most noted scholars of early Christian history, Origen, replaced him. In addition, Origen took this scholarly environment to Caesarea in 231 C.E. and started yet another prominent school and scriptorium (i.e. a room for copying manuscripts).

What does all this mean? While we cannot know absolutely, textual scholar Philip W. Comfort[13] 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 about 125–300 C.E. If we were to discover other early manuscripts from Antioch, Constantinople, Carthage, or Rome, they would be very similar to the early Alexandrian manuscripts. This means that these early manuscripts are a primary means of establishing the original text, and we are in a far better position today than were Westcott and Hort in 1881. Even still, there is a 99.5% agreement between the Westcott and Hort critical text and the 2012 Nestle-Aland 28th edition critical text. This certainly emphasizes what a tremendous job that Westcott and Hort had done when we consider all the early second and third century New Testament papyri that was discovered in the 20th century, and yet so few changes.


In addition, we can assume an effort on the part of copyists to preserve the originals unchanged, because the authors themselves spoke of their writings as being authoritative and said that no one should alter what they had published or taught. The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians that they should consider as “accursed” anyone (even angels) who proclaimed a gospel contrary to the one they had preached. (Gal. 1:6-9) Paul went on to write, “the gospel that was preached by me is not according to man [I.e., human origin]. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation [Lit., uncovering; disclosure] of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:11-12) The apostle Paul charged that ‘the Corinthian Christians had put up with false teachers, readily enough, who proclaim another Jesus and another gospel.’ (2 Cor. 11:3-4) Paul, Silvanus (one of Paul’s secretaries, scribe), and Timothy wrote to the Thessalonians that they constantly thanked God that when the Thessalonians received the word of God, which they had heard from them, they accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really was, the word of God. (1 Thess. 2:3) Paul then closed that letter by commanding them “by the Lord, have this letter read aloud to all the brothers.” (1 Thess. 5:27) In 2 Thessalonians Paul ‘requested that they not be quickly shaken from their composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a word or a letter as if from us.’ (2:2) Paul closed the letter with a greeting in his own hand, to authenticate it. (3:17) Lastly, John closed the book of Revelation with a warning to everyone about adding to or taking away from what he had written therein. (Rev. 22:18-19) The New Testament authors were well aware that future scribes could intentionally alter the Word of God, so they warned them of the consequences.

Let’s look at yet another author of the New Testament. The apostle Peter wrote about 64 C.E.,

2 Peter 1:12-18 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

12 Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that is present with you. 13 I consider it right, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 knowing that the putting off of my tabernacle is soon, just as also our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. 15 So I will make every effort so that after my departure, you may be able to recall these things for yourselves.

Prophetic Word Made More Sure

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was brought to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 and we ourselves heard this very voice brought from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.

Peter was making it clear that he was sharing firsthand accounts and not devised tales. Here again, like the other New Testament authors, Peter warned his readers of false teachers, who corrupted the truth and distorted the Scriptures, such as Paul’s letters. Like Paul and John, Peter warned that this would be done to the offenders’ own destruction.


2 Peter 3:15-16 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 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.

Yes, “It is especially interesting that Peter writes of the distortion of Paul’s letters along with ‘the other Scriptures.’ The implication is that the letters of Paul were already regarded as Scripture at the time Peter wrote.”[14] Verse 16 shows that Peter

…is aware of several Pauline letters. This knowledge again raises the dating issue. We know that Paul himself on one occasion had requested that churches share his letters: ‘After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you, in turn, read the letter from Laodicea’ (Col 4:16). However, it is a big jump in time from Colossians to the first concrete evidence we have of people who know more than one letter. This evidence shows up in 1 Clement, who not only knows Romans but can also write to the Corinthians, ‘Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul’ (1 Clem.[15] 47:1). It appears later in 2 Clement and in Ignatius’s Ephesians.[16] Thus, we are on solid ground when we accept that a collection of the Pauline letters existed by the end of the first century.[17] It is also likely that some Pauline letters circulated independently of a collection (which is what one would expect as one church hears that another has a letter that might prove helpful in their situation),[18] and that there were collections of a few Pauline letters before there was a collection of all of his letters.[19] All of this is quite logical since Paul was a valued teacher in his circle of communities and, as he left an area and especially as he died, his letters were his continuing voice. Thus churches would share letters and, as they obtained funds (a few hundred dollars to a couple thousand dollars in today’s money), they would make copies. Copies would turn into collections, especially since it was possible to use one scroll for several of the shorter letters. Probably by the end of the first century, the complete collection (i.e., all extant letters) was circulating to at least a limited degree (remember, these copies did not come cheap). The issue is which stage in this process 2 Peter is indicating.[20]


This author would argue that the stage Peter to which was referring was the time when “there were collections of a few Pauline letters before there was a collection of all of his letters.” It is most likely that Peter’s first letter was written about 62-64 C.E., while Peter’s second letter was written about 64 C.E.[21] At the time Peter penned his second letter, several of Paul’s letters from the 50’s were available to Peter (Romans [56], 1 & 2 Corinthians [55], Galatians [50-52], and 1 & 2 Thessalonians [50, 51]). He could have had access to those from the early 60s as well (Ephesians [60-61], Philippians [60-61], Colossians [60-61], Titus [61-64], Philemon [60-61], and Hebrews [61]). The only ones that were clearly unavailable would have been 1 & 2 Timothy [61, 64] and possibly Titus [61-64]. Thus, from Peter’s reference to “in all his [Paul’s] letters, speaking in them of these things,” we garner several insights. It highly suggests (1) there were collections of Paul’s letters, (2) Peter and the early church viewed them as “Scripture” in the same sense as the Old Testament Scriptures, (3) they were not to be changed, and (4) that apostolic authors’ written works were being collected and preserved for posterity.

Second-Century Manuscripts: Once we enter the second century almost all firsthand witnesses of Jesus Christ would have died, and most of the younger traveling companions, fellow workers, and students of the apostles, would be advancing into old age. However, there were some, like Polycarp who was born to Christian parents about 69 C.E. in Asia Minor, in Smyrna. As he grew into a man, he became known for his kindness, self-discipline, compassionate treatment of others, and thorough study of God’s Word. Soon enough he became an elder in the Christian congregation at Smyrna. Polycarp was very fortunate to live in a time when he was able to learn from the apostles themselves. In fact, the apostle John was one of his teachers.

