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Below is a short overview of the copying process of the Greek text of the New Testament. We will cover its transmission in the Greek of the time, as well as other languages that it has been translated into; not to mention the trustworthiness of the critical text that we have today.
The first-century Christians, at Pentecost 33 C.E., had Holy Spirit come upon about 120 disciples waiting in Jerusalem, resulting in their speaking in many languages about “the mighty works of God.” (Ac 2:1-4, 11) On that same day, about 3,000 were baptized. (Ac 2:37-41) Within a short time, the Jewish religious leaders were complaining of these disciples, “You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” (Ac 5:27-28, 40-42) With what result? “The number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” (Ac 6:7) The early Christians spread throughout the then known world.
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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. From the days of Pentecost 33 C.E. onward, 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, came out of 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. 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. 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 hatred.
It is conceivable that by 55 C.E., there would have been a thriving congregation in Alexandrian Egypt, with its huge Jewish population. “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 traveling south to Egypt. Antioch is obviously mentioned because it played a significant role as a commencement for first century Christianity, in particular for the apostle Paul.
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 about 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., room for copying manuscripts).
What does all of this mean? Of course, we cannot know absolutely, but textual scholar Philip W. Comfort and others believe that the very early Alexandrian manuscripts that we now possess are a reflection of what would have been found throughout the whole of the Greco-Roman Empire from about 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 papyri 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.
First-Century Manuscripts: All of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were penned between 45 C.E. and 98 C.E. Yes, it has been discussed that there were likely changes made to some of the authors’ books before it was released for publication. After looking at the rough draft of the book of Romans for example, likely both Paul and Tertius made some corrections, with Tertius producing the master copy after that to be the authorized publication, which would have been used to make other copies. Another example would be the Gospel of John. The last verse of chapter 20 seems to close the Gospel of John, which reads, “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The style of chapter 21 is that of the apostle John, and he clearly added it before publishing the authoritative copy to be used to make copies. This is not suggesting that there are two editions of John. It is suggesting that before John published the authoritative edition, he decided himself to add chapter 21. On this Andreas J. Köstenberger writes,
Throughout the Johannine narrative, Jesus is repeatedly identified as Christ and Son of God. If the Gospel were to conclude with 20:30–31, this purpose statement would, at least on those grounds, provide sufficient closure. In fact, it has been conjectured that John originally planned to finish his Gospel at this point and only later appended an additional chapter. Alternatively, it has been suggested that someone other than John, perhaps some of his disciples, added chapter 21 after the apostle’s death (e.g., Roberts 1987). This is possible. However, the presence of an epilogue seems required by the opening prologue in order to preserve balance and symmetry of structure. The prologue, in turn, is tied in so closely with the remainder of the Gospel that its composition cannot be easily relegated to a later follower of John. Hence, both prologue and epilogue frame the Gospel in such a way that they form an integral part of the theological and literary fabric of the entire narrative. Particularly notable is the way in which the relationship between Peter and the beloved disciple is resolved in terms of noncompetition. Another crucial element of resolution is the identification of the beloved disciple as the Fourth Evangelist. What is more, not only do language and style in chapter 21 not differ significantly from chapters 1–20, but also there are actually positive terminological links between this final chapter and the rest of the Gospel. Also, there is no textual evidence that the Gospel ever circulated in any form other than the present, canonical one (Ellis 1992: 18; Mahoney 1974: 12 [cited in Minear 1983: 86]). Finally, ending the Gospel immediately after Jesus’ encounter with Thomas would have seemed rather abrupt. For these reasons it must be maintained that the epilogue constitutes an integral part of John’s Gospel. It is part of John’s overall literary plan and provides the culmination of various strands carefully woven earlier in the Gospel. In fact, both the prologue and the epilogue can be shown to be integrally connected to the body of the Gospel by way of anticipation and resolution.
Again, while there may have been some corrections and even some additions, it was done under the authority of the author himself before the authorized publication of the book. Once the official publication was released, there were no more changes by the author. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that anyone would have made any substantial changes to these documents while the authors were alive, or even during the lives of their coworkers and traveling companions. This is not to say that absolutely no copyist errors would have crept in during this period. However, it is highly unlikely that anyone would have been so bold as to alter the text of the author while he or his coworkers were around and could have challenged any such alterations. The New Testament authors had coworkers, such as Apollos, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Titus, Sopater, Secundus, Gaius, and Trophimus, to mention just a few. They also had secretaries, such as Tertius and Silvanus (or Silas), as well as Timothy possibly serving as Paul’s secretary, as Timothy appears in the six letters that also bear his name in the greeting. Then, there were also the 70 intimate disciples of Jesus Christ, who were with him throughout his ministry, as well as the 500 that saw the resurrected Jesus. The apostle John himself did not die until about 100 C.E.
In addition, the authors themselves spoke of their writings as being authoritative and that no one should alter the copy that they had published. 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 and Silas wrote to the Thessalonians that they continually 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 is, the Word of God. (1Thess. 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.
We pause a moment to look at yet another author of the New Testament. The apostle Peter wrote about 64 C.E.,
2 Peter 1:12-18 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
12 Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you. 13 I consider it right, as long as I am in this earthly dwelling, to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 knowing that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will also be diligent that at any time after my departure you will be able to call these things to mind.
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised tales 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, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”—18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made 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 warns his readers of false teachers, who corrupt the truth and distort the Scriptures, such as Paul’s letters. Again, like Paul and John, warning that this would be to their own destruction.
2 Peter 3:15-16 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
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.” 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. 47:1). It appears later in 2 Clement and in Ignatius’s Ephesians. Thus, we are on solid ground when we accept that a collection of the Pauline letters existed by the end of the first century. 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), and that there were collections of a few Pauline letters before there was a collection of all of his letters. 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 of thousand dollars in today’s money), they would make copies. Copies would turn into collections, particularly as 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.”
This author would argue that the stage Peter was referring to was 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. At the time Peter penned his second letter, several of Paul’s letters from the 50s were available to Peter. (Romans , 1 & 2 Corinthians , 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 ) The only ones that were clearly unavailable would have been 1 & 2 Timothy [61, 64] and possibly Titus [61-64]. Thus, Peter’s reference to “in all his [Paul’s] letters, speaking in them of these things,” we garner several insight. 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) which were not to be changed, and that (4) apostolic author’s 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 getting up there in 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 was 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, where 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 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). 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.
Christ “gave gifts to men.” “He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers.” (Eph. 4:8, 11-13, NASB) The Father moved these inspired ones along by 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, then, we have internal New Testament evidence from Second Peter of about 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 of Pauline letters that were collected together by 90-100 C.E. 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.
Clement of Rome (c. 96 C.E.) was acquainted with Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, saying Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit. We have Clement of Rome (c. 30-100 C.E.), Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155 C.E.), Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 C.E. – c. 108 C.E.), who wove Scripture of the Greek New Testament in with 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.” Theophilus then uses 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.” And it teaches us to render all things to all, “honour to whom honour, fear to whom fear, tribute to whom tribute; to owe no man anything, but to love all.”
Once we get to into the middle to the end of the second century C.E., it now 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 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 uncertain 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, 3 John, or Jude. We know that Origen of Alexandria (230 C.E.) and Eusebius of Palestine (320 C.E.) fully accepted 27 of 27 books of the New Testament books. 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 running back to the days of the apostles would influence the copyists? In addition, 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 them with accuracy? In addition, would the professional scribe copy accurately even if he did not view them as Scripture? Additionally, 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, speak, 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, all in the name of improving the text but not intending to alter the meaning. It has to be mentioned that there were some untrained copyists, who simply produced inaccurate copies, regardless of how they viewed the text.
Then, there are those scribes who willfully altered the text, with the intention of improving the text. 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 claims, “I sought how I might be able to discover the truth,” which gives us 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 one who willfully revised the New Testament was Lucian of Antioch (c. 240-312 C.E.). Lucian produced the Syrian text, renamed Byzantine text. About 290 C.E., some of his associates, made various subsequent alterations, which deliberately combined 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, harmonizing parallel accounts, grammar corrections, modifying abrupt transitions, to produce a smooth text. Nevertheless, this was not a faithfully accurate copy. Still, 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 as being accepted without question as Scriptural and canonical, some uncertainty of 2 Peter, and Hebrews and James was not listed, possibly unaware. In the end, we must admit that there were heretics that altered the text to get it to align with their doctrinal positions, but also orthodox Christians who also altered the text to strengthen their doctrinal positions.
Encouraged to action, these disciples of Jesus Christ sprang into a teaching (Gk katecheo), i.e., an instruction that ultimately spread out into every corner of the then known world. (Col. 1:23) You would have had a teacher practicing and preparing Jesus’ life and teachings, with his congregation orally, repeating, memorizing what had been taught by Jesus himself. The congregation would have then taken that from house to house while others like Paul and his other 100+ traveling companions, took the same message from city to city, and from country to country, preaching “the good news!” (Rom. 10:15) The good news was three-fold: (1) Christ’s ransom sacrifice, (2) his resurrection and hope for others, and (3) the Kingdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, 20-22, 50; James 2:5
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, 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 wrote, “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, Palestine, 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 in 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 obey 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. Felix resisted the command of the local magistrate Magnillian (Lat. Magnillianus) to surrender his congregation’s copies of the Christian Scriptures. One account has 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 our 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, 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 from 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 lifted.
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. They also would have guarded them during times of persecution. Because of the mass persecution against Alexandria, Egypt, 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 congregation but rather would have been hidden in homes. Because of the dry sands of Egypt, the professional scribal practices, 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 Sinaitic c. 350 C.E.), they are reflective of the manuscripts from rural Egypt that survived, such as P4, 64, 67 from Coptos, P13 from Oxyrhynchus, and P46 from Fayum and P75 from Abu Mana. (P. W. Comfort 1992, 16-17)
Literacy in the First Century
In recent years, a number of scholars have suggested that Jesus could not read, that in all likelihood none of his disciples could read either. They say this because of studies that have concluded that rates of literacy in the Roman Empire were quite low and that Jesus and his earliest followers were probably not exceptions.
Now let us offer some basic comments about the literacy level in the first century. Literacy in the first century was determined by being able to read, not write. The need for writing today is far greater than antiquity. Richards offers a great analogy in that ‘I am right handed, so to pen a long paper with my left hand would be quite difficult, and not very legible. The man of antiquity would write with the same difficulty because there was seldom a need to write.’ (Richards 2004, 28) Some scholars argue that the lower class was almost all illiterate. However, this is not really the case, as literacy was more every day than they are suggesting. Nevertheless, let us give them the benefit of the doubt, and say that illiteracy was very high among the lower class, and even relatively high among the upper class, which might pay for that service.
What does that say about individual Christians throughout the Roman Empire? It is believed that more than one hundred million people lived in the combined eastern and western Roman Empire (100 C.E.). Now, let us say that statistically, the literacy rate is low in a certain region, or in a certain city, like Rome. Does that mean that everyone is illiterate in that region or city? Do we equate the two? If we accept these Bible scholar’s belief that the lower class were likely to be illiterate, meaning they cannot write, or struggle to write; what does this really mean for Christianity? Nothing. Because if 100 million people are living throughout the Roman Empire and only one million of them was Christian in 125 C.E., we are only talking one percent of the population. There is no way to judge the level of literacy for this tiny selection, because of a statistic, in a time period when history focused on the prominent. If a person that lived in that period writes about the lower class and their literacy level, this is only based on the sphere of who he knows or what he has seen in his life, which would be very small when compared to the whole. Textual and early Christianity scholar, Phillip Comfort informs us that:
Thousands and thousands of people heard the word from Jesus himself. In ancient times, the method of oral publication was far more effective than written publication. Books were expensive to make, and many people did not read. Most relied on oral proclamation and aural reception to receive messages. Indeed, most education was based upon oral delivery and aural reception/ memorization to transmit texts. Thus, Jesus taught his disciples orally, and they committed his teachings to memory. … Each New Testament disciple considered himself or herself to be like the kerux—a herald and publisher of the Good News.
