The New Testament: Texts and Versions
New Testament Manuscripts
Text critics must evaluate the evidence of thousands of manuscripts in order to establish the wording of the Greek New Testament. (See the article on “The Process of Textual Criticism” above.) This is a very large number of surviving copies for a collection of ancient documents; many classical texts survive in only a few copies. The overwhelming majority of these New Testament manuscripts (ca. 2,400) contain full or partial Gospel texts, followed by texts containing all or portions of the Pauline epistles (ca. 800). Revelation survives in only 287 copies. The manuscripts consist of papyrus fragments (some of only a few pages, some even shorter, preserving only a few verses); uncials, very early manuscripts written in letters unconnected to each other and similar to uppercase letters; and minuscules, later manuscripts written in a script that connects the letters and in which lowercase letters predominate. In addition to manuscript evidence, citations in Christian writers, lectionaries (excerpted passages for liturgical reading), and translations into other languages may figure into judgments about the earliest wording of the text. With such a wealth of evidence, there is no phrase in the New Testament for which there is not some variant. Most involve issues of grammar, style, or copyists' corrections. Textual variants that affect the theological meaning of the text are fewer.
With such a wealth of information about the New Testament text, scholars have had to develop ways of classifying not only individual manuscripts but groups of copies so that they can more readily deal with all of the variants. If they can determine, for example, that a group of copies all descended from a common ancestor, they can assess the variants for that group together and compare them with other groups that descend from different early copies. Variants that occur in two or more of these “families” have a much higher probability of being original than variants that may have arisen within only one group, for instance.
Most of the known variants to the text of the New Testament originated in the first two centuries of its existence. As Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean, different groups had their own copies of the various New Testament documents, in some cases excluding books that are now included, or including books that are now excluded. (See the essay on “The Canons of the Bible.”) In addition, the Greek copies began to diverge, and they also began to translate the texts into other languages: Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. The Latin text, because of the dominance of the Latin language in the western Roman Empire, became the most prevalent, and the Greek text was used consistently only in the east, in the area around Constantinople (modern Istanbul). This Greek text, preserved and copied in the Orthodox churches of the east, became known as the Byzantine text, and for many centuries it was the only or main version of the Greek text available. Beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, scholars began to discover other early texts. Early in the twentieth century, text‐critics proposed families or text‐types linked to the major regions of Christianity: Alexandria in Egypt, to the south; the east represented by Caesarea; and the west represented by Italy/Gaul and Africa. At first scholars assumed that the Byzantine text resulted from combinations of these types, but such an attempt to provide a genealogy of the various text‐types could not accommodate the mixture of readings found in the papyri and the oldest surviving codices. The so‐called Alexandrian tradition, texts from the area of Egypt that included many of the most ancient papyrus copies (preserved in the very dry climate of that area), became in the nineteenth century a favored basis for establishing original readings. But the complexity of variants has increasingly made this approach, too, untenable.
Since the papyri evidence from the earliest centuries represents copies of particular books of the New Testament, it is likely that the scribes who set out to produce codices containing the entire Bible in the fourth century would have had a variety of different text‐types for the individual books. Any codex, therefore, is not of uniform reliability. Codex Alexandrinus (early fifth century CE) is, as it turns out, a poor witness for the Gospels, but many critics consider it the best text of Revelation, even superior to a third‐century papyrus copy. The age of a manuscript, therefore, does not necessarily determine the value of its readings, although it is one factor among many that scholars need to take into account. Writings such as Revelation and the shorter catholic epistles (2 and 3 John; Jude; 2 Peter), which were not widely used as scripture until the fourth century, have a different textual tradition than the Gospels and the Pauline epistles.
Consequently, most text‐critics do not begin with a particular manuscript tradition and correct it to establish the text. Instead, the wealth and diversity of manuscript evidence have enabled critics to produce a Greek text based on eclectic principles: choosing the best readings from a variety of manuscript sources. This range of choice has also meant that New Testament scholars do not need to make conjectural emendations of the text, a practice common in the editing of other ancient texts, including the Hebrew Bible, where few early manuscripts are available. The best text for a particular passage requires detailed study of all preserved variants. Internal principles of textual criticism include consideration of readings that are more likely to be scribal corrections or errors, that fit the theological biases of an author or later editors, or that could have given rise to the other known variants.
The NRSV translation is based on a modern eclectic edition of the Greek text, Nestle‐Aland 26th edition (or the equivalent United Bible Societies Greek New Testament 3rd edition, but incorporating information from the 4th edition as well). Textual variants in wording, both stylistic and theologically significant, are indicated in the translators' notes as “other ancient authorities.” In order to understand the basis for these alternative translations, readers would have to consult the text‐critical notes in the Greek text or a commentary on the Greek text.
Versions of the New Testament
The early Christian orientation toward the written word led to translation of the Bible into other languages for converts who did not speak Greek. Evidence from Old Latin, Syriac, and Coptic translations from the late second and third centuries CE figures in text‐criticism. Armenian (early fifth century), Ethiopic (mid‐fourth century), and Old Slavonic (late ninth century) translations form a key moment in the cultural life of the people. Many of the apocryphal writings are preserved in Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian, thus providing a wider literature associated with the Bible.
Often manuscript evidence for the earliest translations is scanty or only derived from quotations. Tertullian' quotations appear to be his own translation into Latin, so the first evidence for the text appears in Cyprian (250 CE). Augustine and Jerome both complain about the large number of poor translations in circulation. Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damascus to produce a Latin Bible (ca. 383). His revised Gospels and translation of the Hebrew Bible were combined with other translations for the remaining books of the Old and New Testaments to produce a Latin version known as the Vulgate. The Vulgate enjoyed wide circulation from the seventh century CE and was officially promulgated as the text of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Sixtus V (1590). A neo‐Vulgate with alterations in the text, style, and corrections to bring the translation closer to the Greek text was promulgated by John Paul II (1979).
The earliest evidence for the Syriac New Testament comes from a harmony of the Gospels, The Diatessaron, composed by Tatian in the second century CE. It is the source of citations in the commentary by Ephraem (310–373 CE). Texts from Antioch contributed to revisions of the Syriac New Testament, the Peshitta or common version (earliest manuscripts from the mid‐fifth century CE), and a translation by Philoxenus (507/508 CE). The oldest versions of the New Testament translated into the Sahidic dialect of Coptic emerge in the third century CE. In the fourth century the whole Bible was translated into the Bohairic dialect, which became the official language of Coptic Christianity. A number of manuscripts found in the twentieth century remain to be assembled, catalogued, and incorporated into editions of the Coptic text.