1902 Encyclopedia > Bible > [Bible in Christian Church Before Invention of Printing] The Original Text

(Part 11)


Under this head we have to speak—1st, of the transmission of the original text; 2nd, of the ancient versions.

1. The Original Text

Text of the Old Testament

The rapid spread of Christianity among the Gentiles of the West made Greek the sacred language of Christendom. Not only is Greek the language of the New Testament, but it was in the Septuagint version that the Old Testament was first circulated in the most important Gentile churches. Hebrew was almost unknown even to learned Christians, and in fact the current (Jewish as well as Christian) doctrine of the inspiration of the Septuagint, and a suspicion that the Hebrew text had been falsified by the Jews, made the study of the original appear unprofitable. A juster view of the value of Hebrew studies was formed by the two greatest scholars of the patristic period, Origen and Jerome. But the Septuagint continued to enjoy an authoritative place in Eastern Chruch; and the Latin Church, though it finally adopted Jerome’s translation from the Hebrew in place of the older translation from the Greek, was not led by this change to take any interest in further study of the original. The Hebrew Bible continued to be the peculiar possession of the Jews, of whose labours in fixing and transmitting a standard text we have already spoken. It was not till the beginning of the 16th century that Christian scholars began to take a lively interest in the "Hebrew verity;" and what has been done since that time to repair so many centuries of neglect belongs to the history of the printed text or of exegesis.

Text of the New Testament - External Features

The original copies of the New Testament writings were probably written on papyrus rolls, and were so soon worn out by frequent use, that we do not even possess any historical notice of their existence. They must, however, have been written in uncial or large capital letters, without division of words or punctuation, without accents, breathings, &c., and probably without any titles or subscriptions whatever. The earliest transcripts comprised only portions of the New Testament, the gospels being oftenest copied and the Pauline oftener than the catholic epistles. Even after the canon became fixed, MSS. of the whole New Testament, or of the whole Greek Bible, were comparatively rare. The order of the several books was not quite fixed; but the catholic epistles generally followed the book of Acts. It may also be noted than in the oldest MSS. the epistle to the Hebrew precedes the pastoral epistles. In course of time various changes were introduced in the externals of the written text. Parchment and vellum took the place of papyrus, and form the material of the oldest of the extant copies. The uncial character held its ground till about the 10th century, when the use of a cursive or running hand became general. Attempts to indicate the punctuation go back as far as the 4th or 5th century. The oldest MSS. use for this purpose an occasional simple point, or small blank space in the line. Another system was to write the text in short lines (stichoi [Gk.]) accommodated to the sense. The author of this stichometry was Euthalius of Alexandria in the second half of the 5th century, who applied it to the epistles and Acts. The same plan was afterwards extended to the gospels; but vellum was too costly to allow of its general adoption. The present system of punctuation was first in printed books. Breathings and accents were not in common use down to the end of the 7th century; but occasional traces of them seem to occur considerably earlier.

Another device for the more convenient use of the New Testament was the division of the text into sections of various kinds. The gospels were divided by Ammonius of Alexandria (220 A.D.) into short chapters (Ammonian sections, kephalaia [Gk.]), constructed to facilitate the comparison of corresponding passages of the several gospels. These sections are marked on the margin of most MSS. from the 5th century onwards; and in general a reference is also given to the so-called canons of Eusebius, which are a kind of index to the sections, enabling the reader to find the parallel passages. Another division of the gospels into larger sections (titloi [Gk.], breves) is also found in MSS. of the 5th century, and similar division of the other books into chapters (kephalaia [Gk.]) came into use not much later. The chapters of the Acts and the catholic epistles were the work of Euthalius. Our present chapters are much later. They were invented by Cardinal Hugo of S. Carus in the 13th century, were first applied to the Latin Bible, and are still unknown in the Eastern Church. The present system of verses first appears in the edition printed by Robert Stephens in the year 1551.

The titles and subscriptions of the New Testament books are another point on which a succession of changes has taken place, The oldest MSS. have much shorter titles than those which the English version adopted from the later Greek text; and the subscriptions, with their would be historical information, are not only late, but worthless. Those appended to the epistles of St Paul are attributed to Enthalius.

Various Readings

More important than these external matters are the variations which in course of time crept into the text itself. Many of these variations are more slips of eye, ear, memory, or judgment on the part of a copyist, who had no intention to do otherwise than follow what lay before him. But transcribers, and especially early transcribers, by no means aimed at that minute accuracy which is expected of a modern critical editor. Corrections were made in the interests of grammar or of style, slight changes were adopted in order to remove difficulties, additions came in, especially from parallel narratives in the gospels, citations from the Old Testament were made more exact or more complete. That all this was done in perfect good faith, and simply because no strict conception of the duty of a copyist existed, is especially clear from the almost entire absence of deliberate falsification of the text in the interest of doctrinal controversy. To detail all the sources of various readings would be out of place; it may suffice to mention, in addition to what has been already said, that glosses, or notes originally written on the margin, very often ended by being taken into the text, and that the custom of reading the Scriptures in public worship naturally brought in liturgical additions, such as the doxology of the Lord’s Prayer; while the commencement of an ecclesiastical lesson torn from its proper context had often to be supplemented by a few explanatory words, which soon came to be regarded as part of the original.