Paul called himself “a herald and an apostle” (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11), for it was his function as an apostle to be a herald. Paul and the other New Testament apostles had a common proclamation (kerygma) to take to the world. This proclamation was a “publishing” of the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. At first, the publishing was oral—via preaching in various cities throughout the Greco-Roman world. Eventually, the publishing was both oral and written—via the writings of the apostles, which were proclaimed in churches throughout the world. As can be gathered from the book of Acts and the writings of Paul, the basic kerygma always focused on Jesus’ resurrection.
The early apostles proclaimed this kerygma to all the believers. At the same time, they rehearsed the deeds and words of Jesus. Thus, the first-century Christians initially received an oral presentation of the gospel from the apostles who had been with Jesus (see Acts 2:42) and then, written documents that preserved the oral and perpetuated the apostolic tradition (see Luke 1:1–4). The oral proclamation was considered a form of catechetical instruction (from the Greek word katecheo; see BAGD, 423)—a teacher rehearsing Jesus’ words and deeds, with the congregation orally repeating what was taught and committing it to memory. (This was the way nearly all teaching occured in hellenistic times.) According to Galatians 6:6, the teachers in the early church were considered the catechists, the oral proclaimers of the word (see also 1 Cor. 14:19). According to the preface to his Gospel (1:1–4), Luke wanted to affirm, via the written word, what Theophilus had already been taught by catechism—i.e., oral recitation. Thus, the written word in Luke’s Gospel was the inscribed replication of the oral proclamation. (P. Comfort, Encounterring the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism 2005, pp. 3-4)
The early Christians saw a need almost immediately as they wanted to distribute the Scriptures to the far-flung areas, as well as have them in a format that would make them convenient for reference. Thus, the early Christians popularized the codex form of manuscripts, as opposed to the scrolls. A codex is similar to our modern-day book form, in which the leaves are made into a bundle of sheets folded together for binding into a book, especially a four-sheet bundle, folded once to make eight leaves or sixteen pages. Several of these would be sewn together, depending on the size of the book needed. Several benefits came with the transition from scroll to codex. First, it would have been far easier to reference a portion of text by turning into a book, as opposed to unrolling a large scroll. If the New Testament books had been in scroll form, the Bible books would have remained separate. Because they were in codex form, the four gospels were joined, and later the book of Acts to the gospels, the fourteen books by Paul was joined, and eventually, all twenty-seven books were joined. The early Christians were innovators in the use of the codex. They may even have devised it. While non-Christian writers only gradually embraced the codex, the vast majority of Christian papyri of the second and third centuries are in codex form.
How can we, modern-day readers, know so much about letters from the ancient Roman Empire? We have two different sources that provide us some insight into the writer and his letters. Lucius or Marcus Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Elder (54 B.C.E.-39 C.E.), who was a Roman rhetorician and writer, born of a wealthy equestrian family of Cordoba, Hispania. Seneca lived through the reigns of three significant emperors; Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula. Why are we interested in such a man from so long ago? It is his letters that interest us. These letters of Seneca were published, which meant that someone paid to have a scribe produce a copy of them. As was the case with many works of antiquity, the process was repeated over and over again throughout the centuries. Today, we have critical editions of them.
Our other source for insight into the development of the letter writing process comes from letters of ordinary people, uncovered by archaeologists. These were never published as they were simply discarded after they served their purpose. In many cases, in order to save on costs, these ones would simply flip a letter over and use the other side for something else. Nevertheless, many ended up in garbage dumps. However, some recipients of these letters valued them, so they stored them away like some treasure. Therefore, when archaeologists uncovered homes, these letters would be found within the ruins of the home. In some cases, they were even buried with the person because they were so valued. Hundreds of thousands of letters have been discovered over the past century by archaeologists. These were simply common folk, writing about everyday things.
Most of us have likely heard of Marcus Tullius Cicero, or simply as Cicero (106 B.C.E.–43 B.C.E.), who was a Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul, and constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family in Rome. In his everyday affairs, he penned letters in order to correspond with others. However, Cicero was writing letters to one person but knew that others would be reading them as well. Therefore, he chose to use this opportunity to use his writing, so that it communicated its point persuasively, such as logic and reason, philosophical arguments, and the like. His letters grew from very short letters, too far longer intricate rhetorical letters.
We find yet another famous Roman named Seneca in the days of the apostle Paul. He was the second son of Seneca the Elder. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, or simply Seneca the Younger (c. 4 B.C.E.–65 C.E.), who was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist, i.e., a very famous, skilled and capable speaker. As for written works, Seneca is known for twelve philosophical essays, one hundred twenty-four letters to Lucilius Junior, nine tragedies, and a satire, which is uncertain. Seneca was a famed Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, of the Silver Age of Latin literature. Like his two predecessors of letter writing, he developed this new pattern even more so. In his letters to his friend Lucilius, dealing with moral issues, he too delved into philosophical ideas, setting aside the simple and bare letters of the day, for something far more complex.
In a similar way, the apostle Paul likely came to the same conclusion, as he could not be everywhere all the time. Therefore, Paul used personal letters and personable carriers as a substitute until he could visit. He produced through his scribe Tertius about 433 verses, 7,111 words in the book of Romans, which would have taken two days to make a copy. Then, again, he also penned a personal letter to Philemon, which was only about 25 verses, 335 words, and likely would have fit on one papyrus sheet. Like the skilled rhetoricians before him, Paul knew that many others would be reading his letters. In fact, he exhorted them to do so. – Colossians 4:16.
We should also note that the level of literacy in the first century is somewhat subjective, because of the limited evidence that is available, as well as one’s interpretation of that evidence. Let us take a moment to look at the historian today, as compared to the historian during the first few centuries of Christianity. Today, we are capable of covering almost anything that goes on in life, from the most insignificant to the most noteworthy. We in the United States may watch live on CNN as some firefighters in New Zealand rescue a puppy that had been trapped in a storm drain. Then again, we can observe a 9.0 earthquake as it hits Japan, causing the deaths of over 15,000 people.
What about the first few centuries of Jesus, the Apostles, and the earliest Christians? The coverage of people, places, and events are not even remotely comparable. The coverage at that time was of the most prominent people, like Seneca the Elder, Cicero, Seneca the Younger, Mark Antony, and Augustus, i.e., the emperor of Rome, senators, generals, the wealthy, with very little press being given to the lower officials, let alone the lower class. We do not have much on Pontius Pilate at all, but what we do have is an exception to the rule.
History from antiquity, then, is recoverable but incomplete due to the limited extent and frequently tendentious nature of the sources. Ancient historiography, more than its modern counterpart, is to a greater degree approximate or provisional. A new discovery may alter previous perceptions. Until the discovery of Claudius’s Letter to the Alexandrians, written on his accession in 41 but lost until modern times, that emperor’s steely resolve could not have been guessed. In short, evidence from Greco-Roman antiquity is fragmentary, generally devoted to “important” people and events and its texts overtly “interpreted.” (Barnett 2005, 13)
Literacy in the first century was determined by being able to read, not write. The need for writing today is far greater than antiquity. Apologies for being repetitive, but Richards offers a great analogy when he says, “I am right handed, so to pen a long paper with my left hand would be quite difficult, and not very legible. The man of antiquity would write with the same difficulty because the need to write was so seldom.” This author finds this to be true of himself, now that we have entered an era of texting and typing. I have not written a paper by hand in years. When I fill out a form or even sign my name, I struggle to write, because it is so seldom. Many have argued that the lower class was almost all illiterate. However, recent research shows that this was not the case, as literacy was more every day than they had been suggesting. However, let us give them the benefit of the doubt, and say that literacy was very low among the lower class, and even relatively low among the upper class, which had the ability to pay for the service.
What does that say about individual Christians throughout the Roman Empire? It is believed that more than 30–40 million people lived in the combined eastern and Western Roman Empire (50–200 C.E.). Now, let us say that statistically, the literacy rate is low in a certain area, or in a certain city, like Rome (slave population). Does that mean that everyone is illiterate in that region or city? Do we equate the two? If we accept the belief that the lower class were likely to be illiterate, meaning they cannot write, or struggle to write; what does this really mean for Christianity? Very little. Because if there are 100 million people living throughout the then known world and one million of them were Christian by 125-150 C.E., we are only talking one or two percent of the population. There is no way to arrive at an exact statistical level of literacy for this tiny selection, in a time period when history focused on the prominent. If a person from that period says anything about the lower class, this is only based on the sphere of who he knows or what he has seen in his life, which would be very small when compared to the whole. The last 20 years or so has seen many new directions in the field of literacy in the Ancient world. Johnson and Parker offer the following,
The moment seems right, therefore, to try to formulate more interesting, productive ways of talking about the conception and construction of ‘literacies’ in the ancient world―literacy not in the sense of whether 10 percent or 30 percent of people in the ancient world could read or write, but in the sense of text-oriented events embedded in particular sociocultural contexts. The volume in your hands [ANCIENT LITERACIES] was constructed as a forum in which selected leading scholars were challenged to rethink from the ground up how students of classical antiquity might best approach the question of literacy, and how that investigation might materially intersect with changes in the way that literacy is now viewed in other disciplines. The result is intentionally pluralistic: theoretical reflections, practical demonstrations, and combinations of the two share equal space in the effort to chart a new course. Readers will come away, with food for thought of many types: new ways of thinking about specific elements of literacy in antiquity, such as the nature of personal libraries, or the place and function of bookshops in antiquity; new constructivist questions, such as what constitutes reading communities and how they fashion themselves; new takes on the public sphere, such how literacy intersects with commercialism, or with the use of public spaces, or with the construction of civic identity; new essentialist questions, such as what “book” and “reading” signify in antiquity, why literate cultures develop, or why literate cultures matter. (Johnson and Parker 2011, 3-4)
Literacy and Early Jewish Education
The first seven years (29-36 C.E.), three and a half with Jesus’ ministry and three and a half after his ascension, only Jewish people became disciples of Christ and formed the newly founded Christian congregation. In 36 C.E. the first gentile was baptized, Cornelius. From their forward Gentiles came into the Christian congregations. However, it still was largely Jewish persons leaving Judaism, and becoming Christians. What do we know of the Jewish family, as far as education? Within the nation of Israel, everyone was strongly encouraged to be literate. The texts of Deuteronomy 6:8-9 and 11:20 were figurative, not to be taken literally. However, figurative language is to be taken literally. We are to ascertain what was meant by the figurative language, and that meaning is what we take literally.
