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Smith's Bible Dictionary
New Testament. It is proposed, in this article, to consider the text of the New Testament. The subject naturally divides itself into - I. The history of the written text; II. The history of the printed text.
I. The History of the Written Text. - The early history of the apostolic writings externally, as far as it can be traced, is the same as that of other contemporary books. St. Paul, like Cicero or Pliny, often employed the services of an amanuensis [A person whose employment is to write what another dictates.], to whom he dictated his letters, affixing the salutation, "with his own hand." 1 Corinthians 16:21; 2 Thessalonians 3:17; Colossians 4:18. The original copies seem to have soon perished.
In the natural course of things, the apostolic autographs would be likely to perish soon. The material which was commonly used for letters; the papyrus paper, to which St. John incidentally alludes, 2 John 1:12, compare 3 John 1:13, was singularly fragile, and even the stouter kinds, likely to be used for the historical books, were not fitted to bear constant use. The papyrus fragments which have come down to the present time have been preserved under peculiar circumstances as at Herculaneum or in the Egyptian tombs.
In the time of the Diocletian persecution, A.D. 303, copies of the Christian Scriptures were sufficiently numerous to furnish a special object for persecutors. Partly, perhaps, owing to the destruction thus caused, but still more from the natural effects of time, no manuscripts of the New Testament of the first three centuries remains, but though no fragment of the New Testament of the first century still remains, the Italian and Egyptian papyri, which are of that date give a clear notion of the caligraphy of the period. In these, the text is written in columns, rudely divided, in somewhat awkward capital letters, (Uncials), without any punctuation or division of words; and there is no trace of accents or breathings.
In addition to the later manuscripts, the earliest versions and patristic quotations give very important testimony, to the character and history of the ante-Nicene text; but, till the last quarter of the second century, this source of information fails us. Only are the remains of Christian literature up to that time extremely scanty, but the practice of verbal quotation from the New Testament was not yet prevalent. As soon as definite controversies arose among Christians, the text of the New Testament assumed its true importance.
Several very important conclusions follow, from this earliest appearance of textual criticism. It is, in the first place, evident that various readings existed in the books of the New Testament, at a time prior to all extant authorities. History affords a trace of the pure apostolic originals. Again, from the preservation of the first variations noticed, which are often extremely minute, in one or more of the primary documents still left, we may be certain that, no important changes have been made in the sacred text, which we cannot now detect.
Passing from these isolated quotations, we find the first great witnesses to the apostolic text, in the early Syriac and Latin versions, and in the rich quotations of Clement of Alexandria (circa, A.D. 220) and Origen (A.D. 1842-4). From the extant works of Origen alone, no inconsiderable portion of the whole New Testament might be transcribed; and his writings are an almost inexhaustible store house for the history of the text. There can be no doubt that, in Origen's time, the variations in the New Testament manuscripts were beginning to lead to the formation of specific groups of copies.
The most ancient manuscripts and versions now extant, exhibit the characteristic differences, which have been found to exist, in different parts of the works of Origen. These cannot have had their source, later than the beginning of the third century, and probably, were much earlier. Bengel was the first, (1734), who pointed out the affinity of certain groups of manuscripts, which as he remarks, must have arisen before the first versions were made. The honor of carefully determining the relations of critical authorities for the New Testament text, belongs to Griesbach. According to him, two distinct recensions of the Gospels existed at the beginning of the third century - the Alexandrine and the Western.
From the consideration of the earliest history of the New Testament text, we now pass to the era of manuscripts The quotations of Dionsius Alex., (A.D. 264), Petrus Alex., (circa, A.D. 312), Methodius, (A.D. 311), and Eusebius, (A.D. 340) , confirm the prevalence of the ancient type of tent; but the public establishment of Christianity in the Roman empire necessarily led to important changes. The nominal or real adherence of the higher ranks to the Christian faith must have largely increased the demand for costly manuscripts. As a natural consequence, the crude Hellenistic forms gave way before the current Greek, and at the same time, it is reasonable to believe that smoother and fuller constructions were substituted for the rougher turns of the apostolic language. In this way, the foundation of the Byzantine text was laid. Meanwhile, the multiplication of copies in Africa and Syria was checked by Mohammedan conquests.
The appearance of the oldest manuscripts have been already described. The manuscripts of the fourth century, of which Codex Vaticanus may be taken as a type, present a close resemblance to these. The writing is in elegant continuous Uncials, (capitals) [that is, written wholly in capitals], in three columns, without initial letters or iota subscript or adscript. A small interval, serves as a simple punctuation, and there are no accents or breathings, by the hand of the first writer, though these have been added, subsequently. Uncial writing continued in general use till the middle of the tenth century.