By any standard, Polycarp must be reckoned as one of the more notable figures in the early postapostolic church. Already bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor when his friend and mentor, Ignatius of Antioch [c. 35 C.E. – c. 108 C.E.], addressed one of his letters to him (ca. A.D. 110; cf. above, p. 131), he died a martyr’s death (see the Martyrdom of Polycarp) several decades later at age eighty-six (ca. 155–160), having served as bishop for at least forty and possibly sixty or more years. Irenaeus (who met Polycarp as a child) and Eusebius both considered him a significant link in the chain of orthodox apostolic tradition. His life and ministry spanned the time between the end of the apostolic era and the emergence of catholic [i.e., universal] Christianity, and he was deeply involved in the central issues and challenges of this critical era: the growing threat of persecution by the state, the emerging Gnostic movement (he is particularly known for his opposition to one of the movement’s most charismatic and theologically innovative teachers, Marcion), the development of the monepiscopal form of ecclesiastical organization, and the formation of the canon of the New Testament. Polycarp’s only surviving document[22] is a letter to the Philippians, written in response to a letter from them (cf. 3.1; 13.1). It reveals, in addition to a direct and unpretentious style and a sensitive pastoral manner, a deep indebtedness to the Scriptures (in the form of the Septuagint) and early Christian writings, including 1 Clement (with which Polycarp seems to be particularly familiar).[23] While apparently no New Testament books are cited as ‘Scripture’ (the reference to Ephesians in 12.1 is a possible exception), the manner in which Polycarp refers to them indicates that he viewed them as authoritative documents.[24]

Christ “gave gifts to men.” “He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as shepherds and teachers.” (Eph. 4:8, 11-13) The Father moved these inspired ones along by the Holy Spirit, as they set forth God’s Word for the Christian congregation, “to stir [them] up by way of reminder,” repeating many things already written in the Scriptures (2 Pet. 1:12-13; 3:1; Rom 15:15). Thus, we have internal New Testament evidence from Second Peter circa 64 C.E. that “there were collections of a few Pauline letters before there was a collection of all of his letters.” Outside of Scripture, we find evidence of a collection of at least ten Pauline letters that were collected together by 90-100 C.E.[25] We can be certain that the early Christians were collecting the inspired Christian Scriptures as early as the middle of the first century C.E. to the early second century C.E.

How to Interpret the Bible-1 INTERPRETING THE BIBLE how-to-study-your-bible1

Clement of Rome (c. 96 C.E.) was acquainted with Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth and said that Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit. Thus we have Clement of Rome (c. 30-100 C.E.), Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155 C.E.), and Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 C.E. – c. 108 C.E.), who wove Scripture of the Greek New Testament into their writings, showing their view of them as inspired Scripture. Justin Martyr, who died about 165 C.E., used the expression “it is written” when quoting from Matthew. Theophilus of Antioch, who died about 181 C.E., declared “concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the Gospels because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God.”[26] Theophilus then used such expressions as “says the Gospel” (quoting Matt, 5:28, 32, 44, 46; 6:3) and “the divine word gives us instructions, in order that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.”[27] And it teaches us to render all things to all,[28] “honour to whom honour, fear to whom fear, tribute to whom tribute; to owe no man anything, but to love all.”[29]

Once we reach the middle to the end of the second century C.E., it comes down to whether those who came before would stress the written documents as Scripture by

  • the apostles, who had been personally selected by Jesus (Matthew, John, and Peter),
  • Paul, who was later selected as an apostle by the risen Jesus himself,
  • the half-brothers of Jesus Christ (James and Jude),
  • as well as Mark and Luke, who were close associates and traveling companions of Paul and Peter.

We can see from the above that this largely was the case. We know that major church leaders across the Roman Empire had done just that. We know, for example, that Irenaeus of Asia Minor (180 C.E.) fully accepted 25 of 27 books of the New Testament but had some doubt about Hebrews and uncertainty about James. We know that Clement of Alexandria (190 C.E.) fully accepted 26 of 27 books of the New Testament but may not have been aware of 3 John. We know that Tertullian of North Africa (207 C.E.) fully accepted 24 of 27 books but may not have been aware of 2 and 3 John, or Jude. We know that Origen of Alexandria (230 C.E.) and Eusebius of Palestine (320 C.E.) fully accepted all 27 books of the New Testament. It has been estimated that by the close of the second century C.E., there were over 60,000 copies of major parts of the Greek New Testament in existence. This is an enormous number, even if it was only one in every fifty professing Christians who possessed a copy.


However, would there be evidence that these church leaders, going back to the days of the apostles, would influence the copyists? Moreover, were the copyists professionals? In other words, even if some of the copyists did not see the documents as Scripture, would the church leaders, and long-standing traditions, motivate them to copy the documents with accuracy? In addition, would the professional scribe copy accurately even if he did not view them as Scripture? And if the scribe did view the texts as Scripture, the inspired Word of God, was it plenary inspiration (every word), or that the meaning was inspired? Generally speaking, from what we know about the Alexandrian scribes, they would have sought to reproduce an accurate copy regardless of their views. We can say that there were other scribes, who saw the message as inspired; thus, their focus was not on retaining every single word, nor word order. It seems that they felt they could alter the words without damaging the intended meaning of the author. These copyists added and removed words here and there, rearranged words, and substituted words, presumably in the hope of improving the text but not intending to alter the meaning. It also has to be acknowledged that there were some untrained copyists who simply produced inaccurate copies, regardless of how they viewed the text.

Then, there were scribes who willfully altered the text, with the intention of improving it. Some were seeking to harmonize the gospel accounts. An extreme example would be Tatian, a noteworthy, apologetic writer of the second century C.E. In an account of his conversion to nominal Christianity, Tatian states, “I sought how I might be able to discover the truth,” which points to his intent. About 170 C.E., Tatian compiled a harmonized account of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, combining the four Gospels into a single narrative (Diatessaron means “of the four”). Another who willfully revised the New Testament was Lucian of Antioch (c. 240-312 C.E.). Lucian produced the Syrian text, renamed the Byzantine text. About 290 C.E. some of his associates made various subsequent alterations, deliberately combining elements from earlier types of text, and this text was adopted about 380 C.E. At Constantinople it became the predominant form of the New Testament throughout the Greek-speaking world. The text was also edited, with parallel accounts harmonized, grammar corrected, and abrupt transitions modified to produce a smooth text. As a result, this was not a faithfully accurate copy. However, others willfully altered the text to have it support their doctrinal position. Marcion (c. 85-c. 160 C.E.), a semi-Gnostic of the second century C.E., is a leading example. In fact, the idea of forming a catalog of authoritative Christian writings did not come to mind until Marcion. One such catalog was the Muratorian Fragment, Italy (170 C.E.) The list shows 24 books of the New Testament being accepted without question as Scriptural and canonical, some uncertainty about 2 Peter, and Hebrews and James were not listed, possibly unknown. In the end, we must admit that there were heretics who altered the text to make it align with their doctrinal positions, but also Orthodox Christians who also altered the text to strengthen their doctrinal positions.


Scripture Under Attack

Jesus had told his followers, “‘a slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will keep yours also.’” (John 15:20) Certainly, the growth of Christianity from 120 disciples on Pentecost 33 C.E. to over one million by the middle of the second century was a frightening thought to the pagan mind as well as Judaism. Thus, shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the pagan population, Judaism, and the Roman government began the very persecution of which Jesus had warned. However, it was in the fourth century, under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, that a program of persecution began with the intent of wiping out Christianity. In 303 C.E., Diocletian spread a series of progressively harsh edicts against Christians. This brought about what some historians have called “The Great Persecution.”

