An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 2 - Section 51


§ 51. The Material History of the Text down to about 1500 A.D.

1. The history of the New Testament text during this period is the history of its corruption, or at the best of futile attempts to stay its corruption. Wherever the reproduction of documents of some length is not carried out by mechanical means, but by individual labour, the copy will always vary in some degree from the original; every new copy brings with it new mistakes, and when we consider the enormous number of manuscripts in which we possess the New Testament Books, it is no wonder that the whole body of the texts can only be shown to agree in a few words here and there. The painful anxiety about every letter and every apostrophe, with which Judaism propagated the Masoretic text of the Old Testament, was never the portion of the New (whose Masoretes, in fact, did not arise until 1590-92); in the important period, the first centuries, the words were handled with a freedom incomprehensible to us; and when the sacredness of the letter had at last impressed itself upon the universal consciousness—even of the copyist—and men set themselves seriously to reproduce the text of the codices they had before them as correctly as possible, and to eliminate mistakes by comparing their copies afresh with the originals or with other ancient manuscripts, it was too late; they only succeeded in securing a position of authority for an already corrupted text.

The variants (different readings) are most numerous in the Gospels, precisely because these were the most frequently copied, and extend to punctuation marks, letters, words, phrases, sentences, and even entire sections; they consist, moreover, in substitution, transposition, omission or addition, and arose for the most part unintentionally, but also (and this is a distinction full of importance for our purpose) by design, these latter being by far the older and the more significant. Many readings may be recognised as mistakes at the first glance; on the other hand, there are many cases in which it is very difficult, if not impossible, to decide whether they are the original readings or have been introduced by some scribe. Complaints about the stupidity of the copyists date from the earliest times and are particularly loud in the West (see, for instance, Cassiodorius), because in their intercourse with Greek scholars, the Latins could not help noticing the great difference between their texts and the Greek. Jerome says somewhere that every manuscript possessed a separate text. But even Origen can no longer show a naive faith in one definite manuscript; he is familiar with the manifold sources of corruption, and can only hope to get back to the Apostolic original by a comparison of several different texts. Nor can Augustine himself1 deny that in some places the variants in the copies of the Scriptures affected the very sense, the train of thought; although indeed he was sufficiently optimistic to hope that the uncertainty might be removed by the methodical work of theologians. It matters little whether there are 30,000 or 100,000 variants in the New Testament manuscripts; but the fact is of the utmost importance that the Christian Church lived for many centuries in spite of —nay, upon—an exceedingly corrupt sacred text; nor will she ever possess one that is absolutely free from error.

9. The unintentional alterations are, as a rule, the least harmful. Slips of the pen, for instance, such as δυνΤαι for δύνανται in Mark ii. 19, have but a very slender chance of establishing themselves. Faults of memory are not generally dangerous, at any rate to the sense, since the copyist probably retained the correct idea, though failing to retain the original expression: such is the encroachment of ἀνακρῖναι for διακρῖναι in 1. Cor. vi. 5, or the interchange or simultaneous use of the names Jesus and Christ for the Lord. To this class also belong permutations such as that of 2. Cor. xi. 23, where the reading ἐν πληγαῖς περισσοτέρως, ἐν φυλακαῖς ὑπερβαλλόντως is scarcely better attested than ἐν φυλακαῖς περισσοτέρως, ἐν πληγαῖς ὑπερβαλλόντως, or ἐν πληγαῖς ὑπερβαλλόντως, ἐν φυλακαῖς περισσοτέρως; or veriants such as κάμοί for καὶ ἐμοί, εὐθύς for εὐθέως, ὑπερεκπερισσοῦ for ὑπερεκπερισσῶς, ὅτι for διότι, πῶς for τι; but the most vexatious of these are the confusions between related prepositions and conjunctions, such ἀπὸ and ἐκ, περί and ὑπέρ, γάρ and δέ, γάρ and οὖν, δέ and οὗν, ἄρα and διό—if indeed the conjunction is not entirely omitted or even arbitrarily inserted. Such mistakes as the substitution of the particle ἄρα for the participle ἄρας in 1. Cor. vi. 15, or of ἱμειρόμενοι for ὀμειρόμενοι, ὡς· ἑαυτόν for ὡς σεαυτόν (an error favoured by the scriptio continua), ὅς for θεός (which when abbreviated was written θς), are merely due to inaccurate copying; letters like Θ and O, H and N, ΛΛ and M were, afterall, very easy to confuse in the uncial hand; and when the original was half faded, or perhaps even injured in parts, the scribe could not always avoid making mistakes even by the closest scrutiny. The χωρὶς θεοῦ instead of χάριτι θεοῦ in Heb. ii. 9, may be due to such an error in reading. We seldom find one line transposed for another, but very frequently one line, or even part of a line, altogether omitted, more especially when the similar ending of two lines caused the eye to stray from the second to the first or from the upper to the lower. This is termed ʽhomoioteleuta, and its correlative is ʽdittographyʼ—the writing of the same word or portion of a sentence twice over, which is a still plainer sign of inattention. Strictly speaking, we ought not to count as alterations a class of variants which have yet had just the same effect—the differences produced between the manuscripts on the introduction of word-division, accentuation (including breathings) and punctuation—though indeed the copyist was usually guided by the traditions of an older exegesis. The word ἐισὲλθων, for instance, admits the reading εἷς ἐλθών quite as well as εἰσελθών; αντων might equally well be understood as αὐτῶν2 or as αὑτῶν; in 1. Thess. iii. 8 Lachmann read τὸ μηδὲν ὰσαίνεσθαι, others τὸ μηδένα σαίνεσθαι ; and the two concluding words of John i. 3 have quite as often been held to be the subject of the first clause of the fourth verse, as to be the nearer definition of the preceding ʽnot anything.ʼ

