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Manuscripts of The Bible and Textual Criticism

The Bible is a collection of ancient manuscripts of the original texts passed down through history.  Scholars gather, compile, translate, research and compare all discovered manuscripts and support texts to determine the original biblical texts.  This article will discuss an overview of biblical manuscripts and textual criticism; we will explain a brief overview of what Textual Criticism is, creation of source documents to recreate a document that closest resembles the original, what actual biblical manuscripts we currently have to study, and what source documents current bible translations depend on.


First, we need to understand the vastness of Biblical Manuscripts compared of other non biblical ancient documents.  The Greek Philosopher Plato, for example, lived around 427 BC and lived to be about 80 years old.  THE oldest surviving manuscript is dated to around 895 AD.  That is over a 1,200 year gap from author to current manuscript.  It is volume one of two, the second of which has not been discovered.  Let us also consider the manuscripts of Julius Caesar.  The oldest account of what Caesar said and did comes from Roman Historians in the 2nd century, 100 years after Caesar, BUT the oldest copy of their manuscripts are 900 years or later from the authors, AND only 12 total manuscripts exist.  In school, did you ever question the historical reliability of Plato and Julius Caesar? 

Now, lets consider Biblical Manuscripts and their dating.  John Rylands Fragment, which contains
John 18:31-33, 37-38, is originally dated to 96 AD.  This is only 60 years after Jesus walked the earth.  The probability that this could be a copy of The Apostle John's original is plausible.  The fragment itself is dated to around 120AD.  Only 30 years after John and 90 years after Jesus is the actual copy we have today.  The Bodmer Papyrus is originally dated around the 70s AD, 40 years after Jesus and while some of the Apostles were still alive.  The papyrus itself is dated to the end of the 2nd century, putting that exact manuscript that we have in our hands within only 130 years from Jesus and the Apostles.

Now, comparing these examples from secular manuscripts with biblical manuscripts we see something very important:
  • Plato:  1,200 years after the author
  • Caesar: 900 years after the author
  • The Gospel of John: 60-90 years after Jesus, and 0-30 years after John. 

Let us also look at the number of manuscripts we have discovered.  
  • Plato (all of his known writings): 250 manuscripts, some in question.
  • Caesar (all of his known writings): 12 manuscripts, some extremely late and questionable.
  • The Bible: 5,800 manuscripts before the printing press.  Some are late and questionable. 

Understandably, Caesar did not write volumes like Plato or biblical authors.  But, when comparing volume verses volume of Plato and The Bible we see a HUGE difference.  There are 5,550 MORE manuscripts of the Bible than there are of Plato and his discovered manuscripts. The importance of this we will get to later.

Thus, we can see that Biblical Textual Criticism can be more reliable than that of secular ancient texts.  Because of the closeness to authorship and the vast amount of manuscripts; we have a more accurate deduction of the original texts can be made.



When investigating the New Testament manuscripts it is important that each manuscript is organized in its relation to date of creation and its relation to other manuscripts.  a systematic approach introduced in 1981 by Kurt and Barbara Aland organized biblical manuscripts by 'text type'.  A Text-type is organizing manuscripts based on their similarities and putting them into a family of text.  Word usage, key words and phrases, location, and outside witnesses can identify what family the text belongs to.  When evaluating a family or Text-type, textual critics and then better determine the source of that family.


External evidence of each physical witness, its date, source, and relationship to other known witnesses help in determining its family type. Critics will often prefer the readings supported by the oldest witnesses. Since errors tend to accumulate, older manuscripts should have fewer errors. Readings supported by a majority of witnesses are also usually preferred, since these are less likely to reflect accidents or individual biases.  Internal evidence that comes from the text itself, independent of the physical characteristics of the document.  Shorter readings are general observations that the scribes/copyists tended to add words, for clarification or out of habit, more often than they removed them.  Harder readings recognizes the tendency for harmonization or resolving apparent inconsistencies in the text. Applying this leads to taking the more unharmonized reading as being more likely to be the original.  The critic may also examine the other writings of the author to decide what words and grammatical constructions match his style. The evaluation of internal evidence also provides the critic with information that helps him evaluate the reliability of individual manuscripts.

