As an ancient document, the Bible is unique. One does not have to be Christian or Jewish to realize this. In its external preservation over the centuries, the Bible is certainly unique unequaled by any other continuously used document of antiquity.
No other work of antiquity can lay claim to the multitude of manuscript witnesses of the Old and New Testaments. Few can assemble major textual evidence which is as close in time to the original writers as much of both Testaments.
Most students of ancient history and literature would be enraptured and ecstatic to discover a small fraction of the ancient testimony for documents important to them as biblical scholars already have. Yet important discoveries have added significantly to the textual stock of the bible even in this century, some of it as recent as the last 55 years.
For example, a small fragment of papyrus in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, is one of the most interesting pieces of writing available. It preserves parts of John 18:31-33, 37-38. The interest is the age of this fragment. Scholars generally agree that it was written before A.D. 150. Since the Gospel of John is thought to have been written in the last decade of the first century, we have a part of it less than half a century removed from the actual autograph edition!
The degree to which New Testament scholars are more fortunate than their colleagues in classical Greek literature is made plain by the titled “Remains of Other Ancient Writings.” Old Testament scholars are similarly fortunate, though in a slightly different way.
In surveying the history of the biblical text, its scholarship and witnesses, let’s first take a look at the Greek Testament of the Christian Church.
The entirety of the New Testament was essentially complete by about A.D. 100. The canon of the New Testament has been an accepted dogma in Christianity for most of its history. Granted, there were certain disputes and disagreements for a time. Some areas of Christianity did not accept such writings as the epistles of John or the book of Revelation at first. The reason may be partly due to the fact that these books were the last of the New Testament to be written. Missionaries evidently spread Christianity to some areas before these books were produced.
However, questions about the canon were mainly confined to the first few centuries A.D. and concerned only a few books. Such heresies as that of Marcion who accepted only a version of Luke and some of the Pauline letters, were quickly rejected. For one and a half millennia the state of the New Testament canon has been secure.
For a couple of centuries or so after its completion, the New Testament was fairly widely read in Greek since Greek was the common language of the early Roman Empire. However, with time, the knowledge of Greek began to decline in the Western Empire (western Europe, Italy and North Africa) and be replaced by Latin. With the fall off Rome and the commencement of the “Dark Ages,” Greek became restricted mainly to Greece and the surrounding area.
The result was the need for a translation into the more commonly used Latin of the time. At the end of the 4th century, Jerome issued an official version of the New Testament in Latin (only a revision of an earlier translation or translations rather than a new one). Then, after studying Hebrew for a number of years, Jerome made a translation of the Old Testament from the original. His Latin version, known as the Vulgate, became the standard version of the Bible for almost a thousand years. Most people could not read, but those who could had learned Latin. So the Vulgate became the common version and made the Scriptures available to any educated person.
However, in the 15th century, during the Renaissance, Greek studies revived. Erasmus, a great scholar of the time, produced an edition of the Greek text and had it printed. Once again the original version of the New Testament was available. Many vernacular editions of the Bible were translated from Erasmus’ text, including the popular King James Version in English.
Yet Erasmus had made his edition from some very late Greek manuscripts. This was not by choice. He knew of an ancient manuscript of great reputation in the Vatican. Erasmus wanted to use it for his edition, but was prevented by his age and physical circumstances. If he had been able to travel to Rome to use it, perhaps a later controversy about his Greek text would have been avoided.
With time Erasmus’ text became vested with such authority, one would have thought it had the personal signatures of the apostles on it. It became known as the Textus Receptus. The “received text.” Although a few editings were made in it, it remained substantially the same as that of Erasmus’ last edition. Erasmus himself would hardly have approved of this veneration.
But scholars began to recognize there were other versions of the Greek text, some of them in much older manuscripts. Things came to a head in the late 1800s. At this time two British New Testament scholars, Westcott and Hort, produced a new edition of the Greek New Testament with a defense of it. Their findings may be summarized as follows:
The Byzantine text, represented by the bulk of all manuscripts, of which the Textus Receptus was the major printed edition. However, the text as a whole was found only in later manuscripts and most of its unique readings could not be traced back before about the 5th century at the earliest. Besides, they were often composite readings or had other secondary characteristics.
The Alexandrian text, represented by the great Vaticanus manuscript which Erasmus had wanted to use. It was attested in the earliest manuscripts then known. Furthermore, it best conformed to the internal canons of textual criticism which scholars had worked out in dealing with other ancient writings. It was basically this text which Westcott and Hort followed.
- The Western text, actually a term used to cover a text which varied greatly from manuscript to manuscript. It seemed to be a “wild” text which has had little editorial control and which sort of developed in its own undisciplined way like an unpruned hedge. Although this text was attested for a fairly early time, it was generally rejected by Westcott and Hort because internal canons of criticism showed it to be a secondary text.
Naturally, the Westcott and Hort text was not accepted without a fight. Although they had accepted textual scholarship and logic mainly on their side, the entrenched Textus Receptus was not to be easily dislodged.
