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Often copied, never equalled

Dr Dirk Jongkind has spent years examining the ancient manuscripts that make up the New Testament. He tells Philip Halcrow how the writings that tell the good news of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus – and of the faith that grew up around him – were put together

The list of books was not a top-down decision

IN the beginning, the words were not written. ‘Jesus taught, but he did not write anything,’ says scholar Dr Dirk Jongkind. ‘For the first two decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostles did not write anything either. But then they started to write letters and they also wrote down their teaching about Jesus, which is what we find in the gospels. And that is basically what the New Testament is: the collection of the teaching of the apostles to the earliest churches.’

The New Testament is where centuries of readers have learnt about the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus and about the effect he had on his early followers.

It is a collection of writings that has changed lives and, through translation, left a lasting impression on the English language in everyday phrases such as ‘good Samaritan’, ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘powers that be’.

It is also a collection of writings that comes with what Dirk calls ‘complications’ – which is why he has just spent ten years leading a project that aimed to produce the most accurate text of the New Testament in its original language, Greek.

Dirk, who is academic vice-principal of Cambridge-based research institute Tyndale House, says there are questions surrounding when the 27 books that make up the New Testament were finally and definitively chosen.

‘When it comes to the gospels, the four we have in modern Bibles – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – were recognised at least by the end of the 2nd century and were possibly considered as the only accepted gospels even before then.

‘The collection of the letters of Paul must have been very early, though there has been some discussion of one letter called the Letter to the Hebrews. Most scholars say it’s probably not written by Paul, but it has always been collected with his letters.

‘To gain acceptance, a book did not have to be specifically written by an apostle, but it did need to have the approval of an apostle. For example, Luke was a medic and not one of the disciples of Jesus, but in his gospel he says that he is writing down the teachings of the apostles, so it was approved.’

The truth about how the New Testament was put together is different from some fictional ideas.

‘There is one popular myth going around,’ says Dirk, ‘that the Church decided which books were in and out at a synod. Quite often the Council of Nicaea is mentioned. In Dan Brown’s book there is a beautiful scene about the bishops fighting over what books should be included – the canon.

‘The truth is that the Council of Nicaea, which came together in 325, discussed many things, but not the boundaries of the canon. Actually, at that council the participants were arguing with one another about the divinity of Christ, but both sides assumed the same canon: their arguments were drawn from the same set of books.’

Rather than be decreed at a council, the definitive list of writings developed, says Dirk, ‘by bishops answering questions about which books were part of the canon. It’s not that the list seemed to grow over time, but rather that a consensus grew about some of the writings that were on the margins.

‘The main reason for whether a book was included was whether it was commonly used in churches. So the list of books was not a top-down decision – it was less a diktat and more a realisation of what books were being used.

‘In general, the questions about the list of authoritative books were settled from the 4th century.’

Other questions, however, are still not settled.

‘When we look at the precise wording of the text,’ says Dirk, ‘the main complication we face is that our oldest manuscripts still date from 100 to 150 years after the New Testament was originally written, and our oldest complete copy of the New Testament comes from roughly 200 years after the New Testament was originally written.

‘This was a time when there were no photocopiers, so everything needed to be copied manually. The Church was growing rapidly in the first centuries and the teaching of the apostles was being copied in all sorts of decentralised contexts by people who loved it, and it resulted in copying errors and minor changes.’

In addition to the ‘minor changes’ are ‘two or three big ones, where something deliberate must have happened because the difference is too big to be accidental’, says Dirk.

‘When we go through the manuscripts, we have two versions of how the Gospel of Mark ends. One of them is a very abrupt ending. The women are at the empty tomb, they are ordered by the angels to go and tell the disciples about the empty tomb and then the final verse says: “But they did not tell anyone, for they were afraid.”

‘Either it is a very sophisticated literary ending – leaving the question hanging – or it is incomplete.

‘Very early on, somebody made a more appropriate ending. They took bits from the other gospels and created what is called the “longer ending of Mark”. And that became part of almost every manuscript we know except the two earliest ones. Two early ones have the short ending. And all the others – which are a couple of hundred – have that long ending.

‘The difference was recognised as a problem as early as the 4th century. By then, scholars in the Christian Church were already asking: How did this happen, why did this happen, how are we going to solve this?

‘They concluded that they couldn’t solve the problem, and it was better to have too much than too little, so they copied both.’

A second big question surrounds a passage so well known that it has left a legacy in the English language in the phrase, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’.

Dirk explains that today many scholars would say that the story of Jesus’ refusal to condemn a woman in danger of being stoned for adultery looks ‘out of place’ where it often appears in John’s Gospel.

‘The language is not typical of John. The story seems to break the flow of the narrative a little bit and every Greek manuscript we have from before the 5th century lacks the story. Then there are other manuscripts that put in the margin all sorts of signs indicating that it was not part of the original text.

‘It presents us with a problem. Why was it not included? The story has all the hallmarks of being genuine – it is typically Jesus as we get to know him from the four gospels. So the question is perhaps not so much whether the story happened as whether it belongs to the Gospel of John or was just part of the teaching of the apostles that never found a place anywhere but was put into John’s Gospel to make sure that it survived.’

Most of the differences between manuscripts are not so noticeable – and there are thousands of pieces of evidence available to scholars who want to compare and contrast and try to get back to the original New Testament text.

‘There are about 80 complete handwritten Greek New Testaments – which is not a massive amount, but it’s still 80. When it comes to parts of the New Testament – just the gospels, for instance – then we are talking something around 3,000.

‘The earliest fragments go back to the 2nd century, 100 or 150 years after the texts were written. Then from the 3rd century we have manuscripts that contain almost complete books – there’s one early papyrus manuscript that contains a little bit over half of the Gospel of John.’

As well as Greek manuscripts, scholars can turn to early translations, such as those in Latin or Syriac, which can shed light on the Greek manuscripts from which they were made.

Not only are more and more manuscripts still being found, but technology is also giving scholars more and better access to them.

‘Technology has changed the whole way we look at old manuscripts and old texts,’ says Dirk. ‘First of all, by using computer technology, we can read texts that were erased or vague, because we can manipulate images to bring out details that are not visible to the naked eye.

‘Then, because we can work with so many images, it is much easier to trace developments over time. Many libraries are putting all their old manuscripts online now, so we don’t need to travel to another country to read them. Digital texts mean that it is fairly easy, for instance, to count how many spelling errors a scribe has made.’

Dirk has spent ten years leading a team in scrutinising manuscripts to try to get as close as possible to the original wording of the New Testament texts. Tyndale House has published the results of their work in a new edition of the Greek New Testament, which it hopes will be used by translators and scholars writing Bible studies.

‘The people back then who copied manuscripts made errors,’ Dirk admits. ‘Even now, for example, if you were to write for a whole day without using your backspace key, you know what sort of text you would end up with. Many of the errors people make are just in reading, writing and memory.

‘We’ve collected a lot of data on the copying process and the errors which occur. And when we look at the New Testament, we can see that there was no systematic revision of the texts. The differences were haphazard.’

Most of the changes detectable in the text are not significant. Dirk cites the example of a scribe accidentally changing the phrase ‘Jesus Christ’ to ‘Christ Jesus’.

And through all the manuscripts, he says, there emerges a convincing picture.

‘In the New Testament, we can read different authors and each has a different understanding of Jesus. But they give a consistent picture of Jesus’ self-understanding of his divine origin.

‘And all the various writings and all the various texts give us one united voice on Jesus and what he came to do: to rescue people and to express God’s love.’

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