The New Testament is an amazing collection of many types of documents, including letters, ancient biographies, sermons, and historical narratives. New Testament studies have helped us reconstruct the world of Jesus and his disciples by providing historical, cultural, and linguistic insights. Additionally, textual studies have helped us appreciate the complex and interesting story of the New Testament’s transmission from antiquity to the present.
Today no original New Testament manuscripts, or autographs, appear to have survived. In other words, we cannot visit a museum or library to see the original book of Matthew or the original letter Paul wrote to the Romans. In fact, the earliest New Testament manuscripts that have survived the ravages of time are not even copies of the originals or even copies of copies.
The oldest known New Testament text is a rather small papyrus manuscript fragment (see image) with John 18:37-38 on one side (recto) and John 18:31-33 on the other (verso). Its small size belies its major importance. Produced around AD 125, it suggests an earlier dating of the Gospel of John than traditionally assigned (many scholars assume that John’s Gospel was written in the AD 90s). Additionally, the manuscript was discovered in Egypt, suggesting a rather quick dispersion of the Gospel.
The earliest complete copies of an individual New Testament book date from around AD 200. During the following decades and centuries, scribes continued to make copies of the New Testament—some 5,700 manuscripts in Greek from the early second century to the sixteenth century still exist.
It is not surprising that these manuscripts contain numerous differences because they were copied by hand over the years. In fact, there are some 30,000 variant readings. Most of these variant readings are not theologically significant and likely were a result of human errors—unintentional changes made to the text during the processing of copying them. However, there are rather significant changes that were most likely intentional. These changes were made for a variety of reasons, including (1) to promote theological views, (2) to correct errors a scribe believed was in the text, (3) to harmonize the text to match what was recorded in another passage, and (4) to clarify certain passages that might be confusing or misunderstood.
The King James Version (KJV) of 1 John 5:7 preserves a significant change: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. The KJV translators used the best manuscripts available to them at the time. Since 1611, new discoveries have produce older manuscripts that scholars believe gets us much closer to the original text. This particular verse, which supports a Trinitarian interpretation of the Godhead, is not found in the earliest manuscripts of 1 John, suggesting that a scribe added it for theological purposes.
How we understand the New Testament depends on which variant reading we accept as being closest to the original. In this case, some scholars argue that the New Testament does not explicitly teach the doctrine of the Trinity because this single and most important reference is not found in any Greek manuscript—manuscripts that cover more than one thousand years of New Testament transmission. Because it does not appear before the fourteenth century, some recent modern translations and versions of the Bible do not include this verse.
Today we live in an amazing time when work on the New Testament produces great insights and allows us to get closer to the texts as originally prepared in the first century.