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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 over 100 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Discovering the Bible

Amazing discoveries have brought to light the better-understood Bible. How can you discover this Bible for yourself?

“TRULY (good Christian Reader) wee [we] neuer [never] thought from the beginning, that we should neede [need] to make a new Translation”—so spoke a group of Bible translators in the nearly forgotten preface to the King James Bible. That was in 1611.

‘Establishing the Original Text’?

Because the terms original and autograph are used interchangeably, it can cause confusion at times if not differentiated. As was explained in the introduction, the Autograph (self-written) was the text actually written by a New Testament author, or the author and scribe as the author dictated to him. If the scribe was taking down dictation (Rom. 16:22; 1 Pet. 5:12), he might have done so in shorthand.[1] Whether by shorthand or longhand, we can assume that both the scribe and the author would check the scribe’s work. The author would have authority over all corrections, since the Holy Spirit did not move the scribe. If the inspired author wrote everything down himself as the Spirit moved him, the finished product would be the autograph. This text is also often referred to as the Original. Hence, the terms autograph and original are often used interchangeably. Sometimes textual critics prefer to make a distinction, using “original” as a reference to the text that is correctly attributed to a biblical author.  This is a looser distinction, one that does not focus on the process of how a book or letter was written. Once more, the term “original” reading or “original” text in this publication is a reference to the exemplar manuscript by the New Testament author (e.g. Paul) and his secretary (e.g., Tertius) from which other copies were made for publication and distribution of the Christian communities.

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

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

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

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

Careful examination of these manuscripts has served to strengthen our assurance that our Modern Greek and Hebrew texts are very close to the original autographs, even though we do not have those autographs. (2006, 301)[2]

The traditional goal of scholars within textual criticism has been to get back to the original through the practice of applying the rules and principles of textual criticism. These rules and principles go back to the early textual scholars such as Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812),[3] Friedrich Constantin von Tischendorf (1815-1874), Brook Foss Westcott (1825-1901, Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892), Frederick G. Kenyon (1863-1952), Kirsopp Lake (1872-1946), Eberhard Nestle (1851-1913),[4] and his son Erwin Nestle (1883-1972).  Kurt Aland (1915-1994) is the lynchpin between the older generation of textual scholars and modern textual scholarship. Bruce M. Metzger (1914-2007), Ernest Cadman Colwell (1901-1974), Jacob Harold Greenlee (1918-2015), Gordon D. Fee (1934- ) and Philip W. Comfort (1950- ) join Aland, among many, many others.

J. Harold Greenlee wrote, “Textual criticism is the study of copies of an ancient writing to try to determine the exact words of the text as the author originally wrote them.”[5] This is the fundamental thought found in almost all introductory-intermediate textbooks on textual criticism throughout the twentieth century. The traditional approach was to look at all of the evidence, internal (largely contextual) and external (e.g. dating); however, the priority or weight in determining the original reading was given to the oldest manuscripts, which also display the harder readings, contributing to their trustworthiness. Most modern critical texts were the product of this approach. However, the Alands and others have shifted the emphasis to internal evidence,[6] as opposed to external evidence.[7]

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

The Spread of Christianity

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

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

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

What does all this mean? While we cannot know absolutely, textual scholar Philip W. Comfort[12] and others believe that the very early Alexandrian manuscripts that we now possess are a reflection of what would have been found throughout the whole of the Greco-Roman Empire about 125–300 C.E. If we were to discover other early manuscripts from Antioch, Constantinople, Carthage, or Rome, they would be very similar to the early Alexandrian manuscripts. This means that these early manuscripts are a primary means of establishing the original text, and we are in a far better position today than were Westcott and Hort in 1881.


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


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

2 Peter 1:12-18 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

12 Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you. 13 I consider it right, as long as I am in this earthly dwelling, to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 knowing that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will also be diligent that at any time after my departure you will be able to call these things to mind.

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”—18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.

