The Oldest and Best Manuscripts?
In my first post on New Testament Textual Criticism (NTTC), I defined the term as “the study of ancient manuscripts to try to discover the original text of Scripture.” This area of study is the source of a common expression in Christian writing today: “The oldest and best manuscripts say….”
Near the end of the post, I discussed the statement that NTTC is just like the textual criticism of any other book, and that this fact, and the fact that the Bible is “not like any other book,” caused me to begin to lose confidence in the rules of NTTC. I’d like to discuss one of those rules in this post, so fasten your seat belts and get ready for some time travel, as we examine this “rule”:
The reading of the oldest manuscript is preferred.
The Reason for the Rule
The logic behind the rule:
- We rely on hand-written copies, and hand-written copies include mistakes.
- An original manuscript of a book could only be copied so many times before it fell apart. My Bible is falling apart after about seven years of use. Under the right conditions, parchment or papyrus could be fairly durable, but they could not stand everyday use for years.
- Most copies, therefore, are copies of copies. We’ll call them second-generation copies (a direct copy of an original would be a first-generation copy).
- If a first-generation copy had an error, that error would usually just be copied into any second-generation copies made from it (unless more than one first-gen source copy was used, and the error corrected).
- A second-generation copy, then, would include most (or all) first-gen errors PLUS its own errors.
- A third-generation copy would normally include first-gen mistakes, second-gen mistakes, and its own third-gen copying mistakes.
- In general, the more “generations” removed from the original, the more mistakes we would expect.
- In general, the older the manuscript copy, the fewer generations between it and the original, and so the fewer mistakes.
- In general, therefore, if two manuscript copies disagree on a particular sentence, the text (or “reading”) of the oldest manuscript is “preferred” — all other things being equal, it is more likely to be accurate.
The logic is sound. There is a lot of “in general” in there — the oldest manuscript (or one of its sources) might have been copied by a careless copyist, for instance. So this is not a hard and fast rule (none of the “rules” of textual criticism are hard and fast). That is why the rule says the reading of the oldest manuscript is “preferred,” and not “always best.” The rule is a good rule in the hand of careful textual critics — but I still want to do some “time travel.”
Rome, A.D. 150
Books — a Luxury Item
Let’s take a trip back in time, to Rome in the middle of the 2nd century. There are no copy machines, fax machines, printing machines, or any other automated copying machinery. Every book is copied by hand. There are no paper mills to mass-produce paper, no inexpensive ballpoint pens. Either parchment or papyrus are more expensive than my inexpensive paper from Viking Direct. Ink is far more expensive than in a modern context. Writing is slow and labour-intensive. Labour is cheap, but this is skilled labour. Books are costly.
We just walked into a Waterstones bookshop. We’re checking out rows upon rows of works by Livy, and Herodotus, and Demosthenes, and Plato. Let’s pull one out and sit in the coffee shop with a cup of tea and read it! Well, maybe not. We’re in a very different world. There is no Waterstones, no coffee shop. A book is a valuable item, too fragile to be man-handled by just anyone, too expensive to easily replace. When Plato purchased three books by Philolaus, he paid about 25 times the annual wages of an ordinary worker. If you can find a bookshop (which is rare), it won’t have thousands of books, and you certainly won’t have food or drink anywhere near the ones they do have. These are precious and perishable items.
If you own a lot of books, you are wealthy, and you keep them in a very safe place. The best copies are owned by the wealthiest people, who treat them carefully. It would be an immense privilege to have someone loan you a book, even more to give it to you.
“You Can’t Copy MY Book!”
Rich men are very hesitant to allow their books to be copied, especially a particularly accurate and valuable copy. Copying is an even more intensive use than reading. The book has to be held open longer, so there is more exposure to air, light, dust, and moisture. The copyist may have hands that are not entirely clean, or he may sweat. He might even splatter ink drops on your book. If you let your valuable book be copied, it will wear out more quickly even if it doesn’t take direct damage. It also increases the supply, so the rules of supply and demand mean that you have just diminished the market value of your copy. If a rich man invests in a valuable and accurate copy of a book, he will not lightly let you copy it.
Unsurprisingly, we have just a handful of manuscript copies of Herodotus — less than 10. Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Livy, Tacitus — for each of these, we have less than 100 copies. With Euripides, we have just over 300 Greek manuscripts. These ancient books just weren’t copied very often. Our oldest copies of these authors all date to more than 700 years after the original works. We have about 650 Greek manuscript copies of Homer’s Iliad — none of which were made within 500 years of when it was apparently first written.
