|Bible Research > Textual Criticism > The Story of the Bible > 3|
To understand how the books of the New Testament have come to us, we must know how books were written in the first Christian century. At that time, and during the previous three centuries when the Old Testament was being translated into Greek, books were very different from what they are today. Throughout the Graeco-Roman world, which included Palestine and Syria, books were written on papyrus, a material made out of the pith of the stems of the papyrus plant, which grew plentifully in the Nile. This pith was cut into thin strips, which were joined by glue and water and pressed into sheets, and these sheets were fastened together, side by side, so as to form long rolls, on which the writing was inscribed in columns. It is only within our own time that we have come to know much about papyrus books; and this is entirely due to the discoveries that have been made in Egypt. Papyrus, though it must have been fairly strong when new, is a delicate material. It is easily destroyed by damp, and when it becomes dry it tends to become very brittle. Consequently, with the exception of some charred rolls found in the ruins of Herculaneum, which was buried by the great eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, no papyrus books have survived save in Egypt, where the soil is so dry that even fragile objects, when once buried in the sands, may be preserved for centuries.  It is from the graves and ruins and rubbish-heaps of Egypt that writings on papyrus have been restored to us in great numbers. Papyrus rolls in the Egyptian language, written in hieroglyphs or in later forms of writing, have been found which date back to about 2000 B.C.; and rolls written in Greek dating from about 300 B.C., when, after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander, Greeks settled in the country in considerable numbers.
The first Greek papyrus to be discovered in Egypt came to light in 1778. It was a non-literary document of no great importance, the only one left of a packet of about fifty, the others having been burnt by the natives (as they said) for the sake of their smell. Other finds were made sporadically in the course of the next century, including some rolls of Homer, and (a welcome foretaste of what was to come) four of the lost speeches of the great Athenian orator Hyperides. But the real period of papyrus discovery began in 1877, when a great number of documents were unearthed in the Fayum, a province lying to the west of the Nile, where, as we now know, there were many Greek settlements. Most of these were not literary, but in 1890 the British Museum acquired a most valuable group of literary papyri, including the lost history of the Constitution of Athens by Aristotle, and the previously unknown Mimes (or short dramatic sketches) of Herodas. In 1894 began the great series of discoveries of papyri, chiefly from excavations on the site of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus, made by Grenfell and Hunt. From this time forward the search for papyri in Egypt has gone on without a break, and a constant stream of texts has flowered into the libraries of Europe and America, so that we now have many thousands of non-literary documents and several hundreds of literary texts -- most of them, it is true, only small fragments from rubbish-heaps, but including a substantial number of rolls of some length, which have given us an assured knowledge of the methods of book production from about 300 B.C. to the Arab conquest of Egypt in A.D. 640. Latest among these, and most important for our present purpose, is the recent discovery of the group of Biblical texts known as the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, of which much more will have to be said.
We now know that the normal form of book, from the great days of the classical literature of Greece to the beginning of the fourth century after Christ, was the papyrus roll. The roll might be of various dimensions, according to need, but practical convenience dictated that it should not be more than 30 to 35 feet long -- a length which was sufficient for a single book of Thucydides or a single Gospel. The height might vary from about 5 inches for a pocket volume of poetry to 15 inches for a register of taxes; but a normal height for a work of literature was about 10 inches. The writing was arranged in columns, which for poetry would be regulated by the length of a line of verse, but for prose were generally between 2.5 and 3.5 inches wide. There would be narrow intervals (usually about half an inch) between the columns, and wider margins at top and bottom, where words accidentally omitted would sometimes be inserted. There was normally no ornamentation, no separation of words, and very little punctuation. It is very odd that this should have been so, since it must have added to the difficulty of reading quickly, and increased the probability of misunderstanding through a wrong division of words. Also it must have occasioned a good deal of difficulty in the verifying of quotations, and encouraged a writer to quote from memory rather than take the trouble to look up a passage in a roll. Yet this habit continued throughout the classical period, and it is a fact that with practice the non-separation of words does not occasion great difficulty, but only occasional hesitation. Certain it is that the separation of words only came in gradually during the Middle Ages, first for Latin and later for Greek; and that punctuation continued to be casual and incomplete until after the invention of printing.
