The Expository Files

The Copyists: their Work and Goals

The Integrity of the New Testament - Special 2013 Series

[From The Editors: This article is one of a series we are running this year. The 2013 series is called "The Integrity of the New Testament" and deals with textual criticism. Can the New Testament be trusted? Has it been corrupted through time? Can we know what God has said? It should be obvious how important this topic is. This is especially so given the climate of society today and its attitudes toward the Bible.  We wish this series to help everyone understand the process of the Bible's history as a document and why we can have confidence in its message. Near the end of the year we are planning to publish these twelve articles in book form (Kindle, Nook and old fashioned print and ink).


The story of the preservation of Scripture is an amazing one. The modern era is so accustomed to tools and methods of writing and preservation that it is difficult to imagine the circumstances and challenges that faced those who copied and preserved entire manuscripts by hand. The process was painstaking and tedious. There were no hard drives, no keyboards, no auto-corrections, and no other earthly help by the human eye. Copying was not a process “with scribal accuracy matching modern photocopy technology” (Roberts 27). Yet, by God’s hand, Scripture was preserved and brought down to the modern world in a most remarkable fashion.


Who Were the Copyists?


The New Testament documents are first century writings. As they were being written, there was already a consciousness of the divinely inspired nature of the work (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:37). Those who accepted the documents as Scripture would have a desire in making, keeping, maintaining, and passing around copies of these works. The process of copying would have begun as soon as the works were penned. “After the books of the New Testament were written they were carried all over the Roman Empire. The Christians everywhere took care of them, and copied and multiplied them in the century immediately following their production” (Price 154). Many copies began to be circulated, and this would naturally give rise to questions about the source and genuineness of the copies. Who were these copyists?


“It is scarcely possible to overstate the importance of early scribes” (Lightfoot 30). Yet, while people generally think in terms of professional scribes doing most of the copying of the New Testament documents, the reality is that, according to Roberts,


“many of the first copies of the Gospels were made, not by professional scribes, but by literate lay copyists. As the early church rapidly expanded throughout the Roman world in the first centuries A.D., there was a pressing need for multiple copies of authoritative Christian documents, including Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Nonprofessional copyists must have stepped in to meet this need.” (28)


Not all copyists were professionals, which alone can account for many variances in manuscripts. “The earliest copies of Christian writings were probably made for the local church by some member of the congregation” (Lightfoot 30). However, that not all were professional copyists should not be confused with the desire they had to take great care in making copies, for there would have been a strong conviction that they were copying the very word of God. “Care for the precise wording of the biblical text is attested, therefore, at the start of the Christian era” (Millard 143). As time passed, however, the job of copying was more entrusted to professional scribes who were in monasteries. Prices notes:


“Scholars such as Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome greatly stimulated Biblical learning, and caused the multiplication and preservation of its sacred manuscripts. That sacred calling was later confined almost exclusively to monasteries, of which there were hundreds in the Orient. In the period of the ninth to the fifteenth century cursive manuscripts were produced in great numbers in these monasteries, each of which had its scribe or scribes, whose chief business was the copying of the sacred Scriptures. The profession of scribe was so revered that a writer of the sacred books was exempted from working in the gardens of a monastery, lest the skill of his pen be marred by injury to his hands.” (154-155)


As Lightfoot describes (30-31), typically, a scribe would not be seated at a desk, but rather sitting on a stool of some kind with the manuscript on his knees. His pen was likely a reed, sharp and split for a nib. His ink came from soot mixed with gum and water. Other tools helped to keep the pen in good working order. A scribe might draw lines on his materials (papyrus or parchment) so he could keep his text straight. A careful scribe needed much time to prepare and accomplish his task.


By the third century A.D., scribes would do their work in a “writing room” or “scriptorium” (Lightfoot 31). The scribe would listen to a reader and copy what he heard. This practice, utilized by the Romans, could facilitate making numerous copies at once. Of course, it would also give the added risk of errors due to misunderstood communication. Did the scribe copying Romans 5:1 hear  “echomen” (we have) or “echōmen” (let us have)? Simply listening would be difficult to distinguish the two. Homophones (sound-alike words) can easily result in using the wrong word.


The work of a scribe was no small task. From the scroll to the codex (book form, for which Christians are credited), the papyrus to parchment and vellum, the task of the scribe was the same: get the text accurately inscribed on the material.


