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How the biblical text reached us

The Bible is not a book like all the rest; it is the Word of God!
The original manuscripts of the biblical text were written thousands of years ago by different authors, in different places, in different periods under the inspiring and coordinating work of the Holy Spirit. But after all this time, how did they reach us? We will try to give an answer to this question, tracing a brief chronology of the principal historical events.

The text of the Old Testament

The text of the Old Testament has survived across the centuries and reached us thanks to the scrupulous work of ancient scribes who continued to produce faithful copies of the precious manuscripts in their possession, handing them down from generation to generation.

Starting in the 6th century AD the scribes were succeeded by a group of Hebrew scholars, termed the Masoretes (from Hebrew Masora = tradition), who continued to work with the goal of definitively ‘establishing’ the sacred text, in order to conserve and transmit it in the most complete form possible. It is from the name of these scholars that to this day the Hebrew text of the Old Testament is commonly called the Masoretic Text.

In that period there were various centers of Masoretic activity, but around the 10thcentury, the one that achieved universally-recognized preeminence was that of Tiberias, thanks to the scribal school led by the ben Asher family; it was thus that, over the course of successive editions, in the 12th century the ben Asher text came to be the sole recognized form of the text of the Hebrew scriptures.

The first printed edition of the Hebrew Bible dates to 1488, produced in Italy at Soncino (near Cremona), but the most important edition of the period, which was used as the ‘standard’ text until the 20th century, was the Second Rabbinic Bible of Jacob ben Chayyim (Venice 1524/25). Based on late medieval manuscripts, this edition was then substituted, starting in 1937, by the editions of Biblical Hebraica by Rudolf Kittel (BHK) and by Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), based on the oldest extant manuscript of the entire ben Asher text, namely manuscript B19from 1008 AD, also called the Leningrad Codex.

The absence of complete manuscripts predating the year 1000 is explained by the fact that the medieval Hebrew scholars, having agreed on a single text, destroyed the previous ones. The discovery of the famous biblical manuscripts from the Dead Sea area, dating to a period from the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD, nevertheless, confirm the attention and accuracy of the Masoretic Text of 1008 AD.

Scholars are currently at work on the realization of a new edition of the Hebrew text, the so-called Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ—of which various fascicles have already been published), still based on the Leningrad Codex and with a significantly enlarged critical apparatus compared to past editions.

The text of the New Testament

When it comes to the New Testament, we have today at our disposal an extraordinary number of manuscripts that attest to its integrity: over 5,600 Greek manuscripts (not to mention another 16,000–18,000 in Latin and other languages), some of which postdate the originals by only a few decades. The New Testament today enjoys greater textual documentation than any text of antiquity, much greater than any literary work of the classical world.
When one hears talk of ‘original texts’ it is useful to specify that this does not refer to original autographs by the hand of the various New Testament writers, as these have not been preserved (a fact also true of all other classical works), but to those copies made by hand down through the centuries and received by us, which comprise our documentary basis.

This manuscript richness, though, was not taken into much consideration until the beginning of the 16th century. This was due primarily to the great prestige enjoyed by Jerome’s LatinVulgate (a translation from the beginning of the 5th century), which was often used as the base text for the first translations of the Bible in various vernacular languages. Another indicator of the low esteem then accorded to Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is the fact that, though the invention of Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press dates to 1451 and in the course of the succeeding fifty years numerous editions of the Bible (in both Latin and other languages) were printed, it was not until 1516 that the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament was published. Practically speaking, it is from that time that one can begin to trace the history of the text of the Greek New Testament, the principal stages of which we summarize in what follows.

It was the Cardinal of Toledo, Fracisco Ximenes, who, in 1502, first promoted a printed edition of the Greek New Testament, as part of the ambitious project of a multi-volume polyglot edition of the entire Bible, the so-called Biblia Complutense (completed in 1517). The New Testament, which constituted the 5th volume, was printed in 1514, but could not be published until papal approval had been obtained, which took until 1522, when the manuscripts lent by the Vatican Library were returned to Rome.

In the meantime, in 1515, the editor Froben of Basel, having sniffed out the possibility of a good business deal, commissioned the celebrated humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam to prepare a Greek text of the New Testament. After only ten months, on 1 March 1516, Erasmus’ Novum Instrumentum omne was published and put on sale, thus securing for its editor and promoter claim to the first edition of the Greek New Testament.
Erasmus worked with great haste, utilizing as a base text for his work only a few codices from the 12th–13th centuries that he had at his disposal in Basel. To those manuscripts he made the necessary corrections and sent directly to print; the result obtained was, therefore, that of a text that he himself later described as “put down headlong rather than printed with editorial care,” so much so that, confronted by a codex missing its last page, Erasmus was forced himself to make a Greek retroversion of the last verses of Revelation based on the Latin Vulgate, thus producing a text than finds no parallel in any existing manuscript.
This edition was nevertheless appreciated by many, to the point that in subsequent years it was reissued four times, revised and corrected by Erasmus himself.

Of the successive editions that carried on the work undertaken by Erasmus, the ones that exerted the greatest influence were, in the 16th century, those overseen by the Frenchman RobertEstienne and, in the 17th century, those of the Elzevier family of typographers. Of the former we mention here the 1551 edition, in which, for the first time, the subdivision of the text into numbered verses (still in use today) was first introduced, and of the latter, that of 1633, presented to the public with the winsome advertising slogan Textus Receptus (= accepted text). Indeed, this edition’s Latin preface noted: “Now, then, you have a text acceptedby all, in which we present nothing changed or corrupted.”
Since then, the expression Textus Receptus has been used to refer to all editions that adhere to Erasmus’ text.