Deuteronomy 6:8-9 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
8 You shall bind them [God’s Word] as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontlets bands between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Deuteronomy 11:20 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
20 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,
The command to bind God’s Word “as a sign on your hand,” denoted constant remembrance and attention. The command that the Word of God was “to be as frontlet bands between your eyes,” denoted that the Law should be kept before their eyes constantly, so that wherever they looked, whatever was before them, they would see the law before them. Therefore, while figurative, these texts implied that Jewish children grew up, being taught how to read and to write. The Gezer Calendar (ancient Hebrew writing), dates to the 10th-century B.C.E., is believed to be a schoolboy’s memory exercise by some scholars.
Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.–50 C. E.) was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, whose first language was Greek, had this to say about Jewish parents, and how they taught their Children the Law, as well as how to read it. Philo stated, “All men guard their own customs, but this is especially true of the Jewish nation. Holding that the laws are oracles vouchsafed by God and having been trained [paideuthentes] in this doctrine from their earliest years, they carry the likenesses of the commandments enshrined in their souls.” (Borgen 1997, 187) This certainly involved the ability to read and write to a competent level. Josephus (37-100 C.E.), the first-century Jewish historian, writes, “Our principal care of all is this, to educate our children [paidotrophian] well; and we think it to be the most necessary business of our whole life to observe the laws that have been given us, and to keep those rules of piety that have been delivered down to us.” (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 1.60) Even allowing for an overemphasis for apologetic purposes. Clearly, Jesus was carefully grounded in the Word of God (Hebrew Old Testament), as was true of other Jews of the time. Josephus also says,
“but for our people, if anybody do but ask any one of them about our laws, he will more readily tell them all than he will tell his own name, and this in consequence of our having learned them immediately as soon as ever we became sensible of anything, and of our having them, as it were engraven on our souls. Our transgressors of them are but few; and it is impossible, when any do offend, to escape punishment.” (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 2.178) He also says: “[the Law] also commands us to bring those children up in learning [grammata paideuein] and to exercise them in the laws, and make them acquainted with the acts of their predecessors, in order to their imitation of them, and that they may be nourished up in the laws from their infancy, and might neither transgress them, nor yet have any pretense for their ignorance of them.” (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 2.204) Again, this is clearly involving at a minimum the ability to read and write to a competent level.
From the above, we find that the Jewish family education revolved around the study of the Mosaic Law. If their children were going to live by the Law, they must know what it says, as well as understand it. If they were going to know and understand the Law, this would require the ability to read it, and hopefully apply it. Emil Schurer writes: “All zeal for education in the family, the school and the synagogue aimed at making the whole people a people of the law. The common man too was to know what the law commanded, and not only to know but to do it. His whole life was to be ruled according to the norm of the law; obedience thereto was to become a fixed custom, and departure therefrom an inward impossibility. On the whole, this object was to a great degree attained.” (Schurer 1890, Vol. 4, p. 89) Scott writes that “from at least the time of Ezra’s reading of the law (Neh. 8), education was a public process; study of the law was the focus of Jewish society as a whole. It was a lifelong commitment for all men. It began with the very young. The Mishnah requires that children be taught ‘therein one year or two years before [they are of age], that they may become versed in the commandments.’ Other sources set different ages for beginning formal studies, some as early as five years.” (Scott 1995, 257)
It may be that both Philo and Josephus are presenting their readers with an idyllic picture, and what they have to say could possibly refer primarily to well-off Jewish families, who could afford formal education. However, this would be a bit shortsighted for the Israelites had long been a people that valued the ability to read and write competently. In the apocryphal account of 4 Maccabees 18:10-19, a mother addresses her seven sons, who would be martyred, reminding them of their father’s teaching. There is nothing in the account to suggest that they were from a well-off family. Herein the mother referred to numerous historical characters throughout the Old Testament and quoted from numerous books. – Isaiah 43.2; Psalm 34:19; Proverbs 3:18; Ezekiel 37:3; Deuteronomy 32:39.
Jesus would have received his education from three sources. As was made clear from the above, Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather would have played a major role in his education. Paul said that young Timothy was trained in “the sacred writings” by his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother Lois. (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15) Certainly, if Timothy received education in the law from his mother because his Father was a Greek (Acts 16:1), no doubt Jesus did as well after Joseph fell asleep in death.
Jesus would have also received education in the Scriptures from the attendant at the Synagogue. In the first-century C.E., the synagogue was a place of instruction, not a place of sacrifices. The people carried out their sacrifices to God at the temple. The exercises within the synagogue covered such areas as praise, prayer, recitation, and reading of the Scriptures, in addition to expository preaching. – Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47
Before any instruction in the holy laws and unwritten customs are taught… from their swaddling clothes by parents and teachers and educators to believe in God, the one Father and Creator of the world. (Philo Legatio ad Gaium 115.)
The Mishnah tells us the age that this formal instruction would have begun, “At five years old one is fit for the scripture… at thirteen for the commandments.” (Mishnah Abot 5.21.) Luke 4:20 tells of the time Jesus stood to read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, once finished, “he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant.” An attendant such as this one would have educated Jesus, starting at the age of five. As Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” (Lu 2:52) Jesus and his half-brothers and sisters would have been known to the people of the city of Nazareth, which was nothing more than a village in Jesus’ day. “As was his custom, [Jesus] went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day,” each week. (Matt. 13:55, 56; Lu. 4:16) While Jesus would have been an exceptional student, unlike anything that the Nazareth synagogue would have ever seen, we must keep in mind that the disciples would have been going through similar experiences as they grew up in Galilee. A strong emphasis was laid on the need for every Jew to have an accurate knowledge of the Law. Josephus wrote,
for he [God] did not suffer the guilt of ignorance to go on without punishment, but demonstrated the law to be the best and the most necessary instruction of all others, permitting the people to leave off their other employments, and to assemble together for the hearing of the law, and learning it exactly, and this not once or twice, or oftener, but every week; which thing all the other legislators seem to have neglected. (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 2.175)
The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.” (John 18:19-20) We know that another source of knowledge and wisdom of Jesus came from the Father. Jesus said, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me,” i.e., the Father. – John 7:16.
|Mark 1:22 English Standard Version (ESV)
22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.
|Mark 1:27 English Standard Version (ESV)
27 And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!
At first, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the priests served as scribes. (Ezra 7:1-6) The scribes referred to here in the Gospel of Mark are more than a copyist of Scripture. These ones were professionally trained scholars, who were experts in the Mosaic Law. As was said above, a great emphasis was laid on the need for every Jew to have an accurate knowledge of the Law. Therefore, those who gave a great deal of their life and time to acquire an immense amount of knowledge were looked up to, becoming scholars, forming a group separate from the priests, creating a systematic study of the law, as well as its exposition, which became a professional occupation. By the time of Jesus, these ones were experts in more than the Mosaic Law (entire Old Testament actually) as they became experts on the previous experts from centuries past, quoting them as opposing to quoting Scripture. In other words, if there was any Scriptural decision to be made, these scribes quoted previous experts in the law, i.e., their comments on the law, as opposed to quoting applicable Scripture itself. These scribes were among the “teachers of the law,” also referred to as “lawyers.” (Lu 5:17; 11:45) The people were astonished and amazed at Jesus’ teaching and authority because he did not quote previous teachers of the law but rather referred to Scripture alone as his authority, along with his exposition.
Jesus’ Childhood Visits to Jerusalem
Only one event from Jesus’ childhood is given to us, and it is found in the Gospel of Luke. We have addressed it earlier, so what lies below can serve as a refresher. It certainly adds heavy circumstantial evidence to the fact that Jesus could read and was literate.
Luke 2:41-47 Updated American standard Version (UASV)
41 Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when he [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up according to the custom of the feast. 43 And after the days were completed, while they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. And his parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey; and they began looking for him among their relatives and acquaintances. 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him. 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. 47 And all those listening to him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
This was no 12-year-old boy’s questions 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, to 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 answers, but was likely challenging the thinking of these Jewish religious leaders.
This incident is far more magnificent than one might first realize. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament helps the reader to appreciate that the Greek word eperotao (to ask, to question, to demand of), for “questioning” was far more than the Greek word erotao (to ask, to request, to entreat), for a boy’s inquisitiveness. Eperotao can refer to questioning, which one might hear in a judicial hearing, such as a scrutiny, inquiry, counter questioning, even the “probing and cunning questions of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” for instance those we find at Mark 10:2 and 12:18-23.
The same dictionary continues: “In [the] face of this usage it may be asked whether . . . [Luke] 2:46 denotes, not so much the questioning curiosity of the boy, but rather His successful disputing. [Verse] 47 would fit in well with the latter view.” Rotherham’s translation of verse 47 presents it as a dramatic confrontation: “Now all who heard him were beside themselves, because of his understanding and his answers.” Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament says that their constant amazement means, “they stood out of themselves as if their eyes were bulging out.”
After returning to Jerusalem, and three days of searching, Joseph and Mary found young Jesus in the temple, questioning the Jewish religious leaders, to which “they were astounded.” (Luke 2:48) Robertson said of this, “second aorist passive indicative of an old Greek word [ekplesso]), to strike out, drive out by a blow. Joseph and Mary ‘were struck out’ by what they saw and heard. Even they had not fully realized the power in this wonderful boy.” Thus, at twelve years old, Jesus, but a boy, is already evidencing that he is a great teacher and defender of truth. BDAG says, “to cause to be filled with amazement to the point of being overwhelmed, amaze, astound, overwhelm (literally, Strike out of one’s senses).
Some 18 years later, Jesus again, hit the Jewish Pharisees with these types of interrogative questions, so much so that not “anyone [of them] dare from that day on to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22:41-46) The Sadducees fared no better when Jesus quieted them when the resurrection was brought up, “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.” (Luke 20:27-40) The Scribes were silenced just the same after they got into an exchange with Jesus, “And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.” (Mark 12:28-34) Clearly, this insight into Jesus’ life and ministry provide us with evidence that he had the ability to read very well and likely write. There is the fact that Jesus was also divine. However, he was also fully human, and he grew, progressing in wisdom, because of his studies in the Scriptures.
Luke 2:40, 51-52 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
40 And the child continued growing and became strong, being filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
51 And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
52 And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.
Jesus was often called ‘Rabbi,’ which was used in a real or genuine sense as “teacher.” (Mark 9:5; 11:21; 14:45; John 1:38, 49 etc.), ‘Rabbo(u)ni’ (Mark 10:51; John 20:16) as well as its Greek equivalents, ‘schoolmaster’ or ‘instructor’ (epistata; Luke 5:5; 8:24, 45; 9:33, 49; 17:13) or ‘teacher’ (didaskalos; Matt. 8:19; 9:11; 12:38; Mark 4:38; 5:35; 9:17; 10:17, 20; 12:14, 19, 32; Luke 19:39; John 1:38; 3:2). Jesus uses these same terms for himself, as well as his disciples, even his adversaries, and those with no affiliation.
Another inference that Jesus was literate comes from his constant reference to reading Scripture, when confronted by the Jewish religious leaders: law student, Pharisees, Scribes and the Sadducees. Jesus said, “said to them [Pharisees],“Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him … Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? (Matt. 12:3, 5; Reference to 1 Sam 21:6 and Num 28:9) Again, Jesus answered,“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female.” (Matt. 19:3; paraphrase of Gen 1:27) Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matt. 21:16; Quoting Psa. 8:2) Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? (Matt. 21:42; Reference to Isaiah 28:16) Jesus said to him,“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Lu. 10:26) Many of these references or Scripture quotations are asked in such a way to his opponents; there is little doubt Jesus himself has read them. When Jesus asks in an interrogative way, “have you not read,” it was taken for granted that he had read them. Jesus referred to or quoted over 120 Scriptures in the dialogue that we have in the Gospels.
