The Expository Files

The Earliest New Testament Manuscripts

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 Bible is a product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.” These are the words of Sir Leigh Teabing, a fictional character in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. While media attention to the book and the 2006 movie based on it has died down, the skepticism western culture has toward the Biblical record abounds. This attitude has its origin in our adversary. Satan desires to deceive us into thinking our own personal will is to be the standard for life. If he can have success in planting seeds of doubt regarding the veracity of Scripture, there is no limit on how far he can go in pushing his agenda of turning the hearts of men and women away from God.  

The original, handwritten twenty-seven books of the New Testament most likely disappeared within a few decades after being written. We are left with thousands of handwritten copies written in a variety of languages. Instead of being cause for alarm, the preservation of the New Testament is a living testimony to the unmatched power and providence of God.  

How can we know what we read is an accurate representation of the original text? Could we have wound up with copies that do not resemble the original at all? Before answering those questions, there are some important basics we should go over. 


Understanding Terminology

Greek manuscripts are the primary documents that determine the wording of the New Testament. These are divided into four groups:

·         Papyri – these manuscripts are identified by the material they are made of. The papyrus manuscripts are among the most important when reconstructing the text of the New Testament. While the material on which they are written is valuable because of their rarity, the date that they were written is most important. The papyri are the earliest “direct witness to the New Testament autographs” (Comfort & Barret, 2001). Today, most are in fragments.

·         Uncials and Minuscules – these are the writing styles of the documents. Uncials were written in all capital letters. Minuscules were written in a type of cursive.

·         Lectionaries – these are manuscripts that are arranged for daily study and meditation. 

New Testament manuscripts are usually found on vellum or parchment. The earliest were written on papyrus while the latest are written on paper. Generally speaking, if we were to list these groups out in chronological order, the earliest group is the papyri. The papyri are followed by uncials, minuscule, and finally, lectionaries. The earliest complete copies of the New Testament are Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. (“Codex” refers to the book form used exclusively by Christians for making copies of Biblical writings.) Both date to the early fourth century.  

The earliest manuscripts on papyrus are divided into three primary groups: the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, the Chester Beatty/Michigan Papyri, and the Bodmer Papyri. In 1898, thousands of papyrus fragments were found in the ancient garbage dumps of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Many of them were secular, pertaining to business contracts, letters, and literature. But around 35 of them contain portions of the New Testament. The Beatty Papyri were purchased from an Egyptian dealer in 1934. In this collection, three are very early and contain a large portion of the New Testament. The Bodmer Papyri were purchased in Egypt during the 1950’s and 60’s. This collection contains one papyrus that dates to the second century, while others date to the late third or early fourth century. 


The Number of New Testament Manuscripts Compared with Other Ancient Books

In terms of quantity, the New Testament is represented far more than any other piece of ancient literature. Consider the known manuscripts of four well known Greek and Roman works: Homer was the earliest and most popular author of the ancient Greek world. His book, The Illiad, dates to 750 BC. To date, 647 manuscripts of this book have been found. Only 190 contain a complete copy. When compared to other classical Greek writing, Homer’s work is an exception. Copies of his work are much more plentiful than other ancient books. For example, Caesar’s Gallic War, dates to 50 BC. Only 9-10 manuscripts exist with the earliest copy dating to 900 AD. Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War dates to 450 BC. Eight manuscripts have been found with the earliest copy dating to 900 AD. (There are some fragments of this book that date to the time of Jesus.) Finally, Tacitus’ Histories was written in 100 AD. Only two manuscripts are available. One dates to 800 AD, the other to 1000 AD.  

