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New Testament Documents and their Transmission

How were these written?  We often forget that there were no printing yet in existence and the documents are to be written by hand.  The original copies were often written by a scribe under dictation from the author.

Ulpian, writing between C.E.211 and 217 is reported to have said (Digest 32.52):

 "Under the heading "books" (librorum) all volumes (volumina) are included,

whether they are made of papyrus (in charta), of parchment (in membrana), or of any other material whatsoever; but even if they are written on wood-slabs (in philyra) (as is sometimes done), or upon any kind of prepared skins (in alio corio), they come under the same appellation.  If, however, they are codices of parchment (in codicibus sint membraneis), or papyrus (vel chartaceis), or even ivory (vel etiam eboreis), or any other material, or are composed of wax tablets (in ceratis codicillis), let us determine whether they ought to be included?" (Scroll, Codex, and Canons: the Relationship of Ancient Book Formats to Larger Collections and Anthologies (with Special Reference to Jewish and Christian Scriptures) by Robert A. Kraft, University of Pennsylvania 21 February 2008)

The Era of Tabula


It’s usually in the form of a diptych (sometimes triptych), and is made of a wood frame which holds beeswax on the inside surfaces. You open it just like a book, and use the metal tool (stylus) to write! When you’re done, the wax is heated slightly, and the flat end opposite the tip of the stylus is used to smooth over your writing, ready to be used again.


A woman holding a book with four sheet wax book holding her stylus.
Fresco from Pompeii 1st century AD.

 This method of writing dates to the second and first millennia BC, and it remained in use in some places up to the 19th century.

The Ostraca

Pieces of clay with writing on them are called ostraca, singular ostracon. The word comes from the Greek ostrakon, meaning "shell, sherd." Most ostraca were written with ink, but some were incised with a sharp instrument. School lessons, short letters, receipts, and other administrative documents were written on these clay sherds. 


 The greatest numbers are pieces of clay or scraps of pots inscribed with colors or ink. The oldest Christian ostraca, like the papyri, are Greek and date from the fifth century; next come the Coptic and Arabian ostraca. Some Christian texts are preserved upon ostraca. In the late 19th century, 20 ostraca were found in Upper Egypt, probably from the 7th century, written in Greek and Coptic.

The ostraca are of different sizes and shapes. The more extant is Luke 22:40-71, which runs over 10 pieces. The ostraca contain from 2 to 9 verses each, and cover Matthew 27:31–32; Mark 5:40-41 (Mark 9:3); Mark 9:17-18, Mark 9:22; Mark 15:21; Luke 12:13-16; Luke 22:40-71; John 1:1-9; John 1:14-17; John 18:19-25; John 19:15-17. There is one ostracon with the inscription "St. Peter the evangelist," perhaps an allusion to the Gospel of Peter. A Coptic Sa'idic ostracon preserves the Pericope Adulterae found in John 7:53-8:1, which is otherwise omitted in the Sa'idic New Testament. A Christian hymn to Mary, similar to the canticles of Luke, and some Christian letters has also been found. Particularly remarkable are those ostraca which contain liturgical songs representing worship song-books.

The Era of the Scroll
The scrolls were essentially the standard medium of writing from the Egyptian period with scrolled made of Papyrus or Parchments. Stones and Clay tablets were already out of fashion.  Ostraca (potsherds), were also in style with a reed pen and ink when the matter was a short note or matters that are short.  

Papyrus is a thick paper-like material produced from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus,  that was once abundant in the Nile Delta of Egypt. Papyrus is first known to have been used in ancient Egypt.  Papyrus was first manufactured in Egypt as far back as the third millennium BC.  In the first centuries BC and AD, papyrus scrolls gained a rival as a writing surface in the form of parchment, which was prepared from animal skins

Papyrus Plant

     Papyrus Plant                      Isaiah scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls is over 30 feet long.

Parchment is a thin material made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin, often split. Parchment was developed in Pergamon, from which name it is believed the word "parchment" evolved. "Parchment is prepared from pelt, i.e., wet, unhaired, and limed skin, simply by drying at ordinary temperatures under tension, most commonly on a wooden frame known as a stretching frame".  It's most common use was as a material for writing on, for documents, notes, or the pages of a book, codex or manuscript. It is distinct from leather in that parchment is limed but not tanned; therefore, it is very reactive to changes in relative humidity and is not waterproof. Finer-quality parchment is called vellum.