A top-quality copy of an ancient book would be treasured even more than lesser-quality copies. It would be owned by someone who would be able to keep it in a safe environment. The best copies would be the ones that would be most likely to survive. Thus, for a normal book, the reading of the oldest manuscript is preferred — if a really old manuscript survived, it not only would have been fewer generations removed from the original, it was also probably of the best quality.
Ephesus, 150 A.D.
We leave Rome, and travel to Ephesus. Depending on one’s view of when John wrote his Gospel, we’re either 85 or 55 years after it was written, and visiting the city where he wrote it (it’s not certain it was written in Ephesus, but for purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume it was). We’re looking for a copy of the Gospel, written “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.”
We’ll not find this book in a bookshop. The people who read this book are persecuted, and if you walked into a bookshop (there might be one in Ephesus) and asked for it, you might find yourself in prison.
We’ll not find this book in a rich man’s library, protected from damage, read infrequently, rarely copied. This book is different. It has been copied so widely that there are already copies being made in Egypt by this date! This book was placed, not in the hands of a rich man, nor a scholar’s library, but in a church, a Biblical church planted under apostolic authority — and as I said in a previous post, “a true church is a Scripture-distributing machine.”
After careful inquiry, we find a Christian. He might be hesitant to trust us at first, but eventually we make it to a meeting of the church there in Ephesus. We’re glad to see believers, and they are glad to see us. And after praying together, perhaps singing hymns of praise, we ask to see John’s Gospel. We’re meeting in someone’s home (church buildings are still either entirely or mostly non-existent), and he brings out a manuscript.
Questions the Early Church Wouldn’t Have Asked
One of our travel companions asks, “Is this the original, the one that John wrote?” and everyone laughs. “That one? It fell apart within a few years. Everyone wanted to read it, everyone wanted copies, and all the other churches wanted copies, too. They wear out really quickly when you are copying it so often, you know. This is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.”
Another companion asks, “How do you know it is accurate?” and there is a shocked silence. Finally, our host says, “My brother, it is accurate. These are God’s words. Do you think we would not be careful in our copying? We checked every copy several times, and if a copy is poor, we correct it or just set it aside. Others may make mistakes, but we dare not.
“The accurate copies are the ones from which we copy, the ones we read, the ones we use. This book was given to us, and it is our responsibility to copy it, to copy it accurately, and to use the best copies that we have when making new copies. This copy came from one which was verified with other accurate copies, and after it was made it was also verified by checking several other copies.
“Polycarp himself, who learned at the feet of John, could tell you, if you go to Smyrna. He could tell you what was written, and that our copies are right. Many of us know every word of John’s Gospel, and could quote it word for word. We would know if it had been copied wrong. We would either correct it, or if it were bad enough, we would get rid of it. We would not change a word of Scripture, not a single word. Never.”
Then comes the question, “Don’t you save the best copies in a safe place, so they are preserved for future generations? Wouldn’t that be better?“
Again, there is a shocked silence, and then our host says, “Brothers, there is no safe place. One of our pastors in this city was imprisoned last week. They burned his parchments. Who are we to think of a safe place? John wrote his last writing to us from prison in Patmos. Paul and the others of the Twelve sealed their testimony with their blood. There is no safe place for us or our Scriptures until we reach eternal safety.”
He pauses, and says, “But I fear you do not really understand. This book has the words of One who said, ‘The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.’ Shall we keep His words hidden away? If your pastor had a copy with the right words, and another with errors, would he teach you using the bad copy so he could preserve the good copy for future generations?
“Do you not believe the Scriptures, that you ask such a question? The good copies are the ones that MUST be copied, copied over and over again, the ones that must be used in our teaching, used until they fall to pieces. If an unbeliever wants to read the words of the Scriptures, that he might learn of Christ, will we let him see a copy which isn’t accurate? Will we use a lesser copy for any purpose for which God gave us His Word, just so we can save the better copies for future generations?
“Future generations? How can we think of future generations? They will copy our accurate copies for themselves. The only way to be sure that future generations have accurate copies is to make many more accurate copies. Of course that means our best copies will perish before long. What does that matter, if we make many more good copies, so long as the words are recorded faithfully and go to all the world today, and to future generations tomorrow?”
