As I stressed in my most recent post, the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of differences among out surviving manuscripts (and versions, and patristic citations) are of very little or no importance in trying to establish what the authors of the NT originally wrote.  There are others that matter, and matter a lot.  Those tend to be the ones that are the most interesting.  But there are many, many more differences that are easy to detect and of no real significance. Most of these differences appear simply to be accidental scribal errors.  We can never be absolutely certain, of course, if a change was made by accident or not.  But in a huge majority of cases, there seems to be little reason to doubt it.

Why Are There Mistakes in Manuscripts?

The *reasons* mistakes were made are not hard to detect, but are nonetheless  hugely interesting for a reason I will explain in my next post.  The reality is that scribes were human beings and they made mistakes.  Of course, in theory, they didn’t *have* to make mistakes.  Throughout the middle ages, Jewish scribes of the Torah and Muslim scribes of the Qur’an were *unbelievably* careful not to make mistakes.  But not the Christian scribes.  Their human faults are all too easy to see on the page of virtually any manuscript.  The reasons they made their mistakes: some scribes were not very competent; some were not highly educated; some were not careful; some were not attentive; some were tired and worn out; some had other things on their minds; and on and on and on.

As a result, there are lots of mistakes in our surviving manuscripts.  Here is a point very much worth making:  the earliest copies we have are the worst, when it comes to accidental mistakes.  By the time we get down to the twelfth, thirteen, or fourteenth century or so, most scribes are highly trained, highly diligent, and highly accurate.  Not all, but most.  That cannot be said of our earliest scribes – which is a great pity, because our earliest manuscripts (made by those early scribes) are the ones we are most interested in since they are closest both in terms of time and genealogy to the original texts.  But alas, many of the early scribes were not as scrupulous or skilled as we wish.

And so they made lots of accidental scribal errors.

Reasons for Scribal Errors

The mistakes were exacerbated, no doubt, by the way ancient books were written, in what is called scriptio continua (= continuous writing).  Ancient writing did not use punctuation, as a rule, or separate paragraphs from one another, or sentences, or even words.   For examples, see   That style of writing obviously could lead to problems of interpretation.   As my teacher Bruce Metzger used to point out:


could mean two contradictory things, depending on whether you read it to say “no where” or “now here.”   My own favorite quandary of interpretation based on scriptio continua is this question:


I personally have seen one of the options but not the other.

The use of scriptio continua could

make it difficult on scribes copying a text, leading to all sorts of accidental mistakes: misspelled words, accidental omission of a letter or group of letters, accidental omission of a word or a group of words, accidental repetition of the same word or a group of words, and so on.

Most of the time, when reading a manuscript, it is possible to detect the mistake without much effort, and even to figure out why it was made.  For example, sometimes a scribe would be copying a passage where two sentences ended with exactly the same words.  Thus, Luke 12:8-9, where Jesus indicates that if anyone acknowledged him (as Lord) that person would be acknowledged before God’s angels, but anyone who denied him would be denied before the angels.  He goes on to say that anyone who says something negative about the Son of man… etc.

Some manuscripts happened to have lines ending with “before the angels of God,” as follows.

… will acknowledge before the angels of God

… me will be denied before the angels of God

And everyone who speaks a word against the Son

What sometimes happened is that a scribe would copy down the end of the first line (“before the angels of God”) and then when his eye went back to the page, it alighted on the *second* line that ended the same way, and he thought that he had just copied that line, and so he proceeded to copy the *next* line (“And everyone who speaks.”).   By doing so, he left out the second line, so that his text read:

… will acknowledge before the angels of God

And everyone who speaks a word against the Son

That kind scribal error because of “eye skip” is called “parablepsis.”  Moreover, when lines end the same way, that is called “homoeoteleuton.”  So this kind of accidental scribal mistake is called “parablepsis occasioned by homoeoteleuton.”  Sometimes lines *began* with the same words (instead of ending with the same words).  That is called homoeoarcton.  Try not to forget any of that.  It will all be on the final exam.

A Question of Accuracy

So let me wrap up this discussion of accidental changes by stressing my earlier observation and then raising a really interesting question about it.

As I have pointed out:  the earliest scribes were on average far, far worse than our later scribes.  They made lots more mistakes.  Their manuscripts differ more significantly from later manuscripts than later manuscripts differ from one another.   And, as important, the earliest manuscripts differ from *each other* more than later manuscripts, as a rule, differ from each other.

The reason for this is not hard to figure out.  By the high middle ages, the copyists of manuscripts, by and large, were experts who were trained to do the job and who took their work very seriously.  Of course, they too made mistakes.  They too were human.  But they made far fewer.

So here is my question: if it’s true that when you go from the 12th century to the 4th century to the 3rd century to the 2nd century you tend to find worse scribes (not always: of course, some early scribes were good at what they did and careful; but the worse scribes *tend* to be the earliest).  Then here’s my question: what were the *VERY* earliest scribes like?  Copyists, say, of Paul’s letters or the Gospels who were copying these books two or twelve years (rather than one or two centuries) after they were originally put in circulation?  Are they likely to have been as skilled and accurate as, say, scribes writing twelve or fourteen centuries later?

One reason that matters: all of our surviving manuscripts are based on earlier ones.  And we don’t have any of the earliest ones.  Were they likely to be accurate?  If not, then what is the textual basis for establishing what the authors of the NT wrote?  Ultimately, don’t our manuscripts go back to copies that were made by scribes from the earliest weeks, months, and years in which these books were placed in circulation?  If they made lots of mistakes, and later scribes copied some of their mistakes, where does that leave us?

It’s a genuine question I have.  It becomes more acute when we are not simply dealing with accidental scribal errors in the text, but intentional changes.

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2022-10-31T10:27:42-04:00November 12th, 2022|New Testament Manuscripts|

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