In light of this, the number of ancient writings containing the New Testament is staggering. To date, over 5800 Greek New Testament fragments have been found (Taylor, 2012). Over 10,000 Latin New Testament manuscripts dating from the 2nd to 16th century have been located. The earliest are in fragments that cover a substantial amount of the New Testament. Some manuscripts have also been found in a number of other languages, including Coptic, Syriac, Gothic, and Arabic. Taking all languages together, over 25,000 handwritten copies of the New Testament have been recovered. But there is more. Almost the entire New Testament could be reproduced by quotes from the ancient church fathers. “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 practically the entire New Testament” (Metzger & Ehrman, 2005)

The number of manuscripts being found is continually growing. “Every decade and virtually every year new manuscripts are discovered. Meanwhile, the average classical author’s writings are found in about twenty extant manuscripts” (Komoszewski, Sawyer, & Wallace, 2006). The earliest manuscripts do not contain the entire New Testament. Some fragments contain just a verse or two, but still count as a manuscript. The average size of a New Testament manuscript is around 450 pages.


The Length of Time Between the Original Autographs and Earliest Copies of the New Testament

The older manuscripts are very important because there are fewer copies between them and the one first written. The span between the original writing and the earliest copy is minimal when compared to others in ancient writing. “We have copies commencing within a couple of generations from the writing of the originals, whereas in the case of other ancient texts, maybe five, eight, or ten centuries elapsed between the original and the earliest surviving copy,” (Strobel, 1998). By comparison, the average classical author has at least a 500-year gap between the writing of the original and the earliest copy (Slick)

Papyrus 52 (P52), which contains a small fragment of John’s gospel, (18.31-33, 37-38) is considered to be the earliest copy of New Testament text. Discovered in 1934 by C. H. Roberts, it is believed to have been copied no later than 150 AD but no earlier than 100 AD. “Nothing is unreasonable about assigning a date of 100-125 for P52. If John’s gospel was written in the 70’s or 80’s, we have a fragment 20-25 years removed form the autograph” (Comfort & Barret, 2001). Newly discovered fragments from Egypt have been recently found, one of which may date to the first century. The oldest piece contains verses from Mark’s gospel. The others, dating into the second century have portions of Luke’s gospel and letters from Paul. One fragment contains a sermon from Hebrews 11. The contents of these fragments are still being examined and subjected to dating methods. Scholars hope to publish their findings by late 2013 or early 2014 (Wallace, 2012)

There are 10-15 manuscripts written within the first 100 years of the completion of the New Testament. Some are fairly large fragments, containing significant portions of the gospels or the letters of Paul. When we go out two centuries from the original writings (300 AD), there are at least 48 manuscripts. At three centuries (400 AD), there are 69 copies.  

Here is a chart detailing the earliest New Testament manuscripts found to date:







P52 (John Rylands Fragment)

John 18.31-33; 37-38

~96 AD

~125 AD

~29 years

P90 (Oxyrhynchus)

John 18.36-19.7

~96 AD

~150-200 AD

~50-100 years

P104 (Oxyrhynchus)

Matthew 21.34-37, 43, 45

~60-65 AD

~150-200 AD

~90-140 years

P98 (IFAO)[1]

Revelation 1.13-2.1

~90 AD

~150-200 AD

~50-100 years

P46 (Chester Beatty Papyrus)

Romans 5.17-6.3,
5-14; 8.15-25, 27-35; 10.1-11.22, 24-33, 35; 16.1-23, 25-27; Hebrews;
1 & 2 Corinthians; Ephesians; Galatians;
Philippians; Colossians;
1 Thessalonians 1.1,
9-10; 2.1-3; 5.5-9,

50’s-70’s AD

~200 AD

~150 years

P66 (Bodmer Papyrus)

John 1.1-6.11, 6.35-14.26; fragment of 14.29-21.9

70’s AD

~200 AD

~130 years

P67 [2]

Matthew 3.9, 15; 5.20-22; 25-28

~60-65 AD

~200 AD

~140 years



Determining Age and Examining Quality

Over the last 100 years, thousands of ancient Greek manuscripts have been found in countries all along the Mediterranean. The majority has come from Egypt. When looking at ancient texts, scholars begin by examining the manuscript’s age and quality.


As stated before, the earlier the manuscript, the more valuable they are. If there are fewer copies between themselves and the originals, the potential for error is reduced. “The more direct pipeline a manuscript has to the original, the better are its chances of getting the wording right” (Komoszewski, Sawyer, & Wallace, 2006). How can we be sure of the age of ancient writing? Can we actually find conclusive evidence that proves their age?  