From the very first the copyists bestowed but the smallest attention on the orthographical, dialectical and other similar peculiarities of their texts. They did not go so far as to remodel their originals systematically according to their own handwriting, pronunciation and idiom, but they took no pains to keep them free from such influences; and the result wag an extraordinary confusion of forms. Attic correctness may be found side by side with utter barbarism—how hopeless, then, the task of discovering the forms of the original draft! It was but rarely, however, that the meaning of the text suffered injury from this carelessness, and even the strangest deformities may acquire great value in the eyes of the etymologist and the paleographer. Consistency in such things as the placing of the apostrophe, the use of the νῦ ἐφελκυστικόν, the doubling of ρ after the augment3 or the assimilation of consonants in compound words,4 is not to be expected; we find σμύρνα, πεῖν beside πιεῖν, γεννηθῆναι beside γενηθῆναι, ἤμην beside ἦν, ἔφθασεν beside ἔφθακεν, ἀποκτέννει beside ἀποκτείνει, ὄφελον beside ὤφελον, ἠνεῴχθησαν beside ἀνεῴχθησαν, ἀνοιγῶσι beside ἀνοιχθῶσι, ἤνοιξεν beside ἁνέωξεν, ἠνοιγμένους beside ἄνεωνγμένους, οἰκοδόμουν beside ᾠκοδόμουν,5 till at last it remains doubtful in very many cases whether such vulgarisms (including errors of syntax like μή ποτε καταπατήσουσιν for -σωοιν, Matt. vii. 6) should be put down to the author or the copyist. In the reporting of proper names, correctness is still less to be hoped for; in the same verse of the Acts6 the different texts have Ρομφαν, Ρομφα, Ρεμφαμ and Ρεφαν, while Σολομῶνος alternates with Σσλουῶντος and Ἀσάφ with Ἀσά—in fact in these cases the scribe simply gave the reins to his own proclivities.

A special feature of the late and decadent Greek was the truncation of diphthongs and vowels, termed in some cases ʽItacism.ʼ Scarcely any distinction came to be made in the pronunciation of ω and ο, υ and οι and after a time none at all between the latter and ι, ει and η; αι and ε also became interchangeable, and closely resembled η. In consequence of this, scribes of inferior culture were obliged to concoct the strangest mixtures of vowels, unless they painfully set themselves to copy their model letter for letter. Thus we find σωσον for σωσων, πιραζεται for πειραξετε, προσκλησιιν for προσκλισιν, αιτει for ετι, τρεις for τρις, καινυδοξιαν for κενοδοξιαν, ει μη for η μη, υμεις for ημεις  and vice versa—all of them proofs that although at first these errors were merely orthographical, they often led to serious injury to the meaning. Even the ἔνυξεν of John xix. 34 could be read by Latin translators as ἤνοιξεν, and the critics are not unanimous to this day as to whether, in Rom. v. 1, the preference should be given to the Indicative ἔχομεν or the Subjunctive ἔχωμεν—a question full of importance for the determination of the Apostleʼs frame of mind at that time.

