Once we understand the process by which the New Testament books were written and disseminated throughout the world, we are in a better position to understand the problem that faces anyone who wants to reconstruct the original New Testament text. The fact remains that the original manuscripts of the New Testament have long since perished, hence the modern textual scholar is left with thousands of manuscripts, some fragmentary, some nearly complete, in a variety of languages, from different ages of church history, and from different regions of the world from which to determine the original words of the New Testament writers. The process by which the textual scholar assesses variant readings and manuscripts to produce an approximation to the original text is known as Textual Criticism.
One of the most important aspects of textual criticism, too often overlooked in past years, is the way that history as a whole, and church history in particular, influenced the transmission of the New Testament. Scholars who study the various manuscripts identify trends and notice periods of time when certain types of manuscript dominated, and times they did not. Historical study can help the textual scholar figure out the reasons behind these trends, and these reasons may lead him to favor particular manuscripts or manuscript families over others, at least within particular time frames.
The first 250 years of church history were marked by fighting against early heresy (Gnosticism, Judaisers, Sabellianism, and Arianism), and fighting for existence under severe persecution. The extent to which heresy influenced the early copies of the New Testament is an oft-debated issue. Many of the earliest manuscripts extant today bear the textual hallmarks of originating in Alexandria (or being copies of manuscripts that originated in that region). During the first few centuries of the church, Alexandria had the reputation of being an intellectual center. The library at Alexandria was legendary, and it was certainly a melting pot of ideas and philosophies. It is easy to see how scribes in Alexandria might be tempted to re-write passages of the New Testament to fit their particular theological persuasion, and it is possible that this happened. It should be noticed, however, that the church at this time was not completely without discernment. There were many Gnostic-tinged (and Gnostic-immersed) Gospels written around the first few centuries that were rejected outright by the church. It is hard to imagine that a church would reject on the one hand The Gospel of Thomas, for example, and yet on the other hand receive versions of the canonical Gospels that had been altered to reflect the same essential message of the Gnostic Gospels.
The fact that the church underwent severe persecution during this time is very significant to the history of the text of the New Testament. First, as mentioned earlier, the threat of persecution meant that the demand for copies of the Scriptures was met hurriedly and under adverse conditions. Many texts produced in this way would be prone to spelling errors and the kinds of human error precipitated by speed. Secondly, during waves of intense persecution it was a common practice for copies of the Scriptures to be confiscated and burned. This left a paucity of copies of New Testament books in certain regions of the Roman Empire.
After Constantine became Emperor in A.D. 313, Christianity was no longer a persecuted religion but enjoyed the protection of the Roman Empire. As a result of this, scribes could more easily gather together and take more care over the reproduction and transmission of the New Testament text. It is impossible to say whether any kind of official text was produced under Constantine like the official text of the Old Testament created by the Massoretic scribes, but without the pressure of persecution it became much easier to copy and transmit the Scriptures with accuracy. In 330, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the ancient Greek city of Byzantium (renamed Constantinople after his death) and the vast majority of the manuscripts around today bear the hallmarks of originating from this region.
As Latin surpassed Greek as the everyday language of the Roman Empire, demand increased for a Latin version of the Bible that would supercede the various Latin versions floating around at the time. Jerome was commissioned with the work of translating the Greek text into Latin, which he completed in A.D. 406. His Latin version of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, became the official version of the Roman Empire, and remained the official version of the Western church until the Reformation (and continued to be the official version of the Roman Catholic Church until relatively recently). The Eastern Church, however, did not succumb to Latin and continued to read the Scriptures and perform their liturgy in Greek. From the middle of the seventh century, Islam started to make incursions into the Eastern Empire (the West was largely saved thanks to the efforts of Charles Martel), eventually overwhelming most of the region except for the area around Byzantium. In 1453, Byzantium finally fell to the Ottoman Turks, and Christian scholars fled with their books to the relative safety of Europe. By the time of Byzantium’s fall, the West was devoid of anyone with facility in the Greek language. The Byzantine scholars who fled to the West from Byzantium took with them their knowledge of Greek and their copies of classic works in Greek, including the New Testament. The exodus of Byzantine scholars to the West was an integral part of the rise of humanism and the Renaissance in Europe. Now people didn’t have to rely upon Latin translations of classic Greek works–they could learn Greek from these eastern refugees and have access to their books. This included the Greek New Testament, which now became available to scholars who, until now, had largely only known the Scriptures in Latin.
Around 1439, Johannes Gutenberg introduced printing by means of movable type to the world, revolutionizing both the way people communicated, and enabling the mass production of books for a fraction of the cost of hand-copying. (In Jerome’s time, a copy of a book could take up to a year to produce, depending on the size, and cost a year’s wages.) Naturally, the Latin Vulgate was the first book from Guttenberg’s press, and many more were to follow. It was not until 1514, however, that the Greek New Testament was first published. Bruce Metzger, an expert in the study of textual criticism, suggested two reasons for this delay: first, the fact that a new font had to be created, and type blocks had to be made to represent each individual letter and letter variation. Also, the Latin Vulgate enjoyed unchallenged authority as the official version of the Bible. While Greek was an unknown language to most people, and Greek New Testaments scarce in the West, the Vulgate’s position was secure. However, once people could learn Greek grammar and obtain a Greek New Testament, they may be emboldened to challenge the official translation of the church, striking a blow at the church’s authority.
Part 5: The Received Text–coming soon…