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

2 Peter 3:15-16 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.


Yes, “It is especially interesting that Peter writes of the distortion of Paul’s letters along with ‘the other Scriptures.’ The implication is that the letters of Paul were already regarded as Scripture at the time Peter wrote.”[13] Verse 16 shows that Peter

…is aware of several Pauline letters. This knowledge again raises the dating issue. We know that Paul himself on one occasion had requested that churches share his letters: ‘After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you, in turn, read the letter from Laodicea’ (Col 4:16). However, it is a big jump in time from Colossians to the first concrete evidence we have of people who know more than one letter. This evidence shows up in 1 Clement, who not only knows Romans but can also write to the Corinthians, ‘Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul’ (1 Clem.[14] 47:1). It appears later in 2 Clement and in Ignatius’s Ephesians.[15] Thus, we are on solid ground when we accept that a collection of the Pauline letters existed by the end of the first century.[16] It is also likely that some Pauline letters circulated independently of a collection (which is what one would expect as one church hears that another has a letter that might prove helpful in their situation),[17] and that there were collections of a few Pauline letters before there was a collection of all of his letters.[18] All of this is quite logical since Paul was a valued teacher in his circle of communities and, as he left an area and especially as he died, his letters were his continuing voice. Thus churches would share letters and, as they obtained funds (a few hundred dollars to a couple thousand dollars in today’s money), they would make copies. Copies would turn into collections, especially since it was possible to use one scroll for several of the shorter letters. Probably by the end of the first century, the complete collection (i.e., all extant letters) was circulating to at least a limited degree (remember, these copies did not come cheap). The issue is which stage in this process 2 Peter is indicating.[19]

This author would argue that the stage Peter to which was referring was the time when “there were collections of a few Pauline letters before there was a collection of all of his letters.” It is most likely that Peter’s first letter was written about 62-64 C.E., while Peter’s second letter was written about 64 C.E.[20] At the time Peter penned his second letter, several of Paul’s letters from the 50’s was available to Peter (Romans [56], 1 & 2 Corinthians [55], Galatians [50-52], and 1 & 2 Thessalonians [50, 51]). He could have had access to those from the early 60’s as well (Ephesians [60-61], Philippians [60-61], Colossians [60-61], Titus [61-64], Philemon [60-61], and Hebrews [61]). The only ones that were clearly unavailable would have been 1 & 2 Timothy [61, 64] and possibly Titus [61-64]. Thus, from Peter’s reference to “in all his [Paul’s] letters, speaking in them of these things,” we garner several insights. It highly suggests (1) there were collections of Paul’s letters, (2) Peter and the early church viewed them as “Scripture” in the same sense as the Old Testament Scriptures, (3) they were not to be changed, and (4) that apostolic authors’ written works were being collected and preserved for posterity.

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

By any standard, Polycarp must be reckoned as one of the more notable figures in the early post-apostolic church. Already bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor when his friend and mentor, Ignatius of Antioch [c. 35 C.E. – c. 108 C.E.], addressed one of his letters to him (ca. A.D. 110; cf. above, p. 131), he died a martyr’s death (see the Martyrdom of Polycarp) several decades later at age eighty-six (ca. 155–160), having served as bishop for at least forty and possibly sixty or more years. Irenaeus (who met Polycarp as a child) and Eusebius both considered him a significant link in the chain of orthodox apostolic tradition. His life and ministry spanned the time between the end of the apostolic era and the emergence of catholic [i.e., universal] Christianity, and he was deeply involved in the central issues and challenges of this critical era: the growing threat of persecution by the state, the emerging Gnostic movement (he is particularly known for his opposition to one of the movement’s most charismatic and theologically innovative teachers, Marcion), the development of the monepiscopal form of ecclesiastical organization, and the formation of the canon of the New Testament. Polycarp’s only surviving document[21] is a letter to the Philippians, written in response to a letter from them (cf. 3.1; 13.1). It reveals, in addition to a direct and unpretentious style and a sensitive pastoral manner, a deep indebtedness to the Scriptures (in the form of the Septuagint) and early Christian writings, including 1 Clement (with which Polycarp seems to be particularly familiar).[22] While apparently no New Testament books are cited as ‘Scripture’ (the reference to Ephesians in 12.1 is a possible exception), the manner in which Polycarp refers to them indicates that he viewed them as authoritative documents.[23]

