IN SEARCH OF ANCIENT MANUSCRIPTS
THE TOOLS OF TEXTUAL CRITICISM
I am a stranger in the earth; do not hide Thy commandments from me.
My soul is crushed with longing after Thy ordinances at all times. (Psalm 119:18-19).
We have already noted the vast amount of manuscript evidence available for the textual critic, but perhaps we should also observe the extraordinary lengths to which the scribes who copied the Bible went so that errors should not creep into the text.
THE COPYING OF THE SCRIPTURES
We have none of the original autographs of the Scriptures today. That is to say that we do not have the original copy of Paul's epistle to Galatians that was signed in large letters with his own handwriting. That does not mean the Scriptures are lost to us, for they have been copied and recopied many times over, often with great care.
1. The Ministry of the Masorites.
a. Their name.
The name Masorite comes from the Hebrew word MASORAH, meaning "tradition." They were guardians of Jewish tradition.
b. Their rise.
Hundreds of years after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the Masorites rose up in the Jewish community of Tiberius where work was being done in copying the Hebrew Text.
This group eventually worked out a system by which they counted each letter of each page of the Scriptures. They could tell you what the first letter was on any given line of any given page of any given scroll.
"The Masorites had a passionate concern with their special statistics. They went into a bizarre counting successively of letters, words, verses, sections and chapters in each Scriptural writing and in all the twenty four books of the Bible." (Nathan Ausubel, The Book of Jewish Knowledge, Page 272).
c. Vowel Pointing.
The Masorites also worked up a system of vowel pointing for the Hebrew Text. This helped to fix the pronunciation of the Hebrew words (the Hebrew language contains no written vowels).
2. The Copying of the Old Testament.
The Talmud contains a strict set of rules for copying the Old Testament Scriptures. An examination of these rules will show that it was very difficult for errors to creep into the codex. A synagogue scroll was to be...
The codex must meet the following requirements...
Besides this, the copiest must...
With this kind of care being taken to insure a perfect copy, it is no wonder that the scribes considered the new copy to be just as authoritative as the original.
3. Copying of the New Testament.
What about the New Testament? Unfortunately, the scribes who copied the New Testament did not go to such great lengths to insure that errors did not creep into the text. However, through the efforts of modern archaeology, we have discovered thousands of manuscripts, some dating to within 100 years of the writing of the original text.
At the time of the translation of the King James Version of the Bible (in 1611), the oldest Old Testament Manuscript was a Masoretic Text dating back only a few hundred years. The oldest New Testament Text was dated at about 1000 A.D. This has all changed in recent years with a number of archaeological discoveries.
When we refer to a “codex,” we are speaking of a bound book as opposed to a scroll. While scrolls were quite effective in the storing of papyri documents and had been used throughout the ancient world, the use of animal skins allowed for pages to be joined along a single edge and bound into the form of today’s book.
This manuscript contains the Old Testament Septuagint and most of the New Testament, though portions of Matthew, John and 2 Corinthians are missing. The Gospels are the very oldest example of the Byzantine Family of Texts. The rest of the New Testament follows the Alexandrian family.
1. Its Composition.
The Codex Alexandrinus, containing the Greek Bible, had been written around 450 A.D. and had eventually made its way to Constantinople.
2. Cyril Lucaris.
In 1620, Cyril Lucrais became the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. It is said that he was somewhat Calvinistic in his beliefs and he engaged in extensive correspondence with Christians throughout Europe.
3. Presentation to England.
He presented Codex Alexandrinus as a present to King Charles 1 of England in 1627, just 15 years after the King James Version had been completed.
CODEX VATICANUS (CODEX B)
This manuscript dates to the middle of the 4th century and contains both Old and New Testaments along with the Apocrypha except for the books of Maccabees. The early chapters of Genesis are missing along with the last few books of the New Testament including the epistles to Timothy, Titus Philemon and Revelation.
1. Initial Discovery.
The manuscript had been known among scholars but not widely circulated for several hundred years when, in 1809 when the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte took the Pope prisoner. At the same time, the Vatican Library was transported to France. Among the thousands of volumes was found a manuscript of the New Testament known today as Codex Vaticanus. Before any serious study could be done on the codex, Napoleon was overthrown and the Library along with Codex Vaticanus was returned to Rome.
It was not until 1845 that Samuel P. Tregelles received permission to briefly examine the manuscript. However, he was allowed to bring with him no writing materials and could take no notes. Guards watched him continually to make certain that he did no copying of the manuscript. Reportedly during one session, they intervened when he spent too much time on one particular page.
Finally, Pope Pius XI allowed the manuscript to be photographed in 1889 so that it would be accessible to scholars. It is now considered to have been written at about 350 A.D.
