|Lecture 02 -
Kinds of Greek NT Manuscripts
Sub-titles provide a running outline of the lecture.
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Let me tell you an old story [Jadecarver and Student] . . .
Before we do anything else - before we learn the guidelines of how to make text-critical decisions, before we learn about the impact they can have upon the text, and before we investigate controversies in the field - we get to know the materials.
A New Testament Greek manuscript is a witness that contains the Greek text of one or more New Testament books, initially formatted as one or more New Testament books. For everything else I’m going to describe, it is probably safe to add the words: “There are some exceptions.” Today, we’re not exploring exceptional cases. They’re out there, but we can look into them later.
With some exceptions, every substantial New Testament manuscript in existence was a codex when it was produced. A codex is a handmade book, as opposed to a scroll. Some witnesses used to be codices but only a single fragment of a single page has survived.
If a fragment has writing on both
sides, from the same composition, that’s a giveaway that it was part of a
If an early fragment has writing on
just one side, and it’s not the end of the composition, that indicates that it
was part of a scroll.
If an early fragment, such as
Papyrus 13, has writing on both sides, but the writing on one side is from a different
composition compared to the text on the other side, that indicates that it was
part of a scroll, which first had writing on one side, and then someone decided
to recycle it, and wrote on the other side.
earliest witnesses were written on papyrus,
pages made from the processed fibers of papyrus plants that grew along the
In the 300s, after Christianity was legalized, books continued to be made out of papyrus, but parchment began to be the preferred material for New Testament manuscript-makers. Parchment is made out of animal-skin. At the end of the lecture, I will mention some resources that should give you a good idea of what goes into making papyrus, and what goes into the process of turning the skin of an animal into the pages of a book.
In the Middle Ages, manuscripts began to be made out of a different material, called paper. Some manuscripts have portions that are parchment, and portions that are paper, especially in cases where a parchment manuscript was damaged, and paper was used to replace the damaged pages.
let’s consider the different kinds of continuous-text Greek manuscripts.
First, there are the papyri.
Papyrus-material, by the way, is
still produced today; here’s a piece.
Papyrus manuscripts of New Testament
books have their own catalog-numbers or names in the libraries where they
reside, but for general purposes they are known by the letter “P” and a number,
which represents the order in which they were found. So, Papyrus 52 was approximately the 52nd
New Testament papyrus to be found, identified, and catalogued.
Papyrus manuscripts are typically the
first witnesses mentioned when comparing the support for rival readings. The earliest
papyri echo a period that is earlier than all other manuscripts. So it is natural to give them a high level of
importance. But there are seven things
that should be kept in mind about the papyri.
● First, it is not unusual for papyri to be cited for readings that do not appear in the surviving part of the manuscript. When it comes to papyrus fragments, there is often more to see than just what you can see. Depending on how much text survives in a fragment, on how many pages, it is sometimes possible to create what is called a codicological reconstruction of part of the non-extant part of the manuscript. For example, if you have fragments of two pages of a manuscript, you might be able to tell approximately how much text was on each page of the manuscript, and approximately how many pages it had. The further the reconstruction gets from the extant text, the less useful it is for text-critical purposes. But if a variant is large, and relatively close to the extant text, codicological reconstruction can serve as the basis on which to form a strong suspicion about whether the variant was present or absent in the manuscript, on the basis of space-considerations.
● Second: there is nothing magical about papyrus. Copyists did not suddenly become more accurate just by writing the text on papyrus. Papyrus 72 was probably made in the 300s, and it is one of the earliest manuscripts of the books that it contains. But if you compare its text of the Epistle of Jude to the text of Jude in an ordinary late medieval manuscript, the text in the medieval manuscript will be far closer to the original text.
