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Texts and Versions (New Testament)

See also New Testament

TEXTS AND VERSIONS (NEW TESTAMENT). The Bible, and especially the NT, occupies a unique place in the literature of ancient times, and part of that uniqueness is the history of its transmission through the centuries. No other ancient writing approaches it in the number of copies made of it from the time it was written until the age of printing; its existing MSS approach the date of its origin far more closely than do the MSS of almost any other piece of ancient literature; and the NT (with the OT) stands virtually alone in the literature of antiquity as a work that was translated into other languages. In the beginning, of course, there was no “New Testament” as a single volume. The individual books were written over a period of years and afterward were gradually brought together (see Canonicity).

1. The Greek manuscripts. What did a book of the NT look like when it was first written? Its language was Greek. There doubtless were both written and oral records, probably both in Aramaic and in Greek, that lay behind the Gospels. Proof is lacking, however, that any of the NT books as such were originally written in Aramaic.

An original copy of a NT book was probably written on papyrus sheets, either folded into a codex, which is the modern book form, or possibly on a papyrus roll. It was long thought that the earliest copies of the NT books were written in roll form, since this was the regular form for both the OT and for other literary writings of the period. However, even the very oldest NT papyrus MSS or fragments that are now known are in the codex form, not the roll. Although the codex form was used for notes, rough drafts of an author’s work, etc., the early Christians were pioneers in using the codex form for literary purposes—i.e., for copies of books of the NT and perhaps for the originals of some of the NT books. The codex was far better suited for ready reference to passages and was generally easier to use than the roll.

The style of the Greek letters in the original of a NT book may have been one of two in common use. Literary works of the period were written in “uncial” or “majuscule” letters, rounded capitals, the letters not connected to each other. A “cursive” or “minuscule” hand, in which the letters were connected, somewhat as in English longhand writing, was used for personal letters, business receipts, and other nonliterary materials. The Greek MSS were written with no separation between words. This was not merely in order to save space, because the size of the letters in many MSS indicates that space was not necessarily an important consideration. It was simply an accepted custom. Latin MSS similarly do not separate words, but Hebrew MSS do. The originals of Paul’s letters may therefore have been written in the cursive hand as being simply private correspondence; the Gospels would probably have been originally written in uncial letters. Of course, when Paul’s letters began to be copied and recopied, they would be thought of as public writings and would doubtless soon be copied in uncial letters. All of the earliest known MSS of the NT are written in uncial letters.

The first three centuries are the period of the use of papyrus as a writing material. Sheets were made from thin strips of the papyrus reed, which grew along the Nile and in a very few other places in the Mediterranean world. The strips were laid side by side, with a second layer placed on top at right angles to the first layer. Pounded together and dried in the sun, these sheets made very serviceable material for writing with a reed pen. In a roll, the side that normally received the writing was the side on which the strips were horizontal. In the codex form, both sides would be used, but the “verso,” where the strips were vertical, would give the writer more difficulty than the “recto.”

At the beginning of the fourth century a.d., a notable change occurred in the production of NT MSS, when vellum or parchment began to displace papyrus as a writing material. The use of tanned skins for a writing material had long been known and was commonly used for the Hebrew OT. Vellum and parchment, however, are skins that have been treated with lime and made into a thin material having a smooth, firm writing surface. The term “vellum” was applied to the finer skins of calf, kid, or lamb; and “parchment” (from Pergamene, a city prominent in its manufacture) was applied to ordinary skins; but the two terms are now used synonymously. A few papyrus MSS of the NT from the fifth and sixth centuries are known; but apparently papyrus was quickly displaced by the far more durable parchment, and the fourth century may be called the beginning of the parchment period of NT MSS, a period lasting until the introduction of paper as a writing material in the fourteenth century.

In the ninth century a.d. another significant change occurred, with the development of the cursive style of handwriting into a literary hand called “minuscule.” By the end of the tenth century the uncial hand had been completely displaced by the minuscule, which remained the regular style of writing until the invention of printing.

