The Transmission Quality of the Early Text of the Greek New Testament

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

Papyrus 46 (P46) is one of the oldest extant New Testament manuscripts in Greek, written on papyrus, dating to about 150-200 C.E. Some leaves are part of the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri and others are in the University of Michigan Papyrus Collection. P46 contains most of the Pauline epistles, though with some folios missing. It contains (in order) “the last eight chapters of Romans; all of Hebrews; virtually all of 1–2 Corinthians; all of Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians; and two chapters of 1 Thessalonians. All of the leaves have lost some lines at the bottom through deterioration.”[1] The Greek text of the codex is a representative of the Alexandrian text-type. Kurt Aland placed it in Category I.[2] The scribe who copied P46 made his fair share of scribal blunders, yet Zuntz said that P46 was a representative of “a text of the superior, early-Alexandrian type.”[3] Renowned New Testament textual scholar Barbara Aland has examined characteristics of the text that seem to be the result of the individual scribe working on P46, and she has concluded that “‘P46 represents a rough and inadequate copy of a good exemplar.'” Exemplar is from a Latin word for “pattern” or “archetype,” a manuscript that a scribe was tasked to copy. Therefore, with this approach, it can be determined that the manuscript that the scribe of P46 (150 C.E.) was copying from was good.

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Singular Reading: technically, a variant reading that occurs in only one Greek manuscript and is therefore immediately suspect. There is some quibbling over this because critics who reject the Westcott and Hort position on the combination of 01 (Codex Sinaiticus) and 03 (Codex Vaticanus) might call a reading “nearly singular” if it has only the support of these two manuscripts. Moreover, it is understood that not all manuscripts are comparable. Thus, for example, one would comfortably reject a reading found only in a single late manuscript, while many critics would not find it so easy to reject a reading supported uniquely by 03. Some also give more credit to singular readings that have additional support from versions. – Dr. Don Wilkins

James Ronald Royse in his massive Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri (2010), has certainly deepened our knowledge about individual scribal habits, as he examined the singular readings (unique to one manuscript), which can be quite informative when one is analyzing the larger texts. Ernest Cadman Colwell was an American biblical scholar, textual critic, and palaeographer analyzed the scribal habits in P45, P66, and P75, by examining their singular readings. Royse expands on Colwell’s work by studying P45, P46, P47, P66, P72, and P75, which are the six most extensive early New Testament manuscripts. When one is considering scribal habits, he is investigating the tendencies of the scribe to make various kinds of changes. While it is nigh impossible to ascertain with absolute certainty every single change that is the result of the individual scribe, as opposed to those that were in the manuscript he was copying from, it is reasonably possible to detect much of the changes that were from the individual scribe of a manuscript, which, in turn, will give us insight into an earlier manuscript.

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Returning to Barbara Aland and her analysis of P46 above we can then conclude that the manuscript from which the scribe of P46 was copying was a good manuscript from that dated from about 150-200 C.E. that was more like the Nestle-Aland 28 text of Paul than the end result of what the scribe produced with his individual blunders. What does this mean? After removing the individual changes from the scribe of P46, we have a text that he used that is earlier because it is possible that it could be upwards of 50 years older 100-150 C.E. This would mean the text without the changes made by the scribe of P46 would be beneficial when considering textual problems and should be considered by scholars to be a good representation of the autograph. This does not focus on all variations, just those individual scribal errors, be they intentional or unintentional (haplography and dittography). This will leave us predominately with the text the scribe used in making his manuscript.

Kyoung Shik Min in his dissertation (2005), The Earliest Tradition of the Gospel of Matthew, under the direction of Barbara Aland, developed the category called ‘Transmission Quality.’ This helped Min to remove any errors that were identified as belonging to the scribe. His conclusion was that the scribe of P37 produced a “free text,” in that scribe felt free to take liberties with the text. However, once the individual scribal liberties that he took with his exemplar were identified; then, the manuscript he was copying from was a relatively faithful text. When analyzing P53, it was also concluded that the scribal liberties had produced a “free text.” Yet, once the individual scribal liberties that he took with his exemplar were identified; then, the manuscript he was copying from was one that had been done with meticulous care.