Christ “gave gifts to men.” “He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:8, 11-13, NASB). The Father moved these inspired ones along by Holy Spirit, as they set forth God’s Word for the Christian congregation, “to stir [them] up by way of reminder,” repeating many things already written in the Scriptures (2 Pet. 1:12-13; 3:1; Rom 15:15). Thus, we have internal New Testament evidence from Second Peter circa 64 C.E. that “there were collections of a few Pauline letters before there was a collection of all of his letters.” Outside of Scripture, we find evidence of a collection of at least ten Pauline letters that were collected together by 90-100 C.E.[24] We can be certain that the early Christians were collecting the inspired Christian Scriptures as early as the middle of the first century C.E. to the early second century C.E.


Clement of Rome (c. 96 C.E.) was acquainted with Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth and said that Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit. Thus, we have Clement of Rome (c. 30-100 C.E.), Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155 C.E.), and Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 C.E. – c. 108 C.E.), who wove Scripture of the Greek New Testament into their writings, showing their view of them as inspired Scripture. Justin Martyr, who died about 165 C.E., used the expression “it is written” when quoting from Matthew. Theophilus of Antioch, who died about 181 C.E., declared “concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the Gospels because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God.”[25] Theophilus then used such expressions as “says the Gospel” (quoting Matt, 5:28, 32, 44, 46; 6:3) and “the divine word gives us instructions, in order that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.”[26] And it teaches us to render all things to all,[27] “honour to whom honour, fear to whom fear, tribute to whom tribute; to owe no man anything, but to love all.”[28]


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

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

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

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


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


Scripture Under Attack

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

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

The authorities had many Christians who obeyed the decrees by handing over their copies of the Scriptures. Nevertheless, some refused to give up their copies of God’s Word. Bishop Felix of Thibiuca (d. 303 C.E.) in Africa was martyred during the Great Persecution alongside Audactus, Fortunatus, Januarius, and Septimus.[29] Felix resisted the command of the local magistrate Magnillian (Lat. Magnillianus) to surrender his congregation’s copies of the Christian Scriptures. One account had Felix and the others being taken to Carthage and decapitated on July 15, 303 C.E. Other Christian leaders deceived the leaders by handing in their pagan writings, safeguarding their Scriptures.

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

The men known as the readers in the early Christian congregations, who read from the Scriptures during the meeting, carried the burden of preserving the Word of God beyond preserving accurate copies.[30] They also would have guarded them during times of persecution. Because of the mass persecution against Alexandria, Egypt,[31] we owe the primary preservation of our New Testament manuscripts to those congregations within rural Egypt. During times of persecution, manuscripts would not have been housed in the facilities of the congregation but rather would have been hidden in homes. Because of the dry sands of Egypt, the professional scribal practices, and the courage of the Christians, we not only owe the Egyptian Christians for the preservation of the New Testament but also for the original words that made up the New Testament. If we look at the manuscripts copied right after the Diocletian persecution (Codex Vaticanus and Sinaitic c. 350 C.E.), they are reflective of the manuscripts from rural Egypt that survived, such as P4, 64, 67 from Coptos, P13 from Oxyrhynchus, and P46 from Fayum, and P75 from Abu Mana. (P. W. Comfort 1992, 16-17)


Those Who Doubt the Recovery

The majority of scholars today believe that recovering the complete original Greek New Testament is outside the realm of possibility. Lee Martin MacDonald writes, “The traditional goal of textual criticism has been to establish the ‘original’ or earliest possible biblical text, but the overwhelming number of textual variants and the overlapping of several textual traditions make that goal a significant if not impossible challenge. Some scholars continue in the hope of recovering the originals and eliminating all ambiguities in the present texts, but they appear to be in the minority.”[32]