The boundary between the intentional and the unintentional alterations cannot be sharply defined; many a thoughtful copyist, taking into consideration the ʽItacismʼ with which he was familiar, would certainly correct his model with the full intention of so doing, changing an Infinitive Middle into a second person plural and so on; on the other hand, some of the corruptions of the text, to be discussed later, arise from the fact that in the memory of the scribe, what he had just read became confused with things he had learnt in former days. Moreover, even very Serious corruptions might simply arise by chance—when, for instance, a marginal note which the author himself had added as a supplement to his text, was inserted in the wrong place by a careless scribe; or when marginal notes inserted by a former owner as glosses, were then considered to be parts of the text and interpolated in the original— in favourable cases at the right place, but by no means always.

3. But in the case of the New Testament text in particular, it is the intentional alterations which have such very great importance—those, namely, which were undertaken with the intention of improving it and of removing difficulties, but are not really based on a better text, and follow only the individual taste of the scribe. In my opinion it is not advisable to make an express distinction between these and ʽfalsifications,ʼ since, according to the present standard, all arbitrary emendations of the text must be called ʽfalsifications,ʼ though even the boldest ʽemendatorsʼ of the early times acted in all good faith, believing that what they did was in the interests of the Word of God. It is true that the orthodox ecclesiastical teachers are very fond of reproaching the heretics with having ʽfalsifiedʼ7 the Bible text in favour of their own false teaching. Marcion gave some ground for this reproach by his treatment of the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles; but the same accusation is brought against the other Gnostics, as it was once brought against the Jews; Valentinians first and foremost, but also Artemonites, Novatians, Arians, Donatists, and even Nestorians, are all included in the charge. Even within the Church one party attributes such action to the other: Ambrosiaster,8 for instance, believes that where the Greek manuscripts differed on any important point from the Latin, the Greeks with their presumptuous frivolity had smuggled in the corrupt reading. It was, of course, convenient to ascribe the fact of any great uncertainty of the text to the agency of the Devil; but we are very frequently in a position to prove the injustice of the reproach, for the falsifications attributed to the Nestorians or the Donatists ean often be shown to have been variants long before their time. Marcion has actually preserved the correct text (οἷς οὐδέ) in Gal. ii. 5, while Tertullian, who attacks him mercilessly for having interpolated the two words, is in reality the champion of a ʽcorrectedʼ text. Perhaps the originator of this correction thought it impossible, in view of Acts xvi. 8, that Paul should have disturbed the peace of the Church in Jerusalem by his self-willed obstinacy on a side issue, and accordingly reformed the text in such a manner as, in his opinion, it must have run originally. From this naive conviction that what was dogmatically objectionable or inconvenient could not have had a place in Scripture, and must therefore be removed, spring innumerable important variants, particularly from the earlier times, for later on it became the custom to explain such difficulties by exegesis. Dogma alone is responsible for such variants as the following: John i. 18, where, ʽThe only begotten Godʼ is as well attested as ʽThe only begotten Sonʼ; Matt. i. 25, where ʽher sonʼ is just as authentic as ʽher first-born son, or Luke iii. 22, where in the account of the Baptism the voice from heaven is rendered by one set of texts as ʽThis day have I begotten thee,ʼ and in another and afterwards undisputed version as ʽIn thee I am well pleased.ʼ And when the οὐκ ἀναβαίνω of John vii. 8, which appears to be an obvious impossibility, is corrected by the substitution of οὔπω ἀναβαίνω, or when the words ʽAll that came before meʼ of John x. 8,80 very welcome as they were to heretics, are made innocuous in two different ways, the intention of the emendator is quite as unmistakable as is his confident belief that so questionable a word could only have found its way into the Bible through the error or the intentional falsification of a scribe.

But yet another motive for intentional alteration of the text is sometimes mentioned by ecclesiastical writers. Origen, not without reason, moralises on the right of solecisms to exist within the Scriptures, and complains of the copyists who, προφάσει διυρθώσεως—ʽon the pretext of making a thorough correctionʼ—altered the texts to suit their own ideas of style and logic. Andrew of Caesarea,9 in his Commentary on the Apocalypse, expressly extends the curse in Rev. xx. 18 fol. to the forgers who considered that Attic syntax and a strictly logical train of thought were more convincing and more to be admired than the peculiarities of the Scripture language. What the Fathers meant by this is made clear by an anecdote told by Sozomenos10:—At an assembly of Cypriot bishops about the year 350, one Triphyllios of Ledra, a man of high culture, was addressing the company, and in the saying ʽtake up thy bed and walk11: made use of the more refined Attic σκίμπους instead of the New Testament κράβατος; whereupon a certain Bishop Spyridon sprang up and angrily called to him before the whole assembly: ʽAre you, then, better than he who first said κράβατος[!] that you are ashamed to use his word?ʼ Again, Tatian tells us that he went through the text of the Pauline Epistles in order to remove the barbarisms and vulgarisms it contained,12 and countless scribes, with less system than he, and therefore all the greater danger, copied their originals with more regard for elegance than accuracy: κατοικοῦντες εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ is changed into ἒν Ἱερουσ.13 the unusual διηποροῦντο of Acts ii. 12 into διηπόρουν; and if the Syrians read ἠκούσθη ἡ ἀκοή in Matt. iv. 24, while all the other evidence is in favour of ἀπ- or ἐξ-ἢλθεν ἡ ἀκοή, the latter might very well be a correction; just as Lucian mocked at a κάλλει καλλίστη, so ἠκούσθη ἡ ἀκοή might also have appeared clumsy.

