Thank you Dr. Peter Williams for your recent article, ‘Back to the Source’. This article was originally posted on October 2018 on the Tyndale House website.
If experts differ about which sources are the most accurate, how can we have confidence in our Bible translations?
What do we actually mean when we talk about “the New Testament”? For Christians, the concept has a meaning beyond the particular translation in their hand, and refers to 27 books or letters written by a collection of different authors two millennia ago. Given that there are various differences between the earliest documents, and experts differ in their views, how do we know that our New Testament is the New Testament?
It all comes down to manuscripts.
What is a manuscript?
The term manuscript refers to something written by hand. Technically, therefore, whenever you write out any part of the Bible by hand, you’re creating another manuscript. However when we talk about New Testament manuscripts, we’re normally speaking of copies that were made before the invention of printing or early enough after its invention for them to have been made from other handwritten copies.
What physical form do they take?
Manuscripts can be written on papyrus, animal skin or paper. Generally papyrus manuscripts come from no later than the seventh century and paper ones from no earlier than the tenth. Most New Testament manuscripts are in codex form, which means that they consist of leaves folded at the spine (like a book). The most common form was to fold four sheets of papyrus or leather to produce a collection of eight leaves known as a quire. Quires were then bound at the fold end to make a multi-quire codex. However, some manuscripts are just single sheets.
How many manuscripts are there?
The number of New Testament manuscripts is difficult to determine. Pages may become split, so that one manuscript becomes multiple manuscripts, or manuscripts may be destroyed or lost and yet still remain on lists. Then there is debate over whether writing on broken pottery (ostraca), mosaics or buildings should be counted as sources of evidence alongside the manuscripts. Even if the number of manuscripts can be agreed upon, manuscripts aren’t equal, some being whole New Testaments, others being tiny fragments. A large number are lectionaries, containing passages used for church services.
Depending on how you define “manuscript” there are more than 5,000 Greek New Testament examples, but these are not evenly spread across the New Testament. So while the number of surviving manuscripts of Revelation has been quoted at about 300, there are thought to be more than 1,600 of John 18. Also, a manuscript might consist of only a few surviving letters or of hundreds of complete pages. Counting manuscripts hides these distinctions.
The official scholarly list of Greek New Testament manuscripts is called the Kurzgefasste Liste (the ‘concise list’) and is found here. The list is maintained by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, which is rightly regarded as the world’s leading centre for information about New Testament manuscripts.
Does Tyndale House have a particular view of the New Testament text?
As an evangelical research institute we do not believe that the Bible belongs exclusively to Christians. We therefore encourage all people to read the New Testament and all who can to research its text. Institutionally, we have produced our own edition of the New Testament in its original Koine Greek, because we believed that we were able to offer an improvement on the accuracy of previous editions. However, we offer this edition, based on current evidence, as provisional. The editors believe their role is, like that of an ancient copyist, merely to pass on as accurately as they can what they have received.
What is there still to study about manuscripts?
The study of the behaviour of scribes in copying (generally known as their “scribal habit”) is still in its infancy. For many important manuscripts we still do not know how many scribes were involved in writing them. In each era and for each manuscript and type of manuscript we need to document the sorts of copying mistakes which were made. Often scholars have been working only with general impressions of the sort of mistakes that were common. Such impressions need to be replaced with more accurate and precise knowledge.
Can we be confident of the New Testament text?
Compared with other literary works from antiquity, the New Testament has an enormously rich body of supporting manuscripts (or “attestation”). Even the least well-attested book of the New Testament — Revelation — has a level of attestation which for any work from the Classical period (roughly 8th century BC to 5th century AD) would be considered abundant. Greek manuscripts survive from a wide range of countries, historical situations and legal jurisdictions, and the constant quotation of the New Testament, its use within liturgy and the variety of languages into which it was translated mean that any possibility that books were changed substantially long after composition must be excluded.
Scholars of all stripes have sufficient confidence in the wording of the New Testament as to make detailed studies of the individual styles and vocabulary of its writers. It is also important for the Church to have experts trained in Bible research so that they can evaluate new discoveries and pass them on to others — such research may have some affect on what is printed in modern Bible translations. These changes are less likely to bring about revolution in the text, than refinements that only careful readers will notice. Nevertheless, the importance of this scholarship is not to be judged small because the likelihood that it will change modern Bible translations is small. Rather, the research is to be considered important because the New Testament itself is so important.