Until quite recently it has been supposed that the papyrus roll continued in general use for books until the early part of the fourth century, when it was superseded by the vellum codex, or modern book form of sheets and pages. Vellum, a material prepared from the skins of calves, sheep, and other animals, was adopted as a writing material about the beginning of the second century B.C., by King Eumenes of Pergamum in Asia Minor, who was ambitious of forming a library, but was unable to obtain papyrus because his rival, Ptolemy of Egypt, refused to allow the export of it. From Pergamum the new material received the name of pergamene, which is the origin of our word parchment. Apart, however, from this particular occasion (and we do not know how long the embargo on the export of papyrus lasted, nor how effective it could have been, since it was still exported to Rome and elsewhere), the papyrus roll continued to be predominant, and vellum was in general only used for note-books and cheap copies until the end of the third century after Christ. Then its superior advantages seem to have been suddenly realized. It was more durable (while, as said above, all papyrus manuscripts have perished except in Egypt, thousands and thousands of vellum manuscripts have survived); it provided a beautiful surface for writing; and, arranged in sheets and pages, it could contain in a single volume a far greater quantity of matter than the papyrus roll. It became possible to have the whole of Homer or Virgil or of the Bible in a single volume, instead of in a number of distinct rolls, which might easily become disarranged or separated. From this point the vellum codex definitely superseded the papyrus roll, and so continued until the invention of paper and printing, at the end of the Middle Ages.
Now this event is of great importance for the history of the Bible, because it happened just at the time when the Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire (about A.D. 313-25). Only a few years before, Christianity had been an unrecognized and often a persecuted religion; and we know that in the great persecutions of Decius (A.D. 249-51) and Diocletian (A.D. 303-5) many copies of the Christian books were destroyed. Now it was officially recognized, and we know that one of Constantine's first acts was to order fifty copies of the Greek Bible to be written on vellum for his capital, Constantinople. All through the empire there must have been a similar demand for copies of the Scriptures, and a great stimulus must have been given to their production. It is just to this period that the treat codices which we still possess, the Vaticanus and the Sinaiticus, belong; and from that time we have quantities of vellum manuscripts which carry us through the Middle Ages, down to the invention of printing.
In papyrus manuscripts the writing is generally in rather small letters, for the most part separately formed, but with occasional links between them. On vellum it is in large capitals, quite distinct, a type of writing known as uncial. This is a very handsome form, and the early uncials, such as the Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus, are among the finest books in existence; but it involved the use of very large volumes. The Sinaiticus, when complete, must have consisted of about 720 leaves, 0r 1,440 pages, measuring 15 by 13.5 inches; the Vaticanus of about 820 of 12.5 by 10.5 inches; the Alexandrinus, of about 820 of 12.5 by 10.5 inches. These would serve well for reading in church or for study in a library, but were not handy for personal use; so in the ninth century a new form of writing was developed out of the handwriting in common use, with small letters linked together, and hence called minuscule or cursive. This quickly superseded the more cumbrous uncial, and from the tenth century to the fifteenth century practically all manuscripts were so written. It is to this class that the great majority of the surviving manuscripts of the Greek Bible belong. While there are about 200 uncial manuscripts of the New Testament known, of which all but some sixty are mere fragments, the minuscules are over 4,000 in number.
Until quite lately it was supposed that there was no intermediate stage between the papyrus roll and the vellum codex; but the discovery of the Chester Beatty papyri has proved, what was beginning to be suspected before, that such an intermediate stage did exist, when the papyrus material was combined with the codex form, and that this stage was of particular importance for the Christian Scriptures. The first inkling of this was given by a fragment found at Oxyrhynchus and published in 1899, which contained on one sheet portions of the first and last chapters of St. John, showing that they were the outer leaves of a quire which must have contained between them all the rest of the Gospel. Calculation showed that this implied that the whole Gospel was written in a single quire of 50 leaves or 100 pages -- a rather inconvenient form of book, one would think, but of which other examples came to light from time to time. As these discoveries of papyrus codices multiplied, it was observed that the majority of them were of Christian literature. It became clear that in the third century, while the papyrus roll was still the dominant form of book for pagan literature, most of the Christian literature was written in codices. Sometimes these were single-quire volumes, like the St. John just mentioned, while some were formed of a number of quires of 8 or 10 or 12 leaves, more like a modern book. The final proof was given by the Chester Beatty papyri, which are a group of papyrus codices of various books of the Bible, mostly of the third century, but in at least one instance going back to the second century, and even to the first half of it. It now seems clear that the Christian community, realizing the advantage of a form of book which could contain more than a single Gospel, adopted (if they did not actually invent) the codex form, in which several books could be combined. Thus one of the Chester Beatty papyri, of the first half of the third century, contained when complete all four Gospels and the Acts; another, which is at least as early and may be from the end of the second century, contained all the epistles of St. Paul; another contained the books of Ezekiel, Daniel and Esther. Some of these codices are formed of single quires, running to as many as 118 leaves, formed of 59 sheets of papyrus laid one upon another and folded in the middle; one (the Gospels and Acts) goes to the other extreme, being composed of a succession of quires of only two leaves; others have quires of 10 or 12 leaves. On the whole it seems probable that the earliest experiments in the use of the codex took the form of single-quire volumes or of quires of two leaves, but that it came to be realized that quires of 8-12 leaves were more convenient, and they were used in the later papyrus codices, as they were in the vellum codices and eventually in our modern paper printed books.
