Chapter OneTHINKING ABOUT THE
STUDY OF THE NEW
People have been reading and studying the New Testament for as long as its documents
have been in existence. Even before all twenty-seven canonical New Testament
books were written, some found the interpretation of the available
documents more than a little challenging (see the comment of 2 Pet. 3:15-16
regarding Paul). A distance of two millennia, not to mention changes of language,
culture, and history, have not made the task any easier. The torrential outpouring
of commentaries, studies, and essays across the centuries, all designed to
explain-or in some cases, explain away-the New Testament documents,
makes the task both easier and harder. It is easier because there are many good
and stimulating guides; it is harder because the sheer volume of the material, not
to mention its thoroughly mixed nature and, frequently, its mutually contradictory
content, is profoundly daunting to the student just beginning New Testament
This chapter provides little more than a surface history of a selection of the
people, movements, issues, and approaches that have shaped the study of the
New Testament. The student setting out to come to terms with contemporary
study of the New Testament must suddenly confront a bewildering array of new
disciplines (e.g., text criticism, historical criticism, hermeneutics), the terminology
of new tools (e.g., form criticism, redaction criticism, discourse analysis,
postmodern readings), and key figures (e.g., F. C. Baur, J. B. Lightfoot, E. P.
Sanders). Students with imagination will instantly grasp that they do not pick up
New Testament scrolls as they were dropped from an apostolic hand; they pick
up a bound sheaf of documents, printed, and probably in translation. Moreover,
the text itself is something that believers and unbelievers alike have been studying
and explaining for two millennia.
The aim here, then, is to provide enough of a framework to make the rest of
this textbook, and a lot of other books on the New Testament, a little easier to
PASSING ON THE TEXT
At the beginning of his gospel, Luke comments that "many others" had already
undertaken to write accounts of Jesus (Luke 1:1-4). Although some scholars
have argued that there was a long period of oral tradition before anything substantial
about Jesus or the early church was written down, the evidence is against
such a stance: the world into which Jesus was born was highly literate. From
such a perspective, the existence of the documents that make up the New Testament
canon is scarcely surprising.
These documents were originally hand-written on separate scrolls. There
is very good evidence that the writing was in capital letters, without spaces, and
with very little punctuation. Printing was still almost a millennium and a half
away, so additional copies were made by hand. In theory, this could be done by
professional copiers: in a scriptorium, one man would read at dictation speed,
several scribes would take down his dictation, and another would check each
copy against the original, often using ink of a different color to make the corrections.
This kind of professional multiplying of copies was labor-intensive
and therefore expensive. Most early Christian copies of the New Testament
were doubtless done by laypeople eager to obtain another letter by Paul or a
written account of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That
brought the price down: Christians were investing their own time to make their
own copies, and they were not having to pay large sums to professional scribes.
On the other hand, the private copy made by an eager and well-meaning
layperson was likely to include more transcriptional errors than copies made
and checked in a scriptorium.
How the New Testament canon came together is briefly discussed in the final
chapter of this book. For the moment it is sufficient to observe that as the numbers
of copies of New Testament documents multiplied, three formal changes
were soon introduced. First, the scroll gave way to the codex, that is, to a book
bound more or less like a modern book, which enabled readers to look up passages
very quickly without having to roll down many feet of scroll. Second,
increasingly (though certainly not exclusively) the capital letters (scholars call
them "uncials") gave way to cursive scripts that were messier but much more
quickly written. And third, because the early church, even within the Roman
Empire, was made up of highly diverse groups, it was not long before the New
Testament, and in fact the whole Bible, was translated into other languages.
These "versions" of the Bible (as translations are called) varied widely in quality.
There were no copyright laws and no central publishing houses, so there were
soon numerous Latin versions, Syriac versions, and so forth, as individuals or
local churches produced what seemed necessary for their own congregations.
