Chapter 4
From Manuscript to Print

From the description given in the last chapter of the conditions of the earliest Christian generations, it will be easy to understand what a change was produced by the acceptance of Christianity by Constantine, and the simultaneous adoption of the vellum codex as the standard form of book. The peril of the destruction of the sacred books by persecutors was over. A great demand arose for copies to be placed in Churches throughout the Empire. It was possible for scholars to set themselves to compare the many divergent manuscripts, to settle what seemed to them the most correct form of text, and to have it multiplied and circulated. The new writing material made it possible to include all the accepted hooks of both Testaments in a single volume. The very conception of a New Testament, to set beside the Old Testament of the Jewish Scriptures, only finally took form now. From this time forward there was no danger of any serious corruption of the Scriptures. All that took place was a certain progressive editing of them, involving slight verbal variations for the sake of greater clearness, or harmonizing different versions of the same narrative, or substituting conventional phrases for those less familiar. In this way an accepted text gradually came into being, which spread over the whole Greek-speaking world. We cannot assign a precise date to it. There is no record of any authoritative revision of the text at any given moment, comparable to the work of the committees who produced our Authorized and Revised Versions. All we can say is that, as the result of a process which went on from the forth century to about the eighth, a standard type of text was produced, which is found in the vast majority of the manuscripts that have come down to us. At least ninety-six per cent of the extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament are later than the eighth century; and of these only a handful preserve traces of the other types of text which were in existence before the adoption of the standard text, and out of which it was created. This Standard ecclesiastical text is generally known as the Byzantine text (from the ancient name of Constantinople, the capital of the Greek-speaking world), or, more commonly, as the Received Text. It does not differ in substance from the earlier types; no Christian truth or doctrine is affected by the differences; but the verbal differences are numerous. They are the result of gradual editorial revision of earlier manuscripts; and it is the task of scholarship to try to get behind it to the earlier texts, and as near as may be to the words which the original writers used.

We can now therefore proceed more quickly with the story of how the Bible text was transmitted to us, and by what means and by what discoveries we have been able to recover, at any rate in great measure, the text which the lapse of time had obscured. From the fourth century to the ninth, the Bible circulated in manuscripts in the large uncial writing which we have described above; but when the more convenient minuscule writing came into use, the cumbrous old volumes were set aside and disappeared. Only a few score of them survived at all, and most of these were hidden from public view, and have only come to light as the result of zealous search, which will be described later, in quite modern times. Meanwhile, in other parts of the Christian world, the Scriptures were similarly being handed down in translations. The early versions of which we have already spoken were superseded by revisions or new translations: the old Latin by the Vulgate of St. Jerome (A.D. 382-404), which was the Bible of the Western world throughout the Middle Ages and is still the Bible of the Roman Church; the old Syriac by the Peshitta of Bishop Rabbula (about A.D. 411); and the old Coptic version of Upper Egypt (Sahidic) by a version in the Bohairic dialect of Lower Egypt. Other translations were made into Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, Gothic, with which we need not concern ourselves, though scholars make some use of their evidence.

From the ninth century to the fifteenth the same process goes on, the Scriptures still being multiplied in thousands of copies by hand, and the older copies tending to be worn out, damaged or lost, and each generation producing its own fresh crop, but now in the smaller minuscule hand (whether Greek or Latin) and in volumes of more portable size. And so we come to the moment when, in the middle of the fifteenth century, everything was revolutionized by the invention of printing. Seldom can two such epoch-making events have occurred in consecutive years as happened then. In 1453 the Turks stormed Constantinople and finally destroyed the Greek Empire, driving out Greek scholars, who carried the knowledge of Greek language and literature to the Western world; and in 1454 the first document known to us appeared from the printing press at Mainz. The former made the more sensation at the time, and its consequences affect us still; but the latter had the more revolutionary results for the human race, and, among other things, for the history of the Bible.

