What are the Most Important New Testament Manuscripts?


The New Testament was written in the first century, but the  date each book was written is highly debated. Conservative Christians usually date most of the books of the New Testament before A.D. 70, since there is no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army, which occurred that year. Other people claim much of the New Testament was written after A.D. 70, and that any apparent prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem was written after it had occurred.1 Regardless of when the books were originally written, none of the autographs still exist2.

Papyrus 52 (GA P52) is a tiny Greek fragment of the Gospel of John (John 18: 31-34, 37-38), dated to about A.D. 125-175, and is believed to be the oldest New Testament manuscript in existence. A few other second century manuscripts exist, but the majority of Greek New Testament manuscripts are from about A.D. 800 and later.3

Greek New Testament Text Types

The New Testament  was written in Greek, but translations into other languages probably started quickly as the Gospel spread, and some of the manuscripts still exist, although many are only small fragments.

New Testament Manuscripts Languages

Since there are over 20,000 manuscripts in several languages, how do we know which ones are the most important? Why would some manuscripts be important and some are not? The age of the manuscript,  the contents of the manuscript and the skill of the scribe are some of the factors New Testament textual critics use to determine the importance of a manuscript in reconstructing the original text. 

Age of Manuscripts

It is often believed the oldest manuscripts are less likely to have errors accumulated through the process of copying, since they’re closest to the originals. The earliest manuscripts were written on papyrus, made from a plant that grows in marshes, and are designated with a “P”.

The most reliable of the earliest texts are P1, P4, 64, 67, P23, P27, P30, P32, P35, P39, P49, 65, P70, P75, P86, P87, P90, P91, P100, P101, P106, P108, P111, P114, and P115. The copyists of these manuscripts allowed very few variants in their copies of the exemplars. They had the ability to make accurate judgments as they went about their copying, resulting in superior texts. Whether their skills in copying were a result of their belief that they were copying a sacred text, or from their training, cannot be known. It could have been a combination of both. These papyri are of great importance when considering textual problems and are considered by many textual scholars to be a good representation of the original wording of the text that was first published by the biblical author.4

However, it is certainly possible that a newer manuscript could be more accurate than an older one. Some of the early church fathers claimed the autographs, the books written by the apostles themselves, still existed more than 200 years after they were written5. Copies made directly from one of the autographs could be more accurate than an older manuscript that was a copy of a copy. As I wrote about in the article Was the Bible Copied Like Links in a Chain or a Tangled Ball of String?, scribes may have had more than one copy of the Bible to use as references when making copies, which would help the scribe find any errors and correct them.

Contents of Manuscripts

The first two manuscripts on the list below were made from papyrus in the late second century or early third century. The last two were written 100 years or more later, but there is a high level of consistency among the four manuscripts.  All four manuscripts contain the Gospel of John, so they can be compared for consistency. The earlier manuscripts show the latter ones were copied carefully.

  • Papyrus 66 (GA P66), dated A.D. 200-225, contains a large part of the Gospel of John.
  • Papyrus 75 (GA P75), dated about A.D. 175-225, contains a large part of the Gospels of Luke and John.
  • Codex Sinaiticus (GA 01, א), dated A.D. 300-399, is the oldest complete New Testament manuscript (it also contains most of the Old Testament), which makes it quite valuable to ensure modern copies of the New Testament are faithful copies.
  • Codex Vaticanus (GA 03, B), dated. A.D. 300-399, contains a nearly complete copy of the Old Testament, Apocrypha and New Testament (some of the original leaves have been lost, but replacements were made in the 15th century).

There is a way to be relatively confident that the text of the fourth century looked remarkably like the earliest form of the text. P75 has large portions of Luke and John in it – and nothing else. Codex B [Vaticanus/GA 03] has most of the NT [New Testament] in it. If B and P75 are very close to each other yet B often has the more primitive reading, we can extrapolate that the text of B is pretty decent for the rest of the NT. When it agrees with a MS [manuscript] such as Codex Sinaiticus [GA 01/א], which it usually does, that combined reading almost surely gives a common archetype from deep in the second century.6

Skill of the Scribe

One of the most important factors in determining the accuracy of a manuscript is the skill of the person making the copy. The Jewish Soferim are among the most highly trained scribes in the world, dedicated to making copies of the Torah (the five books of Moses), without any errors7. Even a single misspelled word invalidates the entire scroll containing 304,805 letters.

There were probably few scribes who took that much care when copying the New Testament. Almost every manuscript contains errors, most of them unintentional8. Misspellings, missing words or repeated words are common errors, and can usually be detected easily. A manuscript with few errors is likely a more accurate transmission of a text than a manuscript with many errors.

Conclusion

With over 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts known to exist9, it’s not surprising scholars consider some more important than others, and not everyone agrees which ones best represent the original text. The Wikipedia article Categories of New Testament manuscripts contains a list of manuscripts that are referenced by the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, which is a Critical edition of the New Testament frequently used by scholars.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:5-6 NIV)
  2. How Long did the Autograph or Original New Testament Manuscripts Last?
  3. How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist?
  4. Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Page 85-86.
  5. How Long did the Autograph or Original New Testament Manuscripts Last?
  6. Wallace, Daniel B. (Editor) Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011) 34. (Amazon) (Logos)
  7. Who are the Hebrew Sofer?
  8. What are Unintentional Textual Variants?
  9. How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist?

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