Of course, scholars recognized the uncertain nature of many readings. For this reason, an attempt was made to produce a “critical edition,” an edition, which gave readings from different manuscripts where they varied from the printed text. A convenient edition was produced by Nestle in Germany not long after Westcott and Hort, others followed.
Since that time a good deal of work has been done, yet the state of the field has not really changed much since Westcott and Hort. A number of critical editions have been produced to try to keep up with the latest research. Yet the two most widely used editions of the Greek New Testament, the Nestle and the United Bible Societies texts, do not differ essentially from the Westcott-Hort text. The last century has seen a number of new discoveries, including the papyrus fragment of John mentioned at the beginning of the article.
Most of these finds have been basically of the Alexandrian or the Western text-types. Thus, the picture painted by Westcott and Hort from 4th and 5th century manuscripts has not been appreciably affected by the work done and the material discovered since their time. A few scholars did advance the idea that the Western text might be the most original, but this idea is almost totally rejected now. Because of the lack of any major new trends, one textual scholar wrote of the “twentieth century interlude in New Testament textual criticism” (Journal of Biblical Literature 93, 1975, p. 386ff).
A Christian may wonder what difference it makes between using one Greek text as opposed to another. The answer is, very little.
For a scholar working on a technical point of research, a textual variant may be quite significant. But for the average Christian whose primary concern is the basic meaning of the text, the different variants produce little significant change in sense when a given passage is read in its immediate context and in the light on the overall teaching of the New Testament.
The King James Version, familiar to most in the English-speaking world, was based on Erasmus’s printed text. So were a number of early translations into the vernacular. Most modern translations, on the other hand, make use of the Nestle or some other versions of the Westcott-Hort text. The differences between them are usually ones of interpretation or English idiom rather than of Greek textual reading.
The only differences involving major sections are two: the ending of Mark and the section on the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53; 8:11). In neither case would a person’s’ basic understanding of Christianity be affected, whether these were accepted or rejected as Scripture. Yet both of these passages have been traditionally accepted for a considerable period of time and are both quite early, even though a first-century origin cannot be proved. As Bruce Metzger writes about the passage in John: “The account has all the earmarks of historical veracity” (Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 22). A similar judgment applies to the traditional ending of Mark.
Most modern translations list significant variant readings in footnotes just as editions of the Greek text list major variants in a critical apparatus. One might ask whether these variants have much theological significance. That is, did someone deliberately change the text because of some theological prejudice? Again the answer is no. The vast majority of variants are the type one would find in any early piece of literature. They arose through scribal practice and error or through slightly variant forms of a story which naturally arose before the age of printing. (Compare the slight differences in wording between the way you learned the Mother Goose rhymes and the way someone else may have learned them.)
For example, the manuscripts at a particular passage may disagree over whether it should be read “Jesus,” “Christ,” or “God.” Or they may disagree over the tense of a verb. Sometimes a scribe will assimilate two similar passages together. That is, he will add information to a passage which did not originally appear there but did appear in a parallel passage. The sense of one passage is thus changed, but the overall story is in no way affected.
As an example of probable assimilation, take Matthew 1:25. The reading “a son” is almost universally agreed to be what the author originally wrote. However, some manuscripts read, “her firstborn son.” The reading is found in Luke 2:7 which scholars accept as the original reading there. Thus, the fact that Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son is not the question. The point in question is whether this reading is original in Matthew. Because of internal and external evidence, scholars conclude that a scribe somewhere along the line by design or chance added information from Luke 2:7 to Matthew 1:25. But this was not the original reading of Matthew 1.
As one studies variant readings such as the one just discussed, it becomes clear how insignificant most of them are. Almost none could be put down to deliberate change because of theological bias.
About the only one which might have clear theological overtones is the so-called Johannine Comma, the Trinitarian statement found in some translations of I John 5:7-8. This is a very late reading by any count (the only Greek evidence is from two very late manuscripts). Scholars generally agree that the passage should read along the following lines: “(7) For three are the witnesses, (8) the spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one.” Few, if any, other variants arose through deliberate change for theological reasons.
The New Testament writers recognized the responsibility of the Jewish religious community in preserving the Old Testament. Paul wrote that the Jews “were entrusted with the words (ta logia) of God” (Rom. 3:2). Jesus Himself stated that the scribes (those educated in the law and its mechanical preservation) and Pharisees occupied “Moses’ seat” or place of religious authority (Matt. 23:1-3).
The Jewish community was responsible for preserving the Old Testament in Hebrew. They were also basically responsible for the great Greek translation of the third century B.C., the Septuagint. After the Septuagint fell out of favor because of its use by the Christian Church, several other Greek translations of the Old Testament were made (Aquila, Theodotion, Symmachus).