From the eleventh century downward, Cursive writing [that is, written in a running hand] prevailed. The earliest Cursive biblical manuscript, is dated 964 A.D. The manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries abound in the contractions, which afterward passed into the early printed books. The oldest manuscripts are written on the thinnest and finest vellum; in later copies, the parchment is thick and coarse. Papprus was very rarely used after the ninth century. In the tenth century, cotton paper was generally employed in Europe; and one example, at least, occurs of its use in the ninth century. In the twelfth century, the common linen or rag paper came into use. One other kind of material requires notice - re-dressed parchment, called palimpsests.
Even at a very early period, the original text of a parchment manuscript was often erased, that the material might be used afresh. In lapse of time, the original writing frequently reappeared in faint lines below the later text, and in this way, many precious fragments of biblical manuscripts, which had been once obliterated, for the transcription of other works, have been recovered.
The division of the Gospels into "chapters" must have come into general use, some time before the fifth century. The division of the Acts and Epistles into chapters came into use at a later time. It is commonly referred to Euthalius, who, however, says that he borrowed the divisions of the Pauline Epistles, from an earlier father, and there is reason to believe that the division of the Acts and Catholic Epistles, which he published, was originally the work of Pamphilus, the martyr. The Apocalypse was divided into sections, by Andreas of Caesarea, about A.D. 500. The titles of the sacred books are from their nature additions to the original text. The distinct names of the Gospels imply a collection, and the titles of the Epistles are notes by the possessors, and not addresses by the writers.
Very few manuscripts contain the whole New Testament - twenty-seven in all - out of the vast mass of extant documents. Besides the manuscripts of the New Testament, or of parts of it, there are also lectionaries, which contain extracts arranged for the church services.
The number of Uncial manuscripts remaining, though great when compared with the ancient manuscripts extent of other writings, is inconsiderable. Tischendorf reckons forty in the Gospels. In these, must be added the Codex Sinaiticus, which is entire; a new manuscript of Tischendorf, which is nearly entire; and Codex Zacynthius (Codex "Zeta"), which contains considerable fragments of St. Luke. In the Acts, there are nine: in the Catholic Epistles there are five; in the Pauline Epistles there are fourteen; in the Apocalypse there are three.
A complete description of these manuscripts is given, in the great critical editions of the New Testament. Here, those only can be briefly noticed, which are of primary importance, the first place being given to the latest discovered and most complete; the Codex Sinaiticus - the Codex Friderico-Augustanus, of the Septuagint (LXX) at St. Petersburg, obtained by Tischendorf , from the convent of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai, in 1859. The New Testament is entire, and the Epistle of Bamabas and parts of the Shepherd of Hermas are added. It is, probably, the oldest of the manuscripts of the New Testament, and of the fourth century.
Codex Alexandrinus, (British Museum), a manuscript of the entire Greek Bible, with the Epistles of Clement added. It was given-by Cyril Lucar, patriarch of Constantinople, to Charles I, in 1628, and is now in the British Museum. It contains the whole of the New Testament, with some chasms. It was probably written in the first half of the fifth century.
Codex Vaticanus, (1209), a manuscript of the entire Greek Bible, which seems to have been in the Vatican Library, almost from its commencement, (circa, A.D. 1450). It contains the New Testament entire to Hebrews 9:14, Katha: the rest of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Pastoral Epistles and the Apocalypse were added in the fifteenth century. The manuscript is assigned to the fourth century.
Codex Ephraemi rescriptus, (Paris, Bibl, Imp. 9), A palimpsest manuscript, which contains fragments of the Septuagint (LXX) and of every part of the New Testament. In the twelfth century, the original writing was effaced and some Greek writings, of Ephraem Syrus were written over it. The manuscript was brought to Florence from the East, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and came, thence, to Paris with Catherine Deuteronomy Medici. The only entire books which have perished are 2 Thessalonians and 2 John.
The number of the Cursive manuscripts, (minuscules), in existence, cannot be accurately calculated. Tischendorf catalogues about 500 of the Gospels, 200 of the Acts and Catholic Epistles, 250 of the Pauline Epistles, and a little less than 100 of the Apocalypse, (exclusive of lectionaries), but this enumeration can only be accepted as a rough approximation.
Having surveyed, in outline, the history of the transmission of the written text, and the chief characteristics of the manuscripts in which it is preserved, we are in a position to consider the extent and nature of the variations, which exist in different copies. It is impossible to estimate the number of these exactly, but they cannot be less than 120,000 in all, though, of these, a very large proportion consists of differences of spelling, and isolated aberrations of scribes, and of the remainder, comparatively few alterations are sufficiently well supported, to create reasonable doubt as to the final judgment. Probably, there are not more than 1600-2000 places in which the true reading is a matter of uncertainty.
