An Introduction to Textual Criticism: Part 2–The Writing and Transmission of Ancient Documents

   This is a large and fascinating area of study that can only be dealt briefly within the scope of a blog article. My purpose is to give an idea of how ancient manuscripts were written and distributed to help aid your understanding of the way the New Testament, under the Holy Spirit’s providential guidance, came together.
   The majority of ancient biblical manuscripts were written on either papyrus or parchment. Papyrus was an early form of paper (as you can guess, the English word “paper” is derived from the word “papyrus”) made from the leaves of the papyrus plant that grows predominantly in Egypt and the Nile delta region. The leaves of this plant were arranged horizontally, and then a vertical arrangement of leaves placed on top. These were then moistened and pressed together to form the paper. When papyrus was first made, it was almost as strong as good-quality paper, so it was a very popular medium. Also, compared to parchment, it was relatively inexpensive. Parchment, or vellum as the higher-grade version is called, was made out of animal skins, usually either from goats, cattle, sheep, or antelope. The skins were first scraped to remove hair, and then washed and prepared for writing. Sometimes special dyes were applied to color the parchment to create deluxe versions of books. Due to the nature of the material, parchment manuscripts have lasted much better than papyrus, although the dry sands of Egypt have proven a good atmosphere for the preservation of papyrus manuscripts.

   While the scroll format was popular in ancient times, it appears from the archeological evidence that from the earliest times Christians adopted the codex, or book format, for their texts. This is clear from such manuscripts as Codex Vaticanus from the fifth century, and Codex Sinaiticus from the fourth century. It is also evident from the fact that earlier papyrus fragments have writing on both sides, suggesting that they were previously part of a larger codex, not a scroll, thus dating the codex form to the earliest days of the Christian church.
   One possible reason for the adoption of the codex by the early Christians was pure economics. Scrolls were generally only written on one side, so you can get more text into a codex using both sides of the papyrus than you can on a scroll using only one side. Thus it would require less papyrus to make a book. Also, while a complete codex of the Old and New Testaments would be large, it would not be as cumbersome as the numerous scrolls it would take to carry as much text. It has even been suggested by some experts that the codex form was actually invented by early Christians to better facilitate the carrying and storage of their Scriptures.
   The Greek text of the New Testament was originally written in what is known as an uncial text where all the letters are upper case, and there are no punctuation marks or word divisions. By about the ninth century A.D., manuscripts written in miniscules began to appear. These texts were written with word divisions and punctuation, and the text itself was predominantly lower case and cursive. Not only did this style aid clarity, but it also helped to increase the speed with which one could copy a manuscript.
   While most ancient manuscripts were copied by professional scribes, or, as in the case of the Old Testament, by religious leaders using meticulous checks and balances to ensure accuracy, the circumstances under which the early church flourished precluded such luxury. As a result of persecution and oppression during the first few centuries of the church, the various books of the New Testament were usually hastily copied, either by tradesmen or by churches as they had opportunity. The rapid growth of the church also generated a great demand for copies of the Scriptures.
   As the church expanded its borders beyond Palestine, her Scriptures traveled with her. Wherever churches were planted and wherever Christian merchants traveled, copies of the various New Testament books made their way into different parts of the world. As the church expanded into non-Greek speaking areas, translations were made into the native languages of the people in those regions. In Africa, Latin versions of the New Testament were circulating as early as the second century–more than two hundred years before Jerome’s famous “Vulgate” translation. These were not necessarily quality translations, though. Augustine once complained that in many cases the only qualifications necessary to translate the Scriptures from Greek to Latin were a Greek manuscript and a basic knowledge of Latin! This happened simply because the demand for copies of the Scriptures could not wait for more qualified people to make translations.
   To begin with, the New Testament books circulated as individual works. By the latter part of the first century, a corpus of Pauline epistles had already been established. The four Gospels were brought together sometime into the second century, and these had all been brought together into a collection (along with the Pastoral Epistles) by the end of the second century, as is evident from the famous Muratorian Canon. Given that collections might be made up of copies of books from different places, one should not be surprised to find differing textual histories among the various books within a New Testament codex.