Can we claim the Bible as a trustworthy and authoritative revelation of God’s will? That has always been a central pillar of the Christian faith. In contrast to the honored place the Bible has held among Christians, a recent trend in textual scholarship, focusing on differences in ancient copies of the New Testament (NT), has raised a number of issues that call into question the accuracy and reliability of the NT Scriptures. For example, scholars have pointed out that none of the original autographs of the NT exist and all the copies that do exist are simply copies of copies with most copies over a thousand years removed from the originals.
While the vast majority of the NT manuscripts are over a thousand years removed from the originals, an ever-growing number of manuscripts discovered in Egypt have narrowed the gap between the original autographs of the NT and their copies to only a few hundred years and, in some cases, even less than a hundred years. These discoveries provide further evidence that the NT Scriptures have been faithfully preserved down through the centuries.
The evidence before the twentieth century
Before the end of the nineteenth century, the evidence for the NT in Greek was limited to three categories of manuscripts: (a) minuscules; (b) lectionaries; and (c) majuscules.
Minuscule manuscripts refer to copies of the NT written between the ninth and eighteenth centuries in a small cursive script. These manuscripts make up the largest portion of extant NT manuscripts totaling 2,907 at the present. While thousands of manuscripts are impressive, the value of these manuscripts is mitigated in the minds of some by the fact that they are removed from the originals by a thousand years or so. Being so far removed from the originals, some have wondered how accurate these manuscripts are since changes may have slipped into the text over such a long period of time.
The second category of manuscripts called the lectionaries are, as the name implies, copies of the NT that were read as part of a liturgical worship service. Dating back to as early as the fifth century, these manuscripts tend to be older than the minuscule manuscripts. However, their value is limited by the fact that they do not contain continuous portions of the NT—they merely contain portions of passages from various books within the NT. Today 2,449 lectionaries are in existence.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, majuscule manuscripts emerged as the oldest category of NT manuscripts available. The name for this category was derived from the older style of Greek handwriting that used large block Greek letters in contrast to the small cursive script developed later. All but two of these manuscripts, written on a type of animal hide called parchment, date from the fourth to the ninth centuries. Only 321 of these manuscripts exist today. The oldest of these manuscripts dates back to about a.d. 350 and contains a copy of both the Old and New Testaments in Greek. These were first discovered in 1844 at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula and are referred to as Codex Sinaiticus. Due to the antiquity and extent of the majuscule manuscripts, scholars have viewed them as the most significant copies of the NT available. While 300 years removed from the original is certainly much closer than a thousand years, some skeptics continued to suggest that changes might have slipped in during the years between the autographs and the copies.
A surprising discovery in Egypt
The manuscript evidence for the NT radically changed in 1897 when two Oxford scholars, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, stumbled upon a treasure trove of some 40,000 pieces of ancient documents written on papyrus at the site of an ancient Egyptian town called Oxyrhynchus.1 Classical scholars by training, Grenfell and Hunt had no real interest in finding ancient biblical manuscripts. They had gone to Egypt with very different aspirations. The discovery of a second century copy of portions of the second book of The Iliad by Flinders Petrie in 1887 had drawn these young scholars to Egypt with the hope that the hot and arid climate of Egypt had also preserved other copies of Greek classics that had disappeared over the centuries.
After a disappointing season in 1895–1896, Grenfell and Hunt turned their attention to Oxyrhynchus, some 100 miles southwest of Cairo. Although this city had once been the capital of the surrounding district, its remote location west of the Nile and its insignificant role in history had caused it to be overlooked by other explorers. After surveying the remains of the city and digging unprofitably for three weeks, Grenfell and Hunt were on the verge of giving up.
Before leaving the city, however, the two young scholars decided to explore one last place, the city dump—a place scholars never really thought had value before. To their amazement, the first shovel full of dirt revealed a portion of an ancient manuscript nearly 2,000 years old. The second shovel turned up the oldest copy of the Gospel of Matthew ever discovered. Although it was only a leaf, it dated to the third century, a century earlier than any previous copy of Matthew. The discovery did not end there. Over the course of the next ten years, they discovered all kinds of nonliterary papyri (e.g., personal letters, tax receipts, bills of sale, divorce proceedings), as well as fragments from the Gospel of Luke, John, the writings of Paul, and more—though in many cases the fragments were no larger than the size of a credit card. They even discovered a few of the long lost Greek classics they had hoped to find. What they had initially thought was simply rubbish, turned out to be a prime source of ancient documents and artifacts that dated back centuries.
