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What We Now Know about the Manuscripts of the New Testament

I have talked about how the Greek New Testament was first published by Erasmus in 1516, and about how scholars began to realize, soon after that, just how many differences there were in our surviving manuscripts, with a key moment coming in 1707 with the publication of John Mill’s Greek New Testament, which noted 30,000 places where the manuscripts Mill had examined had alternative readings.    I should stress, Mill did not cite every place he found a difference in the manuscripts.  Only the differences he thought were significant.  Really.

So where do we stand today?   Here is my summary of the modern textual situation, over three hundred years later, as drawn from my book Misquoting Jesus.


Whereas Mill knew of or examined some 100 Greek manuscripts to uncover his 30,000 variations, today we know of far, far more.  At last count there have been over 5700 Greek manuscripts discovered and catalogued.  That’s fifty-seven times as many as Mill knew about in 1707.  These 5700 include everything from the smallest fragments of manuscripts – the size of a credit card – to very large and magnificent productions, preserved entire.  Some of them contain only one or another of the books of the New Testament, others contain a small collection (for example, the four Gospels or the letters of Paul), a very few contain the entire New Testament.  There are, in addition, many manuscripts of the various early versions (= translations) of the New Testament.

These manuscripts range…

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  1. TBeard  February 14, 2017

    What is the name of the book you wrote about this topic of discussion? I’d like to purchase it.

  2. Mhamed Errifi  February 14, 2017

    hello Bart

    In one of your lectures you said John Mill’s was the first scholar to do critical work on NT , but are you aware of Muslim scholar by the name Ibn Hazm Andalusi who lived in Muslim spain from 994 to 1064 CE has done critical work on OT as well as the four gospels . In one of his books he has a chapter as :

    Chapter in apparent contradictions and clear lies in the book which Jews call the Torah and the rest of their books and in the four Gospels which have for certain been distorted ( corrupted ) and altered , and they are not what allah has revealed

    the book is written in Arabic and the translation of the chapter was made by me


    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2017

      No, you misunderstood me. I said that John Mill produced a printed edition of the Greek New Testament (and he was definitely not the first).

  3. Hume  February 14, 2017

    How important was Lupercalia?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2017

      It was one of the most interesting festivals in the Roman calendar.

    • turbopro  February 15, 2017

      Thanks for this. I wasn’t aware of this Lupercalia thingie. Seems it may be a forerunner of Valentine’s day?

      Ye goode olde pagan festivals.

      I learn so much from this blog.


  4. mjt  February 14, 2017

    In addition to the Greek copies, I imagine that the NT was quoted as early as the 2nd century, mostly by guys like Irenaeus Does this help our quest in figuring out what the NT said? What languages do we have quotations in?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2017

      Yes indeed. I discuss this on the blog. Search for “Patristic.” Languages: mainly Greek and Latin, but some in Syriac.

  5. rivercrowman  February 14, 2017

    Bart, this is off-topic, but one of your critics of “How Jesus Became God” claims there is plenty of evidence in the Synoptic Gospels that Jesus was God “provided we know how to decipher a different semiotic system.” … Can you help me understand this phrase?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2017

      I’m not sure what this person is criticizing. One of the points of my book is that the authors of the Synoptics understood Jesus to be divine. I wonder if this person actually read the book. (“different semiotic system”: he’s saying you need to understand how to understand the authors’ unusual way of expressing himself)

  6. SidDhartha1953  February 14, 2017

    Are uncials and majuscules the same thing?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2017

      Basically, yes; they get used interchangeably. But some technical scholars maintain that the term Uncial should be used only of Latin manuscripts, for rather detailed reasons.

  7. doug  February 14, 2017

    There are words and phrases that have no exact translation from one language to another. I imagine this holds true for Aramaic, Greek, and English. Perhaps the only way to know exactly what Jesus said would be to hear it in his original Aramaic (and also to have a full understanding of the context in which Jesus said each saying and of the culture in which he lived).

    • HawksJ  February 15, 2017

      ‘The only way to know exactly what Jesus said’ would have been to have used a recording device of some sort.

  8. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  February 14, 2017

    If we took our ancient manuscripts and gave them to 5700 different people to copy, I doubt there’d only be 400,000 errors. And if we took it a step further, and asked them to figure out what word or verse went where and which word should be used, I would say the variants would go into the millions. I can’t keep from making errors using spellcheck much less copying something by hand. 400,000+ isn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things. I think the real mess lies with whoever suggested the written words should be inerrant. Even perfection is subjective to each person’s perspective.

    I don’t know what 400,000+ variants means exactly either. Manuscripts all the way up to the sixteenth century? Why count those at such a late date? How many variants are there up to the third century or fourth century? The earlier manuscripts would seem more important than something copied centuries later.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2017

      There are more variants in the manuscripts of the early centuries (when you compare these manuscripts to one another) than in the manuscripts of the high middle ages, where scribes were more trained, skilled, and attentive.

  9. Silver  February 15, 2017

    Thank you for always replying to my queries, especially when they are not directly related to the current topic.
    Why do you think that some of the words of Jesus are sometimes written in Aramaic in the gospels / New Testament? They do not always appear to be in the writing of one particular author.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2017

      It’s like today, someone who is bilingual will sometimes tell a joke in the language of the listener, but will give the punchline in the original language, because it makes better sense or has a bigger impact that way. I think that’s what’s happening with the Aramaic words in the Gospels.

  10. clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 15, 2017

    All those manuscripts suggest great employment opportunities for NT Scholars. I think it would be especially fascinating to try to reconstruct the manuscripts used by the Church Fathers. Do we know of any of those that contain a number of important variations–in addition to the more common important variations regarding Mark’s ending, the adulterous woman, and the Trinity? Or perhaps that did not contain any of those three variations?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2017

      Yes, this is what my PhD dissertation was. I’ve discussed the matter on the blog. Search for “Patristic” And yes, they represent large numbers of variations.

  11. clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 15, 2017

    Clearly, NT Scholars must be extremely specialized in the original research they do. Are they generally, or are you personally, able to get a sense of real and lasting progress being made toward a more or less full understanding of the NT as a whole? If you had to estimate, how far in percentage terms do you think scholars are in attaining a more or less full understanding? And what would have been the percentage 100, 200, and 300 years ago?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2017

      Knowledge not only grows, it also changes. We may be completely confident now (most of us are!), but in 100 years our views will seem quaint. Nothing we can do about that!

  12. dragonfly  February 15, 2017

    Sorry this a bit off topic. I’ve always assumed Jesus spoke Aramaic, but I’ve recently found that’s not such a unanimous position. How do we know who spoke Aramaic and who spoke Hebrew back then?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2017

      I don’t know anyone who thinks otherwise. Hebrew was not widely used as a spoken language in Jesus’ day (though some wrote in hebrew on occasion)

  13. Theonedue  February 17, 2017

    Do you think there were other early 1st century gospels or letters (perhaps authored by apostles or people who knew them) that were not preserved like the ones we have now?

    At the beginning of Genesis, what do you think the light is that is being talked about (opposed to the light from the sun that came days later)?

    Do you think the Jews during the OT time frame thought that their God could be a Trinity or be more than one but same in essence?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 19, 2017

      1. Absolutely. Luke says he had “many” predecessors. And Paul and his communities certainly wrote (lots of?) other letters). 2. I wish I knew. 3. No, certainly not.

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