Translation of What? The Text of the New Testament

crossA survey of the Hebrew manuscript tradition behind our Old Testament does much to bolster our confidence in the accuracy and authority of the first two thirds of our Bible. But what about the twenty-seven books of the New Testament? What exactly stands behind our New Testament translations?

The New Testament was written in Greek rather than Hebrew. Why? Because of the historical context of the first century. The apostles of Christ traveled throughout the eastern Mediterranean world preaching the good news of Christ’s saving work. The language of that part of the world (the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, Greece) was the Greek language. The historical reason for this was the conquest of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BC. While Alexander died before he could even begin to consolidate his extensive conquests, he did manage to bequeath to posterity his Hellenism (Greekness), including his language: Common or “Koine” Greek. Even the Romans (native Latin speakers) were forced to accommodate to the Greekness of the eastern Mediterranean. Koine Greek was the lingua franca of the entire region.

This was true not only of Gentiles, but of many Jews. A great number of Jews didn’t live in Israel proper, but had been scattered far and wide through the long sad history of Jewish defeats in battle and exile, as well as through extensive and industrious commerce. This was known as the Diaspora (just the Greek word for “scattering”). Even the Old Testament Bible had been translated into Greek for these scattered Jews (the Septuagint, or LXX).

As Paul (himself a Hellenistic, or Greek-speaking, Jew) traveled from city to city, he would first visit a synagogue and preach (in Greek) to the Jews there the good news of Jesus. After he was thrown out (which he always was) he would then preach (in Greek) to those Gentiles willing to give an ear. When he eventually moved on he would leave behind a fledgling church made up of Jews and Gentiles (who all spoke Greek). And when he later wrote to that church he would have written in Japanese (just kidding: he would have written (and did write) in Greek).

So the whole NT was written in Greek. But we don’t have the actual letters Paul wrote. Nor the gospel that Matthew wrote. What we do have are copies of copies of copies of copies. North of 5,000 NT manuscripts. In addition to this, there are tens of thousands of liturgies (snippets of scripture used in worship), and loads of other stuff. For instance, it has been said that even if we lacked the entire NT in manuscript form, we could recreate the whole thing from quotations strung together from the writings of the early church fathers. In short: we have loads of NT manuscript evidence.

We are frankly embarrassed by our wealth here. There is nothing like it in the ancient world. New manuscript evidence, such as papyri in Egypt dating to the first quarter of the second century (!) are still being found to this day.

If you were to compare the manuscript evidence of the NT with any other ancient document, you’d be forced to say, “Wow!” Some of the most significant authors of the ancient world (like Caesar, Thucydides, Herodotus, Plato, etc.) are preserved in very few manuscripts (usually less than a score). And the earliest manuscripts generally date to more than a thousand years after they were written. Not so the NT! We have many thousand percent more manuscripts, but even more importantly, we have manuscripts that date much closer to the time the manuscripts were written. Indeed, the gap between the writing of the NT manuscripts and the earliest copies we have keeps shrinking – in some instances to as short as 20-30 years! When one gains an understanding of the nature of these documents, their accuracy, their preservation, and the scientific nature of gathering, comparing, and collating them, one cannot help but be inspired with an ever deeper confidence in these documents as true and trustworthy.