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One can immediately see the benefits of this kind of analysis. If the texts of the second and third centuries are evaluated to the point of removing the individual scribes changes, leaving us a clearer picture of his exemplar (earlier text), we can add even further evidence toward the removal of the lang held, long repeated misinformed conclusion that the first three centuries of copying New Testament Greek manuscripts were “free,” in that scribes often took liberties with their exemplar, a chaotic copying of the texts, a period of copying that was in a state of flux by scribes who did not value what they were copying. The manuscript evidence itself no longer supports such a contention. Getting at the textual quality of these exemplars, earlier texts, can reinforce what we have known to be true since the discovery of these papyri. Some of the earliest manuscripts that we now have evidence that a professional scribe copied them. Many of the other papyri confirm that a semiprofessional hand-copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being produced by a copyist who was literate and experienced. Therefore, either literate or semiprofessional copyist did the vast majority of the early extant papyri, with some being done by professionals. 

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The Trustworthiness of Early Copyists

Throughout much of the twentieth century, it was common to form three conclusions about the earliest copyists and their work:

  • The first three centuries saw copyists who were semiliterate and unskilled in the work of making copies.
  • Copyistsin these early centuries felt as though the end was nigh, so they took liberties with the text in an attempt to strengthen orthodoxy.
  • In the early centuries, manuscripts could be described as “free,” “wild,” “in a state of flux,” “chaotic,” “a turbid textual morass,” i.e., a “free text” (so the Alands).

The first in the above would undoubtedly lead to many unintentional changes while the second would 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 a 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.[4]

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.[5]

The Alands in their Text of the New Testament saw the New Testament books as not being canonical, i.e., not viewed as Scripture in the first few centuries, so the books were subject to changes. They wrote, “not only every church but each individual Christian felt ‘a direct relationship to God.’ Well into the second century Christians still regarded themselves as possessing inspiration equal to that of the New Testament writings which they read in their worship service.” Earlier they wrote, “That was all the more true of the early period when the text had not attained canonical status, especially in the early period when Christians considered themselves filled with the Spirit.” They claimed that “until the beginning of the fourth century the text of the New Testament developed freely.” (Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament 1995, 295, 69)

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Generally, once an established concept is set within the world of textual scholars, it is not easily displaced. During the start of the 20th century (1900–1930), there was 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.[6]

The first papyri discovered (P45, P46, P66) showed this to be the case. However, as more papyri became known, especially after the discovery of P75, 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.[7]

Even though many textual scholars were crediting the Alands’ The Text of the New Testament with their description of the text as “free,” that was not the entire position of the Alands. True, they spoke of the different text styles such as the “normal,” “free” “strict” and the “paraphrastic.” However, like Kenyon, they saw a need based on the evidence, which suggested a rethinking of how the evidence should be described:

Our research on the early papyri has yielded unexpected results that require a change in the traditional views of the early text. We have inherited from the past generation the view that the early text was a “free” text, and the discovery of the Chester Beatty papyri seemed to confirm this view. When P45 and P46 were joined by P66 sharing the same characteristics, this position seemed to be definitely established. P75 appeared in contrast to be a loner with its “strict” text anticipating Codex Vaticanus. Meanwhile the other witnesses of the early period had been ignored. It is their collations which have changed the picture so completely.[8]

While we have said this previously, it bears repeating once again that some of the earliest manuscripts we now have indicate that a professional scribe copied them.[9] Many of the other papyri confirm that a semi-professional hand copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being produced by a copyist who was literate and experienced. Therefore, either literate or 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 became known first, establishing a precedent that was difficult for some to discard when the enormous amount of evidence came forth that showed just the opposite.

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Distribution of Papyri by Century and Type

DATE ALEX WEST CAES BYZ Hand
150 P52 P90 P104 0 0 0 0
200 P32 P46 P4/64/67 P66 P77 0189 0 0 0 0
250 P1 P5 P9 P12 P15 P20 P22 P23 P27 P28 P29 P30 P39 P40 P45 P47 P49 P53 P65 P70 P75 P80 P87 0220 0 0 P48 P69 1
300 P13 P16 P18 P37 P72 P78 P115 0162 0 0 P38 0171 1
Acts 14 0 0 0 4

Also, as we noted earlier, textual scholars such as Comfort[10] and others believe that the very early Alexandrian manuscripts that we now possess are a reflection of what would have been found throughout the whole of the Greco-Roman Empire from about 85–275 C.E. So these early papyri can play a major role in our establishing the original readings.

