Counting Manuscripts and Which Manuscripts Count

Counting Manuscripts and Which Manuscripts Count May 29, 2015


Peter Gurry shared the above image graphing the number of manuscripts we have from each century. Keep in mind that centuries are a convenient timekeeping device, and it is not as though a manuscript copied new year’s eve on the last day of the second century is more valuable than one copied the following day. In fact, we often cannot date manuscripts with such precision.

The graph hopefully illustrates why the apologetic argument that appeals to the sheer number of manuscripts we have of the New Testament is misguided. The quantity of manuscripts isn’t what matters. I could make more copies today, but it would not make our knowledge more reliable!

On the other hand, if one compares the dates of our oldest manuscripts to the oldest copies we have of other ancient literature, it quickly becomes clear that excessive skepticism, because our earliest copies are a century or more after the time in which they were written, is equally dubious.

Having a large number of manuscripts, or early ones, does not tell us that what is recounted in those manuscripts actually happened. And so we have good reason to conclude that the New Testament as we now know it resembles what its authors wrote, but that is just one step out of many for those interested in historical questions about early Christianity.

"The dialogue in the episode. For instance, Kirk's words, "Apollo's no god. But he could ..."

Real Gods
"I didn't tell the whole story. :-)"

Real Gods

Jesus’ Female Disciples
"My favorite Jesus meme/cartoon is: How come no one talks about the miracle that Jesus ..."

Jesus’ Female Disciples

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • TomS

    Apparently, this counts even those small fragments of papyri, right?

    • It certainly must include incomplete manuscripts, since our earliest manuscripts of any ancient text are rarely complete. I am not sure whether all fragments of all sizes are included in the figures, but if you click through to the source of the data, it might provide further information.

  • John Thomas

    Totally agree with you. Bart Ehrman made a similar point in his debate with Dan Wallace. He said that even though there are numerous NT manuscripts, majority of them are from 9th century onwards and most of them are copies of fourth century manuscripts. Only very small amounts of available ancient NT documents is dated before fourth century. And the earliest papyrus is dated only to some year after 150 CE. So if any alteration occurred before that period, none of the current available manuscripts or papyri would have caught it. Even though Dan Wallace made a claim during that debate that a material of gospel of Mark that is dated to first century is now available, no further news about it is yet available.

    • Gary

      The video of Ehrman/Wallace was dated 2012. Wallace said the first century material was to be published in 1 year. That would make it 2013. Being 2015, I wonder if anything came out about it. If not, the paleography expert (Wallace- “others are quacks”, mine is “reputable”, “I’m sworn to secrecy”; Ehrman- “I don’t know, might be Donald Duck”), this might prove to be the best lines in the debate.

      • John Thomas

        Dan Wallace is a reputed New Testament scholar. So I don’t ever want to make a comment questioning his integrity. I still believe that he means it when he said that he has seen a document. I also take his word when he says that it takes a while to put it all together and publish the paper. So I am happy to wait until his paper comes out and above said document is made available to analysis by other bible scholars.

        • Gary

          Ehrman said he believed him too. But the verbal exchange by both of them at the end of the video was both courteous and amusing, involving both a quack and a duck.

          • John Thomas

            Ehrman was taken aback by the claim. I don’t blame him. It was kind of not becoming of a scholar to throw such a claim out of blue in a debate setting especially when no scholar except him has seen such a document and verified the authenticity of the document. Ehrman had all the good reason to be uncomfortable about it. Seemed like Wallace was eager to win some debate points against Ehrman’s repetitive reminders of there being no early NT papyri. Anyways.

          • Yes, it is a dubious way to score points even in a debate, and one that ought to be viewed with skepticism. “We have no X,” “Yes we do, but only a few people have seen it, so you will just have to trust me.”

  • On the other hand, if one compares the dates of our oldest manuscripts
    to the oldest copies we have of other ancient literature, it quickly
    becomes clear that excessive skepticism, because our earliest copies are
    a century or more after the time in which they were written, is equally

    “Excessive skepticism” would presumably be a claim that the contents of the New Testament have been substantially altered, far beyond the usual level of fairly minor errors and alterations by scribes, such that the copies we have now are radically different from the originals. At least, that’s how I’m interpreting you here.

    Does this claim differ substantially from what we know happened with the Synoptic Gospels? We’re used to thinking of them as separate documents, and the people who produced them as being “authors” rather than “copyists” or “scribes”. But it seems to me that we could look at the Gospel of Mark as being the “original” work, and the other synoptics as being “corruptions” of it; divergent versions of a single text, rather than separate texts, created by rogue scribes who were willing to make huge changes to their source.

    Or in other words, a hyper-skeptic would (in some sense) be right to say, for example, that our extant Gospel of Matthew is a highly corrupted version of a very different original, since the “original” is the Gospel of Mark.

    • But why would anyone grant the claim of this “hyper-skeptic” that Matthew is an attempt at copying the Gospel of Mark, and just gets it badly wrong, when it appears quite clearly to be a work that draws heavily and recognizably on the Gospel of Mark to compose a distinct book? Indeed, can someone be called a “hyper-skeptic” who sees no reason to be skeptical of that claim?

