December 12, 2017

The Trail of Bible Documents

Dr. John Mincy

God tells us in His Word that, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God…” (2 Tim 3:16). Many times the Bible records the fact that God spoke words and His prophets and apostles wrote them down. Perhaps the most informative passage that describes the inspiration process is Jeremiah 36,

“And it came to pass in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, that this word came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, Take thee a roll of a book, and write therein all the words that I have spoken unto thee against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spake unto thee, from the days of Josiah, even unto this day. It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do unto them; that they may return every man from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin. Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah: and Baruch wrote from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the LORD, which he had spoken unto him, upon a roll of a book” (Jer 36:1-4).

Through this method or one similar to it God has given us His very words in Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and we have accurate translations and copies of those words in our Bibles.

Paul explains that God’s words have come to us through the prophets and apostles, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone…” (Eph 2:19-20). Peter also testifies to this, “That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour…” (2 Peter 3:2).

How were these words passed on to us through all these past centuries? By studying the New Testament we learn that the books of the New Testament were written from or to such places as Thessalonica, Ephesus, Galatia, Jerusalem, Rome, Corinth, Patmos, etc. As time went on others wanted copies of these books/manuscripts and other kinds of books, so libraries (which often housed scriptoriums – places where trained scribes copied manuscripts) sprung up throughout the ancient world, such places as Bethlehem, St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Arabian desert, Caesarea, Alexandria, Nisibis (in modern day Turkey) Constaninople, Patmos, Scyllacium (in Italy), Grottaferrata (in Italy), the Vatican, Mt. Athos (in Greece), Bulgaria, Russia, France, England, etc.

Some of these manuscripts were written on papyri, a kind of paper made from reeds gathered and glued together. Others were copied on animal skins. Some New Testament manuscripts were written in careful block lettering (called Uncials). Others, called Minuscules, were more like cursive writing. The type of “paper,” the kind of ink, and handwriting, are some of the ways the manuscripts are dated. There are six main categories of New Testament documents (if we include ancient translations):

  1. Papyri – oldest and often small portions of Scripture
  2. Uncials – block lettering
  3. Minuscles – cursive writing
  4. Lectionaries – books with a portion of the Scriptures appointed to be read at a church service.
  5. Early Church Fathers – ancient commentaries, technically not copies, that witness to the preserved words of the NT by their direct quotes from Scripture.
  6. Ancient translations into Latin, Syrian, Aramaic, etc.

The Masoretic Text of the Old Testament is the basis of our Old Testaments today. The name comes from “editors” who produced and safe-guarded the OT manuscripts for many years (c. A.D. 500-1000). These editors or Masoretes treated the documents “with the greatest imaginable reverence, and devised a complicated system of safeguards against scribal slips. They counted, for example, the number of times each letter of the alphabet occurs in each book; they pointed out the middle letter of the Pentateuch and the middle letter of the whole Hebrew Bible, and made even more detailed calculations than these.” F.F. Bruce (The Books and the Parchments), p 117.

It is clear that the Old Testament itself demanded that many copies of God’s words would be made. Deuteronomy 17:18 reads, “Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites.” Moses is requiring the kings of the future to have a copy of this law (Book of Deuteronomy maybe) copied from the one in the Tabernacle or Temple. Joshua 8:32 reveals that on Mount Ebal Joshua wrote a copy of the “law of Moses” as all the people observed. In 2 Kings 11:12 King Josiah was presented with a copy of the “testimony,” probably referring to a copy of God’s covenant with His people.

What are some of the Masoretic Manuscripts of the Old Testament?

  • Aleppo Codex (British Museum – a codex is a bound copy of manuscript sheets)
  • Leningrad Codex (St. Petersburg)
  • British Museum 4445 (British Museum)
  • Cairo Codex (Cairo)
  • Sassoon 507, 1053 (Jerusalem?)
  • Petersburg Codex (St. Petersburg)
  • ** Other Hebrew Manuscripts- Dead Sea Scrolls, Cairo Genizah finds, Masada fragments, the texts of Wadi Murabba’at, the Erfurt Codices, the Aberdeen Codex, and the Nash Papyri.

Most of the manuscripts that we have today came through Constantinople (today Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox Church. For years there was disagreement between Rome (Latin) and Constantinople (Greek) over which should be the head of the church. Finally the “church” divided in the mid 11th century.

Greek manuscripts were virtually unknown in the West (Northern and Southern Europe) until shortly before the Reformation. If they had been known, only a handful of scholars could have read them, because the Greek language was all but extinct in the West. Because of the sack (by the western church in 1204 A.D. during fourth Crusade) and fall (by the Muslims in 1453 A.D.) of Constantinople thousands of people fled Greek Constantinople for the West, bringing with them the Greek language and many of the Greek manuscripts, including the New Testament. These manuscripts ended up in monasteries, universities, private collections, and libraries throughout Europe. This is how most manuscripts that we have today were preserved.