In addition to the MSS containing a continuous NT text, many MSS of lectionaries from these centuries have survived. These are MSS that contain NT passages organized for reading on particular days.

We may summarize as follows: From the first to the fourth centuries a.d., NT MSS were written in uncial letters on papyrus; from the fourth to the tenth, in uncial letters on vellum; from the tenth to the fourteenth, in minuscule letters on vellum; from the fourteenth to the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, in minuscule letters on paper.

Almost 70 papyrus MSS and fragments are known, about 250 uncial MSS, 2,500 cursive MSS, and 1,600 lectionaries. Papyri are designated by “P” and a superscript number (e.g., P66). Uncials are designated by capital letters of the English and Greek alphabets plus א (the Hebrew letter Aleph) so far as these letters permit; but all uncials are also designated by a number with a zero prefixed (e.g., 047). Cursives are designated by a number only (e.g., 565), and lectionaries by a number with a lower-case letter l prefixed and sometimes italicized (e.g., l299).

2. Variant readings. While these developments in writing were taking place, there were other developments concerning the text of these MSS. Since copies were made individually by hand, mistakes and changes inevitably occurred—omissions, additions, changes of words, word order, and spelling—usually unintentionally made, but sometimes intentionally to clarify, explain, or to avoid a doctrinal misunderstanding. In the MSS now known there are thousands of these “variants.” The vast majority, however, make no difference in meaning; and the application of accepted principles of textual criticism makes it possible to determine the original form of the text for all practical purposes, though not to verbal perfection. No fundamental Christian doctrine is left in doubt by any textual variant.

These variants, moreover, tended to group themselves into companies. A MS tended to contain the errors of the MS from which it was copied. As MSS were carried to various cities and lands, and as copies were made from MSS at hand, the MSS of a given region would tend to contain a similar group of variants, and these would be somewhat different from the variants of MSS in another region. Scholars recognize at least three of these “text-types,” as they are called, from the fifth century a.d. and earlier: “Alexandrian,” “Caesarean,” and “Western”—names that are only partially significant geographically. After the official recognition of Christianity in the fourth century a.d., with more opportunity to compare MSS, these “local texts” were gradually displaced by a type of text that tended to smooth out rough constructions, harmonize parallel passages, and make for ease of understanding. This text-type, known as “Byzantine,” was dominant by the eighth century. It remained the accepted text, becoming known as the “Textus Receptus” after the invention of printing, and was the principal text behind the King James Version. It was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that textual scholarship switched to the other text-types.

3. Patristic quotations. If every MS of the NT itself were destroyed, the NT could virtually be reconstructed from another significant source: the thousands of quotations of NT passages in the writings of the ancient church fathers, principally in Greek, Latin, and Syriac. These quotations must be consulted with care, as they were often given from memory or simply as a scriptural allusion and hence not verbally exact. Yet many are textually reliable; and these are valuable, because readings quoted by a particular church father can usually be assumed to have been current during that man’s lifetime and in the region of his activity.

4. Ancient versions. In the case of most ancient writings, when the MSS in the original language of the work have been consulted, the limits of the field have been reached. The Bible, especially the NT, is therefore virtually unique in ancient literature in this respect, for not only was it translated into other languages in the earliest centuries of its history, but these translations are sufficiently accurate to be of help in textual criticism in determining the original text of the NT. Of course, no original MSS of these ancient translations remain, and the copies that are known must first be examined to determine the original text of the translation. However, certain types of Greek variants would not be reflected in certain versions (e.g., the presence or absence of a definite article in Greek would not normally be reflected in Latin, as Latin has no definite article); but in many respects the versions are useful, not least in helping to show the regions in which certain textual readings were current.

The NT must have been translated into Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire, very shortly after the books were written and certainly before the second century a.d. had passed. The forty or so extant MSS of this Old Latin differ extensively among themselves, and it is not clear whether they represent one or several translations. As a result of these variations, in 382 Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome to undertake a revision of the Latin Bible. In the NT Jerome worked cautiously, making changes only where he felt they were absolutely necessary. This revision, the Latin Vulgate, became the official Bible of the Western church and remains the official Roman Catholic Bible. Probably eight thousand MSS are in existence.

