The Integrity of the Text of the New Testament
For the Christian, any discussion of the integrity of the text of the New Testament begins with God’s choice to reveal Himself to humanity as a demonstration of His lovingkindness and grace. The inspired writers of the New Testament believed they were writing the Word of God (1 Corinthians 2:12-13; Galatians 1:11-12; Ephesians 3:5; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16; Revelation 1:1). By faith God’s people affirm that God by His own initiative revealed Himself to humanity by means of the God-breathed Word. Yet with these affirmations concerning inspiration and canonization in mind, one must admit that when it comes to the transmission of the Word not as many scholars willingly affirm the integrity of the New Testament text. But why would anyone question the integrity of the text of the New Testament?
First, some have asked what is the text of the New Testament?While the majority of scholars have concluded that the identical texts of the 28th Nestle-Aland (NA28) or 5th United Bible Societies Greek New Testaments (UBS5) best reconstruct how the original New Testament autographs (original text) might have read, others insist that the Majority Text represented in the New Testaments of Hodges and Farstad, or Robinson and Pierpont, confirms that readers in the 9th through 16th centuries of Christendom regarded one text-tradition as most widely accepted (see bibliography for information on all four of these texts). Both groups, favoring either the eclectic text or the Majority Text, claim to have an established New Testament text, yet the New Testaments they affirm vary from one another. For the purposes of this essay the writer will assume that the goal of every reader is to establish the text of the New Testament (the first step in a proper exegetical method), thus New Testament text from here on will be defined as the original text of the New Testament, which is most likely reflected in the eclectic texts of NA28 and UBS5.
Second, some question the means by which the New Testament has been copied and transmitted, especially with regard to textual variations and the nature of general scribal habits. In his work titled The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Bart D. Ehrman sought to “demonstrate on a case by case basis how proto-orthodox scribes of the second and third centuries modified their texts of Scripture to make them conform more closely to their own Christological beliefs, effecting thereby the ‘orthodox corruption of Scripture’” (xiii). He argued that in the second and third centuries scribes freely changed texts “to say what they knew they meant.” Ehrman suggested that the scribes wielded power and used their positions as copyists, as influenced by the ideological pressures of their context, to influence the wording of the canonical text to reflect the majority opinion.With such an objection to the integrity of the text of the New Testament in mind, in this essay we will affirm that the text of the New Testament is reliable based on three key pieces of evidence: (1) the witnesses to the New Testament text, (2) the scribes who copied the New Testament text, and (3) the best methods that can be used to establish and defend the integrity of the New Testament text.
The Integrity of the Witnesses to the New Testament Text
Before AD 325 the text of the New Testament was already established and reliable though not yet widely circulated in the Mediterranean world because of the pre-Constantine status of Christianity. Scribal activity was likely limited to non- professionals, who were personally invested in Christianity, hurriedly copying texts for usage in local settings, while fearing the repercussions of local persecution breaking out in various contexts. The emergence of the codex book form allowed for Christians to collect books in one volume, write on both sides of the page (opistograph scrolls were rare), and also perhaps more readily travel with the needed materials in hand. The difficulty of this historical period, along with the challenge of making one’s own materials, ink, and finding an exemplar that one would copy, would have certainly made this a challenging time for many Christian scribes. Yet, when the status of Christianity changed post-Constantine, a standard text emerged from this tumultuous period that led to the great codices of the fourth century and many other extant witnesses. This period also led to a more careful evaluation and comparison of the witnesses to the Greek New Testament. Eventually, around the 8th–9th century as paralleled in the Latin tradition (the Vulgate) and the Syriac tradition (the Peshitta), the Greek text would be standardized by means of the development of the Byzantine text tradition. In earlier witnesses other text traditions centered in Egypt (Alexandrian), Italy (Western), or Palestine (Caesarean) are also evident in the process of transmitting the New Testament text. Yet in this diversity of text traditions and types of witnesses that cover the Mediterranean map and span fourteen centuries, incredible consistencycan be found in the text of the New Testament. But where can one see evidence of this convergence, standardization, and unity of the Greek New Testament? Thankfully, there are thousands of witnesses to the Greek New Testament that tell the story of the New Testament’s integrity. In fairness, some might object to the claim of the New Testament text being established and consistent since no autographs of any New Testament book are extant. Yet, while acknowledging that there are no extant autographs, one must also take note of what readers of the New Testament do have. Compared to other ancient books (and modern books too) the text of the New Testament has incredible attestation. If the original autographs existed there would be no need for New Testament textual criticism, but since these do not exist, it is essential for those considering the integrity of the New Testament to engage and examine these witnesses.