Although large amounts of manuscripts were destroyed in the Crusades, a lot of Christian literature had been destroyed earlier during the Roman persecutions up until about A.D. 311. Historians make reference to the destruction of the libraries at Caesarea and Alexandria in the seventh century by the Muslims (one writer mentions the library at Caesarea as being the place where Armenian and Georgian scholars and translators came for guidance).

But even with all of the destruction, many copies of the Greek Bible survived and began showing up in the growing libraries of Renaissance Europe. It is apparent that most of these came from Constantinople and the Greek Orthodox Churches. Greek scholars also fled to the West and took up teaching positions in European universities. Out of the western discovery of Greek documents (religious and secular) came the Renaissance and ultimately the Reformation.

Something needs to be said about the large number of Greek manuscripts in Russia. More than one hundred years before the official establishment of Christianity in Russia, two missionaries (Cyril and Methodius – ninth century) translated the Bible from manuscripts from Constantinople into the yet unwritten language of the Slavonic tribes. The modern Russian alphabet still gives evidence of this with its many similarities to Greek. Under Vladimir, the Russian church was begun with a mass baptism at Kieff in 988. For the first five centuries of the church in Russia all the Metropolitans were Byzantine. Around 1650 Patriarch Nicon sent scholars to Grecian monasteries to collect manuscripts to be used for collations of the sacred books. The Russian church’s interest in the Greek church continues into modern times. During the last half of the nineteenth century the Russians gained (not always welcomed) a large presence on Mt. Athos (a source of many Greek manuscripts) in Greece and has been influential in the monasteries there to this day. This is the reason that Russia has been the source of many Greek manuscripts used by modern translators.

The Bible manuscripts ended up in libraries throughout Europe. Today, if you wish to see some of them, here is where you would find the majority: Cambridge (66), Grottaferrata (69), Florence (79), Patmos (81), Moscow (96), Jerusalem (146), Oxford (158), St. Petersburg (233), London (271), Sinai (301), Rome/Vatican (367), Paris (373), Athens (419), and Mt. Athos (900).

Manuscripts are divided into “families,” the main ones being the Byzantine and the Alexandrian. Approximately 90% of all known manuscripts are Byzantine and are for the most part dated later than the Alexandrian which make up the other 10%. Included in the Byzantine are 5-8 manuscripts that Erasmus used to come up with the first printed Greek New Testament which was the basis of what was eventually called the Received Text. The title was given to it in the introduction of a new edition of the Text in 1633.

The King James and the New King James are based on the Byzantine manuscripts. Most of the other translations are based on the Alexandrian texts. The sources of the KJV as mentioned in the Preface or in the notes of the translators include:

  • Hebrew and Greek MS
  • Translations
  • Geneva, Tyndale, Bishop’s Bible, Aramaic, Syriac, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Complutensian Polyglot, Latin Vulgate, Catholic Rheims Version, Tremellius’ New Testament, Plantin Polyglot of 1572
  • Writings of the Church Fathers

Seven manuscripts (according to Combs) were used by Erasmus in Basel to compile the Greek text which was printed alongside his Latin translation (Combs, DBSJ, Spring 1996):

  1. Codex 1eap, a minuscule containing the entire NT except for Revelation, dated to about the 12th century.
  2. Codex 1r, a minuscule containing the book of Revelation except for the last 6 verses (Rev 22:16–21), dated to the 12th century.
  3. Codex 2e, a minuscule containing the Gospels, dated to the 12th century.
  4. Codex 2ap, a minuscule containing Acts and the Epistles, dated to the 12th century or later.
  5. Codex 4ap, a minuscule containing Acts and the Epistles, dated to the 15th century.
  6. Codex 7p, a minuscule containing the Pauline Epistles, dated to the11th century.
  7. Codex 817, a minuscule containing the Gospels, dated to the 15th century.

The Lord has used unique events to preserve for us both the Alexandrian and Byzantine witnesses to the New Testament text. His providential hand is seen in both of these great traditions. As a result we have over 5,000 partial or whole Greek manuscripts available to study today. Just as clearly we can see His hand in preserving the over 3,000 manuscript witnesses to the Hebrew Old Testament text. He has used wars, “accidental” finds, professional manuscript hunters, Biblical scholars both liberal and conservative, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic institutions and people, museums, universities, politicians, and many other means in preserving these copies of the Biblical texts. Praise God for the preservation of His words in these manuscripts.

John Mincy was a church planter in Singapore and California and is now pastor emeritus of Heritage Baptist Church in Antioch, California.

Note: Some of this article is taken from the author’s chapter in God’s Word in Our Hands, Ambassador Emerald International, 2003.

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