Reconstructing the New Testament: Greek Manuscripts

     Reconstruction of the New Testament is understandably much easier than the Old Testament. Length and age are two primary factors for this disparity; however, another major and often unrecognized factor is the quicker circulation of the Scriptures outside of Israel due to the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles as well. As mentioned in a previous article, there are literally tens of thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament, some only scraps of text and others entire copies. These often including the Old Testament as well. As for Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, there are some 6,000 or so manuscripts. The number increases as more discoveries are found and more texts are translated.

     Several distinguishing features make Greek MSS invaluable in textual reconstruction. Many of the MSS are dated with the exact day and year they were copied. Also, styles of copying and materials used enable scholars to more easily confirm the authenticity and date of these documents. For example, uncial script used all capital Greek letters and was used prior to the 10th century; minuscule script, smaller and akin to cursive, dates to after the 10th century. The earlier uncial script is reflected in a little more than 10% of overall Greek manuscripts, totaling close to 650.

     Given how many manuscripts there are, how do researchers keep track of them all? Each manuscript is catalogued in systems of identification. Originally, one main system used capital letters for uncial manuscripts and numbers for minuscule manuscripts. Later, this customary designation was updated with all manuscripts having numbers, but uncial manuscripts started with a zero.

     So, which Greek manuscripts are the most important? By and large the most important copies of the Scriptures are the oldest. At least 50 papyri date from the 2nd-4th century. Additionally, our oldest vellum Bible manuscripts are complete or almost complete copies of the New Testament, and practically all of the Old Testament as well! Of these resources, the three most important manuscripts date from AD 300-450 and although they are worn, faded, and unattractive in many respects, they are the greatest treasures we have as they are the oldest Bibles in the world!

     The most important witness to the text of the New Testament is Codex Vaticanus, aka the Vatican Manuscript (designated B or 03). It is a fourth century manuscript housed in the Vatican Library in Rome and has been there since at least 1481. At times selections of the manuscript were shared, but it was not until nearly 400 years after its addition to the Vatican Library that entire copies of it were produced. Among these copies included Constantin Tischendorf’s late 1800s edition and the Roman facsimile editions of 1868-1881 and 1889-1890. Since then of course, many copies and photographs have been made. This amazing manuscript is a bound codex containing 759 vellum leaves attesting to nearly all of the Old and New Testaments. Leaves bearing most of Genesis, some Psalms, and some books ending the New Testament (i.e., Hebrews, Timothy, Titus, Revelation) have been lost. It remains one of the purest copies of the Bible.

     Second to the Vatican Manuscript is Codex Sinaiticus, aka the Sinaitic Manuscript (designated by the Hebrew letter Aleph or 01). It is also a fourth century manuscript containing most of the Old and all of the New Testament. Constantin Tischendorf found parts of this manuscript in 1844 in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. It was not until he had returned and looked two more times that he finally found the rest of it in 1859 (the library at the monastery was in much disrepair). Around the time of the American Civil War, Tischendorf convinced the monks to sell the manuscript to the Czar of Russia. The manuscript then passed to the British in 1933 for a hefty sum of 100,000 pounds ($500k) and is now housed at the British Library. It is recognized as the oldest complete New Testament.

     Alongside Codex Sinaiticus in the British Library is Codex Alexandrinus, aka the Alexandrian Manuscript (designated A or 02). It has 773 leaves, 630 in the Old Testament and 143 in the New Testament, and is a mostly complete Bible. It dates to the 5th century and bears some stylistic differences from the earlier Vaticanus and Sinaiticus Manuscripts. The Alexandrian Manuscript was offered as a gift, to King Charles I of England in 1627. At the time, this stirred up as much excitement as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls!

     Note that all three of these significant Greek manuscripts were made public AFTER the King James Version was made from 1604-1611. There are of course other significant manuscripts like Codex Ephraem (designated C or 04) and Codex Bezae (D or 05), but these and others are not as pure, as complete, or as old in many cases as the top three shared here. These three are the primary witnesses to the New Testament and when you see footnotes saying that, “Early manuscripts do not contain this verse,” they are referring to its absence in three primary manuscripts. Of course, the variant may be present in thousands of other manuscripts, so notes like these can often be misleading. There may be excellent testimony for the verses outside of these three manuscripts and that should be conscientiously considered and weighed.

     In our next article, we will briefly consider some ancient versions that help reconstruct the New Testament. Keep in mind that by this point many of the VSS also include the Old Testament and are therefore complementary to our previous discussions on reconstructing the Old Testament.