The Canon, Text, and Manuscripts of the New Testament

By Charles Fremont Sitterly


Its sources, its errors, and the methods, history, and results of its criticism

Chapter 1

The Sources of Evidence for the Text of the New Testament


A discussion of the sources of evidence for the text of the New Testament involves:

1. The Autographs of the New Testament Writers.

Until very recent times it has not been customary to take up with any degree of confidence, if at all, the subject of New Testament autographs, but since the researches in particular of Dalman and Deissmann, Moulton (W. F.) and Milligan (George), it is not only appropriate but incumbent upon the careful student.

The whole tendency of recent investigation is to give less place to the oral tradition of Christ's life and teaching and to press back the date of the writing of the synoptic Gospels into the period falling between Pentecost and the destruction of Jerusalem. Sir William M. Ramsay goes so far as to claim that "antecedent probability founded on the general character of personal and contemporary Greek or Gręco-Asiatic society," would indicate "that the first Christian account of the circumstances connected with the death of Jesus must be presumed to have been written in the year when Jesus died." (Letters to the Seven Churches, p. 7.) W. M. Flinders Petrie argues to the same end and says, "Some generally accepted Gospels must have been in circulation before 60 A. D. The mass of briefer records and logia which the habits and culture of that age would naturally produce must have been welded together within ten or twenty years by the external necessities." (The Growth of the Gospels, p. 7.)

The autographs of the New Testament writers have long been lost, but the discovery during the last few years of contemporary documents enable us to form fairly clear notions as to their general literary character and conditions.

In the first place, papyrus w T as probably the material employed by all the* New Testament writers, even the original Gospel of Matthew, and the general Epistle of James, the only books written in Palestine not being excepted, for the reason they were not originally written with a view to their liturgical use, in which case vellum might possibly have been employed.

Again, the evidence of the writings themselves witnesses to the various processes followed during the first century. Dictation was largely used by St. Paul, the names of four at least of his secretaries—Tertius, Sosthenes, Timothy, and Silvanus—being given while the master himself, as in many of the Egyptian papyri, appended his own signature, sometimes with a sentence or two at the end. The method of personal research was pursued, and compilation of data, including folklore and genealogies, together with groups of cognate matters in artistic forms, and abundant quotation from writings held in high esteem by the readers, as in the first and third Gospels and the book of Acts.

The presentation copy of one's works must have been written with unusual pains in case of their dedication to a patrician patron, as Luke "To the most noble Theophilus." For speculation as to the probable dimensions of the original papyrus rolls of New Testament books, one will find Professor J. Rendel Harris and Dr. F. G. Kenyon extremely suggestive and from opposite viewpoints. (Compare Kenyon, Handbook of Textual Criticism of the New Testament; Harris, New Testament Autographs.)

2. The Greek Copies or Manuscripts of the New Testament Text.

This has been hitherto and probably will continue to be the chief source of data in this great field. For determining the existence of the text in its most ancient form the autographs are of highest value. For determining the content and extent of the text, the versions are of greatest worth. For estimating the meaning and at the same time for gaining additional data both as to existence and extent of usage of the New Testament the quotations of its text by the Church Fathers, whether as apologists, preachers, or historians, in Syria, Greece, Africa, Italy, or Gaul, are of exceeding importance. But for determining the readings of the text itself the Greek manuscripts or copies of the original autographs are still the principal source of evidence and criticism.

About four thousand manuscripts, in whole or in part, of the Greek* New Testament are now known. These manuscripts furnish abundant evidence for determining the reading of practically the entire New Testament, while for the Gospels and most important epistles the evidence is unprecedented both for quality and clearness. They are usually divided into two classes—uncial, or large hand, and minuscule, or small hand, often called cursive. The term "cursive'* is not satisfactory, since it does not coordinate with the term "uncial," nor are so-called cursive features, as ligatures and oval forms, confined to minuscule manuscripts. The uncials comprise about one- hundred copies, extending from the fourth to the tenth century. The minuscule include the remaining manuscripts, and fall between the ninth century and the invention of printing.

3. Vernacular Versions, or Translations of the Scriptures into the Tongues of Western Christendom.

Some of these versions were made as early as the second century, and thus antedate by several generations our best-known Greek texts. It is considered by many as providential that the Bible was early translated into different tongues, so that its corruption to any large extent became almost, if not altogether, an impossibility, since the versions of necessity belonged to parts of the Church widely removed from one another and with very diverse doctrinal and institutional tendencies.

The testimony of a translation to the exact form of words used, whether in an autograph or a Greek copy of an author, is at best not beyond dispute, but as evidence for the presence or absence of whole sections or clauses of the original their standing is of prime importance. Such extreme literalness frequently prevails that the vernacular idiom is entirely set aside and the order and construction of words in the original sources are slavishly followed and even transliterated, so that their bearing on many questions at issue is direct and convincing.

Although the Greek New Testament has now been translated into all the principal tongues of the earth, comparative criticism is confined to those versions made during the first eight centuries.

4. Patristic quotations afford a unique basis of evidence for determining readings of the New Testament.

So able and energetic were the Church Fathers of the early centuries that it is entirely probable that the whole text of the Greek New Testament could be recovered from this source alone if the writings of apologists, homilists, and commentators were carefully collated. It is also true that the earliest heretics, as well as the defenders of the faith, recognized the importance of determining the original text, so that their remains also comprise no mean source for critical research. It is evident that the value of the patristic quotations will vary according to such factors as the reliability of the reading as quoted, the personal equation or habit of accuracy or looseness of the particular writer, and the purity or corruption of the text he employed. One of the marked advantages of this sort of evidence rises from the fact that it affords additional ground for localizing and dating the various classes of texts found both in original copies and versions. For general study the more prominent Church Fathers of the second, third, and fourth centuries are sufficient, though profitable investigation may be made of a much wider period. By the beginning of the fifth century, however, the type of text quoted almost universally was closely akin to that known as the Textus Receptus.

5. Lectionaries and service books of the early Christian period afford a source of considerable value in determining the general type of texts, together with the order, contents, and distribution of the several books of the canon.

As the Lectionary systems both of the Eastern and Western Churches reached back to post-apostolic times, and all are marked by great verbal conservatism, they present data of real worth for determining certain problems of textual criticism. From the very nature of the case, being compiled for liturgical use, the readings are often introduced and ended by set formulas, but these are easily separated from the text itself, which generally follows copy faithfully. Even the systems of chapter headings and divisions furnish clues for classifying and comparing texts, for there is high probability that texts with the same chapter divisions come from the same country. Probably the earliest system of chapter divisions is preserved in Codex Vaticanus coming down to us from Alexandria probably by way of Caesarea. That it antedates the Codex in which it appears is seen from the fact that the Pauline epistles are numbered as comprising a continuous book with a break between Galatians and Ephesians, and the dislocated section numbers attached to Hebrews which follows Second Thessalonians here, though the numbers indicate its earlier position after Galatians. Another system of chapter divisions at least as old as the fifth century, found in Codex Alexandrinus, cuts the text into much longer sections known as cephalia majora. In all cases the numeration begins with the second section, the first being considered introductory. Bishop Eusebius developed a system of text divisions of the Gospels based upon an earlier method attributed to Ammonius, adding a series of tables or canons. The first table contains sections giving events common to all four evangelists, and its number was written beneath the section number in the margin in each Gospel, so that their parallels could be readily found. The second, third, and fourth canons contain lists of sections in which three of the Gospels have passages in common (the combination Mark-Luke- John does not occur); the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth lists in which two combine (the combination Mark-John does not occur); and canon ten those peculiar to some one of the Gospels.