The data that have been surveyed are more easily explained in reference to a literate Jesus, a Jesus who could read the Hebrew Scriptures, could paraphrase and interpret them in Aramaic and could do so in a manner that indicated his familiarity with current interpretive tendencies in both popular circles (as in the synagogues) and in professional, even elite circles (as seen in debates with scribes, ruling priests and elders). Of course, to conclude that Jesus was literate is not necessarily to conclude that Jesus had received formal scribal training. The data do not suggest this. Jesus’ innovative, experiential approach to Scripture and to Jewish faith seems to suggest the contrary.
How did Jesus gain such wisdom? Jesus, although divine was not born with this exceptional wisdom that he demonstrated at the age of twelve and kept increasing. It was acquired. (Deut. 17:18-19) This extraordinary wisdom was no exception to the norm, not even for the Son of God himself. (Luke 2:52) Jesus’ knowledge was acquired by his studying the Hebrew Old Testament, enabling him to challenge the thinking of the Jewish religious leaders with his questions at the age of twelve. Therefore, Jesus had to be very familiar with the Hebrew Old Testament, as well as the skill of reasoning from the Scriptures.
Were the Apostle Peter and John Uneducated?
|Acts 4:13 English Standard Version (ESV)
13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.
|Acts 4:13 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
13 Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.
How are we to understand the statement that Peter and John were uneducated? (ESV, NASB, HCSB, LEB, and others) [unlettered (YLT) or unlearned (ASV)] This did not necessarily mean that they could not read and write, as the letters that were penned by these apostles (or their secretary) testify that they could. What this means is that they were not educated in higher learning of the Hebrew schools, such as studying under someone like Gamaliel, as was the case with Paul (Ac 5:34-39; 22:3). The Greek words literally read καταλαβομενοι [having perceived] οτι [that] ανθρωποι [men] αγραμματοι [unlettered] εισιν [they are] και [and] ιδιωται [untrained]. This means that the disciples were not educated in the rabbinic schools. It did not mean that they were illiterate. In other words, they lacked scribal training. In addition, ιδιωται [untrained], simply means that in comparison to professionally trained scribes of their day, they were not specialists, i.e., were not trained or an expert in their scribal duties. This hardly constitutes the idea that they were illiterate.
It was the same reason that the Jewish religious leaders were surprised by the extensive knowledge that Jesus had. They said of him, “How is it that this man has learning when he has never studied?” (John 7:15) This is our best Scriptural evidence that Jesus could read. Let us break it down to what the religious leaders were really saying of Jesus. They asked πως [how] ουτος [this one] γραμματα [letters/writings] οιδεν [has known] μη [not] μεμαθηκως [have learned]. First, this is a reference to the fact that Jesus did not study at the Hebrew schools, i.e., scribal training. In other words, ‘how does this one [Jesus] have knowledge of letters/writings, when has not studied at the Hebrew schools. This question means more than Jesus’ ability to read because as we saw in the above Jewish children were taught to read.
Another example, Luke 4:16-30 says that Jesus “came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and” (Lu 4:16-17) Jesus was able to take the scroll of Isaiah and read what is now known as Isaiah 61:1-2. While the parallel account in Mark 6:1-6 does not refer to Jesus reading this text, scholars have long known; the Gospel writers shared the events through their eyes, i.e.; they drew attention to what stood out to them, and what went with their purpose for writing their Gospel accounts. In addition, while many Christians may want to mention the adulteress passage of John 7:53-8:11, where Jesus wrote something in the dust, it is not in the original but is simply an early tradition of something that may have happened.
Within the Roman Empire from the first to the fourth century, we find public writings in and throughout all of the cities. It encompasses inscriptions, which are “dedications, lists of names, imperial decrees, statements or reminders of law, quotations of famous men and even rather pedestrian things, such as directions. Many gravestones and tombs are inscribed with more than the name of the deceased; some have lengthy, even poetic obituaries; others have threats and curses against grave robbers (literate ones, evidently!). The impression one gains is that everybody was expected to be able to read; otherwise, what was the point of all of these expensive inscriptions, incised on stone?” This impression does not end with inscriptions, because archaeology can extrapolate that between the fourth and sixth centuries C.E., millions upon millions of document came out of Oxyrhynchus, one city, based on the more than 1.5 million documents found in their garbage dumps. Of these five hundred thousand have been recovered.
The Library of Celsus (45-ca. 120 C.E.) is an ancient Roman building in Ephesus (completed in 135 C.E.), which contained some 12,000 scrolls. The library was also built as a monumental tomb for Celsus. He is buried in a stone coffin beneath the library. The Ancient Library of Alexandria, Egypt (third-century to 30 B.C.E.), was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. Most of the books were kept as papyrus scrolls. King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309–246 B.C.E.) is believed to have set 500,000 scrolls as a goal for the library. Apparently, by the first century C.E., the library contained one million scrolls. The Library of Pergamum (Asia Minor) was one of the most significant libraries in the ancient world. It is said to have housed roughly 200,000 volumes. Historical records say that the library had a large main reading room. We have not even mentioned Rome, Athens, Corinth, Antioch (Syria), and the rest. The Mediterranean world from Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) to Constantine the Great (272-337 C.E.), some 700 years, saw hundreds of major libraries, with thousands of moderate to minor ones, with hundreds of millions of documents being written and read. Certainly, this does not suggest illiteracy but literacy.
Some point to secular historians like “Celsus, the first writer against Christianity, makes it a matter of mockery, that labourers, shoemakers, farmers, the most uninformed and clownish of men, should be zealous preachers of the Gospel.” Paul explained it this way: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:26-27) It seems that these so-called illiterate Christians were able to go from 120 in Jerusalem about 33 C.E., to some one million by 100 C.E., a mere 67 years. This growth in the Christian population, all came about because they effectively evangelized, using the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament). They were so effective with the Septuagint; the Jews abandoned it and went back to the Hebrew Old Testament.
Celsus was an enemy of Christianity. In addition, as was stated above, what Celsus observed is only within the sphere of his personal experiences. How many Christians could he have known out of almost a million at the time of his writing? Moreover, although not highly educated in schools, it need not be assumed that most or all of the early Christians were illiterate, in that they could read and write (with difficulty).
Let us return to Peter and John. We will give the historian the benefit of the doubt, who says that literacy was between five and ten percent, with most being men. We will accept that Peter and John were illiterate in the sense the historian believes it to be true (even though they likely were not). At the time of this statement in Acts about being “uneducated” (i.e., unlettered) it was about 33 C.E. Peter would not pen his first letter for about 30 more years. Throughout those 30 years, Peter progressed spiritually, maturing into the position of being one of the leaders of the entire first-century Christian congregation. A few years later, Peter and John are viewed as developing and growing into their new position, as leaders in the Jerusalem congregation, as Paul said of them, “James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars” of the community. John, on the other hand, did not pen his books until about 60 years after Acts 4:13. Are we to assume that he too had not grown in 60 years? What made education in the first century more universal?
After the conquests of Alexander the Great and the extension of Macedonian rule in the fourth-century B.C.E., a transferal of people from Greece proper to the small Greek communities in the Middle East took place. Throughout what became known as the Hellenistic period, the Attic dialect, spoken by the educated classes as well as by the traders and many settlers, became the language common to all the Middle East. From about 300 B.C.E. to about 500 C.E. was the age of Koine, or common Greek, a combination of divergent Greek dialects of which Attic was the most significant. Koine fast became the universal language. It had a tremendous advantage over the other languages of this period, in that it was almost unanimously known. Koine means the common language, or dialect common to all. The Greek vocabulary of the Old Testament Translation, the Septuagint was the current Koine of Alexandria, Egypt, from 280 to 150 B.C.E. Everett Ferguson writes,
A higher level of education. Literacy became more general, and education spread. Both abstract thought and practical intelligence were enhanced in a greater proportion of the population. This change coincided with the spread of Greek language and ideas, so that the level and extent of communication and intelligibility became significant. (Ferguson 2003, 14)
Education was voluntary, but elementary schools at least were widespread. The indications, especially on the evidence of the papyri, are that the literacy rate of Hellenistic and early Roman times was rather high, probably higher than at any period prior to modern times (see further see here). Girls as well as boys were often included in the elementary schools, and although education for girls was rarer than for boys, it could be obtained. The key for everyone was to get what you could on your own. (Ferguson 2003, 111)
By the time we enter the first-century C.E., the era of Jesus and the apostles, Koine Greek had become the international language of the Roman Empire. The Bible itself bears witness to this, as when Jesus was executed by the Roman Pontius Pilate, the inscription above his head was in Hebrew, the language of the Jews, in Latin, the official language of Rome, and in Greek, which was the language spoken in the streets of Alexandria, to Jerusalem, to Athens, to Rome. (John 19:19, 20; Acts 6:1) Acts 9:29 informs the reader that Paul was preaching the in Jerusalem Greek-speaking Jews. As we know, Koine, a well-developed tongue by the first-century C.E., would be the tool that would facilitate the publishing of the twenty-seven New Testament books.
Biblical Greek (Koine or Common Greek)
The Greek language was in use for centuries before the era of recorded history. Prehistoric peoples who migrated from Central and northern Asia to the more lush lands to the south settled in various sections of Greece, in each of which a distinct dialect arose; the four main dialects were Arcado-Cyprian, Doric, Aeolic, and Ionic.
From the Ionic, dialect grew the Attic, the common form of classical Greek. It was the language of Athens and the nearby district of Attica and was unlike the other Ionic forms primarily in its contraction of vowels. Because of the political power of Athens throughout and after the fifth-century B.C.E. and the leading role of philosophy, Athenian art, and drama, the Attic language far surpassed all others and became the principal literary language. Its impact was heightened by way of its use of such intellectuals, namely, the playwrights Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, the orator Demosthenes, Plato, and the historians Thucydides and Xenophon.
After the conquests of Alexander the Great and the extension of Macedonian rule in the fourth-century B.C.E., a transferal of people from Greece proper to the small Greek communities in the Middle East took place. Throughout what became known as the Hellenistic period, the Attic dialect, spoken by the educated classes as well as by the traders and many settlers, became the language common to all the Middle East. From about 300 B.C.E. to about 500 C.E. was the age of Koine, or common Greek, a combination of divergent Greek dialects of which Attic was the most significant. Koine fast became the universal language. It had a tremendous advantage over the other languages of this period, in that it was almost unanimously known. Koine means the common language, or dialect common to all. The Greek vocabulary of the Old Testament Translation, the Septuagint was the current Koine of Alexandria, Egypt, from 280 to 150 B.C.E.
By the time we enter the first-century C.E., the era of Jesus and the apostles, Koine Greek had become the international language of the Roman Empire. The Bible itself bears witness to this, as when Jesus was executed by the Roman Pontius Pilate, the inscription above his head was in Hebrew, the language of the Jews, in Latin, the official language of Rome, and in Greek, which was the language spoken in the streets of Alexandria, to Jerusalem, to Athens, to Rome. (John 19:19, 20; Acts 6:1) Acts 9:29 informs the reader that Paul was preaching the in Jerusalem Greek-speaking Jews. Koine, a well-developed tongue, would be the tool that would facilitate the publishing of the twenty-seven New Testament books.
