I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately for several of my courses about textual criticism of the New Testament Greek texts. It’s been really interesting, to say the least, and I’ve been learning lots.
One of the greatest things I learned was this. In the first century AD the copying of manuscripts was a highly developed profession. It would typically take place in what was called a Scriptorium. There an author would dictate (or, if they were making copies, then someone would read aloud from the original manuscript) and a whole crew of thoroughly trained men (usually slaves) would record the words being read. In this ways dozens of copies of books could be made in quite a short period of time, and quite inexpensively as well. It is remarkable to read about the procedures for training these men and for checking the manuscripts for accuracy as well.
But if that’s the case, you ask, then why are there so many variant readings and wordings in hundreds of places in the New Testament? Shouldn’t it be more uniform?
Well… here’s the thing. If the New Testament were produced only for the rich aristocrats, it probably would have. But the average Christian was either a slave with no expendable income, or else just too poor, and couldn’t afford to have a New Testament done like this.
But they were unwilling to live without a copy of the Scriptures. That’s what I love about Christians. No matter how poor, no matter their circumstances, they depend on the Bibles as their very spiritual food.
So, they took to making copies. They made their own copies, had copies done by less than professionals, and found any way they could to get more copies distributed. Of course, since these are non-professionals doing it now, you’ve got all kinds of manuscript errors creeping in, which is unfortunate, but I can hardly blame them.
As an interesting side note, many scholars have conjectured that it was Christians who invented the codex (or, ‘book’) format of manuscripts, rather than the scroll, which was always used at this point in history. Why? So that they could each have their own copy of the Scriptures, so that they’d be able to carry it with them, and so that they could look passages up much more quickly. Can you ask for better motivation than that?
Their love for the Bible changed the way humans formatted books.
And most of us have about 15 translations sitting on our bookshelves in various formats, with all kinds of different study notes. Most of them are collecting dust.
I’m glad it was the early Christians who got the Bible first. They may not have copied it with all the accuracy we would’ve liked, but at least they loved it, copied it, made it their own.
What have I done with my Bible?