How Did the New Testament Come Down to Us?


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

We have a young man who has been on the run from the Catholic Church for many years, all the while working as a printer and a translator of the English Bible. Many times, there was a pounding at the door, only to find that this translator and his apprentice has left moments earlier. The Catholic Church viewed the Bible in the language of the common people as illegal literature, because the people were too illiterate to understand the Word of God.[1] The Bible had been locked up in the dead language of Latin for almost a thousand years. Who was the translator? He was William Tyndale, i.e., “God’s Outlaw,” who had been pursued by the false friend of the Catholic Church, as though he were the worst criminal on the planet in the early 16th-century. While King James is credited with the most popular Bible that has ever been published, it was actually William Tyndale who should be credited, because the 1611 King James Version was 97 percent Tyndale’s English translation. The Word of God has had many enemies since the first book, Genesis, was published, some 3,500 years ago.

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

Ancient Copyists and Translators

When we think of Jesus, most are not aware that he referenced over 120 Old Testament Scriptures in the Gospels that have come down to us. (Matt 4:4; 5:18; Lu 24:44; John 5:39) If one were to read all that Jesus said, just in the gospels, it would come to about a three-hour lecture. If a pastor gave a three-hour lecture today, with over 120 Scriptural references in it, we would view it as biblical in the extreme. The New Testament authors, Jesus disciples, followed his example, as there are 320 direct quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures in their books. Westcott and Hort list a combined total of quotations and references at some 890. Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:15-17

None of this would have been possible if it were not for 1,500 years of copying the Old Testament books prior to the arrival of Jesus. We are fortunate that many of the caretakers of the Hebrew Old Testament were like ‘Ezra, a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses,’ who was a priest, as well as “the scribe of the Law of the God.” (Ezra 7:6, 11-12) However, after the days of Ezra, who had penned several Bible books himself in the late 5th-century B.C.E., an unexpected need arose.

In the fourth-century B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered the then known world, and in time, the people adopted Greek as a common language between speakers whose native languages were different. The four dialects of Greek became just one, Koine Greek, i.e., common Greek, the universal language throughout the Middle East. The Jews were spread all throughout the then known world, facing the threat of having their children not know the Scriptures, they gather Hebrew scholars into Alexandria, Egypt, tasking them with making the first translation, from Hebrew into Koine Greek. It became known as the Septuagint (Latin for seventy), a Greek translation began in about 280 B.C.E. and was not completed until about 150 B.C.E.

While the Jews in Palestine still spoke Hebrew in Jesus’ day, the common language was Koine Greek. Therefore, other than Matthew initially penning his Gospel in Hebrew (Later translating it to Greek), the twenty-seven New Testament books were written in Koine Greek. Moreover, most of those 890 quotes and references from the Old Testament came from the Septuagint.

In fact, the Septuagint was view as inspired by the Jewish scholars, up until it became the tool used by the Christian to show that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Jews and Christians became ardent enemies, and they did whatever they could to differentiate themselves from one another. Therefore, the Jews published a new Greek translation of the Old Testament, adjusting proof texts that the Christians used to establish that Jesus was the foretold Messiah. For example, the Septuagint translators of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek used parthenos at Isaiah 7:14. Matthew under inspiration used the Greek parthenos (virgin)[2] when showing that Isaiah 7:14 found final application in connection with the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. The new Greek translation of the Old Testament by the Jews used a different Greek word, which means “young woman.” However, the effectiveness of the Christians with the Septuagint eventually angered the Jews to no end, so they rejected all Greek translations and returned to Hebrew. In the end, this was a good thing, as it revived the Hebrew language and kept it alive.


The Early Christian Copyists

Papyrus is writing material used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans that was made from the pith of the stem of a water plant. It was cut in strips, with one layer being laid out horizontally and the other vertically. Scholarship has suggested that paste may have been used between layers as a type of adhesive, placing a large stone placed on top until dry, creating a sheet of papyrus paper between 6–9 inches in width and 12–15 inches long. These sheets would then be glued from end to end until they had enough length to copy the book they were working on. The writing was done only on the horizontal side, and it was rolled so that the writing would be on the inside. As you can visualize, there would be great difficulty if one were to attempt writing across the vertical side because of the fibers of the papyrus. The scribe or copyist would have used a reed pen to write on the papyrus sheets. (3 John 13) The papyrus plant was the main product used to receive writing until about 300 C.E. It was used with the roll, as well as the codex form.

With an introductory book on New Testament textual criticism, the Bible student will discover that the early papyrus manuscripts, such as P45, P46, P47, P52, P66, P73 and P75 (to mention just a few, all date before 300 C.E., from as early as 110 C.E. On the other hand, the manuscripts, like codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus from about 350 C.E. were made with parchment, a creamy or yellowish material made from dried and treated sheepskin, goatskin, or other animal hide.

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

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

From an Oral Gospel to the Written Record

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

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

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

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

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

From Pentecost 33 C.E. up unto the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 C.E., all of the books of the Greek New Testament were written, with the exception of those penned by the apostle John. Reliable history of Christianity has the Gospel of Matthew being penned first, in about 41 C.E., with the Gospel of Luke coming about 56-58 C.E., and the Gospel of Mark between 60 to 65 C.E. These are known as the synoptic Gospels, as they are similar in content, while the Gospel of John chose to convey other information, being that he wrote his gospel to the second generation of Christian in about 98 C.E. Luke informs us of just how the very first Christians received the gospel message. Very few translations make explicit the exact process.