We are now in a position to picture to ourselves how the books of the New Testament were first written and circulated. The shorter Epistles, such as the second and third of St. John, or St. Paul's letter to Philemon, would have been written on a single sheet of papyrus, like the ordinary private letters of which many examples have been found. They would have been folded up, fastened with a thread secured by a clay seal, and sent by hand to their destination. The longer Epistles would have occupied rolls of various lengths, from about 3 to 4 feet for Philippians or Colossians to about 15 feet in the case of Romans. The longest books, Matthew, Luke and Acts, would each have required a roll of from 30 to 35 feet, and the shorter ones, Mark, John, and Revelation, proportionately less. Each book and each Epistle originally circulated separately. Copies would be made and sent to other churches, as Paul asked that the Epistle to the Colossians should be sent to the church at Laodicea. It would be only gradually, if at all, that any one church would secure a complete set of all the books. Some Gospels would be more popular than others; there is reason to believe that Mark, which is shorter and contains less of our Lord's teaching, circulated less than Matthew and Luke. The book of Revelation was not accepted by all churches, and the authenticity of 2 Peter was questioned by some. On the other hand, some books which did not eventually secure acceptance in the authoritative Canon of Scripture were at first regarded with almost equal respect, and were even included in the great fourth century codices. Thus the Codex Sinaiticus includes the 4th book of Maccabees, the Epistle of Barnabas and the 'Shepherd' of Hermas. The Alexandrinus has 3 and 4 Maccabees at the end of the Old Testament, and the two Epistles of Clement, and originally also the Psalms of Solomon, at the end of the New. The church to which the Chester Beatty collection belonged had a copy of the Book of Enoch. A group of churches in Syria in the second century for some time read a Gospel which passed under the name of St. Peter, until a bishop perceived that it was not authentic; part of it was discovered in 1892 in a vellum codex, probably of the sixth century, dug up in Egypt, which contained also parts of Enoch and of the Apocalypse of Peter. In Syria also the four Gospels were to a considerable extent replaced by a Harmony of the Four Gospels (known as the Diatessaron),compiled by Tatian about A.D. 170; of this, which was supposed to survive only in Arabic and Armenian translations, a small Greek fragment was found a few years ago in the ruins of a Roman fort on the Euphrates, and has lately been published.  A fuller account is given of this later.
There was thus, for the first century or so after the earliest Christian books were written, much irregularity in the way they circulated, and some uncertainty as to which were to be regarded as authoritative. But in the course of the second century after Christ the four Gospels which we know singled themselves out above all the other narratives which St. Luke in the preface to his Gospel tells us were in existence in his time, and were accepted as the pre-eminently authentic records of our Lord's life. By the end of that century we find Irenaeus asserting that four was the obviously right number of Gospels, analogous of the four winds or the four quarters of the world or the four cherubim. It now seems possible (what was formerly regarded as impossible) that he may have been accustomed to see the four Gospels united in a single codex. The Chester Beatty papyri have given us an actual example of such a codex from the early part of the third century; and as they also include a codex of the early second century (of the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy), it is quite possible that the Gospels also circulated in this form before his time. This would make it easier for them to be marked out as separate from, and superior to, all other narratives.