The Transmission of the Greek New Testament
Earlier you read of the great lengths the Hebrew copyist went to for the preservation of the Old Testament. You know that we can trust the Old Testament that came down to us from ancient times. Now we must ask the same question about the transmission of the Greek New Testament, the books penned by Matthew, Mark, Luke John, Peter, Paul, James, and Jude. Has the Greek New Testament come down to us in such a way that we can trust it to be the Word of God? Textual scholar, Bruce M. Metzger has referred to this period in the subtitle of his book THE TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, as “Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.” In other words, the twenty-seven New Testament books were transmitted, penned, in the first century of our common era (between 45 C.E. and 98 C.E.). Both unintentional and intentional copyist errors crept into the text from the outset until the 16th century. However, the restoration is from the 16th century to the present, when thousands of textual scholars have given their lives to restore the text.
The Treasure House of Greek Manuscripts
Matthew was written first in Biblical Hebrew, about 45-50 C.E., for the sake of the Jewish people, but was later translated into Greek by Matthew. Papias (about 135 C.E) comments on the Gospel of Matthew: “He wrote the sayings in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” The twenty-seven books of the canonical New Testament were written in the common Greek of the day. However, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace makes three qualifying points about the Greek of the New Testament:
a. For the most part, the Greek of the NT is conversational Greek in its syntax–somewhat below the refinement and sentence structure of literary Koine, but above the level found in most papyri (though, to be sure, there are Semitic intrusions into the syntax on occasion).
b. Its style, on the other hand, is largely Semitic–that is, since almost all of the writers of the NT books are Jews, their style of writing is shaped both by their religious heritage and by their linguistic background. Furthermore, the style of the NT is also due to the fact that these writers all share one thing in common, faith in Jesus Christ. (This is analogous to conversations between two Christians at church and the same two at work: the linguistic style and vocabulary to some extent are different in both places.)
c. The NT vocabulary stock, however, is largely shared with the ordinary papyrus documents of the day, though heavily influenced at times by the LXX and the Christian experience.
There are exceptions to each of these areas, as they are not neatly compartmentalized. Not only this, but since the NT was written by authors with various linguistic backgrounds and abilities, it is quite impossible to view their Greek as merely one kind. Nevertheless, it is possible to gain an overall impression of NT Greek.
Individual NT Authors
Generally speaking, the range of literary levels of the NT authors can be displayed as follows:
|Mark||Most of Paul||Hebrews|
A Storehouse of Over 25,000 Manuscripts
Unlike ancient secular writings, the amount of manuscript copies of all twenty-seven books of the Greek New Testament is overwhelmingly numerous. Some of these manuscripts cover whole books, or multiple books, even the entire New Testament while others are mere fragments. The latest calculations of all known Greek manuscripts are about 5,750, written from as early as 110 C.E. (the John Ryland’s manuscript, P52; oldest copy of John fragments), to as late as the end of the fifteenth-century. Moreover, there are over 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic, and Armenian. Another source used in determining which reading is original is what is known as Patristic Quotation or quotations of the New Testament by the early church fathers. When we compare that with the texts of classical authors, there is no comparison. They merely have a few manuscripts that are accessible, and these are rarely within centuries of the original writings. Therefore, we can see that the New Testament textual scholar has a storehouse treasure of evidence to support his arriving at the critical text (authoritative text) of the Greek New Testament.
Papyrus was a writing material used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans that was made from the pith of the stem of a water plant. The first manuscripts of the Greek New Testament were written on papyrus. It is likely that the Bible writers used papyrus when they sent letters to the Christian congregations. One of the world’s leading authorities, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, can offer us the latest information on the earliest papyrus manuscripts:
These manuscripts now increase our holdings as follows: we have as many as eighteen New Testament manuscripts (all fragmentary, more or less) from the second century and one from the first. Altogether, about 33% of all New Testament verses are found in these manuscripts. Up until now, no one has discovered any first-century manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament has been P52, a small fragment from John’s Gospel, dated to the first half of the second century. It was discovered in 1934. The oldest manuscript that had Mark in it was P45, from the early third century (c. 200–250 CE).
How do these manuscripts change what we believe the original New Testament to say? We will have to wait until they are published next year, but for now, we can most likely say this: As with all the previously published New Testament papyri (127 of them, published in the last 116 years), not a single new reading has commended itself as authentic. Instead, the papyri function to confirm what New Testament scholars have already thought was the original wording or, in some cases, to confirm an alternate reading—but one that is already found in the manuscripts. As an illustration: Suppose a papyrus had the word “the Lord” in one verse while all other manuscripts had the word “Jesus.” New Testament scholars would not adopt and have not adopted, such a reading as authentic, precisely because we have such abundant evidence for the original wording in other manuscripts. But if an early papyrus had in another place “Simon” instead of “Peter,” and “Simon” was also found in other early and reliable manuscripts, it might persuade scholars that “Simon” is the authentic reading. In other words, the papyri have confirmed various readings as authentic in the past 116 years, but have not introduced new authentic readings. The original New Testament text is found somewhere in the manuscripts that have been known for quite some time. These new papyri will no doubt continue that trend. 
Many of the papyrus manuscripts have been discovered in the province of Fayum, in Egypt. The first discovery of a papyrus manuscript was in 1778. In the late nineteenth-century, a number of Biblical papyri were brought to light. One of the most vital of all modern-day manuscript finds was, P45, P46, and P47 of the Chester Beatty Library Collections, a discovery made public in 1931. It consisted of parts of 11 codices, containing the Gospels and Acts, the Pauline Epistles, and Revelation.
Papyri of another outstanding collection were published in Geneva, Switzerland, from 1956 to 1961. Known as the Bodmer Library, they include P66 containing the book of John, P72 containing Jude and 1 and 2 Peter, and P74, a seventh-century containing Acts, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude and all three epistles of John. We can learn much about the books of the New Testament by these papyrus manuscripts. First, they establish that the Bible canon was being generated even before the issue of what books should be included had ever been raised. P45 having the Gospels and Acts combined, as well as P46 having nine of Paul’s fourteen letters, establishes that the books were being gathered together by the beginning of the second century. P52, a mere fragment, helped to restore John’s Gospel back into the first century,
First, archaeological evidence has come to light in form of the John Rylands papyrus (P52), an Egyptian fragment containing John 18:31-33 and 37-38 which is dated around A.D. 125. Allowing for time for John’s original manuscript to be copied and to make its way from Ephesus in Asia Minor to Egypt, this pushes the date of writing of John’s Gospel back to the late first century. So much for Baur’s hypothesis that the Gospel was not published until after A.D. 150!
Parchment is a creamy or yellowish material made from dried and treated sheepskin, goatskin, or other animal hide, formerly used for books and documents. It began to be used in place of papyrus in writing manuscripts from about the fourth century to the fifteenth century C.E. The skins of the animals were soaked in quicklime water, and the hair was scraped off. After that, both sides were scraped, it was dried, and rubbed with chalk and pumice stone. Ironically, parchment was considered an inferior writing material for a time. For the longest time, papyrus was used for penning literary works while parchment was used for business papers, notebooks, as well as the first drafts of an author’s works.
Some very significant Bible manuscripts extant today were originally penned on parchment. Those of the Greek New Testament was written completely in capital letters and are referred to as Uncials. The Institute for New Testament Textual Research (INTF) reports 322 uncial manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, dating from the fourth century C.E. to the tenth century C.E. Then there are nearly 2,900 cursive, or minuscule, manuscripts, made in running style of writing. These, also on vellum, were written during the period from the ninth century C.E. to the start of printing in 1455. In addition, there are more than 2,400 known lectionaries. A lectionary is a schedule of readings from the Bible for Christian church services during the course of the year, or book containing such readings. As was stated earlier, we have about 5,750 Greek manuscripts dating from the early second century C.E. to the fifteenth century C.E.
Textual Criticism and Restoration
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)
We do not have the original 27 books by the New Testament authors. Why God would miraculously use the Holy Spirit, to produce 27 fully inerrant texts, and then allow human imperfection into the copies is not spelled out for us in Scripture. Imperfect humans have had the tendency of worshiping items that have been touched by the miraculous powers of God or were in direct contact with one of his servants. This, of course, is speculation, and all we know is that God had his reasons for allowing them to be worn out by repeated use. It must be remembered that there was a recent discovery of a fragment of Mark, which has preliminarily been dated to the first century by one of the world’s leading paleographers. Therefore, while this fragment of Mark will become the earliest evidence, it also lets us know that the original published copy may be just waiting out there, to be discovered.
What we can say is that the vast majority of the Greek text is not affected by variants at all. Of the small amount of the text that is affected by variants, the vast majority of those are minor slips of the pen, misspelled words, substituting one synonym for another, using a pronoun as a noun, and the like, and we are certain what the original reading is in these places. Of a minute portion of our small amount of our Greek text, we can be very certain what the original reading was. However, of our small amount, an infinitesimally insignificant number of variants are difficult in establishing the original reading. Lastly, there is but a handful of variants where we would say we are uncertain as to the original reading. Nevertheless, these latter two affect no doctrine; moreover, variant readings can be placed in a footnote, giving the reader the original.
The Text of Erasmus (c. 1466–1536)
Dutch scholar; first editor of the Greek New Testament
Born a priest’s son out of wedlock, Erasmus knew nothing of normal family life and was in that sense a deprived child. His schooling was largely at Deventer (Netherlands) under the auspices of the Brethren of the Common Life. Those followers of what was called the “Modern Devotion” movement sought a deepening of spiritual life. Under the Brethren, who produced some of the fifteenth century’s best teachers, Erasmus acquired an enthusiasm for Bible study. In 1486, evidently under pressure from his guardians, he became an Augustinian canon at Steyn (Netherlands). In spite of his reluctance to enter the monastery, his six or seven years of study there produced in him a love for classical literature and thought.
About 1493 Erasmus was ordained and became Latin secretary to the bishop of Cambrai (France). The bishop’s continuing interest allowed Erasmus in 1495 to pursue theological studies at Paris. Erasmus took a lasting dislike to the dogmatic theologians there, with their partisanship, intolerance, and hostility to new ways of thinking.
In 1516 Erasmus became a royal counselor in the Brussels (Belgium) court of the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Between that year and 1518 Erasmus also published a nine-volume edition of the works of Jerome, Erasmus’s favorite church father. Less ambitious editions of other fathers including Irenaeus, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Origen followed in the succeeding eighteen years.
The Dark Ages is the period of European history between the fall of the Roman Empire in ad 476 and about 1000 C.E., for which there are few historical records and during which life was comparatively uncivilized. This was followed by the Middle Ages, the period in European history between antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, often considered to be between the end of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and the early fifteenth century C.E. Throughout this period, the Bible was locked up in the Latin language, and the church was under the control of Roman Catholic Church, with scholarship and learning at a low ebb. However, all of that was to change at the inception of printing in 1455, combined with the Reformation of the 16th-century C.E.
Additional self-determination overcame, and there was a reawakening of awareness in the Greek language. It was throughout this initial revival of learning that the famous Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus produced his first edition of the Greek text of the New Testament. This first edition was printed in Basel, Switzerland, in 1516, one year prior to the start of the Reformation in Germany. The first edition had many errors, with minor improved texts presented in succeeding editions in 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535. Erasmus had only a few late cursive manuscripts accessible to him for comparing and preparing his Greek Text.