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

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things accurately from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know fully the certainty of the things that you have been taught orally [katechethes].

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

24 Now a certain Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, an eloquent man, arrived in Ephesus; and he was well versed in the Scriptures. 25 This man had been orally [katechethes] instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John;

Galatians 6:6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

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

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


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

  • the inspired author would have used a well trusted, skilled Christian scribe, to take down what they had to say, by shorthand;
  • the scribe would then make a rough draft;
  • which would then be read by both the scribe and author, making corrections;
  • thereafter, the scribe would make what is known as the authorized text, to be signed by the author;
  • which would then be used to make other copies.

Romans 16:22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

22 I, Tertius, who write this letter, greet you in the Lord.

1 Corinthians 16:21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

21 The greeting is in my own hand, Paul.

Colossians 4:17 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my prison bonds. Grace be with you.

2 Thessalonians 3:17 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

 The greeting is by my hand, Paul’s,[4] which is a sign in every letter; this is the way I write.

1 Peter 5:12 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

12 By Silvanus, our faithful brother (as I regard him), I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it!

Both Tertius and Silvanus were skilled Christian scribes, who assisted the writers of the New Testament. It is unlikely that Paul literally penned any of his letters that were of great length. It is clear that Peter used the trained Silvanus to pen his first letter, and like the second letter was the result of Jude’s penman skills, as it is very similar in style to the letter by Jude. This may explain the differences in style between First and Second Peter. As an aside, it is very likely that the inspired author would give some latitude to their skilled Christian scribe and coauthor, as to word choices. While we know that Mark was the author of his gospel, it is likely that he wrote as Peter spoke. It is Silvanus (Silas), who penned the letter from the elders in Jerusalem, to the congregation in Antioch, which we find in Acts chapter 15.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

Papyrus or Parchment

The Hebrew Old Testament that would have been available to the early Christians was written on the processed hide of animals with the hair removed and smoothed out with a pumice stone.[5] It was leather scrolls that were sent to Alexandria, Egypt in about 280 B.C.E., to make what we now know as the Greek Septuagint.[6] Most of the Dead Sea scrolls that were discovered between 1947 and 1956 are made of leather, and it is almost certain that the scroll of Isaiah that Jesus read from in the synagogue was as well.

Luke 4:17 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

17 And the scroll[7] of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. And he unrolled the scroll[8] and found the place where it was written,

The oldest extant leather scrolls date to about 1500 before Jesus was born. Both leather and papyrus were used down to the first century Christians. Vellum is a high-quality parchment made from calfskin, kidskin, or lambskin. After the skin was removed, it would be soaked in limewater, after which the hair would be scraped off, the skin after that being scraped and dried, being rubbed afterward with chalk and pumice stone, creating a fine smooth writing material. During the first three hundred years of Christianity, the secular world viewed parchment as being inferior to papyrus, it being relegated to notebooks, rough drafts, and other non-literary purposes.

A couple of myths should be dispelled before moving on. It is often repeated that papyrus is not a durable material. Both papyrus and parchment are durable under normal circumstances. Another often repeated thought is that papyrus was fragile and brittle, making it an unlikely candidate to be used for a codex,[9] which would have to be folded in half. Another argument that should be sidelined is asking which was more expensive to produce, papyrus or parchment. Presently there is no data to aid in that evaluation. We know that papyrus was used for all of the Christian codex manuscripts up to the fourth century, at which time you find the two great parchment codices, the Sinaiticus, and the Vaticanus manuscripts. Parchment of good quality has been called “the finest writing material ever devised by man.” (Roberts and Skeat, The Birth of the Codex 1987, 8) Why then did parchment take so long to replace papyrus? This may be answered by some quotations from R. Reed, Ancient Skins, Parchments, and Leathers:

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

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

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

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

The Christian Codex

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

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

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

13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left behind in Troas with Carpus, and the scrolls,[10] especially the parchments.[11] [membranai, parchment notebooks]

However, it should be recognized that the parchment notebook was not used for literature in the first two centuries before the Christian era (B.C.E.), this went on the roll or scroll. Even though the codex was commonly used for books, the first indication that it was going to displace the roll came toward the end of the first century C.E.  (Roberts and Skeat, The Birth of the Codex 1987, 24) Thus, again, the Jews of the late first century C.E. and thereafter, used scrolls, while the Christians, on the other hand, used codices. One must consider that many of the first Christians were Jewish and likely read their Old Testament from a scroll. Before becoming a Christian, the apostle Paul was a Pharisee and would have use scrolls. However, he also made a transition to the codex after his conversion to Christianity.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Were the Early Copyist Trained?

