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An Introduction to the New Testament Text

by Dave Pocta  --  San Antonio, Texas, USA 

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When we open our bibles, we often take for granted what is in front of us. For centuries, scribes and scholars have meticulously unearthed ancient texts.  They have preserved, catalogued, studied and compared them to accurately provide us with God’s Word.  This paper is a very brief introduction to the languages, manuscript history, early translations, and textual criticism that laid the foundation for the blessing now known as the New Testament. 

Biblical Languages

The original twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written in Greek.  There are four major stages of the Greek language: classical, Koine, Byzantine, and modern.  The New Testament was written in Koine, which was the common, everyday language of the time. Documents in the original language are called manuscripts and copies of them are transmissions. Documents in other languages are called versions as they are translations

Languages vary in communication style, flow, and structure. We would therefore prefer to possess the earliest manuscripts in the original language to ensure accuracy and avoid the translators’ interpretation. The two extremes in translation would be “word for word” translations which tend to be more literal but often can lose the exact meaning of the text or “thought for thought” translations which attempt to capture the meaning but lose the nuances of specific words. This makes evident the difficulty in translating a translation. (I.e. Translating the New Testament from Latin into English introduces the difficulties of moving across two language barriers instead of translating from Greek directly into English.) The science of studying manuscripts to remove scribal copying errors and obtain the most likely original text is known as textual criticism. The intention of textual critics is to provide a precise original language text that can be used as a basis for translation into any language.

Manuscript History

As of the year 2005, we possessed over 5700 hand-written manuscripts that pre-date the 15th century (before the printing press). They are divided as follows:

    Papyri            116 manuscripts

    Majuscules        310 manuscripts

    Minuscules        2877 manuscripts

    Lectionaries        2432 manuscripts

Papyri were written on sheets made from the papyrus plant. They were less expensive than the other writing surfaces and were used until the 8th century. The papyri are the oldest remaining witnesses of the New Testament writings. The John Rylands fragment is a papyrus dated to around 125 A.D. and contains John 18:31-33, 37-38. If the Gospel of John was written in 85 A.D. as many suppose, this copy was written only forty years after the original! 

Papyrus Greek 458. John Rylands Library, Manchester, UK.

Papyrus Greek 458. John Rylands Library, Manchester, UK.

Codex Vaticanus, 2 Thess. 3: 11-18

Codex Vaticanus, 2 Thess. 3: 11-18

As Christianity became a legal and state-recognized religion in the 4th century, scriptoriums appear and more money became available through the churches to start copying the scriptures on parchment. Parchment was made from animal skins and vellum was the highest quality of parchment. It was from this period that we have the earliest codices, Codex Sinaiticus (4th century) and Codex Vaticanus (4th century). Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest remaining complete New Testament but the text is inferior to Codex Vaticanus due to some careless scribal errors. Vaticanus is superior in text form but is missing Hebrews 9:14 and onward. These manuscripts were written in capital letters and are called majuscules

Around the 8th century, we begin to see copyists switch from majuscules to minuscules (Greek cursive). We also see the use of lectionaries appear more frequently. Lectionaries divided scripture into passages to be read during the liturgy. Different scripture was mapped out for different worship services. The minuscules and lectionaries were often ornately decorated.

Early Translations

Early versions of the New Testament begin to appear as early as 180 A.D. and were prepared by missionaries to help carry the gospel message to people that spoke different languages. These translations bring witness to the early text (2nd and 3rd century) but are used with care as the translator didn’t always have command of the Greek language. 

We have disappointingly few early Latin manuscripts even though Tertullian often quoted the New Testament in Latin (he was believed to have translated his quotations directly from the Greek). We do know from Augustine (turn of 5th century) that many people obtaining Greek manuscripts would freely translate them into Latin, regardless of their knowledge of Greek. This provided a vast array of different Latin versions and prompted Pope Damasus in 382 A.D. to commission the church’s greatest Hebrew, Greek, and Latin scholar, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (today known as St. Jerome) to create an authorized version for the church. He translated directly from the Hebrew to Latin for the Old Testament (putting aside the Septuagint) and compiled the most reliable Latin translations to compose the New Testament. This version became known as the Latin Vulgate.  

