New Testament Manuscripts

Carsten Thiede is regarded by a few analysts of Biblical texts as revolutionary, but to most he is deemed hasty at best--at worst a crackpot. His attempts at redating one manuscript (p64) to the First Century have been completely ignored. Still, his re-identification of a fragment found in the 7th cave at Qumran with a portion of the gospel according to Mark may very well stand. If José O'Callaghan's identification of the fragment (now championed by Thiede) proves accurate, that fragment is most likely the oldest existing manuscript containing any portion of the New Testament, for the Qumran caves were closed c. 68 CE when the Romans invaded the area.

The manuscript fragment is written on in an early Greek script type on papyrus. It contains few characters on each side (see the article by clicking here), but its identification with Mark would be powerful. Still, most scholars dispute that identification, leaving another manuscript as the oldest known.

All of the oldest extant NT manuscripts were written in Greek uncial (capital letter) style on papyrus. About 100 of these have been identified, although a few of them were later found to be portions of the same manuscripts. All of these papyri date to the eighth century or earlier, with most of them predating the sixth century. Noteworthy also is the fact that all of them were discovered in this century. Indeed, our best knowledge about the early NT text has been gained within the past 150 years.

What follows is a list of certain papyri, their contents, and approximate date. The reader may assume that various holes (called lacunae) exist throughout portions of the manuscripts, since it is natural for such holes to develop.

Number Contents Approximate Date
p46 most of Paul's letters and Hebrews once dated c. 200
redated by Young Kyu Kim to c. 85
p52 fragment of John c. 110-125
p66 most of John c. 125-175
or 3rd century
p45 four gospels and Acts usu. III
but some date it II
p32 most of Titus usu. III
but some date it II
p75 most of Luke and John c. 175-225
p13 part of Hebrews c. 200
p72 1 Pet, 2 Pet, Jude III
p47 fragment of Revelation III

While the papyri are generally early, most of them are fragmentary. The earliest nearly complete NT manuscripts are from c. 325-350, and most of them are later. These are written on parchment and are generally referred to simply as Uncials in order to distinguish them from the later manuscripts that were written using lower case letters. The Uncials date from c. 200 to the 11th century (XI).

Numbering Name (where relevant) Contents Approximate Date
Aleph 01 Codex Sinaiticus Entire NT, in nearly standard order
followed by the Letter of Barnabas
and the Shepherd of Hermas (incomplete)
c. 350
B 02 Codex Vaticanus Most of NT, with Pauline letters
following general letters
breaks off at Heb 9:14
c. 325
A 03 Codex Alexandrinus Entire NT, with missing sections
adds 1 Clement and 2 Clement
D 05 Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis Four gospels and most of Acts V - VI
D 06 Codex Claromontinus Paul's letters, minus Ephesians,
plus Hebrews
W 032 Codex Washingtoneus/Freerianus four gospels
added section of Mark 16,
called the Freer Logion

The above lists contain the earliest and most highly regarded New Testament manuscripts that are currently known to exist. They contain styles of variation that will be discussed later. All in all, over 6000 Greek NT manuscripts exist in various styles. Click here to proceed to next week's discussion of New Testament Apocrypha.