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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Words of the Bible

Don Stewart :: What Different Sources Are Used to Establish the Text of the New Testament?

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What Different Sources Are Used to Establish the Text of the New Testament?

The Words of the Bible – Question 15

As far as we know, the autographs (originals) of all of the New Testament books have perished long ago. Thus, we are left with hand-written copies (manuscripts) and copies of copies to establish the original text.

There Are Three Lines of Evidence to Establish the Text

In the case of the New Testament there are three lines of evidence available to reconstruct the original. They are the Greek manuscripts, the versions and the writings of the church fathers.

1. Greek Manuscripts

The oldest and most important evidence to reconstruct the New Testament text are the Greek manuscripts. These manuscripts are categorized according to writing material (papyri), the style of the letters (uncial and minuscule manuscripts) and the format of the document (lectionaries).


The first group of manuscripts, the papyri, is named after the material they were written upon. Papyrus is the surface upon which the originals (autographs) of the New Testament were composed. Strips of the papyrus reeds were pressed together to make this writing material—which is extremely perishable, surviving only in warm, dry climates.

The papyrus fragments that have survived contain some of the earliest witnesses to the New Testament text. In fact, sixty-five of the earliest New Testament fragments we possess were written on papyri (all dating before A.D. 300). At the turn of the twentieth century there were only nine known papyrus fragments that contained parts of the New Testament. There are now some one hundred and fifteen. These papyrus manuscripts are designated by the letter “p” followed by a superscript Arabic number (e.g. p75 or by a capital P followed by the number, e.g. P52).

Uncials (Majuscules)

The second line of evidence to reconstruct the text of the New Testament is the uncial (inch high) manuscripts. The name is derived from the inch high size of the letters. There are approximately three hundred uncial manuscripts of the New Testament—all written on parchment (animal skins). It has been estimated that it would have taken the hides of about 360 sheep and goats to produce Codex Sinaiticus (an uncial manuscript that contained the entire Greek Old Testament and New Testament). Uncial writing consists of upper-case letters that are deliberately and carefully written.

There was no punctuation in the sentence and no space between the words. The uncial manuscripts were basically written between the fourth and tenth centuries—there are five fragmentary uncials that date from the third century.


In the ninth century A.D., uncial writing began to be replaced by a faster method known as minuscule writing. Minuscule writing was a script of smaller letters not as carefully executed as uncials. By using minuscule writing, books could be turned out much faster. Minuscule writing was in use from the ninth to the sixteenth century.


The fourth witness to the New Testament text are Scripture portions known as lectionaries. The church followed the custom of the synagogue which had a fixed portion of the Law and the Prophets read each Sabbath. In the same manner, Christians developed a practice where they would read a fixed portion of the gospels and the New Testament letters every Sunday as well as upon Holy Days. These fixed portions are the lectionaries. Fragments of lectionaries come from as early as the sixth century A.D., while complete manuscripts are found as early as the eighth century.

The surviving Greek manuscripts can be catalogued as follows: Uncial 299, Minuscule 2,812, Lectionaries 2,281 and Papyri 120. The total is over 5,500.

They Are Not Necessarily Complete Manuscripts

When we speak of manuscripts, we are not necessarily speaking of complete manuscripts. For example, of 5,500 Greek manuscripts that have been catalogued, most are fragmentary. Only three of the uncials are complete. There are fifty-six minuscule manuscripts that contain the entire New Testament. Two other uncial manuscripts and another one hundred forty-seven minuscule manuscripts contain the entire New Testament except for the Book of Revelation.

Material from the gospels is found in 2,328 manuscripts, Acts and the universal letters in another 655 manuscripts, Paul’s writings in 779 manuscripts and the Book of Revelation in 287. No other ancient book has anywhere near the amount of manuscript testimony as the New Testament.

As far as the dates of these manuscripts are concerned, about 125 of them are from the first five centuries (two and one half per cent of the total) while 65% of the manuscripts are from the 11th through 14th centuries.

Other Evidence Written in Greek

Apart from the manuscript evidence, there are some parts of the New Testament found written in Greek on ancient inscriptions and on ostraca, or pottery. This evidence is very slight and not really that helpful in determining the original text of the New Testament.