      • I wouldn’t use a phrase like “gets it badly wrong” since that implies an accidental alteration, when the alterations are quite clearly deliberate. But deliberate intention is pretty common in scribal corruptions.

        When someone adds a few verses onto the end of Mark, we consider that to be a different version of Mark; when someone else makes more substantial changes, as with Matthew, we consider it a new book. But what’s the real difference, other than a difference of degree rather than kind? Why are the different variants of Acts thought to all be one book, while Mark and Matthew are two books?

        Imagine that Mark and Luke never made it into the NT. Then some excessively skeptical person says, maybe our current version of Matthew is radically different from the original, maybe someone made major changes early on before our extant copies were made. Then someone digs up a copy of the Gospel of Mark. Wouldn’t we be tempted to name it “proto-Matthew”, and say that the person who seemed excessively skeptical was actually correct?

        I guess my point is, I can’t see much difference between “major chunks were added to/removed from the Gospels before our extant copies were made” and “new Gospels were created by altering and expanding on older Gospels”, other than a difference in terminology. I think the first statement is what you were referring to as “excessive skepticism”, while the second is uncontroversial.

        And it means that a statement like “we have good reason to conclude that the New Testament as we now know it resembles what its authors wrote” doesn’t mean very much; it’s true by definition. If a redactor makes too many changes to his source, we just say that he’s written a new book.

        • We say that someone has written a new book, using an earlier one as a source, when that is what they have done. Ancient authors regularly incorporate earlier sources. This is distinguishable from copyists and the errors or deliberate changes we find them making. And so we have clear evidence that such well-evidenced compositional practices were engaged in, and that copyists made copies of works as well, which do not show evidence of much greater loss or addition than we find in other ancient manuscript traditions.

          • If we had Matthew and Luke but not Mark, then Mark and Q might be harder to distinguish, if we could distinguish them at all, but we would still speak of sources these authors used, not earlier editions that were greatly expanded.

          • The problem I have is that I have slight reservations about calling someone the “author” of a work when he didn’t write the majority of it. The situation is worse if Matthew or Luke were developed in two or more stages; e.g., if Joseph Tyson is right about Luke, or if one of the Jewish-Christian gospels related to Matthew came earlier than canonical Matthew. Wouldn’t the author of the intermediate document have some right to be considered the “original author” of his material in Matthew/Luke, meaning that what we have in the NT doesn’t accurately reflect what this “original author” wrote?

            Saying that the NT documents as we have them now resemble what the original authors wrote might be inadvertently misleading, since it disguises the fact that Matthew, Luke and the related non-canonicals were created by people who felt free to make major changes to previous works, without any kind of acknowledgement that they had done so, for unspecified reasons. It risks creating the impression of an individual creating original material which has been passed down to us largely unchanged, rather than people creating new gospels by heavily editing older ones.

          • Would you consider Josephus the author of the Antiquities, when so much of it is covering material in sources that he used?

          • If a substantial chunk of it is word-for-word copied from a single previous work, with a few adjustments here and there, and the Antiquities mostly follows the narrative structure of that previous work, then I would say that Josephus is not the author of that part, he’s just the redactor.

            If one of your students handed in a dissertation that was largely composed of a nearly word-for-word copy of a previous dissertation, would you say that he is the author of something new, or that he has plagiarized someone else? I understand that our current ideas about plagiarism and intellectual property didn’t exist 2000 years ago, but I think you’re leaving out an important and relevant part of the story by saying that we have roughly what the original authors wrote without mentioning that “authorship” in this case could consist essentially of making heavy edits to somebody else’s book.

          • That was often what ancient authorship entailed. I don’t consider Virgil not to have been an author just because he happened to have been retelling an epic that he derived from Homer.

          • Neither do I, because he wasn’t lifting huge chunks of his work word-for-word from Homer. There’s a difference between copying and retelling; Virgil was retelling, whereas Matthew was mostly copying.

            To put it another way, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that Mark and Q were the original authors of most of what’s in Matthew and Luke. That’s something I think is relevant in discussions of textual transmission: the original writer of any particular passage in Matthew or Luke is often someone other than the person who put together that Gospel in its current form, and that original writer’s words are not always faithfully preserved in those Gospels.

  • James Snapp, Jr.

    “The graph hopefully illustrates why the apologetic argument that appeals to the sheer number of manuscripts we have of the New Testament is misguided.”

    How does the graph show this?

    “The quantity of manuscripts isn’t what matters.”

    But how does the graph show this? *If* 5,000 manuscripts all contain a scribal accretion at a particular point, *then* quantity is no guarantee of accuracy. But how does the graph provide a basis for that premise? Unless one wishes to delve into conjectural emendations, isn’t the default-setting, so to speak, that where all manuscripts agree, we have the original text?

    • I hope it is visible from the graph that the majority of copies are made closer to our time than the time of composition, and so are copies of earlier copies, and thus do not improve our knowledge of the state of the original text. Only older copies help us do that.