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 Early Manuscripts and Translations

John Hoole July 30, 2006

Manuscript Evidence

In our last lesson, we discussed the evidence from early church writers showing most of the books in the New Testament Canon were emerging as accepted by early second century.

What about the manuscript evidence? What do we have in the way of actual copies of the original Greek text? Are they few or many? Three words or terms need to be recognized.

o Autographs

o Manuscripts

o Translations

Let's look at each of these.


Autographs are the original texts either by the author's hand or by a scribe under their personal supervision. We have no autographs of any of the books of the Bible.


Manuscripts always refer to copies of the originals Until Gutenberg first printed the Latin Bible in 1456, all Bibles were hand-copied onto papyrus, parchment, or paper. I'll come back to discuss papyrus and parchment shortly.

When I say there are more than 5,000 New Testament manuscripts - either partial or complete, I am speaking of manuscripts written in the original language. Greek for the New Testament books.

However, there are many in other languages that are sometimes called manuscripts because they were written so long ago. For instance, the Latin Vulgate was written by Jerome in 382. It was a translation of both the Old and New Testaments into Latin. Because it is in a different language than the originals, it is technically a translation. But because of its antiquity, it is often referred to as a manuscript. 10 - 12,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate exist in manuscript form today.

There also exists some very ancient manuscripts in other languages. There are about 8,000 manuscripts in Ethiopic, Slavic and Armenian. In all, there are some 24,000 ancient manuscripts in existence for the New Testament alone. Just taking the Greek manuscripts that have been discovered, the numbers are immense when compared with manuscripts of other non-biblical books.

Let me give you an example. Josephus (Flavius) was a 1st century historian. Although his name is Greek, he was a Jew. He lived from 37 AD to about 100 AD. He wrote a number of major books.

One was THE JEWISH WAR, which chronicles the Jewish revolt against the Romans from 66 - 74 AD. There exists only 9 copies of this book, all written in the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries. That is a total of 9 Greek manuscripts, none of which are within 1000 years of the original writing.

Let me show you a couple of other ancient books.

Julius Caesar wrote the Gallic Wars.

He lived from 100 - 44 BC. The Gallic Wars were a series of Roman military campaigns into the country of Gaul. Today, only 10 copies exist, and the earliest was written about 900 AD. Again, nearly 1,000 years between the writing and the earliest copy.


Plato lived from 427 - 347 BC. He was a student of Socrates, and wrote a number of philosophical works. One is called the "Dialogues of Plato." Only 7 copies, partial or complete, have been found of any of his writings. The earliest copy dates to about 900 AD. This is more than 1,200 years between the original and the oldest copy.

Let me ask you a questions that some of you may already know.


The answer is Homer's ILIAD. There are fewer than 650 manuscript - partial or complete - of the Iliad. The earliest copy was written in the second century. When you consider that Homer composed his epic about 800 BC, we again have nearly 1,000 years between autograph and manuscript.

I could take you to the writings of others, like Herodotus or Thucydides, and you would find less than 10 copies of their works. And the earliest manuscripts are more than a thousand years from when they were originally written. There is but the thinnest thread of manuscripts connecting these ancient materials to the modern world.

That is not the case when it comes to the New Testament. The gap between the writings of the New Testament books and the earliest manuscripts are extremely small. In the case of some of the more than 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts we have today, a number of them can be dated to within one or two generations from when originally written. One manuscript, known as the John Ryland Manuscript, is a partial script of the book of John. Though in Greek, it was found in Egypt, and is dated to AD 125, within 30 years of the life of the apostle John.

Sir Frederick Kenyon, former director of the British Museum, said:

"In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament."

F. F. Bruce:

"There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good attestation as the New Testament."

The Writing Materials

The earliest manuscripts were written on Papyrus. Then came parchment and, finally, paper. Papyrus is made from Egyptian reeds. Do you know what papyrus looks like? I have brought with me a copy of an ancient Egyptian painting on papyrus which I purchased when a group of us were in that country. At the place where I purchased this, they gave us a demonstration on how papyrus was made. This painting is a copy of one that was found on the wall of some of the temples or tombs. This particular painting is of King Tut and his wife, Ankhesanamum. The hieroglyphics you see to each side of the painting were not part of the original. But they are typical of the hieroglyphics used at that time.