Sentence structure, punctuation, word spelling, word usage, and specific details help date when the original or manuscript was written.  Older greek manuscripts were written in upper case letters.  Later greek manuscripts were written in lower case letters. Also handwriting practices changed; in Greek texts after the year 900 AD, scribes began to increase the use of ligatures in which they began to connect two or more characters much like cursive.  Some will detail historic events in present or past tenses which points to a specific time period of authorship. Others will leave out extremely important historic events that would relate to the authors subject; which points to the authorship before the event occurred.  Considering all these factors in the manuscript, scholars can be confident in a date range of the writing and its original source.

Finding errors can also help in determining the original of a family of texts. The principle that "community of error implies community of origin." If two witnesses have a number of errors in common, it may be presumed that they were derived from a common intermediate source, called a hyparchetype.  


Variations in the texts exist and what one omits, the others may retain; what one adds, the others are unlikely to add. Eclecticism allows inferences to be drawn regarding the original text, based on the evidence of contrasts between witnesses.  The result of this Eclecticism process is a text with readings drawn from many witnesses. It is not a copy of any particular manuscript, and may even deviate from the majority of existing manuscripts. In a purely eclectic approach, no single witness is theoretically favored. Instead, the critic forms opinions about individual witnesses, relying on both external and internal evidence.

The critic can then proceed to the selection step, where the text of the archetype is determined by examining variants from the closest hyparchetypes to the archetype and selecting the best ones. If one reading occurs more often than another at the same level of the tree, then the dominant reading is selected.  After evaluating all related family text types and their variants and supporting evidences, the critic then can compile the hyparchetype into a source document, or a archtype that matches the original.

(image from



Dead Sea Scrolls:  These ancient scripts of the OT were written around 150 BC to 70 AD.  It contains an impressive complete Isaiah scroll and a large number of Psalms manuscripts.  In all, they contained manuscripts of 29 OT books of the current bible.

The Septuagint is a Greek version of an early OT bible.  This specific translation quoted a number of times in the New Testament, particularly in Pauline epistles, and also by the Apostolic Fathers and later Greek Church Fathers.  We know this from the wording of the quotes.  The title in greek μετάφρασις τῶν Ἑβδομήκοντα, means "The Translation of the Seventy" and its symbol is LXX which refers to the seventy Jewish scholars who solely translated the Five Books of Moses into Koine Greek as early as the 3rd century BC. Translations of the Torah into Koine Greek by early Jewish Rabbis have survived as rare fragments only.  Pre-Christian Jews such as Philo and Josephus considered the Septuagint on equal standing with the Hebrew text. Manuscripts of the Septuagint have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and were thought to have been in use among Jews at the time.  The New Testament writers, when citing the Jewish scriptures, or when quoting Jesus doing so, freely used the Greek translation, implying that Jesus' Apostles and their followers considered it reliable.

Later in its history, the Septuagint was widely used by the new Christian sect and thus, the Jewish authority began to denounce its use.  They then re-translated the OT in a Hebrew, of which, most new Jewish-Christian converts were not able to read.   Irenaeus stated that, concerning Isaiah 7:14, the Septuagint clearly writes of a virgin (Greek παρθένος, bethulah in Hebrew) that shall conceive, while the word almah in the Hebrew text was, according to Irenaeus, at that time interpreted by Theodotion and Aquila (both devout in the Jewish faith) as a young woman that shall conceive. According to Irenaeus, the Ebionites used this to claim that Joseph was the (biological) father of Jesus. From Irenaeus' point of view that was pure heresy, facilitated by (late) anti-Christian alterations of the scripture in Hebrew, as evident by the older, pre-Christian, Septuagint. This shows the later change of the Hebrew writings contradicting the older, pre-Christian, OT Greek translation.

The LXX is comprised of: 2nd century BC fragments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  1st century BC fragments of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Minor Prophets. Relatively complete manuscripts of the LXX postdate the Hexaplar rescension and include the Codex Vaticanus from the 4th century AD and the Codex Alexandrinus of the 5th century.

The oldest extant complete Hebrew texts date some 600 years later, from the first half of the 10th century. The 4th century Codex Sinaiticus also partially survives, still containing many texts of the LXX Old Testament.

The Peshitta was translated into Syriac from Hebrew, probably in the 2nd century AD, and that the New Testament of the Peshitta was translated from the Greek.  Earliest manuscript, designated as "5b1", which is dated to the second half of 5th century. The manuscript includes only Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and the text is more similar to the Masoretic Text.   The Codex Ambrosianus designated as "7a1", dates from the 6th or the 7th century, and includes all the books of the Hebrew Bible.  Syr. 341 designated as "8a1", dating from the 8th century or prior with many corrections, it includes all the books of the Hebrew Bible. 