Syriac, a dialect related to Aramaic, which was spoken in lands around Palestine, likewise received the NT during the second century a.d. The first such translation seems to have been either the original or a translation of a Greek original of a continuous Gospel account known as the Diatessaron (meaning “through the four”), constructed by combining elements from all four Gospels. It was composed about 160 by Tatian and seems to have been the Syriac Gospel in common use for over a century. There was also made, however, perhaps in the second century, a translation of the four Gospels, known as the Old Syriac, which is now known in two MSS, the Sinaitic and the Curetonian.

The Syriac that is still the standard version is the Peshitta (meaning “simple”), translated in the fifth century a.d., perhaps by Rabbula, bishop of Edessa. Some 250 MSS are known, none of which contains 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, or Revelation. The Peshitta was revised in 508 by authority of Philoxenus, bishop of Mabbog. It is thought by some that this Philoxenian version still exists in or is related to the current Syriac text of the four books named above, which were not in the original Peshitta but are now printed in the Syriac NT. The Philoxenian was in turn revised in 616 by Thomas of Harkel. The Harklean Syriac is such an extremely literal translation from the Greek that it even violates Syriac idiom at times to follow the Greek. It is likewise characterized by numerous marginal alternative readings, often in Greek. About fifty MSS of this version are known.

The Palestinian Syriac version was made about the sixth century. It exists in fragmentary MSS, including some lectionary material. The so-called Karkaphensian Syriac, which has sometimes been named as a version, is in fact only a collection of Scripture passages accompanied by notes on spelling and pronunciation.

Likewise significant in textual criticism are the two principal versions of Egypt. The earlier of these is the Sahidic, the dialect of southern Egypt, which probably received its NT in the third century a.d. It exists in numerous but fragmentary MSS. The Bohairic, the dialect of Alexandria and the Nile Delta, was more literary and later displaced the other dialects to become the current Coptic. About one hundred MSS of the Bohairic NT are known. There are fragments of versions in three other Egyptian dialects: Fayumic, Middle Egyptian, and Akhmimic.

The Gothic version, translated very accurately from the Greek by the Gothic Bishop Ulfilas, dates from the fourth century a.d. and is the earliest version representing the Byzantine text-type.

The Armenian version originated about a.d. 400, the work of Mesrop and Sahak, using an alphabet created by Mesrop. The version was probably made from Syriac. A revision was made a century or two later. Many MSS of the Armenian version are known, but only one is earlier than the tenth century.

Christianity became established in Georgia in the fourth century a.d., and the Georgian version of the NT probably was in existence before the middle of the fifth century, apparently translated from Armenian. A thorough revision, based on Greek MSS, was made about the eleventh century.

The Ethiopic version originated about a.d. 600, perhaps translated from Syriac rather than Greek. About one hundred MSS are extant, but the earliest is from the thirteenth century.

The NT was translated into Arabic by about the seventh century. Several translations were made at various periods from the Syriac, Greek, Coptic, and Latin.

The Persian exists in two versions, the earlier made from the Peshitta and the later one from the Greek. They are later than the Arabic, but the exact date is unknown.

The Slavonic version originated in the ninth century a.d., the work of Cyril and Methodius, who translated from Greek into the Macedo-Bulgarian dialect, using an alphabet created by Cyril. This version is only partially extant.

Other translations were made from time to time, but they have virtually no significance for textual study and are more appropriately dealt with under the subject of Bible translations.

See Bible, English Versions.

Bibliography: W. H. P. Hatch, The Principal Uncial Manuscripts of the New Testament, 1939; C. C. Torrey, Documents of the Primitive Church, 1941; B. J. Roberts, The Old Testament Text and Versions, 1951; E. Wuerthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 1957; H. G. G. Herklots, How Our Bible Came to Us, 1954; F. G. Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, rev. 1958; F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, rev. 1963; B. M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 1964; J. H. Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, 1964; S. Jellicoe, The Septuagint and Modern Study, 1968; P. Walters, The Text of the Septuagint, 1973.——JHG