When the term "version" is used in describing how a text is transmitted, it refers to the languages in which that text is found. The original language, techincally speaking, is also a version, although the term is normally not used that way. Aside from the possibility that Matthew circulated in Aramaic as well as Greek (something that is attested to by the extant manuscripts in Hebrew known as the Shem-Tob tradition), the entire New Testament was written in Greek and only Greek originally. However, even though Greek was fairly well understood by most people in the world, not everyone read Greek, and it soon became both useful and necessary to translate the New Testament (and the entire Bible) into other languages. These are the "early versions."
The early versions appear to start toward the end of the II century, c. 180. At about this time, the need was great enough that the Latin, Syriac, and Coptic languages received translations of the Bible. These translations were made directly from the Greek New Testament, and therefore in the case of the NT they are useful for studying variations in the text. Other versions, though, would also arise: Armenian; Georgian; Ethiopic; Gothic; and "Old Church" Slavonic, and to some extent these too are useful for study. But remember that the general purpose for studying a manuscript, text type, or version, is to attempt to discern what was the original reading. Therefore, versions that are far removed from the original language are scarcely useful for this purpose, although they may tell us a lot about the people of the land and time when that language/dialect was spoken.
Prior to the standardization of a received Latin text, translations into Latin are referred to as Old Latin or Itala. Church Father Tertullian cited various quotations in Latin c. 200 CE, and these citations are the earliest Latin texts of the NT that are extant today. Apparenly, Tertullian read both Greek and Latin fluently and translated from Greek directly into Latin as he wrote. The first use of actual Latin translations of the New Testament appears toward the middle of the III century, when citations are made from what must have been a Latin source.
The Old Latin manuscripts are labeled both with miniscule (small) Arabic Letters (a, b, c, ...) and with numbers, just as the Greek uncial manuscripts are labeled with capital letters and numbers. The use of small letters is confusing, since manuscripts of different parts of the NT might be given the same letter. Therefore, I will use both the letter and the number (e.g., d5) when referring to an Old Latin manuscript.
The earliest manuscripts that we possess in Latin are from the IV century. These are:
|a3||gospels (with lacunae--gaps)|
|h12||parts of Mt|
|k1||parts of Mt and Mk|
After these, there follow several manuscripts of the V century. Of the above manuscripts, k1 (usually dated IV/V) is considered the most important since it is generally believed that k1 was copied from an earlier Greek manuscript (exemplar) and therefore gives us a translation into Latin of an earlier Greek text, perhaps traceable to the II century. Manuscript k1, it should be noted, shows (only) the short ending of Mark 16--an alternative to the passage commonly called the "long" ending: 16:9-20.
Codex a3 is interesting in that the gospels are contained in their "Western order" of Matthew, John, Luke, Mark. Several Western manuscripts follow this order.
As the Latin language changed, though, the many Old Latin manuscripts (of which just more than 50 MSS survive today) became diverse from one another, prompting Jerome (IV century) to comment that there were nearly as many different translations as manuscripts! Because of this diversity and because fo the changing language, it was deemed important to provide a "common" (vulgate) standard text of the Bible in Latin which everyone could read. Jerome compared and revised Old Latin translations of the NT, completing his Latin text by 383 CE. He translated most of the Old Testament himself, translating directly from Hebrew. [It was at this time that he discovered that certain books were not found in Hebrew in his day--the books that became known as the Deuterocanonical OT books or "Apocrypha".]
The Latin Vulgate, as it became known, was revised several times, and many (8000+ !) manuscripts of the Vulgate are extant today. Eventually it became a necessity to follow only the standard Vulgate text, and by the 14th century the Old Latin had disappeared. The oldest surviving complete Latin Bible is a Vulgate manuscript (called "A", from the VIII century). The Latin Vulgate rapidly became the official Bible of the Catholic Church, and indeed translations made into other languages (including English) would be made from Latin rather than Hebrew or Greek! More about that when we get to English.
