Upon the giving forth of the New Testament Scriptures, copies in the original tongue and versions into other languages were rapidly made. But at the first they were made on very perishable materials. It was not until the fourth century that materials were employed in the reproducing of Scripture of character so durable as to give any fair promise of permanence. The result is that the most ancient manuscript known to exist comes to us from tile middle of the fourth century only. From the years previous to that time no original record has reached us; and the manuscripts which antedate even the tenth century are exceedingly few.
On learning these facts for the first time one may naturally ask, What assurance have we that these versions, which appeared so long after the originals were made, are really correct transcripts of those earlier documents? Let it be remembered in this connection, that the New Testament manuscripts are far more ancient than those which give us the works of any classical writer. Of Homer, there is no complete manuscript older than the thirteenth century, though some fragments of older date exist. Homer sang centuries before the Christian era. Two thousand years stretch between the time when he made his immortal utterances and the time when any record of them, known to us, was made. But we confidently accept Homer's works as genuine and authentic. The New Testament Scriptures are far more capable of verification as to genuineness and authenticity.
The argument to be followed here is aptly put by Professor Fisher, in a recent article in Scribner's. He says: "If we go back to the last quarter of the second century, we find abundant proof that a great number of copies of the New Testament were in circulation in the various provinces of the Roman empire. Professor Norton estimates that the number of copies of the Gospels then in circulation was not less than 60,000. The 1,600 manuscripts of the New Testament, or of parts of it, which are now known to exist, are copies, mediate or immediate of those which were in use at that time. Since the extant manuscripts are essentially in agreement with one another, it follows that the documents from which they sprang, in various places and places distant from one another, must have had a like agreement. Had any material difference existed in the copies of the Epistle to the Romans, for example, which the Christians of Egypt, and Syria, and Rome, and Gaul read toward the close of the second century, that difference would inevitably have perpetuated itself in the copies derived from them, and would necessarily be manifest in those now existing. We are warranted in the conclusion, then, that the copies used at that date were substantially coincident with each other. By the same method of argument, we are authorized to conclude that the various documents from which the manuscripts in use in the second century were transcribed had the same essential harmony. We are thus carried back to the lifetime of the author, and of those who were conversant with him and with his production. Mutilation or corruption of the original manuscript, and of the copies of it first put in circulation, was prevented by the presence of the writer and of those to whom his book was committed, and who were interested in preserving it unaltered. No subsequent alteration could be made in a manuscript from which later manuscripts were transcribed without betraying itself the moment the comparison should be made with other representatives of the original writing. It is obvious that the force of this argument is increased in proportion to the number of the manuscripts which survive, and the diversity of their local origin. In this particular, the writings of the New Testament are placed at a striking advantage in comparison with the celebrated works of heathen antiquity."
Two distinct sets of characters appear in the ancient New Testament manuscripts. The first are designated Uncial. They are large letters which stand distinct from each other, much like large capital letters used in our newspaper head-lines and display advertisements. The other style was called Cursive, and its letters resembled our ordinary hand-writing, the letters being connected with each other in an easy running way. The uncial manuscripts of the New Testament are the older, and for this reason, presumably the more correct. But they are written without punctuation, which is a source of great difficulty in attempts at accurate rendering. The liability to err in such cases may readily be appreciated by attempting to read a sentence printed in letters of the same form, without punctuation marks to indicate the sense. About the tenth century, the cursive style became the more prevalent and some attempt at punctuation was made.
That great liability to error should exist in any system where copying by hand is the only method for multiplying books is evident; and this liability is greatly increased when the matter to be copied is such as the uncial text, or the ancient cursive, of the Scriptures. The copying of the earliest times was done chiefly by professional scribes; at a later day by monks. Rooms were specially prepared in the old monasteries, where many a man did his life's work upon a few sheets of uncial transcription, or a few illuminated pages.