Since all the Gospels are first-century documents, it is most likely that they were all written on scrolls. In 2 Timothy 4.13 Paul asks Timothy to “bring the scrolls, especially the parchments.” The word for scrolls is biblia from which we derive our word Bible.


Sheets of parchment were folded to form quires from which book-form codices were fashioned. Early Christian writers soon adopted the codex form, and in the Grćco-Roman world it became common to cut sheets from papyrus rolls to form codices.  Codices were an improvement on the papyrus scroll as the papyrus was not pliable enough to fold without cracking.  We do not know exactly when Christians began using the codex-form, but it was most likely close to the beginning of the second century.   For the first five centuries AD, eighty percent of all Christian books were on a codex while only twenty percent of all non-Christian books were written on a codex.

    quill pen and ink well with red feather

The codex was a Roman invention, where the tablets from wood were used to form a book of thin wooden flats coated with wax and tied together at one end with a cord.  Still, codices were used sparingly for the reproduction of literary material until they were adopted as the standard book-form for the sacred writings of Christianity using papyrus as material for pages.  

Ancient Egyptians developed a pen made form reeds for writing on papyrus scrolls. Reed pens remained popular right up to the middle ages.

The Private Life of the Romans by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston
Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932)

The Scribe

Image ID: 410916 Ancient Egypt. [Scribe]. (ca. 1924-1933)

The scribe was considered a professional person in antiquity. In the Egyptian tradition, neither girls, nor boys from poor families, were ever permitted in scribal schools. Usually a boy started in a religious-temple school at the age of five to begin his ten to twelve years of education as a professional scribe.  The Jewish scribe - sofer -  has the important job of copying out new Torah scrolls and the small parchments which are placed in the tefilin. All Torah scrolls are copied by hand, in Hebrew, and if a mistake is made then the whole of that section will be destroyed. 

Rabbi Meir said: "As I sat beside R. Yishmael, he asked, 'My son, what is your work?' I responded, 'I am a scribe', he said to me, 'My son, be meticulous in your work, for yours is the work of Heaven'." -Eruvin 13.

Melechet Shamayim literally means 'the work of Heaven'. This is what the Talmud calls the task of the sofer (scribes). Sofrut is the Jewish scribal tradition that stretches back more than 3,300 years to Moshe Rabbeinu on Mt. Sinai whose tradition probably traces its origin from the Egyptian period of captivity of Jews where Moses himself learned to read and write in the Palace of Pharaoh.


There were five types of scribes:

·         Calligraphers, who dealt in fine book production

·         Copyists, who dealt with basic production and correspondence

·         Correctors, who collated and compared a finished book with the manuscript from which it had been produced

·         Illuminators, who painted illustrations

·         Rubricators, who painted in the red letters


Desk with chained books in the Library of Cesena, Italy.

In the case of New Testament, the task of copying manuscripts was generally done by scribes who were trained professionals in the arts of writing and bookmaking which often took several years. Mass copying was often done in a room with several scribes sitting in their own tables with papyrus, pen and ink around a reader.  Once the copying was done it was proof read by others.   Scholars closely examining a text can sometimes find the original and corrections found in certain manuscripts. In the 6th century, a special room devoted to the practice of manuscript writing and illumination called the scriptorium came into use, typically inside medieval European monasteries. 

For almost fifteen centuries the people who copied the New Testament were scribes and monks, who made mistakes in writing.  This was more so when it was done where group coping were done from hearing.  Not only were mistakes made in copying the original, subsequent copyists faithfully reproduced these mistakes, and each copyist compounded the problem by adding slips and variants of his own.

These copies were taken to different cities of Christian centers and the process was repeated.  In this process several streams of manuscript series came into existence with typical styles and some times with local intonations.  Very often changes in the language and idiom required changes to make the meaning in tact.  This may be considered as a variation intentionally made in order to keep the true meaning.

[Picture: Scriptorium Monk at Work]


Bruce M. Metzger in his "Causes of Error in the Transmission of the Text", chapter 7 gives the following subtitles that explain itself


1.1 errors arising from faulty eyesight

1.2 errors arising from faulty hearing

1.3 errors of the mind



2.1 changes involving spelling and grammar

2.2 harmonistic corruptions

2.3 additions of natural complements and similar adjuncts

2.4 clearing up of historical and geographical difficulties

2.5 conflations of readings

2.6 alterations made because of doctrinal considerations

2.7 additions of miscellaneous details

Further problems arise in translations which are still valid and are known to those who are in the field of Biblical Translation.  These are essentially cultural and philological. 