So much in demand was Erasmus’s Greek Testament that the first edition was soon exhausted and a second was called for. It was this second edition of 1519, in which some (but not nearly all) of the many typographical blunders of the first edition had been corrected, that Martin Luther and William Tyndale used as the basis of their translations of the New Testament into German (1522) and into English (1525).
The Introduction of Chapters and Verses
Robert Etienne (commonly known under the Latin form of his name, Stephanus), was well known as a printer and editor in the sixteenth century in Paris. His being an editor moved him to see the useful advantage of using a system of chapters and verses for being able to reference any text. Therefore, he introduced this system in his Greek-Latin New Testament in 1551. It was the Masoretes, who first made verse division for the Hebrew Old Testament, but it was Stephanus, who in 1553 brought about such divisions in the entire Bible. The English Bibles soon followed, which in return brought about the Bible concordances, such as the one by Alexander Cruden in 1737 and the two exhaustive concordances to the King James Version–Robert Young’s, first published in Edinburgh in 1873, and James Strong’s, published in New York in 1894.
Stephanus is best known among textual scholars for his multiple editions of the Greek New Testament. These were based on the Erasmus text, the Complutensian Polyglot of 1522 and about fifteen cursive manuscripts. It was Stephanus’ third edition of 1550, which was close to the fourth and fifth editions of Erasmus, which became known as the Textus Receptus, (Latin for “received text”), which is the basis for the King James Version of 1611 and all the main Protestant translations in languages throughout Europe up until 1881. Textual scholar Bruce M. Metzger offers some insights on this,
So superstitious had been the reverence accorded the Textus Receptus that in some cases attempts to criticize or amend it has been regarded as akin to sacrilege. Yet its textual basis is essentially a handful of late and haphazardly collected minuscule manuscripts, and in a dozen passages, its reading is supported by no known Greek witness. 
The Critical Text
As time passed, more manuscripts came to light, enabling textual scholars to publish increasingly refined critical texts. Exceptional was that published by Johann Jakob Griesbach, who had access to the hundreds of Greek manuscripts that had become accessible toward the end of the eighteenth century. Griesbach is one of the most important textual scholars, who published three editions of the New Testament between 1774 and 1806; the best edition was published 1796-1806. His critical text was the basis for Sharpe’s English translation in 1840 and is the Greek text printed in The Emphatic Diaglott, first published completely in 1864. Karl Lachmann (1793-1851), Friedrich Constantin von Tischendorf (1815-74) and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-75) published other outstanding texts.
Westcott and Hort Text
The Cambridge University scholars B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort published a Critical text that would end the reign of the corrupt Textus Receptus in 1881. The leading scholars in this field recognize this critical text and what it has accomplished. Here is just a small sample of what has been said,
It was the corrupt Byzantine form of text that provided the basis for almost all translations of the New Testament into modern languages down to the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth century scholars assembled a great amount of information from many Greek manuscripts, as well as from versional and patristic witnesses. But, except for three or four editors who timidly corrected some of the more blatant errors of the Textus Receptus, this debased form of the New Testament text was reprinted in edition after edition. It was only in the first part of the nineteenth century (1831) that a German classical scholar, Karl Lachmann, ventured to apply to the New Testament the criteria that he had used in editing texts of the classics. Subsequently other critical editions appeared, including those prepared by Constantin von Tischendorf, whose eighth edition (1869–72) remains a monumental thesaurus of variant readings, and the influential edition prepared by two Cambridge scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort (1881). It is the latter edition that was taken as the basis for the present United Bible Societies’ edition. (B. M. Metzger 1964, 1968, 1992, xxiv)
The climax of this third period of the printed text comes in the joint labor of two Cambridge University scholars who rank with Tischendorf for their fame in the field of textual criticism, Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort. For twenty-eight years they worked together on a critical edition of the Greek NT together with a volume setting forth with meticulous care their textual principles. (Greenlee 1995, 70)
It is scarcely possible to overstate the significance of this new text. Westcott and Hort gave nearly thirty years of exacting labor to this project. Their achievement was revolutionary not so much because of new ideas but rather because of the deliberate thoroughness of their work and the unquestioned principles which backed it up. No piece of evidence had been passed over unnoticed; no authority had been put aside until it was brought into proper perspective. (Lightfoot 1963, 1988, 2003, 111)
In the late nineteenth century two Cambridge University scholars, Brooke F. Westcott (1825–1901; Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, and later bishop of Durham) and Fenton J. A. Hort (1828–1892; Hulsean Professor of Divinity at Cambridge) gained renown for their studies of New Testament manuscripts and the publication of their critical edition of the New Testament.
In 1881, after twenty-eight years of work, Westcott and Hort published the text of the Greek New Testament (with an introduction and appendixes) titled The New Testament in the Original Greek. Not being interested in simply supplying a textual apparatus with all the variant readings, they refined and applied textual principles from earlier scholars to determine what they believed to be the original Greek text, as Epp explains: “The very title of their work, The New Testament in the Original Greek, shows that their goal was far more ambitious than those of Bentley or Lachmann—who wanted to establish the 3d-and 4th-century texts, respectively—for Westcott and Hort sought and claimed to be reproducing the original text itself.” (Wegner 2006, 214-215)
Eberhard Nestle (1851–1913) was a German biblical scholar, textual critic, editor of Novum Testamentum Graece, and the father of Erwin Nestle. Erwin Nestle (1883–1972), continued editing his father’s “Nestle Edition” of Greek New Testament, adding a full critical apparatus in the thirteenth edition. Kurt Aland (1915–1994) was also a German Theologian and Professor of New Testament Research and Church History. He founded the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster and served as its first director for many years (1959–83). He was one of the principal editors of Novum Testamentum Graece and The Greek New Testament for the United Bible Societies. Today the designation Novum Testamentum Graece normally refers to the Nestle-Aland editions, named after the scholars who led the critical editing work. The text, edited by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research is currently in its 27th edition, abbreviated as NA27. The NA27 is used as the basis of most modern translations of the New Testament, as well as being the standard for academic work in New Testament studies. Then, there is the United Bible Societies Edition of the Greek New Testament that is now in its fourth edition, abbreviated as UBS4. There are also critical texts by the Catholic Jesuit scholars José M. Bover (1943) and Augustinus Merk (1948).
First, we should underscore a few important points raised: 1) we have so many variants because we have so many manuscripts. 2) We do not count the manuscripts; we count the variants. 3) A variant is any portion of the text that exhibits variations in its reading between two or more different manuscripts. This is more precisely called a variation unit. It is important to distinguish variation units from variant readings. Variation units are the places in the text where manuscripts disagree, and each variation unit has at least two variant readings. Setting the limits and range of a variation unit is sometimes difficult or even controversial because some variant readings affect others nearby. Such variations may be considered individually, or as elements of a longer single reading.
Before a translator can concern himself with the process of rendering the original language into a modern language, he must consider the variants within the critical text, i.e. textual criticism. Harold Greenlee writes, “textual criticism is the basic study for the accurate knowledge of any text. New Testament textual criticism, therefore, 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.” (Greenlee 1995, p. 7)
Textual criticism is both an art and a science. It is a science because it has principles or guidelines that must be followed. Additionally, it is an art because it is all about balance in applying those principles. It is the careful comparison of all known original language manuscripts (including lectionaries) and versions of the Bible in other languages (for example, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian), as well as patristic quotations in order to determine the original reading. This would include the elimination of any additions that may have crept into the text, as well as restoring any portion removed by accident or knowing what rightly belongs in the text. This work is often referred to as “lower criticism,” which is constructive criticism; it should be set apart from “higher criticism,” which is typically destructive criticism.
Manuscript copying prior to the invention of the printing press in 1455 was done by hand. As all are imperfect humans, it was inevitable that some minor mistakes began to creep into the text. The earliest copyists were accomplishing a far greater task than can be imagined. If you find it difficult to grasp just how difficult, imagine copying 138,020 words in which there are no breaks between words and sentences, and all written in capital letters, as well as no punctuations. For example, [ZDVHRIUJFHKJGUYGKNHUGRL] This could cause confusion at times, and then, there are variants. For an English example, consider GODISNOWHERE. Does it read, “God is nowhere” or “God is now here”? The variations within the Greek manuscripts are not as extensive as some would like you to think. (e.g., agnostic NT scholar Bart D. Ehrman) As this chapter is a summary, we are unable to go into detail, but we will recommend
FROM SPOKEN WORDS TO SACRED TEXTS: Introduction-Intermediate New Testament Textual Studies by Edward D. Andrews. This publication will lay the groundwork of textual criticism. Then, we would highly recommend MISREPRESENTING JESUS Debunking Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus by Edward D. Andrews.
For now, let us say that we can rate these variations on three different levels: insignificant, significant without effect, and significant.
These variations are too small and irrelevant to be considered important. These variants are unintentional blunders that even a professional scribe might make at times. For example, the wrong division of words (because there were no spaces between them), mistaking one letter for another, as the scribe’s eyes move to a similar ending further down the page (leaving out all in between). Another unintentional error might be writing the same word or letter twice or writing it once when it should have been twice. Another example would be switching letters or words around. Additionally, copyists without awareness substituted a synonym in place of the actual word. A couple of other examples of unintentional errors would be overlooking an abbreviation, as well as spelling and grammar. To offer an example, we turn to Matthew 1:18. Is it “the birth of [the] Jesus Christ” or “the birth of the Christ” or “the birth of the Christ Jesus” or “the birth of [the] Jesus”? Another example can be found in Matthew 27:2. Is it “Pilate the governor” or “Pontius Pilate, the governor”? Still, another example can be found in Acts 15:40. Is it “the grace of the Lord” or “the grace of God”? These insignificant variations are by far the vast majority of variants to be found, and we have such evidence that makes them so negligible that they are not even mentioned in the footnotes of our study Bibles.
Significant Without Effect
What makes these variants without effect is that we have such strong manuscript evidence that establishing the correct reading is of no concern. Our first example would be the familiar story of the adulterous woman at John 7:53–8:11. Certainly, so many verses are significant, and the story is ancient. Almost all modern translations make an effort to highlight the doubt of this story as being original. Why? The woman caught in adultery does not have the support of our earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts, nor any of the early versions. Another example comes from 1 Timothy 3:16. Is it “who was manifested in the flesh” or “which was manifested in the flesh” or “God was manifested in the flesh”? As any reader can see, this one had grave consequences for the Trinity doctrine; thus, it is significant, but again the manuscript evidence has spoken. Some ambitious scribes changed Ος (“he who”) to Θς (“God”). Another intentional alteration that has no manuscript evidence prior to the fourteenth century of our common era is found in 1 John 5:7: “The Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.” This interpolation is not cited by any of the early Greek Church Fathers, not even during the great Trinity controversy of the fourth-century C.E.
We will look at only one significant reading here, which is the long common ending of Mark chapter 16, verses 9–20. There are multiple endings for the Gospel of Mark, which it ended abruptly with these words: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” While I see verses 9–20 as an interpolation, it is not so easy for some textual scholars to accept this.
