New Testament Manuscripts
Parts of the New Testament have been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work, having over 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian. The dates of these manuscripts range from c. 125 (the John Ryland's manuscript, P52; oldest copy of John fragments) to the introduction of printing in Germany in the 15th century. The vast majority of these manuscripts date after the 10th century. Although there are more manuscripts that preserve the New Testament than there are for any other ancient writing, the exact form of the text preserved in these later, numerous manuscripts may not be identical to the form of the text as it existed in antiquity. Textual scholar Bart Ehrman writes: "It is true, of course, that the New Testament is abundantly attested in the manuscripts produced through the ages, but most of these manuscripts are many centuries removed from the originals, and none of them perfectly accurate. They all contain mistakes - altogether many thousands of mistakes. It is not an easy task to reconstruct the original words of the New Testament...." In reference to the textual evidence for the New Testament, Bruce M. Metzger wrote,
"In evaluating the significance of these statistics...one should consider, by way of contrast, the number of manuscripts which preserve the text of the ancient classics. Homer's Iliad...is preserved by 457 papyri, 2 uncial manuscripts, and 188 minuscule manuscripts. Among the tragedians the witnesses to Euripides are the most abundant; his extant works are preserved in 54 papyri and 276 parchment manuscripts, almost all of the later dating from the Byzantine period...the time between the composition of the books of the New Testament and the earliest extant copies is relatively brief. Instead of the lapse of a millennium or more, as is the case of not a few classical authors, several papyrus manuscripts of portions of the New Testament are extant which were copies within a century or so after the composition of the original documents."
Every year, several New Testament manuscripts handwritten in the original Greek format are discovered. The latest substantial find was in 2008, when 47 new manuscripts were discovered in Albania; at least 17 of them unknown to Western scholars. When comparing one manuscript to another, with the exception of the smallest fragments, no two copies agree completely throughout. There has been an estimate of 400,000 variations among all these manuscripts (from the 2nd to 15th century) which is more than there are words in the New Testament. This is less significant than may appear since it is a comparison across linguistic boundaries. More important estimates focus on comparing texts within languages. Those variations are considerably fewer. The vast majority of these are accidental errors made by scribes, and are easily identified as such: an omitted word, a duplicate line, a misspelling, a rearrangement of words. Some variations involve apparently intentional changes, which often make more difficult a determination of whether they were corrections from better exemplars, harmonizations between readings, or ideologically motivated. Palaeography is the study of ancient writing, and textual criticism is the study of manuscripts in order to reconstruct a probable original text.
The difficulty is in where the manuscripts are coming from. Often, especially in monasteries, a manuscript cache is little more than a former manuscript recycling center where imperfect and incomplete copies of manuscripts were stored while the monastery or scriptorium decided what to do with them. There were several options. The first was to simply "wash" the manuscript and reuse it. This was very common in the ancient world and even up into the Middle Ages; such reused manuscripts are called palimpsests. The most famous palimpsest is probably the Archimedes Palimpsest. If this was not done within a short period of time after the papyri was made, then washing it was less likely since the papyri might deteriorate and thus be unusable. When washing was no longer an option, the second choice was burning (since they 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 the nearby garbage pit, although that was not unheard of as in the case of Oxyrhynchus 840). The third option was simply to leave them in what has become known as a manuscript gravesite. When scholars come across manuscript caches, for example that at Saint Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai (source of the Codex Sinaiticus), or Saint Sabbas Monastery outside Bethlehem, they are not finding libraries, but storehouses of rejected texts (sometimes kept in boxes or back shelves in libraries due to space constraints). These texts were unacceptable because of their scribal errors and contain corrections inside the lines possibly evidence that monastery scribes were comparing it to what must have been a master text. In addition, texts thought to be complete and correct but which had deteriorated due to heavy usage and/or had missing folios would also be placed in these 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 thus usually would wear out fairly quickly which would require repeated recopying. Further, because manuscript copying was highly costly when it required a scribe's attention for extended periods, a manuscript might only be made when commissioned, in which case the size of the parchment, script used, any illustrations (thus raising the effective cost), whether it was one book or a collection of several, etc. would be determined by the one commissioning the work. The idea of stocking extra copies would probably have been considered at best wasteful and unnecessary since the form and presentation of a manuscript were more often than not customized to the aesthetic tastes of the buyer. This is part of the reason why scholars are more likely to find incomplete, and at times conflicting, segments of manuscripts rather than complete and largely consistent works.
Distribution of Greek manuscripts by century
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