Of course, given that they were human, and given that they were hand-copying, mistakes were going to be made. Even so, they were typically attempting to be careful. Millard discusses evidence in ancient extra-biblical literature indicating how careful ancient scribes tried to be, even if not always successful. “Everyone who writes and copies is aware of the likelihood of mistakes in their own work” (Millard 153). Yet, someone entrusted with a task of copying, especially a sacred text, would have taken his job most seriously.


While God’s hand is seen in the preservation of the text, inspiration itself belongs to the original manuscripts, which are not extant. The copying process was not inspired or inerrant in itself. Copies do contain the marks of imperfect human effort. However, this imperfection does not alter the fact that the message was preserved through the ages and that the truth of the biblical claim of the survival of God’s word remains intact (1 Peter 1:22-25).


In brief, it should be recognized that “the vast bulk” of differences in manuscripts “affect virtually nothing” (Wallace 20). Though there is evidence that “orthodox scribes occasionally changed the NT text to bring it more into conformity with their views” (Wallace 21), the evidence does not suggest sweeping changes in doctrine. This issue will be addressed next.




A Question of Bias and Doctrine


Some have argued that because there are mistakes and variances in manuscripts, then this indicates that the copyists were trying to change the text to fit their particular doctrines rather than to faithfully copy what the original said. What is to be said of this?


To better understand their work, difficulties, and the question of how their bias may have affected what they did, a brief overview of the types of errors and changes is in order. In general, there were two kinds of errors: accidental and intentional.


Errors do not mean that the copyists were careless. Sometimes changes were made precisely because they were trying to be more exact.


“At times scribes would make intentional changes as they copied. For example, they would correct what they believed to be a spelling error in their source text. And even the best of scribes also sometimes made unintended errors. Thus the best extant manuscripts of the Gospels are likely to differ in some measure from the autographs.” (Roberts 27)


Black notes that such changes “were no doubt made in good faith under the impression that a linguistic or theological error had crept into the text” (17). Intentional changes, then, did not mean that there was an attempt to change the gospel into something it had never been. Rather, there was a great concern to keep orthodoxy safe for posterity. It should be remembered that there was a core body of teaching that went back very early, even before it was all written down. The oral tradition was preserved and written down for future generations. Bock, in dealing with alternative gospels (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas), argues, “The Gospels we have in the fourfold collection have a line of connection to the earliest days and figures of the Christian faith that the alternative texts do not possess” (204). He further writes:


“Orthodoxy is not the product of third-century theologians. Those theologians certainly developed and honed traditional teaching. They gave flesh to the bones and structure to the basic ideas. However, the core of ideas they worked with and reflected in their confessions can be found in the faith’s earliest works. These works embraced what the apostles passed on.” (213)


If any major changing of doctrine were to be done, it would have to been early, but “early” is not a very good option for sweeping changes unless what was being taught were true. 


Bearing in mind, then, that there is a difference between making sweeping doctrinal changes and recognizing the range of variances, here is a quick review of the types of variances that can be found in manuscripts. They can typically be categorized as follows (Wallace 40):


1. “Spelling differences and nonsense errors.” Spelling differences are obvious and do not affect meaning. Nonsense errors would include scribbles and chicken scratches.


2. “Minor differences that do not affect translations or that involve synonyms.” These can involve the use of different words altogether, but would still not really affect the translation or meaning. For example, names sometimes have an article in front of them. Since English does not use articles in front of names (e.g., “the Mary”), these are not translated. Yet there is no question about the meaning.


3. “Differences that affect the meaning of the text but are not viable.” These usually belong to a single manuscript or a small group of manuscripts in a family that are peculiar enough to recognize that they do not reflect the original. Wallace gives the example of one late manuscript that contains “the gospel of Christ” instead of “the gospel of God” in 1 Thessalonians 2:9. Such a variant is meaningful, but not viable because of how little support there is for the wording difference.


4. “Differences that both affect the meaning of the text and are viable.” This category is the smallest, affecting less than 1 percent of the overall text. Yet, this can still be thought significant, as texts like Mark 16:9ff and John 7:51-8:11 fall into this category.


As to the question of intentional changes reflecting doctrinal changes, it is clear that spelling differences, word order differences, nonsense errors, and synonyms can be pretty easily dismissed. The issue here would be much more substantive. Critics like Bart Ehrman strongly argue that the substantive changes were made in order to reflect doctrinal positions, and this puts the integrity of the textual content into question.