In order of significance, the key witnesses of the New Testament are papyri, uncials (majuscules), cursives (minuscules), versions, lectionaries, and patristic sources. As of today there are 127 papyri witnesses known to exist. While named for the papyrus on which they were written (which generally predates parchment witnesses), these fragmentary sources are the earliest witnesses to the Greek New Testament. The earliest papyrus witness, î52, dates back to the second century and contains parts of six verses from John 18. Many of these papyri were discovered in the arid climate of Egypt and represent a textual tradition that goes back to the strict copying styles of Alexandria. Yet other textual traditions are represented among papyri witnesses as well as evidenced by the fifth-century witness to Acts in î127 (which closely aligns to the Western text of Acts found in Codex Bezae, D 05, 5th century). After the papyri witnesses come uncial or majuscule texts that are thusly named because of their use of capital letters. Though the papyri texts are also written in capital letters, the uncial texts generally date from the fourth-ninth centuries and are written on parchment (animal skins). While there are 323 extant uncial witnesses to the Greek New Testament, the most significant uncials happen to also be the earliest complete copies of the New Testament: Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph 01, 4th century), Vaticanus (B 03, 4th century), and Alexandrinus (A 02, 5th century). In the apparatus of the Greek New Testament, these dependable uncial witnesses are identified by either a letter (though the letters quickly ran out due to the number of witnesses) or a number beginning with a zero. The uncial witnesses represent a number of Alexandrian and Western witnesses to the Greek New Testament. Following the papyri and uncial witnesses are the cursive or minuscule witnesses to the Greek New Testament. This is by far the largest group of witnesses with 2,247 known to exist. In general these witnesses date from the ninth-sixteenth centuries, are written on parchment, and feature a variety of cursive scripts. In terms of their identification in the apparatus of the Greek New Testament, these witnesses are identified by numbers that do not begin with zeros. More importantly these witnesses represent Alexandrian, Western, and Byzantine text-types and in particular show the dominance of the Byzantine tradition late in the transmission of the Greek New Testament. While one would be mistaken to assume these witnesses are less valuable to the restoration of the original text of the New Testament because of their later date, one must also acknowledge that they are further removed from the autographs and represent a movement towards uniformity that is typical of the standardization of the Byzantine period. The final three categories of witnesses to the text of the New Testament are lectionaries, versional, and patristic witnesses. Around 2,227 lectionary texts serve as the most neglected group of witnesses. They were primarily used in liturgical settings where the text of the New Testament would be arranged according to a calendar for both reading and preaching. Though changes were sometimes made to the text for liturgical purposes, these witnesses can provide insights into the text from the sixth century on. With regard to the versional witnesses, in part due to the missional nature of the early church, translations of the New Testament were early and widespread across the Mediterranean world. These translations have a Greek text that underlies them and thus can offer some value in establishing the text of the New Testament, though admittedly because of the nature of translations and the necessity of reading multiple languages this can be painstaking work. Finally, when patristic sources quote Scripture, although these quotations can sometimes be difficult to discern, one is aided in that these sources are datable and locatable. Greenlee argued that the whole New Testament could be reconstructed from these Greek and Latin witnesses alone (46)! Scholars can be aided by quotations of the text from these sources, though they must be cautious given that one must first develop an established critical text of each church father in order to determine the trustworthiness of their citation of Scripture.