● Third: while the papyri are very old, many of them
are not remarkably old. Right now, we have about 140 papyrus
manuscripts. Forty of them were
produced after the fall of the
● Fourth: almost all of the papyri are fragmentary, and
most of the papyri are very fragmentary. Less than 30 early papyri – and by “early” I
mean, “earlier than Jerome” – before the late 300s – consist of more than two
● Fifth: the primary value and use of the papyri, by
far, has been to confirm readings
that were already known from other witnesses.
The number of readings found exclusively in papyri that have been
securely adopted in any major edition of the Greek New Testament is zero. In the late 1800s, textual critics had
practically no papyri to work with; now we have 140, and in terms of the
contents of the text, they have made very little difference.
● Sixth: almost all of the papyri were found in
● Seventh, the production-date
assigned to a papyrus manuscript is usually an estimate, with a range of 100
years. The analysis of ancient writing,
called paleography, is used to
arrive at these production-dates. In
rare cases, the circumstances in which a New Testament manuscript has been
found sets some parameters for its production-date; for example, if a
manuscript is found in the ruins of a city that was destroyed in a particular
year, we can deduce that it was not produced after that year. But usually, paleographers assign
production-dates according to the Greek script that the copyist used.
If you look at printed English fonts from 300 years ago, and compare them to fonts in use today, you will see some differences. The same sort of thing is true of ancient Greek handwriting; different styles of script were dominant at different times. Paleographers study the script in detail. But they can’t look at a script and tell you how old a copyist was when he wrote it.
If you reckon that a copyist in the ancient world engaged in a peaceful profession that involved copying books, he could copy a book at age 20, or at age 70 – and use the same handwriting he had learned when he had first learned to write. There’s no way to tell if he was young, and would go on using that handwriting for another 50 years, or if he was old, and had been using that handwriting for 50 years. So this range of about 50 years in both directions is built-into most paleographically assigned production-dates.
Now let’s consider the uncial manuscripts, also called majuscules. When you read the textual apparatus in a Nestle-Aland or United Bible Societies or Tyndale House Greek New Testament, you can tell when a witness is a papyrus, because it is identified by a number after the letter P. Similarly, you can tell when a witness is an uncial, because all uncials are numbered with numbers that begin with the numeral 0. Codex Sinaiticus is 01, Codex Alexandrinus is 02, Codex Vaticanus is 03, and so forth. Whether an uncial is a massive codex like Codex Sinaiticus, or a Gospels-book like Codex Cyprius, or a small fragment like 0315, every one gets its own number. These numbers are called the Gregory-Aland numbers, because this kind of identification-system was developed by the scholar C. R. Gregory and expanded by Kurt Aland. Different identification-systems were used before this became the standard identification-method; a comparison-chart of the obsolete methods and the standard method can be found online at the Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism.
That is the first standard way in
which uncials are identified. But there
is another method: some uncials are also
represented by letters of the English alphabet, and some uncials are
represented by letters of the Greek alphabet.
Codex Alexandrinus is Codex A, Codex Vaticanus is Codex B, and so
forth. Codex Sinaiticus is represented
as À, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Generally, the more important an uncial is,
the more likely it is to be better-known by its letter than by its number.
There are only 26 English letters and 24 Greek letters, and we have a lot more than 50 uncial manuscripts. Sometimes the same letter is used for different manuscripts in different parts of the New Testament. For example, “D” is Codex Bezae in the Gospels and Acts, but in the Epistles, “D” represents Codex Claromontanus. “E” is Codex Basiliensis in the Gospels, but in Acts, “E” is Codex Laudianus.
The numerical system is less likely
to cause confusion, because each number represents exactly one manuscript. But the letter-based system is easy to
remember and it is used in the printed textual apparatus of the major editions
of the Greek New Testament. The only
safe course of action is to learn both identification systems.
It is not unusual for an uncial manuscript of the four Gospels to contain more than just the text of the four Gospels. A Gospels-codex may begin with the Eusebian canons before the text of the Gospels begins, introduced by Eusebius’ letter to Carpian explaining how to use the Canons as a cross-reference tool. Each Gospel may also be preceded by a list of its chapters; these chapter-lists are called Kephalaia. The chapter-titles may be repeated at the top or bottom of the page of text where they begin; at these locations, they are called the titloi. And at the end of each Gospel, one usually finds the closing-title.
