ManuscriptsFour Benefits of Reading Greek Manuscripts Reading biblical manuscripts, even for beginners, brings history to life and promises untold surprises along the way. Amy S. AndersonFour Greek biblical manuscripts (Rahlfs 962, GA 2374, GA 01, and GA 1). Illustration by Peter Gurry.September 6, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level There is nothing lovelier than a work created by the hand of a true artisan. This is especially true of ancient artifacts since they were, by necessity, hand-made. In many cases, people were not satisfied with a utilitarian object. Whenever possible, they put in extra effort to make it beautiful. This is the first of four benefits I have found in teaching students to read Greek biblical manuscripts. 1. They are beautiful The oldest copies of scripture, as we will see below, were indeed utilitarian. They were texts meant to be read. But before too long, scripture books began to be decorated and illustrated. To start with, each piece of parchment was painstakingly produced by a lengthy process, resulting in a material that was often so fine that the writing shows through from the other side, yet sturdy enough to last for thousands of years. The inks were made from various natural sources, producing brilliant colors. The pens were hand-formed. In addition, writing was not a skill that everyone possessed. We don’t always realize that the ability for normal people to read and write is a relatively modern phenomenon. To form even awkward letters would have been quite an achievement for an ancient person. To write beautifully was a treasured skill. In fact, widespread illiteracy is one reason that many ancient copies of the Bible are illuminated, some in simple ways with colored initial letters, others with entire pages portraying the Gospel writer or a scene from the text. These are not just pretty touches, but they witness to a desire to honor God and provide tools for teaching the congregation the stories of the Old Testament or the life of Jesus. Just look at this gorgeous first page of the Gospel of Matthew. The opening of Matthew in GA 2374, a 13th/14th c. copy of the entire NT except Revelation. Image (cc) Walters Art Museum via CSNTM. (1) The colorful and ornate box shape at the top is called a “headpiece,” often found at the beginning of biblical books. What looks like gold – is gold! In the center of the headpiece is the title, written in gold paint on top of red. The first word in the text of Matthew is βίβλος (biblos, or “book”). (2) In the left margin, you can see that the first letter, which corresponds to the English letter “B,” is enlarged and richly decorated. This is called an “initial letter.” Sometimes the same scribe who wrote out the text also did the artwork, but most of the time two different skilled people were at work, one copying the text and one decorating it. (3) Further down in the left margin, you can see an enlarged red letter that looks like an English “C.” This is actually the letter sigma, the first letter of the name Solomon. When beginning a new section of the text, scribes often indicated the first full line with such an initial letter, placed in the margin, enlarged, and “rubricated,” or written in red. (4) The rubricated text directly under the headpiece is a repeat of the title of the Gospel with decorative dots. This was probably added later since it is crowded into that space. (5) Did you also see the tiny, rubricated alpha (α) with a line above it in the right margin? This is the Greek number one, marking the first section of Matthew. Even though the chapters and verses with which we are familiar were inserted later, early Christians developed their own numbering system that helped readers find specific passages. Aside from their visual beauty, ancient manuscripts like this also remind us of the real people who lived long ago and read these Bibles. 2. They connect us to the ancient world We sometimes forget that the people who wrote, copied, and translated our scriptures were living, breathing human beings. The ancient manuscripts often give us glimpses of the lives of these people. What follows are two close-ups of one of the most famous ancient manuscripts. It is called Codex Sinaiticus because it was preserved in a monastery that is located on Mt Sinai. It is dated to the 4th century and is one of the two earliest surviving manuscripts to have originally contained the entire Bible. A fingerprint in Codex Sinaiticus (4th c.) on Q.68 f.4v at Sirach 8:5. Source If you look closely at just the right spot on just the right page in Codex Sinaiticus, you can see a finger print! You can also see that the whorls of the print are over top of the letters. This may have been someone who handled the parchment soon after it was written, perhaps even the scribe him/herself. A wax dripping in Sinaiticus on Q.83 f.4v at 1 Cor. 14:7. Source At another place in Sinaiticus you can see something that occurs often in the ancient manuscripts. Remember, there was no electrical lighting in churches and other buildings, so that one of the few ways to have enough light to read a manuscript indoors was to use candlelight. That, of course, would be accompanied by the likelihood of drips occurring, as you can see here. This drip occurs in 1 Corinthians 14:7, where Paul is discussing how different musical instruments have distinct sounds as part of his argument for intelligibility in the use of manifestation gifts in the gathering of believers. A final instance of the humanity of the people who made copies of scripture so long ago comes from Codex Vaticanus, the other of the two oldest copies of the entire Bible, also from the fourth century and in this case housed in the Vatican library. The last part of the New Testament has been lost, but Vaticanus is treasured for the high quality of the text it preserves. You might be able to see from the photo