Today the printing press churns out thousands of identical copies. When
each copy is written by hand, however, if the work is of substantial length, each
copy will be a little different than all others because the accidental mistakes introduced
by successive copying will not all congregate in the same place. The challenge
of producing a copy that is perfectly true to the original soon multiplies. A
slightly later Christian, making a copy of a copy, spots what he judges to be mistakes
in the manuscript before him and corrects them in his fresh copy. Unfortunately,
however, it is possible that some things he thought were mistakes were
actually in the original. For instance, it is well known that there are many grammatical
anomalies in the book of Revelation. The reason for this is disputed; there
are three major theories and several minor ones. But a later copyist might well
have thought that errors had been introduced by intervening copyists and "corrected"
them to "proper" grammar-thereby introducing new errors.
Two further "accidents" of history and geography have helped to determine
just what material has come down to us. First, just as the Roman Empire divided
between East and West (stemming from the decision of Emperor Constantine
to establish an eastern capital in what came to be called Constantinople), so also
did the church. In the West, because it was not only the official language of
Rome but also tended in time to squeeze out Greek as the lingua franca, Latin
soon predominated in the church. Initially, there were many Latin versions, but
toward the end of the fourth century, Damasus, Bishop of Rome, commissioned
Jerome to prepare an official Latin version that would be widely distributed and
sometimes imposed throughout the churches of the West. This Latin version,
revised several times, became the Vulgate, which held sway in the West for a
millennium. By contrast, Greek dominated in the East, in what eventually
became the Byzantine Empire. Inevitably, Greek manuscripts were used and
copied much more often under this linguistic heritage than in the West, until
Constantinople fell to the Muslim Turks in 1453. Many Eastern scholars then
fled West, bringing their Greek manuscripts with them-a development that
helped to fuel both the Reformation and the Renaissance.
Second, the material on which ancient books were written (i.e., their equivalent
of paper) decomposed more readily in some climates than in others. The
most expensive books were made of parchment, treated animal skin. Higher
quality parchment was called vellum. More commonly, books were made ofpapyrus, a plant that grew plentifully in the Nile Delta. Papyrus has the constituency
of celery or rhubarb. Long strips could be peeled off, pounded, and
glued together to make sheets. Although parchment is tougher than papyrus,
both materials are organic and thus readily decompose, especially when there is
moisture in the atmosphere. So it is not surprising that the best caches of really
ancient manuscripts come from the hot, dry sands of Egypt.
So just what textual evidence has come down to us? There are about five
thousand manuscripts or parts of manuscripts (some of them mere fragments)
of all or part of the Greek New Testament, and about eight thousand manuscripts
or parts of manuscripts of versions. All of this evidence can be classified
in various ways. For example, one can break it down according to writing material
(parchment or papyrus). More importantly, uncial manuscripts of the Greek
New Testament (i.e., those written in capital letters) number under three hundred,
whereas there are almost three thousand miniscules (manuscripts not written
in capitals). In addition, there are over two thousand lectionaries-church
reading books that contain selections of the biblical text to be read on many days
of the ecclesiastical year. Other sources include quotations of the Bible found in
the early church fathers, and short portions of New Testament writings onostraca (pieces of pottery often used by poor people as writing material) and
amulets, ranging from the fourth to the thirteenth century. Similar breakdowns
can be put forward for all the versional evidence. Although most of this material
springs from the thousand-year period between A.D. 500 and 1500, the earliest
fragments come from the first half of the second century.
It is useful to observe that of all the works that have come down to us from
the ancient world, the New Testament is the most amply attested in textual evidence.
For example, for the first six books of the Annals, written by the famous
Roman historian Tacitus, there is but a single manuscript, dating from the ninth
century. The extant works of Euripides, the best-attested of the Greek tragedians,
are preserved in 54 papyri and 276 parchment manuscripts, almost all of
the latter deriving from the Byzantine period. The history of Rome by Velleius
Paterculus came down to us in one incomplete manuscript, which was lost in
the seventeenth century after a copy had been made. By comparison, the wealth
and range of material supporting the Greek New Testament is staggering.
The printing press made the hand-copying of manuscripts forever obsolete.
The first printed edition of the Greek New Testament appeared on 10 January
1514. It was volume 5 of a polyglot Bible commissioned by the cardinal primate
of Spain, Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros (1437-1517). Printed in the town of
Alcalá, called Complutum in Latin, the work came to be known as the Complutensian
Polyglot Bible. Volume 5 also contained the first printed Greek glossary,
the progenitor of countless lexicons that have been published since then.