What was happening to the text of the books during this period, and how far they were being copied accurately, is another question, to which we shall return; but meanwhile it may be useful to point out how immensely greater is our evidence for the text of the New Testament books than for any other ancient book. We have already explained that the lack of durability of the material on which they were written (papyrus) accounts for the total disappearance, apart from such fragments on papyrus as have recently been discovered in Egypt, of all manuscripts earlier than the fourth century. For all the works of classical antiquity we have to depend on manuscripts written long after their original composition. The author who is in the best case in this respect is Virgil; yet the earliest manuscript of Virgil that we now possess was written some 350 years after his death. For all other classical writers, the interval between the date of the author and the earliest extant manuscript of his works is much greater. For Livy it is about 500 years, for Horace 900, for most of Plato 1,300, for Euripides 1,600. On the other hand, the great vellum uncials of the New Testament were written perhaps some 250 years after the date when the Gospels were actually composed, while we now have papyrus manuscripts which reduce the interval by a hundred years. And while the manuscripts of any classic author amount at most to a few score, and in some cases only to a few units, the manuscripts of the Bible are reckoned by thousands. Their very quantity adds to the difficulties of an editor, since the more the manuscripts the greater the number of various readings; but they make the authenticity of the works themselves overwhelmingly certain.
There is also another kind of evidence, the importance of which will appear later, but which must be briefly mentioned here, because it belongs to the period with which we are now dealing. During these early centuries, before Christianity was recognized by Constantine, the Christian Scriptures were not only being copied in their original Greek; they were also being translated into other tongues. As Christianity spread outwards from Palestine, through Syria, through Asia Minor, Italy, Roman Africa and Egypt, and converts were made not only among Greek-speaking Jews but among communities to whom Greek was less familiar, a demand grew up for the Scriptures in other languages. The three earliest, and therefore the most important for our purpose, were in the principal languages of the adjoining peoples -- Syrian, Latin and Coptic (the language of the natives of Egypt). It is only lately that we have learnt much about the first versions in these tongues; for in each case the early version was eventually superseded by another, which became the accepted Bible of that people, and of the earlier translations relatively few manuscripts have survived, and most of these are only fragments. But it now seems certain that the books of the New Testament were translated into all these languages before the end of the third century, while the Syriac and Latin almost certainly go bank to the second. The original translators must have used Greek manuscripts then existing; so that, so far as we can ascertain the original form of these various versions (itself not an easy task), we have the evidence of Greek manuscripts earlier than any which have come down to us. Further, these translations show us what kind of text was in use in the countries in which they were produced.
If therefore we look back over the earliest generations of Christianity, from the time of our Lord to the date (somewhere about A.D. 325) when Christianity became the accepted religion of the Roman Empire, we see first of all a period of some forty years when the narrative of our Lord's life and teaching circulated orally, in the preaching of His disciples, or in written records which have not come down to us; and when St. Paul was writing his letters to various Christian churches which he and his companions had founded. Then, about the years 65 to 75, we have the composition of what are known as the three Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Luke and Matthew, Mark's being the earliest, and Matthew and Luke using him and also other narratives and collections of sayings. The Book of Acts belongs to the same period, being the second part of Luke's history. Revelation is now generally assigned to the time of the persecution of Domitian, about A.D. 95; and St. John's Gospel also must be late in the century. Then we have a period of rather over two hundred years, when the various books circulated, either singly in separate papyrus rolls or combined into small groups in papyrus codices, with no central control to ensure a uniform text, but rather exposed to indefinite variation at the hands of local scribes, and perhaps assuming a somewhat different character in different parts of the world. During this period also translations were made into Syriac, Latin and Coptic. Meanwhile Christianity was from time to time exposed to persecutions by the Roman Emperors and governors, when copies of the Scriptures were a special object of search and destruction, which increased the difficulty of securing an accurate transmission of the text. Many churches must have been dependent on copies locally made by inexperienced scribes; and though scholars or bishops may from time to time have tried to secure and circulate more correct copies, their efforts would probably have effect only in their own neighbourhood. It is a period of confusion, when people were thinking only of the substance of the Christian teaching, and caring little for the verbal accuracy of the text; and when there were no great libraries, as there were for pagan literature, in which the books could be carefully copied and revised by skilled scholars. It is by realizing the conditions in which Christians lived in these earliest centuries that we can best understand the problems presented to us with regard to the text of the Greek Bible.
1. Quite recently it has been announced that some papyri have found in the desert to the south of Palestine, where the conditions are similar.
2. By C. Kraeling, in K. and S. Lake's Studies and Documents, No. III, London,1935.
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