MQT 387. Photo by Effy Alexakis, Photowrite. Courtesy Museum of Ancient Cultures.
How have our present Bibles come down to us from the first century? They weren’t printed or in English, so what were they like? How reliable are they?
Papyri excavated from Egypt can throw some light on the early copying of what are now our biblical texts. Papyrus is made from the papyrus reed which grows in the Nile delta. The stems are cut and pounded till they adhere and can be formed into a sheet. This process is unchanged since early Egyptian times, and papyrus was the commonest writing material in Graeco-Roman antiquity until around the eighth century. Our biblical papyri have been preserved in the dry sands, and are mostly now fragmentary and carefully housed in dehumidified surroundings in museums and university collections.
Our earliest biblical manuscripts come from the papyri found and preserved in the dry sands of Egypt. We have no first-hand information on Christianity there before the mid to late second century, and (though scholars argue over the date) probably no biblical manuscripts (MSS) or fragments thereof before the early third century. Even so, that leaves the tradition of biblical MSS well ahead in terms of time from composition compared to most classical authors. By way of example, the earliest MSS we have of the Roman poets Vergil and Horace writing in the first century BC come from the late fourth century AD. In all, the New Testament is preserved in more ancient manuscripts than any other body of writing from antiquity. It is estimated there are nearly 6,000 MSS in Greek, roughly 10,000 in Latin, and many others in a variety of other ancient languages including Coptic, Syriac and Armenian.
Macquarie University and the University of Milan between them hold two of the oldest surviving fragments of the Acts of the Apostles (early third century AD). The pieces were bought separately from the same dealer at different times, but have now been matched, and when placed side by side it can be seen that they belong together. Both are pieces of Acts 2:30-37 and 2:46-3:2.[i]
The papyrus survivals are particularly valuable as they represent early texts, whereas in the case of the Latin ones, most were copied in monasteries from earlier versions, so do not in general represent an independent witness to the text. Textual critics of the NT generally focus on the Greek MSS, both the papyrus fragments (on the whole the earliest) and longer books (codices), since the NT was originally written in Greek (arguably and almost certainly). Though none of the originals survive, these are the closest we have. It is reassuring that while there are textual variants, none is of vital importance. The alternative and longer ending to the Gospel of Mark comes nearest to this category.
The manuscripts are not usually easy to read and trained palaeographers work on this and dating issues. Dating depends on analysing the scripts, and relating the scripts of undated MSS to those documents such as wills or petitions which, being legal, often carry a precise date. Even so, palaeography is far from exact, and most scholars hesitate to date within 50 years–more usually to within 100 years. Carbon dating is of little use here, as it provides no more exact information than palaeography, and damages the MSS.
Another obstacle to the easy reading of the texts comes from the fact that the earliest ones largely lack word divisions and punctuation, and some abbreviations can be hard to interpret. The presence of so-called ‘nomina sacra’ (sacred names) can help. These include the names of God, Jesus, and some other concepts which, while not exclusively Christian, became generally identified with Christianity. The NT piece held at Macquarie was identified by the presence of this feature.
Despite difficulties, there is a great deal of agreement amongst scholars about the basic transmission of our NT texts, though there are textual variants which can be found listed, for example, in the prestigious Nestle-Aland editions of the NT produced in Germany. Recently, a new Tyndale House edition has been published which is also reliable (as are most other serious scholarly editions).
Only once the text has been established can the process of translation begin, and every couple of years there is a new attempt in English to revise or update. As you read and compare these, keep the manuscript tradition in mind if you come across varying translations.
Alanna Nobbs is Honorary Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University, and Vice President of the Society for the Study of Early Christianity. Her areas of expertise include Greek papyri, and the historical background of the New Testament.
[i] Explore more of the Macquarie Papyri at papyri.mq.edu.au. Contact Don Barker for information about group viewings of the Macquarie manuscript, and about supporting research on the earliest Bible Manuscripts (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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