Ancestry of the English Bible (III): Restoring the Autograph

Mike Willis
Mooresville, Indiana

Since the autograph was the only perfectly inspired copy of the scriptures, we need to be able to restore it in order to have an inspired copy of revelation for us today. Our Bibles are inspired only as perfectly as we can restore the original text. This lesson lists a few of the major materials used in restoring the original New Testament text.


"There are nearly 4,500 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. These include over 200 uncial documents, counting all fragments, which range in date from the second to the ninth century, about 100 papyri and ostraca, mainly uncial, approximately 2,500 cursive documents dating from the ninth to the fifteenth century, and nearly 1,700 lectionaries, some of which were written in uncials as late as the twelfth century" (The Ancestry of the English Bible, Price, p. 161). From this abundance of material comes our greatest knowledge of the original text.

Of the Greek manuscripts, four early uncials are the most important. They are as follows:

1. CODEX SINAITICUS. In 1844, a textual critic named Tischendorf went to St. Catherine's monastery on Mt. Sinai in search of ancient Biblical manuscripts. There he found the monks using as trash to light their oven a fourth century copy of the Greek Bible. He was able to obtain only a partial copy (43 pages) of this old manuscript on that occasion but, in 1853, under the patronage of Alexander II, Czar of Russia, Tischendorf brought back our best copy of the New Testament, though the Old Testament was rather fragmentary. Later, this Bible manuscript was sold to the British Museum for over $500,000.

2. CODEX VATICANUS. As its name implies, Vaticanus resides in the Vatican library in Rome as it has since before 1475. For some unexplainable reason, Catholic authorities refused to let textual scholars examine this manuscript until 1889-1890 when it was photographically reproduced and made available to all.

For the whole Bible, Vaticanus is the best preserved of all our early Greek manuscripts, but it lacks the following sections: Gen. I46; 30 of the Psalms; Heb. 9:14 onwards (including I and 2 Tim.; Tit.; and Phile.). From all evidence, Vaticanus was produced in the first half of the fifth century.

3. CODEX ALEXANDRINUS. In 1624, this manuscript was presented to King James of England as a gift. This early fifth century manuscript rivals the Vaticanus in value for restoring the whole Bible though it lacks the following sections in the New Testament: Matt. 1:1-25:6; John 6:50-8:52; 2 Cor. 4:13-12:6.

4. CODEX EPHRAEMI. This manuscript was made in the fifth century but was erased so that the parchment could be reused for copying St. Ephraem's sermons in the twelfth century. In the nineteenth century through use of chemicals, Tischendorf was able to restore the original manuscript. Only about five-eighths of the New Testament is extant though it contains portions of every book except 2 Thessalonians and 2 John.

Though many more manuscripts are available (the papyrus collections of Chester Beatty and Bodmer), where these four manuscripts agree, that reading is usually followed.

Early Versions

In addition to the large number of manuscripts, early versions (translations of the Bible into other languages) are also used in restoring the original text. When Christians began to scatter, teaching the gospel of Christ, the need for translations of the Holy Scriptures immediately followed. Since some of these versions were made one or two centuries prior to our best Biblical manuscripts, they are valuable as an aid in restoring our early text.

Problems arise in using versions which cannot be ignored. Since versions are as subject to corruption as were manuscripts, the early version had first to be restored before it could be used to find the true Greek text. When the early version has been attained as nearly as possible, the version is re-translated into Greek at which time the Greek text is evaluated since it is altogether possible that the version could have been translated from a Greek text of inferior quality. After the evaluation, the version is then used for a check on our early manuscripts. Their chief value is as a check to see if certain phrases and sentences were actually in the early manuscripts.

Among the important early versions were the Syriac (called Peshitta), the old Latin, the Latin Vulgate, and the Coptic, (Egyptian) versions. Of course, any of these alone could be used to give us a reasonably accurate copy of our Bible.

Patristic Quotations

The early Christian writers, called "church fathers," frequently, quoted from the Bible in their writings. "Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources of our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament" (The Text of the New Testament, Metzger, p. 86).

Determining just how accurately these early preachers quoted from their Greek texts presents the greatest problem in using patristic quotations.

But when all the evidence from manuscripts, early versions, and patristic quotations is tabulated, we can be reasonably sure that we have an accurate copy of the sacred writings. Indeed, the wealth of extant Biblical manuscripts is the envy of any scholar trying to restore ancient classical Greek works.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XV: 16, pp. 7-8
February 25, 1971