Lecture 08: History of Manuscript Transmission | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 08: History of Manuscript Transmission

Course: Textual Criticism

Lecture: History of Manuscript Transmission


A. Brief History of the Transmission of the Text

1. Three Fundamental Issues

There is the history of the transmission of the text and then the history of the discipline of textual criticism. There are three fundament issues with the early copies of manuscripts and the causes of corruption. The second is the role of the canon in shaping the New Testament. Many think that as soon as the apostles wrote their books, they knew that they were writing Scripture, but the evidence is against that. What we have in the 2nd century in the apostle father’s writing; these were the earliest writing we have outside of the New Testament by Christians. They were very slow to say that the New Testament was Scripture or was inspired. It took some time before that admission came about. We had an emerging canon consciousness beginning in the 2nd century which continued through to the 4th century when finally the church fathers acknowledged the New Testament. Eusebius does that earlier on in about 325 AD and then Augustine and Gerome in the west do it later. So, you have this canon consciousness and what that does for the New Testament; if you viewing a book not as Scripture, you might feel the freedom to change some text and the book in the New Testament that underwent the most changes was because of that, predictably was the Book of Acts. It was a book that dealt with the history of the early church when a number of people were still alive. It takes the history of the Gospels and then it goes another thirty years or so. And so we have one form of the text that actually adds almost ten percent more material to the Book of Acts, some of which may well be from personal reminiscences of people. Then, once it began to be recognized as Scripture, that had a particular affect as well on the shape of the text and more errors of a different sort were created precisely because of that. There was the emergence of local text forms. As the church grew, it got into major areas where larger churches began to govern the region in regards to policy and doctrine. So they began to have a kind of local text form as such; you could call it a regional original.

B. Early Copies and the Causes of Corruption

1. All manuscripts were handwritten

Therefore, all scribes made mistakes. One of the most interesting evidences for this; you may have heard of the Saint John’s Bible which was produced in Collegeville, Minnesota by the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library. The Saint John’s Bible is a revised standard version that has taken many years to produce. It is a handwritten copy of the printed text on white vellum of which they commissioned various artists to do some of the artwork. They had these icons, like stain class windows in this manuscript. They were writing out the NRSV; there were highly trained calligraphers who were doing the work. I went through some of the leaves of the master document which was photographed. It is a fascinating Bible. But in going through some of the leaves, I noticed in one place they had left out a verse. We are talking about a text that has cost over a million dollars to produce. You might think that they would take that bifolio, the double leaf, and throw it away and start again. No, they drew an arrow into margin and wrote out what the verse said. And when it came to ancient manuscripts, the same kinds of things were done. So they didn’t fix the mistakes by starting over. When you write a manuscript, you will make mistakes.

2. Mistakes are of Two Kinds

There are unintentional and intentional mistakes. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether a scribe is intending to change the text or not. No scribe thinks that he or she wants to make a mistake in their writing. And then the earlier scribes were not professionally trained.

3. What kind of Unintentional Mistakes did the earliest Scribes make

Until the Greek New Testament was produced on a printing press in 1514, all copies of the Bible were done by hand. The first published Greek New Testament was made by Erasmus in 1516 but the first printed Greek New Testament was done in Spain by a Spanish cardinal, Ximines. He printed a polyglot Bible consisting of the Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin texts. It is one of those great curiosities; a fascinating piece of history which was printed first at a monastery and the monastery was trying to get the Papal Informatory on it and waited for eight years before they got a high official in Rome to agree to it. They made eight hundred copies but it was produced before Erasmus text was. Erasmus was actually in a race against these people. There is never a clean-cut story of some of the history behind these printings. Even after the date of the printing press, we had scores of New Testaments that were handwritten which weren’t based on the printed text. Unintentional mistakes were due to problems of sight, hearing, memory, fatigue or carelessness. If you take notes through these lectures, you know what all that means. Interestingly, the majority of New Testament scholars have talked about the error in not hearing properly. These scribes would copy out text by listening to a lecturer read them out loud and so you might have a dozen students that were writing the text out. Actually, we have next to no evidence at all that manuscripts had been copied in that way. We have one icon in Arminian showing a lecturer reading a text out loud to a couple of students. But this wasn’t the typical way, as the vast majority of New Testament manuscripts were copied with one scribe reading directly what was in front of him. And so hearing was only a problem with their own ears because they never read these texts silently. They read them out loud. So you got a scribe reading a text in front of them; he will see it, he will read it, he will hear it and then he will write it from memory. It was a five-step process and there could have been mistakes made at any stage.