Up to a certain point the various readings due to so many different causes constantly became more and more numerous; but the number of independent readings which could arise and be perpetuated was limited by various circumstances. A general similarity necessarily prevailed in associated groups of copies, which were either derived from the same archetype, or written by the same copyist, or corrected by comparison with a single celebrated MS. Causes such as these, combined with local peculiarities of style and taste, and with the fact that the New Testament, like Christianity itself, was sent forth from central mother churches to newly-formed communities all around, gave a decided local colouring to the text current in certain regions; so that we are still able to speak in a general way of an Alexandrian, a Western, a Byzantine, and perhaps also (with Tischendorf) of an Asiatic text. But of course no ancient local text remained uninfluenced by copies from other regions. The comparison of copies became more and more extended in range as the church grew and consolidated into a homogeneous form; and though old readings, which had obtained a firm hold in certain communities, were not easily eradicated, it at length became almost impossible for any important new error to escape detection. Most variations of any consequence which are found in existing MSS., are known to be as the 4th century, and other readings existed then which no MS., is known to contain.

The variations of early copies were most completely smoothed into uniformity in the later Byzantine MSS., after the Mahometan conquest had overthrown Greek learning in Syria and Egypt. The scribes of Constantinople spent great pains on the text in accordance with their own notions of what was proper, and gave it a form which is certainly smoother, correcter, and more uniform than that of older MSS. But precisely these peculiarities show that this late recension is remote from the original shape of the New Testament writings, and compel us to seek the true text by study of early MSS., especially of the still existing uncial copies.

The MSS.

The manuscripts are of six classes, containing respectively the gospels, the Acts with the catholic epistles, the Pauline epistles, the Apocalypse, the ecclesiastical lessons from the gospels, the lessons from the Acts and epistles. Copies belonging to the last two classes are called lectionaries and lectionaries of the gospels are called evangelistaria. Each MS. Is referred to by critics by a special mark. Uncial MSS. are denoted by a capital letter, A standing for the Codex Alexandrinus, for the Vaticanus, and so on. Cursives and lectionaries are denoted by Arabic numerals. It is to be observed that the same letter in a different part of the New Testament does not necessarily refer to the same MS. Thus Cod. D of the gospels and Acts is the Codex Bezae, but D of the Pauline epistles is the Claromontanus. If we reckon fragments, the number of uncial MSS. is 56 of the gospels, 14 of the Acts, 6 of the catholic epistles, 15 of the Pauline epistles, 5 of the Apocalypse. But many of these are extremely short fragments. The number of cursives and lectionaries is enormous, so that altogether there are nearly a thousand MSS. for the gospels, and as many more for the rest of the New Testament. Not nearly all the cursive copies have been thoroughly examined, and most of them have small value, though some comparatively recent MSS. are important from the fact that they represent an ancient text. Lectionaries, even when uncial, are little esteemed by most critics. Graeco-Latin codices which have the Greek and Latin in parallel columns were formerly suspected of correcting the Greek text by the Latin, but their value is now generally recognized.

Uncial Copies

The oldest copies of the Greek Testament are the Codez Sinaiticus (Aleph [Heb.]) and the Codex Vaticanus (B) both of the 4th century. Next in age come the Alexandrian manuscript (A) and the Codex Ephraemi (C), both of which are referred to the 5th century. All of these copies were originally complete Bibles, with the Old as well as the New Testament. (Aleph [Heb.]) is still complete as regards the New Testament; A and B have lacunae; C is very imperfect, and barely legible, the ancient writing having been almost removed by a mediaeval scribe to make way for the writings of Ephraem Syrus. (Aleph [Heb.]), A, B, C, are the four first-rate uncials, and will be found more fully described in separate articles. Besides these there are one or two fragments as old as the 5th century (I, Ib, T).

A quite peculiar place is held by the Graeco-Latin Codex Bezae at Cambridge (D), which dates from the 6th century, but presents a text full of the most singular interpolations. The other uncials of the gospels are less important, either from their fragmentary state or from the character of their text. The later uncials are hardly more valuable than good cursives.

The most important MS. of the Acts, in addition to those already mentioned, is E, the Codex Laudianus, Graeco-Latin of the 6th century, in the Bodleian at Oxford. For the Pauline epistles we may mention D, or Codex Claromontanus, at Paris, also Graeco-Latin of the 6th century, and H, or Codex Coislinianus, of the same century, of which there are 12 leaves at Paris and 2 at St Petersburg. Uncial authority is most scanty for the Apocalypse, for which the Vaticanus is defective. B of the Apocalypse is an uncial of the 8th century.

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