When the New Testament was originally written, it was written in ancient Koine Greek. Because of this, when textual scholars seek to reconstruct the authentic text of the New Testament, they almost always consult Greek manuscripts first.
- Papyri–In the ancient world, the Egyptian papyrus plant would often be used to make a sort of paper. It was one of the least expensive writing materials back then, and many Christians were poor; so papyrus became a convenient material for copying books of the New Testament. Unfortunately, there was a trade-off. Papyrus was inexpensive, but it also was not very sturdy. Some of our oldest New Testament manuscripts are papyri; but because it was so fragile, sometimes only scraps of an entire book might remain.
Rylands Library Papyrus 52
To date there are about 130 catalogued New Testament papyri. Papyri are a very important witness to the text of the New Testament because they give us our earliest look at what the New Testament said. About 50 papyri date before the 3rd century AD; which makes them anywhere from 100 to 200 years older than our oldest non-papyri manuscripts. Papyri manuscripts are abbreviated with the character 𝔓 and their catalogue numbers (ex., 𝔓46).
- Uncials–Many New Testament manuscripts were written in all capital letters with no punctuation and no spaces between words. These manuscripts were called uncials (or majuscules). As one might imagine, these manuscripts can be very difficult to read! But, writing the manuscripts this way allowed more words to be fit onto one page; at a time when all books were copied by hand and buying any kind of book could be very expensive, saving space was very important.
Luke 11:2 from Codex Sinaiticus
Many uncial manuscripts are made of more durable material than papyrus. Several are made of parchment or vellum. Greek uncial manuscripts are another one of our oldest sources for New Testament textual studies; the oldest of these date to the fourth or fifth century and the youngest date to around the tenth century. Uncial manuscripts are abbreviated with a capital letter in one alphabet or another, or with a set of numbers preceded by a 0 (ex., A א ϴ; 066).
- Minuscules–There are not very many differences between uncials and minuscules. The major difference is that minuscules were not written in all capitals; they were written in an almost cursive sort of handwriting, and did include punctuation and spaces between words.
Starting about the tenth century minuscule style manuscripts began to replace uncial style manuscripts; so minuscules are not as old as uncial manuscripts but they are still useful for scholars. Minuscules were still being read from and produced even after the printing press was invented in the mid-15th century! Minuscule manuscripts are abbreviated with numbers not beginning with a 0 (ex., 83).
- Lectionaries–Our blog is named after this type of manuscript. Lectionaries were manuscripts used by the early Christians for reading the scriptures in public worship services. The lectionaries were built around a calendar system that allowed the early church to read through most of the New Testament yearly, with appropriate readings falling on certain holidays.
Certain branches of Christianity (mainly Catholic and Orthodox) still use a lectionary system today. Lectionary manuscripts are abbreviated with the letter l and their catalogue number (ex., l124).
But Greek manuscripts are not the only source that textual critics have at their disposal. We also possess very many ancient translations of the New Testament into the languages that existed back then. Continue reading about the Early Versions of the New Testament.
Take a look at some Blog Posts Involving Textual Criticism.