The New Testament Canon and Its Text

Canonicity  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  1:14:57
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The New Testament Canon and Its Text Lesson # 9

The New Testament canon is composed of twenty-seven early Christian writings which along with the Old Testament canon, is recognized by the Christian church as inspired by God and her Scriptures.
Both Old and New Testaments contain the final authoritative deposit of revelation from God.
The development of the New Testament canon took place in the period immediately following the passing of the apostles and is known as the period of the church fathers.
Many of these men walked with the apostles and were taught directly by them.
Polycarp and Papias, for instance, are considered to have been disciples of the apostle John.
Doctrinal authority during this period rested on two sources, the Old Testament and the notion of apostolic succession, being able to trace a direct association to one of the apostles and thus to Christ.
Although the New Testament canon was written, it was not yet seen as a separate body of books equivalent to the Old Testament.
Geisler and Nix write “God is the source of canonicity, and in His providence He utilized several stimuli that finalized the recognition and ratification of all twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Those stimuli—practical, theological, and political in nature—were instrumental in the collection and transmission of the New Testament Scriptures. It should be remembered, however, that the canon was actually completed when the last New Testament book was written. Within the New Testament itself may be seen the process of selecting and reading the prophetic and apostolic writings that were then being circulated, collected, and even quoted in other inspired writings. In support of this view of canonization, the apostolic Fathers may be cited as referring to all of the New Testament books within about a century of the time they were written. Individuals, translations, and canons show that all but a very few books were generally recognized as canonical before the end of the second century. During the next two centuries the controversy over those Antilegomena books gradually erased all doubts, and there was a final and official recognition of all twenty-seven books of the New Testament by the church universal.”[1]
Accuracy was a primary consideration in the transmission of the books of the New Testament.
After Christianity became legal in A.D. 313, commercial book manufacturers, or scriptoria, were used to produce copies of the New Testament books.
Bruce Metzger wrote, “In order to ensure greater accuracy, books produced in scriptoria were commonly checked over by a corrector . . . specially trained to rectify mistakes in copying. His annotations in the manuscript can usually be detected today from differences in styles of handwriting or tints of ink.”
When prose works were copied, a line called a stichos, having sixteen (or sometimes fifteen) syllables, was frequently used as a measure for determining the market price of a manuscript.
The application of stichometric reckoning served also as a rough and ready check on the general accuracy of a manuscript, for obviously a document, which was short of the total number of stichoi, was a defective copy.
In order to secure a high degree of efficiency and accuracy, certain rules pertaining to the work of scribes were developed and enforced in monastic scriptoria.
The following are examples of such regulations prepared for the renowned monastery of the Studium at Constantinople.
About A.D. 800 the abbot of this monastery, Theodore the Studite, who was himself highly skilled in writing an elegant Greek hand, included in his rules for the monastery severe punishments for monks who were not careful in copying manuscripts.
A diet of bread and water was the penalty set for the scribe who became so much interested in the subject-matter of what he was copying that he neglected his task of copying.
Monks had to keep their parchment leaves neat and clean, on penalty of 130 penances.
If anyone should take without permission another’s quaternion (that is, the ruled and folded sheets of parchment), fifty penances were prescribed.
If anyone should make more glue than he could use at one time, and it should harden, he must do fifty penances.
If a scribe broke his pen in a fit of temper (perhaps after having made some accidental blunder near the close of an otherwise perfectly copied sheet), he had to do thirty penances.
The accuracy of the present-day Greek version of the New Testament has resulted from the comparison of thousands of manuscripts by textual critics who have been able to separate them into families on the basis of certain variations that each manuscript family has in common.
The principles of textual criticism enable scholars to determine which versions of the text are predecessors of the others, thereby coming close to the original reading.
While there are many variant readings in the documents of the New Testament, the vast majority of them are of very minor significance, and, according to A. T. Robertson, affect a “thousandth part of the text.”
This minuscule portion of the text does not affect any aspect of cardinal Christian doctrine.
F. C. Grant wrote in his Introduction to the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament that, of the variant readings in the New Testament manuscripts, “none has turned up thus far that requires a revision of Christian doctrine.”
Philip Schaff wrote that not one of the variant readings affects “an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other and undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching.”
The manuscript evidence for the text of the New Testament is vastly more abundant than that for any other ancient document.
The oldest known manuscripts of the works of some of the Greek classical authors are copies made a thousand years or more after the author’s death.
The number of the manuscripts of the ancient classics is also limited about fifty manuscripts of the works of Aeschylus, a hundred of Sophocles, and only one each of the Greek Anthology and the Annals of Tacitus.
Of the New Testament, however, there are over five thousand manuscripts of part or all of the Greek text, two thousand Greek lectionaries, eight thousand manuscripts in Latin, and one thousand additional manuscripts in other ancient versions.
These manuscripts include extensive parts of the New Testament copied hardly more than a century after the original, and fifty or more manuscripts, including two virtually complete New Testament codices, copied within three centuries after the New Testament books were originally written.
In addition, the writings of the ancient church fathers in Greek, Latin and Syriac contain thousands of quotations from the New Testament.
Indeed, the available materials for the text of the New Testament are so extensive that their adequate study is a complicated task, but a task whose result is “to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God.”[2]
J. Hampton Keathley III writes “Just how reliable are the New Testament documents? There are now more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions (MSS) and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. This means that no other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the Iliad by Homer is second with only 643 manuscripts that still survive. The first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the 13th century.[3] This contrast is startling and tremendously significant. Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C) there are several extant MSS, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day. Of the 142 books of the Roman history of Livy (59 B.C-A.D 17), only 35 survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books III-VI, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of Histories of Tacitus (c. A.D. 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh.… The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 480-425 B.C.). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use are over 1,300 years later than the originals.”[4][5]
[1] Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. (1986). A General Introduction to the Bible (Rev. and expanded., p. 295). Chicago: Moody Press.
[2] Kenyon, Story of the Bible, p. 144
[3] Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict, Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith, Revised Edition, Here’s Life Publishers, Inc., San Bernardino, 1979, p. 39.
[4] F. F. Bruce, Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?, InterVarsity, Chicago, 1943, p. 16-17.
[5] Bibliology: The Doctrine of the Written Word, pages 32-33; Biblical Studies Press, 1997;
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