The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: B

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Bible text, manuscripts (NT)

The New Testament manuscripts go back much closer to the originals than do the Old Testament manuscripts. And there is a wider variety of New Testament manuscript evidence to draw upon.

There are something like 5,000 separate manuscripts of the Greek New Testament in the museums and libraries of the world. Some are only fragments, but many are practically complete. Also there are a great many early copies of the New Testament translated into other languages. In addition to this, a very large part of the New Testament exists in the form of quotations in early Christian writings.

A nineteenth-century scholar, Dean Burgon, counted up all these early quotations that he could find. He reported 19,370 quotations from the Gospels, 14,905 from the Epistles, 1,382 from the Acts of the Apostles and 644 from the book of Revelation. A present-day recount would reveal much larger numbers.

You may wonder what use all these manuscripts are if none of them is accurate. The answer is that by comparing them it is possible to sort out most of the errors, and recover a nearly accurate text. This is very tedious work but it can be done. Fortunately for us, thousands of dedicated men over the past four centuries have given the best years of their lives to this work.

There are two kinds of errors: deliberate ones, and accidental ones. The insertion of the second sentence into 1Jo 5:7 is regarded as a deliberate corruption of the text. Some scribe apparently thought he could improve John's writing. The spurious nature of this sentence, which appears in the Authorised Version, was discovered a very long time ago. It is omitted from all modern versions.

Accidental slips are often harder to locate, but there are tech-niques for finding them. Names are given to the different kinds of mistakes that can occur. Most of these are almost impossible for the ordinary man to remember. One common form of error is called "homoeoteleuton" (from the Greek for "same ending"). If the same word occurs, say, at the end of line 3 and the end of line 4, it is very easy for the copyist to jump from the end of line 3 to the beginning of line 5. If he does, then that is a homoeoteleuton. Fortunately, it is usually easier to spot where a homoeoteleuton has occurred than to remember what it is called.

Another form of error, also easy to detect, has an unforgettable name: dittography. No prizes are offered for guessing that it means accidentally writing the same word twice.

It soon becomes clear to the scholar working in this field that there are good manuscripts and bad manuscripts. He is able to divide them up into families, and say fairly confidently, for example, that manuscripts X, Y and Z are all copies of the same earlier manuscript. Gradually he ends up with a text which he knows to be more than 99 percent perfect. That is to say, he is practically certain of the complete accuracy of most of it.

Just occasionally there is a word or a phrase about which he cannot be sure. If he is a Bible translator he will probably indicate his uncertainty in a footnote. For example, Mark 1:34 tells us that Jesus "suffered not the devils to speak because they knew him". The Revised Version of 1885 translates these words in exactly the same way as the Authorised Version. But it tells us in a footnote that after the last word, "many ancient authorities [manuscripts] add 'to be Christ'."

This is fairly typical of the uncertainties that exist in the text of our Greek New Testament. They are generally few and far between. They are generally small. And they generally have little effect on the meaning of the passages in question.

(GT ch 17).

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