I have begun to explain the field of “textual criticism,” the academic discipline that tries to establish what an author actually wrote if you don’t have his original but only copies made from later times.
In this post I begin to summarize some of the most important information about the textual “witnesses” to the text of the New Testament. I won’t be going into this information at any serious length. We could have many, many, many posts on virtually every single detail that I mention. You don’t want that. Trust me.
There are three kinds of witnesses to the text of the New Testament, that is to say, three kinds of documents that can help us establish what the authors actually wrote.
- First, obviously, are the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. These are copies of the New Testament in the language in which the books were originally written, produced by later scribes, who were copying earlier copies that had been made by scribes who were copying earlier copies that were made by scribes…. well you get the point. We have in excess of 5600 whole or fragmentary copies of these copies. I’ll say more about them in a moment.
- Second, we have ancient “versions” of the New Testament. These are translations of the New Testament from antiquity into languages such as Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Gothic, Old Church Slavonic, and so on. We don’t have the “originals” of any of these translations, but only later manuscripts (in the case of the Latin, possibly as many as 10,000 copies!); but where we can use the surviving copies reconstruct what Greek text these versions were based on, then we would know what the Greek manuscripts copied by the translators looked like in the time and place they were doing their translations. This, obviously requires a good bit of technical linguistic skill.
- Third, we have “Patristic evidence,” that is, the quotations of the New Testament by church fathers who were writing about a variety of things in which they cited the New Testament here and there. If you can see how a church father such as Didymus the Blind, in, say, the year 360 CE, quoted the Gospel of Matthew, then you could reconstruct (partially) what his Greek manuscript(s) of Matthew looked like at that time and place. Part of the problem is that we don’t have the originals of the church fathers’ writings either, but only later copies. This kind of evidence is tricky to use. As I mentioned in a recent post, it is what I wrote my doctoral dissertation on (specifically, on the quotations of the Gospels in the writings of Didymus). I’ll devote a couple of posts to it anon.
Everyone agrees that of all this evidence, the most important is the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament, so let me say a few things about it here.
New manuscripts of the New Testament – always fragmentary, as it turns out – are being discovered all the time, a lot of them by my friend and occasional debate opponent Dan Wallace and his Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (see: http://www.csntm.org/home/about ). Dan is a professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. His Center is set up to photograph and so digitize all the surviving manuscripts of the New Testament, and in the process of traveling around the world to do so, he and his colleagues have discovered previously unknown manuscripts, some of which have not yet been catalogued.
The official cataloguing agency for New Testament manuscripts is in Münster, Germany and is called the Institute for New Testament Textual Research; it was started by a famous NT textual critic named Kurt Aland. It is the institute that gives all the surviving manuscripts their official “numbers.” For over the past 60 years or so, it has done the most significant work in studying the surviving textual witnesses of the NT (especially the Greek, Syriac, and Coptic witnesses). You can get a sense of their work at their website: http://egora.uni-muenster.de/intf/index_en.shtml
We have over 5600 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that have been discovered and catalogued. These range in size from tiny fragments with a few words from a verse or two, to enormous full-length manuscripts of the entire New Testament.
These manuscripts are typically listed under four categories (the categories can be somewhat confusing because they are not arranged according to the same consistent criteria: some of them are based on the writing material used for the manuscript; some on the style of Greek handwriting; and some on the use for which the manuscript was designed – as I’ll explain below).
- Papyri. These, as a rule (that is often broken) are our oldest surviving manuscripts. They are Greek manuscripts written on papyrus (rather than parchment/animal skin). We at present have around 150 of these.
- Majuscules (used to be called Uncials). These (some of which are older than some of the papyri) are Greek manuscripts written on parchment/animal skin using a large kind of letter, kind of like English capital letters (which are the kind of letters used for papyri as well!). These are our oldest non-papyri manuscripts At present we have nearly 340 majuscule manuscripts
- Minuscules. These are also written on parchment/animal skin, not with majuscule letters but more with a kind of cursive style of writing that was easier and quicker for scribes to produce (and harder for most people today to read). We start getting minuscule manuscripts around the 7th century CE (some majuscules were produced after that date as well). We currently have over 2900 minuscule manuscripts (actually, there may be a few more: I’m having trouble tracking down the precise number just now).
- Lectionaries. These are also written on parchment/animal skin (usually) and are also almost always written with minuscule script, but they are not manuscripts that give an entire NT book or collection of books per se; they are books that take passages from one NT book or another and combine them together for worship services, so that on one day a passage from one book would be written; another day there would be a passage from another book; and so on. We currently have around 2500 of these.
In my next post I’ll say more about these manuscripts and why they are both invaluable for scholarship and, in some ways, problematic.