by Andreas Köstenberger, Benjamin Merkle, and Robert Plummer
Even within the New Testament (NT) itself, we have evidence that the individual NT documents were copied by hand and that these copies circulated among the churches. In Colossians 4:16, Paul writes, “When this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.”
Over time, the early church grouped selections of inspired writings and copied them together. By the mid-second century, the four canonical Gospels and Paul’s letters were apparently grouped and copied as units. Not much later, the entire NT was grouped and copied as a recognized body of inspired writings. The earliest extant canonical list we have of the NT (the Muratorian Canon) has been dated to AD 190.
As early Christians copied, recopied, and copied copies (all by hand), small variations were inevitably introduced into the manuscripts. And, although Church Fathers sometimes speculated about copyist errors or the original reading of manuscripts, it was virtually impossible to codify accurately such discussion until one could reproduce a text without any variation. Thus, after the printing press was introduced to Europe in 1454, possibilities for comparing manuscripts with an unchanging standard arose.
At roughly the same time, Europe experienced a revival of interest in classical learning (including the Greek language) and the arrival of the Protestant Reformation (where focus on the meaning of the inspired Scripture necessitated careful argumentation from the text of Scripture in the original languages). The printing press, a revived knowledge of Greek, and a growing interest in the gospel combined to result in the first published printed edition of the Greek New Testament (GNT) by Erasmus in 1516. In producing this text, Erasmus relied on only seven manuscripts, most of poor quality. Today, we have more than 5,800 ancient manuscripts (or partial manuscripts) of the GNT, with the number increasing yearly.
Subsequent generations continued to build on the foundational work of Erasmus in producing “standard” printed versions of the GNT derived from the various ancient manuscripts available to them. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Byzantine text tradition was assumed as the standard. It was sometimes called the textus receptus (received text), so labeled in the preface to a GNT published by the Elzevir brothers in 1633. Over time, principles for adjudicating disputed readings were developed and accepted by the vast majority of scholars. The Byzantine text came to be viewed by many as a later conflation of text traditions and lost its primacy to “eclectic” scholarly editions produced by text critics. Principles that dethroned the Byzantine text and codified the modern discipline of text criticism can be traced to the seminal work of Brian Walton (1600–1661), Johann Bengel (1687–1752), Karl Lachmann (1793–1851), Constantine von Tischendorf (1815– 1874), B. F. Westcott (1825–1901), F. J. A. Hort (1828–1892), and others. Principles of text criticism are summarized in the following section.
It should be noted that a tiny minority of scholars insist that only one “family” of ancient manuscripts (the Byzantine family) preserves the most reliable text of the NT. Yet, even within this Byzantine family of manuscripts, there are numerous minor variations. Modern English-speaking persons who insist on the priority of the Byzantine text family are usually aligned in some way with the “King James Only” movement. They argue that the King James Version (the NT of which is translated from a Byzantine version of the Greek text) is the most reliable because it is based on the best preserved manuscript tradition.
The vast majority of Christian scholars, however, believe the evidence points to God preserving his Word through the multiplicity of manuscripts in a variety of text families. God has left us so many manuscripts of such high quality that, even in the places where there are variants in the manuscripts, we can reach a high level of certainty as to what the original text read. God has not seen fit to preserve the autographs (apostolically-penned originals) of the NT, but he has preserved all the words of the autographs in the many manuscripts that have come down to us.
Students wishing to read an irenic, scholarly argument in favor of Byzantine priority are referred to The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Text Form. This critical edition of the GNT includes not only a carefully constructed critical Byzantine text (based on comparisons of extant NT manuscripts), but also an extensive appendix entitled, “The Case for Byzantine Priority.”
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Going Deeper with New Testament Greek.
“Going Deeper with New Testament Greek is the best intermediate Greek textbook I have ever used in over twenty-five years of teaching Greek, primarily because it was written by and designed for those of us who labor in the classroom. . . .”
—J. Scott Duvall, professor of New Testament and J. C. and Mae Fuller Chair of Biblical Studies, Ouachita Baptist University
“. . . The book is a ‘one-stop shop’ so that everything students need to know in a second-year Greek course is contained here.”
—Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, professor of biblical theology, and associate dean of the school of theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Going Deeper provides the teacher and student an intermediate grammar designed for their specific needs. While it can function as a reference grammar, it works best as a book to be read from cover to cover.”
—William Mounce, president, BiblicalTraining.org
“Going Deeper with New Testament Greek is certain to become a standard among intermediate Greek grammars. . . . It is up to date, built for the classroom, and aimed at careful exegesis of the Greek New Testament. While I differ on some points, it is my first choice for the classroom.”
—Constantine R. Campbell, associate professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Request a faculty review copy here.