The Vulgate is a late 4th-century Latin translation of the Bible.  The translation was largely the work of St Jerome, who, in 382, had been commissioned by Pope Damasus I to revise the Vetus Latina ("Old Latin") Gospels then in use by the Roman Church. Jerome, on his own initiative, extended this work of revision and translation to include most of the Books of the Bible.  Dating from the 8th century, the Codex Amiatinus is the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Vulgate Bible. The Codex Fuldensis, dating from around 545, contains most of the New Testament in the Vulgate version.  The Codex Cavensis is a 9th-century Latin Bible.

The Masoretic Text designated as MT, 𝕸, or \mathfrak{M} is the authoritative Hebrew and Aramaic text of the Tanakh for Rabbinic Judaism.  But many OT manuscripts older than the Masoretic text and often contradict it.  The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic Text date from approximately the 9th century AD. The Aleppo Codex dates from the 10th century.  The Nash Papyrus (2nd century BC) may contain a portion of a pre-Masoretic Text. It runs into discrepancies when compared to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint, both of which predate The Masoretic text.

Not nearly as many manuscripts exist as of the New Testament but quite a lot is know of what the original text meaning is.  Though there are variants in the different manuscripts, almost all of the textual variants are fairly insignificant and hardly affect any doctrine. Professor Douglas Stuart states: "It is fair to say that the verses, chapters, and books of the Bible would read largely the same, and would leave the same impression with the reader, even if one adopted virtually every possible alternative reading to those now serving as the basis for current English translations."


The New Testament manuscripts are categorized in 5 'families'. Category I – Alexandrian, Category II – Egyptian, Category III – Eclectic, Category IV – Western, and Category V – Byzantine.  

Alexandrian Text-typeThe Alexandrian text-type is the form of the Greek New Testament that represents the earliest surviving manuscripts.  The oldest, near complete manuscript is The Codex Vaticanus and is dated around 300 AD.  the Codex Vaticanus originally contained a virtually complete copy of the Septuagint.  The Codex Sinaiticus is also of the Alexandrian family and is dated around 330 to 360AD. It originally contained a virtually complete copy of the Septuagint Which are different from the far later Textus Receptus generated by Erasmus.  The Codex Alexandrinus dated around 400AD.  

A number of substantial papyrus manuscripts of portions of the New Testament survive.  The earliest translation of the New Testament into an Egyptian Coptic version — the Sahidic of the late 2nd century — uses the Alexandrian text as a Greek base.  The Chester Beatty II and Bodmer II are dated to the 2nd Century.  Bodmer VII, VIII, XIV and XV are dated to the 3th century.

Considering these earliest manuscripts and the Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Alexandrinus, not to mention late 1st through 5th century quotes from early church teachers; the new testament message can be compiled from manuscripts no later than the 5th century.

The Western text-type is the predominant form of the New Testament text witnessed in the Old Latin and Peshitta translations from the Greek, and also in quotations from certain 2nd and 3rd-century Christian writers, including Cyprian, Tertullian and Irenaeus.  This text type often presents longer variants of text, but in a few places.  Papyrus 37, 48, Papyrus Michigan, Oxyrhynchus XXIV are dated to the 3rd century.  0171, Codex Bezae, and some portion of Codex Sinaiticus are Western type dated to the 4th century.  Codex Washingtonianus is dated to the 5th century and Codex Claromontanus is dated to the 6th century.

Compared to the Byzantine text-type distinctive Western readings in the Gospels are more likely to be abrupt in their Greek expression. Compared to the Alexandrian text-type distinctive Western readings in the Gospels are more likely display glosses, additional details, and instances where the original passages appear to be replaced with longer paraphrases.  Although the Western text-type survives in relatively few witnesses, some of these are as early as the earliest witnesses to the Alexandrian text type. Nevertheless, the majority of text critics consider the Western text in the Gospels to be characterized by periphrasis and expansion; and accordingly tend to prefer the Alexandrian readings.