For some time, the authority of the Textus Receptus was nearly total and undisputed, but starting from the end of the 1600s, a form of veiled criticism regarding this text began to be expressed; indeed, there were then being prepared New Testament editions based on ever-increasing numbers of manuscripts and augmented with an apparatus noting variants encountered in these manuscripts.

At the beginning of the 1700s a new, more direct approach was adopted. Known variants were not just noted, but sometimes declared superior to those of the Textus Receptus or even used to correct the latter by means of the insertion of better readings, as done by Wells (1709–19), Bengel (1734), Wttstein (1751–52), and Griesbach (1755–77).

A clear distancing from the Erasmian text, though, did not occur until the end of the following century, when the German Costantin von Tischendorf published his edition of the New Testament (the Editio octava critica maior of 1869–1872), based above all on a single 4th-century manuscript that he himself had discovered some years prior in the library of the Santa Caterina Monastery in Sinai, the so-called Codex Sinaiticus.

A few years later, in 1881, the English scholars B.W. Westcott and J.A. Hort printed a new edition of the New Testament (The New Testament in the Original Greek), based chiefly on another 4th-century codex, the so-called Codex Vaticanus.

Following these efforts, in 1898, the German Eberhard Nestle published the first edition of his Novum Testamentum graece, for the redaction of which he made a careful comparison between the texts proposed by Tischendorf and by Westcott and Hort; it was from this point on that the Textus Receptuswas commonly considered outdated and was, thus, ‘neglected’.
Beginning with 1927’s 13th edition, Nestle’s editorial work passed to his son, ErwinNestle, who worked on the preparation of a still more complete critical apparatus (intended to describe the criteria used to select a given variant and record all others present in the manuscripts). Starting with 1952’s 21st edition Prof. Kurt Aland started to collaborate. At this point the text was routinely called Nestle-Aland and in 1963, with the 25th edition, the text began to be recognized as a sort of ‘standard’, further improved in successive editions (the 26th in 1979, 27th in 1993, and the 28th in 2012).

Another edition was published, beginning in 1966, on the initiative of UBS (the United Bible Societies) with the title The Greek New Testament. This was a simplified edition for translators and students, undertaken by a committee of scholars led by the same K. Aland, of which second (1968), third (1975), fourth (1993), and fifth (2014) editions followed.

With the publication of the 3rd edition of the Greek New Testament and starting with the 26th edition of Nestle-Aland the New Testament Greek text was unified; these editions (like the respective 5th and 28th editions today in use) present identical texts, differing only in terms of the footnoted critical apparatus.

Recently two new editions of the Greek New Testament have been published:
– The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition(SBLGNT), produced and published by the Society of Biblical Literature in 2010 under the supervision of Michael W. Holmes
– The Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge (THGNT), supervised by Dirk Jongkind and Peter Williams, produced by Tyndale House and published by Crossway and Cambridge University Press in 2017.
The two editions depart slightly from the editions based on Nestle-Aland, at the level of both text (mostly orthographic and typographical choices) and critical apparatus.

Summarizing in a few lines this long historical process, we can say that the text of the Greek New Testament is presented in three principal forms:

  1. The so-called Textus Receptus, the Greek text adopted by Erasmus and from which, for example, the Italian translations of Giovanni Diodati and the contemporary Nuova Diodati derive. This text is based on a large number of mostly late manuscripts from the Byzantine area.
  2. The so-called Nestle-Aland text (also called a ‘critical text’ due to the method of textual criticism utilized for attempting to get as closely as possible back to the original text), on which the Riveduta and the Nuova Riveduta are based. This text is based on a smaller, but significantly more ancient, number of manuscripts belonging to the area of Alexandria (hence the term ‘Alexandrian Text’).
  3. The so-called Majority Text. This text is based on the presupposition that the best reading available is that with the greatest number of supporting manuscript evidence. Since manuscripts of the Byzantine tradition are the most numerous, of consequence this is a text very similar to the Textus Receptus, differing therefrom only in a small number of Erasmian readings supported by just a few documents.

Much has been written and discussed regarding these arguments, seeking to demonstrate that one form or another is the one closest to the autograph texts of the writers of the New Testament, often resulting in sterile polemics with neither ‘winners’ nor ‘losers’ that do little more than confuse, or even discourage, the simple reader of the Word of God.

What is often not done when it comes to textual variants of the Greek New Testament is, rather, to focus attention on how much is certain and sure. It is indisputably true that today we have at our disposal a very large number of manuscripts and that these are often not in perfect agreement among themselves (photocopiers had not yet been invented, and in the work of hand copying, error or distraction are always a danger, as is also a copyist’s excessive zeal), but we must also emphasize that these discrepancies, in comparison to the entire text of the New Testament, constitute only a small percentage. Hort himself, one of the promoters of textual criticism, wrote after many years of study and research: “7/8 of the New Testament text is certain beyond any doubt and usually the remaining 1/8 consists of divergences of small importance,” further specifying that substantial variants, that is those that change the meaning of a sentence “constitute only 1/1000 of the total text.”

Of the nearly 200,000 known variants, then, only about 200 are semantically significant, but not even one of these is such that it calls into question a single doctrine contained in God’s Word. From this one can conclude that New Testament variants are important from the perspective of  philology, but not theology or doctrine.

This is one of the confirmations of how God, through the course of history, has wonderfully guarded His Word to ensure that that which was and remains His complete revelation would reach humanity.