What Makes a New Testament Manuscript Trustworthy, Accurate, and Weighty?

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

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).[/caption]

Variant Reading(s): differing versions of a word or phrase found in two or more manuscripts within a variation unit. Variant readings are also called alternate readings. Variation Unit: any portion of text that exhibits variations in its reading between two or more different manuscripts. It is important to distinguish variation units from variant readings. Variation units are the places in the text where manuscripts disagree, and each variation unit has at least two variant readings. For example, in COLOSSIANS 1:2, we have “God our Father” in the following manuscripts (B D K L Ψ 33 1739 it syr cop) and “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” in (א A C F G I Maj it (syrh**) cop Jerome). COLOSSIANS 2:2 is a great example of a number of variants in a variation unit. We have the reading found in the critical texts WH NA and UBS “the mystery of God, Christ” in (P46 B), variant 1 “the mystery of God, which is Christ” (D*), variant 2 “the mystery of God” (D1 H P 1881), variant 3 “the mystery of Christ” (81 (1739) itb) variant 4 “the mystery of God, Father of Christ” (א* A C 048vid) variant 5 “the mystery of God, even the Father of Christ” (א2 Ψ 0208) variant 6/TR “the mystery of God and of the Father and of Christ” (D2 Maj syr**). Having so many variants is an indication that the scribes struggled with this text. Comparing the manuscripts with another is called collating.


“In the 1730s Bengel became the first man to categorize manuscripts according to their age and location, and to formulate the significant principle that textual witnesses must be weighed and not merely counted.” (Encountering the Manuscripts, p 293) This is still one of the chief principles of New Testament Textual Studies that is frequently repeated, “we do not count manuscripts, we weigh them.” We hear or read such comments as “The early and weighty support of P75, 03, and 05 is hard to ignore …” (MYTHS AND MISTAKES, p 205). Two quick questions immediately come to mind: (1) what does that mean? (2) What is meant by weighing a manuscript?

First, a reading might have the support of 50 or 100 manuscripts, while the other only has the support of 5 manuscripts. However, if these 50 or 100 manuscripts come from the Byzantine family, a later manuscript family, where the likelihood is that the error is in all of those manuscripts, which was simply repeated; then, they simply weigh as one manuscript. Then, when we look to the other 5 manuscripts, these may have been more accurately copied and come from a manuscript family that is known to be more accurate, so they are weightier. Generally speaking, all readings are equal and should be considered until they are evaluated. The majority of nothing is correct, for if this were true, we would all be Muslim or Catholic. It is evidence that makes something true.


The not all fallacy that misleads. This is when a textual scholar is trying to deflect a generally true statement with a general blanket statement and then not following up with any qualifications. When these types of statements are made without any qualifying information it is an effort to dodge known truths.

Person A: Wow, did you know that most textual variants are found in the later Byzantine manuscripts?
Person B: Not all early manuscripts are better and not all later manuscripts are worse.
Person C: While it is true that not all early manuscripts are better and not all later manuscripts are worse; generally speaking, the vast majority of early manuscripts are better and the vast majority of later manuscripts are worse.

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

Simple Textual Variant

John 3:13 The Greek-English New Testament Interlinear (GENTI) [WH NU]

 13 καὶAnd οὐδεὶςno one ἀναβέβηκενhas ascended εἰςinto τὸνthe οὐρανὸνheaven εἰif μὴnot the (one)   ἐκout of τοῦthe οὐρανοῦheaven καταβάς,having descended, the υἱὸςSon τοῦof the ἀνθρώπου.man.
P66 P75 א B L T Ws 083 086 cop Diatessaron

John 3:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
13 And no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of man.

John 3:13 variant/ Stephanus New Testament (TR1550)

 13 καὶAnd οὐδεὶςno one ἀναβέβηκενhas ascended εἰςinto τὸνthe οὐρανὸνheaven εἰif μὴnot the (one)   ἐκout of τοῦthe οὐρανοῦheaven καταβάς,having descended, the υἱὸςSon τοῦof the ἀνθρώπουman.  οwhoωνisενinτωtheοὐρανωheaven
(A* omit ων) Θ Ψ 050 f1, Maj

John 3:13 New King James Version (NKJV)
13 No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.