that a later scribe has traced over the original letters, probably because they had become faded. Also interesting is the comment in the margin. It is evidence of a disagreement between two different correctors. The start of Hebrews in Codex Vaticanus (4th c.) showing a correction in the margin. Alamy Six lines down at the left side of the column, corresponding to Hebrews 1:3, is the word φανερῶν (phanerōn, “revealing”). This reading would translate as saying that Jesus reveals all things by the power of His word. But most manuscripts read φέρων (pherōn, “upholding/sustaining”) here. The two words are quite similar, and a close look would show (1) that the color of the second and third letters (αν) is lighter than the rest of the word. Apparently, a corrector has tried to remove them in order to change phanerōn to pherōn. But a second corrector came along and added those two letters back in, returning the reading to what the manuscript first read. (2) This second corrector was irritated with the change made by the first, and comments in the margin: “Fool and knave, leave the old reading, don’t change it!”1Translation from Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 260. 3. They include the earliest copies of our sacred scriptures In fact, not only do the ancient manuscripts take us back to the early days of Christianity, they are also among the oldest surviving physical artifacts of the faith. They are at least as early as the catacombs, the mosaics, foundations of church buildings, or anything else that an archaeological dig might discover. And the manuscripts contain many clues to early Christianity—even beyond the texts that became the canons of the Old and New Testaments. In the margins are not only comments like the one above, but organizational symbols, commentary, textual variants, and historical notations. Practices of scribes and correctors reveal much about the developing theological discussions. Rahlfs 962 (3rd c.) is a copy of Genesis in Greek. This fragment is from Gen 31:5–9. Image (cc) Chester Beatty Library, photo from CSNTM. What you are looking at here are the surviving fragments of a page of Genesis. They include Genesis 31:5–9, part of the story of Jacob fleeing from Laban. The fact that this copy of Genesis is written in Greek means that this artifact is from the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. (1) In the second line from the top, the word θέος (God) is abbreviated as θς. This is a strong hint that this manuscript was produced and used by a Christian community. There are more than a dozen of these nomina sacra, or “holy names,” that early Christians commonly abbreviated, words such as “God,” “Jesus,” “lord,” or “father.” You can get an idea of what these abbreviations look like by imitating them in English. For example, God could be written as “Gd,” Jesus as “Js,” heaven as “hven.” While scholars still debate possible reasons why Christians followed this practice, any manuscript that contains the nomina sacra can be identified as almost certainly coming from a Christian church or community. (2) Another feature to notice are the fibers at the top and bottom, as well as the square-shaped breaks in the material. Papyrus as a writing material came from the pith of the stems of papyrus plants, grown in Egypt. The pith was cut in thin layers and then laid side by side—one layer horizontal and one layer vertical. These two layers were pressed together to form a sturdy writing material. The oldest copies of the Septuagint and the New Testament are on papyrus. Papyrus was constructed by laying slices of the papyrus plant stem at 90 degree angles. Wikipedia This copy of Genesis is dated to the late third century, making it older than most surviving copies of the New Testament, and much older than many surviving copies of the Old Testament in the original Hebrew. The handwriting is not as “fancy” as the other later hands you see in this article. It is called a “documentary hand,” as opposed to the more finely crafted “literary hand” used to copy literary works (such as Homer or Polybius), pointing to the pragmatism of early Christians. Indeed, the earliest copies of the New Testament, as well as the Greek copies of the Old Testament, would have been produced not so much as articles of beauty, but in order to make the content available as quickly and broadly as possible. This codex (book) would have been used by early Christians as they studied their scripture to understand, debate, and articulate how Jesus was both the Jewish Messiah and God himself. 4. They help us appreciate why there are differences in the ancient copies Because the New Testament was copied by hand for about 1400 years, it should not be surprising that the manuscripts differ in small ways on nearly every page, and that there are some bigger differences between them as well. This is why we need trained textual critics who study the manuscripts and offer explanations as to what occurred in the process of transmitting the text over hundreds of years. This might make it sound as if we cannot be certain of the oldest form of the text. But in actuality, you yourself can find out what the most meaningful variations are, simply by checking the footnotes of your own English Bible. Related Illustration by Peter Gurry. Image from 123rf.com Two Reasons There Are Variants in Our Copies of the BibleFor historical and theological reasons, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible’s manuscripts have differences. Peter J. Gurry Most modern Bibles have footnotes that alert you to significant variation that occurs between manuscripts, differences that could impact interpretation. Look for the footnotes that begin with something like “Some ancient witnesses read…” or “The oldest manuscripts read…” These are text-critical notes, supplied to you by the translators of your Bible. Don’t confuse text-critical