The Integrity of the Scribes Who Copied the New Testament Text
Variations, whether intentional or unintentional, were an inevitable part of the transmission of the text of the New Testament. The majority of these variants accidentally resulted from eye- jumps, reversing letters or words, or other unintentional errors of sight, hearing, or memory; however, some of the variants within the New Testament were intentionally placed in the text. Scribes and readers sometimes added harmonizations, expanded proper names, or other redactional material to the text. Despite attempts to question the integrity of the New Testament based on the number of variants, the majority of variants in the New Testament text were unintentional (Aland and Aland 69-71; Greenlee 55; Metzger 186-206). In light of this scholarly consensus concerning the nature of variants, contra the claims of Ehrman and a few others, a careful study of the manuscripts themselves reveals that intentional changes were generally motivated by grammatical or linguistic changes (the addition or deletion of the article, spelling of proper names, etc.), liturgical concerns (supplying a common ending for a prayer or a confession before a baptism), harmonizations (to either the remote or immediate context), conflations (bringing two well-known readings of a given passage together as one), or rare expansions motivated by theological concerns (such as the addition of the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:7-8). In order to harmonize texts to parallel and remote contexts, universally apply a system of abbreviation for key Greek words (nomina sacra), and on occasion shift texts on account of theological or liturgical concerns, it seems that most early New Testament scribes would have had a close association with Christianity. Yet, while these types of variations do exist in the witnesses to the text of the New Testament, it is far more common to see scribes commit accidental errors: (1) of sight, which involve the division of words, conflation of similar endings (homoeoteleuton), writing the same word or phrase more than once (haplagraphy), or changes in word or letter order, (2) of ear, where similar sounding letters or expressions are switched, (3) of memory, where a word is accidentally added or omitted, or (4) of judgment, where one word or expression was substituted for another.
How can one insure that the text of the New Testament is established? First, the many witnesses described above are collected and collated, meaning that the manuscripts are read and compared in a word-for-word manner to a “base text” which represents the readings that are earliest, most widespread, and that best explain the origin of other variant readings. Second, as a result of studying the particular witnesses, variant readings are listed for the purpose of comparison given that each witness has its own character and can not only be useful in establishing the New Testament text, but also aids in knowing about the world in which the text was copied since scribal emendations offer the earliest commentary on the text. At the end of the day, comparing textual variants and evaluating the witnesses of the New Testament is a faith-building exercise. Much work has already been done to collate and compare the witnesses of the New Testament and for the purpose of reconstructing how the original autographs read, despite occasional scribal mistakes. Lightfoot best summarized the conclusion one reaches by means of the transmission of the text of the New Testament when he wrote, “our text is secure and the textual foundation of our faith remains unshakeable” (94, emp. added).
The Integrity of the Methods Used to Establish and Defend the New Testament Text
But what specific methodologies can be used to determine which of the witnesses are most valuable or how they are related to one another? Brooke Foss Westcott (1812-1901) and Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892) famously recognized the introduction of accidental, or clerical, errors by scribes into the text even when transcribers were attempting to accurately copy the text. In their discussion of the value of internal evidence for evaluating manuscripts, they argued that a knowledge of the manuscripts themselves (based on external and internal criteria) would provide a “sure foundation” for determining the “original” reading. Westcott and Hort also suggested that the best way to analyze transcriptional probabilities is through the analysis of particular scribes in particular manuscripts (230-50).
Ernest C. Colwell (1901-1974) is best known for developing a methodology for determining scribal traits within a particular manuscript rather than making general assumptions about the nature of scribes. Colwell developed a system for classifying and evaluating variant readings, particularly from the early papyri î45 (3rd century), î66 (around AD 200), and î75 (3rd century), while also admitting that “there is always a risk of reading deliberate intention into unintended error” (110-18). In light of the 1,649 singular (unique) readings in the three Greek papyri, Colwell observed that lack of spelling ability, harmonization to the immediate context, and editorial changes were common traits demonstrated by these scribes.
Another major contributor to an understanding of how to determine scribal traits is James R. Royse. He noted that one must be cautious with presuppositions because not all scribes were the same, as “each has his own pattern of error” (Royse, “Tendencies” 245). Because of Colwell’s suggestion that one “begin at the beginning” with the earliest witnesses, Royse picked the six papyri before the fourth century that were not too fragmentary for analysis (î45, î46, î47, î66, î72, î75). Overall, Royse concluded that scribes tended to omit more than add and that the most frequent tendency among all six scribes was to harmonize to the immediate context (Royse, Habits 22, 55, 67, 77, 81, 91, 735).