Diocletian’s first edict ordered the burning of copies of the Scriptures and the destruction of Christian houses of worship. Harry Y. Gamble writes, “Diocletian’s edict of 303 ordering the confiscation and burning of Christian books is itself important evidence, in both its assumptions and results. At the start of the fourth century, Diocletian took it for granted that every Christian community, wherever it might be, had a collection of books and knew that those books were essential to its viability.” (Gamble 1995, 150) Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Ecclesiastical History, reported, “all things in truth were fulfilled in our day, when we saw with our very eyes the houses of prayer cast down to their foundations from top to bottom, and the inspired and sacred Scriptures committed to the flames in the midst of the market-places.” (Cruse 1998, VIII, 1. 9-11.1) The Christians who were most affected by the persecution lived in Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. In fact, just three months after Diocletian’s edict, the mayor of the North African city of Cirta, which was destroyed at the beginning of the 4th century and was rebuilt by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, is said to have ordered the Christians to give up all of their “writings of the law” and “copies of scripture.” It is quite clear that the intent of Diocletian and local leaders was to wipe out the Word of God.


The authorities had many Christians who obeyed the decrees by handing over their copies of the Scriptures. Nevertheless, some refused to give up their copies of God’s Word. Bishop Felix of Thibiuca (d. 303 C.E.) in Africa was martyred during the Great Persecution alongside Audactus, Fortunatus, Januarius, and Septimus.[30] Felix resisted the command of the local magistrate Magnillian (Lat. Magnillianus) to surrender his congregation’s copies of the Christian Scriptures. One account had Felix and the others being taken to Carthage and decapitated on July 15, 303 C.E. Other Christian leaders deceived the leaders by handing in their pagan writings, safeguarding their Scriptures.

The Diocletian persecution was, in the end, unsuccessful. Many Christian libraries escaped the persecution of Diocletian. Two of the best collections today, the Beatty and Bodmer papyri, survived the fires. Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968), at the age of 32, had amassed a fortune. As a collector of books, he had over 50 papyrus codices, both religious and secular, which are dated earlier than the fourth century C.E. There are seven consisting of portions of Old Testament books, and three consisting of portions of the New Testament (P45 c. 250, P46 c. 175–225, and P47 c. 250-300). Martin Bodmer (1899-1971) was also a wealthy collector, who discovered twenty-two papyri in Egypt in 1952 which contained parts of the Old and New Testaments, as well as other early Christian literature. Particularly noteworthy are the New Testament Bodmer papyri, which consists of P66 dating to c. 200 C.E. and P75 dating to c. 175 C.E. Many in rural Egypt would have heard of the persecution in Alexandria, likely making great efforts to remove their manuscripts from their congregations, hiding them until the persecution was lifted.

The Holy Spirit_02 THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

The men known as the readers in the early Christian congregations, who read from the Scriptures during the meeting, carried the burden of preserving the Word of God beyond preserving accurate copies.[31] They also would have guarded them during times of persecution. Because of the mass persecution against Alexandria, Egypt,[32] we owe the primary preservation of our New Testament manuscripts to those congregations within rural Egypt. During times of persecution, manuscripts would not have been housed in the facilities of the congregation but instead would have been hidden in homes. Because of the dry sands of Egypt, the professional scribal practices, and the courage of the Christians, we not only owe the Egyptian Christians for the preservation of the New Testament but also for the original words that made up the New Testament. If we look at the manuscripts copied right after the Diocletian persecution (Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus c. 350 C.E.), they are reflective of the manuscripts from rural Egypt that survived, such as P5 [225 C.E.] from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, P4, 64, 67 [150-175 C.E.] from Coptos, P13 [225-250 C.E.] from Oxyrhynchus, and P46 [150 C.E.] from Fayum, P66 [150 C.E.] from Jabal Abu Mana P75 [175-225 C.E.] from Abu Mana, P133 [225-250 C.E.] from Oxyrhynchus, P137 [175-225 C.E.] from Egypt, P138 [225-250 C.E.] from Oxyrhynchus, and many more.

What we do know is that by the time we get to the era of the Diocletian persecution (February 23, 303 – July 25, 306.), the authorities were well aware that there were still many copies of the New Testament throughout the Roman Empire. Otherwise, there would have been no need on February 24, 303 for Diocletian’s first “Edict against the Christians” to be published. Diocletian thought he could eradicate Christianity by destroying its sacred writings. After the persecution of Diocletian and Constantine succeeding his father on July 25, 306, Constantine immediately ended any persecutions that were ongoing at that time and offered Christians complete restitution of what they had lost under the persecution. When Constantine issued the Edict of Milan of 313 C.E., Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, at which point, the church would have seen the need to increase the number of copies of the Scriptures dramatically. Now that Christianity was no longer being persecuted, Christian scribes could openly make copies of the New Testament manuscripts.

In 331 C.E., Constantine had ordered Eusebius to prepare fifty copies of the entire Bible to be written on prepared parchment for distribution to the churches he intended to build in Constantinople. (Eus., Vit. Const. 4.36.2) From this small order placed by Constantine, we can only imagine how many copies had been made in the churches throughout the entire Roman Empire. It has been estimated that there were some fifteen hundred to two thousand manuscripts of the Greek New Testament copied in the fourth century C.E. (J. Duplacy) While we certainly took a loss in the number of copies that may have come down to us today as a result of ongoing sporadic persecution of Christianity in those first two and a half centuries after the death of the apostle Paul at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero in about 65 C.E. up unto Diocletian (303-306 C.E.), there is little doubt that the storehouse of Greek original language manuscripts (5,898) that we do possess are an envy of the secular historians, who have next to nothing in comparison.

Those Who Doubt the Recovery

The majority of scholars today believe that recovering the complete original Greek New Testament is outside the realm of possibility. Lee Martin MacDonald writes, “The traditional goal of textual criticism has been to establish the ‘original’ or earliest possible biblical text, but the overwhelming number of textual variants and the overlapping of several textual traditions make that goal a significant if not impossible challenge. Some scholars continue in the hope of recovering the originals and eliminating all ambiguities in the present texts, but they appear to be in the minority.”[33]

MacDonald’s comments are on point, and it is likely even graver than he has remarked. However, his comment about “the traditional goal of textual criticism” being “to establish the ‘original’ or [italics mine] earliest possible biblical text,” is not exactly the longstanding traditional objective, as it was, in fact, “to establish the original”–not “the earliest possible biblical text.” This author remains in that group of scholars who aim at establishing the original.[34]

The traditional goal of the 19th century and early 20th-century textual scholars was to make the critical text a mirror image of the “original text.” This was their goal even if they were aware that it would never be a one-hundred-percent success. In fact, we can go back to Richard Bentley (1662-1742), who believed, in reality, that he could establish the original text in the majority of places where variants existed. The goal of the contemporary textual scholar is to get back to the “initial text.” In the Editio Critica Maior (ECM), a critical edition of the Greek New Testament, we find that the “initial text is the form of a text that stands at the beginning of a textual tradition.”[35] According to Gerd Mink, “the initial text preceded the textual tradition and has not survived in any manuscript.” He goes on to say, “We cannot know this text with certainty, but can only reconstruct it hypothetically.”[36] He also says, “The initial text is not identical with the original, the text of the author. Between the autograph and the initial text considerable changes may have taken place which may not have left a single trace in the surviving textual tradition.”[37] In short, the general, basic consensus is that the “initial text” is the earliest possible text for each of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.


