Manuscripts 101: What is a Manuscript?

Manuscripts 101 blogs make up a series explaining different features of Greek New Testament manuscripts. Each post aims to equip non-specialist audience members to better understand and navigate the manuscripts in the digital collection. Furthermore, we hope to connect the broader audience with the ongoing study and preservation of New Testament manuscripts and the text within them. For more introductory material, see the Manuscripts 101 page

What is a Manuscript?

Simply defined a manuscript is a work written by hand instead of printed. We easily infer that before Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type to the world in the fifteenth century most books required a pen for production. When we consider manuscripts, therefore, we naturally include almost every written work before 1450.

Anyone who has written an essay by hand or copied sentences in school can imagine manuscript production required a hefty amount of labor. An author or an author’s amanuensis wrote the initial work. Then, an author may have spent time revising and editing before releasing the book for publication. Some authors may have produced a second copy, but most book re-production occurred by scribes duplicating the words by hand into another book. Holding an ink pen that regularly needed refreshing, working by candlelight in the dimming day, and lacking the simplicity of a delete key for mistakes, authors and scribes carefully produced literature for the pre-fifteenth century world.

Greek New Testament Manuscripts

Scholars debate exactly when each book of the New Testament was written, but  we know that they were produced centuries before the advent of movable type. Yet, while the authorial works have worn away with use and age, hundreds of copies produced by scribes over time passed the words on to each successive generation in the vessel of ancient books.

The Materials

The earliest copies of the New Testament were written on papyrus, a paper-like material made from papyrus plants. Papyrus “sheets” were most often made into rolls but were also cut into pages for codices (more on that below). 

Later, parchment grew into prominence in bookmaking, and, thus, more New Testament manuscripts were made of parchment. This book material, made of animal skin, makes up most extant Greek New Testament manuscripts. Even later, paper became more widely used in New Testament manuscripts. Scholars are able to estimate the date of a manuscript by its material and our knowledge of ancient culture.

Almost all of the extant Greek New Testament manuscripts take the form of the codex. Much like the books that we know and interact with, a codex is essentially a stack of sheets sewn together often between a top and bottom cover. Larger sheets were folded together into a gathering called a quire. A codex could be made of one large quire or many smaller ones. The compact design of the codex allowed for more text to be included than a roll, and for the combination of multiple works. Many New Testament manuscripts contained multiple New Testament books or other writings within the one codex.

The Text

The words within each Greek New Testament codex result from the work of scribes, as with most book reproduction before the printing press. Men and women, bent over a copy of the text and fresh papyrus, parchment, or paper, reproduced the words over centuries. Some scribes left notes that reveal more about their situation (see this post for more). Studying the copies, scholars find one thing remains true of all scribes: they are humans. Some are more careful, others clumsier. Yet, all inevitably make mistakes and assumptions.

Most of the variants in the Greek New Testament result from simple mistakes. Our own experiences copying words by hand reveal how easily mistakes may occur. Misspellings, skipping words because of similar-looking lines, copying text twice, etc. can be easily understood by anyone who has taken notes from a book or lecture. Textual critics have fancy words for scribal errors like dittography and homoeoteleuton. We will save those fun words for a future Manuscripts 101 post.

Other variants occur by scribal intervention. At times, scribes, knowingly or unknowingly, harmonized similar content or similar-sounding phrases. Familiarity with other manuscripts or New Testament books led some scribes to assume that certain words ought to be different. When their exemplar contained difficult text, scribes may have “smoothed it out” to produce what they considered correct. Once again, our own experiences reveal how easily these kinds of assumptions could lead to variations between copies. If sent to the grocery store with your mom’s list, you may assume that she intended the word “paste” to mean “pasta,” because you knew of her plans to cook spaghetti. More information of the situation led to a change, whether or not intended by the author.

Scholars study scribal habits in a couple of ways. When investigating one manuscript closely, scholars learn about the habits of a particular copyist. Understanding his tendencies helps to pinpoint areas of variation from the words he copied from the exemplar. Looking at many manuscripts, textual critics recognize typical mistakes that occur and thus apply that to their work. Studying the Greek New Testament manuscripts, then, allows us to better understand scribes and discern where errors occur. When errors are exposed, the intended words become clear. New Testament textual critics work with hundreds of copies to discern the initial text.

Beyond the Text

Greek New Testament manuscripts inform us of so much more than the scribes and the text. Corrections, marginal notes, and commentary reveal how people interacted with these documents. Different materials can situate codex within a particular space in time. Ornamentation on the cover and illuminations on pages indicate the high cost and high value of certain manuscripts within their context. More than just the New Testament text on their pages, these manuscripts serve as windows to the communities that produced and used them.  

Within each of the 2,000+ entries in the digital manuscript collection are digital representations of a physical artifacts. Each one holds an ancient text and numerous features that exemplify the ways people used the document. While our technology differs from the scribes’, we use our digital resources to pass on the words as they did to us.