The Apocalypse, with its Semitisms, was the book that afforded the greatest temptations to the emendator: of course a grammatical error like ἀρνίον ἑστηκὼς . . . ἔχων was corrected to ἑστηκὸς· . . . ἕχον, or ἑπτὰ πνεύματα . . . ἀπεσταλμένοι to ἀπεσταλμένα, or ῥομφαίᾳ τῇ ἐξελθούσῃ ἐκ τοῦ στόματος to τῇ ἐκπορευομένῃ. And it was not only for the sake of elegance of style that these things were done, but far more often with the intention of making the language clearer and more intelligible. The ʽfacilitatingʼ variants, especially those in the form of additions to the text, are Legion in the New Testament: innumerable αὑτοῦ, αὐτῶν, ἐστίν, εἰσίν etc. are due to this tendency, as well as words like the θέλων before or after πιάσαι με  in 2. Cor. xi. 32, the ὁ Ἰησοῦς after ἀκούσας δὲ in Matt. iv. 12, or the τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν in Matt. vi. 15a. Many of the abovementioned changes, especially of conjunctions, have the same origin; where a γάρ appeared unsuitable or inappropriate according to the strict laws of logic, it was replaced by a δέ or an οὖν; and if later provincial idioms sometimes found their way into the New Testament text, it is scarcely less probable that copyists with grammatical culture (such as existed in considerable numbers not only as late as the fourth and fifth centuries) took great pains to polish the text according to the laws of the Schools, and altogether to make it more agreeable to read. In the Sinaiticus, for instance, the inconvenient Ἰουδαῖοι. of Acts ii. 5, is simply omitted, and the Gospels too, as well as the Acts, were very much affected by this sort of emendation.

And indeed in their case it was the assimilation, remodelling, amplification and transposition of the text of one Evangelist to suit the parallel reports of another, that produced so many thousands of variants. These changes occur so systematically that we cannot be satisfied with the hypothesis— which would cover individual cases—that the memory of the scribe was unconsciously influenced by the similar passages he had read elsewhere. This evil habit, moreover, is not limited to the Gospels alone; for instance, the é« between mpeToroxos and tev vexp@v comes from Col. i. 18, and an interesting transmutation has taken place between Rev. i. 8, xxi. 6, and xxii. 13; the words ʽupon the sons of disobedienceʼ in Col. iii. 6 have found their way in from Eph. v. 6, and Gal. vi. 15 has been variously remodelled on verse v. 6. There is all too great a tendency to rectify the Old Testament quotations, which are often free enough in the New, according to the current Septuagint text. But the parallel accounts of the Gospels offer the most tempting field for this equalising process; and since it is notorious that the later Evangelists themselves introduced passages from the earlier, it is often impossible, considering the amount of confusion among the manuscripts, to distinguish the original uniformity of text from that which was produced later, by artificial means. Thus the words in John xix. 20, ʽit was written in Hebrew, and in Latin, and in Greek,ʼ have intruded into Luke xxiii. 38; most manuscripts insert a whole verse—Matt. vi. 15—after Mark xi. 25, merely because this verse of Markʼs corresponded with Matt. vi. 14; others, again, have inserted Matt. vii. 7 and 8 instead. Matt. xx. 7 was augmented from verse 4 by the words ʽAnd whatsoever is right I will give you.ʼ A desire for amplification and the rounding off of phrases is related to the above; many a copyist finds it hard to let ʽthe chief priestsʼ14 pass without ʽthe scribesʼ; eating without drinking15; praying16 without fasting. The liturgical language also exercised a certain influence, and not in the doxologies of the Epistles alone. The most famous instance is the introduction of the conclusion after the Lordʼs prayer in Matt. vi. 18; but the words ʽIn the name of our Lord Jesus Christʼ after the ʽTabitha, ariseʼ of Acts ix. 40 (of which we have very early evidence) have a precisely similar ring.