Early Christianity gave rise to what is known as “local texts.” Christian congregations in and near cities, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Carthage, or Rome, were making copies of the Scriptures in the form that would become known as a text-type. In other words, manuscripts grew up in certain areas, just like a human family, becoming known as their text-type, having their own characteristics. The reality is not as simple as this because there are mixtures of text-types within each text-type. However, each text-type resembles itself more than it does the others. It should also be remembered that most of our extant manuscripts are identical in more than seventy-five percent of their texts. Thus, it is the percentage of variant readings that identify a manuscript as a particular text-type, i.e., “agreement in error” or variation from the original.

Therefore, the process of classifying manuscripts has for many years been to classify them as a particular text-type, such as Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, or Byzantine. However, these days are fading, because technology has allowed the textual scholar to carry out a more comprehensive comparison of all readings in all manuscripts, possibly making all previous classifications meaningless, or nearly so. This new method is known as the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM), which has been explained at great length in a blog article by Dr. Don Wilkins. In this method, an “initial text” is “relatively close to the form of the text from which the textual tradition of a New Testament book has originated.” (Stephen C. Carlson)[38] In addition, “D. C. Parker’s essay asserts the impossibility of the attempt to recover a single original text, and hence the editor or critic must be content with the text from which the readings in the extant manuscripts are genealogically descended (p. 21).”[39]

Believing that We Can Establish the Original

B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort believed that they had established the original text with their New Testament in the Original Greek (1881). They write, “This edition is an attempt to present exactly the original words of the New Testament, so far as they can be determined from surviving documents.”[40]  We notice that Westcott and Hort qualified their goal with “as far as can be determined from surviving documents.” The producers of the 5th edition of the Greek New Testament, United Bible Societies’ Corrected Edition (2014)[41] and Kurt and Barbara Aland in their 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (2012)[42] believe that these critical texts are the most anyone has achieved in establishing the original.[43] However, it must be said that the NA28 has been shifted to the goal of establishing the “initial text.” Westcott and Hort looked to the earliest manuscripts of their day as their foundation for the original text; the Alands, while appreciating the early texts, did move away to the reasoned eclectic approach, an approach that focuses more heavily on internal evidence rather than external evidence.[44] Nevertheless, their clearly stated goal was “an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text.”[45] Sadly, as MacDonald stated above, many modern textual scholars have abandoned the hope of ever establishing the original text, or accepting that the above-mentioned critical texts might live up to that claim. I (Andrews) personally find it ironic that the idea of establishing the original text became less and less of concern to the textual scholar over the 20th century as liberal-progressive scholarship consumed conservative scholarship throughout that same century. The reader must determine his own view as to whether there is any correlation.

On the objective of getting back to the original, the authors of The Early Text of the New Testament write, “However, while the complexities in recovering the original text need to be acknowledged, that is a separate question from whether the concept of an original text is incoherent and should, therefore, be abandoned as a goal of the discipline. Unfortunately, these two questions are often mingled together without distinction. Although recovering the original text faces substantial obstacles (and therefore the results should be qualified), there is little to suggest that it is an illegitimate enterprise. If it were illegitimate, then we would expect the same would be true for Greek and Roman literature outside the New Testament. Are we to think that an attempt to reconstruct the original word of Tacitus, or Plato, or Thucydides is misguided? Or that it does not matter? Those who argue that we should abandon the concept of an original text for the New Testament often give very little (if any) attention to the implications of such an approach for classical literature.” (Hill and Kruger 2012, 4)

Westcott and Hort sought to establish the original text by choosing what they felt was the most faithful text or family of texts, the Alexandrian family (especially the Codex Vaticanus, designated B), and worked from there to establish their critical text. Again, modern scholarship has abandoned both the idea of establishing the original and of choosing a trusted text or family of texts as a foundation. Since the mid-19th century, they have been using “eclecticism,” now known as “reasoned eclecticism.”[46] In this, all manuscripts are placed on equal footing. They simply look to all text-types and decide which variant gave rise to all others, assigning more weight to internal evidence than to the external evidence of manuscripts. The last few decades have seen the rise of the newest form of NTTC, The Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM).

Philip Comfort, the author of, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism (2005), has abandoned the possibility of establishing the original text. Comfort finds this hope in the very earliest papyri and the Alexandrian text. He believes that the very early Alexandrian (Egyptian) text represents what the whole of the Christian writings must have looked like at that time. Writings of the early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Marcion, and Hippolytus reflect the Alexandrian form of the text. New Testament textual scholar Larry W. Hurtado holds this position as well. We will quote his position extensively.

All indications are that early Christians were very much given to what we today would call “networking” with one another, and that includes translocal efforts. Indeed, the Roman period generally was a time of impressive travel and translocal contacts, for trading, pilgrimages, and other purposes.[47] Eldon Epp has marshaled evidence that the early Christian papyri, mainly from Egypt, reflect “extensive and lively interactions between Alexandria and the outlying areas, and also between the outlying areas [of Egypt] and other parts of the Roman world … and … the wide circulation of documents in this early period.”[48] In another essay, Epp also demonstrated how readily people expected to send and receive letters all across the Roman Empire, reflecting more broadly a “brisk ‘intellectual commerce’ and dynamic interchanges of people, literature, books, and letters between Egypt and the vast Mediterranean region.”[49]

In illustration of this, note that we have at least three copies of the Shepherd of Hermas that are dated to the late second/early third century, at most only a few decades later than the composition of this text. Thus, this Roman-provenance writing made its way to Egypt very quickly and was apparently received positively. Even more striking is the appearance of a copy of Irenaeus’s Against Heresies that has been dated to the late second or early third century. Again, within a very short time, we have a writing composed elsewhere (Gaul) finding its way to Christians in Oxyrhynchus (about 120 miles south of Cairo). We could also note the several early copies of writings of Melito of Sardis (Roman Asia Minor). In short, the extant manuscript evidence fully supports the conclusion that the Oxyrhynchus material reflects a broad, translocal outlook.