The metal pen, or stylus, was used chiefly in this work. The inks employed were not essentially different from those now in use. In some cases it has faded and then been retraced, but the colored inks are frequently very bright and clear. Sometimes the parchment, or vellum, on which the writing was done, was colored and the letters were elegantly wrought in gold or silver. In the British Museum, the Vatican, and at Vienna, are a few pages of a manuscript known as the "Codex Purpureus," the leaves of which are purple and the letters of which are silver.
In some cases the writing originally traced upon a sheet was obliterated by an ambitious scribe, and his own utterances, good, bad or indifferent as they chanced to be, were written on the cleared surface. Such manuscripts are termed palimpsests, meaning sheets from which the writing has been scratched, or rubbed away. In several cases involving the Scriptures, careful scrutiny has discovered traces of the first writing, and skillful chemical treatment has restored it; so that what was lost has been found, and what was blotted out has been restored.
Of manuscripts in the uncial, or capital letter, there is a large number, ranging in their dates from the fourth to the tenth centuries. Of the Gospels complete there are twenty-seven copies, besides thirty fragments; of the Acts and General Epistles there are ten complete copies, besides six fragments; of Paul's Epistles, there are eleven complete manuscripts and nine fragments; of Revelation there are five complete copies. All these have been carefully compared one with another, and their correspondences and variations are critically noted. The text of the more important copies has been published also, and given to the world. To this general class of manuscripts belong a few which are deserving of special mention, because of their pre-eminent value.
1. The Codex Alexandrinus. In the alphabetical designation, adopted among scholars to express the antiquity and completeness of the several manuscripts, this is denominated, A. It is supposed to have been written in the early part of the fifth century. In 1628 it was sent by Cyril Lucar, Patriarch of Constantinople, to Charles I., of England, and it is now one of the treasures of the British Museum. It contains the entire New Testament, with the exception of a few breaks of no great size. The Epistles of Clement, one of the early church fathers, are also found in this volume.
2. The Codex Vaticanus bears the honorable designation, B. It has been in the Vatican Library since 1455. It is incomplete, all after Hebrews ix., 14, having been added by a later writer, probably in the fifteenth century. Its date is not later than the fourth century.
3. The Coder Ephræmi is designated by the letter C. It contains fragments of every book of the New Testament, except 2 Thessalonians and 2 John. It belongs to the Paris Library, having been brought from the East in the sixteenth century, remaining for a time at Florence and thence being removed to Paris. It is of about the same age as the AIexandrian Codex. Peculiar interest centres in this manuscript, because it is a palimpsest. About the twelfth century its writing was almost wholly erased, and in its place the works of St. Ephraim, a celebrated Syrian teacher of the fourth century, were written. This method of treating valuable documents was not at all uncommon among the frugal writers of those good old times. Obliterated writings of this character may be restored, however, by certain chemical processes, or by boiling the manuscript in oil. Some very successful efforts of this kind have been made, and that of the Codex Ephræmi stands prominent among them.
4. The Coder Bezæ (D), was presented to the University Library at Cambridge, England, in 1581, by the distinguished scholar Bezæ, whose name it bears. It contains only the Gospels and the book of Acts. It is referred to the sixth century, and so far as it extends, it is regarded as of great value.
5. The Codex Sinaiticus is the last discovered of the uncial manuscripts and the most complete. The place of honor in the alphabetic designation having already been assigned to the Alexandrian Codex, the initial letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph) was bestowed upon this new and most important discovery. It was discovered at the Convent of St. Catherine, at Mount Sinai, in 1859, by Tischendorf, the famous Biblical linguist. His patron in this enterprise was the late Czar of Russia, to whom the manuscript was presented and by whom it was given to the world. It contains the entire New Testament, with two of the patristic epistles, and is believed to be the oldest existing manuscript, having been written in the fourth century, and in all probability earlier than the Vatican Codex.