The long-held perception that the early scribes/copyists were amateurs is mistaken. We will delve into this more deeply below, by addressing the complaints of the biggest Bible critic today. For now, let it be known that 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,[13] from the days of Pentecost onward, Jewish or Jewish proselyte Christians returned to Egypt with the good news of Christ. (Acts 2:10) Three years thereafter, 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 over 20,000 miles throughout the Roman Empire establishing congregations. The apostles were a restraint to the apostasy and division within the whole of the 1st-century Christian congregation. (2 Thessalonians 2:6, 7; 1 John 2:18) It was not until the 2nd century that the next generation of religious leaders gradually moved left of center. Conservative Christianity was strong and centered 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.[14] (Acts 11:19, ESV) “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.” While this indicates a traveling north to Antioch, it does not negate a traveling south to Egypt. Antioch is obviously mentioned because it played the major role as a commencement for 1st century Christianity, especially 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 1st 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 really put this religious, educational institution on the map as the possible center for the whole of the Christian congregation 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.

What does all of this mean? Of course, we cannot know absolutely, but textual scholars Philip W. Comfort,[15] Larry W. Hurtado,[16] and Eldon Jay Epp believe that the very early Alexandrian manuscripts that we now possess are a reflection of what would have been found throughout the whole of the Greco-Roman Empire from about 85–275 C.E. In other words, if we were to discover early manuscripts from other regions (Rome, Greece, Asia, and Palestine), they would be very similar to the early Alexandrian manuscripts. This means that these early papyri are the means of establishing the original text, and we are in a far better position today than we were in Westcott and Hort’s day.

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

For example, two scholars, using this principle to examine the same variant, may not agree. One might argue that the variant was produced by a copyist attempting to emulate the author’s style; the other could claim the same variant has to be original because it accords with the author’s style. Or, one might argue that a variant was produced by an orthodox scribe attempting to rid the text of a reading that could be used to promote heterodoxy or heresy; another might claim that the same variant has to be original because it is orthodox and accords with Christian doctrine (thus a heterodoxical or heretical scribe must have changed it). Furthermore, this principle allows for the possibility that the reading selected for the text can be taken from any manuscript of any date. This can lead to subjective eclecticism.[17]

Either reasoned eclecticism or the local-genealogical method[18] will lean more heavily on internal evidence, setting off external evidence as being of less importance. However, as Ernest Colwell suggested in 1968, we need to get back to the principles of Westcott and Hort. Hort wrote in his 1882 Introduction: “Documentary attestation has been in most cases allowed to confer the place of honour as against internal evidence.”[19]


The trustworthiness of Early Copyists

It has become common to suggest that the earliest copyists were of two sorts: (1) semi-literate and unskilled in the work of making copies; (2) feeling the end was nigh and therefore taking liberties with the text in an attempt to strengthen orthodoxy. The former would undoubtedly lead to many unintentional changes, while the latter would certainly escalate intentional changes. J. Harold Greenlee had this to say:

In the very early period, the NT writings were more nearly “private” writings than the classics . . . the classics were commonly—although not always—copied by professional scribes, the NT books were probably usually copied in the early period by Christians who were not professionally trained for the task, and no corrector was employed to check the copyist’s work against his exemplar (the MS from which the copy was made). . . . It appears that copyist sometimes even took liberty to add or change minor details in the narrative books on the basis of personal knowledge, alternative tradition, or a parallel account in another book of the Bible. . . . At the same time, the importance of these factors in affecting the purity of the NT text must not be exaggerated. The NT books doubtless came to be considered as “literature” soon after they began to be circulated, with attention to the precise wording required when copies were made.[20]

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

The New Testament, on the other hand, was probably copied during the earliest period mostly by ordinary Christians who were not professional scribes but who wanted a copy of the New Testament book or books for themselves or for other Christians.[21]

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

The early Christians, a poor, scattered, often illiterate body, looking for the return of the Lord at no distant date, were not likely to care sedulously for minute accuracy of transcription or to preserve their books religiously for the benefit of posterity.[22]

The first papyri discovered showed this to be the case. However, as more papyri came to light, it proved to be just the opposite, prompting Sir Frederic Kenyon to write:

We must be content to know that the general authenticity of the New Testament text has been remarkably supported by the modern discoveries which have so greatly reduced the interval between the original autographs and our earliest extant manuscripts, and that the differences of reading, interesting as they are, do not affect the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.[23]

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


The writers of the 27 books comprising the Christian Greek Scriptures were Jews.[24] (Romans 13:1-2) These men were either an apostle, intimate traveling companions of the apostles, or picked by Christ in a supernatural way, such as the apostle Paul. Being Jewish, they would have viewed the Old Testament as being the inspired, inerrant Word of God. When Paul said that “all Scripture is inspired of God,” he was likely referring to the Septuagint as well as the Hebrew Old Testament. These writers of the 27 New Testament books would have viewed the teachings of Jesus, or their books expounding on his teachings, as Scripture as well as the Old Testament. The teachings of Jesus came to most of these New Testament writers personally from Jesus, being taught orally; thereafter, they would be the ones who published what Jesus had said and taught orally. When it came time to be published in written form, it should be remembered that Jesus had promised them: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. John 14:26, ESV.