… We shall explore the implications of the papyrus evidence, on the working assumption that though largely of Egyptian provenance, these early Christian papyri reflect attitudes, preferences, and usages of many Christians more broadly in the second and third centuries. We turn now to consider what we might infer from the list of textual witnesses provided to us in these papyri.[50]

Distribution of Papyri Witnesses for Each New Testament Book
NT Book Total Early NT Book Total Early
Matthew 23 11 1 Timothy 0 0
Mark 3 2 2 Timothy 0 0
Luke 10 6 Titus 2 1
John 30 19 Philemon 2 1
Acts 14 7 Hebrews 8 4
Romans 10 5 James 6 4
1 Corinthians 8 3 1 Peter 3 1
2 Corinthians 4 2 2 Peter 2 1
Galatians 2 1 1 John 2 1
Ephesians 3 3 2 John 1 0
Philippians 3 2 3 John 1 0
Colossians 2 1 Jude 3 2
1 Thessalonians 4 3 Revelation 7 4
2 Thessalonians 2 2

It appears that some of the answers to establishing the original text of the Christian Greek Scriptures lie within the Westcott and Hort approach. There are 13 papyrus manuscripts that date from about 125–200 C.E. (including seven new papyri about to be released, one of which is claimed to be from the first century), and there are another 65 papyrus manuscripts that date from the 4th century C.E.[51] It is from these manuscripts, especially the earliest ones, that we are going to be aided in establishing the original text.[52] Tregelles (1813-75), Tischendorf (1815-74), and Westcott (1825-1901) and Hort (1828-92) hung their textual hats on the two best manuscripts of their day, i.e., Sinaiticus (c. 360) and Vaticanus (c. 350), both of the Alexandrian text-type.

P75 (c.175–225) contains most of Luke and John and has vindicated Westcott and Hort for their choice of Vaticanus as the premium manuscript for establishing the original text. After careful study of P75 against the Vaticanus Codex, scholars have found that they are just short of being identical. In his introduction to the Greek text, Hort argues that the Vaticanus Codex is a “very pure line of very ancient text.”[53]

Those who have abandoned all hope of such a venture would argue differently, saying “oldest is not necessarily best.” For these scholars, the original reading could be found in any manuscript, which is true to a degree. They continue with the approach that the reading that produced the other readings is likely the original. While on the surface this sounds great, it is not as solid a principle as one might think. On this issue, Comfort writes:

For example, two scholars, using this principle to examine the same variant, may not agree. One might argue that a copyist attempting to emulate the author’s style produced the variant; the other could claim the same variant has to be original because it accords with the author’s style. Or, one might argue that a variant was produced by an orthodox scribe attempting to rid the text of a reading that could be used to promote heterodoxy or heresy; another might claim that the same variant has to be original because it is orthodox and accords with Christian doctrine (thus a heterodoxical or heretical scribe must have changed it). Furthermore, this principle allows for the possibility that the reading selected for the text can be taken from any manuscript of any date. This can lead to subjective eclecticism.[54]

When we look deeper into reasoned eclecticism and the local-genealogical method,[55] we find that they lean more heavily on the side of the internal evidence as opposed to external evidence. It is the position of this author that the greater weight should be placed on the external evidence if we are to recover the original text. Westcott and Hort held this position as well. They wrote, “Documentary attestation has been in most cases allowed to confer the place of honour as against internal evidence.” (Westcott and Hort 1882, 17) Ernest Colwell, who was of the same mindset, suggested in 1968 that we needed to get back to the principles of Westcott and Hort. Sadly, textual scholarship has largely strayed from those principles.

With what we have already discussed as to the level of skilled copying of the early papyri, apparently, the scribal practices of Alexandria, Egypt, have played a significant role in this. As historical records have shown, Alexandria had an enormous Jewish population. We can imagine a large, predominately Jewish, Christian congregation early on as the gospel made its way throughout that land. This congregation would have maintained deep ties with their fellow Christians in Jerusalem and Antioch. Then, there was the Didaskelion catechetical school of Alexandria that had some of the most influential Church Fathers as head instructors. As has already been noted, Pantaenus took over and was in charge from about 160–180 C.E., Clement being his greatest student, and Origen, who brought this school to Caesarea in 231, establishing a second school and scriptorium.

The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2 The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2 The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

As the Greek Septuagint originated from Alexandria, and the vast majority of the earliest New Testament papyri also had their origins in Egypt (Fayum and Oxyrhynchus), it is quite clear that the above-mentioned Church Fathers would have accessed the Septuagint and the Christian Greek Scriptures in their writings and evangelistic work. Origen, who learned from both Clement and Pantaenus, wrote more than the earliest leaders of Christianity, and his writings are a reflection of the early New Testament papyri, as is true with Clement and his writings. Considering that Clement studied under Pantaenus, it is not difficult to surmise that his writings would also be a reflection of the early New Testament papyri. Therefore, it truly is not unreasonable to suggest that going in reverse chronologically: Origen, Clement, Pantaenus, and those who studied with Pantaenus and brought him into Christianity from Stoic philosophy, were using Alexandrian family texts-types that were mirror-like reflections of the original texts of the Christian Greek Scriptures. Church historian Eusebius helps us to appreciate just how early this school was; note how he expresses it:

About the same time, a man most distinguished for his learning, whose name was Pantaenus, governed the school of the faithful. There had been a school of sacred learning established there from ancient times [italics mine], which has continued down to our own times, and which we have understood was held by men able in eloquence and the study of divine things. The tradition is that this philosopher was then in great eminence, as he had been first disciplined in the philosophical principles of those called stoics.[56]

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What we have learned thus far is that in the second and third centuries C.E., the scholarship and scribal practices of Alexandria had a tremendous impact on all of Egypt and as far south as the Fayum and Oxyrhynchus. This means that the standard text of the Christian Greek Scriptures reflecting the originals came up out of Egypt during the second century. The Alexandrian Library had been a force for influencing rigorous scholarship and setting high standards from the third century B.C.E. onward. Is it mere coincidence that the four greatest libraries and learning centers were located in the very places that Christianity had its original growth: Alexandria, Pergamum near Ephesus, Rome, and Antioch? The congregations within these cities and nearby ones would be greatly influenced by their book production.

However, some improvements can be made to these critical texts, because the editors of the 26th to 28th editions of the Nestle-Aland text made revisions setting the text further apart from the Westcott and Hort text of 1881. In this, they have ignored the testimony of the earliest manuscripts and Codex Vaticanus and have rejected many readings by relegating them to the margin, or to the critical apparatus, leaving an inferior reading in the main text. It is as Comfort says in his New Testament Text and Translation Commentary:

…the resultant eclectic text exhibits too much dependence on internal evidence, emphasizing the ‘local’ aspect of the ‘local-genealogical’ method, to use Aland’s language. This means that the decision-making, on a variant-unit-by-variant-unit basis, produced a text with an uneven documentary presentation. Furthermore, the committee setting, with members voting on each significant textual variant cannot help but produce a text with uneven documentation. All eclectic texts reconstruct a text that no ancient Christian actually read, even though they approach a close replication of the original writings. However, the NU edition’s eclecticism extends even to following different manuscripts within the same sentence. (P. W. Comfort 2008, p. XV)

The Reliability of the Early Text

Even though many textual scholars credited 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. They did describe different texts’ styles, such as “at least normal,” “normal,” “free,” and “strict,” seemingly to gauge or weigh the textual faithfulness of each manuscript. 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.[57]

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. 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 copyist did the vast majority of the early extant 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 emerged that showed just the opposite.