Although absolute proof is not available, the basic question of the canon seems to have been settled before the time of Jesus. Other works were known and circulated, but they were not given the status of Scripture among the majority of religious Jews. Some of these “apocryphal” and “pseudelpigraphical” books were also known to New Testament writers. On one occasion at least, one seems to be quoted in the New Testament (Jude 14-15). Yet this does not show they were regarded as canonical any more than did Paul’s quotation of Greek poets (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12).
It is true that the Catholic Church accepted seven books of the Apocrypha into their Old Testament. However, this was not done officially until the pressures of the Reformation. The Protestants generally rejected these books because they were not found in the Jewish Scriptures. Yet they were not the first to do so. Already in the 4th century the great Catholic doctor Jerome had similarly rejected the Apocrypha as canonical Scripture.
Research on the Dead Sea Scrolls and other textual evidence has shown that the Old testament has been preserved in three major text-types. One of these is represented by our present Hebrew text called the Masoretic text. Another is represented by the Septuagint. A third is reflected in the Pentateuch used by the modern-day Samaritans in Israel.
As with the New Testament, though, the differences are more apparent than real. The differences are important to a textual scholar doing technical study on antiquity. But for the average Christian who reads his Bible primarily for its spiritual content, any version will do. Any discrepancies will resolve themselves as he learns to use the Bible as a whole and to mediate on the embodied principles rather than just concentrating on single, isolated verses. Of course, a Christian, while giving all due respect to the value of the Old Testament, will still read it in the light of the New.
Scholarship has been able to elucidate the road by which the Bible came down to us through the centuries. Much of the road is still dark, other parts are fairly well lighted. Even as we hope more light will eventually be shed over the obscure parts, we must be grateful for the tireless effort of scholarship which has already done so much.
Yet the state of things can only remind us that no one can “prove” the correct text or canon. We have too little information even to begin such a process. There is still an element of faith involved in using the Bible. One has to accept on faith that God has preserved His written Word for mankind that He has made the way to salvation clear to us. The canon and text despite some variations and unanswered questions - that has come down to us from the Jewish people and the ancient Church constituted the necessary guide which man could not otherwise discover for himself.
It is not a matter of “blind” faith since there are many evidences for the truth given therein. But the evidence lies primarily in the application of that Word. The Bible itself sometimes speaks of “proving” when a pragmatic test through actual application is in mind (Mal. 3:10).
We have the Bible. The responsibility for using its resources is yours. In the words of the famous evangelist, Madison Avenue: “Try it. You’ll like it.”
Remains of Other Ancient Writings
There are approximately 5,000 manuscripts of part or all of the New Testament. These include substantial parts of the New Testament from about A.D. 200, and the whole New Testament attested within 200 years of its writing. Other Greek writings of the classical world hardly compare.
The most influential writings of pagan antiquity were the long Homeric epic poems, the lliad and the Odyssey. The lliad is generally thought to have been written sometime shortly before or after 700 B.C., almost half a millennium after the poems were written. The earliest manuscript containing the whole of the lliad is dated to the 10th century A.D. The situation is about the same for the Odyssey.
Herodotus, the “father of history,” wrote in the 5th century B.C., but the two best manuscripts are both from the middle Ages (10th and 11th centuries). Thucydides, who wrote about 400 B.C., was the first historian in the modern sense. Yet the earliest of the major manuscripts of him is from the 11th century A.D.
The famous writer of New Comedy, Menander (died about 290 B.C.), was known only from quotations until a partial manuscript was found in 1905. Another almost complete play was published in 1969. Ye,t precious as they are, these two tattered papyri date from only the 5th and 3rd centuries A.D. respectively.
The master of Greek Old Comedy, Aristophanes (died about 388 B.C.), is the only writer of Old Comedy to survive. Of his forty-plus plays, only eleven have come down to us. Yet the earliest manuscript dates from about A.D. 1000. But one of the surviving plays occurs in no other manuscript until the 15th century, which itself was a copy of the one just mentioned. If that sole manuscript of A.D. 1000 had perished, one more of Aristopharies’ plays would have been lost forever.
The two most influential philosophies of the New Testament times were Stoicism and Epicureanism. Both of these philosophies were founded about the year 300 B.C. But the earliest major Epicurean writer to come down to us (Lucretius) did not write unto two centuries after Epicurus. Apart from a few Epicurean maxims which may or may not have originated with Epicurus, the earliest surviving sources of any of Epicurus’ own writings are three letters quoted by a writer of the 3rd century A.D.
No complete writing of Zeno (the founder of Stoicism) has come down to us, only some fragments quoted in other writings.
These are only a few examples of the poor preservation of writings from antiquity. No wonder classicists can feel quite envious of New Testament scholars with their multitudes of early manuscripts! The Bible truly is a fascinating Book. It is the Word of God, preserved for mankind!
Sources: Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature; Roger A. Pack, The Greek and Latin Literary Texts from Graeco-Roman Egypt; K. J. Dover, Aristophanic Comedy; A. A. Long, Hellenistic Philosophy; the Loeb Classical Library.