First, there is the telling fact that two of the oldest and most highly respected Bible manuscripts, the Vaticanus 03 and the Sinaiticus 01, do not contain this section; they conclude Mark’s Gospel with verse eight. This is true of the early versions as well: Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, and Georgian. The early church fathers, Clement, Origen, Cyprian, and Cyril of Jerusalem had no knowledge of anything beyond verse eight. There is little wonder that the noted manuscript authority Dr. Westcott states, “the verses which follow [9-20] are no part of the original narrative but an appendage.” Among other noted scholars of the same opinion are Tregelles, Tischendorf, Griesbach, Metzger, and Comfort, to mention just a few.
Adding weight to this evidence of the Greek manuscripts, versions and church fathers are the church historian Eusebius and the Bible translator, Jerome. Eusebius wrote that the longer ending was not in the “accurate copies,” for “at this point [verse 8] the end of the Gospel according to Mark is determined in nearly all the copies of the Gospel according to Mark.” In addition, Jerome, writing about 407 C.E. said, “nearly all Greek MSS have not got this passage.”
The vocabulary and style of Mark 16:9-20 vary so drastically from the Gospel of Mark that it scarcely seems possible that Mark himself wrote those verses. Mark’s style is plain, direct; his paragraphs are short, and the transitions are simple. However, in this ending, there is a well-arranged succession of statements, each of them having proper introductory expressions.
Then there is the consideration of the vocabulary of Mark. Verses 9 through 20 contain words that do not appear elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, and some that do not appear in any of the Gospels, and some still that do not appear in the whole of the Greek New Testament. Verses 9 through 20 contain 163 Greek words, of which, 19 words, 2 phrases do not occur elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark. Looking at it another way, in these 12 verses there are 109 different words, and, of these, 11 words and 2 phrases are exclusive to these 12 verses. Moreover, the doctrinal thesis of Joseph Hug showed that when compared with the vocabulary of the other Gospels, the Apostolic Fathers, and the apocryphal literature, you have 12 verses in “an advanced state of tradition.” The note at the end of Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament, where I found a summary of Hug’s thesis, states:
The vocabulary suggests that the composition of the ending is appropriately located at the end of the first century or in the middle of the second century. Those who were responsible for adding the verses were intent, not only to supply a suitable ending for the Second Gospel, but also to provide missionary instruction to a Christian Hellenistic community that participated in charismatic activities… (Metzger 1964, 1968, 1992, 297)
The content of these verses also removes them from being considered as original. There is nothing within the whole of the New Testament, which would support the contention in verse 18 that the disciples of Christ were able to drink poison, having no harm come to them. In addition, within this spurious text, you have eleven apostles refusing to believe the testimony of two disciples whom Jesus had come across on the way and to whom he made himself known. However, when the two disciples found the eleven, their reaction was quite different, stating, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Luke 24:13-35
In summary, Mark 16:9-20 (1) is not found in two of the oldest and most highly regarded Greek manuscripts as well as others. (2) They are also not found in many of the oldest versions. (3) The early church fathers had no knowledge of anything beyond verse eight. (4) Such ancient scholars as Eusebius and Jerome marked them spurious. (5) The style of these verses is utterly different from that of Mark. (6) The vocabulary used in these verses is different from that of Mark. (7) Verse 8 does not transition well with verse 9, jumping from the women disciples to Jesus’ resurrection appearance. Jesus does not need to appear because Mark ended with the announcement that he had. We only want that because the other Gospels give us an appearance. So we expect it. (8) The very content of these verses contradicts the facts and the rest of the Greek New Testament. With the textual scholarship, being very well aware of Mark’s abrupt style of writing, and abrupt ending to his Gospel does not seem out of place. Eusebius and Jerome, as well as this writer, agree.
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Evaluation of Textual Variants
With this abundance of evidence, what can we say about the total number of variants known today? Scholars differ significantly in their estimates–some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Misquoting Jesus by atheist Bible scholar Bart D. Ehrman (pp. 89-90)
Agnostic Bible scholar Ehrman has some favorite layman ways of expressing the problems that he uses without qualification, in every interview this author has seen of him before a lay audience (which includes seminary students), he presents one or more of his favorites, without qualifying them:
- Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more!
- There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
- We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.
- We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.
- In the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs and as such were more inclined to alter the texts they copied.
- We could go on nearly forever talking about specific places in which the texts of the New Testament came to be changed, either accidentally or intentionally.
- The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book.
It is true that Ehrman has said that, ‘the majority of the manuscript variants are not substantial.’ However, from this author’s observation, this comes when he is in front of scholars who would know otherwise. I would argue that in the larger number of cases he is focusing the laypersons on a large number of variants and they’re being substantial. Each of the above favorite snippets by Ehrman left unexplained are an exaggeration, misinformation, misleading, and just a failure to be truthful. Many layperson-churchgoers have been spiritually shipwrecked in their faith by such unexplained hype. What the uninformed person hears is that we can never get back to the originals or even close, that there are hundreds of thousands of significant variants that have so scarred the text, we no longer have the Word of God, and it is merely the word of man. How such a knowledgeable man cannot know the impact his words are having is beyond this writer.
Some Bible critics seem to start with the belief that if the originals were inspired of God and fully inerrant, it must remain that way, in order to remain inerrant. They seem to be asking, ‘if only the originals were inspired, and the copies were not inspired, and we do not have the originals, how are we to be certain of any passage in Scripture?’ In other words, God would never allow the inspired, inerrant Word to suffer copying errors. Why would he perform the miracle of inspiring the message to be fully inerrant, and not follow up with the miracle of inspiring the copyist, to keep it inerrant? First, we must note that God has not given us the specifics of every decision he has made in reference to humans. If we start the, ‘why did God not do this or do that,’ where would it end? For example, why did God just not produce the books himself, and miraculously deliver them to persons such as Moses? Why did he not use angelic messengers to pen the message, or produce the message miraculously? God has chosen not to tell us why he did not inspire the copies, so it remains an unknown. However, it should be noted that if one can restore the text to its original wording through the science of textual criticism, to an exact representation thereof, you have, in essence, a reproduction of the originals.
In the end, what we do know is that the Jewish copyists and later Christian copyists were not infallible like the original writers. The original writers were inspired by “Holy Spirit,” while the copyists were guided by “Holy Spirit.” However, do we not have a treasure-load of evidence from centuries of copies? Regardless of the recopying, do we not have the Bible in a reliable critical text and trustworthy translations, with both improving all the time? It was only inevitable that imperfect copyists, who were not under inspiration, would have errors creep into the text. However, the thousands of copies that we do have, these enable the textual scholars to trace these errors. How? Different copyists made different errors. Therefore, the textual scholar compares the work of different copyists. He is then able to identify their mistakes.
A Simple Example
What if 100 persons were asked or hired to make a handwritten copy of Matthew’s Gospel, with 18,345 words. These persons making our handwritten copy, fit in one of four categories as writers: (1) struggles to write, and has no experience as a document maker, (2) a skilled document maker [recorder of events, wills, business, certificates, etc.], (3) a trained copyist of literature, and (4) the professional copyist. There is little doubt that these copyists would make some copying errors, even the professional. However, it would be impossible that they would all make the same errors. If a trained textual scholar with many years of religious education, including textual studies, and decades of experience, were to compare these 100 documents carefully, he could determine which are erroneous, and restore the text to its original form, even if he had never seen that original.
The textual scholars of the last 250 years, especially the last 70 years have had over 5,800 Greek manuscripts at their disposal. A number of these dating to the second and third centuries C.E. Some of these textual scholars were/are very skilled in their field of expertise. Moreover, if we took the time to study the life of any of the hundreds that have lived throughout this era, it would impress on us that we have nothing short of a mirror reflection of the original in our current critical text, which is, in essence, an exact representation. However, even an exact representation is not 100 percent like the original. Yet, it is the next best thing. Moreover, more manuscripts are always becoming known; technology is ever advancing, and improvements are always being made.
Hundreds of scholars throughout the last three centuries have produced what we might call a master text, by way of lifetimes of hard work and careful study. Are there a few places where we are not 100 percent certain? Yes, of course. However, we are considering merely a handful of locations in the text of the Greek NT that contains about 138,020 words, which would be considered difficult in arriving at what the original reading was. In addition, in these places, the alternative reading is in the footnote. Bible critics, who over exaggerate the errors within our extant copies is a bit misplaced, and certainly misleading indeed, because we have some manuscripts that were copied by professional copyists that are just the opposite, almost error free. The Bible critics are misleading us on two fronts. First, some copies are almost error free and negate the Bible critics, who claim, “We have only error-ridden copies.” (Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why 2005, 7) Second, the vast majority of the Greek New Testament has no scribal errors. Third, textual scholarship can easily identify and correct the majority of the scribal errors. In addition, of the remaining errors, we can say most of them are solved with certainty. Of the tiny number of scribal errors left, we can say most of them are solved with some difficulty, and there are just a minuscule amount of errors that textual scholarship is uncertain about the original reading, at this time.
400,000 to 500,000 Variants in the Manuscripts
With this abundance of evidence, what can we say about the total number of variants known today? Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
Ehrman has some favorite nonprofessional ways of expressing the problems, which he stresses without qualification, in every interview he has had for a lay audience (which includes seminary students). Below are several of his favorites:
- Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more!
- There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
- We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.
- We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.
- In the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs and as such were more inclined to alter the texts they copied.
- We could go on nearly forever talking about specific places in which the texts of the New Testament came to be changed, either accidentally or intentionally.
- The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book.
While Dr. Bart D. Ehrman openly admits that, the majority of the manuscript variants are not substantial. However, it seems this comes, when he is in front of scholars, who would know otherwise. It appears that, in the larger number of cases, Ehrman is focusing the laypersons on a large number of variants and there being substantial. Each of the above favorite snippets by Ehrman left unexplained are an exaggeration, misinformation, misleading, and just a failure to be truthful. Many layperson-churchgoers have been spiritually shipwrecked in their faith by such unexplained hype. What the uninformed person hears is that we can never get back to the originals or even close, that there are hundreds of thousands of significant variants that have so scarred the text, we no longer have the Word of God, and it is merely the word of man. How such a knowledgeable man cannot know the impact, his words is having is beyond this author.
Miscounting Textual Variants
In 1963, Neil R. Lightfoot penned a book that has served to help over a million readers, How We Got the Bible. It has been updated two times since 1963, once in 1988, and another in 2003. There is a “miscalculation” in the book, which has contributed to a misunderstanding in how textual variants are counted. In fact, there are several other books repeating it in their works. A leading textual scholar Daniel B. Wallace has brought this to our attention in an article entitled The Number of Textual Variants an Evangelical Miscalculation. A world-renowned Bible apologist Norma L. Geisler repeated it as well.
Dr. Norman L. Geisler writes,
Some have estimated there are about 200,000 of them. First of all, these are not “errors” but variant readings, the vast majority of which are strictly grammatical. Second, these readings are spread throughout more than 5300 manuscripts, so that a variant spelling of one letter of one word in one verse in 2000 manuscripts is counted as 2000 “errors.”―Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, by Norm Geisler (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; p. 532)
Dr. Neil R. Lightfoot writes,
From one point of view, it may be said that there are 200,000 scribal errors in the manuscripts. Indeed, the number may well considerably exceed this and obviously will grow, as more and more manuscripts become known. However, it is wholly misleading and untrue to say that there are 200,000 errors in the text of the New Testament. (Actually, textual critics consciously avoid the word “error;” they prefer to speak of “textual variants.”) This large number is gained by counting all the variations in all of the manuscripts (over 5,800). This means that if, for example, one word is misspelled in 4,000 different manuscripts, and it amounts to 4,000 “errors.” Actually in a case of this kind only one slight error has been made and it has been copied 4,000 times. But this is the procedure which is followed in arriving at the large number of 200,000 “errors.”―How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003; p). Lightfoot says (53-54)
Dr. Daniel Wallace made this observation in his article,
In other words, Lightfoot was claiming that textual variants are counted by the number of manuscripts that support such variants, rather than by the wording of the variants. This book has been widely influential in evangelical circles. I believe over a million copies of it have been sold. And this particular definition of textual variants has found its way into countless apologetic works.” He goes on to clarify just what a textual variant is, “The problem is, the definition is wrong. Terribly wrong. A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text. No textual critic defines a textual variant the way that Lightfoot and those who have followed him have done.