Printing first made its appearance in Europe in single-sheet indulgences, issued nominally as a means of raising money for the war against the Turks; but the first complete printed book was, appropriately enough, the Bible. Not, however, a Greek Bible, but the Latin Vulgate, which was the Bible as generally known to the western world. It is a stately folio volume, commonly known (from the fact that the copy which first attracted the attention of scholars was in the library of Cardinal Mazarin at Paris) as the Mazarin Bible. King George III's copy of it may be seen any day in the King's library at the British Museum. It was printed by the German printers, Gutenberg and Fust, at Mainz, and it is known to have been in circulation by August, 1456. It was a wonderful achievement of the infant art, and copies of it are highly prized. About forty copies are known to exist, all now in public libraries. The last to come into the market was bought a few years ago by the Congress of the United States for the national library at Washington for about 60,000. If that was a fair market price for a printed Bible, of which many other copies existed, and of no textual importance, the 100,000 paid for the unique Codex Sinaiticus, more than 1,100 years older and one of the most valuable witnesses to the text of the Bible, seems a very good bargain.

It was sixty years later that the first Greek Bible made its appearance. The credit for producing it ought to have fallen to Cardinal Ximenes, Archbishop of Toledo. As early as 1502 he began to prepare an edition of the entire Greek Bible in the University of Alcala, and not of the Greek text alone, but accompanied by the Hebrew in the Old Testament and the Latin throughout. Such a large undertaking necessarily progressed slowly. The New Testament, which was the first to be printed, was ready by the beginning of 1514, but it was held back from publication until the Old Testament should be completed. This was not until the middle of 1517, and even then publication was delayed for some unknown reason; so that it was not until 1522 that the Complutension Polyglot (so called from Complutum, the Latin name of Alcala, where the work was done) was actually given to the world. Meanwhile a publisher at Basle, Froben by name, had heard of the work in progress, and determined to anticipate it. Accordingly he commissioned Erasmus, the foremost scholar of the Reformation, to prepare an edition of the Greek New Testament, and urged on him the utmost speed. Erasmus, who had for some time been anxious to undertake an edition of the Greek New Testament, readily accepted the commission. Using such manuscripts as happened to be available at Basle (two of them lent by Dean Colet, from the library of St. Paul's), he set to work in September, 1515, and in March, 1516, his edition was published, thus reaching the world six years earlier than the work of Ximenes, and in a much handier and cheaper form.

It was a great service to scholarship and religion to make the New Testament known in its original language; but Erasmus's hurried work was far from being satisfactory, even with regard to the materials then available, and still less from the point of view of modern scholarship with its vastly increased resources. He had consulted only a handful of manuscripts, most of quite late date. For the Gospels he used mainly a single manuscript of the fifteenth century. For Revelation the one manuscript he used was defective at the end, and Erasmus supplied the last six verses by a translation from the Latin into his own imperfect Greek. Nevertheless his edition became the basis of the Greek text in universal use down to our own day. It was from the text of Erasmus that the first English version of the Greek was translated, as will be described shortly; and the continental printers who produced other editions of the Greek New Testament all took Erasmus as their foundation. Erasmus himself produced five more editions, and in that of 1527, which was his definitive edition, he made some use of the Complutensian; but the general inadequacy of the foundation of the work remained unaffected.

Among the numerous editions which followed that of Erasmus in the sixteenth century, only one need be mentioned, namely that produced by the French printer Robert Estienne, or Stephanus, in 1550. This is important, because it is this text which (with very slight alterations) continued to be reprinted for the next three hundred years, and is still to be found in our ordinary Greek Testaments. It is with this that the texts produced by modern scholarship have to be compared, and if the measure of the advance is to be appreciated, it is essential to understand how very slender were the resources at the disposal of the editor of 1550 compared with those at our service today. Stephanus used mainly the text of Erasmus, but revised it to some extent from the Complutensian edition and from fifteen manuscripts to which he had access in Paris. One of these was really old, that which is now known as the Codex Bezae, but (for reasons which will appear later) little use was made of it. The rest were all late manuscripts, from the tenth to the fifteenth century. They represent only the standard Byzantine text; the much earlier witnesses which have since come to light were not available then, and no one thought of searching for them. It was sufficient for Bible students that they had the Bible in Greek; it did not yet occur to them to ask whether the text was the most correct obtainable.