The story of the discovery of this valuable document is thus told: "In May, 1844, Tischendorf, as he sat in the library of the convent of St. Catherine--a cloister established at the foot of Mount Sinai by the Emperor Justinian, noticed, in a waste-basket, the contents of which, he was told, had twice before been emptied into the oven, a number of sheets of parchment, inscribed in Greek characters of the most ancient form. His practiced eye was instantly caught by these remarkable sheets, which he found to be forty-three leaves of the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. The monks gave them to him. He saved the manuscript of which the leaves formed a part by informing them of their value. But of the manuscript from which they had been taken, he had no knowledge until, on a third visit, in 1859, while he was sitting in a cell of the cloister with one of the brethren, in whose company he was partaking of refreshments after an excursion upon the mountains, his host said to him: ' I have here a Greek Old Testament.' Suiting his action to the word, he brought a manuscript wrapped in a red cloth, which Tischendorf, to his amazement and joy, found to contain portions of the Septuagint--the leaves previously obtained having been taken from it -and with them the entire New Testament, together with the Epistle of Barnabas in Greek--only a Latin version was possessed before--and parts of the 'Shepherd of Hermas.' He was allowed to take it to his room. ' Not until I reached my chamber,' he writes, 'did I give myself up to the overpowering impression of the fact; my most daring dreams and hopes were surpassed. I knew that I had an inestimable treasure for Christian science in my hands.' He could not think of sleep. Through the whole night, indifferent to the cold, he was busy in copying the Epistle of Barnabas. At length he was enabled to carry away the precious discovery as a present to the Czar Alexander. The manuscript is of the finest vellum. Tischendorf considered it older even than the Vatican Codex."
Some others of the uncial manuscripts are worthy of special mention, but what has already been said is perhaps sufficient in this part of the subject.
Of cursive manuscripts of the New Testament Scriptures there are of the Gospels, over 600; of the Acts, over 200; of Paul's Epistles, nearly 300; of Revelation, about 100. These all date from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries. Additional to these, are the arranged lessons from the Gospels, Acts and Epistles, which were prepared for use in the churches, and of which there are over 400 in existence. Of these cursive manuscripts the majority are of little value, perhaps twenty or thirty of them are of very great value, because of their agreement with the most ancient authorities, and their consequent confirmatory weight. The number and character of the evidences in hand are such as to afford a most satisfactory showing of what the original Scriptures were.
As converts to Christianity were multiplied in other lands, versions of the Scriptures were made for their edification. Professor Ezra Abbot, of the Revision Committee, makes the following reference to the principal helps of this class: "Of the ancient versions, the Old Latin and the Curetonian Syriac belong to the second century; the two Egyptian versions, the Coptic or Memphitic and the Sahidic or Thebaic, probably to the earlier part of the third; the Peshito Syriac in its present form perhaps to the beginning of the fourth; in the latter part of the same century we have the Gothic and the Latin Vulgate, and perhaps the Ethiopic; in the fifth century the Armenian and the Jerusalem Syriac; and in the sixth the Philoxenian Syriac, revised by Thomas of Harkel, A. D. 616, to say nothing of several later versions, as the Arabic and Slavonic."
It is an important fact that the most ancient of these versions were made from manuscripts older than any now in existence. If there is reason to suppose these earlier versions were accurately made, and that they have not suffered corruption, then they become of immense value as indicating the condition of the text at the early date when they were produced. Thus light is shed on the periods, back to which no existing original manuscript takes us. A more detailed view of two of these ancient versions is given below, from the article of Prof. Fisher, already cited.