MacDonald’s comments are on point, and it is likely even graver than he has remarked. However, his comment about “the traditional goal of textual criticism” being “to establish the ‘original’ or [italics mine] earliest possible biblical text,” is not exactly the longstanding traditional objective, as it was, in fact, “to establish the original”–not “the earliest possible biblical text.” We (Wilkins and Andrews) remain in that group of scholars who aim at establishing the original.[33]

The traditional goal of the 19th century and early 20th-century textual scholars was to make the critical text a mirror image of the “original text.” This was their goal even if they were aware that it would never be a one-hundred-percent success. In fact, we can go back to Richard Bentley (1662-1742), who believed, in reality, that he could establish the original text in the majority of places where variants existed. The goal of the contemporary textual scholar is to get back to the “initial text.” In the Editio Critica Maior (ECM), a critical edition of the Greek New Testament, we find that the “initial text is the form of a text that stands at the beginning of a textual tradition.”[34] According to Gerd Mink, “the initial text preceded the textual tradition and has not survived in any manuscript.” He goes on to say, “We cannot know this text with certainty, but can only reconstruct it hypothetically.”[35] He also says, “The initial text is not identical with the original, the text of the author. Between the autograph and the initial text considerable changes may have taken place which may not have left a single trace in the surviving textual tradition.”[36] In short, the general, basic consensus is that the “initial text” is the earliest possible text for each of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.

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

Therefore, the process of classifying manuscripts has for many years been to classify them as a particular text-type, such as Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, or Byzantine. However, these days are fading because technology has allowed the textual scholar to carry out a more comprehensive comparison of all readings in all manuscripts, possibly making all previous classifications meaningless, or nearly so. This new method is known as The Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM), which will be explained at great length in its own chapter by Don Wilkins. In this method, an “initial text” is “relatively close to the form of the text from which the textual tradition of a New Testament book has originated.” (Stephen C. Carlson)[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]


Believing that We Can Establish the Original

B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort believed that they had established the original text with their New Testament in the Original Greek (1881). They write, “This edition is an attempt to present exactly the original words of the New Testament, so far as they can be determined from surviving documents.”[39]  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)[40] and Kurt and Barbara Aland in their 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (2012)[41] believe that these critical texts are the most anyone has achieved in establishing the original.[42] 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.[43] Nevertheless, their clearly stated goal was “an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text.”[44] Sadly, as MacDonald stated above, many modern textual scholars have abandoned the hope of ever establishing the original text, or accepting that the above-mentioned critical texts might live up to that claim. I (Andrews) personally find it ironic that the idea of establishing the original text became less and less of concern to the textual scholar over the 20th century as liberal-progressive scholarship consumed conservative scholarship throughout that same century. The reader must determine his own view as to whether there is any correlation.

On the objective of getting back to the original, the authors of The Early Text of the New Testament wrote, “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.”[45] 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).

We can be more certain for us the Apostle Peter’s words: “But the word of the Lord endures forever.” (1 Peter 1:25, NASB) We can have the same confidence that the One who inspired the Holy Scriptures, giving us His inerrant Word, has also used his servants to preserve them throughout the last two thousand years, “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4, NASB) The beloved Bruce Manning Metzger was right; the text of the New Testament was transmitted; then, it entered a 1,400-year period of corruption, and has been enjoying a 500-year period of restoration. The Bible has not come to us by some miraculous preservation but by restoration, as God has used servants of God (hundreds of textual scholars) working tirelessly for hundreds of years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[14] 1 Clem. First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[26] 1 Tim. 2:2

[27] Rom. 13:7, 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

[34] ECM/1–2Peter, 23*n. 4

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

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


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

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

[40] Referred to as UBS5

[41] 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.

[42] 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)

[43] 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.

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

[45] 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.

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