After a detailed comparison of the papyri, Kurt and Barbara Aland concluded that these manuscripts from the second to the fourth centuries are of three kinds (at least normal, normal, free, and strict). “It is their collations which have changed the picture so completely.” (p. 93)

  1. Normal Texts: The normal text is a relatively faithful tradition (e.g., P52, which departs from its exemplar only occasionally, as do New Testament manuscripts of every century. It is further represented in P4, P5, P12(?), P16, P18, P20, P28, P47, P72 (1, 2 Peter) and P87.[58]
  2. Free Texts: This is a text dealing with the original text in a relatively free manner with no suggestion of a program of standardization (e.g., p45, p46 and p66), exhibiting the most diverse variants. It is further represented in P9 (?), P13(?), P29, P37, P40, P69, P72 (Jude) and P78.[59]
  3. Strict Texts: These manuscripts transmit the text of the exemplar with meticulous care (e.g., P75) and depart from it only rarely. It is further represented in P1, P23, P27, P35, P36, P64+67, P65(?), and P70.[60]

Bruce M. Metzger (1914 – 2007) was an editor with Kurt and Barbara Aland of the United Bible Societies’ standard Greek New Testament and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. In his A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (1971, 1994), and other works, we have his view of the Alexandrian text-type as follows.

The Alexandrian text, which Westcott and Hort called the Neutral text (a question-begging title), is usually considered to be the best text and the most faithful in preserving the original. Characteristics of the Alexandrian text are brevity and austerity. That is, it is generally shorter than the text of other forms, and it does not exhibit the degree of grammatical and stylistic polishing that is characteristic of the Byzantine type of text. Until recently, the two chief witnesses to the Alexandrian text were codex Vaticanus (B) and codex Sinaiticus (א), parchment manuscripts dating from about the middle of the fourth century. With the acquisition, however, of the Bodmer Papyri, particularly P66 and P75, both copied about the end of the second or the beginning of the third century, evidence is now available that the Alexandrian type of text goes back to an archetype that must be dated early in the second century. The Sahidic and Bohairic versions frequently contain typically Alexandrian readings.

It is best if textual scholars focus their attention on the categories the Alands set out, as opposed to their over-generalization that the early period of copying was “uncontrolled” and “free.” The Alands’ rating system consisted of “at least normal,” “normal,” “strict,” and “free,” designed to evaluate the textual faithfulness of each manuscript. It seems that these terms were meant to gauge the level of control that the scribe showed in copying his exemplar. Manuscripts labeled “at least normal” referred to a copyist who at least gave some consideration to his task, namely, producing an accurate copy of the exemplar. “Normal,” on the other hand, referred to a copyist who permitted what was deemed a normal amount of variants within a copying of the exemplar. Therefore, “strict” referred to a scribe who allowed very few variants in his copy of the exemplar. Lastly, “free” would refer to a copyist who showed almost no regard for being faithful to the exemplar that he was copying.

It behooves the textual scholar to give much attention to the study of scribal habits, which really began with Ernest Colwell in 1969, who analyzed the scribal habits in P45, P66, and P75 by examining their singular readings.[61] Singular readings are variant readings that are found only in the manuscript being examined, not in any other extant documents. By studying these singular readings of a particular manuscript, we see into the habits of that scribe, namely, his pattern of textual variations, his interactions with the text. Colwell’s investigation was followed by a much more extensive study of singular readings by James Royse of the same manuscripts some twelve years later.[62] Then, we had Philip Comfort in his doctoral dissertation in 1997.[63] Comfort explains that his objective was “to determine what it was in the text that prompted the scribes of P45, P66, and P75 to make individual readings.” Comfort suggests that we forgo the categories of the Alands and “that textual critics could use the categories “reliable,” “fairly reliable,” and “unreliable” to describe the textual fidelity of any given manuscript.” This author would agree. Moreover, he shows “that many of the early papyri are ‘reliable,’ several ‘fairly reliable,’ and a few ‘unreliable.’” Comfort then logically explains, “One of the ways of establishing reliability (or lack thereof) is to test a manuscript against one that is generally proven for its textual fidelity. For example, since many scholars have acclaimed the textual fidelity of P75 (both for intrinsic and extrinsic reasons), it is fair to compare other manuscripts against it in order to determine their textual reliability.” (P. Comfort 2005, 268)

How do we know that the critical text NA28 and the UBS5 are reliable? In 1989, Eldon J. Epp noted that the papyri have added virtually no new substantial variants to the variants already known from our later manuscripts.[64] Even with the discovery of many other papyri over the last 25 years, the situation has remained the same. It can be said that after 135 years of early manuscript discoveries since Westcott and Hort of 1881, the above critical editions of the Greek New Testament have gone virtually unchanged. (Hill and Kruger 2012, 5) Hill and Kruger go on to say, “It also means that the fourth-century ‘best texts,’ the ‘Alexandrian’ codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, have roots extending throughout the entire third century and even into the second.” (p. 6)

The most reliable of the earliest texts are P1, P4, 64, 67, P23, P27, P30, P32, P35, P39, P49, 65, P70, P75, P86, P87, P90, P91, P100, P101, P106, P108, P111, P114, and P115. The copyists of these manuscripts allowed very few variants in their copies of the exemplars.[65] They had the ability to make accurate judgments as they went about their copying, resulting in superior texts. Whether their skills in copying were a result of their belief that they were copying a sacred text, or from their training, cannot be known. It could have been a combination of both. These papyri are of great importance when considering textual problems and are considered by many textual scholars to be a good representation of the original wording of the text that was first published by the biblical author. Still, “many of these manuscripts contain singular readings and some ‘Alexandrian’ polishing, which needs to be sifted out.” (P. Comfort 2005, 269) Nevertheless, again, they are the best texts and the most faithful in preserving the original. While it is true that some of the papyri are mere fragments, some contain substantial portions of text. We should note too that text types really did not exist per se in the second century, and it is a mere convention to refer to the papyri as Alexandrian, since the best Alexandrian manuscript, Vaticanus, did exist in the second century by way of P75.[66] It is not that the Alexandrian text existed, but rather P75/Vaticanus evidence that some very strict copying with great care was taking place.[67] Manuscripts that were not of this caliber of strict and careful copying were the result of scribal errors and scribes taking liberties with the text. Therefore, even though P5 may be categorized as a Western text-type, it is more a matter of negligence in the copying process.