Scholars have identified five major versions of the Syriac. The Syrian scholars were energetic and passionate about translating the gospel into their language. Manuscripts have been found from Lebanon, Egypt, Sinai, Mesopotamia, Armenia, India, and China! Other major early translations include Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Old Slavonic.

Textual Criticism

As the Greek manuscripts were copied as the church spread for general use, no universal standard existed to protect the process. Variants were introduced almost immediately and spread as these copies were copied. Obviously the early Christians had an extremely high regard for the transmission of these manuscripts but the human factor certainly came into play.


We do see different families of manuscripts developing in different geographic areas. By the 2nd century, the Western text appeared to be the loosest textual family as some paraphrasing was introduced. At the other extreme, the Alexandrian text represents a thorough and controlled exercise in the copying of manuscripts. This is not surprising as the city of Alexandria had a scholastic reputation.  It was known for its completeness and lucid readings. When scholars look at the early manuscripts, they are often able to categorize the manuscripts based on these and other families. 

How could variants be introduced into the text? There are many possibilities. Some variants were accidental and others were very deliberate. Accidental variants could include misspelling, leaving out words, repeating words, or skipping lines with similar endings. Deliberate variants generally were an attempt of the scribe to “correct” a perceived error. Scholars would sometimes “smooth out” bumpy variants; sometimes by conflation (combining the two variant readings into one) and sometimes by harmonizing divergent parallel passages. This happened primarily in the gospels. 

The invention of the printing press reversed the increasing number of variants in the Greek text because now scholars could possess multiple manuscripts. Whenever a hand-written manuscript was copied, more opportunities for human error entered. These manuscripts were spread over thousands of miles so scholars were only able to look at a few of them at any given time. This would make it difficult to analyze them for the best reading. The printing press “froze” the text in time. Human error was no longer a factor. Manuscripts could be collected and printed so that scholars could compare many different readings. If the first 1400 years of textual transmission continued to introduce variants and weaken the text, our last 600 years have strengthened the text. Scholars have developed textual criticism to analyze variants and determine through external and internal evidence which would most likely be original. This process has brought us to a very reliable Greek text today.

Today’s Greek Bible

The first bible printed was a Latin version known as the Gutenberg bible somewhere between 1452 and 1456. In 1514, the first Greek bible was printed. In 1516, Erasmus, the great humanist of Rotterdam, published another version of the Greek text that became very famous. Unfortunately Erasmus relied on 12th and 13th century Byzantine manuscripts that had a poor text. He had earlier majuscules available to him but didn’t consult them! This version of the Greek text became known as the “Textus Receptus” or “received text.” It remained the text that scholars used for 300 years and was used to translate the King James Bible in 1611. Over the last 400 years, many significant discoveries have been made (including the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus) that have shed more light on the early Greek text of the New Testament. Today, two versions of the Greek text are used by scholars that reflect thorough textual criticism and scholarship; the 27th edition of Nestle-Aland and the 4th edition of the Greek New Testament (GNT - published by the United Bible Society and often called the UBS). The text of these is identical but the apparatus varies. The apparatus is all of the notes at the bottom of the pages that reference the various variant readings. 

Modern translators of the New Testament use these texts as the basis for their work. We are blessed to have so many scholars that have worked so diligently to bring us such an accurate Greek text!

Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg Bible

Bibliography

Aland, Kurt, and Barbara Aland. The Text of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1988.

Jacoby, Douglas. How We Got the Bible. 2005.