The next material used for writing was parchment.


It is made from the skins of cattle, sheep, goats, and antelope. One sort of parchment is called "vellum." If refers particularly to parchment made of calf skin. The word "vellum" and the word "veal" both come from the word VITULIS, which is Latin for "calf." In many cases, the manuscripts we have are only partial or fragments. Other manuscripts contain the entire New Testament.

Some manuscript copies of the New Testament are written using all capital Greek letters. One such copy of the entire New Testament is called CODEX SINAITICUS. This manuscript is written on vellum and was discovered in 1859, but not in an archaeological dig.


A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that a group of us were Luxor, Egypt. We took a flight from there to Sharm-el-Sheik. We roughed it at the beach for a couple of hours, snorkeling and taking a few underwater pictures. From our relaxing in Sharm-el-sheik, our bus took us to Mount Sinai. The mountains in this area are solid granite, jutting up from the floor of the desert.

St Catherine's Monastery is located at the base of Mount Sinai. This monastery is the oldest Christian monastery still active in the world. It sits at about 5,000 feet above sea level. The top of Mount Sinai is about 7,500 feet elevation. St. Catherine's Monastery was built, by order of Emperor Justinian, between 527 and 565. Tradition has it that it was built on the site of where Moses encountered the burning bush. We were not allowed into the monastery, but were told inside there are priceless works of art. Probably of greater significance, at least for Bible scholars, is the huge library that is located there, second only to that at the Vatican. St. Catherine's library includes some of the oldest biblical manuscripts. Their collection consists of some 3,500 volumes in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Slavic, Syriac, Georgian and other languages. The Codex Sinaiticus in the British Museum in London, was discovered here. The CODEX SINAITICUS dates to about 350 AD. Here is one more picture of St. Catherine's Monastery.

I think I have discussed manuscripts enough for this session. I don't think it can be too strongly asserted that the text we currently have in our Bible is what the original writers intended it to say. The amazingly huge number of manuscripts of the New Testament and the quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church is so large that it is practically certain that what we have is a reliable Bible.


Some people have the idea that the Bible has been translated so many times that it has become corrupted through various stages of translating.

If a couple of Mormons were to knock at your door, somewhere in their conversation, if you chose to talk to them at all, they would say "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly." I don't know how many times I have heard that statement. Those words come directly out of their Articles of Faith, #8, the "The Pearl of Great Price."

If you examine the writings of Mormon president Ezra Taft Benson, you would find these words:

"Unlike the Bible, which passed through generations of copyists, translators, and corrupt religionists who tampered with the text, the Book of Mormon came from writer to reader in just one inspired step of translation."

In other words, to correctly interpret the Bible, one needs the Book of Mormon.

So, has the message of the Bible become corrupt through many translations? Have religious people tampered with the text? The fact of the matter is when the Bible is translated into a different language, it is usually translated from the earliest Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. There have been times when a translation was derived from an earlier translations. Some were prepared from the Latin Vulgate, which was translated from the Greek in the 4th century.

I think it is safe to say today that all translations done in the last two centuries used the earliest Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. They are not translated from another translation.

You may be wondering why there are so many translations today. Let me first go back to the beginnings of our English translations. The earliest English translation was done by John Wycliffe in 1382. During the early to mid-16th century, there were 6 different translations, most of which were either only Old or New Testament. For instance, the Tyndale Translation - 1526-1530 - included only the New Testament and books of Moses.

The Catholic Bible in English is called the Rheims-Douay. This translations was done in two parts at two different times and places. The New Testament was translated in 1582 in the French city of Rheims. The Old Testament was added in 1610 in the French city of Douay. Back then, both Rheims and Douay were communal cities. The Rheims-Douay Bible is still the primary English Bible for the Catholics. A revision to this version was made in 1750 (Challoner's Revision), but it still retained the name Rheims-Douay.

In the year following the original Douay - 1611 - the King James Version was published. 47 scholars spent 6 years on the translation. They used the Erasmus Greek Text for the New Testament, and the Masoretic Hebrew manuscript for the Old Testament. King James himself actually had nothing to do with this Bible except that he authorized its publication in England. Therefore, it is sometimes referred to as the Authorized Version.