Next come the minuscules – that’s
minUscules. Whereas uncial manuscripts are written in
large letters that are usually separated from one another, minuscules are
written in small letters that tend to be connected to one another in
words. Minuscule copies of New Testament
books go back as early as the early 800s.
Uncial manuscripts continued to be made after that, but by the 1000s,
minuscule script became dominant. It
took less time and required less materials to make a minuscule manuscript.
Here are a few things to know about
● Minuscules should not be belittled
simply because they are minuscules.
● Some minuscules are not technically continuous-text manuscripts: they are commentaries, in which a portion of the New Testament text is written, followed by a portion of commentary, followed by the next portion of New Testament text, followed by a portion of commentary, and so forth. This is not much different from a truly continuous-text manuscript that has the same commentary-material in the outer margins. When several copies of the same commentary also share the same form of the New Testament text, divided into the same portions, it is clear that they share the same ancestry, and their weight should be boiled down.
● Some minuscules contain a high
amount of abbreviation.
● Some uncials are partly
minuscule. It is not rare to see uncial
letters and minuscule letters on the same page – occasionally, comments are
written in minuscule script and the text is written in uncial script, to help
prevent readers from getting them confused.
● Some minuscules are
illustrated. Minuscule copies of the Gospels
may include full-page miniature portraits
of each Evangelist before his Gospel begins.
In this context, the term “miniature” does not describe the size of the
portrait; a “miniature” is a picture framed in pigment that contains red lead –
a pigment called minium.
Often each evangelist in these pictures is accompanied by a symbolic representation: usually for Matthew, it is a man or angel. For Mark, it is a lion. For Luke, it is an ox. And for John, it is an eagle. The symbolism is based on the visions of the seraphim around God’s throne in the books of Ezekiel and Revelation.
Also, the initial letter of a book,
or in some cases, many of the initial letters at the beginnings of sections of
a book, may be artistically stylized.
When an initial is made to resemble an animal, this is called a zoomorphic initial. In many manuscripts, at the beginning of a
book, there is a large ornamental design, called a headpiece, accompanied by the title of the book.
● In some minuscules of the Gospels,
in addition to the Eusebian Canons and chapter-lists, there are
book-introductions, or summaries. Sometimes
there are lists of rare words. In some
copies of Acts, there is an itinerary of the journeys of Paul. And sometimes, at the end of the book, there
is a scribal note, or colophon, which might include information about when and
where it was copied.
Regarding all other witnesses to the
Greek New Testament: we will hopefully
look into them in future lectures. Representatives
of the Greek text of the New Testament tend to take center stage, because
everything else does not contain the text that is being reconstructed. But other witnesses are extremely important
when it comes to tracking specific readings and building a history of separate
forms of the text. For example, when you see a rare
reading in a Coptic manuscript from
To learn more about early papyrus manuscripts and parchment manuscripts and how they were made, download Sitterly’s 1898 book Praxis in Manuscripts of the Greek Testament, and read chapters 1, 2, and 3.
Also, watch the video, 8 minutes and
44 seconds long, that you can find at YouTube by searching there for “Beloved Essences How To Make Papyrus” –
And another video, 3 minutes and 42 seconds long, that you can find at YouTube by searching there for “Texas Film Studio How To Make Papyrus.”
And, watch the video about how to make parchment at Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs series, Season 4, Episode 26, which is also accessible at YouTube, beginning in the 20th minute of the video.
And, watch the video about how paper
was made in the late Middle Ages at YouTube; search there for a video 15
minutes and 18 seconds long, called “Papermaking by Hand at Hayle Mill.”
Also, if you can acquire Larry Stone’s book The Story of the Bible, do so, and read chapters 1 and 3, and be sure to look inside the pouches.