The New Testament is the most significant collection of texts for Christianity. The New Testament is believed to be the word of God and a guide to living a Christian life. Christians have always regarded the Bible as an authoritative and divinely inspired work. Still, the question that has arisen over the centuries is, “Is the text of the New Testament that we have today an accurate reflection of the original documents?” Many Christians believe that the text of the New Testament has been preserved through divine intervention, while others suggest that the text has undergone significant changes over the centuries. This author believes that the text of the New Testament went through three stages: (1) the transmission of the text from God through the Holy Spirit to human authors, (2) intentional and unintentional variants came into the text over 1500 years of copying the text by hand, and (3) the many dozens upon dozens of textual scholars who gave their entire lives to restoring the text over 500 years.
In the introductory section of this article, I will discuss the various approaches that have been taken to establish faith in the restored text of the New Testament. I will begin by outlining the historical context in which the New Testament was written and the factors that have contributed to the difficulties in establishing an accurate text. I will then discuss the textual criticism of the New Testament and the methodologies used by scholars to reconstruct the original text. I will also discuss the role of early Christian writings in establishing faith in the restored text of the New Testament. Finally, I will discuss the importance of faith in establishing the authenticity of the New Testament.
The Historical Context of the New Testament
The New Testament was written in the first century CE, a time when the Roman Empire was expanding its control over the Mediterranean world. The writers of the New Testament were all Jewish, and they wrote in Greek. The texts were written to be read aloud in the Christian communities that were springing up around the Mediterranean world.
The earliest Christians did not view themselves as a separate religion the Jewish community, and many of the ideas and practices of the early Christians were rooted in Jewish traditions. The Christian movement was organized, and there was but one interpretation of Jesus’ teachings and one Christian denomination. The first Christians were not initially interested in creating a standardized text but in spreading the message of Jesus through the oral gospel and personal witness.
The New Testament was initially written as single books but would later be gathered as a collection of texts written over several decades (125-250 CE). The earliest texts were letters the apostle Paul wrote to various Christian communities. Later texts included the Gospels, which were written to provide a narrative of the life and teachings of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles, which provided a history of the early Christian movement. After the apostle John died in 100 CE, the Gospels were the first to be gathered into a collection as a single book. Shortly after that, the book of Acts was joined to the Gospels. A couple of decades later, the apostle Paul’s letters were gathered into a collection to make a single book. By the time of the fourth century, the entire New Testament was joined as one book.
The Factors That Have Contributed to the Difficulties in Establishing an Accurate Text
The New Testament was written in Greek, which was the common language of the Mediterranean world at the time. However, the Greek of the New Testament is different from the classical Greek of the fifth century BC. The Greek of the New Testament is known as Koine Greek and was the language of everyday conversation.
To further explain, the fact that the New Testament is written in Koine Greek rather than classical Greek does not necessarily make it more difficult to restore. However, it does add an additional layer of complexity because the Greek of the New Testament is different from the classical Greek that scholars were more familiar with from the 1500s until the 20th century. This means that scholars had to become well-versed in Koine Greek to properly analyze and restore the text. Additionally, the fact that Koine Greek was the language of everyday conversation means that variations in spelling, grammar, and vocabulary may reflect regional dialects or idiosyncrasies of individual authors. As a result, scholars need to carefully compare and evaluate multiple manuscripts and versions of the text in order to arrive at the most accurate restoration.
Another factor that has contributed to the difficulties in establishing an accurate text is the fact that the original documents have not survived. The earliest copies of the New Testament that we have are from the second century CE, and these are fragmentary. The oldest complete copy of the New Testament that we have is the Codex Sinaiticus, which dates from the fourth century CE.
Over the centuries, the New Testament has been copied and recopied countless times. The scribes who copied the texts made mistakes, and many of these mistakes were copied by subsequent scribes. The process of copying and recopying the texts was also subject to intentional changes, as scribes sought to harmonize different texts, correct errors, or make theological points.
The Textual Criticism of the New Testament
Textual criticism is the process of reconstructing the original text of a document from the surviving copies. In the case of the New Testament, textual criticism involves comparing the various surviving copies of the New Testament texts to identify errors and variations and to reconstruct the original text as accurately as possible.
