The Earliest Manuscripts

by Ferrell Jenkins

"In the original Greek, it says…"

How many times have you heard that in a Bible class or sermon? The fact is, we have no originals (autograph copies) of any New Testament or Old Testament book. Textual critics, those scholars who work with the available materials to produce Hebrew and Greek texts, have three sources of material to which they turn to determine what the original says.

The materials of textual criticism are

  1. Manuscripts;
  2. Versions; and
  3. Quotations from contemporary or near contemporary writers who cited the Scripture in their writings. This field of study, called patristics, is especially important in New Testament textual criticism.

Our purpose in this article is to look at some of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible. Since the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, with small sections in Aramaic, and the New Testament was written in Greek, we must deal with them separately.

Old Testament Manuscripts

Translations of the Old Testament in English are made from the Masoretic Text. In its published form, this text is known as Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica and is based on four major Hebrew manuscripts, primarily the Leningrad Codex. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the oldest manuscript of the Hebrew text dated to the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. The Masoretes were a group of Jewish scholars who flourished from about A.D. 600 to 1000, who arranged, organized, and copied the Jewish Scriptures. Their main contribution was the vowel system which they added to the Hebrew consonants. The quality of the existing Masoretes Manuscript is very good; careful and reverent copying was a hallmark of Masoretic activity.

Only 731 Hebrew manuscripts were published prior to 1890. In that year, the Cairo Geneza collection of some 10,000 biblical manuscripts and fragments, dating from A.D. 500 to 800, was discovered. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts from as early as the second century B.C. could be studied and compared with the Masoretes. The Dead Sea material included a complete scroll of Isaiah, another nearly complete, and fragments of every Old Testament book except Esther. These manuscripts antedated the Masoretes by about 1000 to 1200 years. For the most part, they confirmed the accuracy of the Masoretes.

New Testament Manuscripts

Manuscripts of the New Testament are of four kinds: papyri, uncials, minuscules or cursives, and lectionaries. A textual scholar reported in 1978 that there are 5,338 Greek manuscripts extant. We will make note of the earliest ones by century.

Second Century

The earliest papyri is the John Rylands fragment (P52) of the gospel of John. It is usually dated about A.D. 125 to 135 and contains only about five verses, but is an important witness to the New Testament text. The Bodmer papyrus (P66) is of the gospel of John. It does not contain 5:4 and 7:53-8:11. Papyrus 75 contains portions of John and Luke 3-24.

Third Century

The Chester Beatty papyri include the gospels (P45), epistles (P46), and Revelation (P47). Some material from the Bodmer collection belongs to the third century.

Fourth Century

Some of our great uncial manuscripts belong to this century. Codex Sinaiticus, which is usually dated about A.D. 350, contains the entire New Testament and a large portion of the Greek Old Testament. Codex Vaticanus, which is also dated to about A.D. 350, originally contained the entire Greek Bible. Now a few sections of the Old Testament are missing; the New Testament terminates at Hebrews 9:14. Codex Washingtonianus belongs to either the 4th or 5th century. From the Bodmer collection, the General Epistles (P72) is from the 4th century.

Fifth Century

Codex Alexandrius is usually ranked after Sinalticus and Vaticanus in importance. Ephramei Rescriptus belongs to the fourth or fifth century. The New Testament part lacks II Thessalonians, II John, and parts of some other books. Codex Bezae is the oldest bilingual manuscript of the New Testament (Greek and Latin).

Some Comments on New Testament Manuscripts

The dozen or so manuscripts mentioned above represent our earliest witness to the text of the New Testament. After these come more than 5,300 other manuscripts. One may safely conclude that these manuscripts provide a more reliable witness to the New Testament than those that come centuries later and may have been copied from them. All of the manuscripts listed above from the second and third centuries have been discovered in this century. Of the earliest manuscripts listed for the first five centuries, only Codex Benzae was available to the King James translators in A.D. 1611. The Stephens text of A.D. 1550, which appears in many interlinears, likewise did not utilize the earliest manuscripts. Our most recent Greek texts, such as Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece, 26th ed., and The Greek New Testament, 3rd ed., published by the United Bible Societies, reflect the evidence of all the manuscripts Greek text has served as the basis for most of our English translations since the Revised Version (American Standard) of 1881 and 1901.


How can one know what the “original” says? He can study all the manuscripts, early versions, and quotations. Or he can use an English version which is translated from a text that includes the evidence of the earliest manuscripts. We are thankful to the Lord for the preservation of His word.

(Note: complete documentation can be found in my Introduction to Christian Evidences, pp. 74-84).

Note: Manuscripts are regularly being found so the numbers cited above may change over time. - JWH

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