Metzger writes of the decision made by the committee of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament,

“The majority of the Committee, impressed by the quality of the external attestation supporting the shorter reading, regarded the words ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ as an interpretative gloss, reflecting later Christological development.”[1]

What is it that makes P66 P75 א B ‘quality external evidence’ or very weighty evidence over A* Θ Ψ 050 f1, Maj? Maj refers minuscules The Majority Text; that is, a group that is made up of thousands of minuscules that display a similar text. So, here we see that counting the manuscripts (the majority wins) does not mean that the majority is evidence for the preferred reading being original.


Evidence of Written Deviations from the Original Text

  • Evidence that the early scribe was a professional scribe. It means little if a 6th-9th century scribe was a professional if he is simply professionally copying the scribal errors from his exemplar that had already crept into the text. This is true unless on the rarest occasions if the 9th-century scribe has an exemplar that just so happens to be only six copies removed from the original.
  • Each time a document is copied, mistakes and intentional errors can creep into the text. The number of scribal errors will be dependent on whether the scribe is a meticulous professional, or a semi-professional, or simply one who works with documents. The general rule is, if each time a document is copied, we at least get some imperfect human mistakes at best; then, each subsequent copy will contain most of the errors from the exemplar and new ones. We say some because some scribes have two exemplars and they at times can correct a previous error. Or, they may correct something they perceived to be an error, which was not, and now is an error. Therefore, generally, the further removed a manuscript is from the original, the more ascribal errors it will have than one that is within a few copies of the original.
  • Evidence that the scribe writes with the intention of being careful and accurate
  •  The oldest found to be more accurate because the general principle is: the later the manuscript, the more time for variants to enter the text.
  • Evidence that the scribe had little or no intention of being faithful, in that he changed, added or omitted words, phrases, entire sentences.
  • Then, we must consider the Scriptural quotations from the Apostolic Fathers of the late first and early second centuries C.E., as well as the churchmen who were called Apologists and other early Church Fathers near the middle of the second century C.E. through its end, and the Church Fathers of the third to the fourth centuries C.E., whose readings are found in the text.
  • The readings more often best explain the origin of all the variant readings found in other text-types.
  • There are conciseness and simplicity, meaning that it is shorter than other readings from other texts or families, having little efforts that the scribe tried to improve, refine, or add to his copy.
  • Evidence that the scribe made grammatical and stylistic changes.
  • Evidence that the scribe intentionally made changes to clarify or complete something (combining divergent readings, that is conflation), or harmonize parallel passages.
English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