notes with translation notes, which are about translation decisions. Translation notes would begin something like “Or…” In other words, translation notes are only offering another legitimate translation of the same Greek or Hebrew in a place where ancient manuscripts have the same word. If you go through your Bible and look at every single text-critical note, you will see that, though they are interesting and have importance for reading that passage, they are certainly not the sort of variation that would turn our Christian faith on its head. One of the places in the New Testament where scholars debate a reading is in 1 Corinthians 2:1. You can see in the footnote of your own Bible that scholars are not sure whether Paul wrote “testimony” or “mystery.” It could be a fun exercise to look through various modern translations and see which ones chose which word. There are trustworthy ancient manuscripts with each reading, and Paul uses both words in the immediate context. Both words make sense in the sentence, and the decision of which word to include will change the meaning somewhat. The correction of “mystery” to “testimony” at 1 Cor. 2:1 in Sinaiticus. Source Sinaiticus, the 4th century codex mentioned above, carries within it a witness to the fact that early Christians also debated which word Paul would have written in 1 Corinthians 2:1. When you look at this spot in the manuscript, you’ll see a word that begins in the middle of the line and finishes on the next line: ΜΥΣΤΗΡΙΟΝ. That’s mystērion, or “mystery.” The word for “testimony” would be ΜΑΡΤΥΡΙΟΝ, or martyrion. Notice how similar the two words are. You can basically trade out three letters to change one into the other. And that’s exactly what a later corrector has done in Sinaiticus. Look at the small letters written above ΜΥΣΤΗΡΙΟΝ. They are meant by the corrector to be substituted in, changing the reading from mystērion (mystery) to martyrion (testimony). The most extensive variation between manuscripts involve the ending of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery, or the pericope adulterae (John 7:53–8:11). Neither of these longer texts is in the oldest manuscripts, as the footnotes in your Bible will tell you, but they entered the tradition pretty early on, and then scribes dealt with them in various ways. Here is an example of how one group of manuscripts presents the pericope adulterae. GA 1 (12th c.), showing the ending of John’s Gospel (recto) and the pericope adulterae (verso). Source This is Codex 1, which contains most of the New Testament and was produced in the 12th century. It belongs to a group of closely related manuscripts called Family 1, and one of the characteristics of this family is that its manuscripts have the pericope adulterae at the end of John. What you see above are the front (recto) and back (verso) sides of one folio. Notice how the damages to the parchment are mirror images of each other. You can also see that the two sides are a slightly different color and that the recto has something like (1) light freckles in the upper right corner. That is the hair side of the parchment and the “freckles” are hair follicles. The slightly paler verso is called the skin side. What you see on the recto is (2) the end of the Gospel of John. Except for the initial letters, (3) the rubricated writing on this page was added later and mostly has to do with marking out the daily church readings. In fact, you can see (4) the end of one reading in the middle of the page where it looks like a “TE” with a line above it. That’s the abbreviation for τέλος (telos), which means “ending.” It occurs in the middle of our v. 19. (5) A new reading begins with the next red mark, the abbreviation of ἀρχή (archē), which means “beginning.” This is placed right before our v. 24. Frequently, scribes would end a book with this sort of tapering of the lines of text. (6) The last letter is an alpha from the word βίβλια (biblia), which is the plural of “books.” (You’ll remember that the author says that if everything that Jesus did were written down, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.) After the biblical text ends is (7) a decorative cross with the nomina sacra for “Jesus” and “Christ.” So that’s the end of John. But when the reader turns the folio to the verso, there is another page of text! And it doesn’t begin with biblical text. (8) The rubricated paragraph, this time written by the original scribe, is a commentary on the pericope adulterae that must go back for hundreds of years since other, older Family 1 manuscripts also contain it. This paragraph informs the reader that the pericope adulterae is not found in most copies, providing evidence from a number of church fathers. Then comes (9) the text of the pericope adulterae in full, also ending in the tapered format with a small decoration. Knowledge of the ancient manuscripts brings the history of Judaism and Christianity to life. Just these few explorations of several pages out of our ancient copies of scripture demonstrate how much there is to be gained from a study of the early manuscripts, and how valuable such a study would be for a student of the Bible or of ancient Greek. Knowledge of the ancient manuscripts brings the history of Judaism and Christianity to life, not only in the meaning of the text itself, but in the tangible artifacts that carry the text and that have survived to share beauty, information, and inspiration with readers of the 21st century.Notes1Translation from Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 260. Amy S. Anderson Amy Anderson (PhD, University of Birmingham) was for many years Professor of New Testament & Greek at North Central University in Minneapolis and is an instructor at the Biblical Literacy Project. She is the author of The Textual Tradition of the Gospels: Family 1 in Matthew and coauthor of Textual Criticism of the Bible.