Orville Jenkins Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home

Theology and Christian Faith
Orality and Literacy

Are Older Bible Manuscripts More Reliable?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

It is logical, isn't it, to assume that older biblical manuscripts would more likely reflect the original reading of the scriptures? If so, what are some reasons why?


I n general, what we know about hand copying indicates more errors are introduced (and definitely the potential for introduction of errors is high) with each generation of copying.  

The question of reliability of manuscripts is also overlaid with assumptions about literacy as it has developed in the last two centuries in the west.  This was not the context of hand-copied manuscripts, which could often be a rote-copying of symbols by assembly-line copyists who may not have even understood the language and words they were copying. Factors such as this are well-documented in the various scholarly literature.

Different Literacy -- Different World
When we think of the handing down of the biblical (or any) text over the centuries, it is too easy to overlook the fact that these manuscripts existed and were copied and circulated in a primarily oral world, where the vast general population was illiterate. Not at all the situation we have of literacy and documents in our time in the Western world today.

The way most people gained access was through the oral reading of portions of biblical text in public worship settings. We still see this same medieval format in the multiple readings of scripture selections in the current liturgies of many modern denominations.

To put our expectations in perspective, just look at the difficulty people have in our everyday society reading other people's writing, copying, copy typing, etc., even in a highly literate society.  Proofreading a new book, for instance, is done many times in the process, and still errors get in our modern books sometimes.

Over the centuries before printing, each new copy was laboriously produced over weeks by hand, with all the difficulties presented by, for instance, individual handwriting and human foibles, with changes in lettering styles, shifts in letter forms, changes from capital to newly-developed lower-case letters and squeezed letters to get as much as possible onto one precious skin or pressed papyrus sheet.

Copy Errors
Many resources are available that detail kinds of copy errors that can occur.  Here are some brief examples.

Hand-Copying Format
The format of text in hand-copying situations causes special difficulties modern readers and authors would not imagine.  For example, a manuscript commonly had not spaces between words, making it difficult to tell where word divisions occur when reading aloud or interpreting a phrase.  

When the practice began of adding spaces between words, a sequence of letters might offer more than one possibility of phrasing, yielding different meanings in different manuscripts.

Phonetic Confusion
Different ways of spelling the same sounds might lead to inadvertent differences between copyists in certain words or phrases, leading to later uncertainty about the intended word.  

We see this kind of thing even in the original gospels.   An example of this indicates sound changes that were in process in the Greek language of the time.  The Greek spelling of Jesus' cry from the cross in the Aramaic word for "My God," is spelled in two different ways in Greek, indicating a sound shift in process.  Both writers correctly represent the Aramaic pronunciation by different Greek letters.  

The Aramaic word Eli (eh-lee) is spelled by two different gospel writers in the equivalent Greek letters for eli vs eloi.  Two different gospel writers spell the same word two different ways, using two different correct choices in the spelling system of the language for the same phonetic sound.

This indicates that the diphthong in Greek represented by the classical spelling "oi" had shifted or was in process of shifting to be pronounced the same as the vowel "i" in Greek.  In modern Greek this is the case, as well as several other vowels shifting similarly.  

This same kind of spelling error can occur easily when a copyist is writing phonetically, without carefully (and slowly and tediously, not to say tiringly and boringly) checking each letter of the hard-to-read hand-written text he is laboriously writing copying in a foreign language of Greek.  This kind of sound similarity in words leads to confusion of word forms, both in meaning and in the correct standard spelling used to represent them.  

Problems of Eyesight
We should not forget the problem of fading and poor eyesight among the copyists.   Corrective spectacles were not common until late in Western history.  Lighting was commonly poor, using oil lamps and low daylight in more primitive forms of architecture, compared to our "ergonomic" lighting situations today.

Forms in Modern Greek
These differences show up in the Modern Greek spelling of various words.  Some words with such vowel changes in sound are spelled now in the same way as they were in Koine, but some are spelled with different vowels for that same sound in Modern Greek, differently than the Koine spelling.

In business signs, you see various "incorrect" spellings of Greek words. People spell them as they sound -- and they have multiple letters for the same sound. The more informal the sign, the more varied the spellings. In Cyprus, we saw many common examples of this on signs, advertisements, marquees or even names of businesses.

One-Letter Word Variations
One-letter differences are another version of phonetic confusion.  In theological developments, the pair homoousios (same substance) and homoiousios (similar substance) split the church east to west finally after centuries of wrangling. This muddle was further complicated by the different connotations between the meaning of the available words to discuss the question in Latin and Greek.  

It is easier to inadvertently add or drop one letter, than to add, leave out or misunderstand a whole word.

Changes in the Common Language
Additional phonetic confusions were introduced as spoken Latin/Greek changed.  Similar differences between national ethnic worldview and language added extra cognitive dissonance to the process as culture changed.  As the centuries progressed, copyists were increasingly copying texts more and more foreign to them, more and more different from any forms of language they had real-life contact with.  

