History of the Text of the New Testament

This timeline looks at the journey of the New Testament text from its earliest manuscripts to the scholarly editions of today. It focuses primarily on the ancient languages and not the English translations (see also the History of the Bible in English timeline).

Sources and Further Reading;xNLx;;xNLx;Aland, Kurt & Barbara Aland. The Text of the New Testament. 2nd Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.;xNLx;;xNLx;Comfort, Philip W. and David P. Barrett. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 2001.;xNLx;;xNLx;Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.;xNLx;;xNLx;Hull, Robert F., Jr. The Story of the New Testament Text: Movers, Materials, Motives, Methods, and Models. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010. ;xNLx;;xNLx;Metzger, Bruce M. Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Palaeography. Corrected Edition. New York: 1991.;xNLx;;xNLx;Metzger, Bruce M. The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001.;xNLx;;xNLx;Metzger, Bruce M. and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. 4th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.;xNLx;;xNLx;Parker, David C. An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and their Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. ;xNLx;;xNLx;Parker, David C. Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible. London: British Library and Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010.;xNLx;;xNLx;

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Materials of Ancient books: Papyrus and Parchment

During the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, books were made primarily of papyrus. Papyrus comes from the reeds of the papyrus plant, which flourished in the Nile Valley of ancient Egypt. To make a sheet of papyrus, one would put down a layer of papyrus reed overlapped by a second layer of reed at a perpendicular angle (the pith functions as an adhesive). The alternative writing material to papyrus was parchment, which is an animal skin that has been prepared as a writing surface. To make parchment, one would soak the skin in lime, scrape it, then set it to dry on a stretcher. Parchment was much more durable than papyrus and could more easily be written on both sides, though each of the sides differed in appearance. The process of making parchment was more involved than making papyrus, though it eventually beat out papyrus as the leading writing surface. (For more information on papyrus and parchment, see Gamble, 44-46).

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NT books written (50-125 C.E.)

The exact dates that the books of the New Testament were written is unknown, but most of them were likely written between 50 and 125 C.E.

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Codices preferred over Rolled books

At the time that the New Testament was written, the primary book format was the roll book, or scroll (in Greek it was called a biblos or biblion). Roll books were typically made of papyrus sheets that were glued together to make one long sheet of upwards to 10 meters long. This long piece would serve as a durable writing surface that can be rolled up for easy storage. The length of the book of Acts is said to fit on an average papyrus roll. Though most roll books were made of papyrus, some, especially later were constructed out of parchment. The scroll format found much favor in ancient Judaism and still plays a role in Judaism today. Early Christians, however, overwhelmingly favored a different format, that of the codex (pl. codices). A codex is the ancestor of today’s book; it has pages bound together by stitches on one side. Codices have their origin in the Roman wax writing tablet, since it was common to connect multiple tablets together by stitching them on one side, thus resembling a very short book. Tablets and early codices were considered more suitable for use as notebooks, rather than a fitting medium for published material. Advantages of codices were that they were less expensive than papyrus rolls because one could write on both sides of the page, and they could hold more text in a more convenient size. From early on Christians were associated with the codex. (For more information on ancient books, see Gamble, 42-81).

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Ancient Versions

Although the New Testament was originally written in Greek, it was not long before people began translating it into other languages in the ancient world, such as Syriac, Coptic, and Latin. Still other versions of the New Testament (e.g., Georgian, Ethiopic, Gothic, Old Church Slavonic) are helpful for scholars to understand the transmission of the text throughout history.

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P52 (Rylands Papyrus 6652)

The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament exist in fragmentary forms. P52 is a very small (3.5” x 2.5”) fragment, which contains the text of John 18:31-33, 37-38. It is the oldest fragment of the Greek New Testament, traditionally dated to c. 125, which puts it within a half-century after the book of John was written.

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Syriac Versions

According to the book of Acts, the term “Christian” was first used in Antioch of Syria (Acts 11:26), which was an important center in the early church. Early Syrian Christianity also flourished in cities such as Edessa and Arbela as well as the countryside in the Tigris-Euphrates region. Since many people in those regions spoke Syriac, there was a need for a version of the New Testament in that language.

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Tatian’s Diatessaron in Syriac (170CE)

Tatian, the second-century theologian, wrote a harmony of the Gospels in Syraic. He took the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and combined them into one super Gospel that removes the distinctive characteristics of each of the Gospels. Tatian’s Diatessaron gives us access to an early version of the Gospels and demonstrates the early prominence of the four Gospels in Syrian Church. The Diatessaron sheds clues on certain text-critical issues in the New Testament. For instance, it does not contain the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53—8:11), which is missing from some important Greek manuscripts. The word dia tessaron literally means “through the four [Gospels].”

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The Old Latin New Testament

There were a number of early translations of the New Testament into Latin and the term “Old Latin” does not refer to one specific translation made by one translator. The dates of the earliest Latin translations are uncertain, but the data indicates that there was likely a version by 180 CE used by the churches in North Africa and shortly afterward by the churches in Rome.

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P45 (Chester Beatty Papyrus I)

Though only thirty of the original 220 leaves of this manuscript are extant today, P45 remains an important, early witness to the Gospels and Acts. This manuscript, which dates to around the late second or early third century CE, contains parts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and a significant portion of Acts.

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P46 (Chester Beatty Papyrus II)

P46 is the earliest collection of Paul’s writings, dating to c. 200 CE. This manuscript includes the letters commonly attributed to Paul, except for the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). The manuscript also contains the book of Hebrews (thought to have been written by Paul). Both parts of Romans, 1 Thessalonians, and parts of 2 Thessalonians are missing from the manuscript since only 86 of the original 104 leaves are preserved. Today, the manuscript is split up into two collections, one at the University of Michigan and the other at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

History of the Text of the New Testament

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