There is just time for one more question before our time travel license expires: “Isn’t it expensive to make all of those copies?” There is laughter, and another man answers: “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot…. For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s…. Yes, our brothers, it is expensive. We don’t usually use professional scribes. You see, we care about the words more than they do, so we work slowly and carefully. It is still expensive. But understand this — we will give all we can, we will pay all we can to spread the words of our Master, and to spread them accurately.”
A Few Scriptures
“That was a nice story, Jon. Interesting, and kind of fun — but it’s just a story.” Yes, it is. I told the story to challenge your thinking, to try to get us out of a 21st century mindset, to move us back to the thinking of a persecuted but aggressively missionary church. If we want to understand how the text of the New Testament was transmitted to us in hand-written manuscripts, we would do well to consider the life and the thinking of those who transmitted it. So let’s look at a few Scriptures now, having tried to adjust our thinking to those settings, and try to think about what they would mean for those early believers.
II Timothy 3:12
Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.
The Bible is “not like any other book.” Those who read, cherished, and taught the Bible were persecuted for doing so. This was not the case with Homer, Herodotus, Euripides, etc. This would have had a tremendous impact on their view of what should be done with an accurate copy. It greatly decreased the likelihood that a very accurate copy would be set aside for safe-keeping — there was no such thing as “safe-keeping” in the early church. People died for possessing this Book — they would actively seek to pass it on with complete accuracy.
But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
The Bible is “not like any other book.” It was in the hands of a missionary church, totally committed to spreading God’s Word, in its most accurate form, as widely as possible — to the uttermost ends of the earth. No other book was copied with that intent. The copying of the Scriptures was neither an academic nor financial endeavour, nor a matter of entertainment such as the work of some of the ancient playwrights. It was a matter of the utmost spiritual urgency, especially in regard to faithfulness in copying, so that the true Word of God, by which faith comes, could go forth in life-giving power.
18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:
19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
The Bible is “not like any other book.” It was in the hands of churches that cared about the words, as no professional scribe could ever care about the works of Homer or Pliny. They were strongly motivated to neither add to nor subtract from those words. Those words were the key to eternal life for the readers and hearers. They were the key to the man of God being completely equipped to honouring the Lord, the key to true doctrine. First, second, and tenth, and twentieth, and fiftieth generation copyist errors? Not if they could prevent it, and they actively worked to prevent it. These words were a matter of life and death, both physically and spiritually. They would guard carefully against copying errors by using the best copies as the source, though those best copies would soon perish as a result.
13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
14 Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Would a church and a people who were steeped in these words, living out their faith in the face of severe persecution, hide their light under a bushel by putting the best copies in safe-keeping somewhere? Or would they copy and re-copy those best manuscripts, trying to shine that light everywhere they could?
So, Are the Rules the Same for the Bible?
Do the Scriptures Make One Think The Rules are the Same?
As I began to re-evaluate the rules of NTTC, I looked at the Scriptures. What did they tell us about how this Book was different from other books? What did they tell us about the people who owned it, the people who transmitted it? What does the Bible tell us about how God’s people view it, and how was that different from the professional scribes who transmitted other books? Should we really think those differences between the Bible and other books have no bearing on how it was transmitted, and what the evidence of the true text would look like?
Does the History Support The Idea that the Rules are the Same?
I looked at history, and I saw the persecution, just as Paul had written to Timothy, and I thought about how that would have affected the motivations and actions of the churches. I thought about what that meant as far as the preservation of early manuscripts, and especially the best ones. Should we really expect that the persecution had NOTHING to do with the transmission of the text, and that the same principles would apply to the Bible as to other books?
Does the Manuscript Evidence Support The Same Rules?
Finally, I looked at the manuscript evidence, and I saw that this Book is indeed different. The most preserved ancient book is Homer’s Iliad, with about 650 Greek manuscripts. Well, the most preserved book except for the Bible, that is. We have nearly 6,000 hand-written Greek manuscripts (ten times as many as the Iliad), 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and 9,000 manuscripts of other ancient translations — 25,000 ancient manuscripts in total! No one set out to destroy the readers of Homer and burn their copies of his works. This disparity in numbers would be even greater if thousands of copies had not been destroyed by the persecutors — and yet, even with the persecution, there are almost 10 times as many Greek manuscripts of the New Testament as there are of the Iliad.