Various causes: readings are due to some arose from accidental, others from intentional alterations of the original text.
Other variations are due to errors of sight. Others may be described as errors of impression or memory. The copyist, after reading a sentence from the text before him, often failed to reproduce it exactly. Variations of order, are the most frequent, and very commonly the most puzzling questions of textual criticism. Examples occur in every page, almost in every verse, of the New Testament.
Of intentional changes, some affect the expression, others affect the substance of the passage.
The number of readings which seem to have been altered, for distinctly dogmatic reasons, is extremely small. In spite of the great revolutions in thought, feeling and practice, through which the Christian Church passed in fifteen centuries, the copyists of the New Testament faithfully preserved, according to their ability, the sacred trust committed to them. There is not any trace of intentional revision designed to give support to current opinions. Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29; 1 Corinthians 7:5, need scarcely be noticed.
The great mass of various readings are simply variations in form. There are, however, one or two greater variations of a different character. The most important of these are Mark 16:9; John 7:53; John 8:12; Romans 16:25-27. The first, stands quite by itself and there seems to be little doubt that, it contains an authentic narrative, but not by the hand of St. John. The two others taken in connection with the last chapter of St. John's Gospel, suggest the possibility that the apostolic writings may have undergone, in some cases, authoritative revision.
Manuscripts, it must be remembered, are but one of the three sources of textual criticism. The versions and patristic quotations are scarcely less important in doubtful cases.
II. The History of the Printed Text. - The history of the printed text of the New Testament may be these divided into three periods. The first extends from the labors of the Complutensian errors to those of Mill; the second from Mill to Scholz; the third from Lachmann to the present time.
The criticism of the first period was necessarily tentative and partial: the materials available for the construction of the text were few and imperfectly known.
The second period made a great progress: the evidence of manuscripts of versions, of the fathers, was collected with the greatest diligence and success; authorities were compared and classified; principles of observation and judgment were laid down. But the influence of the former period still lingered.
The third period was introduced by the declaration of a new and sounder law. It was laid down that no right of possession could be pleaded against evidence. The Textus Receptus, or "Received Text", as such, was allowed no weight whatever. Its authority, on this view, must depend solely on critical worth. From first to last, in minute details of order and orthography, as well as in graver questions of substantial alteration, the text must be formed by a free and unfettered judgment. The following are the earliest editions:
The Complutensian Polyglot. - The glory of printing the first Greek Testament is due to the princely Cardinal Ximenes. This great prelate, as early as 1502, engaged the services of a number of scholars to superintend an edition of the whole Bible, in the original Hebrew and Greek, with the addition of the Chaldee Targum of Onkelos, the Septuagint (LXX) version and the Vulgate. The volume containing the New Testament was printed first, and was completed on January 10, 1524. The whole work was not finished till July 10, 1517. (It was called Complutensian because it was printed at Complutum, in Spain. - Editor).
The edition of Erasmus. - The edition of Erasmus was the first published edition of the New Testament. Erasmus had paid considerable attention to the study of the New Testament, when he received an application from Froben, a Printer of Basle with whom he was acquainted, to prepare a Greek text for the press. The request was made on April 17, 1515, and the whole work was finished in February, 1516.
The edition of Stephens. - The scene of our history now changes from Basle to Paris. In 1543, Simon Deuteronomy Colines, (Colinaeus), published a Greek text of the New Testament, corrected in about 150 places on fresh manuscript authority. Not long after it appeared, R. Estienne, (Stephanus), published his first edition, (1546), which was based on a collation of manuscripts, in the Royal Library with the Complutensian text.
The editions of Beta and Elzevir. - The Greek text of Beta, (dedicated to Queen Elizabeth), was printed by H. Stephens in 1565, and a second edition in 1576, but the chief edition was the third, printed in 1582, which contained readings from the Codex Bezae (Codex Cantabrigiensis) and the Codex Lugdunensis, later called Codex Claromontanus.
The literal sense of the apostolic writings must be gained, in the same way as the literal sense of any other writings, by the fullest use of every appliance of scholarship, and the most complete confidence, in the necessary and absolute connection of words and thoughts. No variation of phrase, no peculiarity of idiom, no change of tense, no change of order, can be neglected.
The truth lies in the whole expression, and no one can presume to set aside any part as trivial or indifferent. The importance of investigating most patiently, and most faithfully, the literal meaning of the sacred text must be felt with tenfold force, when it is remembered that the literal sense is the outward embodiment of a spiritual sense, which lies beneath and quickens every part of the Holy Scripture, the Holy Bible. See Bible, The [Holy].
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Smith, William, Dr. Entry for 'New Testament'. Smith's Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/sbd/n/new-testament.html. 1901.