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Tools for the Study of Biblical Manuscripts

By Kyle Pope

Most of my life I have had an interest in languages.  As a preacher this interest has been directed to the study of the languages the Holy Spirit utilized in revealing the Biblical text.  When I first started preaching, and had not yet been able to formally study Hebrew and Greek, like most Bible students I found myself bewildered by the occasional footnote or textual variant in our English translations.  When I began to study the Biblical languages, this task was no less daunting.  The “critical apparatus” (the notes contained at the bottom of many Greek or Hebrew Bibles), often filled half of a page and was a maze of abbreviations, symbols, and unfamiliar expressions. For the preacher who has waded through this maze, or for the young man just starting out, I would recommend four resources which make this task a little easier.

The Complete Text of the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts. (CTE) Edited by Philip W. Comfort & David P. Barrett (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House. 1999, hardcover, 653 pages).  Most students of the Bible are familiar with the dramatic events that led to Constantine Tischendorf’s discovery of the great uncial (all capital letter) parchment known as Codex Siniaticus in the 19th century.  Much less attention has been given to papyri discoveries of New Testament manuscripts which came after this.  These discoveries  fall into three major groups: The Oxyrhynchus papyri (named for the place of their discovery; Oxyrhynchus Egypt), the Beatty and Bodmer papyri (each named for after their owners; Chester Beatty and M. Martin Bodmer).  What is significant about these manuscripts is the fact that they represent texts that (in some cases) are not only older than the uncial manuscripts, but which represent readings that (in some cases) support the “received text” upon which the King James translation was based.*  Until the publication of CTE, a student interested in what these documents revealed was forced to wade through the critical apparatus of a Greek text (which contained only the readings an editor found significant) or search for a library somewhere that had the multi-volume original language published texts.  CTE not only puts the Greek text of all of these manuscripts together in one volume but includes an English translation of each on the facing page.  If a student finds this too daunting an alternative text is:

Early Manuscripts & Modern Translations of the New Testament. (EMMT) by Philip Wesley Comfort. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House. 1990, paperback, 235 pages).  This work, written by one of the editors of (CTE), does not contain the complete texts of the manuscripts mentioned above.  Instead EMMT contains a description of each manuscript and a list of verses which are impacted by their readings.  No knowledge of Greek is required to use this text, and it serves as a good introduction to the larger complete work.

The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible. (DSB) Edited by Martin Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint & Eugene Ulrich.  (New York: Harper Collins. 1999).  You can’t go through the check out line in a grocery store without seeing tabloids make reference to some fantastic claim associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls.  While the real story behind these manuscripts discovered around the Dead Sea from the 1940s and onward may not sell tabloids, it is quite significant indeed.  These manuscripts, containing both Biblical and non-biblical texts represent the oldest Biblical texts known to exist.  In 1997 Brill & Eerdmans published a two volume paperback called The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition. This work, like CTE, contained the complete text with Hebrew on one page and English translations on the facing page, but in had only the non-Biblical texts.  The introduction referenced a work in production by Eugene Ulrich, which would contain the Biblical texts called the Qumran Bible.  In March of 2003 I contacted professor Ulrich to see if the work had been published yet.  He said at that time it was about a year away from going to press. Before this article was submitted, I contacted him again and he said publication is set for summer 2006.  Pro. Ulrich referred me to DSB, which he co-edited, which he said was basically the English translation of the Qumran Bible.  What this text does is set before the reader in English translation all of the readings from the Biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  It is easy to read and follows the order of the Biblical books.  While it doesn’t have the original language, it moves the student a step beyond simply relying upon footnotes.  A companion text is:

The Dead Sea Scrolls & Modern Translations of the Old Testament.  (DSMT) by Harold Scanlin.  (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publlishers.  1993, hardcover,  pp. 196).  DSMT is the Old Testament parallel to EMMT.  It has a description of each of the Biblical manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls along with a list of passages which are impacted by them.  Together with DSB (and Ulrich’s planned Qumran Bible) the student of the Old Testament would be able to analyze the manuscript evidence for any Old Testament reading cited in footnotes in their English Bible.


See The Byzantine Text-Type & New Testament Textual Criticism, by Harry A. Sturz (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 1984.) for an analysis of the different readings found in the papyri and their relationship to the “received text.”

Pope, Kyle. "Tools to Study of Bible Manuscripts" Biblical Insights 5.10 (May 2005): 11.  

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