Sight was especially a big issue. What scribes would do, there is an issue in seeing the end of the line and it is identical to what they see in another line; so what they may have ended up doing was skipping ahead down a copy of lines or they would go higher up reproducing those verses again. There is a
passage in Codex Sinaiticus in 1st Thessalonians chapter 2 where the scribe saw the end of the line, he missed where he was in the text, went up eight lines and started to write the verses out again and then he realized what he had done. Then he decided to change the text by writing in the second time. It is a fascinating passage and almost never discussed in literature. Sometimes their memory was bad; even when they read the text out loud to themselves. We know some scribes would write one letter at a time; obviously memory would not be a big problem for those who did this. The Scribe of Codex P75 was done this way; perhaps he wrote out two letters at a time. The only kinds of errors that were made were all unintentional by the transposition of two letters, never three or four letters. Then Codex D, Codex Bazae a famous manuscript at Cambridge University, the scribe copied as much as nine words at a time; so we have here those who write one and two-letter verses writing nine words at a time. There was also the problem of fatigue with scribes. In collating these manuscripts, I have been able to even see where the scribe stopped work for the day, having made nonsense errors and then they go away and when he started afresh the next day. We know that the scribes during the Middle Ages wrote as much as six hours a day. So you have carelessness, if they are not attentive to what they were doing.

We have also commented that the earlier scribes were not professionally trained so what kind of mistakes did they make? Some have suggested that these earlier scribes were the worst scribes ever because they were not professionals and in addition their mistakes were difficult to trace. Well, all three of the suppositions are demonstratively false. Some of the earliest manuscripts were actually done very carefully, even though they were done by non-professional scribes. Some of the earliest manuscripts were also done by professionals, so to say that all the earlier scribes were not professionals isn’t exactly true as well. You might have had a scribe whose handwriting wasn’t particularly neat but he was extremely faithful to the text he was copying. A good illustration of this is the difference between P66 and P75, two of our early papyri manuscripts. P66 was done by a scribe who was totally consumed with writing pretty letters. He was a good calligrapher but then the P75 manuscript looked like chicken scratches, yet it was a very faithful text. The P66 scribe was more concerned with getting the text to look beautiful than getting the text right. He would drop an article or add a pronoun and this kind of thing. But the kind of mistakes that were made were typical unintentional; these were the easiest types to discover. They made unintentional errors which made it easy to see and correct. The early scribes were often bureaucrats, bean counters or CPAs and not very creative as such but they were faithful in what they were doing.

A literary scribe knew how to write in what was called the notional linearity of the text; they would envision the top and the bottom line which were not written in ink, it was a conceptual way in which they viewed this, keeping all the letters except for about four of them completely within the top and bottom lines. They would make the letters uniform size; this was difficult with no lines on the page and then on papyrus there were papyrus reed lines going in every direction. So these scribes were really good. But they would sometimes be so focused on these things; they may have not been as faithful to the text. What we have frequently in our New Testament manuscripts, precisely because we can read them and compare them to others are manuscripts that were written by non-professionals, by those who were not professionally trained to be literary scribes and yet they were faithful to the text. We can tell that by how they copied out the texts and the kinds of mistakes they made. Bart Ehrman has promoted his book by saying that the earliest scribes were not professionally trained, but my response to him; are you saying because they were professionally trained, they made more mistakes than later scribes? What kind of mistakes did they make? He will not discuss this question with me.