The first Christian works translated into the language of Syria was not the Bible itself, but a harmony of the gospels called the Diatessaron made by a man named Tatian sometime late in the II (second!) century. The Diatessaron may have been done in Greek or in Syriac originally; this is not known. What is known is that the harmony became extremely popular in his region and circulated widely in Syriac in the centuries to come.
In addition to Diatessaron manuscripts, we also possess a few Old Syriac MSS. In fact, the Old Syriac survives in just two incomplete manuscripts of the gospels. Perhaps, the first Syriac gospel translations were done c. 300 AD. The two manuscripts date toward the end of the IV century. No manuscripts survive of any of the rest of the NT in Old Syriac, although Paul's letters and Acts were certainly translated.
Traditionally, a new "simple" translation into Syriac was made in the 2nd quarter of the V century. By the middle of the century, the text appears to have reached its final form, which became recognized by both sectors of the splitting Syrian church. The term "peshitta" (or "peshitto") roughly means "simple" and is a contrast to one of the more difficult to read forms, the Harklean Syriac.
The next to develop was translated c. 507 AD. This Philoxeniana was made and circulated for doctrinal reasons. Thomas of Harkel revised this text in 616 by comparing it to various Greek manuscripts. His rendition is known today as Harklean. His rendering of the Greek was much more careful and more direct than the Peshitta, but this made it more difficult to read. Harkel's text was translated almost exclusively from what we will call a Byzantine Greek text.
Coptic is almost unique among written languages, because it employs Greek characters (with additions) in writing an Egyptian language. In fact, Coptic has been called "colloquial Egyptian." By the end of the III century, a tradition of the New Testament in Coptic was fairly widespread. Coptic manuscripts exist in seven different dialects, although two of these dialects Sahidic and Bohairic are considered "major" dialects for the purpose of NT study. Sahidic Coptic is an older dialect and is often referred to as "classical" Coptic; Bohairic Coptic was more widespread in the Coptic Church and was the language of the Upper Nile delta. The Duke Papyrus Archive has photographs of quite a few manuscripts in Coptic. Select this link to go there and view one of them. Not surprisingly (since Alexandria is in Egypt), the Coptic manuscripts often preserve an Alexandrian text type in translation from Greek.
The Armenian version is probably translated from Syriac rather than from Greek (late IV century). Georgian translations developed over the years as Georgia was evangelized through Armenia. Therefore, the Georgian version is also based on Syriac, although a revision was made later making reference to then-current Greek texts. The Ethiopic Church, which also accepted 1 Enoch (you may recall), translated their gospels from either Greek or Syriac--it is not known. Acts and the universal letters were translated directly from Greek. The source language for Revelation is unknown. This creates somewhat of a controversy surrounding the Ethiopic version. Traditionally, a full Bible in Ethiopic was complete by 678 AD.
Gothic versions were translated directly from an early form of the Byzantine Greek text, perhaps as early as 341. However, only nine manuscripts survive, containing the gospels, part of Paul's letters, and a fragment of Nehemiah.
The Old Church Slavonic version is a product of the IX century church. The Russian Orthodox Church claims its translation was given by divine inspiration. It is known that the Byzantine Greek text was the source of the translation.
In addition to the early versions, citations of Biblical passages by early Christians are also sometimes used to assist in reconstructing the original Greek text. For example, Eusebius (IV century) quotes Matthew 28 several times, each time with Jesus saying, "baptizing them into my name" instead of the three part formula. This is important because Eusebius was a strong believer in the Trinity doctrine; the common rendering of the passage would have supported his case. Since the quotations from Eusebius are earlier than any extant Greek manuscript of Mt 28:19, it is distinctly possible that his quote represents the original reading. Of course, patristic citations should not be used to contradict an established reading without weighing the evidence.
Of course, the most natural transmission of the New Testament occurs in the copies made directly from Greek. These copies were made from generation to generation and came to be divided into several interesting "text types" or classes. Click here to study the history of the Greek New Testament.
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