Storing Papyrus Rolls (Circa 80 CE)


Capsa and the "Pigeon-Holes"

Clark's 'On the Care of Books,' depicting 'pigeon holes,' the Roman equivalent of book shelves.

". . . three of the words applied to contrivances used [by the Romans] to keep books in, namely, nidus, forulus, and loculamentum, may be rendered by the English 'pigeon-hole'; and that pegma and pluteus mean contrivances of wood which may be rendered by the English 'shelving.'  "The height of the woodwork varied, of course, with individual taste


  The Scroll, the Codex and the Press (Shelf) containing the four Gospels codices
The Press mosaic was found above the tomb of the Empress Galla Placidia at Ravenna AD 449. There are two shelves, on which lie the four Gospels, each as a separate codex  indicated by the name of the Evangelist above it   (from William Clark, The Care of Books 1901  Oxford Press .)

The library of Isidore, of Bishop of Seville 600-636 had fourteen presses arranged according the authors as follows:

1. Origen
2.  Hillary
3.  Ambrose
4.  Augustine
5.  Jerome
6.  Chrysostom
7.  Cyprian
8.  Prudentius
9.  Avitus, Juvencus, Sedulius
10.  Eusebius, Orosius
11.  Gregory
12.  Leander
13.  Theodosius, Paulus, Gaius
14.  Cosmas, Damian, Hippocrates, Galen

The first seven presses contained Bibles, Commentaries, and works of theology in general.

The Only Library Preserved Intact from Roman Times (79 CE)

Papyrus recovered from the Villa of the Papyri

Papyrus recovered from the Villa of the Papyri

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the Roman coastal city of Herculaneum, preserving in lava the important library of papyrus rolls in the so-called “Villa of the Papyri”— a magnificent home thought to have been built by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.

Because the library was buried in lava, most of the papyrus rolls are too fragile to be opened. It has required sophisticated computer technology to read the few that have been read so far, and it is hoped that an X-ray CT scanning system may allow the reading of others.

This remains the only library preserved intact from Roman times.

Roman Portraits Celebrating Literacy (Circa 75 CE)

A fresco of a Pompein couple with stylus, wax tablets, and papyrus scroll, preserved in the Museuo Archeologico Nazionale. (View Larger)

A fresco of a Pompeian couple with stylus, wax tablets, and papyrus roll, preserved in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, shows the man holding a papyrus scroll and the woman holding a stylus to her lips for writing on the wax tablets that she holds in her other hand. It is one of several surviving Roman portraits depicting the symbols of literacy.

"This couple, who did not come from the very highest ranks of the Pompeian aristocracy, probably chose to be depicted in this way as a mark of their status—they belonged to the ranks of those who were literate, and they wished to display the fact. In this sense, the portrait is evidence that literacy was far from universal in Roman Pompeii. But it is none the less an impressive fact, typical of the Roman world and difficult to parallel before modern times, that a provincial couple should have chosen to be painted in a way that very specifically celebrated a close relationship with the written word, on the part of both the man and his wife" (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2005] 162-63, plate 7.10).

The New Testament language

Greek remained the dominant language in the eastern Mediterranean and the principal language of commerce throughout the Roman world. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, throughout the east, Greek was the official language, the language of communication between those of different races, - the lingua franca - and the language of settlers in the Greek cities. Palestine was multilingual in the first century - Greek, various Aramaic dialects, Hebrew, and some Latin — Greek was clearly the language of choice in order to disseminate a message as widely as possible in all different nations.  Greek in those days may be considered as similar to English today which is understood all over the world. 

The Jews of the NewTestament times spoke Aramaic at home and in communal conversations. Aramaic was a derivation from Hebrew and Arabic.   In business life and official writings they used the common Koine Greek while the Roman rulers used Latin and Greek. 