The Byzantine text-type is the form found in the largest number of surviving manuscripts, though not in the oldest.  While considerably varying, it is the basis for the Textus Receptus Greek text.  The earliest Church Father to witness to a Byzantine text-type in substantial New Testament quotations is John Chrysostom (c. 349 — 407).  The second earliest translation to witness to a Greek base conforming generally to the Byzantine text in the Gospels is the Syriac Peshitta.  Although in respect of several much contested readings, such as Mark 1:2 and John 1:18, the Peshitta rather supports the Alexandrian witnesses.  The Ethiopic version of the Gospels; best represented by the surviving fifth and sixth century manuscripts of the Garima Gospels and classified by Rochus Zuurmond as "early Byzantine".  Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus is majority Byzantine, Codex Guelferbytanus B, and Uncial 061 are dated around the 5th century.   Codex Basilensis is dated in the 8th century.  Codex Boreelianus, Codex Seidelianus I and II, Codex Angelicus, Codex Mosquensis II, Codex Macedoniensis, Codex Koridethi, Minuscule 1424, and Codex Vaticanus 354 are dated to the 9th century.  Minuscule 1241 is dated o the 12th century.

The Byzantine readings tend to show a greater tendency toward smooth and well-formed Greek, they display fewer instances of textual variation between parallel Synoptic Gospel passages, and they are less likely to present "difficult" issues of exegesis. For example, Mark 1:2 reads "As it is written in the prophets..." in the Byzantine text; whereas the same verse reads, "As it is written in Isaiah the prophet..." in all other early textual witnesses.  In that instance, what is being quoted is from Isaiah but also from Malachi.  Thus; the Byzantine witness tends to change the wording for a fuller understanding.

The explanation of the wide spread later use of the Byzantine text-type can be explained when Constantine I paid for the wide distribution of manuscripts which came from the group of church teachers who came together to generate a source document of older manuscripts. There are several references by Eusebius of Caesarea to Constantine paying for manuscript production. 

An example of the actual texts and translations of John 18:32:

John Rylands Papyrus 457, P52 - 125AD
"so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spoke signifying what kind of death he was going to die." 
(The words underlined and in bold are what are stated in this fragment)

Codex Sinaiticus - 330 to 360AD
"that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spoke signifying by what kind of death he was about to die."  
να ι ουδενα ϊνα ο λογοϲ του ιυ πληρωθη ┬  ϲημαινω ποιω θανατω ημελλεν αποθνη

Textus Receptus - 1500AD - 1600AD
"That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die."
  ἵνα λόγος τοῦ Ἰησοῦ πληρωθῇ ὃν εἶπεν σημαίνων ποίῳ θανάτῳ ἤμελλεν ἀποθνῄσκειν
( (

Spanning over 1,475 years, and yet, they literally say the same thing.  The Byzantine Text-type (Textus Receptus) also continues the same message, 1,475 years later.  This is not even considering the thousands of other manuscripts and comparing all of them. The Diagram below simplistically illiterates this:

(The image above is a basic and simplified example of how to determine an archetype of the original  document based on witness sources)


Combining the Greek family of manuscripts into a single document is what came next.  In 1516 the Novum Instrumentum omne was published.  Compiled by Erasmus and using Byzantine Text-type as its primary source it was a foundational document for early church translations which later generated the King James bible.

The Institute for New Testament Textual Research reconstructed its Greek initial text on the basis of the entire manuscript tradition, the early translations and patristic citations; furthermore the preparation of an Editio Critica Maior based on the entire tradition of the New Testament in Greek manuscripts, early versions and New Testament quotations in ancient Christian literature.  This source document from the INTF is called the Novum Testamentum Graece and refers to the Nestle-Aland editions of the translated source document and is currently in its 28th edition, abbreviated NA28 of which the United Bible Societies (UBS) also uses.  The critical text is an eclectic text compiled by a committee that examines a large number of manuscripts in order to determine which reading is most likely to be closest to the original. 

A new massive Textual Criticism project is underway by the INTF.  Editio Critica Maior (ECM) is a critical edition of the Greek New Testament being produced.  They acquired over 90% of the known biblical material on microfilm or photo.  The project Editio Critica Maior is supported by the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities. It is to be completed by the year 2030.  The International Greek New Testament Project (IGNTP) began in 1926 as a cooperative enterprise between British and German scholars to establish a new critical edition of the New Testament.  The project was resurrected in 1949 as a cooperative endeavour between British and North American scholars.  British and North American cooperation resulted in the publication of a critical apparatus for the Gospel of Luke in the 1980s.  Current research focuses on the Gospel of John, and the surviving majuscule manuscripts have been published in print and electronic form. The present committee comprises scholars from Europe and North America.

The Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, abbreviated as BHS, is an edition of the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible as preserved in the Leningrad Codex, and supplemented by masoretic and text-critical notes.