There are reasons to be dubious of such claims. They assume that copying was uncontrolled, “giving the impression that all MSS of this era were riddled with mistakes, both unintentional and intentional. The scribes, it seems, were undisciplined and wild, freely adding or subtracting words wherever they wanted to” (Wallace 51). While this might describe some texts of the Western tradition, this certainly would not describe the majority of texts. Note, for example, what Metzger and Ehrman say about this very point:


“It would be a mistake to think that the uncontrolled copying practices that led to the formation of the Western textual tradition were followed everywhere that texts were reproduced in the Roman Empire. In particular, there is solid evidence that in at least one major see of early Christendom, the city of Alexandria, there was conscious and conscientious control exercised in the copying of the books of the New Testament” (277-278).


This does not minimize the fact that some texts are in dispute because of doctrinal matters. Most studies involving the question of theological changes focus on Jesus’ divine nature. For example, should John 1:18 say, “the only Son” or “the only God”? While this study is not going to attempt to answer all of those questions, the one point to take away here is this: significant doctrines such as the divine nature of Jesus or the question of salvation do not rest on only one text. Whether John 1:18 says “Son” or “God” does not alter the fact that there are multiple other passages that teach both about Christ. Even if the ending of Mark 16 is to be questioned, there are multiple other passages that teach the necessity of baptism. Without 1 John 5:7 (as per the King James Bible), we can still draw the conclusion about the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comprising God as one. The point is that the texts in question, particularly where specific doctrine is concerned, are not the sole texts on which an entire position must rest. This is why, even with the fourth category of variants, there is still ultimately no particular doctrine that is in question. “We can be certain that no truth of Scripture or Christian doctrine rests on a doubtful text” (Greenlee 38). Again, as Black points out:


“No biblical doctrine would go unsupported if a favorite reading was abandoned in favor of a more valid variant. This does not mean, as is sometimes said, that no doctrine of Scripture is affected by textual variation. Rather, a doctrine that is affected by textual variation will always be adequately supported by other passages.” (25).


As stated, if there were some kind of effort to change doctrine in a grand way, it would have to have been very early on and quite widespread in order to make it across the board in all the manuscript families. That is, the changes would have been made from the earliest of manuscripts. Evidence, however, does not support such a sweeping conspiracy of change. When the teachings of and about Christ are widespread and early, the evidence suggests that any changes would have come far too early to argue for all of it as doctrinal corruption. As Bauckham argues, “the highest possible Christology – the inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity – was central to the faith of the early church even before any of the New Testament writings were written, since it occurs in all of them” (19). The idea that the New Testament documents were altered in order to accommodate a divine Jesus is simply false.


Admitting that the copyists occasionally made intentional changes might cause some to fear that we do not have the right message. However, such fears or apprehensions are not necessary at all. Greenlee argues the point thusly:


“To admit, as we have, that scribes at times made intentional changes in the manuscripts they were copying may raise fears in the minds of some people that scribes may have deliberately falsified or watered down the text of the New Testament in some passages. We need have no such fears. The scribes who copied the New Testament manuscripts, especially in the earliest period when most of the variants developed, were doing so because they wanted to make the message available to more readers, not to change it. In later centuries, scribes were often monks who were copying the manuscripts as part of their religious duties, often without really understanding the Greek they were copying. These later scribes were hardly in a position to introduce subtle heresies in their manuscripts.” (70)


Copyists should not be conflated with true heretics who publicized their false doctrines. There were, indeed, plenty of false teachers who tried to turn people aside to their errors. However, this process was not accomplished through purposefully trying to incorrectly copy manuscripts. Rather, that was accomplished through other writings. Marcion, for example, was a second century heretic and writer who denied Old Testament scripture and devised his own canon, but he was not a scribe. Copyists and scribes were about copying, not writing commentaries (Greenlee 71).





How Can We Know?


It is not uncommon to hear a critic argue that that there are somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 variants in the manuscripts, as if this proves that we cannot trust the outcome. It is true that there are that many variances. One of the reasons it is true is because there are so many manuscripts available to begin with. If there were only one manuscript, there would be no variants at all (as Wallace pointed out in one of his debates with Ehrman). Yet remember, the vast majority of these variances make no difference whatsoever, and most of them are spotted and resolved with study.


The fact that there are so many variants elicits the question about knowledge. How can we know what the correct reading is? While this study is not designed to deal with all the variants, there is one basic answer that stands out: compare.


How does the existence of so many manuscripts help us to know when a copyist made such a change? More specifically, how does textual criticism help us know what the better or original reading is?


