Two Manuscript Lines of New Testament

In 200 AD, an early church father named Tertullian wrote that the churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Phillipi, Thessalonica, and Rome still had original documents written by Paul and other disciples. At that time, many would have been more than 130 years old. That’s an indication of the importance the early church put upon these documents and the care they took in handling and preserving them. However, they also knew that none of the documents would last forever. Therefore, they made copies, which they carefully copied from the originals.  The copies were kept in book chests, in homes, and copies were also made to share with other churches.

Along with the written copies of the original texts, there was also an oral tradition that accompanied them.  That confirmed the dates of the writing and the writer’s authority.  Today we have well over 5,000 Greek manuscript documents (or portions of the ancient documents); the earliest being circa 100 AD when many eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection would still have been alive.

The Preserved Word

The copyists of the original manuscripts were meticulous in their endeavor for accuracy in the copies they produced.  Their dedicated work preserved God’s Word. We can be certain of this because, first and foremost, God promised His Word would be preserved forever.

Isa 40:8 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever.
Mat 24:35 Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.
Luke 21:33 Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.
1 Pet 1:25  the word of the Lord endureth forever.

The original Bible manuscripts came from two different sources.  One line is called the Antioch Line, having originated with the documents from Antioch, Syria.  The other line originated in Alexandria, Egypt, and is called the Alexandrian Line.  There are significant differences between the two lines, but no disagreement in the messages.  Different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong. However, the differences have caused people over the centuries to question which manuscript line is best or at least which is more accurately copied from the original documents.

Our English  Bibles

The translations of the Bible that we have today are easily traceable to one of the two lines of manuscripts. From the Antioch manuscripts, we have the following English translations (not an all-inclusive list):

Wycliffe Bible (1388), Martin Luther Bible (1522), Tyndale Bible (1522), Coverdale Bible (1535), Matthews Bible (1537), Great Bible (1539), Geneva Bible (1560), Bishops Bible (1568), King James Bible (1611), and New King James Bible (1982)

From the Alexandrian manuscripts, we have the following English translations (not an all-inclusive list):

Rheims-Douay (1582), Revised Version (1881), American Standard Version (1901), RSV, NASV, LB, NSRB, JB, TEV, NEB, NIV, GNB, NRSV, NAB, NCV, NBV, HCSB, NLT, ISV, ESV.

This simple chart will help you see the transmission of the New Testament from the first century until today.

Click on the Image to Enlarge or Download

Reading and Studying the Bible

Take some time to understand the differences between the two manuscript lines and varying translations of our English Bibles.  It is important when studying the Bible because the difference in words can affect your understanding and your ability to cross-reference.  Cross referencing is critically important for understanding God’s Word because cross-referencing lets the Bible explain the Bible.

It’s also important to understand the diferences in word-for-word, literal translations and dynamic, thought-by though translations.  For more about this, read Which Bible Translation is Best?

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