Lightfoot erred in that he was counting the manuscripts, not the variants. Let me offer the reader a fictional, but true like example. In other words, it is a true textual problem, but I am adjusting it to suit our purposes. First, let us observe a few important points.
Important Point: We have so many variants because we have so many manuscripts.
Variant Rule: We do not count the manuscripts. We count the variants.
Variant: “A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text.” – Daniel Wallace
Important Point: In addition, it should be noted that, generally speaking, in most instances there are usually hundreds of manuscripts for a single reading, with the rest split in various directions.
We begin by choosing our ‘standard text.’ We are using the standard text (critical or master text), Nestle-Aland (NA) Greek Text (28th edition) and the United Bible Society (UBS) Greek Text (5th edition). Those two critical texts are the same.
Note: When one uses the acronym NU, the N stands for the Nestle-Aland, the U for the United Bible Society, since the texts in both are the same. The apparatuses are different.
The critical text is as close as we can get to what the original would have been like. Therefore, we can use the reading in the critical text as the original reading, and anything outside of that in the manuscript history is a variant: ‘spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text.’
Before going to our example, let it be said that, Bible critics, who grumble, dwell on, repeat over and over again how there are 400,000 variants in the text of the New Testament, have only one agenda. They wish to discredit the Word of God; using this misrepresented excuse for their having lost their faith, having shipwrecked their faith, or having had no faith from the start. These Bible critics are no different from those religious leaders Jesus dealt with in the first century. Jesus said of them, “Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, yet gulp down a camel!” (Matt. 23:24) These Bible critics thrust aside 99.95 percent because 0.05 of one per cent is in not absolutely certain! Now, our example comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
Example of a Textual Variant
Colossians 2:2 Updated American Standard Version
2 that their hearts may be comforted, having been knit together in love, and into all riches of the full assurance of understanding, and that they may have a complete knowledge of the mystery of God, namely Christ [tou theou Christou], – See the chart on below.
|Variants||Variant||MSS or Versions|
|NU||of the God of Christ||Standard Text|
|01||of the God||10 MSS|
|02||of the Christ||01 MS|
|03||of the God who is Christ||04 MSS|
|04||of the God who is concerning Christ||02 MSS|
|05||Of the God in the Christ||02 MSS|
|06||of the God in the Christ Jesus||01 MS|
|07||of the God and Christ||01 MS|
|08||Of God the father Christ||04 MSS|
|09||Of God the father of Christ||05 MSS|
|10||Of God and Father of Christ||02 MSS|
|11||Of God father and of Christ||04 MSS|
|12||Of God father and of Christ Jesus||03 MSS|
|13||Of God father and of Lord of us Christ Jesus||02 MSS|
|14||Of God and father and of Christ||38 MSS|
|Total 14||14 Variants in 79 MSS||79 MSS|
These variants are found in 79 MSS. Thus, we have 14 variants in 79 manuscripts, not 79 variants. We do not count manuscripts, as many textual scholars know. In trying to paint a picture about the trustworthiness of the text, this author does not think talking about variants is really helpful, and can confuse the layperson. It is important for the churchgoer to know what a variant is, the extent of the variants but in the long run, it is the places in the text that are affected by a variant, which is more conducive to getting at, what can we get back to, and what do we have in the end.
The United Bible Society’s “A” “B” “C” and “D” ratings are fine and the definitions by UBS, i.e., [A] certain, [B] almost certain, [C] difficulty in deciding, and [D] great difficulty in arriving at, are a great start but should be better qualified, with some numbers of what percentage of the text, places, fall under each area.
All Variant Places
What we need to talk about is how many places are there where we find variants. What percentage is this of the entire New Testament text?
We can then talk about
- How much of a percentage of a text is untouched by variants
- Of the percentage affected, how much can we say is an “A” Rating
- Of the percentage affected, how much can we say is an “B” Rating
- Of the percentage affected, how much can we say is an “C” Rating
- Of the percentage affected, how much can we say is an “D” Rating
Bruce M. Metzger’s general statement about “D” occurring “only rarely” makes more sense to a reader if we have how many times sitting alongside how many verses and words we have. Then, when we consider the lifetime work of hundreds of textual scholars since Griesbach up unto the present, it does not bother this author that those learned men are making the choice of the reading for the “D” level, knowing too that the best alternative readings are in a footnote as well. 
For a far more detailed faith-building article on this subject see
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 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.
 This apostasy and divisiveness did not just come into the Christian congregation out of nowhere. It started developing in the first-century, but was restrained by apostolic authority.
 Macquarie University, Ancient History Documentary Research Center (AHDRC), Papyri from the Rise of Christianity in Egypt (PCE),
 Philip W. Comfort, The Quest for the Original Text of the New Testament (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1992).
 Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 583–586.
 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1:1 (NASB) 1 Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians …
2 Corinthians 1:1 (NASB) 1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth …
Philippians 1:1 (NASB) 1 Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi …
Colossians 1:1 (NASB) 1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, …
Philemon 1 (NASB) 1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon …
 Allen Black and Mark C. Black, 1 & 2 Peter, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub., 1998), 2 Pe 3:16.
 1 Clem. First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians
 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.
 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.
 Harry Gamble, “The Redaction of the Pauline Letters and the Formation of the Pauline Corpus,” JBL 94 (1971) 403–18.
 Mary Lucetta Mowry, “The Early Circulation of Paul’s Letters,” JBL 63 (1944) 73–86.
 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.
 Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Hebrews to Revelation., vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 153.
 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.
 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.
 Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 272–273.
 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.
 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.
 1 Tim. 2:2
 Rom. 13:7, 8
 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.
 These men may have been deacons but, apart from their joint martyrdom with Felix, their identities are unknown at the time of this writing.
 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.
 This is not to say that no manuscripts survived the persecution in Alexandria, it is possible that some got through the flames.
 Craig A. Evans (2012-03-16). Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Kindle Locations 1403-1406). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
 Exler, Form. P. 126, warns “The papyri discovered in Egypt have shown that the art of writing was more widely, and more popularly, known in the past, than some scholars have been inclined to think.” For example, see PZen. 6, 66, POxy. 113,294, 394, 528, 530, 531 and especially 3057.
 (Richards, Paul And First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection 2004, 28)
 (Richards, Paul And First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection 2004, 28)
 “Throughout the Hellenistic and Roman world the distinction prevailed in that there were educated people who were proficient readers and writers, less educated ones who could read but hardly write, some who were readers alone, some of them only able to read slowly or with difficulty and some who were illiterate.”–Millard, Alan Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), p. 154
 Exler, Form. P. 126 warns, “The papyri discovered in Egypt have shown that the art of writing was more widely, and more popularly, known in the past, than some scholars have been inclined to think.” For example, see PZen. 6, 66, POxy. 113,294, 394, 528, 530, 531 and especially 3057.
 Cornelius was a centurion, an army officer in charge of a unit of foot soldiers, i.e., in command of 100 soldiers of the Italian band.
 I.e. on your forehead
 The Mishnah was the primary body of Jewish civil and religious law, forming the first part of the Talmud.
 Mishnah Yoma 8:4
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), Lk 2:48.
 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 308.
 (Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence 2012)
 Gamaliel was a Pharisee and a leading authority in the Sanhedrin, as well as a teacher of the law, of which Acts says, Paul was “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers.” (Ac 22:3)
 (Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence 2012)
 This Celsus was a second-century Greek philosopher and opponent of Early Christianity, who should not be confused with the previously mentioned Celsus, Roman Senator Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus.
 The History of the Christian Religion and Church, During the Three First Centuries, by Augustus Neander; translated from the German by Henry John Rose, 1848, p. 41
 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.”
 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan Publishing House and Galaxie Software, 1999; 2002), 29-30.
 The symbol “P” stands for “Papyrus.”
 The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.
 Köstenberger, Andreas (2002-02-01). Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (Encountering Biblical Studies) (Kindle Locations 4558-4562). Baker Academic.
 Briefly stated, textual criticism is the science and art that seeks to determine the most reliable wording of a text.* It is a science because specific rules govern the evaluation of various types of copyist errors and readings, but it is also an art because these rules cannot rigidly be applied in every situation. Intuition and common sense must guide the process of determining the most plausible reading. Informed judgments about a text depend on one’s familiarity with the types of copyist errors, manuscripts, versions and their authors. It is a complex process with few shortcuts, but one that can be learned through systematic effort. (Wegner 2006, p. 24)
* See P. Kyle McCarter, Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible, GBS:OTS (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), p. 18.
 Leading textual scholar Daniel Wallace tells us, after looking at all of the evidence, the % of instances where reading is uncertain and a well-attested alternative reading could change the meaning of the verse is a quarter one percent, i.e., 0.0025%
 J.D. Douglas, “Erasmus, Desiderius,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 234.
 Bruce Manning Metzger and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), xxii.
 Bruce Manning Metzger, THE TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Third Enlarged Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 106.
 Epp, “Textual Criticism,” 6:429.
 Novum Testamentum Graece is the Latin name of the original Greek-language version of the New Testament.
 Merriam-Webster, Inc: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Eleventh ed. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003: variant ver-ē-ənt adj varying usu. slightly from the standard form 〈variant readings〉〈variant spellings〉
 (B. D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why 2005, 89-90)
 When the term “layperson” is used here, it also includes seminary students, who may even have a 93-hour M.Div., as textual criticism is almost never a part of the curriculum.
 While it is true that some scholars, like Philip Comfort, argue that, the NU could be improved upon, because in many cases it is too dependent on internal evidence, when the documentary evidence should be more of a consideration as to the weightiness of the matter. It should be pointed out, this is in only a handful of places, when one considers 138,020 words in the Greek New Testament, and it is hardly consequential. I would also mention that this writer would agree with Comfort in the matter of giving more weight to the documentary evidence.
 Epignosis is a strengthened or intensified form of gnosis (epi, meaning “additional”), meaning, “true,” “real,” “full,” “complete” or “accurate,” depending upon the context. Paul and Peter alone use epignosis.
 NU is an acronym for two critical manuscripts: (1) Nestle-Aland Greek Text (28th ed.) and (2) United Bible Societies Greek Text (5th ed.)
 This is only a partial list of the manuscripts, as we are just offering an example, to see how we count the variants. In addition, it should be noted that, generally speaking, most places there are usually hundreds of MSS for a single reading, with the rest split in various directions.
 Bruce Manning Metzger and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), XXIX.
 Dr. Danial Wallace’s insight have added to the above discussion:
The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation, http://danielbwallace.com/2013/09/09/the-number-of-textual-variants-an-evangelic (accessed September 10, 2015).