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

With the exception of Matthew, all writers of the New Testament published their books in koinē, the common Greek of the day. Matthew initially published his Gospel in Hebrew, and shortly thereafter in koinē Greek. In his, work concerning Illustrious Men, chapter III, Jerome says: “Matthew, who is also Levi, and who from a publican came to be an apostle, first of all composed a Gospel of Christ in Judaea in the Hebrew language and characters for the benefit of those of the circumcision who had believed.”[25] Early in the 3rd century, Origen, in discussing the Gospels, is quoted by Eusebius as saying that the “first was written . . . according to Matthew, . . . who published it for those who from Judaism came to believe, composed as it was in the Hebrew language.”[26] Initially, the primary focus of the first seven years of Christianity was to bring in fellow Jews; thereafter, the Gentile population became more the target audience. Therefore, we see that Matthew’s publishing of his Gospel in two languages was simply responding to two audience needs.


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

As recorded by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3:24:5–7), Irenaeus tells us that Mark and Luke “published their Gospels” using the Greek word ekdosis, the standard term for the public dissemination of any writing. Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3:1:1) also said, “John, the disciple of the Lord, he who had leaned on his breast, also published [ekdoke] the Gospel, while living at Ephesus in Asia.” For John to publish his Gospel means that he (with the help of the Johannine community) made a distribution of multiple copies of his Gospel.[27]

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

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

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


Blinded by Misguided Perceptions

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

Ehrman has been so busy over exaggerating the negative to his readers; he has failed to mention what we do have. Dr. Mark Minnick assesses what we do have quite nicely, “Doesn’t the existence of these variants undermine our confidence that we have the very words of God inspired? No! The fact is that because we know of them and are careful to preserve the readings of every one of them, not one word of God’s word has been lost to us.”[28] The wealth of manuscripts that we have for establishing the original Greek New Testament is shameless, in comparison to other ancient literature. We can only wonder what Ehrman does with an ancient piece of literature that has only one copy, and that copy is hundreds or even thousands of years removed from the time of the original.

Tacitus (56 – 117 C.E.) was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. His work is only known in 3 manuscripts, with the earliest copy being around 1100 C.E., 1000 years removed. Thucydides (460 – 395 B.C.E.) was a Greek historian and author from Alimos. His work is only known in 20 manuscripts, with the earliest copy being around 900 C.E., 1300 years removed. Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria. His work is only known in 75 manuscripts, with the earliest copy being around 50 to 100 C.E., 400 years removed. Plato (424/423 – 348/347 B.C.E.), was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates. His work is only known in 7 manuscripts, with the earliest copy being around 900 C.E., 1200 years removed.

The Greek New Testament evidence is over 5,800 Greek manuscripts, over 9,284 versions, and over 10,000 Latin manuscripts, not to mention an innumerable amount of church father quotations. This places the Greek New Testament in a world of its own, because no other ancient document is close to this, except the Hebrew Old Testament. However, there is even more. There are over 100 papyri manuscripts that date to the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. Moreover, these early papyri manuscripts are from a region in Egypt that appreciated books as literature, and was copied by semiprofessional and professional scribes, or at least a highly skilled copyist. This region produced what is known as the most accurate and trusted manuscripts.


Were the Scribes in the Early Centuries Amateurs

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

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

Let us take just a moment, to discuss Ehrman’s statement, “in the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs.” In chapter 1 of this book, we established just the opposite. Here is a summary paragraph of that evidence. Some of the earliest manuscripts that we now have established that a professional scribe copied them. Many of the other papyri give evidence that a semiprofessional hand copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being done by a copyist that was literate and experienced. Therefore, either literate or semiprofessional copyist did the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being done by professionals. As it happened, the few poorly copied manuscripts came to light first, establishing a precedent that was difficult for some to shake when the truckload of evidence came forth that showed just the opposite. (P. Comfort 2005, 18-19)

Ehrman is distorting the facts to his readers when he goes off the rails, to say, “We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.” The way this is worded, he is saying that we do not have copies that are third or fourth generations removed from the original. Ehrman cannot know this because we have fifteen copies that are 75-100 years removed from the death of the apostle John in 100 C.E. There is the possibility that any of these could be only third or fourth generation removed copies. Furthermore, they could have been copied from a second or third generation. Therefore, Ehrman is misstating the evidence.

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

What kind of weight or evidence do these two manuscripts carry in the eyes of textual scholars? Vaticanus 1209 is a key source for our modern translations. When determining an original reading, this manuscript could stand against other external evidence that would seem to the nonprofessional as being so much more. P75 also is one of the weightiest manuscripts that we have, and is virtually identical to Vaticanus 1209, which dates 175 to 125 years later than P75, about 350 C.E. When textual scholars B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort released their critical text in 1881, Hort said that Vaticanus preserved “not only a very ancient text but a very pure line of a very ancient text.” (Westcott and A. 1882, 251) However, later scholars have argued that Vaticanus was a scholarly recension; a critical revision carried out on Vaticanus, an edited text. However, P75 has vindicated Westcott and Hort, because of its virtual likeness with Vaticanus, it establishes that Vaticanus is essentially a copy of a second-century text, and likely, a copy of the original text, with the exception of a few minor points.