Lightfoot, Neil R. How We Got the Bible. Third. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Photo Credits

File:P. Rylands 458.jpg

File:Codex Vaticanus B, 2Thess. 3,11-18, Hebr. 1,1-2,2.jpg

File:Gutenberg Bible, New York Public Library, USA. Pic 03.jpg, 

 

An Introduction to the Old Testament Text

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by Dave Pocta -- San Antonio, Texas, USA 

When we open our bibles, we often take for granted what is in front of us. For centuries, scribes and scholars have meticulously unearthed ancient texts.  They have preserved, catalogued, studied and compared them to accurately provide us with God’s Word.  This paper is a very brief introduction to the languages, textual traditions, early translations, and recent discoveries that laid the foundation for the blessing now known as the Old Testament. 

Biblical Languages

The Hebrew bible (Old Testament) was originally written by several authors ranging from roughly the 15th to fifth century B.C. in the Hebrew language with small segments in Aramaic.  (Primarily Daniel 2:4b-7:28 and Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26.) Aramaic was spoken by the Jews after the exile, which explains its appearance in these books with later dates. Documents in the original language are called manuscripts and copies of them are transmissions. Documents in other languages are called versions, as they are translations

Example of Aramaic papyrus

Example of Aramaic papyrus

Languages vary in communication style, flow, and structure. We would therefore prefer to possess the earliest manuscripts in the original language to ensure accuracy and avoid the translators’ interpretations. The two extremes in translation would be “word for word” translations which tend to be more literal but often can lose the exact meaning of the text, or “thought for thought” translations, which attempt to capture the meaning but lose the nuances of specific words. This makes evident the difficulty in translating a translation. For example, translating the Old Testament from Latin into English introduces the difficulties of moving across two language barriers instead of translating from Hebrew directly into English. The science of studying manuscripts to remove scribal copying errors and obtain the most likely original text is known as textual criticism. The intention of textual critics is to provide a precise original language text that can be used as a basis for translation into any language.

Textual Traditions

Ironically, the oldest manuscript of the complete Hebrew bible that we have is the Leningrad Codex (codex meaning ‘book’ as opposed to scroll), which is dated to 1008 A.D. Another important Hebrew codex is the Aleppo Codex, named after the city in Syria in which it was located. It was considered a model codex, used for Jewish high holidays and settling matters of dispute amongst scholars. Unfortunately, it was partially destroyed in a fire in 1947. Both of these come from a strong Jewish scribal tradition and are known as the Masoretic text. The Masoretes were a group of scholars that flourished between the 7th and 11th century A.D. They had meticulous practices of preserving the text and required the destruction of worn copies (They didn’t see the need for older copies because the text was firmly established.) They were also responsible for vowel pointing. The original Hebrew text was consonantal only. The Masoretes were concerned about the pronunciation of the language, as it wasn’t being spoken much anymore; and they added vowel pointing to preserve the proper way of reading the Hebrew. 

Other portions and fragments of the Hebrew text have been found which have significantly earlier dates, such as the Nash Papyrus. It contains parts of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 and 6.  Scholars debate its date. Some believe it was pre-exilic while others give it a first or second century A.D. date. These fragments serve as a snapshot of the early text. They provide some confirmation and some potential conflicts with the Masoretic text. 

Early Translations

Even though we lack early complete Hebrew manuscripts, we have a number of early witnesses. These are translations that give us insight into the original text. 

The Samaritan Pentateuch – Sometime after the exile, the Samaritans became an independent faction from the Jews. Their scriptures were written in a script variant of the Hebrew (called the Paleo-Hebrew script) and are now called the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Samaritan Pentateuch serves as a second Hebrew text of the Pentateuch and carries some six thousand variations from the Masoretic text. Most of these are orthographic (spelling differences) and some are additions that were introduced by the Samaritans to preserve their cult. (I.e. the command to build a sanctuary on Mount Gerizim was inserted after Exodus 20:17).  It should be noted that about nineteen hundred variants agree with the Septuagint (see below) against the Masoretic text. 