P66 P75 א B

  • P66 Papyrus 66 [150 C.E.] is of the Alexandrian text-type (more trusted). P66 comes to us by way of a professional scribe (practiced calligraphic hand, pagination numbers), a major corrector and a minor corrector. Although, a professional scribe, he took some liberties because he was a Christian and knew the Scriptures well, such as harmonizing John 6:66 to Matt. 16:16 and John 21:6 to Luke 5:5. Another indication of his being a Christian is that he made several singular readings (occurs in only in P66) that reveal that he was reding and interpreting the text. His numerous scribal errors would seem to suggest that he was inattentive at his task of copying but, in fact, he was absorbed with reading and interpreting that, at times, he forgot the word that he was supposed to be copying. Another indication that he was a professional scribe was his pausing to fix his own errors. The diorthōtēs, the person largely concerned with correcting copies according to a different exemplar. The diorthōtēs fixed his singular readings. Some of the singular readings were designed to help the reader, as P66 was made to be read in a church. The scribe of P66 has several omissions as well, some accidental from carelessness or being tired and some being on purpose. Lastly, the scribe of P66 also had a tendency to trim things out of the text where he felt they were unnecessary. See also THE SCRIBE AND CORRECTORS OF P66 (PAPYRUS 66) & PAPYRUS 66 (P66): ONE OF THE EARLIEST AVAILABLE PAPYRI
  • P75 Papyrus 75 [175-225 C.E.] is of the Alexandrian text-type (more trusted). P75 was copied by a professional scribe (tight calligraphy and controlled copying), a Christian, who was very meticulous. Like P66, P75 was written to be read aloud in church. Comfort tells us, “The scribe even added a system of sectional divisions to aid any would-be lector..” P75 is extremely accurate and it is in 85% agreement with Codex Vaticanus. A manuscript like P75 was used to make Codex Vaticanus. Mind you, P75 is only 120 years removed from Luke’s Gospel and a mere 75 years removed from John’s Gospel. Less time for corruption to slip into the text. Of course, P75 is not perfect, as he had to correct himself 116 times. Comfort writes, “The scribe of P75 shows a clear tendency to make grammatical and stylistic improvements in keeping with the Alexandrian scriptorial tradition, and the scribe had a tendency to shorten his text, particularly by dropping pronouns. However, his omissions of text hardly ever extend beyond a word or two, probably because he copied letter by letter and syllable by syllable.” See also TEXTUAL CHARACTER AND THE SCRIBE OF P75 (PAPYRUS 75) & PAPYRUS 75 (P75): THE MANUSCRIPT THAT CHANGED THE THINKING OF TEXTUAL SCHOLARS
  • א Codex Sinaiticus [330-360 C.E.] is of the Alexandrian text-type (more trusted). Scribe A who did almost all of the New Testament had made some strangely serious mistakes. The scribe was not too careful but he intended to be accurate. Scribe A was a professional scribe who made an effort to correct his mistakes. It is true that the scribe A of Sinaiticus was not as careful as the scribe of the Vaticanus. Not only was he more inclined to errors, but to creative corrections. However, scribe D was the best of all the scribes, as he corrects his own work and that of scribe A. Sinaicticus was an early text, meaning less time for corruption. Scribe A had every intention of being faithful to his exemplar. There was no effort made to add to his exmplar. Textual scholars have considered the Codex Sinaiticus to be one of the best Greek texts of the New Testament. See also CODEX SINAITICUS: ONE OF THE MOST RELIABLE WITNESSES TO THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT TEXT
  • B Codex Vaticanus [300-325 C.E.] is of the Alexandrian text-type (more trusted). It is an early manuscript, less time for corruption and its exemplar was early like P75. The scribe was a professional scribe. “Even some of the early manuscripts show compelling evidence of being copies of a much earlier source. Consider again Codex Vaticanus, whose text is very much like that of P75 (B and P75 are much closer to each other than B is to [Codex Sinaiticus]). Yet the papyrus is at least a century older than Vaticanus.” (Komoszewski, M. Sawyer and Wallace 2006, 78) T. C. Skeat, who had an opportunity to do a more extensive examination of the codex, contested the position of a third scribe (C) and argued that there were only two scribes, both working on the Old Testament (A and B), and one of them copying the entire New Testament (B). Other paleographers agree with Skeat. Scribe (A) wrote Genesis through 1 Kings (pp 41–334) and Psalms through Tobias (pages 625–944). Scribe (B) wrote 1 Kings through 2 Esdra (pp 335–624), Hosea through Daniel (pp 945–1234), and the entire New Testament.[13] One corrector worked on Vaticanus soon after its writing, and another corrector from the 10th or 11th century worked on the manuscript. The latter corrector traced over the faded letters with fresh ink. However, he also omitted words and letters he judged to be wrong, as well as adding accent and breathing marks. See also CODEX VATICANUS: WHY A TREASURE?

There is much more that could be said as to what goes into determining the trustworthiness of a manuscript, as well as a manuscript family. Just as true of all human families, not every member is representative of the whole. So, not all Alexandrian manuscripts are of the caliber of P75 and Codex Vaticanus but almost all are trustworthy and many had a professional scribe as well.

[1] Bruce Manning Metzger, United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 175.

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