Kurt Aland[29] wrote, “P75 shows such a close affinity with the Codex Vaticanus that the supposition of a recension of the text at Alexandria, in the fourth century, can no longer be held.”[30] David C. Parker[31] says of P75 that “it is extremely important for two reasons: “like Vaticanus, it is carefully copied; it is also very early and is generally dated to a period between 175 and 225. Thus, it pre-dates Vaticanus by at least a century. A careful comparison between P75 and Vaticanus in Luke by C.M. Martini demonstrated that P75 was an earlier copy of the same careful Alexandrian text. It is sometimes called a proto-Alexandrian. It is our earliest example of a controlled text, one which was not intentionally or extensively changed in successive copying. Its discovery and study have provided proof that the Alexandrian text had already come into existence in the third century.” (Parker 1997, 61) Let us look at a few more textual scholars, just to tie all loose ends, J. Ed Komoszewski; M. James Sawyer, Daniel Wallace.

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

Ehrman suggests that the early Christians were not concerned about the integrity of the text, its preservation of accuracy. Let us visit the second-century evidence by way of Tertullian.[32]

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones[33] of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places,[34] in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally.[35] (Bold mine)

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

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


Here Ehrman is arguing from silence. We cannot read the minds of people today; let alone read the minds of persons 2,000 years before we were born. It is a known fact that congregations valued Paul’s letters, and Paul exhorted them to share the letters amongst differing congregations. Paul wrote to the Colossians, and in what we know as 4:16, he said, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” The best way would be to send someone to a congregation, have them copy the letter and bring it back to their home congregation. On the other hand, someone could make copies of the letter in the congregation that received it and delivered it to interested congregations. In 1 Thessalonians, the congregation that Ehrman is talking about here, chapter five, verse 27, Paul says, “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.” What did Paul mean by “all the brothers”? It could be that he meant it to be used like a circuit letter, circulated to other congregations, giving everyone a chance to hear the counsel. It may merely be that, with the ability to read being so low, Paul wanted a guarantee that all were going to get to hear its contents, and it simply meant that every brother and sister locally would have had a chance to hear it in the congregation. Regardless, even if we live with the latter, the stress that was put on the reading of this letter shows the weight that these people were placed under concerning Paul’s letters.[36]

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


Papias explains,

I will not hesitate to set down for you, along with my interpretations, everything I carefully learned then from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. In addition, if by chance someone who had been a follower of the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders–what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and abiding voice. (Holmes 2007, 565)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The spread of Christianity created a need for more and more copies of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint, and the Christian Greek Scriptures. Moreover, it also meant translations into other languages. Numerous versions in such languages as Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, and Syriac were eventually made. In some cases, the language did not even have an alphabet, so one had to be devised just for this purpose. For example, Ulfilas, bishop of the Roman church, missionary, and Bible translator, was half-Goth and half-Greek from Cappadocia. It is said that he developed a Gothic script to translate the Bible. As interesting as the history of these other languages is, we only have space to cover the history of the Greek New Testament, which serves as a testament to the trustworthiness of the Scriptures. Under chapter 1, we had covered the history of the Hebrew Old Testament extensively. However, in Chapter 2 we briefly touched on the history of the Greek New Testament but paid more attention to the trustworthiness of the text. Now, we will use this space to cover how the Greek New Testament came down to us.


Separated Into Families

We have textual traditions or families of texts, which grew up in a certain region. For example, we have The Alexandrian text-type, which Westcott and Hort called the Neutral text, and came from Egypt. Then, there is the Western text-type, which came from Italy and Gaul as well as in North Africa and elsewhere. There was also The Caesarean text-type, which came from Caesarea. It should be noted, “The text of these witnesses is characterized by a mixture of Western and Alexandrian readings.” (B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 1994, Page xxi) The Byzantine text-type also called Majority Text came from Constantinople (i.e., Byzantine).

In short, early Christianity gave rise to what is known as the “local texts.” Christian congregations in and near cities, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Carthage, or Rome, were making copies of the Scriptures in the form that would become known as their text-type. In other words, manuscripts grew up in certain areas, just like a human family, becoming known as that text-type, having their own characteristics. Without being over involved here, let it be said, it is not as simple as this because there are mixtures of text-types within each text-type. However, each text-type resembles itself more than it does the others. In addition, it must be remembered that most of our extant manuscripts are identical in more than seventy-five percent of their texts. Thus, it is the twenty-five percent of errors, which identify a manuscript as a certain text-type, i.e., “agreement in error.”

Therefore, the process of classifying manuscripts for centuries was to label them a certain text-type, such as Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, and Byzantine. However, these days are fading, because technology has allowed the textual scholar to carry out a more comprehensive comparison of all readings in all manuscripts, supposedly make all previous classifications meaningless. This new method is known as The Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM). In this method, an “initial text” is “relatively close to the form of the text from which the textual tradition of a New Testament book has originated.” (Stephen C. Carlson)[37] In addition, “D. C. Parker’s essay asserts the impossibility of the attempt to recover a single original text, and hence the editor or critic must be content with the text from which the readings in the extant manuscripts are genealogically descended (p. 21).”[38]