Following the methods described above, in 2012 this writer wrote a dissertation at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary titled “Case Studies in Closely Related Manuscripts for Determining Scribal Traits.” The study was an effort in part to combine what is known about the nature of New Testament witnesses and scribal traits to see if any global scribal traits could be found in groupings of closely related manuscripts. Nineteen manuscripts were divided into five groups of direct- copy manuscript pairings and other ancestor-descendant pairings. The manuscripts represented all text traditions, included various parts of the Greek New Testament, and ranged from the second to sixteenth centuries. While the types of common unintentional errors were found in all of these witnesses, only three global traits were determined to exist. The scribes tended to harmonize to parallel and immediate contexts in every New Testament genre studied. With regard to unintentional errors, only eye-jumps (parablepsis) were found to have consistently occurred throughout the groups. Amazingly the greatest percentage of variation found to exist between the direct-copy manuscripts was 4.52% (in only 312 places where variations occurred), while between ancestor- descendant manuscripts the average percentage of variation was well under 4% (Burleson 201). These results speak to the accuracy and intent of the majority of New Testament scribes. When one can establish the relationship between manuscripts and then evaluate scribal traits based on changes from the exemplar or singular readings shared between them, the results support the fact that the work of the vast majority of scribes was accurate and intended to provide the best copy of the text possible. Comparing the witnesses of the New Testament by means of using the trusted methods of New Testament textual criticism for the purpose of evaluating scribal traits has helped my faith in the integrity of the text of the New Testament to flourish.
Those committed to restoring the church of God’s intent in the midst of much religious confusion ought not be frustrated by thousands of witnesses to the text of the New Testament that must be compared and analyzed for the purpose of restoring the text of the New Testament. Readers of the New Testament have been blessed to have these extant witnesses and must give proper attention to their collation and comparison. Witnesses to the text of the New Testament continue to be found as in the last 20 years nearly thirty papyri witnesses have been discovered! Every witness, including the witnesses who vary most widely from the original text of the New Testament, adds further proof to the fact that there was an original text of the New Testament that can be uncovered by careful comparison of the external evidence with internal authorial and transcriptional probabilities evident in the text. This established text of the original autographs is inerrant, yet one must take care not to settle for tying authority to the text of only one manuscript, one scribe, or one text tradition. The text of the New Testament is reliable because thousands of witnesses point to the existence of an established and consistent original text.
The text of the New Testament reveals that most scribes were people of faith who were doing their best to copy the text in an accurate manner. Their unintentional and intentional errors reveal a pattern of behavior that respects the sanctity of the text and even reflects a foundation of faith in many scribes. Finally, the methods for studying particular manuscripts reveal the insignificant nature of most textual variants. Even in the process of the text being transmitted one can see the integrity of the perfect text that God intended for the world to have being preserved despite the imperfection of the scribes who transmitted it.
Doug Burleson Ph.D.
Doug Burleson holds the Ph.D. in New Testament Greek from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with emphasis in New Testament Textual Criticism. He teaches New Testament Greek IV, Critical Introduction to the New Testament, Greek Exegesis, and Advanced Greek Exegesis at Freed-Hardeman University. He may be contacted at dburleson@f hu.edu.
Aland, Kurt and Barbara Aland. The Text of the New Testament. Rev. Ed. Trans. Erroll F. Rhodes Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Burleson, Doug. “Case Studies in Closely Related Manuscripts for Determining Scribal Traits.” Ph.D. Diss. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. New Orleans, 2012.
Colwell, Ernest C. Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger. New Testament Textual Studies IX. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969.
Ehrman, Bart D. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies in the Early Church. New York: Oxford, 1993.
Greenlee, J. Harold. Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism. 1964. Rev. Ed. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995.
Hodges, Zane C. and Arthur L. Farstad. The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text with Apparatus: Second Edition. Nashville: Nelson, 1985.
Lightfoot, Neil. How We Got the Bible. Rev. 3rd Ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the New Testament. 3rd Ed. New York: Oxford, 1992.
Novum Testamentum Graece. 28th Ed. Eds. Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, et. al. Stuttgart: Institute for New Testament Textual Research, 2012.
Robinson, Maurice A., and William G. Pierpont. The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform 2005. Southborough: Chilton, 2005.
Royse, James R. Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri. New Testament Textual Studies 36. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
- - -. “Scribal Tendencies on the Transmission of the Text of the New Testament.” The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis. Eds. Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001.
The Greek New Testament. 5th Rev. Ed. Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, et. al. Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 2014.
Westcott, Brooke Foss and Fenton John Anthony Hort. Introduction to the New Testament in Original Greek. 1882. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1988.