First, we might think that scientific tests, examining archaeological evidence regarding the physical nature of the papyrus might be in order. But, such tests have been proven to be inaccurate. While external factors can help, most manuscripts cannot be dated this way because of the ambiguous circumstances (Comfort P. W., 2005). So, scholars are left with more subjective methods to date the ancient writings. The best way to date a manuscript is to examine the style of handwriting. Things are written differently generation to generation. The same is true today. Compare your handwriting with that from a century ago. You will see a distinct difference. While exact dates cannot be established, comparative morphology (a study of comparable handwriting styles) allows writings to be narrowed down to differing decades.  

The various handwriting styles in one time period over another help with dating. During the first and early second century, writers tried to keep letters on an imaginary top line. Slanted handwriting begins later in the 2nd century. The earlier manuscripts are written with mostly upright characters in a kind of print where letters tend to be as wide as they are high.  

The earliest examples have something of a childish appearance, are rough and labored, the curves jerky rather than flowing. As better effect was sought with time, it took the form of attaching serifs to all terminal lines, and these characterize the style from the middle of the first to the middle of the second centuries. Gradually, too, cursive features appear. Letters tend to be connected without lifting the pen. Curves and loops are employed wherever possible, and letters tend to be oval rather than round, sloping rather than upright, varied in height rather than even, with long and dashing initial and terminal strokes. Within this process it is possible to date a given hand typologically with some confidence, although given scribes may be ahead of or behind the general development (Oates, Samuel, & Welles, 1967). 

Another method of dating the early manuscripts is to compare the handwriting style to secular writing that is tracked to the same time. This practice is known as comparative paleography. The number of comparative materials between the first and third centuries is not large. Pagan literary texts were often exactly dated, while “as a rule New Testament manuscripts on papyrus are not” (Minnen, 1995).  


The manuscripts that prove to be the most reliable are given preference. Aland & Aland (1989) have constructed a classification system to describe the quality of manuscripts. Three of them are very special quality, special quality, and distinctive character. Why is quality so important? “A meticulous scribe working on a fifty-century manuscript may produce a more reliable text than a third-century scribe who is more interested in getting the job done quickly”(Komoszewski, Sawyer, & Wallace, 2006)

Through their work, textual critics (Comfort & Barret, 2001) have identified four different qualities or types of handwriting:

·         Common – which is inelegant cursive. This was most often a semiliterate, untrained writer who was a novice in making documents.

·         Documentary – these were literate writers who were experts in preparing documents. The handwriting style was prominent 200-225 AD and was often used by scribes in public administration.

·         Reformed Documentary – these were experts in preparing documents and in copying works of literature. They often attempted to capture the look of a professional, but did not always fully achieve their goal.

·         Professional – these writers wrote in a “book hand” or “literary hand” and left telltale marks called stichoi markings, which were a tally of the number of lines to which a professional scribe would be paid. 

One can imagine the immense task of physically writing long letters during the early centuries of the church. Paul had the long letter to the Romans written down by a scribe, Romans 16.22. It was labor-intensive work. Arlandson (2007) includes some interesting extras written down by scribes: 

·         He who does not know how to write supposes it to be no labor; but though on three fingers write, the whole body labors.

·         Writing bows one’s back, thrusts the ribs into one’s stomach, and fosters a general debility of the body.

·         As travelers rejoice to see their home country, so also is the end of a book to those who toil (in writing).

·         An Armenian copyist says in a Gospel that a heavy snowstorm was raging and that the scribe’s ink froze, his hand became numb, and the pen fell from his fingers!

·         Some manuscripts may end with gratitude: The end of the book; thanks be to God. 

With so many different manuscripts, written by different people with varying educational levels, and speaking different languages, there are many textual variations. The original documents of the New Testament no longer exist and no two copies agree completely. As a result, the study of textual criticism has come about. It is the “study of the copies of any written document whose original is unknown or nonexistent in order to determine the exact wording of the original. Such a task is necessary for an extensive amount of literature, especially that which was written before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. The New Testament is no exception to this rule” (Komoszewski, Sawyer, & Wallace, 2006).