The Aland Classification of Papyri as of 2002[68]

The Aland Classification of Papyri as of 2002

As Hill and Kruger put it, “if one accepts the Alands’ analyses, in 2002, forty out of fifty-five (or just under 73 percent) of the earliest NT manuscripts had Normal to Strict texts, and fifteen (or just over 27 percent) had Free to Like D texts. The single largest category, consisting of eighteen out of fifty-five (or nearly a third) of the earliest manuscripts, is the category of Strict text.” (Hill and Kruger 2012, 11) Therefore, it would be difficult to follow in the footsteps of previous authors who cite the Alands as their source in describing the early period of copying the Greek New Testament as “free,” or “wild,” “in a state of flux,” “chaotic,” “a turbid textual morass,” and so on.

The Primary Task of a Textual Scholar

The long-held task of the textual scholar has been to recover the original reading. Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-1875) stated that the objective “of all textual criticism is to present an ancient work, as far as possible, in the very words and form in which it proceeded from the writer’s own hand. Thus, when applied to the Greek New Testament, the result proposed is to give a text of those writings, as near as can be done on existing evidence, such as they were when originally written in the first century.”[69] B. F. Westcott (1825-1901) and F. J. A. Hort (1828-1892) said it was their goal “to present exactly the original words of the New Testament, so far as they can now be determined from surviving documents.”[70] Throughout the twentieth century, leading textual scholars such as Bruce M. Metzger (1914-2007) and Kurt Aland (1915-1994) had the same goals for textual criticism. By it Griesbach (1745-1812), Tregelles, Tischendorf (1815-1874), Westcott and Hort, Metzger, Aland, and other prominent textual scholars since the days of Erasmus (1466-1536) all gave their lives to the restoration of the Greek New Testament.

However, sadly, “more dominant in text critics’ thinking now is the need to plot the changes in the history of the text.”[71] While Bart Ehrman, David Parker, and J. K. Elliot are correct that we could never restore or establish the original words of the authors of the twenty-seven Greek New Testament books beyond question, it should still remain the goal, as opposed to the pessimistic attitude of late. If we sidestep the traditional goal of textual criticism, we are really abandoning textual criticism itself. While the textual scholar wants to track down the variants to the text through the centuries, this can only be done by realizing there was a beginning, i.e., the twenty-seven original texts. How does one identify an alteration in the text without knowing from what it was altered? While the NA28/UBS5 critical edition cannot be considered a 100% reproduction of the original twenty-seven books, textual scholarship should always work in that direction, or otherwise, what is the purpose? The authors of this publication are in harmony with the words of Paul D. Wegner, who writes, “Textual criticism is foundational to exegesis and interpretation of the text: we need to know what the wording of the text is before we can know what it means.” (Wegner 2006, 230)

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[1] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1152.

[2] “The usual procedure for a dictated epistle was for the amanuensis 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.

[3] Paul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove 2006), 301.

[4] J. J. Griesbach is the one who really laid the foundation for the rules and principles for New Testament textual criticism.

[5] In 1898, Eberhard Nestle published a significant handbook of textual criticism, and in 1898 published the first edition of a Greek New Testament under the title Novum Testamentum Graece cum apparatu critico ex editionibus et libris manu scriptis collecto. The text of this Greek New Testament was a combination of the editions of Constantin von Tischendorf, The New Testament in the Original Greek of Westcott and Hort, and the edition of Richard Francis Weymouth. Wherever two of these three editions agree, this was the preferred reading by Nestle.

[6] Greenlee, J. Harold (2008). The Text of the New Testament, From Manuscript to Modern Edition (p. 2). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[7] Internal evidence is evidence that comes from the text itself, such as the reading from which the others most likely arose is probably the original, and the harder reading is to be preferred.

[8] External evidence is manuscript evidence: its date, geographical location, and relationship to other known manuscripts. Textual scholars generally prefer the readings supported by the Alexandrian family of witnesses. The Byzantine family of manuscripts tends to be rejected because of its being less trustworthy, but most critics now grant that it should still be considered.

[9] People of the first three centuries sent and received letters and books from all over the Roman Empire. Hurtado has given us two examples: the Shepherd of Hermas was written in Rome and found its way to Egypt within a few decades; Irenaeus’ Against Heresies was written in Gaul and made it to Egypt (Oxyrhynchus) within short order.


[11] This apostasy and divisiveness did not just come into the Christian congregation from nowhere. It started developing in the first century, but was restrained by apostolic authority.

[12] Macquarie University, Ancient History Documentary Research Center (AHDRC), Papyri from the Rise of Christianity in Egypt (PCE),

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

[14] Allen Black and Mark C. Black, 1 & 2 Peter, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub., 1998), 2 Pe 3:16.

[15] 1 Clem. First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians

[16] Ignatius, Eph. 12:2, refers to Paul, “who in all his Epistles makes mention of you in Christ Jesus.” (Although one wonders how Ignatius thought the Ephesians were mentioned in every Pauline letter he knew.) On the evidence for 2 Clement’s knowledge of a collection, see Karl P. Donfried, The Setting of Second Clement in Early Christianity (NovTSup 38; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974), 93–95.

[17] Jack Finegan, “The Original Form of the Pauline Collection,” HTR 49 (1956) 85–104. See also Walter Schmithals, “Zur Abfassung und ältesten Sammlung der pauli nischen Hauptbriefe” [“On the Composition and Earliest Collection of the Major Epistles of Paul”], ZNW 51 (1960) 225–45.

[18] Harry Gamble, “The Redaction of the Pauline Letters and the Formation of the Pauline Corpus,” JBL 94 (1971) 403–18.

[19] Mary Lucetta Mowry, “The Early Circulation of Paul’s Letters,” JBL 63 (1944) 73–86.

[20] Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006), 302–303.

[21] Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Hebrews to Revelation., vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 153.

[22] The attempt by H. von Campenhausen (“Polykarp und die Pastoralen,” repr. Aus der Frühzeit des Christentums [Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1963], 197–252) to show that Polycarp also authored the pastoral Epistles has met with little acceptance.

[23] Schoedel (Polycarp, 4–5) suggests that it is “fairly certain” that the letter “reflects more or less direct contact” with the following writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Tobit, Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1–2 Timothy, 1 John, 1 Peter, and 1 Clement. Metzger (Canon, 61–62) adds to the New Testament list 2 Thessalonians and Hebrews while deleting Acts and 2 Corinthians.

[24] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 272–273.

[25] Jack Finegan, “The Original Form of the Pauline Collection,” HTR 49 (1956) 85–104. See also Walter Schmithals, “Zur Abfassung und ältesten Sammlung der pauli nischen Hauptbriefe” [“On the Composition and Earliest Collection of the Major Epistles of Paul”], ZNW 51 (1960) 225–45.

[26] Theophilus of Antioch, “Theophilus to Autolycus,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Marcus Dods, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 114.

[27] 1 Tim. 2:2

[28] Rom. 13:7, 8

[29] Theophilus of Antioch, “Theophilus to Autolycus,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Marcus Dods, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 115.

[30] These men may have been deacons but, apart from their joint martyrdom with Felix, more about their identities is unknown at the time of this writing.