He says: "There are two of the old versions which are of pre-eminent value in these inquiries. The first is the Peshito, or the ancient Syriac translation. It was made in the latter part of the second century. What adds to its value is that it was the authoritative version of the entire church of Syria. It was made, also, at one time. This is certainly true of the New Testament. Associated on the same level with the Syriac version are the early Latin translations. Jerome, in the fourth century, translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin, and revised earlier Latin versions of the New Testament. In this way he produced the Vulgate. From the Fathers of the second century, we can gain considerable knowledge relative to the earlier Latin versions which formed the basis of Jerome's revision. Not a few passages are cited from them. Jerome himself was a scholar, and had in his hands manuscripts which are now lost. It is a drawback, however, from the value of the Vulgate as a witness, that its own text requires criticism. This work of emendation was undertaken as long ago as A.D. 802 by Alcuin, under the auspices of Charlemagne. It was undertaken anew by the direction of the Council of Trent, under the superintendence of the popes. The first revised edition, under Sixtus V., was so carelessly prepared that though it was declared by papal authority to be correct, and the last umpire in controversies--as the Tridentine Fathers had decreed that the Vulgate should be--it had to be recalled, the reason being assigned at the suggestion of Bellarmin, that its blemishes were errors of the press. It was a false reason, but it saved the papal dignity, and a more correct edition was prepared and issued. The authorized Vulgate is not, however, so pure a text as some editions issued by scholars not having this ecclesiastical sanction for their labors." A few other facts may be quoted:
"The Vulgate was the first book printed from movable type, this being done at Mentz, by Guttenberg, somewhere between 1450 and 1455.
"Portions of the Bible were translated into German as early as the latter part of the ninth century. These translations increased in number until the invention of printing. Five undated editions were issued before 1477, all of them from the Vulgate. The first of these is thought to have been printed as early as 1466 in Strasburg. Between 1477 and 1522 nine other editions followed, besides translations of detached portions.
"Luther's New Testament appeared in 1522. It was published at Wittemberg in two folio volumes. In 1524 the whole Bible, with the exception of the prophetical books, was published in three folio volumes at Nuremberg. Luther's Bible was translated from the original languages.
"The Zurich Bible was published shortly after Luther's, and was a combination of his translation with the translations of Leo Juda and other German scholars."
Bibles among other nations were printed for the first time, so far as is known, as follows, all being translations from the Vulgate: Italian, 1471, at Venice; Flemish, 1475, at Cologne; Spanish, 1478, at Valencia; French, 1487, at Paris; Bohemian, 1488, at Prague.
Another means of ascertaining the true condition of the original text, is found in the abundant quotations of the early writers of the church. In all their writings, experimental as well as controversial, they took special delight in citing extensively from the Scriptures. Two dangers exist, however, in appeals to this source; the first, in the careless manner in which quotations were made in those days as in these; the second, in the imperfections of the manuscripts containing these quotations. Where texts are dwelt upon at length, the exact form comes out clearly, but casual references to a text, or connection, cannot be depended upon.
The silence of these early writers is suggestive and satisfactory in many cases. For instance, the fact that in the earnest discussions of the Trinity, which engrossed the scholars of the early church, there was no reference to the text in 1 John v., 7, is absolute proof that this verse was not found in their Bibles. Had it been there, it would certainly have been used. It was not used, simply because it was unknown as a part of Scripture. Silence concerning it condemns it utterly.
It has been said with much truth that if the New Testament had been lost in the middle ages, the sentences and paragraphs quoted so profusely throughout the religious literature of the first four or five centuries of our era, would furnish nearly everything written by the Evangelists and Apostles. Never were the Sacred Writings so plentifully scattered among human compositions as in the times of the Early Fathers. Origen, in the third century, was a voluminous and learned author, and is properly regarded, notwithstanding some errors in judgment and faults in practice, as one of the most illustrious men to be found in the entire array of Christians. As a specimen of the number of quotations from, and allusions to, the New Testament among the Fathers, we subjoin the following list, taken from Keith's "Demonstration of the Truth of Christianity," showing the use Origen made of quotations from the New Testament in his works. The quotations are shown from the several volumes of his works.
|Vol. I.||Vol. II.||Vol. III.||Vol. IV.|
The aggregate of these quotations is 5,765.
But Origen was one only of many writers. Had the New Testament been corrupted, the means of detection were abundant. The crime could have been proved beyond a doubt. Such is the value of quotations in our efforts to ascertain what is the pure word of God.
If Origen's works had come down to us entire, we should have among them the most ancient Polyglott Bible known. Fragments only are all we have of his "Hexapla;" which, as we learn from notes at the end of some of the books of the Codex Sinaiticus, was used for comparison in correcting the writing of that venerable manuscript.