As a summary, there are four text-types: Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, and Byzantine. These text-types are based on where they developed. The original penmen were inspired by God, and error free. The copyists were not inspired, and errors did show up in the texts; as a result. These errors help us to place these texts into certain families. Very early on copies of the originals worked their way to these four major religious centers and the copying traditions that distinguish these text-types began to take place. The Alexandrian text-type is the earliest and reflects the work of professional and semi-professional scribes who treated the copying process with respect. The text is simple, without added material, and lacking the grammatical, stylistic polish of the Byzantine text. The Western text-type is early second century. These manuscripts reflect the work of scribes that were given to paraphrasing. Scribes freely changed words, phrases, clauses, and whole sentences as they felt it necessary. At times, they were simply trying to harmonize the text, or even add apocryphal material to spice it up a bit. The Caesarean text-type is a mixture of Western and Alexandrian readings. The Byzantine text-type shows the hand of scribes that looked to smooth things out in both grammar and style, often with a view to making it easier to understand. These scribes also combined differing readings from other manuscripts that contained variants. The period of 50 to 350 C.E. certainly saw its fair share of errors (variants) entering into the text, but the era of corruption is the period when the Byzantine text would become the standard text.

THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST by Stalker-1 The TRIAL and Death of Jesus_02 THE LIFE OF Paul by Stalker-1

The Corruption Period

To round out our understanding of this early history, we need at least a short overview of what happened after 350 C.E. After Constantine legalized Christianity, giving it equal status with the pagan religions, it was much easier for those having manuscripts copied. In fact, Constantine had ordered 50 copies of the whole of the Bible for the church in Constantinople. Over the next four centuries or so, the Byzantine Empire and the Greek-speaking church were the dominant factors as to why this area saw their text becoming the standard. It had nothing to do with it being the better text, i.e., the more accurate text. From the eighth century forward, the corrupt Byzantine text was the standard text and had displaced all others; it makes up about 95 percent of all manuscripts that we have of the Christian Greek Scriptures.

Sadly, after the invention of the Guttenberg printing press in 1455, it would be this Byzantine text, which would become our first printed edition by way of Desiderius Erasmus in 1516. So much so, that it was to be referred to as the Textus Receptus, or the “Received Text.” Over the next four centuries, many textual scholars attempted to make minor changes to this inferior text based on the development of the science of textual criticism, but to no real effect on its status as the Greek text of the church. Worse still, it would be this corrupt text, which would lay at the foundation of all English translations until the Revised English Version of 1881 and the American Standard Version of 1901. It was not until 1881 when two Cambridge scholars, B. F. Westcott, and F. J. A. Hort, replaced the Textus Receptus with their critical text. It is this critical edition of the Westcott and Hort text that is the foundation for all modern translations and critical editions of the Greek New Testament, UBS5, and the NA28.


The Textus Receptus

The Dark Ages (5th to 15th centuries C.E.), was a time when the Church had the Bible locked up in the Latin language, and scholarship and learning were nearly nonexistent. However, with the birth of the Morning Star of the Reformation, John Wycliffe (1328-1384), but more officially in the 16th-century Reformation, and the invention of the printing press in 1455, the restraints were loosened, and there was a rebirth of interest in the Greek language. Moreover, with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks 1453 C. E., many Greek scholars and their manuscripts were scattered abroad, resulting in a revival of Greek in the Western citadels of learning.

About fifty years later, or at the beginning of 16th-century, Ximenes, Archbishop of Toledo, Spain, a man of rare capability and honor, requested foremost scholars of his land to his university at Alcala to produce a multiple-language Bible, not for the common people, but for the educated. The outcome would be the Polyglot, named Complutensian corresponding to the Latin of Alcala. This would be the Bible of six large volumes, beautifully bound, containing the Old Testament in four languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin) and the New Testament in two (Greek and Latin). For the Greek New Testament, these scholars had only a few manuscripts available to them, and those of late origin. One may wonder why this was the case when they were supposed to have access to the Vatican library. This Bible was completed in 1514, providing the first printed Greek New Testament, but did not receive approval by the pope to be published until 1520 and was not released to the public until 1522.

Froben, a printer in Basel, Switzerland became aware of the completion of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible and its pending consent by the pope to be published. Immediately, he saw a prospect of making profits, he at once sent word to the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), who was the foremost European scholar of the day and whose works he had published in Latin, beseeching him to hurry through a Greek New Testament text. In an attempt to bring the first published Greek text to completion, Erasmus was only able to locate, in July of 1515, a few late cursive manuscripts for collating and preparing his text. It would go to press in October of 1515 and would be completed by March of 1516. In fact, Erasmus was in such a hurried mode he rushed the manuscript containing the Gospels to the printer without first editing it, making such changes, as he felt was necessary on the proof sheets. Because of this great rush job the work also contained hundreds of typographical errors. Erasmus himself admitted this in its preface that it was “rushed through rather than edited.” Bruce Metzger referred to the Erasmian text as a “debased form of the Greek Testament.” (B. M. Metzger 1964, 1968, 1992, 103)

Needless to say, Erasmus was moved to produce an improved text in four succeeding editions of 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535. Erasmus’ editions of the Greek text, we are informed, ended up being an excellent achievement, a literary sensation. They were inexpensive, and the first two editions totaled 3,300 copies, in comparison to the 600 copies of the large and expensive six-volume Polyglot Bible. In the preface of his first-edition, Erasmus stated, “I vehemently dissent from those who would not have private persons read the Holy Scriptures, nor have them translated into the vulgar tongues.” (Baer 2007, 268)

Except for everyday practical consideration, the editions of Erasmus had little to vouch for them, for he had access to but five (some say eight) Greek manuscripts of reasonably late origin and none of these were of the whole Greek New Testament. Rather, these comprised one or more sections into which the Greek texts were normally divided: (1) the Gospels; (2) Acts and the general epistles (James through Jude); (3) the letters of Paul; (4) Revelation. In fact, of the some 5,750 Greek New Testament manuscripts that we now have, only about fifty are complete.

