Manuscript   abbrev. MS. (plural MSS.)

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Handwritten document. Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th c. all documents had to be copied by hand, a laborious process that invited all kinds of variations: misspellings, altered wording, grammatical corrections, stylistic improvements, insertions, omissions, etc. Thus, no two NT mss. are identical. In trying to establish the original version of a biblical text, modern editors have to sort through more than 1000 years of mss. with variant readings. Because new changes were introduced every time a ms. was copied, earlier mss. are generally given priority.

NT mss. are classified by material (papyrus or parchment); format (scroll or codex); & script (uncial or minuscule). Because of cost, all Christian documents surviving from the pre-Constantinian era (4th c. CE) are on papyrus. Since papyrus is fragile, only fragments of these works have been preserved. But modern editions of the NT value the contents of these mss., because they represent versions of the text before ecclesiastical authorities began to standardize the biblical text to conform to the doctrinal orthodoxy of the later era.

20th c. versions of the NT are primarily based on parchment uncial codices of the 4th-9th c. Many of the earliest of these, like Sinaiticus, have undergone extensive "correction" by later scribes. Scholars trying to establish the original contents of the biblical text often prefer the "uncorrected" wording of the original. Many NT mss. have marginal notes added by other scribes. These marginalia were often copied into the main text of later mss. Therefore, modern versions of the NT text usually print such passages in footnotes or brackets to indicate that they were not found in the oldest mss. Mark 16:9-20 & John 8:1-11 are the most notable examples.

[For a catalog of the major insertions in later gospel mss. see "Orphan Sayings & Stories" in The Complete Gospels revised edition (R.J. Miller, ed., Sonoma: Polebridge Press, 1994), pp. 449-455].

Other On-line Resources:

  • Making Manuscripts - Series of video clips illustrating the classic art of mss. preparation from parchment making to binding (project of the J. Paul Getty Institute). 


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last revised 29 December 2005



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