2. Versions (Translations)

Though the total number of surviving Greek manuscripts is larger than all other ancient works, they are not the only means available for reconstructing the original text. A second line of evidence by which the New Testament text can be established comes from the versions. Versions are translations of the different New Testament books into languages other than Greek.

Ancient literature was rarely translated into another language with the New Testament being an important exception. From the very beginning, Christian missionaries, in an attempt to spread their faith, translated the New Testament into the various languages of the people they encountered. These translations, some made as early as the middle of the second century, give us an important witness to the text of that time. Indeed, by the sixth century, the entire Bible had been translated into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic and Ethiopic.

When the copies of the manuscripts of the versions are catalogued, again we are faced with an overwhelming number. In fact, there are as many as 25,000 manuscripts of the different versions of the New Testament.

Because the versions are translations from the original Greek, they are not as valuable as the Greek manuscripts in reconstructing the text. However, they are an important witness to the text’s reliability.

Comparisons of the New Testament to Other Ancient Works

When the total manuscript evidence for the New Testament text (Greek manuscripts and early translations) is compared to other ancient writings, the difference is striking. Indeed, most ancient works come down to us in only a few manuscripts. Furthermore, the earliest ones were copied hundreds of years, and in some cases over a thousand years, after the original.

The Questions to Ask

When reconstructing the text of an ancient work, two key questions need to be considered. What is the time span between the original and the earliest existing copies and how many copies still exist?

1. What Is the Time Span Between the Original and the Earliest Existing Copies?

The first question deals with the time span between the date the work was completed and the earliest existing copy available to reconstruct the text. Usually, the shorter the time span, the more dependable the copy. The longer the time between the original and the copy, the more errors are apt to creep in as the text is copied and recopied.

As we have noted, the time span between the composition of the New Testament and the earliest existing copy is much shorter than for these other ancient works. Using this standard of comparison, the New Testament is far superior in this regard. The oldest surviving manuscripts of most of the ancient Greek authors are dated at least 1,000 years or more after the author’s original work. Yet, scholars believe that in essence we have the original works of the ancient Greek authors. If this is the case, then why wouldn’t a person believe we have accurate copies of the writings of the New Testament authors?

2. What Is the Number of Existing Copies?

The second question that needs to be addressed concerns the number of copies, “How many copies are available to reconstruct the text?” The more copies available, the better off we are—since there is more evidence to help one decide what the original text said.

For example, if an ancient work were to come down to us in only one copy, there would be nothing with which to compare that copy. There is no way of knowing if the scribe was incompetent since it could not be checked against another copy.

There Are More Manuscripts of the New Testament than for Any Other Ancient Work

As we have seen, the New Testament dwarfs all other ancient works with respect to the total number of manuscripts that still exist. We note that there are far more surviving manuscripts of the New Testament than there are of any other piece of ancient literature, the Iliad coming in at a distant second. The first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the 13th century.

Furthermore, outside of the Iliad, no other ancient Greek or Latin work has more than 200 surviving manuscripts and very few have more than 20. With such a wealth of manuscript evidence, we have every right to assume that nothing has been lost from the original New Testament text.

Yet, the Greek manuscripts and the versions do not exhaust the lines of evidence for reconstructing how the text read.

3. The Church Fathers

A third line of evidence used in establishing the New Testament text are quotations from the writings of the early Christians known as the “church fathers.” In their writings, they often quoted from the New Testament text. Every time we find a biblical quotation we have a further witness to the text.

There Is Early Testimony to the Text

For example, seven letters have survived which were written by a man named Ignatius (A.D. 70-110). In those letters, he quoted from eighteen different books of the New Testament. Every time he cites Scripture, we can observe the Greek text he was using.

Consequently, the early church fathers provide us with an excellent early witness to the text. We must be careful, however, in relying too heavily on the fathers because sometimes their quotations were paraphrases (not word-for-word citations) of the biblical text. In addition, the manuscripts of their writings have gone through a period of copying, during which time mistakes have slipped into the text. Nevertheless, their writings remain an important witness to the New Testament.