The Bible is drastically different. The transmission of the Bible text through manuscripts down through the centuries is far, far different from any other book. It was owned and copied by people with far different motivations than those who owned and copied other books. They behaved differently, they produced far more manuscripts, and it would be foolish to think that the same rules of textual criticism automatically apply.
So, What About the “Oldest is Preferred” Rule?
Is this rule that “the reading of the oldest manuscript is preferred” a sound one, when we are talking about the Bible? If my fictional time-travel “story” is true, this “rule” is deeply flawed — and my story isn’t entirely fictional. It is based on what the Bible taught the early church to be, based on the attitude that God told them to have towards His Word. It is based on the history of persecution, and even on the manuscript evidence.
Why Weren’t those Old Manuscripts Used?
Those earliest manuscripts that we have today were rarely used, or we wouldn’t have them. That is pretty much indisputable. They weren’t copied very much, because we have very few later manuscripts that match them at all. They weren’t read very much, they weren’t used very much for preaching and teaching. If they had been used much for copying, preaching, or reading, they would have perished. They were set aside for some reason.
If my “story” is true, they were set aside precisely because they weren’t the best, because people had better copies that they preferred to use. Some old manuscripts survived, because they were of poor quality. The best manuscripts perished, but they lived on in their words, copied onto hundreds, and thousands, of other manuscripts.
The Majority vs. the Old
The overwhelming majority of our manuscripts of the Bible are in so much agreement with each other that some have suggested some kind of great harmonisation of texts took place in the fourth century, a sort of benign conspiracy to make sure all manuscripts were in agreement. They are so united that many textual critics discount them as providing any particular evidence to the true text. Roughly ninety percent of our manuscripts make up what is called the majority text. There could have been a harmonisation, of course — or it could be that Bible-believing copyists were very careful in faithfully copying the true text from copies which had also been faithfully copied.
The oldest manuscripts are among those that differ from the great majority of manuscripts — and they also differ among themselves. The two most famous “oldest” manuscripts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, the primary manuscripts underlying most modern translations today, differ between themselves in over 3,000 places in the Gospels alone (Hoskier, Codex B and its Allies, II, 1, also cited by Pickering and many others). A careful copyist could certainly hand-copy the Gospels, check his own work, and end up with fewer than 100 differences. Test yourself and see. Carefully hand-copy one chapter, check your work carefully a couple of times, and then ask someone else to check it. If you really, really care about getting it right, if it matters to you as much as it mattered to the early church, you won’t have more than one error in a chapter. But these manuscripts both contain so many obvious errors that even their most ardent advocates question the quality of the scribal work.
The Rule Fails
You’ll have to decide for yourself, I suppose, but I’ll take my time-travel “story” over this normal “rule” of textual criticism. Our “oldest manuscripts” survived because they weren’t accurate, so believers didn’t want to use them. They were sloppy work by careless scribes, and no one wanted to copy from them. They didn’t get worn out like the best copies did — and there are very, very few later copies that ever agree with these oldest copies, because no one wants to copy from an inaccurate copy made by a sloppy scribe. The oldest manuscripts of the Bible are not the best.
The best copies were copied over and over, carefully. The overwhelming majority of our manuscripts testify together to the words written on those copies. They became what is known as the traditional text of Scripture, the text that Christians almost universally accepted as the Word of God until the late 19th century. Since then, many still accept that text. Others have followed the principles of New Testament Textual Criticism, applying the same rules to the Bible that they apply to other books — but the Bible is “not like any other book.” The readings of the oldest manuscripts of the Bible are not preferred.
One Final Thing
This has been a long post. Too long for a blog post, I suppose. Some of my readers are probably bored with it, and I don’t blame you. Others are interested in NTTC and manuscripts and all that stuff. I am, too, or I wouldn’t have taken so much time on it all. And I’ll have more to say on the topic.
But before leaving this post, I want you to do me a favour. I’d like you to go back and read my “time-travel story” again, the Ephesus part of it. And this time, I’d like you, as you read it, to ask yourself two questions:
As I read this, are the attitudes Jon attributes to the Ephesian believers the attitudes we should have towards the Scriptures?
As I read this, how does my own attitude towards the Scriptures compare?
Update: Followup post: The Pericope Adulterae and the Oldest Manuscripts
Summary Page (with links) for the “Oldest and Best” series