Christian Manuscripts I: Reliability and Overview

This may the greatest challenge that I’ve ever had: write a blog post in less than 500 words. The idea behind this self-imposed limit is that I hope to make this series of posts readable, which stands in stark contrasts with some of the other essays that I’ve posted before. The goal here is to write a readable series of very short posts on Christian manuscripts.

The topic today is the relevance of ancient Christian manuscripts for the study of historical Christianity and their reliability. (For the non-historians, here’s the lingo: “MS” denotes “manuscript” and “MSS” is the plural.) Beyond what is written on them, the physical manuscripts themselves can tell us an awful lot about early Christianity if we look at them as artifacts. The ones that we’re looking at all date from the period before imperial Christianity in the Roman Empire, and as such, they date from the time before Christianity began to receive serious patronage from the state and elites. This is why they are so valuable, as they provide a window into a period of Christian history where we have very little information on material culture whatsoever.

It is important to provide some information on what we are actually looking at when we start talking about Christian manuscripts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. It has been stated that we have thousands of ancient texts that prove that the textual tradition of the New Testament is reliable. This is true, but is important to remember that none of these date any earlier than the early 2nd c. AD. This should not be the cause of alarm, as the texts are highly consistent even in multiple, independent, traditions. We may not have the autographs (the original copy of the text), but this is really irrelevant when the textual stemmata do not diverge widely. This compares extremely favourably when held up to other ancient documents. Our earliest manuscripts for Tacitus’ Annals date from the 10th century. These are not even close to the original, and Tacitus’ works survive only in a medieval copy. Another great example is that of the Trojan Horse that Odysseus convinced the Greeks to hide in so they could finally take Troy. You’ll find hints to it in the Odyssey, but it never actually makes an appearance. The story only exists in textual form from the fourth century AD! We all know the story of how Achilles’ Myrmidons popped out at night and Troy fell. We all also know the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Unlike the Illiad, where the key turning point of the story is only known from a later date, the resurrection narrative exists in the earliest Christian manuscripts. On top of this, there are only a handful of passages New Testament scholars reject as being inauthentic, simply because they did not appear in the earliest documents. None of these have any bearing on any sort of key issues, and thus the New Testament documents stand up very well to the tests of whether or not they were ever altered or are incomplete.

So when we look back and see that we have 92 manuscripts of New Testament books from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, there should be no concern. This is vastly more textual support than nearly anything else in antiquity has by pure volume alone, not to mention that these documents are almost entirely textually consistent. There is no evidence for any sort of significant alterations to the New Testament documents.

Just a couple of quick notes on what we have: John gets the most manuscripts of any canonical New Testament document with sixteen. Matthew gets second place with twelve. Luke and Acts are curiously paired at seven each. Mark only gets one, probably due to the dim view that the early church held towards it. Romans and Revelation get four and five, respectively. The Shepherd of Hermas, managed to survive in eleven manuscripts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, which is quite notable as it was not considered a canonical text. (Although Athanasius would consider it deutero-canonical.) No other non-canonical text receives quite that much support in physical evidence. This is certainly quite interesting, and I’ll discuss canonization and manuscript evidence in a later post. As it is, I’ve already violated my word limit.

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2 Responses to Christian Manuscripts I: Reliability and Overview

  1. Moonsray Thea says:

    92 manuscripts of New Testament books from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD

    #1 Of these 92, what number are from the 2d century?

    In support of your claim, can you identify please the earliest 2d century manuscripts you have in mind for each of the canonical gospels?

    #2 Your numbers are very troubling. The fact that many mss survive from the 3d century confirms our intuition that mss of similar age are physically able to survive. “Similar age” no doubt including the 1st and 2d centuries. And yet the evidence is of little or nothing for more than 150 years after the “events”, then an explosion of NT copies.

    Certainly this is most consistent with our gospels having been written in the 2d century.


  2. Jonathan Harper says:

    Hmmm… 717 words. That’s only 43% over your self-imposed word limit. Not bad. Solid post, and rather readable. On that note, way to define autograph and then use the word stemmata as if it were commonplace in the next sentence. Excellent job regardless.

    So one question: why did the early church consider Mark’s Gospel to be dubious?

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