A Brief History of the Greek New Testament

Early Attempts to Standardize the New Testament Text

What we now call “textual criticism,” a process of comparing manuscripts in order to determine the original reading, was probably practiced on a small scale throughout the early period by scribes and Christian scholars who had access to multiple copies of a New Testament work. The scribes responsible for 𝔭46 (Paul) and 𝔭66 (John) appear to have made corrections to their copies by comparison with a second exemplar. Some scholars have theorized that there was already a major attempt by about the middle or the end of the second century to produce a standardized edition or “recension” of New Testament books. Yet our present evidence does not point in this direction.

For generations it was thought that the excellent texts of Sinaiticus (א) and Vaticanus (B) were the result of a late third- or early fourth-century recension in Alexandria. But the discovery of 𝔭75 (containing most of Luke and John), written in the late second or early third century, has debunked this notion. The text of 𝔭75 is exceptionally close to the corresponding text in the mid-fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, making two conclusions necessary.

First, we must suppose that these manuscripts had a very early, common ancestor and, second, that this line of transmission was executed with remarkable consistency. Gordon Fee argues that this tradition did not stem from an intentional attempt to standardize the text (a recension). Rather, echoing Hort’s judgment about Vaticanus from a century earlier, Fee claims, “These MSS seem to represent a ‘relatively pure’1 form of preservation of a ‘relatively pure’ line of descent from the original text.”2 There is now much to justify Westcott and Hort’s high opinion of what they called the “Neutral” text and to identify this text with a copying tradition that stretches back at least well into the second century.3 Today 𝔭75 is joined by an increasing number of early papyri in attesting this early, stricter line of copying.4

Westcott and Hort believed that the Byzantine text originated in a recension undertaken at Antioch near the end of the third century.5 Many now regard this text instead as a slowly developing tradition that combined elements from earlier types of texts.6 After Jerome’s revised Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) took hold in the West, and the reproduction of Greek manuscripts was virtually confined to the East, it was this Syrian or Byzantine text that came to prevail in the Greek-speaking churches, supplanting even the earlier Alexandrian form. When the Renaissance and Reformation brought a return to the Greek sources, it was predominantly a Byzantine form of the Greek text that could be found in the libraries and monasteries of Europe.

Modern Attempts to Standardize the New Testament Text

Erasmus and the textus receptus. Thus, it was a form of the Byzantine text that appeared in the first printed edition of the New Testament in Greek, published by the great scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam in March 1516. This edition was based on a mere seven Greek manuscripts copied in the eleventh, twelfth, and fifteenth centuries, none of which contained the full New Testament. In 1633 the brothers Elzevir in Leiden published a slightly revised edition of Erasmus’s text, which they introduced in these words: “You have here, then, a text now received by all (textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum), in which we give nothing altered or corrupted.” This is the origin of the term textus receptus. Through some 160 subsequent editions and minor revisions, the “received text” remained virtually the same. “Yet, its textual basis is essentially a handful of late and haphazardly collected minuscule manuscripts, and in a dozen passages its rendering is supported by no known Greek witness.”7

The nineteenth century and the rise of the uncials. It was not until 1831 that a break was made with the textus receptus, when Karl Lachman published a text based on older majuscule (or uncial) manuscripts. The subsequent work of nineteenth-century scholars such as Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813–1875), Constantin von Tischendorf (1815–1874), and B. F. Westcott (1825–1901) and F. J. A. Hort (1828–1892) then ended the dominance of the textus receptus and transformed the science of New Testament textual criticism.

The magnificent fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus (א) that Tischendorf discovered in the St. Catherine monastery on Mount Sinai in 1844 became the basis for his edition of the New Testament. Tischendorf was unable to take into account the other great fourth-century majuscule soon rediscovered in the Vatican Library in Rome and called Codex Vaticanus (B). Westcott and Hort considered Vaticanus the best preserved “Neutral” copy of the originals, and it became the basis for their edition of the New Testament published in 1881. Textual critics continue to recognize the high quality of both codices. Westcott and Hort also put great stock in some of the early versions, particularly the Old Latin and the Old Syriac, each probably begun before the end of the second century and translated directly from Greek manuscripts. The two Cambridge scholars were also intrigued by the unusual, fifth-century, bilingual Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis (Dea), the chief representative of what has been called the “Western” text. Though (Dea) itself was produced in the fifth century, Westcott and Hort ascribed its basic text to the second and its group of unique interpolations to the fourth.8

Westcott and Hort divided the New Testament manuscripts then available into three basic types denominated by region—Alexandrian, Syrian (later known as Byzantine), and Western—and called B a form of a “Neutral” text, a tradition they thought was undisturbed by any conscious attempt to reform the text. Thus, despite vigorous protests from those who defended the traditional textus receptus, the nineteenth century advanced the three great uncial codices Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Bezae to a place of prominence in New Testament textual criticism.

The twentieth century and the papyrus discoveries. During the nineteenth century hardly any early papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament were known, and only nine were known by the beginning of the twentieth. As of December 2015, 131 portions of New Testament text written on papyrus have been published, of which about sixty to sixty-five date from before the middle of the fourth century and thus predate the great uncial manuscripts mentioned above. About half of these early papyri have come from a single archaeological site, the ancient rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. For much of the twentieth century it looked as if the early papyri represented a looser attitude toward copying in the early church. Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear that the less well-copied manuscripts are in the minority. Somewhere between two-thirds and three-fourths of the early papyri are well-copied examples of the “Neutral,” or “Proto-Alexandrian,” or “B-Cluster” text, showing a consistent line of copying from the various points in the second century, from which our records begin.9


  1. Hort’s words, describing the textual tradition of Vaticanus (B).
  2. Gordon D. Fee, “The Myth of Early Textual Recension in Alexandria,” in Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 247–73, at 272. Fee’s chapter was originally published in Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenney, New Dimensions in New Testament Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974), 19–45.
  3. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 5*, regards it as dating to “early in the second century.”
  4. See Hill and Kruger, The Early Text of the New Testament.
  5. B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1882; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), 138–39. They find this form of text in such writers as Theodore of Mopsuestia, Basil the Great, and Chrysostom (ibid., 91–92, 137–39; Aland and Aland, Text of the New Testament, 65; Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 279).
  6. Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 279.
  7. 24 Ibid., 152.
  8. For a recent assessment of the so-called “Western non-interpolations,” so prized by Westcott and Hort, see Metzger, Textual Commentary, 6*, 164–66.
  9. 26 See Hill and Kruger, “Introduction,” in The Early Text of the New Testament.

This article is adapted from A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized Edited by Michael J. Kruger.

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