Consequently, Erasmus had but one copy of Revelation (twelfth century). Since it was incomplete, he merely retranslated the missing last six verses of the book from the Latin Vulgate back into Greek. He even frequently brought his Greek text in line with the Latin Vulgate; this is why there are some twenty readings in his Greek text not found in any Greek manuscript.

Martin Luther would use Erasmus’ 1519 edition for his German translation, and William Tyndale would use the 1522 edition for his English translation. Erasmus’ editions were also the foundation for further Greek editions of the New Testament by others, for instance, the four published by Robert Estienne (Stephanus, 1503-59). According to Bruce Metzger, the third of these, published by Stephanus, in 1550, became the Textus Receptus or Received Text of Britain and the basis of the King James Version. This took place through Theodore de Beza (1519-1605), whose work was based on the corrupted third and fourth editions of the Erasmian text. Beza would produce nine editions of the Greek text, four being independent (1565, 1589, 1588-9, 1598), and the other five smaller reprints. It would be two of Beza’s editions, that of 1589 and 1598, which would become the English Received Text.

Beza’s Greek edition of the New Testament did not even differ as much as might be expected from those of Erasmus. Why do I say as might be expected? Beza was a friend of the Protestant reformer, John Calvin, succeeding him at Geneva, and was also a well-known classical and biblical scholar. In addition, Beza possessed two important Greek manuscripts of the fourth and fifth century, the D and Dp (also known as D2), the former of which contains most of the Gospels and Acts, as well as a fragment of 3 John and the latter containing the Pauline epistles. The Dutch Elzevir editions followed next, which were virtually identical as those of the Erasmian-influenced Beza text. It was the second of the seven of these, which was published in 1633, appeared the statement in the preface (in Latin): “You therefore now have the text accepted by everybody, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted.” On the continent, this edition became the Textus Receptus or the Received Text. It seems that this success was in no small way due to the beauty and useful size of the Elzevir editions.


The Restoration Period

For the next 250-years, up until 1881, textual scholarship was enslaved to the Erasmian-oriented Received Text. As these textual scholars[39] became familiar with older and more accurate manuscripts and observed the flaws in the Received Text, instead of changing the text they would publish their findings in introductions, margins, and footnotes of their editions. In 1734, J. A. Bengle of Tübingen, Germany, made an apology for again printing the Received Text, doing so only “because he could not publish a text of his own. Neither the publisher nor the public would have stood for it,” he complained. (Robertson 1925, 25)

The first one to break free from this enslavement to the Textus Receptus, in the text itself, was Bible scholar J. J. Griesbach (1745-1812). His principal edition comes to us in three volumes, the first in Halle in 1775-7, the second in Halle and London in 1796-1806, and the third at Leipzig in 1803-7. However, Griesbach did not fully break away from the Textus Receptus. Nevertheless, Griesbach is the real starting point in the development of classifying the manuscripts into families, setting down principles and rules for establishing the original reading, and using symbols to indicate the degree of certainty as to its being the original reading.

Karl Lachmann (1793-1851) was the first one fully to get out from under the influence of the Textus Receptus. He was a professor of ancient classical languages at Berlin University. In 1831, he published his edition of the Greek New Testament without any regard to the Textus Receptus. As Samuel MacAuley Jackson expressed it: Lachmann “was the first to found a text wholly on ancient evidence; and his editions, to which his eminent reputation as a critic gave wide currency, especially in Germany, did much toward breaking down the superstitious reverence for the textus receptus.”  Bruce Metzger too had harsh words for the era of the Textus Receptus as well:

So superstitious has been the reverence accorded the Textus Receptus that in some cases attempts to criticize it or emend it have 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 witnesses. (B. M. Metzger 1964, 1968, 1992, 106)

Subsequent to Lachmann came Friedrich Constantine von Tischendorf (1815-74), best known for his discovery of the famed fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus Manuscript, the only Greek uncial manuscript containing the complete Greek New Testament. Tischendorf went further than any other textual scholar to edit and made the evidence accessible contained in leading as well as less important uncial manuscripts. Throughout the time, Tischendorf was making his treasured contributions to the field of textual criticism in Germany; one Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-75) in England made other valued contributions. Aside from other things, he was able to establish his concept of “Comparative Criticism.” This establishes that the age of a text, like Vaticanus 1209, may not necessarily be that of its manuscript, which was copied in 350 C.E., as it may be a faithful copy of an earlier text, like the second-century and P75. Both Tischendorf and Tregelles were determined defenders of divine inspiration of the Scriptures, which likely had much to do with the productivity of their labors. If you have an opportunity to read about the lengths that Tischendorf went to in his discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, you will be moved by his steadfastness and love for God’s Word.