This is shown in the statement of John 19:19-20:

"Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, The King of the Jews. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek."

king of the jews sign

Aramaic is a group of languages belonging to the Afroasiatic language phylum. The name of the language is based on the name of Aram,  an ancient region in central Syria. Within this family, Aramaic belongs to the Semitic family, and more specifically, is a part of the Northwest Semitic subfamily, which also includes Canaanite languages such as Hebrew and Phoenician.  During its 3,000-year written history,  Aramaic has served variously as a language of administration of empires and as a language of divine worship. It was the day-to-day language of Israel in the Second Temple period (539 BCE – 70 CE), it was the language spoken by Jesus, and it is the language of large sections of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra and is the main language of the Talmud. Aramaic had been liturgical language by Eastern Christian churches, in the form of Syriac.

Latin was used only by the Romans for matters of army administration.

Civil administration was conducted entirely in Greek, and inscriptions written by non-Jews that have been found in Israel are all in Greek.

Greek was the dominant language is indicated in the fact that even among the funerary inscriptions in Judea archaeologists have found that 2/3 of these are in the Greek language, in the period from 300 BC to 500 AD.

Even if Jesus spoke and taught in Aramaic and therefore Q was in Aramaic most of the New Testament was written in Greek. Luke was a Gentile doctor.  Theophilus certainly did not understand any Aramaic and therefore both the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts of Apostle were written in Greek.  Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles so he must have written in Greek obviously. 

After reading the Scriptures, Jesus could have taught in either Aramaic or Hebrew. However, He probably taught in the synagogue in Hebrew.

Beyond that, Greek was well understood in "Galilee of the Gentiles," the region where Jesus was raised. There is no doubt, therefore, that Jesus and the original apostles all spoke Greek -- commonly, as a second language. 

"Apparently for a great part of the Jewish population, the daily language was Greek, even in Palestine. This is impressive testimony to the impact of Hellenistic culture on Jews in their mother country, to say nothing of the Diaspora.

"In Jerusalem itself about 40 percent of the Jewish inscriptions from the first century period (before 70 C.E.) are in Greek. We may assume that most Jewish Jerusalemites who saw the inscriptions in situ were able to read them" ("Jewish Funerary Inscriptions -- Most Are in Greek," Pieter W. Van Der Horst, Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept.-Oct.1992, p.48).

What about Jesus Christ, and the apostles? Did they, too, commonly speak Greek as a "second language"?  The answer is almost certainly yes. He certainly spoke with Pilot in Greek and with the centurion.  But did he teach in Greek? Probably. After all he lived within three or four miles from the thriving Greek city of Sepphoris.

The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, Eusebius of Caesarea (c. AD 263 – 339) the church historian says: 

c. AD 263 – 339

(Eusebius records that after Peter first went to Rome, and preached the gospel there, that the people were so enthusiastic that they wanted a written record of the gospel he preached.) "So brightly shone the light of true religion on the minds of Peter's hearers that, not satisfied with a single hearing or with the oral teaching of the divine message, they resorted to appeals of every kind to induce Mark (whose gospel we have), as he was a follower of Peter, to leave them in writing a summary of the instruction they had received by word of mouth, nor did they let him go until they had persuaded him, and thus became responsible for the writing of what is known as the Gospel according to Mark". (Indicating that Mark was written in Greek for the Romans), Eusebius

"Matthew published a written gospel for the Hebrews in Rome and founding the church there. After their passing, Mark also, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing the things preached by Peter. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by him. Lastly, John, the disciple of the Lord, who had leant back on His breast, once more set forth the gospel, while residing at Ephesus in Asia" Eusebius.

 A few homely quotes from Christ in the Gospels, such as Mk 5:41 and Mk 15:34, are preserved in the original Aramaic.  Some modern scholars think that Matthew may have originally been written in Aramaic as indicated by Eusebius. But, as for the rest of the New Testament, most scholars are unanimous in thinking that it was written almost entirely in Greek.

"The language in which the New Testament documents have been preserved is the 'common Greek' (koine), which was the lingua franca of the Near Eastern and Mediterranean lands in Roman times" New Bible Dictionary

Scholars like Biblical archaeologist William Albright estimate the entire New Testament to have been originally composed between 40 and 80 A.D and remained in fragments as separate books.  They were compiled together into one whole much later.  This was probably done only by AD 350 after Christianity came out of the persecution.