The Septuagint – Hellenism spread the Greek language as universal in the Diaspora. An Alexandrian Jew named Aristeas writes to his brother in the Letter of Aristeas that Ptolemy II Philadelphus, while serving as King of Egypt (281 B.C. to 246 B.C.), desired that his library have a copy of the Jewish Law. He sent to Eleazar, the High Priest, in Jerusalem for translators. Eleazar selected six elders from each of the twelve tribes and sent them with Hebrew scrolls to Ptolemy II.  Supposedly, the seventy-two men translated the Pentateuch in seventy-two days on the island of Pharos; it was read to the Jews in Alexandria and approved as accurate. We aren’t sure how the rest of the Septuagint was translated, but we do know that it was done by multiple translators because parts of it tend to be literal (word for word) and other parts are more free (thought for thought). The Septuagint (abbreviated LXX, which means “according to the seventy”) is significant as it was widely recognized as the bible of the early church and many viewed the translation as inspired.  

Fragments from Deuteronomy, manuscript of The Septuagint. John Rylands Library, Papyrus Greek 458

Fragments from Deuteronomy, manuscript of The Septuagint. John Rylands Library, Papyrus Greek 458

Other Early Translations – Language influences necessitated other translations for the Jews and early Christians. As previously noted, many post-exilic Jews spoke Aramaic. The Aramaic translation is known as the Aramaic Targums. The Syriac Translation is known as the Peshitta.  The early Egyptian Christians read the Coptic Version. We also have the Ethiopic Version, the Armenian Version, and the Arabic Versions that bring perspective on the early text. Of special note is the Latin Vulgate. (Vulgate meaning “common language”) There were a number of Latin versions of the scriptures floating around the church by the fourth century A.D. Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome, an eminently qualified scholar in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, to translate a uniform and reliable text. Jerome’s Vulgate was pronounced the “authentic Bible of the Catholic Church” at the Council of Trent on April 8, 1546.  

Recent Discoveries

With a basic understanding that the oldest complete Hebrew text we possess is from the early 11th century, we can now appreciate the significance of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Stumbled upon by a shepherd boy in 1947, the eleven caves of the ancient Qumran community have yielded hundreds of manuscripts and fragments. The most significant find was a complete scroll of Isaiah that dates to the second century B.C.! This answers the accusation that the Isaiah messianic prophecies could have been written after Jesus’ life, as it pre-dates his birth. Fragments from every book in the Old Testament except for Esther have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  

Today’s Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew text that is primarily used today is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). It was edited from 1967 to 1977, published by the German Bible Society, and its text is based on the Leningrad Codex.  Its attached apparatus contains the notations of variants from different manuscript traditions. Many view the Aleppo Codex as the most authoritative codex of the Masoretic text. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem is in the process of producing an edition that will contain the exact reproduction of the Aleppo Codex as its foundational text and a significant apparatus with major variants from other sources. Thank God for the archeologists, linguists and scholars who have preserved the Holy Scriptures!

Bibliography

Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1988.

Geisler, Norman L., and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Jacoby, Douglas. How We Got the Bible (Audio Series). 2005.

Lightfoot, Neil R. How We Got the Bible. Third. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003.

Soulen, Richard N., and R. Kendall Soulen. Handbook of Biblical Criticism. Third. Louisville, KY: 

Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Wurthwein, Ernst. The Text of the Old Testament. Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.

Photo Credits

1. Eduard Sachau, public domain; photo taken in 1909 of Aramaic papyrus containing a contract for a loan, dated to regnal year 5 of pharaoh Amyrtaios, in 400 BCE. From Elephantine (Upper Egypt), 28th Dynasty, Late Period. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAmyrtaios_aramaic_papyrus_Sachau.png

2. Manuscript of Septuagint with 8 fragments of the Book of Deuteronomy. From the 2nd Century B.C. Source: Papyrus Rylands 458. Public Domain, {{PD-UK-unknown}} {{PD-US}} https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AP._Rylands_458.jpg