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
format (scroll or codex);
& script (uncial
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
[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:
Manuscripts - Series of video clips
illustrating the classic art of mss. preparation from parchment making to
binding (project of the J. Paul Getty Institute).