[31] Some may have been scribes as well but not all. Retaining accurate, fresh copies for the congregation entailed reaching out to scribes or scriptoriums, to acquire copies for their congregation.

[32] This is not to say that no manuscripts survived the persecution in Alexandria; it is possible that some came through the flames.

[33] L. M. McDonald, Forgotten Scriptures: The Selection and Rejection of Early Religious Writings (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, July 13, 2009), 184.

[34] Again, when we employ the term “original” reading or “original” text in this publication, it is a reference to the exemplar manuscript composed by the New Testament author (e.g., Paul) and recorded by his secretary (e.g., Tertius), if he used one, from which all other copies ultimately were derived for publication and distribution to the Christian communities.

[35] ECM/1–2Peter, 23*n. 4

[36] This presentation is based on lectures given by the author at the Münster Colloquium on the Textual History of the Greek New Testament.

[37] Gerd Mink, “Problems of a Highly Contaminated Tradition, the New Testament: Stemmata of Variants as a Source of a Genealogy for Witnesses,” in Studies in Stemmatology, vol. 2 [ed. Pieter van Reenen, August den Hollander, and Margot van Mulken; Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004], 25).


[39] The Textual History of the Greek New Testament: Changing Views in Contemporary Research (Peter Rodgers Review) .., (accessed July 7, 2014).

[40] B. F. Westcott; F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament In the Original Greek, Cambridge/London, 1881.

[41] Referred to as UBS5

[42] Referred to as NA27. It should be noted that the Greek text of the NA27 and the UBS4 are exactly the same, but their apparatuses are different. The NA27 is more for the scholar, the pastor, and the Bible student and deals with far more variants and offers more evidence for each variant, while the UBS4 is more for the Bible translator and includes only variants deemed important to Bible translation.

[43] Aland and Aland in their book, The Text of the New Testament, make the clear statement that the text of the Greek New Testament, United Bible Societies (UBS3) and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (NA26) “comes closer to the original text of the New Testament than did Tischendorf or Westcott and Hort not to mention von Soden.” (Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament 1995, 24)

[44] This approach addresses textual criticism by looking to internal and external evidence. However, many who use this approach do lean too heavily on internal evidence. In addition, while they value early manuscripts, they choose the best reading from a consideration of all manuscripts, believing that any of them can carry the original, avoiding preferences.

[45] (Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament 1995, 291-2)

[46] Nonetheless, the oldest manuscripts, which are of the Alexandrian text-type, seem to be the favored, and text of the United Bible Society, 5th ed. and Nestle-Aland, 28th ed. has an Alexandrian disposition.

[47] See Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974); and Richard Bauckham’s discussion in his essay, “For Whom Were the Gospels Written?” in The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, ed. Richard Bauckham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 32 (9-48).

[48] Eldon Jay Epp, “The Significance of the Papyri for Determining the Nature of the New Testament Text in the Second Century: A Dynamic View of Textual Transmission,” in Gospel Traditions in the Second Century: Origins, Recensions, Text, and Transmission, ed. William L. Petersen (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 81 (71-103).

[49] Eldon Jay Epp, “New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts and Letter Carrying in Greco-Roman Times,” in The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, ed. Birger A. Pearson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 55 (35-56). As another particular piece of evidence of Christian networking across imperial distances, Malcolm Choat pointed me to a third-century letter sent from an unknown individual Christian in Rome to fellow Christians in Egypt (P. Amherst 1.3), requesting certain financial transactions. For discussion see Charles Wessely, “Les plus ancients monuments du Christianisme ecrits sur papyrus,” Patrologia Orientalis, Tomas Quartus (Paris: Librairie de Paris, 19o8), 135-38.

[50] Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), 26-27.

[51] As of 2014, there are 127 papyri.

[52] It should be noted that Andrews is not arguing for setting aside all manuscripts except the early papyri. Rather, he is merely suggesting that our best evidence lies within these early papyri.

[53] B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, Introduction [and] Appendix, Vol. 2 of New Testament in the Original Greek (London: Macmillan and Company, 1881), 251.

[54] P. W. Comfort (1992), 38–39.

[55] This method holds that a variant can be established as original and can come from any given manuscript(s).

[56] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5:10:1.

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

[58] Ibid., 95

[59] Ibid., 59, 64, 93

[60] Ibid., 64, 95

[61] 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).

[62] James Ronald Royse, “Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri” (Ph.D. diss., Graduate Theological Union, 1981). According to Royse, this investigation of singular readings does not apply to lectionaries, patristic sources, and versions, just New Testament papyri, uncials, and minuscules.

[63] Philip Comfort, “The Scribe as Interpreter: A New Look at New Testament Textual Criticism according to Reader Reception Theory,” D. Litt. et Phil, dissertation, University of South Africa (1997).

[64] E. J. Epp, ‘The Significance of the Papyri for Determining the Nature of the New Testament Text in the Second Century: A Dynamic View of Textual Transmission’, in W. L. Petersen, ed., The Gospel Traditions in the Second Century (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 101.

[65] In 1988, the Alands, in the second edition of The Text of the New Testament (93-95), categorized thirty of the forty-four earliest manuscripts (40 papyri and 4 parchment) as “at least normal,” “normal,” and “strict,” with the other fourteen being categorized as “free” or “like Codex Bezae (D).” At that time, the Alands did not rate P90 [2nd], P92, [3rd/4th] and P95 [3rd], likely because they had only recently been discovered. However, we now have the Aland classification of “strict.”

[66] The Coherence Based Genealogical Method, which was developed by Gerd Mink and assists scholars in developing genealogical trees of manuscripts, will be discussed in far greater detail in Chapter XIII by Wilkins; but we should note here that it has no relation to the traditional text-type model. It is for this reason that scholars such as Holger Strutwolf have suggested that we abandon any references to the manuscripts by the tradition text-types.

[67] “What we do know, from the manuscript evidence, is that several of the earliest Christian scribes were well-trained scribes who applied their training to making reliable texts, both of the Old Testament and the New Testament. We know that they were conscientious to make a reliable text in the process of transcription (as can been seen in manuscripts like P4+64+67 and P75), and we know that others worked to rid the manuscript of textual corruption. This is nowhere better manifested than in P66, where the scribe himself and the diorthotes (official corrector) made over 450 corrections to the text of John. As is explained in the next chapter, the diorthotes of P66 probably consulted other exemplars (one whose text was much like that of P75) in making his corrections. This shows a standard Alexandrian scriptoral practice at work in the reproduction of a New Testament manuscript.” (P. Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism 2005, 264)

[68] The table is copied from (Hill and Kruger 2012, 11)

[69] Tregelles, An Account of the Printed Text of the Greek New Testament, 174.

[70] Westcott and Hort, Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek, 1.

[71] J. K. Elliott, “The International Greek New Testament Project’s Volumes on the Gospel of Luke: Prehistory and Aftermath,” NTTRU 7, 17.

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