Outline of Bible-related topics. A biblical manuscript is any handwritten copy of a portion of the text of the Bible. The word Bible comes from the Greek biblia books ; manuscript comes from Latin manu hand and scriptum written. Biblical manuscripts vary in size from tiny scrolls containing individual verses of the Jewish scriptures see Tefillin to huge polyglot codices multi-lingual books containing both the Hebrew Bible Tanakh and the New Testament , as well as extracanonical works.
The study of biblical manuscripts is important because handwritten copies of books can contain errors. The science of textual criticism attempts to reconstruct the original text of books, especially those published prior to the invention of the printing press. The Aleppo Codex c. In CE the finding of the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran pushed the manuscript history of the Tanakh back a millennium from the two earliest complete codices.
The Role of Textual Criticism
Before this discovery, the earliest extant manuscripts of the Old Testament were in Greek in manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. Out of the roughly manuscripts found at Qumran, are from the Tanakh. Every book of the Tanakh is represented except for the Book of Esther ; however, most are fragmentary.
The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work of literature, with over 5, complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts catalogued, 10, Latin manuscripts and 9, manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac , Slavic , Gothic , Ethiopic , Coptic and Armenian.
The dates of these manuscripts range from c. Often, especially in monasteries, a manuscript cache was little more than a former manuscript recycling centre, where imperfect and incomplete copies of manuscripts were stored while the monastery or scriptorium decided what to do with them. The first was to simply "wash" the manuscript and reuse it.
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Such reused manuscripts were called palimpsests and were very common in the ancient world until the Middle Ages. One notable palimpsest is the Archimedes Palimpsest. If not done within a short period of time after the papyri was made, washing it was less likely since the papyri might deteriorate and thus be unusable.
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When washing was no longer an option, the second choice was burning. Since the manuscripts contained the words of Christ, they were thought to have had a level of sanctity;  burning them was considered more reverent than simply throwing them into a garbage pit, which occasionally happened as in the case of Oxyrhynchus The third option was to leave them in what has become known as a manuscript gravesite.
When scholars come across manuscript caches, such as at Saint Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai the source of the Codex Sinaiticus , or Saint Sabbas Monastery outside Bethlehem , they are finding not libraries but storehouses of rejected texts  sometimes kept in boxes or back shelves in libraries due to space constraints.
The texts were unacceptable because of their scribal errors and contain corrections inside the lines,  possibly evidence that monastery scribes compared them to a master text. In addition, texts thought to be complete and correct but that had deteriorated for heavy usage or had missing folios would also be placed in the caches.
Once in a cache, insects and humidity would often contribute to the continued deterioration of the documents. Complete and correctly-copied texts would usually be immediately placed in use and so wore out fairly quickly, which required frequent recopying. Manuscript copying was very costly when it required a scribe's attention for extended periods so a manuscript might be made only when it was commissioned. The size of the parchment , script used, any illustrations thus raising the effective cost and whether it was one book or a collection of several would be determined by the one commissioning the work.
Stocking extra copies would likely have been considered wasteful and unnecessary since the form and the presentation of a manuscript were typically customized to the aesthetic tastes of the buyer. Due to the prevalence of manuscript caches, scholars today are more likely to find incomplete and sometimes conflicting segments of manuscripts rather than complete and largely consistent works.
The task of copying manuscripts was generally done by scribes who were trained professionals in the arts of writing and bookmaking. Some manuscripts were also proofread, and scholars closely examining a text can sometimes find the original and corrections found in certain manuscripts. In the 6th century, a special room devoted to the practice of manuscript writing and illumination called the scriptorium came into use, typically inside medieval European monasteries. Sometimes a group of scribes would make copies at the same time as one individual read from the text.
An important issue with manuscripts is preservation. The earliest New Testament manuscripts were written on papyrus , made from a reed that grew abundantly in the Nile Delta. This tradition continued as late as the 8th century. In fact, most New Testament manuscripts are codices. The adaptation of the codex form in non-Christian text did not become dominant until the fourth and fifth centuries, showing a preference for that form amongst early Christians.
On its own, however, length alone is an insufficient reason - after all, the Jewish scriptures would continue to be transmitted on scrolls for centuries to come. The handwriting found in New Testament manuscripts varies. One way of classifying handwriting is by formality: More formal, literary Greek works were often written in a distinctive style of even, capital letters called book-hand. Less formal writing consisted of cursive letters which could be written quickly. Another way of dividing handwriting is between uncial script or majuscule and minuscule.
The uncial letters were a consistent height between the baseline and the cap height, while the minuscule letters had ascenders and descenders that moved past the baseline and cap height. Generally speaking, the majuscules are earlier than the minuscules, with a dividing line roughly in the 11th century.
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The earliest manuscripts had negligible punctuation and breathing marks. The manuscripts also lacked word spacing, so words, sentences, and paragraphs would be a continuous string of letters scriptio continua , often with line breaks in the middle of words. Bookmaking was an expensive endeavor, and one way to reduce the number of pages used was to save space. Another method employed was to abbreviate frequent words, such as the nomina sacra. Yet another method involved the palimpsest , a manuscript which recycled an older manuscript.