The Church Community_02 THE NEW TESTAMENT Developing Healthy Churches THE CHURCH CURE

The Climax of the Restored Text

The climax of this restored era goes to their immediate successors, the two English Bible scholars B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, upon whose text the United Bible Society is based, which is the foundation for all modern-day translations of the Bible. Westcott and Hort began their work in 1853 and finished it in 1881, working for twenty-eight years independently of each other, yet frequently comparing notes. As the Scottish biblical scholar Alexander Souter expressed it, they “gathered up in themselves all that was most valuable in the work of their predecessors. The maxims which they enunciated on questions of the text are of such importance.” (Souter 1913, 118) They took all imaginable factors into consideration in laboring to resolve the difficulties that conflicting texts presented, and when two readings had equal weight, they indicated that in their text. They stressed “Knowledge of documents should precede final judgment upon readings” and “all trustworthy restoration of corrupted texts is founded on the study of their history.” They followed Griesbach in dividing manuscripts into families, stressing the significance of the manuscript genealogy. In addition, they gave due weight to internal evidence, “intrinsic probability” and “transcriptional probability,” that is, what the original author most likely wrote and wherein a copyist may most likely have made a mistake.

Westcott and Hort relied heavily on what they called the “neutral” family of texts, which involved the renowned fourth-century vellum Vaticanus and Sinaiticus manuscripts. They considered it quite decisive when these two manuscripts agreed, particularly when reinforced by other ancient uncial manuscripts. However, they were not thoughtlessly bound to the Vaticanus manuscript as some scholars have claimed, for by assessing all the elements they frequently concluded that certain minor interpolations had crept into the neutral text that was not found in the group more given to interpolations and paraphrasing, for instance, the Western manuscript family. Thus, Professor E. J. Goodspeed shows that Westcott and Hort departed from the Vaticanus manuscript seven hundred times in the Gospels alone.

The critical text of Westcott and Hort of 1881 has been commended by the leading textual scholars over the last one hundred and forty years, and still stands as the standard. Numerous additional critical editions of the Greek text came after Westcott and Hort: Richard F. Weymouth (1886), Bernhard Weiss (1894–1900); the British and Foreign Bible Society (1904, 1958), Alexander Souter (1910), Hermann von Soden (1911–1913); and Eberhard Nestle’s Greek text, the Novum Testamentum Graece, published in 1898 by the Württemberg Bible Society, Stuttgart, Germany. The Nestle in twelve editions (1898–1923) to be then taken over by his son, Erwin Nestle (13th–20th editions, 1927–1950), followed by Kurt Aland (21st–25th editions, 1952–1963) and lastly, it was coedited by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland (26th–27th editions, 1979–1993).

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From Griesbach to Lachmann, I was forced to leave out several textual scholars that could have been covered, because of space. Many of the above scholars gave their entire life to God and the Greek text. Each of these could have an entire book penned about them and their work alone. The amount of work they accomplished before the era of computers is nothing short of astonishing. Rightly, the preceding history should serve to strengthen our faith in the authenticity and general integrity of the Greek New Testament. Unlike Bart D. Ehrman, men like Professor Kenyon have been moved to say that the Greek New Testament has, “come down to us substantially as they were written.” And all this is especially true of the critical scholarship of the almost two hundred years since the days of Karl Lachmann upon which all today can feel certain that what they hold in their hands is a mirror reflection of the Word of God that was penned in twenty-seven books, some two thousand years ago.

HOW WE GOT The Old Testament Text

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[1] We will see that another group assigned with the task of dispensing the Word of God has similar feeling about its readers.

[2] One who has never engaged in sexual intercourse, virgin, chaste person (Arndt, Danker and Bauer 2000, 777)

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

[4] Lit the greeting by my hand of Paul

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

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

[7] Or a roll

[8] Or roll

[9] A codex is a collection of ancient manuscript texts, especially of the Biblical Scriptures, in book form.

[10] Lit little books; Gr biblia

[11] I.e., the leather scrolls

[12] 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), 1081.

[13] People of the first three centuries sent and received letters and books from all over the Roman Empire. To give just 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.

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

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

[16] Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006).

[17] P. W. Comfort (1992), 38–39.

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

[19] Westcott and Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, Vol. 2: Introduction, Appendix, (1882), 17.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[27] P. W. Comfort (1992), 45.

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

[29] (1915 –1994) was Professor of New Testament Research and Church History. He founded the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster and served as its first director for many years (1959–83). He was one of the principal editors The Greek New Testament for the United Bible Societies.

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

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

[32] (160 – 220 C.E.), was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa.

[33] Cathedrae

[34] Suis locis praesident.

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

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


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

[39] Brian Walton (1600-61), Dr. John Fell (1625-86), John Mill 1645-1707), Dr. Edward Wells (1667-1727, Richard Bentley (1662-1742), John Albert Bengel (1687-1752), Johann Jacob Wettstein (1693-1754), Johann Salomo Semler (1725-91), William Bowyer Jr. (1699-1777), Edward Harwood (1729-94), and Isaiah Thomas Jr. (1749-1831)

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