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However, Epp asks, “If Westcott-Hort did not utilize papyri in constructing their NT text, and if our own modern critical texts, in fact, are not significantly different from that of Westcott-Hort, then why are the papyri important after all?”[11] From there, Epp goes on to strongly advise that the papyri should play an essential role in three areas: (1) “to isolate the earliest discernable text-types, (2) assisting “to trace out the very early history of the NT text,” and, (3) “Finally, the papyri can aid in refining the canons of criticism―the principles by which we judge variant readings―for they open to us a window for viewing the earliest stages of textual transmission, providing instances of how scribes worked in their copying of manuscripts.”[12] We should add that the early papyri have changed decisions of textual scholars and committees so that they have not retained the readings of Westcott and Hort at times.

Why?

It is only reasonable to assume that the original 27 books written first-hand by the New Testament authors have not survived. Instead, we only have what we must consider being imperfect copies. Why the Holy Spirit would miraculously inspire 27 fully inerrant texts, and then allow human imperfection into the copies, is not explained for us in Scripture. We do know that imperfect humans have tended to worship relics that traditions hold to have been touched by the miraculous powers of God or to have been in direct contact with one of his special servants of old. Ultimately, though, all we know is that God had his reasons for allowing the New Testament autographs to be worn out by repeated use. From time to time we hear of the discovery of a fragment possibly dated to the first century, but even if such a fragment is eventually verified, the dating alone can never serve as proof of an autograph; it will still be a copy in all likelihood.

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NOTE: We do not need to ever discover the originals because we have the original 138,000+ words in a master Greek text: WH NA28 & UBS5. A restored text is the same as the original. God did not miraculously preserve but he did miraculously restore by using human servants.

As for errors in all the copies, we have, however, we can say is that the vast majority of the Greek text is not affected by errors at all. The errors occur in the form of variant readings, i.e., portions of the text where different manuscripts disagree. Of the small amount of the text that is affected by variant readings, the vast majority of these are minor slips of the pen, misspelled words, etc., or intentional but quickly analyzed changes, and we are certain what the original reading is in these places. A far smaller number of changes present challenges to establishing the original reading. It has always been said and remains true that no major doctrine is affected by a textual problem. Only rarely does a textual issue change the meaning of a verse.[*] Still, establishing the original text wherever there are variant readings is vitally important. Every word matters!

[*] Leading textual scholar Daniel Wallace tells us, after looking at all of the evidence, that the percentage of instances where the reading is uncertain and a well-attested alternative reading could change the meaning of the verse is a quarter of one percent, i.e., 0.0025%

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[1] Michael Marlowe, Papyrus 46

[2] Aland, Kurt; Aland, Barbara (1995). The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism. Erroll F. Rhodes (trans.). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 98.

[3] Zuntz, Text of the Epistles, 254.

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Some may argue that we can only be confident that we have good manuscripts of an “early” form of the text but not necessarily of the originally published text. This hypothesis cannot be disproven. However, I think it is highly doubtful for four reasons: (1) The intervening time between the publication date of various New Testament books (from AD 60–90) and the date of several of our extant manuscripts (from AD 100–200) is narrow, thereby giving us manuscripts that are probably only three to five “manuscript generations” removed from the originally published texts. (2) We have no knowledge that any of these manuscripts go back to an early “form” that postdates the original publications. (3) We are certain that there was no major Alexandrian recension in the second century. (4) Text critics have been able to detect any other other second-century textual aberrations, such as the D-text, which was probably created near the end of the second century, not the beginning. Thus, it stands to reason that these “reliable” manuscripts are excellent copies of the authorized published texts.” (P. Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism 2005, 269)

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

[11] The New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts in Historical Perspective, in To Touch the Text: Biblical and Related Studies in Honour of Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S. J. (ed. Maurya P. Horgan and Paul J. Kobelski; New York: Crossroad, 1989), 285 (there italicized) repr. in Epp, Perspectives, 338.

[12] Ibid., 288

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