What about Variances in the Early Texts?

As we know it today, there are around 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament. There are literally hundreds of thousands of variants where there is not uniformity of wording. On average, for every word in the Greek New Testament, there are almost three variants. The large number is due to the large number of manuscripts. Are these differences capable in changing the meaning of the intent of the original authors? No. An overwhelming majority of alterations are accidental and trivial. 

Textual differences are typically divided into four categories.

·         Spelling and Nonsense Errors. This is by far the largest of the categories and the majority of these are spelling differences that have no impact on the meaning of the text. For example, in the Greek, John is spelled two different ways. The same person is in view; but the difference is in whether the scribe decided to spell John using two “n’s” or one. Another common difference found in Greek manuscripts is similar to the two forms of the indefinite article in English: a or an. These variances are so insignificant that most textual critics ignore them. Scribes who were tired or inattentive often created “nonsense errors.” For example, Codex Washingtonianus contains an error where a scribe wrote the word and instead of the word Lord. In the Greek, the two words are very similar (kai and kurios) and the mistake probably happened due to mental fatigue. In the overall context, the usage of the word and does not change the meaning of the text.

·         Minor changes and alterations that do not affect translation. This category consists of variations in the usage of a definite article with proper names. Sometimes Greek uses the definite article with proper names while English does not. For example, in Luke 2.16, some manuscripts identify Mary and Joseph as the Mary and the Joseph instead of just Mary and Joseph. In other manuscripts, the article was not used. Also, word-order differences account for many of the discrepancies. An example of this can be seen in a sentence such as “Jesus loves John.” “In Greek, that sentence can be expressed in at least sixteen different ways without affecting the basic sense” (Grudem, Collins, & Schreiner, 2012). Word order changes are frequent in the manuscripts, yet these do not affect the basic meaning of what is being said.

·         Meaningful changes that are not “Viable.” One example is found in 1 Thessalonians 2.9. A late medieval manuscript (from the 13th century) uses the phrase “the gospel of Christ.” This is a meaningful change, but not viable because almost all of the other manuscripts use the term “the gospel of God.” Other examples are seen throughout the gospels as scribes often tried to harmonize the wording between the gospel accounts. When they did so, they “tended to add material to one Gospel rather than take away material from another” (Komoszewski, Sawyer, & Wallace, 2006).

·         Meaningful and “Viable” Variants. This represents about 1 percent of all textual variants. In these cases, the difference in the manuscripts can affect the understanding of a passage. Daniel Wallace identifies three significant examples:

o   Romans 5.1 – Some manuscripts read we have peace while others say let us have peace. In the original language, the difference in the word is found in one letter. “If we have peace is authentic, Paul is speaking about believer’s status with God; if let us have peace is authentic, the apostle is urging Christians to enjoy the experience of this harmony with God in their lives. As important as this textual problem is, neither variant contradicts any of the teachings of Scripture elsewhere, and both readings state something that is theologically sound,[3](Grudem, Collins, & Schreiner, 2012).

o   Mark 16.9-10 and John 7.53-8.11 are omitted in the earliest manuscripts and do not fit well with the style of writing of the authors. Even if one were to take away these passages, no essential matters of doctrine are changed. 

What are we to make of these variants? Should our faith be shaken? Absolutely not. “For more than two centuries, most biblical scholars have declared that no essential affirmation has been affected by the variants” (Taylor, 2012). In their attempts to recover the originals, textual critics have recovered at least 95% of the inspired words. Some even go farther, placing the number as high as 99%. Scholars such as Philip Comfort have ascertained that while there are differing conclusions on some of the variants in the manuscripts, “this is, by no means, a large number… And this should not cause us to abandon the task of recovering the original wording of the New Testament. New insights have come and will keep coming, in the new form of actual documents, new methodologies, and new understandings” (Comfort P. W., 2005). Another scholar writes, “The verbal agreement between various New Testament manuscripts is closer than between many English translations of the New Testament and the percentage of variants in the New Testament is small…and no matter of doctrine hinges on a variant reading” (Wegner, 2006). Think about the first part of Wegner’s statement. There are thousands of Greek manuscripts available, coming from different times and places. They agree more often than our English translations! Amazing!