Scholars using careful examination can sometimes determine what was originally written on the material of a document before it was erased to make way for a new text for example Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus and the Syriac Sinaiticus. The original New Testament books did not have titles, section headings, or verse and chapter divisions. These were developed over the years as "helps for readers". The Eusebian Canons were an early system of division written in the margin of many manuscripts. The Eusebian Canons are a series of tables that grouped parallel stories among the gospels.
Manuscripts became more ornate over the centuries, which developed into a rich illuminated manuscript tradition, including the famous Irish Gospel Books , the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow. Desiderius Erasmus compiled the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament in , basing his work on several manuscripts because he did not have a single complete work and because each manuscript had small errors. In the 18th century, Johann Jakob Wettstein was one of the first biblical scholars to start cataloging biblical manuscripts. He assigned the uncials letters and minuscules and lectionaries numbers for each grouping of content, which resulted in manuscripts being assigned the same letter or number.
For manuscripts that contained the whole New Testament, such as Codex Alexandrinus A and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus C , the letters corresponded across content groupings. For significant early manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus Graecus B , which did not contain Revelation, the letter B was also assigned to a later 10th-century manuscript of Revelation, thus creating confusion. Constantin von Tischendorf found one of the earliest, nearly complete copies of the Bible, Codex Sinaiticus , over a century after Wettstein's cataloging system was introduced.
Eventually enough uncials were found that all the letters in the Latin alphabet had been used, and scholars moved on to first the Greek alphabet , and eventually started reusing characters by adding a superscript. Confusion also existed in the minuscules, where up to seven different manuscripts could have the same number or a single manuscript of the complete New Testament could have 4 different numbers to describe the different content groupings.
Hermann, Freiherr von Soden published a complex cataloging system for manuscripts in This system proved to be problematic when manuscripts were re-dated, or when more manuscripts were discovered than the number of spaces allocated to a certain century. Gregory divided the manuscripts into four groupings: This division is partially arbitrary. The first grouping is based on the physical material papyrus used in the manuscripts.
The second two divisions are based on script: The last grouping is based on content: Most of the papyrus manuscripts and the lectionaries before the year are written in uncial script. There is some consistency in that the majority of the papyri are very early because parchment began to replace papyrus in the 4th century although the latest papyri dates to the 8th century. Similarly, the majority of the uncials date to before the 11th century, and the majority of the minuscules to after.
The uncials were given a prefix of the number 0, and the established letters for the major manuscripts were retained for redundancy e. Codex Claromontanus is assigned both 06 and D. Kurt Aland continued Gregory's cataloging work through the s and beyond. Because of this, the numbering system is often referred to as "Gregory-Aland numbers". The majority of New Testament textual criticism deals with Greek manuscripts because scholars believe the original books of the New Testament were written in Greek.
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The text of the New Testament is also found both translated in manuscripts of many different languages called versions and quoted in manuscripts of the writings of the Church Fathers. In the critical apparatus of the Novum Testamentum Graece , a series of abbreviations and prefixes designate different language versions it for Old Latin, lowercase letters for individual Old Latin manuscripts, vg for Vulgate , lat for Latin, sy s for Sinaitic Palimpsest , sy c for Curetonian Gospels , sy p for the Peshitta , co for Coptic, ac for Akhmimic, bo for Bohairic, sa for Sahidic, arm for Armenian, geo for Georgian, got for Gothic, aeth for Ethiopic, and slav for Old Church Slavonic.
The New Testament books appear to have been completed within the 1st century. The original manuscripts of the New Testament books are not known to have survived. The autographs are believed to have been lost or destroyed a long time ago. What survives are copies of the original. When was the New Testament written? And this question leads to another important question: Even if it was written at an early date, how do we know the New Testament that exists today is the same as the original?
How do we know the modern translations aren't full of human errors, additional content, or the interpretations of countless human scribes? Both of these questions are answered within the fields of paleography and textual criticism, which seek to analyze ancient manuscripts of the New Testament to determine their date and accuracy. The article that follows provides an overview of the most important New Testament manuscripts that have been discovered and outlines the process used to analyze those manuscripts.
No original manuscripts of the original Greek New Testament have been found. However, a large number of ancient manuscript copies have been discovered, and modern translations of the New Testament are based on these copies. As one would expect, they contain some scribal errors.
In fact, "there is not a single copy wholly free from mistakes. It is the task of textual criticism, therefore, to study and compare the available manuscripts in order to discern which of the variations conforms the closest to the original. Bruce Metzger of Princeton University, a prominent modern textual critic, describes the role of textual criticism this way:. The necessity of applying textual criticism to the books of the New Testament arises from two circumstances: The textual critic seeks to ascertain from the divergent copies which form of the text should be regarded as most nearly conforming to the original.