There Is Overwhelming Testimony to the New Testament Text

The number of quotations of the church fathers is so overwhelming that, if every other source for the New Testament (Greek manuscripts, versions) were destroyed, the text could be reconstructed merely on the writings of the church fathers alone! In his book, Our Bible—How We Got It, Charles Leach relates the story of Sir David Dalrymple:

Sir David Dalrymple was wondering about the preponderance of Scripture in early writings when someone asked him. ‘Suppose that the New Testament had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the third century, could it have been collected again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries?’ After a great deal of investigation Dalrymple concluded... ‘You remember the question about the New Testament and the Fathers? That question roused my curiosity and as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses.’ (Charles Leach, Our Bible—How We Got It, Chicago: Moody Press, 1898, pp. 35, 36)

Leo Vaganay remarked on the thorough research of scholar John Burgon:

Of the considerable volumes of unpublished material that Dean Burgon left when he died, of special note is his index of New Testament citations by the church Fathers of antiquity. It contains sixteen thick volumes to be found in the British Museum, and contains 86,489 quotations. (Leo Vaganay, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, trans. by B.V. Miller, London: Sands and Co., 1937, p. 48)

Confidently, we can say that when the evidence from the Greek manuscripts, the versions (translations) and the church fathers is considered, any impartial person cannot help but be impressed with their abundant testimony.

The New Testament Compares Favorably to Shakespeare

We can go a step further and compare the New Testament to the works of William Shakespeare. He wrote thirty-seven plays in the seventeenth century; all after the invention of printing. The originals of Shakespeare’s plays have not survived. Therefore, we are dependent upon copies to reconstruct the text. In every one of his plays there are gaps in the printed text where we do not know what was originally written. Textual scholars attempt to fill in the gaps in the printed copies by making an educated guess as to what it originally said. The New Testament, written some sixteen centuries earlier than Shakespeare, with three quarters of its history copied by hand, is in much better textual shape, needing no educated guesses to fill in the blanks.

There Is No Guesswork Needed to Establish the Text

Since we do possess so many manuscripts, we can be assured the original text has been preserved. Consequently, we never have to revert to guessing to determine what the text originally said. The great scholar Samuel Tregelles wrote:

We possess so many mss, [manuscripts] and we are aided by so many versions, that we are never left to the need to conjecture as the means of removing errata. (Samuel Tregelles, Greek New Testament, Prolegomena)

Modern day textual scholar Michael Holmes concurs:

The sheer volume of the information available to the New Testament textual critic makes it practically certain that the original text has been preserved somewhere among the surviving witnesses. (Michael Holmes, New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, Editors David Alan Black and David S. Dockery, Zondervan, 1991, p. 106)

The well-known textual authority, Sir Frederic Kenyon, also emphasized that the totality of the evidence showed that nothing was lost of the original text of the New Testament:

The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other book in the world. (Sir Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and Ancient Manuscripts, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941, p. 55)

Summary – Question 15
What Different Sources Are Used to Establish the Text of the New Testament?

There are three basic sources in which to reconstruct the text of the New Testament. The most important are the Greek manuscripts since the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Consequently, we go to them first to recover the original text.

We have four types of Greek manuscripts to reconstruct the text. They are papyrus manuscripts, uncials, minuscule manuscripts and the lectionaries. The 5,500 Greek manuscripts date from the early second century until the invention of printing. From the combined evidence of the Greek manuscripts we can be assured that what we are reading today is the same thing as what was originally written.

A second line of evidence is found in the various versions, or translations, of the Greek New Testament. There also exists about 30,000 manuscripts of the New Testament in various versions or translations. Again, the entire text of the New Testament can be reconstructed from the versional evidence alone.

However, we are not finished. A third line of evidence can be found in the writings of the church fathers. From their writings, the entire text of the New Testament can be established. In fact, there are over 1 million quotations of Scripture from the early years of Christianity that are found in the writings of the church fathers.

With this abundance of evidence, there is no doubt whatsoever that the text of the New Testament has come down to us in an accurate manner. Indeed, we can be confident that we are reading the same things which were originally written by the authors of Scripture.

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