Since Grenfell and Hunt’s initial discovery, the stream of NT papyri has been gradually increasing over the decades as scholars continue to translate and publish texts from Oxyrhynchus.2 At latest count, a total of 51 pieces of NT papyri have been identified from Oxyrhynchus.3
In addition to the NT papyri, other documents unearthed in Oxyrhynchus provide a picture of a growing population of Christians—to whom we are likely indebted for the NT papyri. In the third century, two Christian churches existed in Oxyrhynchus—a city with a population of about 30,000.4 The population jumped to 40,000 by the early sixth century. This evidence dovetails nicely with Rufinus’s claim that the town had 30 churches in the fourth and fifth centuries.5 Christianity not only took root at Oxyrhynchus at an early age, but it appears to have continued to grow at a rapid pace.
The discovery in Oxyrhynchus also led to a number of other papyri discoveries from across Egypt. These other discoveries have so far produced an additional 76 NT manuscripts. When these are added to the papyri from Oxyrhynchus, the total amounts to 127. While 127 manuscripts hardly compare in volume to the 5,677 other Greek manuscripts, the age of many of the papyri along with their discovery in remote and insignificant Egyptian towns like Oxyrhynchus, testify to the value Christians found in the NT Scriptures and to the wide extent of their circulation and use.
But even more importantly, the discovery of the NT papyri in Egypt helps demonstrate how faithfully the NT Scriptures were preserved down through the centuries. Before the discovery of these manuscripts, as noted earlier, the oldest evidence for the NT Scriptures dated to one or two manuscripts from the middle of the fourth century. Now we have 62 older manuscripts that scholars date around the turn of the third/ fourth centuries or earlier.6 In fact, one of these manuscripts, referred to as Papyrus 52, contains five verses from John 18 and has been dated to about a.d. 125. Assuming that John wrote his Gospel in the mid a.d. 90s, the discovery of Papyrus 52 narrows the gap between the original and the copies to less than 50 years. Discoveries of this nature are unheard of.
Of course, the particular downside of the vast majority of the early papyri is their fragmentary nature. In cases like Papyrus 52, the fragments cover, at best, only a few words to a couple of verses. Only a few of the papyri cover substantial portions of a text (P45, P46, P66, P75, P13, P72, P115), none of which is dated, unfortunately, to earlier than the third century. Nevertheless, even these small fragments reveal that, even with typical scribal miscues, the text they contain does not differ entirely from the text preserved in copies made centuries later.
An interesting picture (see Table 1) appears when the earliest NT papyri are arranged according to the NT books they contain. In this case, each papyrus is not counted merely once but for each book it attests.
As indicated in Table 1, the NT papyri contain portions from nearly every book in the NT. The only writings missing are 1 and 2 Timothy and 2 and 3 John. Excluding the sheer serendipity of these discoveries, the limited nature of the evidence for these personal letters may simply be an indication of their lack of popularity among some early Christians—perhaps similar to how many Christians today prefer to read some NT letters instead of others. In any case, what should not be missed is the striking fact that the early papyri cover substantially the entire span of the NT canon. This is especially noteworthy in light of the questions among some early Christians surrounding the canonical status of some of the very books attested by the papyri—in particular, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Revelation.
It is also interesting to observe that based on the number of extant NT papyri before the turn of the fourth century, only John, Matthew, Luke, Acts, and Romans have a greater representation among the papyri than Revelation. Might this suggest that the book of Revelation had some particular interest to the Christians in Egypt? Revelation’s presence is also interesting due to the difficulties it faced by some Christians in the east who thought it was just too bizarre to be accepted as Scripture.
It would, of course, be going beyond the extent of the evidence to conclude that these books, and none other, were seen as authoritative by early Christians. The very fact that copies of “other” gospels and writings have emerged from Egypt, like the Gospel of Thomas, Papyrus Egerton 2, and, most recently, the celebrated Coptic Gospel of Judas, suggests that Christians were exposed to a diversity of written material at an early time. But, if what was discovered at Oxyrhynchus and elsewhere is a guide to what was read, then the multiplicity of the NT writings, in contrast to the isolated copies of these “other” gospels, suggests a higher value was placed on the NT writings.7
Reliability of the NT papyri
An examination of the papyri and their relation to the early church often raises the question of whether select papyri, discovered in a provincial town like Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, provides an accurate representation of NT writings in circulation outside of Egypt.8 The presence of Gnostic elements among some circles of Christians in Egypt and the preference among church fathers from Alexandria, like Origen, for an allegorical understanding of Scripture have been seen by some individuals as unsettling at best when it comes to assessing the biblical texts found in Egypt.