One of the challenges of textual criticism is that it is an ongoing process, with new discoveries and research continually providing new information and insights. This means that our understanding of the text is always subject to revision and refinement. However, this should not be a cause for doubt or uncertainty. Rather, it is a reminder that the restoration of the text is an ongoing work in progress and that our confidence in the New Testament should be based on the solid foundation of the available evidence and the sound principles of textual criticism. However, even having said all of that, it has not impacted the work of textual scholars. The 1881 text of Westcott and Hort was accomplished before Koine Greek was correctly understood and before the discovery of 140+ New Testament papyri manuscripts, 25 of which date to the second century, decades from the original. And, yet, the 1881 WH Greek NT is 99.5% the same as the 2012 Nestle-Aland Greek NT.
In conclusion, establishing faith in the restored text of the New Testament requires a multifaceted approach that involves examining the manuscript evidence, applying sound principles of textual criticism, and considering the text’s historical context and cultural background. It also involves acknowledging the limitations of our knowledge and being open to ongoing revision and refinement. By following these principles, we can have confidence in the New Testament as a reliable and trustworthy record of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the early Christian community.
B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort believed that they had established the original text with their New Testament in the Original Greek (1881). They write, “This edition is an attempt to present exactly the original words of the New Testament, so far as they can be determined from surviving documents.” We notice that Westcott and Hort qualified their goal with “as far as can be determined from surviving documents.” The producers of the 5th edition of the Greek New Testament, United Bible Societies’ Corrected Edition (2014) and Kurt and Barbara Aland in their 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (2012) believe that these critical texts are the most anyone has achieved in establishing the original. However, it must be said that the NA28 has been shifted to the goal of establishing the “initial text.” Westcott and Hort looked to the earliest manuscripts of their day as their foundation for the original text; the Alands, while appreciating the early texts, did move away to the reasoned eclectic approach, an approach that focuses more heavily on internal evidence rather than external evidence. Nevertheless, their clearly stated goal was “an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text.” Sadly, as MacDonald stated above, many modern textual scholars have abandoned the hope of ever establishing the original text, or accepting that the above-mentioned critical texts might live up to that claim. I (Andrews) find it ironic that establishing the original text became less and less of a concern to the textual scholar over the 20th century as liberal-progressive scholarship consumed conservative scholarship throughout that same century. The reader must determine his own view as to whether there is any correlation.
On the objective of getting back to the original, the authors of The Early Text of the New Testament says, “However, while the complexities in recovering the original text need to be acknowledged, that is a separate question from whether the concept of an original text is incoherent and should, therefore, be abandoned as a goal of the discipline. Unfortunately, these two questions are often mingled together without distinction. Although recovering the original text faces substantial obstacles (and therefore the results should be qualified), there is little to suggest that it is an illegitimate enterprise. If it were illegitimate, then we would expect the same would be true for Greek and Roman literature outside the New Testament. Are we to think that an attempt to reconstruct the original word of Tacitus, or Plato, or Thucydides is misguided? Or that it does not matter? Those who argue that we should abandon the concept of an original text for the New Testament often give very little (if any) attention to the implications of such an approach for classical literature.” (Hill and Kruger 2012, 4)
Westcott and Hort sought to establish the original text by choosing what they felt was the most faithful text or family of texts, the Alexandrian family (especially the Codex Vaticanus, designated B), and worked from there to establish their critical text. Again, modern scholarship has abandoned both the idea of establishing the original and of choosing a trusted text or family of texts as a foundation. Since the mid-19th century, they have been using “eclecticism,” now known as “reasoned eclecticism.” In this, all manuscripts are placed on equal footing. They simply look to all text-types and decide which variant gave rise to all others, assigning more weight to internal evidence than to the external evidence of manuscripts. The last few decades have seen the rise of the newest form of NTTC, The Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM).
Philip Comfort, the author of, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism (2005), has abandoned the possibility of establishing the original text. Comfort finds this hope in the very earliest papyri and the Alexandrian text. He believes that the very early Alexandrian (Egyptian) text represents what the whole of the Christian writings must have looked like at that time. Writings of the early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Marcion, and Hippolytus reflect the Alexandrian form of the text. New Testament textual scholar Larry W. Hurtado holds this position as well. We will quote his position extensively.