It may surprise you that between 1611 and 1885, there were no new Bible translations published. But since the English Revised Version in 1885, there have been many translation.

o American Standard Version 1901
o Weymouth New Testament 1903
o Maffatt Bible 1924
o Centenary New Testament 1924
o Smith-Goodspeed 1927
o Williams Translation 1937
o Knox Bible 1949
o Revised Standard Version 1952
o Philips New Testament 1957
o Berkeley Bible 1959
o Beck Bible 1963
o Jerusalem Bible 1966
o Barclay New Testament 1969
o New English Bible 1970
o New American Standard 1971
o New International Version 1978
o New King James Version 1982
o New Revised Standard Version 1989
o Contemporary English Version 1995
o New American Standard Update 1995
o New Living Translation 1996
o World English Bible 1997 Update of 1901 ASV

There are two primary reasons for new translations of the Bible.

1. Language changes over time.

2. Earlier manuscripts have been uncovered.

If people are going to read the Word of God in their contemporary languages, new translations are going to be needed.

For instance, take 1 Thessalonians 4:15. This is a passage dealing with the second coming of Christ.

In the King James, it reads:

15 For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.

Back in 1611, the word "prevent" did not mean "to hinder someone". It meant "to come before."

So the New International Version (NIV) reads this way:

15 According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.

Languages are always evolving. So later translations don't change the meaning of the verses in the Bible. They just put it into a more contemporary common language that will make it more easily understood.

Some translations have come about for another good reason. Since 1850, a large number of manuscripts have been uncovered, and many of these were earlier Greek copies. If the earlier copies had any difference from the later ones, then new translation would incorporate these difference. The NIV and the NAS were two such translations.

I want to make sure that we are all aware that when I speak of differences between manuscripts, I am not speaking of anything so appreciable as to affect any doctrines. That has never happened.

God's control over the Word down through history

I want to address the statement of those, like the Mormons, who have said that down through history the Bible has become corrupted to where it doesn't reflect the message of the original autographs. Those who make such statements are in conflict with the Scripture's own statements.

Isaiah 40:8 NKJV

8 The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever."

God has His own hand upon the preservation of His Word. To say its message has been lost is to doubt God's ability to sustain it. The Word of God will not fall, but stand forever.

Mark 13:31 NKJV

31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.

If the Word of God has gone into apostasy, then Christ lied to us. I reject that idea - the Word has come to us today, still with its pristine message.

1 Peter 1:23 NKJV

23 having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever,

Did Peter lie in this verse? No, the Word is alive and abides forever.

John 17:20 NKJV

20 "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;"

This is the real Lord's prayer. A few minutes after praying these words, Jesus is betrayed by Judas. He knows His time has come, and He is praying for His disciples. But Jesus is also praying for those who in the future who are going to believe in Christ through the words of the apostles. That includes us. And the primary words of the apostles were put into writing, in what we now call the New Testament. If the message of the apostles has been lost or corrupted, how would anyone ever come to Christ through their words. It is illogical to believe that the Lord's special prayer for all future believers was honored only for a short period and then was ignored for 1800 years until Joseph Smith came along.

When the apostle Paul told us to take up the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, as mentioned in Ephesians 6, was he telling us to take up a defective sword?

Did the Holy Spirit fail us when, in John 14, Christ tells us that the Spirit would guide us into all truths?

It's God's Word, and He has had his hands on it down through the centuries. Nations and people have tried to destroy it from the face of the world, but it is God's Word, and He said it would stand forever.

Speaking of having valid copies of the Bible, consider this. When Jesus was here on earth, all He and the apostles had were copies of the Old Testament. No originals existed then. And yet Jesus regarded the copies of His day as so close to the originals that He had full confidence the Scriptures He used had been faithfully preserved through the centuries.

Should we have confidence in the Bible? For me it is clear that it is God's reliable Word and direction for our lives. It is indeed a book we can have confidence in. The respect that Jesus and His apostles held for the Old Testament copies they had is, at the least, an expression of confidence in God's ability to providentially preserve the message of the original writings.

I like what the Westminster Confession says about this.

"The fact is, the God who had the power and sovereign control to inspire the Scriptures in the first place is surely going to continue to exercise His power and sovereign control in the preservation of Scripture."

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