What is a Manuscript?

What is a Manuscript?

The word manuscript comes from the Latin words manu, meaning hand, and scriptus, meaning write. Historically, a manuscript is a handwritten document, or a handwritten copy of a document. In modern times, a manuscript could be made on a typewriter or computer, but then refers to the original document created by the author, as opposed to mass-produced copies of the same document.

Manuscripts are a combination of the media they’re created on (papyrus, parchment, paper, etc.) and the text written on the media. A piece of paper with nothing written on it isn’t a manuscript, and a story someone thought of that isn’t written down isn’t a manuscript either. A manuscript only exists when the text (story) is written on the media (paper).

This might seem unintuitive at first, but the text and the media don’t need to be the same age. The manuscript may be on new media (paper), but be a copy of a text nearly 2,000 years old (the New Testament). Conversely, the text on the media may be newer than the media itself. A palimpsest is a document (often parchment) which has had it’s original text erased and new text written on it. The new text (story) could have been created long after the original media (parchment) was made.

What makes a Manuscript Interesting to Scholars?

In the context of Biblical studies, the issue of what a manuscript is becomes a bit more complicated. A handwritten copy of the New Testament made in 2019 probably isn’t as interesting to scholars as a copy made a thousand years ago.

I haven’t been able to figure out what criteria scholars use to determine if a manuscript should be treated as Biblically significant. Are manuscripts made before Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press1 more valuable than ones made after the printing press? Are manuscripts copied by professional scribes more valuable than ones copied by laymen? I sent emails to several prominent authors and speakers whom I follow online, but none of the responses I received answered my questions, so I’ll have to guess here.

My suspicion is there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules on what makes a manuscript interesting to scholars. There are a number of choices a modern scribe must make before copying the New Testament by hand:

  • What media should be used? Paper or parchment?
  • What format should be used? Scroll or codex/book?
  • Should opisthograph (writing on both sides) be used? Possibly for a codex/book, but probably not for a scroll.
  • Modern ball point pen, or quill with gall ink?
  • Which exemplar (source text or version) should be used?
  • What language should the manuscript be written in? English, Greek or Latin? Other?
  • If Greek or Latin, should uncial (similar to English capital letters) or minuscule (similar to English lower-case letters) letters be used?
  • Should the manuscript be illuminated (with pictures), have historiated initials (large initial letters at the start of books, chapters or verses) or some other decorations?

Do Scribes make Changes when Copying a Manuscript?

Ancient scribes probably had a list of items they had to consider before writing a manuscript. If the modern scribe is copying an English New Testament as a means of Bible study, the resulting manuscript may not be of much interest to scholars. If the scribe is attempting to replicate an exist ancient manuscript, it could be of greater interest to scholars.

  • Will the original mistakes, such as spelling errors, be kept or corrected?
  • If words were unintentionally left out of or added to the original manuscript, will the scribe leave them out or add them?
  • If words were intentionally added to or removed from the original manuscript, will the scribe include or omit them?
  • If there are missing pages in the original manuscript, will the scribe leave them out, or try to find the most likely readings and  recreate those pages? If the scribe recreates missing pages, what sources will be used?

Types of Manuscripts

Papyrus P52 (@ University of Manchester)

Manuscripts come in several forms. The oldest known New Testament manuscripts are small fragments of text written on papyrus. Papyrus P52 is the oldest known New Testment fragment, written about A.D. 110-150, but contains only parts of 6 verses: John 18:31-34, 37-38.

The second type of manuscript is a scroll. Ancient New Testament scrolls are rare, so I wasn’t able to find a good picture of one. This picture is of the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa), one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written about 300-100 B.C. The Great Isaiah Scroll would have originally been rolled around wooden handles, called Etz Chaim.

Great Isaiah Scroll, 1Qlsa(a) (Wikimedia Commons)
Great Isaiah Scroll, 1Qlsa(a), about 300-100 B.C. (Wikimedia Commons)
Tanakh Scrolls rolled on Etz Chaim
Tanakh (Old Testament) Scrolls rolled on Etz Chaim (Scrolls 4 All)

The third type is the most common for New Testament manuscripts, a codex (the scholarly name for a book). Codex Sinaiticus, written about A.D. 325-350, probably originally contained the entire Old and New Testaments, along with some non-canonical books. About half of the Old Testament is missing, but all of the New Testament still exists.


  • Evans, Craig A. The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts (Lexham Press: 2014; Logos) (Logos)


  1. What is the Gutenberg Bible?

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