Codex Sinaiticus: the world's oldest Bible


After Christianity became legal in 313 A.D., it was usual for book manufacturers, or scriptoria, to produce copies of the New Testament. In 331 A.D., for example, the Christian Emperor Constantine ordered fifty parchment Bibles for the churches in Constantinople. Thus in the Codex Sinaiticus , we have a complete Greek manuscript copy of the New Testament in uncial (capital) letters, written in A.D. 350, other existing fragments are in existence which are dated much earlier.  In 350 A.D. the library at Caesarea was replacing worn papyrus books with vellum copies. Since each copy had to be written by hand whenever a number of copies were needed it was done in the work room called scriptorium.  Here several scribes gathered together each with their own writing tables and codices and ink and pen.  A central person called lector will read the book loud.  The scribes will copy what they hear on to the codices.   At the end of the session the manuscripts were collected and reviewed by a group of correctors who rectify any mistake in the copy.   In spite of every effort to reproduce correctly mistakes may occur which are minimized by repeated reviews of the correctors. The new document is then distributed over several churches and cities where they are again recopied. These texts are usually known after the cities such as the Byzantine, the Syrian, the Alexandrian etc.

Codex Vaticanus and Codex Siniaticus are two excellent parchment copies of the entire New Testament which date from the 4th century (325-450 A.D.).  Codex Vaticanus originally contained a virtually complete copy of the Septuagint ("LXX"), lacking only 1-4 Maccabees and the Prayer of Manasseh. 

Codex Vaticanus

The extant New Testament of the Vaticanus contains the Gospels, Acts, the General Epistles, the Pauline Epistles, and the Epistle to the Hebrews (up to Hebrews 9:14, καθα[ριει); it is lacking   and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Revelation. These missing leaves were supplemented by a 15th century minuscule hand (folios 760–768) and are catalogued separately as the minuscule Codex 1957.   


File:Codex Vaticanus end or Luke.jpg


Originally, the Codex Sinaiticus contained the whole of both Testaments. Approximately half of the Greek Old Testament (or Septuagint) survived, along with a complete New Testament, plus the Epistle of Barnabas, and portions of The Shepherd of Hermas

File:Codex Sinaiticus Matthew 6,4-32.JPG

Page of the codex Sinaiticus with text of Matthew 6:4–32

Luke 11: 2 in Codex Sinaiticus


World's oldest Bible goes online 1,600 years after it was penned on parchment

By Daily Mail Reporter

Pages of the world's oldest surviving Christian Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus have been brought together for the first time online.  ....In a collaboration between the British Library, Leipzig University Library, the National Library of Russia and the Monastery of St Catherine in Egypt, each of which hold different parts of the book, high-quality digital photographs were taken of each of the 800-odd pages. Each image was then linked to an electronic transcription of the Greek text, which uniquely allows biblical scholars to easily locate sections of text, and view them on the original manuscript.

From parchment to pixel: Original volumes of the Codex Sinaiticus, available online for the first time, are part of an exhibition at the British Museum

One of the core undertakings of the project was to capture each page of Codex Sinaiticus as a high-quality digital image. Each image offers a substitute for the real manuscript leaf. Careful imaging of Codex Sinaiticus therefore provides a life-like view of the pages and allows, for the first time, worldwide access to the manuscript. 

see  http://www.codexsinaiticus.org./en/manuscript.aspx




In addition to the actual Greek manuscripts, there are more than 1,000 copies and fragments of the New Testament in Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Gothic, and Ethiopic, as well as 8,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate, some of which date back almost to Jerome's original translation in 384- 400 A.D.

The hypothesis of an Aramaic original for the New Testament holds that the original text of the New Testament was not written in Greek, as held by the majority of scholars, but in the Aramaic language, which was the primary language of Jesus and his Twelve Apostles.

The position of the Assyrian Church of the East, per Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII in 1957, is that the Syriac Peshitta (which is written in a cursive form of Aramaic), used in that church, is the original of the New Testament. Variants of this view are held by some individuals who may argue for a lost Aramaic text preceding the Peshitta as the basis for the New Testament.

This is a traditional belief held in the Nestorian Church that the Peshitta text, which most scholars consider a translation from Greek, is in fact the original source of the Greek:

"With reference to... the originality of the Peshitta text, as the Patriarch and Head of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East, we wish to state, that the Church of the East received the scriptures from the hands of the blessed Apostles themselves in the Aramaic original, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and that the Peshitta is the text of the Church of the East which has come down from the Biblical times without any change or revision." Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, by Grace, Catholicos Patriarch of the East. April 5, 1957

It may be that the Q was predominantly Aramaic, while the written gospel as an ordered history was in Greek.