Principles, Practices, and Pitfalls
The New Testament that we read today in many different translations is not based on one single manuscript of the original Greek text. Why? There simply is no such thing as a complete text of the New Testament that we could date to the apostolic times, or even two or three centuries after the last of the apostles. Extant manuscripts containing the entire Christian Bible are the work of medieval monks. The modern scholarly editions of the original Greek text draw on readings from many different ancient manuscripts. As a result, the New Testament presented in any of our Bibles does not correspond to a single, authoritative ancient manuscript.
The oldest surviving examples of the New Testament come to us, instead, as fragments and scraps of papyrus excavated (mostly) in Egypt. How old are the oldest of these biblical fragments, and why does it matter whether they were written in the first or the fourth century? “Sometimes it’s a big deal,” states Brent Nongbri of the Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society in Oslo. Expert on early Christian manuscripts, Professor Nongbri offers insights into the critical issues of dating ancient biblical manuscripts in his article “How Old Are the Oldest Christian Manuscripts?” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Although the New Testament as we know it is essentially a “collage” of various surviving manuscripts, it relies heavily on one particular, parchment manuscript—the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, or the Vatican Codex. In the mid-20th century, explains Nongbri, “most New Testament textual critics believed that the text of the New Testament preserved in the Codex Vaticanus was the result of an editorial revision that took place in the fourth century. Then in 1961, a papyrus codex containing the Gospels of Luke and John in Greek (P.Bodmer XIV–XV or P75 to specialists) was published. It is often called the most important New Testament papyrus so far discovered because it was dated, on the basis of its handwriting, to about A.D. 175–225, and its text agrees very closely with that of Codex Vaticanus.”This discovery led many to argue that the text of the Vatican Codex must, too, have originated as early as the late second century and was then transmitted carefully (without corruption) until it was written down in the Vatican Codex, in the fourth century. This sounds logical, but there is one substantial flaw in such an argument—it is based on nothing but the supposed date of the Bodmer papyrus that has been established (or, shall we say, “guessed”) by comparing the handwriting with other extant manuscripts. Palaeography, which is what the comparative study of handwriting is called, is just one of the possible ways to date ancient manuscripts, including the earliest examples of the Christian Bible.
To explore the uses, abuses, and caveats of the dating techniques, read “How Old Are the Oldest Christian Manuscripts?” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
This post first appeared in Bible History Daily in June, 2020
How the Books of the New Testament Were Chosen by Roy W. Hoover
How did the Church decide which books to include in the New Testament? When was the decision made? By whom? The surviving evidence unfortunately does not provide answers in the detail we would like, but it does document a number of the developments that eventually produced the New Testament as we know it
How Old Are the Oldest Christian Manuscripts? by Brent Nongbri
The earliest Christian manuscripts are almost never dated explicitly, and scholars must rely on technical analyses and circumstantial evidence to establish probable dates. Learn about the uses and abuses of the dating techniques.
Codex Sinaiticus, written around the middle of the fourth century A.D., is arguably the earliest extant Christian Bible. It contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament. Only one other nearly complete manuscript of the Christian Bible—the Codex Vaticanus—is of a similarly early date. The only Christian manuscripts of scripture that are definitely of an earlier date contain relatively small portions of the text.
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