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About the Manuscripts
More than 5800 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament still exist. The oldest complete New Testament manuscript is contained in a Greek Bible named Codex Sinaiticus, from about 350 A.D., while Codex Vaticanus, from about the same time, contains most of the Old and New Testaments. Two other bibles, Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, date to about 100 years later. There are also close to that time frame other partial Greek manuscripts, New Testament manuscripts translated into Latin, Aramaic and other languages, and writings from early church fathers who quote from the New Testament.
The earliest New Testament writings were written close to 50 A.D., so having manuscripts as old as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus is quite remarkable, taking us back 85% of the way from the present day to the time the New Testament books were first written. And yet, these are not actually the earliest New Testament manuscripts. The earliest manuscripts are partial fragments of the New Testament, usually written on papyrus and discovered in various locations. Some of these papyri may date all the way back to near 100 A.D. The purpose of this web site is to provide an English language translation of these early New Testament manuscripts – the ones which date to 300 A.D. or earlier, and are thus older than Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. There are 83 such manuscripts identified on this web site.
Most of these early manuscripts were written on papyrus. Papyrus was made from the papyrus plant, and is similar to thick paper. It was most common in Egypt, and tended to last longer than scrolls, which were made from animal skin. Most of the early New Testament papyri were discovered in Egypt, and most were discovered in the 20th century. It can be expected that such discoveries will continue into the future. The papyri usually had writing on both front and back sides. The papyri have been assigned numbers (P1, P4, etc.) and those numbers are used on this web site. They vary widely in size, with the smallest having only a few lines and the largest having multiple books. Most of these papyri are leftover fragments from what were once much larger books. In addition to New Testament papyri, many papyri from other documents have also been discovered.
While many manuscripts have been discovered, this web site includes only those which date to 300 A.D. or earlier – older than any of the great codices. Although sometimes a text can be dated by separate means, such as the type of paper, the usual method for determining the date of a manuscript is paleography, or the study of the handwriting. If this seems subjective, consider how even a non-expert can take one glance at a copy of the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence and know that the handwriting is not from this century. Experts in the field can usually narrow down the date very well by paleography. Still, there is sometimes controversy with the date of some of the papyri, especially when the date is very early. For example, Papyrus P52 is sometimes considered the earliest papyrus, with many scholars settling on an estimate around 125 A.D. However, P52 contains verses from the gospel of John, and some scholars had previously dated that gospel well into the second century, so for them an early date for P52 is very problematic. This web site will not perform a detailed study on the dates for the papyri, and the reader would be advised to investigate the subject on his own. The dates used on this web site are in most cases taken from the book The Complete Text of the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts by Philip Comfort and David Barrett.
The early New Testament manuscripts almost all adopted a convention called nomina sacra, in which a sort of acronym or symbol was used in place of some Greek words and names. These words were Jesus, Christ, God, Lord, son, Spirit, David, cross, mother, father, Israel, savior, man, heavens and Jerusalem. These words would be replaced by an acronym with a line above the acronym. For example, the Greek word Theos (God) would be replaced by the Greek capital letter theta followed by a capital sigma, with a line above both.