The Eastern Orthodox Bible (EOB) (in progress) is an extensive revision and correction of Brenton's translation which was primarily based on Codex Vaticanus. Its language and syntax have been modernized and simplified. It also includes extensive introductory material and footnotes featuring significant inter-LXX and LXX/MT variants.

(The images above do not show each and every biblical witness but gives a simple and basic overview of how the documents were transmitted)

  1. Dead Sea Scrolls - OT, 200BC - 70AD
  2. The Septuagint - OT & NT, 200BC - 400AD
  3. The Peshitta - OT, 100AD - 600AD
  4. The Vulgate - OT & NT, 400AD - 800AD
  5. The Masoretic Text - OT,  800AD - 1000AD
  6. Alexandrian Text-Type - NT, 100AD - 400AD
  7. Western Text-Type - NT, 100AD - 400AD
  8. Byzantine Text-Type - NT, 400AD - 1100AD
  9. Textus Receptus - NT, 1500AD - 1600AD
These 9 canonical manuscripts and fragment manuscript families of more than 25,000 total manuscripts are then compiled and translated into a single source document reflecting the archtype of the originals.
  •  Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia - OT - Masoretic Text of the Leningrad Codex.  Biblia Hebraica Quinta is the 5th edition projected completion in 2020. 
  • Novum Instrumentum omne (Textus Receptus) - NT - Byzantine Text-type primary, Latin Vulgate, Codex Montfortianus gap.
  •  Novum Testamentum Graece (Nestle-Aland editions) - NT - Alexandrian Text-Type primary, Western Text-Type gaps.
  • United Bible Societies (UBS) edition - NT - Alexandrian Text-Type primary.
  •  Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople 1904 Text - NT - Textus Receptus primary, Byzantine Text-type gaps. 
From these combined archtype source documents, Bible versions are then translated and printed in common languages.  There are different types of publication methods.  Word for Word translations (formal), thought for thought (dynamic), paraphrased, or a methodical blend. 
  • New American Standard Bible (NASB) - Word for Word - NT: Nestle-Aland edition. OT: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia with Septuagint influence.
  • King James Versions (KJV) - Word for Word - NT: Textus Receptus. OT: Masoretic Text with Septuagint influence.
  • English Standard Version - (ESV) - Word for Word-  OT: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia with Septuagint influence Deutero./Apoc.: Göttingen Septuagint, Rahlf's Septuagint and Stuttgart Vulgate. NT: Nestle-Aland edition, supplemented by Textus Receptus.
  • New International Version (NIV) - Blend of word for word and thought for thought - NT: Nestle-Aland edition. OT: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, Masoretic Hebrew Text, Dead Sea Scrolls, Samaritan Pentateuch, Latin Vulgate, Peshitta, Aramaic Targums, for Psalms Juxta Hebraica of Jerome.
  • New Living Translation - (NLT) - Blend of word for word and thought for thought - NT: UBS 4th revised edition and Nestle-Aland edition. OT: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, with some Septuagint influence.
                            (KJV)                                (NASB)                                (NIV)

 There are about 5,800 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Ethiopic and Armenian of the New Testament. Professor D. A. Carson states: "nothing we believe to be doctrinally true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants. This is true for any textual tradition. The interpretation of individual passages may well be called in question; but never is a doctrine affected."

EP Sanders, Arts and Sciences Professor of Religion at Duke University, who himself is nonchristian and open secular historian honestly stated: "Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died. ….. the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism."  All this, he concludes, comes from the vast amount of manuscripts and evidence of the bible.

Some of the actual photo copy of manuscripts can be viewed and studied at:

To claim that we can not know what the original text said is to then discredit every ancient historical writing ever written about anyone from Alexander The Great to Plato to Julius Caesar himself.  The fact is there is vast amounts of hard proof and outside evidences that lead even secular historians to admit that we can know details about ancient persons, including Jesus and ancient Israel.  Christians who doubt and nonchristians who discredit do so because of willful ignorance of current evidences.  We CAN know and we do know, because God has allowed us to know, through preserving what he has preserved; found in the 25,000 hard copy manuscripts we have today and the vast amount of outside biblical support and evidences as well.

Also read Did the Apostles distort what Jesus taught?   |  Modern Secular Historians and The Bible  |  Early Accounts of Christianity from Non-Christians  |  Why The Disciples of The Apostles Matter Today  |  Apologetics main page

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