All indications are that early Christians were very much given to what we today would call “networking” with one another, and that includes translocal efforts. Indeed, the Roman period generally was a time of impressive travel and translocal contacts, for trading, pilgrimages, and other purposes. Eldon Epp has marshaled evidence that the early Christian papyri, mainly from Egypt, reflect “extensive and lively interactions between Alexandria and the outlying areas, and also between the outlying areas [of Egypt] and other parts of the Roman world … and … the wide circulation of documents in this early period.” In another essay, Epp also demonstrated how readily people expected to send and receive letters all across the Roman Empire, reflecting more broadly a “brisk ‘intellectual commerce’ and dynamic interchanges of people, literature, books, and letters between Egypt and the vast Mediterranean region.”
An illustration of this, note that we have at least three copies of the Shepherd of Hermas that are dated to the late second/early third century, at most only a few decades later than the composition of this text. Thus, this Roman-provenance writing made its way to Egypt very quickly and was apparently received positively. Even more striking is the appearance of a copy of Irenaeus’s Against Heresies that has been dated to the late second or early third century. Again, within a very short time, we have a writing composed elsewhere (Gaul) finding its way to Christians in Oxyrhynchus (about 120 miles south of Cairo). We could also note the several early copies of the writings of Melito of Sardis (Roman Asia Minor). In short, the extant manuscript evidence fully supports the conclusion that the Oxyrhynchus material reflects a broad, translocal outlook.
… We shall explore the implications of the papyrus evidence, on the working assumption that though largely of Egyptian provenance, these early Christian papyri reflect attitudes, preferences, and usages of many Christians more broadly in the second and third centuries. We turn now to consider what we might infer from the list of textual witnesses provided to us in these papyri.
Distribution of Papyri Witnesses for Each New Testament Book
|NT Book||Total||Early||NT Book||Total||Early|
|1 Corinthians||8||3||1 Peter||3||1|
|2 Corinthians||4||2||2 Peter||2||1|
It appears that some of the answers to establishing the original text of the Christian Greek Scriptures lie within the Westcott and Hort approach. There are 13 papyrus manuscripts that date from about 125–200 C.E. (including seven new papyri about to be released, one of which is claimed to be from the first century), and there are another 65 papyrus manuscripts that date from the 4th century C.E. It is from these manuscripts, especially the earliest ones, that we are going to be aided in establishing the original text. Tregelles (1813-75), Tischendorf (1815-74), and Westcott (1825-1901) and Hort (1828-92) hung their textual hats on the two best manuscripts of their day, i.e., Sinaiticus (c. 360) and Vaticanus (c. 350), both of the Alexandrian text-type.
P75 (c.175–225) contains most of Luke and John and has vindicated Westcott and Hort for their choice of Vaticanus as the premium manuscript for establishing the original text. After careful study of P75 against the Vaticanus Codex, scholars have found that they are just short of being identical. In his introduction to the Greek text, Hort argues that the Vaticanus Codex is a “very pure line of very ancient text.”
Those who have abandoned all hope of such a venture would argue differently, saying “oldest is not necessarily best.” For these scholars, the original reading could be found in any manuscript, which is true to a degree. They continue with the approach that the reading that produced the other readings is likely the original. While on the surface this sounds great, it is not as solid a principle as one might think. On this issue, Comfort writes:
For example, two scholars, using this principle to examine the same variant, may not agree. One might argue that a copyist attempting to emulate the author’s style produced the variant; the other could claim the same variant has to be original because it accords with the author’s style. Or, one might argue that a variant was produced by an orthodox scribe attempting to rid the text of a reading that could be used to promote heterodoxy or heresy; another might claim that the same variant has to be original because it is orthodox and accords with Christian doctrine (thus a heterodoxical or heretical scribe must have changed it). Furthermore, this principle allows for the possibility that the reading selected for the text can be taken from any manuscript of any date. This can lead to subjective eclecticism.