4. Intentional Mistakes

Then there were intentional mistakes which weren’t done maliciously on part of the scribe, except perhaps on a very rare occasion. We know that unorthodox and orthodox scribes both copied out the New Testament, but that doesn’t’ mean that they were changing the text all over the place to conform to their theology. There is a degree of that but only a small degree and we can detect it for the most part, at least ninety-nine percent of the time. This doesn’t mean that the scribes just decided to change a text as such either. The strongest evidence we have for a group of manuscripts being changed
were those of the Book of Revelation where Revelation was used as almost a rabbit’s foot in mystery religions. So you had these people who were not Christians but yet who did some very faithful copies of Revelation. Every scribe was aware that they were copying an authoritative text, whether they saw it as Scripture, this perhaps took some time to understand and realize. But in later centuries they did realize that they were copying an inspired text. And yet every scribe also knew the manuscript he was copying had flaws in it; and so they would try to correct those flaws, sometimes the things they corrected were not flaws. One of the most common purposeful corrections was the harmonization of the Gospels. A scribe that just copied something out of Matthew and now working on Mark and was dealing with a parallel passage; we know that Mark says things differently from what Matthew does and so what does the scribe do? Well, they think that a previous scribe got it wrong and so they change it to what Matthew has said. Matthew’s Gospel was the most popular Christian book in the ancient world and the Gospels tended to be conformed to Matthew.

So this harmonization of the Gospels was everywhere, but yet all of the manuscripts harmonized for any substantial text were harmonized by these individual scribes. Sometimes, they would read a marginal note in the manuscripts and assume that it should have been included in the text. It may have been a marginal note by a pastor who was just commenting on the passage. Most of the time, if you are going to have a marginal note with an arrow showing you where the verse went, but sometimes they would forget the arrow. So now, the scribe had to guess what the marginal note was or was it something that they were supposed to enter into the text. There was a kind of scribal mantra: if in doubt, put it in, don’t leave it out. Another way in which they would change the text was when the New Testament author quoted from the Old Testament. Does it conform to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament? And these scribes may have been copying out an entire Bible or they may have copied out the Septuagint several times before and they might know that Old Testament text. They see the quotation of the Old Testament by a New Testament writer and think that it doesn’t form to the Septuagint so they may have thought the previous scribe made a mistake.

Even if we give these scribes the highest possible bibliology; if they believed that the Bible was inerrant, they still recognized that the manuscript that they were copying from was not inerrant, it was a copy made by an inerrant scribe who introduced errors. And when they were trying to sift through what those errors were, was it something that the scribe did or was it something that was originally in the text. They often made mistakes by putting in the wrong readings. But fortunately we have been able to find all of those as they were fairly easy to detect.

There was an emerging canon consciousness in the 2nd century where they felt the freedom to add, subtract or change before the canon settled. This was to fix the style, especially to add explanatory terms. This was one of the key things that scribes did in deciding to add words for phrases so that the readers were able to understand the text. New Testament books were supplemented with personal reminiscences and hearsay, for example in the Book of Acts as already mentioned. And what we call the western texts were more uncontrolled as it was sometimes also a missionary text. Virtually every manuscript we have of the western texts is either not in Greek or if it is in Greek, it is a two-language text. This suggests that it is a missionary text, expanding Christianity beyond the realm of the Greek-speaking world. So it has a number of changes. It is like the dynamic equivalent that you would have to use if you go into a different culture and then learn a way to talk to somebody who lives in the desert about snow, for example. To under that Jesus would wash our sins whiter than snow. You would have to use something that would relate to what this means.

So the early period showed two distinct kinds of copying: controlled and uncontrolled. The western was largely uncontrolled, but it was demonstratively earlier. The Alexandrian was carefully controlled and had roots deep in the 2nd century. We will talk about these text forms later. But this shows us that the age of a manuscript is not the only criterion of its value. We will clarify all the information in later lectures.

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