Floodlights on the Greek New Testament

How new insights and discoveries are shedding light on the New Testament.


Not long ago Dr. A. T. Robertson, one of America's foremost scholars in the field of New Testament Greek, made the following statement: "It is now over four hundred years since the Greek New Testament of Erasmus made such a sensation in Europe. Over a thou­sand editions of the Greek New Testament have since been printed. The new light on the language of the New Testament is as ro­mantic as the work of Erasmus. We are just beginning the most wonderful period in the study of the Greek New Testament. Happy are they who are wise enough to use the new means within their grasp to learn the word of God."

Very naturally, one asks the question, On the basis of what fact or facts did Dr. Rob­ertson make such a statement? For decades his intensely studious and fruitful life has been all but completely absorbed in the study of the Greek New Testament, and as a matter of course he has come to regard this little Greek volume of the ancient world as both vital and of absorbing interest. He is also conscious of the fact that there is no other book in the world equal to it. Together with its companion volume, the Old Testament, it is unique in the world of multiplied books. Of this same Greek New Testament, Dean Alford, one of England's late New Testament scholars, said, "Here is the wisdom of the world."

Very consistently Dr. Robertson insists that all who aspire to be leaders in the living message of that book should be thoroughly in­formed as to its teachings on the basis of its original language. But since that has ever been true, the question still remains, Why does he maintain that now is the urgent and oppor­tune hour for study of the New Testament in the Greek?

As we all know, our printed Greek New Tes­tament was the product of the Reformation tide of Luther's day, and one of the spiritual earth­quakes that shook Europe and all Christendom to the very foundation. With a few unimpor­tant alterations, the Greek New Testament is the same unique piece of writing that it was when it came from the hand of that Protestant-minded Roman Catholic scholar, Erasmus, in 1516. Fundamentally it will ever abide the same. Its witness and message have been fixed for all time. But while that is assuringly true, it is equally true that since the momentous period of the Reformation, discoveries of many valuable manuscripts, versions, early quota­tions of the Fathers, papyri, inscriptions, mini­atures, and the like have been made, all of which throw a flood of light on this little book, the Greek New Testament.

Erasmus had a mere handful of manuscripts —perhaps a dozen—out of which, in the provi­dence of God, he built his Greek New Testa­ment. Today there are "about forty-six hun­dred, including the New Testament commen­taries of the Church Fathers." The vast ma­jority of these have been recovered in recent years, and the volume of these precious docu­ments is being added to almost daily. It must be that Dr. Robertson had these in mind when he said what he did, since by their wit­ness the New Testament speaks in clearer and more decisive tones.

It is only about seventy years since Tischen­dorf made his epoch-making discovery of that rare manuscript (the Codex Sinaiticus) near Mt. Sinai, which with much anxiety and joy he committed to the czar of Russia. It is con­sidered second to only one other manuscript in the world. Almost countless texts on papyrus (the ancient name for the paper made from the reed fiber) have in the last thirty-five years or so been unearthed, mainly in Egypt, and along with them many inscriptions, ostraca (writ­ings on broken pieces of pottery),—all of which serve to give clearer insight into the meaning of the words of the Greek New Testament. In the light of these papyri and inscriptions, the Greek New Testament is seen to be a book writ­ten in the vernacular, the language of the com­mon people, just as all the nearly one thousand translations of the Bible now accessible in the world are in the vernacular, and so speak to the masses in their own familiar language.

Just as Paul and the other writers of the books and letters of the New Testament wrote in the speech of the common people, using the current words and phrases, not of the scholars, but to the average man, so these papyri, com­prising private and official letters from all ranks of society, business contracts, deeds of property, receipts, mortgages, marriage con­tracts, and death notices, are likewise found to have been written in the everyday speech of the common people. These papyri cover a period of more than five hundred years, from about 250 B. c. to three or four hundred years after the beginning of the Christian era. These writings were almost exclusively in the Greek language, and reveal the literary status of the masses in the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament age. For this reason these discov eries are like so many comments on the words or language employed by Paul and John and Peter, when they wrote their inspired messages.

Furthermore, Dr. Robertson must have had in mind the important manuscripts of the New Testament that have come to light within the last few years. There is the Washington Codex (of the four Gospels), now housed in Washington, D. C. It is one of a group of four manuscripts containing portions of the Bible, and secured by Mr. Charles Freer of Detroit, in the winter of 1906, from Cairo. Without doubt this is the greatest manuscript treasure in America. Then there is the Rockefeller-McCormick manuscript brought to light within the last four or five years, now the property of Mrs. McCormick and her heirs (in Chicago). It is late, probably from the thirteenth cen­tury; yet it brings its contribution to the little Greek volume we are studying. It is beauti­fully illuminated,. Still another manuscript containing the four Gospels, is the Koridethi Codex, which came to light in 1913 in the Cau­casus region, and is now in Tiflis. This is said to be very important.

The latest and most important discovery is the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri. It was secured some three years ago in Cairo by Mr. Beatty from a shop dealing in all such ancient documents. It was brought to England and placed in the British Museum, and having been carefully studied by Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, one of England's first scholars in that field, it is now being offered to the world for examina­tion. This manuscript (being issued in twelve parts) dates, it is held, from the second cen­tury and onward, thus the earliest manuscript known to date. The writing is on papyrus, not vellum or parchment, as in the case of the other early manuscripts that date from the fourth century. It would seem that this latest man­uscript, then, may have been written, at least in part by some Christians who lived near enough to the apostolic age to have known the apostle John. Sir Frederic tells us that it is "confirmatory;" that is, it confirms our New Testament as we have had it all along. But how fascinating it is to gaze at such ancient words, and then realize that they have been preserved for our day, living and almost vocal with the words of our Lord and Master and the men who went forth and witnessed for Him.

Washington, D. C.

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March 1934

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