When we look deeper into reasoned eclecticism and the local-genealogical method, we find that they lean more heavily on the side of the internal evidence as opposed to external evidence. It is the position of this author that the greater weight should be placed on the external evidence if we are to recover the original text. Westcott and Hort held this position as well. They wrote, “Documentary attestation has been in most cases allowed to confer the place of honour as against internal evidence.” (Westcott and Hort 1882, 17) Ernest Colwell, who was of the same mindset, suggested in 1968 that we needed to get back to the principles of Westcott and Hort. Sadly, textual scholarship has largely strayed from those principles.
With what we have already discussed as to the level of skilled copying of the early papyri, apparently, the scribal practices of Alexandria, Egypt, have played a significant role in this. As historical records have shown, Alexandria had an enormous Jewish population. We can imagine a large, predominately Jewish, Christian congregation early on as the gospel made its way throughout that land. This congregation would have maintained deep ties with their fellow Christians in Jerusalem and Antioch. Then, there was the Didaskelion catechetical school of Alexandria that had some of the most influential Church Fathers as head instructors. As has already been noted, Pantaenus took over and was in charge from about 160–180 C.E., Clement being his greatest student, and Origen, who brought this school to Caesarea in 231, establishing a second school and scriptorium.
As the Greek Septuagint originated from Alexandria, and the vast majority of the earliest New Testament papyri also had their origins in Egypt (Fayum and Oxyrhynchus), it is quite clear that the above-mentioned Church Fathers would have accessed the Septuagint and the Christian Greek Scriptures in their writings and evangelistic work. Origen, who learned from both Clement and Pantaenus, wrote more than the earliest leaders of Christianity, and his writings are a reflection of the early New Testament papyri, as is true with Clement and his writings. Considering that Clement studied under Pantaenus, it is not difficult to surmise that his writings would also be a reflection of the early New Testament papyri. Therefore, it truly is not unreasonable to suggest that going in reverse chronologically: Origen, Clement, Pantaenus, and those who studied with Pantaenus and brought him into Christianity from Stoic philosophy, were using Alexandrian family texts-types that were mirror-like reflections of the original texts of the Christian Greek Scriptures. The church historian Eusebius helps us to appreciate just how early this school was; note how he expresses it:
About the same time, a man most distinguished for his learning, whose name was Pantaenus, governed the school of the faithful. There had been a school of sacred learning established there from ancient times [italics mine], which has continued down to our own times, and which we have understood was held by men able in eloquence and the study of divine things. The tradition is that this philosopher was then in great eminence, as he had been first disciplined in the philosophical principles of those called stoics.
What we have learned thus far is that in the second and third centuries C.E., the scholarship and scribal practices of Alexandria had a tremendous impact on all of Egypt and as far south as the Fayum and Oxyrhynchus. This means that the standard text of the Christian Greek Scriptures reflecting the originals came up out of Egypt during the second century. The Alexandrian Library had been a force for influencing rigorous scholarship and setting high standards from the third century B.C.E. onward. Is it mere coincidence that the four greatest libraries and learning centers were located in the very places that Christianity had its original growth: Alexandria, Pergamum near Ephesus, Rome, and Antioch? The congregations within these cities and nearby ones would be greatly influenced by their book production.
However, some improvements can be made to these critical texts, because the editors of the 26th to 28th editions of the Nestle-Aland text made revisions setting the text further apart from the Westcott and Hort text of 1881. Even so, the 2012 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland text is still 99.5% the same as the 1881 Westcott and Hort Greek NT. Think of this all of the papyrus manuscripts discovered in the 20th century and it has had little impact on the changes made to the Greek New Testament. Still, some of the changes Nestle-Aland has made is because their focus has been less balanced between internal evidence and external evidence. They now give more weight to internal evidence than external evidence. They have ignored the testimony of the earliest manuscripts and Codex Vaticanus and have rejected many readings by relegating them to the margin, or to the critical apparatus, leaving an inferior reading in the main text. It is as Comfort says in his New Testament Text and Translation Commentary:
…the resultant eclectic text exhibits too much dependence on internal evidence, emphasizing the ‘local’ aspect of the ‘local-genealogical’ method, to use Aland’s language. This means that the decision-making, on a variant-unit-by-variant-unit basis, produced a text with an uneven documentary presentation. Furthermore, the committee setting, with members voting on each significant textual variant cannot help but produce a text with uneven documentation. All eclectic texts reconstruct a text that no ancient Christian actually read, even though they approach a close replication of the original writings. However, the NU edition’s eclecticism extends even to following different manuscripts within the same sentence. (P. W. Comfort 2008, p. XV)
What Can We Do to Establish Faith In the
Restored Text of the New Testament?
