History of English Bible Translation 02 Original Manuscripts

English Bible History - Chapter 2

GreeBible Translations Greek Original Manuscriptsk Papyrus - New Testament Manuscripts

From the hand of the author to the churches

English Bible History
About the earliest New Testament Manuscripts

The New Testament text we read in our English Bibles is based on the original Greek correspondence and writings from the Apostles of the first century. The original parchments that Paul, Peter, Luke and others wrote on have been lost.  However, through a large number of surviving copies of the originals, we have a very reliable “original text”. 

It is a fair to question that, in the process of copying, how many scribal errors occurred, how close is our modern Bible to the original manuscripts?  Although there is not a single copy wholly free from mistakes, a science called textual criticism deals systematically with these mistakes to eliminate as many of them as possible.

The Textus Receptus

In the sixteenth century the Greek New Testament was published for the first time in printed form using the printing press. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam had compiled a text from a handful of Greek manuscripts dating from the later middle ages. With these, he assembled the first reliable “original Greek text” since the time of the Apostles. What he printed became known as the Received Text, or the Textus Receptus (TR). Erasmus' wanted to provide a basis for a new Latin translation of the New Testament, but his work also helped others such as Luther and Tyndale it to produce translations of their own into German and English.

Although it was a breakthrough in Biblical textual study, the manuscripts he had in 1516 are now considered to be inferior quality due to discoveries of additional parchments in the 1800’s. A few verses from the Apocalypse were lacking in the manuscripts at Erasmus’ disposal, so he simply re-translated them from the current Latin version.
Until the nineteenth century New Testament scholars and translators used Erasmus’ work almost exclusively.  Then, within a fairly short period, a number of manuscripts of superior quality became available, mainly thanks to the work of the German scholar Constantin Tischendorf. These manuscripts dated from the fourth and fifth centuries and gave scholars a text that was older and believed to be better.  Tischendorf himself and the British scholars Westcott and Hort produced two editions of the Greek text. They believed that their text reflected the original as well as possible. 

About the photo – This fragment of papyrus dates to about the 4th century AD.  Although it is not a fragment of Holy Scripture, it is included here to provide an idea of what a document fragment looks like.

The earliest New Testament manuscripts known

In the 20th century, two wealthy book collectors, Chester Beatty and Martin Bodmer, provided us with several extremely old manuscripts. Greek Papyrus

The Bodmer Papyri, as they are called, are a group of twenty-two papyri discovered in Egypt in 1952. They are named after Martin Bodmer who purchased them. The papyri contain segments from the Old and New Testaments, early Christian literature, Homer and Menander. The oldest, Papyrus 66 (also referred to as P66) which dates to c. 200, is a near complete codex of the Gospel of John.  The papyri are kept at the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, in Cologny, Switzerland outside Geneva.
Chester Beatty Papyri are a group of 11 early papyrus manuscripts of biblical texts, seven consisting of portions of Old Testament books, three consisting of portions of the New Testament. They are housed in part at the Chester Beatty Library, in Dublin, Ireland, and in part at the University of Michigan. Alfred Charles Beatty purchased the collection through a dealer and the papyri were first announced on November 19th, 1931, although more leaves would be acquired over the next decade. The papyri were most likely first obtained by illegal antiquity traders. Because of this, the exact circumstances of the find are not clear.

These manuscript collections are of a special class for two reasons. They are written on papyrus and date from well before the fourth century. The earliest papyrus manuscripts come very close to the time when the New Testament was written. Of course, manuscripts on papyrus were known before, but these dated from a much later period and tended to be rather fragmentary. Scholars can date papyrus manuscripts simply by looking at the style of handwriting.

p52 bible fragment gospel of john

p52 fragment of the gospel of john

A tiny papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John has been called the oldest "manuscript" of the New Testament. This manuscript (P52) has generally been dated to ca. A.D. 125. While this fragment does not reveal very much at all about the content of the Gospel of John, its very existence alone provides evidence that the original Gospel of John was written earlier in the first century A.D., as had always been upheld by conservative scholars. 

The first photo of the parchment is obviously a mere fragment of a larger document.  Below, the words are shown to fit perfectly into John’s Gospel.  The letters in red are visible on the fragment; letters in black are reconstructed from words known in later texts.  Translation:  Therefore Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." The Judeans said to him, "It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death." This was to fulfill the word which Jesus had spoken to show by what death he would die. Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, "Are you the king of the Judeans?"

Based on information by Peter van Minnen   http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/papyrus/texts/manuscripts.html

Summary of New Testament Texts
We now have early and very early evidence for the text of the New Testament. The following table summarizes the numbers and dates of the earliest evidences of the New Testament.   Numbers preceded by a P refer to papyri, Sin. (Sinaiticus), A (Alexandrinus) and B (Vaticanus).
 AD 125AD 200AD 250AD 300AD 350AD 450
Matthew  P45BSin.       A
Mark  P45BSin.A
Luke  P4,P45,P75BSin.A
Acts  P45BSin.A
Romans-Hebrews P46 BSin.A
James-Jude   P72,BSin.A
Apocalypse  P47 Sin. 

As you can see, from the fourth century onwards the material base for establishing the text of the Greek New Testament is very good indeed. The manuscripts Sin. (Sinaiticus), A (Alexandrinus) and B (Vaticanus) are almost complete parchment manuscripts. With the help of the earlier papyrus manuscripts we have been able to establish that the text of these three great manuscripts is to a large extent reliable.
It is to be noticed that all the manuscripts listed above come from Egypt. The papyri were found there in the twentieth century. They are now in Dublin, Ann Arbor, Cologny (in Switzerland), the Vatican and Vienna. Sin. was found in a monastery library on the slopes of Mount Sinai in the nineteenth century and brought to St. Petersburg. In 1933 it was sold to the British Museum in London for a mere 100,000 pounds. “A” was transferred from the patriarchal library at Alexandria in the seventeenth century and is now also in the British Library.
“B” has been in the Vatican since the Middle Ages. We owe the early Egyptian Christians an immense debt. Those who are fortunate enough to be able to work with part of their heritage count their blessings every day.