Ancient writing materials were not cheap. Papyri came from Egypt and had to be made by hand, but it did not stand up well in moist climates. Another option was vellum, made from the skin of a calf. This could be a problem if the writer began to run out of calfskin and so one practice was to take older sheets of vellum and to erase them so that they could be recycled. This was the case with the Ephraemi Rescriptus, so named because they contain copies of the sermons of St. Ephraem the Syrian.
Apparently an early scribe had wished to transcribe the sermons of St. Ephraem but had run short of writing materials, so he had taken some old vellum which he found and he had erased the writing, leaving only the indentations. This unknown scribe had erased one of the oldest New Testament manuscripts (450 A.D.). Through the use of carefully painstaking study, the original manuscript has since been restored.
CODEX SINAITICUS (CODEX ALEPH)
This Codex is made up of the entire New Testament and most of the Old Testament Septuagint. It is written in uncial script (capital letters) and dates to the 4th century. An examination of the handwriting shows that there were at least three different scribes who worked in completing this entire codex.
In the spring of 1844, a young German scholar named Count Konstantin von Tischendorf was traveling through the Middle East. During his travels, he came upon an old Greek Orthodox monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai named for St. Catherine. The Russian monks who lived there invited him to spend the night.
When the desert night became cold, the monks brought out a large waste basket containing rubbish used as kindling to stoke the fireplace. Tischendorf found in one such basket a page from an ancient manuscript with Greek writing on it.
When the desert night became cold, the monks brought out a large waste basket containing rubbish used as kindling to stoke the fireplace. Tischendorf found in one such basket a page from an ancient manuscript with Greek writing on it. He spent several days digging through piles of old vellum and, during that time, found 129 pages of the New Testament manuscript known today as Codex Sinaiticus. From his reaction, the monks could tell that Tischendorf had discovered something important. When he asked to have the manuscript, they allowed him to take only 43 of 129 pages.
Ultimately, the text, along with other documents, was moved to Russia where Tischendorf was permitted to study it at length.
It was not until 1933 that the Russian Communists, having no need of old copies of the Bible, agreed to sell Codex Sinaiticus to Great Britain for 100,000 pounds. It resides today in the British Museum and has been dated at 375 A.D.
In 1900, Drs. Grenfell and Hunt of the Oxford University traveled up the Nile to Oxyrhynchus, a site that lies on a tributary of the Nile that flows into the Fayum Oasis. During the course of their excavations, they came upon a great hall half filled with stuffed crocodiles. They were in the process of having their native workers move the crocodiles out of the way to see what might be beyond when one of the workers dropped a crocodile. It hit a sharp object and broke open. It was filled with papyri. Further investigation showed that these stuffed crocodiles contained a whole library of ancient writings. These included some Biblical manuscripts from the second century as well as grammar and etymology books which led to a greater knowledge of the Koine Greek.
CHESTER BEATTY PAPYRI
On November 19, 1931, a Philadelphia millionaire named Chester Beatty was vacationing in the Middle East. When an Arab offered to sell him some Old Testament papyri in Greek, he agreed to the purchase. He turned the entire collection over to two scholars to examine, F. Kenyon and H. Saunders.
A detailed study showed that these were second and third century manuscripts containing portions of Paul's epistles and the Gospels. The manuscripts are now kept at the University of Pennsylvania.
THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS
We have already noted that the Masoretes exercised great care in the transmission of the Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible. A part of that care involved the disposal of old and worn manuscripts. Because of this, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts in 1940 were only a thousand years old. This changed dramatically with a discovery by the Dead Sea.
1. Original Discovery.
The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls was discovered in 1947 when an Arab shepherd, while looking for a stray goat, happened to throw a rock into a cave along the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea.
Instead of the bleating of a goat, he heard the crash of a breaking clay pot. He investigated and found several clay jars containing old scrolls with Hebrew writing on them.
The scrolls changed hands several times before finally finding their way to the authorities. When they did, they caused a stir that is still being heard today.
2. Further Discoveries.
Over the course of the next few years, archaeologists recovered 40,000 fragments of manuscripts in 11 different caves. Represented was almost the entire Old Testament, portions of which have been dated as early as 175 B.C.
The significance of these finds cannot be underestimated. In a single find, the Textual Critic had jumped back 1000 years. These manuscripts provide a basis for judging the accuracy of the Hebrew Bible.
How does the Masoretic Text match up to the early scrolls discovered in the Dead Sea Caves?
"Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only 17 letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The three remaining letters comprise the word LIGHT, which is added in verse 11 and which does not affect the meaning greatly. Furthermore, this word is supported by the LXX. Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission - and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage." (Norman Geisler & William Nix, "A General Introduction to the Bible", Moody Press, Page 263).
This is a remarkable testimony to the accuracy of the Masoretic Text upon which our Bible is based. Over a period of a thousand years, very little has change has come upon the text. We have a Bible we can trust. There is sufficient manuscript evidence to back it up.