Deteriorating Manuscripts
As animal skins or papyrus manuscripts got more and more worn, they might be harder to read.  Torn, faded or smeared manuscripts could cause confusion or lose actual sections of text.  Reconstructions of missing text (maybe supplied from another copy of a copy) introduces another generation of possible errors in the reconstruction.  This appears to account for many minor variations in passages.

Erasmus ran into this problem in producing his edited version of the common texts in Europe at that time. In the one Greek copy of Revelation he had, the last few verses were missing, so he just translated the missing passage from the Latin Vulgate version of Jerome into Greek to finish out his Greek text. (This is an interesting dilemma for the minority who claim the Textus Receptus is the only valid Greek text!)

Changes in Styles of Lettering
Keep in mind that everything was written laboriously by hand.  Styles of lettering changed over the centuries.  For instance, lower case letters were not introduced into Greek until the early Middle Ages.  Adaptation to the new letter forms could cause some confusion, during the rewriting of new copies in the new lower-case scripts.  Some lower-case letters look like the upper case form of another letter.  

The variation in individual handwriting styles introduces variables in interpreting from one generation of manuscripts to the next generation copy. In some cases, a knowledgeable copyist (as opposed to a mechanical character-copyist, which was common in the early Middle Ages) might add explanatory text to an unclear passage.  

Added Text
In other cases it appears that margin comments made by a scholar or teacher in his own study and preparation might be conscientiously copied by a subsequent copyist into the text as part of the passage.  The copyists were not necessarily scholars of the text they were assigned to copy.

Mechanical copying -- Not Information Processing
Copying texts was a form of devotion and worship, not a cognitive process as modern, analytical westerners might think, with our focus on information and personal knowledge.  Cognitive interaction with the text as you copied it was not a big part of the process of copying of the biblical texts in the historical process before the development of printing.

To get an idea how this might work, talk to a copy-typist about their process of typing from a printed page. I have been told by many that they do it mechanically, not interacting with the information. The latter hinders their focus on the process of getting the letter sequence through their fingers to the keyboard. Copyists have told me they often are only vaguely aware of what they were typing, and sometimes cannot even tell you what the article said.

Other Causes of Difference
There are other common ways errors may be introduced in the copying process:  irregularity of texts/lines in the manuscript you are copying ca make it difficult to keep your place phrase to phrase; the eye can skip he same word in the next line or passage, leaving out one or more words or even whole lines of text when the eye moves from manuscript to copyscript and back to manuscript.

These are some of the common errors that lead to a higher trust for older manuscripts.  We seek the most primitive form, attempting to discover the original words from the hands of the original human author.

It is not my purpose here to provide exhaustive examples, which are ably and amply supplied in the readily-available writings of textual authorities.  My comments are meant to give an idea of the kinds of common difficulties involved, common to our normal human condition, within the expected range of human variation in handwriting, and physical limitations involved.

Integrity of the Texts
These processes mentioned here may help us appreciate the great difference in situation from our current pattern of standardized spelling and printing with clear visual indicators of meaning in modern literate forms.  

This highlights the great sacrifice, care and labor that was exerted to preserve and transmit these honored, sacred texts through the centuries.  The wonder is not that some minor differences occurred between various families of manuscripts, but that such expected differences are so few, and of such little consequence in understanding the general meaning of the ancient texts.  

The integrity of the biblical texts, especially the New Testament writings presents the most well-documented set of texts in all of history, with the slightest range of variation of any comparable set of documents.  There are much greater variations between competing versions of the copies of Shakespeare's plays, at a very small historical depth compared to the almost 2000 year heritage of New Testament texts.

In seeking to determine the original meaning, it makes sense, doesn't it, to aim for the original text behind the variations now available?  Where variations occur, isn't it reasonable to aim for an understanding of why these variations occur, to seek a clearer view of the form from the original apostolic hand?

Limited Circulation
Another factor is the lack of circulation (like ancient manuscripts found in an isolated area (a cave, monastery, etc.) where an individual manuscript may have been preserved and protected better.  Internal continuity of copies in one monastery might entail tighter control on the form of its copies, compared to copying one now in circulation at another place where it was not originally copied.

Manuscript Families
Comparison of the broad range of hand-copied manuscripts of the biblical texts led to the classification of manuscripts into families of similar texts.  Thus differences between manuscripts and their variations tend to be related to regions, cities, churches or schools, as well as monasteries.
Related :  Is the Textus Receptus Inspired?

Based on comments in an email discussion 20 August 2002
Article finalized and posted 21 November 2004
Last edited 13 September 2005

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2004
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
Email: orville@jenkins.nu    
Orville Jenkins Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home

Filename:  oldermss.html