Concluding Thoughts

Even though the original autographs disappeared thousands of years ago, God has preserved His word. Over the course of history, has not God worked through human beings to accomplish His purposes? Arlandson (2007) makes a powerful comparison when referencing the writing of C.S. Lewis on miracles. “The moment (a miracle) enters (nature’s) realm, it obeys her laws. Miraculous wine will intoxicate, miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy, inspired books will suffer all the ordinary processes of textual corruption, and miraculous bread will be digested” (Lewis, 1947).

Despite undergoing all the processes of time, the fact that the Biblical manuscripts have been preserved in the way they have should strengthen our faith. The ancient inspired writings are not alone - no text coming from the ancient world has the originals. It should humble us when we see how Scripture has been handed down through the generations. Many scribes spent countless hours copying and checking their work to ensure an accurate text for the generations that would come after them. Theirs was often a behind-the-scenes endeavor that garnered little attention. But, there is little doubt they understood the significance of the Word of God. Instead of having our faith shaken, we should be strengthened when we consider that Modern Greek texts are very close to the original.

In the end, we simply need to fall back on faith. We can rest in confidence that our sovereign and powerful God not only inspired the Biblical writers, but He has also providentially overseen its preservation in such a way that the Bible we have today is reliable. It is nothing less than the infallible, inerrant Word of God Himself. What Isaiah said 2700 years ago will always ring true: The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever, Isaiah 40.8.

Works Cited

Aland, K., & Aland, B. (1989). The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism (2nd Edition ed.). (E. F. Rhodes, Trans.) Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 

Arlandson, J. (2007, February 24). New Testament Manuscripts: Discovery and Classification. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from The American Thinker: 

Baker, M. (2013, January 8). Oldest Bible Manuscripts. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from 

Brown, D. (2003). The Da Vinci Code: A Novel. New York, NY: Doubleday. 

Comfort, P. W. (2005). Encountering the Manuscripts. Nashville: Broadman and Holman. 

Comfort, P. W., & Barret, D. P. (2001). The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House. 

Grudem, W., Collins, C. J., & Schreiner, T. R. (2012). Understanding Scripture: An Overview of the Bible's Origin, Reliability, and Meaning. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 

Komoszewski, E., Sawyer, M. J., & Wallace, D. B. (2006). Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. 

Lewis, C. S. (1947). Miracles: A Preliminary Study (Paperback Edition Published 2001 ed.). New York, NY: Harper Collins. 

Metzger, B. M., & Ehrman, B. D. (2005). The Text of the New Testament: It's Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Minnen, P. v. (1995, December 12). Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts. Retrieved May 15, 2013, from Duke University Special Collections Library: 

Oates, J. F., Samuel, A. E., & Welles, C. B. (1967). Yale Papyri in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Vol. 1). New Haven, CT: American Society of Papyrologists. 

Slick, M. (n.d.). Manuscript Evidence for Superior New Testament Reliability. Retrieved May 17, 2013, from Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry: 

Strobel, L. (1998). The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 

Taylor, J. (2012, March 21). An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from The Gospel Coalition: 

Wallace, D. (2012, February 24). New Testament Scholar Daniel Wallace of the Gospel of Mark Discovery, and Other Biblical papyri with it. The Hugh Hewitt Show. (H. Hewitt, Interviewer) 

Wegner, P. D. (2006). A Student's Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible. Downer's Grove, IL: Intervarsity.


[1] Information from the first four chart entries came from (Baker, 2013).

[2] Information from the last two chart entries came from (Slick, n.d.).

[3] Emphasis mine, MHA.


By Matthew Allen
From Expository Files 20.6; June 2013