While we cannot be absolutely certain that the NT papyri discovered in the provincial towns and villages of Egypt are representative of those in Alexandria, Egypt, or even typical of the entire Greco-Roman world, there appears little reason to doubt the existence of such a correspondence. While the provenance of some of the papyri remains unknown, their discovery has not been limited to Oxyrhynchus. They have emerged from almost every region of Egypt, with the exception of the more humid areas of Alexandria and the Delta, where one would not expect papyrus manuscripts to have survived. The personal letters and official documents in the Egyptian papyri suggest that many of the country estates across Egypt were the possession of wealthy Greeks whose primary residence was in Alexandria.9
Furthermore, the nonliterary papyri also paint a very dynamic picture of the ancient world with people and documents traveling all across the Mediterranean. In fact, it is absolutely certain that some of the documents discovered in Egypt were actually written outside of Egypt. For example, a bill of sale for a slave was discovered at Oxyrhynchus that was written on the island of Rhodes. Other documents and letters found in Oxyrhynchus derive from such faraway places as Ravenna, Macedonia, Seleucia, and Pamphylia.10 Thus rather than the NT texts only representing the text of Egypt, it seems far more likely that the papyri represent, in the words of Eldon Epp, “the full textual spectrum of earliest Christianity.”11
The discovery of the NT papyri in Egypt indicates that the earliest Christians highly valued the NT Scriptures. Not only did they accurately preserve these manuscripts in the copies they made, but they valued them enough to want to take their copies with them as they traveled and lived both in the great cities of the Mediterranean world and in such out of the way places as the towns and villages of Egypt. Although much has changed during the last two millennia, may the importance and value of Scripture continue to be a mark of Christians today.
1. For an interesting, anecdotal guide to the life and letters of this ancient city, see Peter Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007). For a more scholarly account of the discoveries made at Oxyrhynchus, see A. K. Bowman, et al., Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 2007). A wealth of information concerning the discoveries made at Oxyrhynchus can also be found online at http://www.papyrology.ox.ac.uk/POxy/ and http://www.csad.ox.ac.uk/POxy/frame1.htm.
2. The Egypt Exploration Fund began publishing the papyri from Oxyrhynchus in 1898 in a series titled The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The series is currently on its 94th volume, but is now published under the title Graeco-Roman Memoirs.
3. Peter M. Head, “Some Recently Published NT Papyri From Oxyrhynchus: An Overview and Preliminary Assessment,” Tyndale Bulletin 51 (2000): 1–16.
4. “Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts, Virtual Exhibition: The Theatre,” n.p. (cited 2 February 2010). Online: http://www.papyrology.ox.ac.uk/POxy/VExhibition/the_site/theatre.html.
5. Cf. P.Oxy 43 (a.d. 295); P.Oxy 1357 (a.d. 535–536). See also, E. J. Epp, “The Codex and Literacy in Early Christianity and at Oxyrhynchus: Issues Raised by Harry Y. Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church,” Critical Review of Books in Religion 10 (1997): 28–32; “The NT Papyri at Oxyrhynchus in Their Social and Intellectual Context,” in W. L. Petersen, J. S. Vos, and H. J. D. Jonge, eds., Sayings of Jesus: Canonical and Non-Canonical (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997), 47–68.
6. Eldon Epp, “The Papyrus Manuscripts of the New Testament,” in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, eds. B. D. Ehrman and M. W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 6; “NT Papyri and the Transmission of the NT,” in Bowman, 315–331.
7. Parsons, 198.
8. E.g., James A. Borland, “The Preservation of the NT Text: A Common Sense Approach,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 10 (1999): 47, 48. In an obvious jab at the texts discovered in Egypt, Borland contends that texts copied outside Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and Palestine where the “original” manuscripts resided would not “have the luxury of obtaining a copy from a church which could certify that the exemplar was from the hand of the apostolic author” (47).
9. E.g., C. H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief (Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1979), 4n2.
10. See P.Oxy 1.3593; Eric. G. Turner, Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World, 2nd ed., rev. by P. J. Parsons (London: University of London, Institute of Classical Studies, 1987), 50, 144, 145; also Epp, “The Significance of the Papyri for Determining the Nature of the New Testament Text in the Second Century: A Dynamic View of Textual Transmission,” in Gospel Traditions in the Second Century: Origins, Recensions, Text, and Transmission, Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity 3 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 280–283; The Papyrus Manuscripts of the New Testament, 8–10.
11 Epp, The Papyrus Manuscripts, 9.