OUR BIBLE & THE ANCIENT MANUSCRIPTS by SIR FREDERIC KENYON - formerly Director of the British Museum - © Sir F Kenyon 1895. First published Eyre & Spottiswoode 1895. - fourth edition 1939. - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.


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WE have seen that the Bible has been preserved to us, for many centuries previous to the invention of printing, by means of copies written by hand; and we have seen that in such copies mistakes are certain to arise and multiply. Now if a scholar at this present day were to take in hand the task of correcting these mistakes and recovering the true text, how would he set about it?

Of course, as a matter of fact, he would find that very much of the work had already been done for him by earlier scholars; but we will suppose that nothing has been done, and see how he must go to work. That will show us the way in which scholars for the last four centuries have laboured on the text of the Bible.

1. Manuscripts.

In the first place he will examine as many as possible of the manuscripts of the Bible in the original languages in which it was written, Hebrew and Greek. These are scattered about in all the great libraries of the world, and must be visited and carefully studied. He will note which are the oldest, he will use his judgment to determine which are the best. Where all the manuscripts are agreed, he has nothing more to do, and those parts of the text are put down at once as certain. Where there are differences between the manuscripts, he will have to decide which of the various readings is the more probable. In some cases the reading of a manuscript will be obviously wrong; in many it will be easy to see that the one reading is a perversion of the other - that the copyist has inadvertently dropped out a word or misread the word in the original from which he was copying, or has fallen into some other of the classes of error described in the preceding chapter. In this way a correct representation of the greater part of the text will be obtained. Still there will remain a considerable number of passages about which the manuscripts differ, but in which it is not possible to decide at once what reading is right. Then it will be necessary to discriminate between the manuscripts. Our scholar's earlier investigations will have shown him which manuscripts are generally trustworthy, and which are most full of mistakes. As a general rule he will prefer the reading which is supported by the oldest manuscripts, as being nearest to the time of the original work; and if all the oldest manuscripts are on one side, and all the later on the other, the reading of the former will certainly be adopted. Where the older manuscripts are divided, his task becomes harder; he has to consider whether either of the alternative readings is likely to have been derived from the other, or if one of them is more likely than the other to have been invented at a later time. For instance, there is a tendency among scribes, when they do not understand a phrase, to substitute one more easy of comprehension; and hence it is a rule of criticism that a harder reading is generally to be preferred to an easier one, since the latter is more likely to have been substituted for the former than vice versa. This rule must be applied with discretion, however, for the unintentional alterations of scribes will often produce a harder reading than the true one. Another principle is to try to classify the manuscripts in groups, those which habitually agree with one another being probably descended from some common ancestor; and a reading which is supported by two or more groups is more likely to be right than one which is supported by one only, even though that one may be a very large and numerous group. By the time our scholar has proceeded so far in his work, he will have formed a pretty confident opinion as to which manuscripts are the most worthy of trust; and then, when other methods fail to determine the true reading in a doubtful passage, he will be inclined to accept that reading which is supported by the manuscripts which he believes to be the best. He will, however, if he is wise, recognise that a margin of doubt remains. The best manuscript is not always right, and the balance of probability may be changed by the discovery of fresh evidence. The soundest scholar is not always the most dogmatic as to the certainty of his results.

2. Versions.

So far our scholar has confined himself entirely to the manuscripts of the sacred books in their original languages; but he will be making a great mistake if he stops there. He will remember that the Bible has been translated into many different languages, and he will bethink himself that a translation, which has been made with any care and accuracy, will generally show what was the Hebrew or Greek text that the translator had before him. Now several of the translations of the Bible - such as the Samaritan and Greek versions of the Old Testament, the Syriac and Latin versions of the New - were certainly made at a date much earlier than that at which any of the manuscripts which we now possess of the original Hebrew and Greek were written. The oldest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament now in existence (except one tiny fragment) can hardly be earlier than AD 200, and most of them are much later; but the earliest Syriac and Latin translations of the New Testament were made somewhere about AD 150. Hence, if we can gather from the existing copies of these translations what were the Greek words which their authors were translating, we know what was read in that particular passage in a Greek manuscript current about the year 150, when these translations were made; and this brings us back very near to the time when the originals of the New Testament books were themselves written. The versions are also valuable for telling us in what part of the world a particular type of text was current. As will be seen later, different types of text can be associated with different parts of the world - Syria, Egypt, Roman Africa, and so on; and the evidence for this is largely derived from the translations in these languages. It is true that we have not the original copies of the Latin and Syriac versions, any more than we have the originals of the Greek itself, and that a similar process of comparison of copies to that described in the last paragraph must be gone through if we are to discover the original readings of the translations; but in many cases this can be done with certainty, and then we have a very early testimony indeed to the original Greek text. We talk sometimes of the "stream of tradition" by which the text of the Bible has been borne down to us from the fountain-head in the original manuscripts; well, the service of the Versions (as the translations of the Bible into other languages are technically called) is that they tap the stream near the fountain-head. They are unaffected by any corruptions that may have crept into the Greek text after the translations were made; they may have corruptions of their own, but they will not generally be the same as the corruptions in the Greek text, and they will serve mutually to correct one another. To alter the comparison, we get several groups of evidence converging on the same spot, as the above diagram shows.

3. The Early Fathers.

Our scholar has yet one other source to which he may turn for evidence as to the original text - namely, the quotations of isolated passages in the writings of the early Fathers. Many of the first Christian writers whose works have been preserved -  for instance, Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Jerome - must have used manuscripts of the Bible older than any that we now have, and many of them quoted largely from the Bible in their writings. If, therefore, we know in what form they quoted any particular passage, we may argue that they found that form of it in the manuscript that they used. But this argument must be used with much caution. In the first place, it is evident that they often quoted from memory. Copies of the Bible were not so common in those days as they are now, and, in the absence of the modern division into chapters and verses, it was less easy to turn up a passage when required to verify a quotation. A modern divine furnishes a curious proof of the liability to error in quotations from memory. It is said that Jeremy Taylor quotes the well-known text, "Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God," no less than nine times, yet only twice in the same form, and in no single instance correctly. We must not assume that the ancient Fathers were infallible in their memories. Further, it is often difficult to be certain that we have the quotations as the Fathers themselves wrote them. If a scribe who was copying a manuscript of one of the early Fathers found a text quoted in a form unfamiliar to him, he would be not unlikely to alter it into the form then current. For these reasons it is dangerous to base an argument for a reading on the Fathers alone, except when the context in which it is found shows conclusively in what form the writer quoted it; but to confirm other evidence they may often be of very great value. They also contribute to show at what time and in what country particular readings or types of text were current. They will be of still more value when their own texts have themselves been critically edited, which is at present far from being the case with all of them.  

Manuscripts, Versions, Fathers - such are the resources of our scholar in his task of recovering the true text of the Bible. Of the third of these we cannot speak at length within the compass of this book, though reference will occasionally be made to it; but in the history of the two first is the history of the Bible text. Our object will be to describe, first the principal manuscripts, and then the chief translations, of each Testament in turn, and so to carry down the history of the Bible from the earliest times to our own days - to show how our own English Bible is the lineal descendant of the volumes once written by Prophet, Apostle, and Evangelist.