It is important to put the issue of the amount of evidence into perspective.


“The wealth of material that is available for determining the wording of the original New Testament is staggering: more than fifty-seven hundred Greek New Testament manuscripts, as many as twenty thousand versions, and more than one million quotations by patristic writers. In comparison with the average ancient Greek author, the New Testament copies are well over a thousand times more plentiful. If the average-sized manuscript were two and one-half inches thick, all the copies of the works of an average Greek author would stack up four feet high, while the copies of the New Testament would stack up to over a mile high! This is indeed an embarrassment of riches.” (Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace 82)


One benefit of having so many manuscripts is the ability to compare them. One of the reasons there are so many variants is that there is so many copies, and even though there are hundreds of thousands of variants, there is still more agreement than there is disagreement between the manuscripts. “Very few variants give meanings that are actually false, except for occasional scribal blunders found in one manuscript or a few” (Greenlee 55). By comparing readings, there are certain characteristics that arise to help textual critics determine the more correct reading.


The textual critics have, at their disposal, three kinds of sources from which they can draw (Black 18-24). First, they have the Greek manuscripts themselves that range from the second (possibly even the first) century to the fifteenth century, when the printing press came into use. These include Greek lectionaries that contain New Testament passages. All of these together number over 5,700, and the number keeps growing.


Second, textual critics use ancient versions. By the second century, the New Testament documents were already being translated into other languages. These include old Latin, old Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Gothic, and Arabic. There are over 10,000 Latin manuscripts (yes, more than Greek) and over 5,000 of the others. Including Greek, there are over 20,000 handwritten manuscripts of the New Testament documents in various languages (Wallace 28). While translations might not so easily show what the Greek would have said, the comparison value is still significant because they can compare to see if a “particular reading was known in the place and time of the version’s origin” (Black 23).


Third, textual critics have citations from the patristics. As noted above, there are over one million quotations from the patristic writers. Note how important this is, as stated by Metzger and Ehrman:


“Besides textual evidence derived from the New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of the practically the entire New Testament.” (126)


To be sure, they did not always quote directly. They often alluded to passages. Yet their testimony is still so significant that their writings alone can show us what the New Testament documents said and taught. Once again, since the doctrines of the New Testament are both early, widespread, and attested by such a vast amount of evidence, then the charge that they changed the New Testament to suit their own ideas does not stand. Such a view is more a reflection of modern efforts to cast off biblical authority than it does a real search for truth.




The copyists and scribes were humans who were interested in getting God’s word to as many people as they could. They were human, and their efforts demonstrate this. Yet, even though there are errors that have been copied and passed down, as Millard argues, the modern reader who detects errors and variances should just as readily admit that copyists could be precise and careful, too. In other words, the copyists knew what they were doing and they deserve due recognition (153).


Christians need to be thankful for the work of textual criticism, for without it, we would not know what a text says. Further, Christians need to be thankful for the copyists and scribes who took it upon themselves to do the tedious and thankless work of hand-copying Scripture. It is difficult for the modern person, surrounded by the technology and gadgets, to appreciate what went into the preservation of Scripture. There should be little doubt that most of the copyists were sincere in their efforts to copy God’s word. Mistakes were made in their copying, but these mistakes are not insurmountable.


Finally, Christians need to thank God that He has seen fit to keep His message preserved through the ages. One of most remarkable facts about the Bible is its preservation through time. This, or course, should not surprise us, for “the word of the Lord endures forever.”






Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.

Black, David Alan. New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994.

Bock, Darrell L. The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006.

Comfort, Philip Wesley. Early Manuscripts and Modern Translations of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990.

Greenlee, Harold J. Scribes, Scrolls, and Scripture: A Student’s Guide to New Testament Textual Criticism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985.

Komoszewski, J. Ed, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006.

Ladd, George Eldon. The New Testament and Criticism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967.

Lightfoot, Neil R. How We Got the Bible. 3rd ed. Revised. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006.

Metzger, Bruce M. and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. 4th ed. NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.


Millard, A. R. 1982. “In praise of ancient scribes.” Biblical Archaeologist 45, no. 3: 143-153.

Price, Ira Maurice. The Ancestry of Our English Bible. 3rd Rev. ed by William A. Irwin and Allen P. Wikgren. NY: Harper and Row, 1956.

Roberts, Mark D. Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007.

Wallace, Daniel B., ed. Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament Text: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011.  


By Doy Moyer
From Expository Files 20.8; August 2013