Individual instances of such conformatory addition may have crept in accidentally from the margins, as when in Acts i. 3 we find the word φαινόμενος standing beside (or before) ὀπτανόμενος in the text; they were intended in the first place to assist in the elucidation of the text, not to make it more correct. But the copyist who included them in the text imagined that he was improving it, as was certainly the case with the man who in 1. Cor. vii. 3, replaced ὀφειλή by ὀφειλομένη εὔνοια, or ἄνοια, by διάνοια in 2. Tim. iii. 9, or ἀνταπόδυσις by μισθαποδοσία, in Col. iii. 24.

It is impossible for us to guess the object of the ʽcorrectorʼ in every case in which the variants were certainly intentional; a classification of the motives for ʽemendationʼ would be a hopeless task. The fact itself is incontestable that for centuries the sacred text was handled in the most incredibly arbitrary manner, even though this tendency certainly decreased from one generation to another. If anything was felt to be lacking in a given text the gap was filled without any hesitation; Matt. xxii. 14, for instance, is reinserted after xx. 15, in order to silence the malcontents still more effectually, and the Apostolic Decree of the Acts is raised to the dignity of a moral code by the addition of the fundamental principle: ʽDo not unto others what thou wouldst not that men should do unto thee.ʼ And in the First Epistle of John, v. 7 and 8, the words intended to support the doctrine of the Trinity, ʽFor there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one,ʼ have not even yet disappeared from most versions of the Bible. This interpolation, which is found over and over again in the Latin Church of Spain and Africa after the fourth century, crept into the Vulgate, and, at the end of the Middle Ages, even into a few Greek manuscripts. The author of this “Comma Johanneumʼ had no more intention of deceiving than the scribe who inserted ʽAnd they worshipped himʼ in Luke xxiv. 52, or ʽAnd was carried up into heavenʼ in xxiv. 51. The only difference lies in the fact that the latter was a Greek and the former a Latin. It is quite possible that we still have many Greek ʽCommataʼ of the same age even in our best editions.

It was very natural that many learned Fathers, from Origen onwards, should have laboured to stem the increasing corruption of the New Testament text, and should have corrected their own copies throughout after better and older manuscripts, thereby exerting an influence on others also towards the use of better and earlier readings in the preparation of new codices. But the result was a still more hopeless confusion, since no really sound critical principles existed. Even Origen, whose texts were regarded as standards by his own disciples and by a large part of the learned Greek world, did not by any means confine himself to removing the errors of others, but also introduced some of his own making; in fact, his authority helped a considerable number of undoubtedly false readings to a position of universal acceptance. In the ʽDecretum Gelasiiʼ17 the Gospels of Lucian and Hesychius are rejected as falsified texts. This cautious proceeding is due to Jerome, who, in his preface to the Four Gospels ʽAd Damasum,ʼ speaks contemptuously of the Gospel manuscripts issued under the names of these men, and preferred by a few perverse persons; his words sound as though they had contained an unusually large number of interpolations. Now the successful labours of these two theologians18 on the Old Testament text are well known; it is not incredible, then, that they should have undertaken a systematic emendation of the Gospels at least; but this is not rendered certain by such a statement as the above from Jerome, and still less would his judgment be binding on us. We can at present have no idea of what the text of Lucianʼs Gospel was like.

The fact that during this period of its development the New Testament text was overgrown to an amazing extent can only be denied by the ignorant. It places the party of dogma, however, in an embarrassing situation, because the deteriorations produced within the Church are treated by them with the same reverence as the genuine text. Fortunately for science, the earliest witnesses to its corruption are also in every instance witnesses against one another, so that as we possess them in enormous quantities, they help us not only to survey the different stages of corruption, but to trace back the original until we arrive within measurable distance of its starting-point.



1) Contra Faustum, xi. 2.

2) E.g., 2. Cor. iii. 5.

3) E.g., 2. Cor. xi. 25, εραβδισθην and ερραβδ.

4) E.g., 2. Cor. iii. 1: συνστατικων and συστατικων, or iii. 2 and 3: ενγεγριιμμενη and εγγεγρ.

5) Luke xvii. 28.

6) Acts vii. 43.

7) παραχαράσσειν, ῥαδωυργεῖν, interpolare, adulterare, violare etc.

8) See p. 537.

9) See p. 546.

10) Hist. Hccl. 1, 11.

11) John v. 8.

12) See p. 495.

13) Acts ii. 5.

14) E.g., Matt. xxvi. 3.

15) E.g., Matt. vi. 25.

16) 1. Cor. vii. 6.

17) See above, p. 564.

18) They lived about 300.