We can grow in knowledge and understanding of how the Greek New Testament came down to us. If we cannot defend the Bible, how can we defend the faith? It is not about winning arguments; it is about winning misguided souls that have been misinformed (1 Pet 3:15) and saving those who have begun to doubt. (Jude 1:22-23)
Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All
SCROLL THROUGH THE DIFFERENT CATEGORIES BELOW
BIBLE TRANSLATION AND TEXTUAL CRITICISM
BIBLE TRANSLATION AND TEXTUAL CRITICISM
BIBLICAL STUDIES / BIBLE BACKGROUND / HISTORY OF THE BIBLE/ INTERPRETATION
CHRISTIAN APOLOGETIC EVANGELISM
TECHNOLOGY AND THE CHRISTIAN
CHURCH HEALTH, GROWTH, AND HISTORY
 B. F. Westcott; F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament In the Original Greek, Cambridge/London, 1881.
 Referred to as UBS5
 Referred to as NA27. It should be noted that the Greek text of the NA27 and the UBS4 are exactly the same, but their apparatuses are different. The NA27 is more for the scholar, the pastor, and the Bible student and deals with far more variants and offers more evidence for each variant, while the UBS4 is more for the Bible translator and includes only variants deemed important to Bible translation.
 Aland and Aland in their book, The Text of the New Testament, make the clear statement that the text of the Greek New Testament, United Bible Societies (UBS3) and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (NA26) “comes closer to the original text of the New Testament than did Tischendorf or Westcott and Hort not to mention von Soden.” (Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament 1995, 24)
 This approach addresses textual criticism by looking to internal and external evidence. However, many who use this approach do lean too heavily on internal evidence. In addition, while they value early manuscripts, they choose the best reading from a consideration of all manuscripts, believing that any of them can carry the original, avoiding preferences.
 (Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament 1995, 291-2)
 Nonetheless, the oldest manuscripts, which are of the Alexandrian text-type, seem to be the favored, and text of the United Bible Society, 5th ed. and Nestle-Aland, 28th ed. has an Alexandrian disposition.
 See Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974); and Richard Bauckham’s discussion in his essay, “For Whom Were the Gospels Written?” in The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, ed. Richard Bauckham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 32 (9-48).
 Eldon Jay Epp, “The Significance of the Papyri for Determining the Nature of the New Testament Text in the Second Century: A Dynamic View of Textual Transmission,” in Gospel Traditions in the Second Century: Origins, Recensions, Text, and Transmission, ed. William L. Petersen (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 81 (71-103).
 Eldon Jay Epp, “New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts and Letter Carrying in Greco-Roman Times,” in The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, ed. Birger A. Pearson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 55 (35-56). As another particular piece of evidence of Christian networking across imperial distances, Malcolm Choat pointed me to a third-century letter sent from an unknown individual Christian in Rome to fellow Christians in Egypt (P. Amherst 1.3), requesting certain financial transactions. For discussion see Charles Wessely, “Les plus ancients monuments du Christianisme ecrits sur papyrus,” Patrologia Orientalis, Tomas Quartus (Paris: Librairie de Paris, 19o8), 135-38.
 Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), 26-27.
 As of 2014, there are 127 papyri.
 It should be noted that Andrews is not arguing for setting aside all manuscripts except the early papyri. Rather, he is merely suggesting that our best evidence lies within these early papyri.
 B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, Introduction [and] Appendix, Vol. 2 of New Testament in the Original Greek (London: Macmillan and Company, 1881), 251.
 P. W. Comfort (1992), 38–39.
 This method holds that a variant can be established as original and can come from any given manuscript(s).
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5:10:1.