“The Earliest and Most Reliable Manuscripts…” – What Does This Mean?

I grew up on the New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible. The NIV was originally published when I was in grade school and soon thereafter my Mom got me a NIV Children’s Bible. Later on, in my teen years, I got a Ryrie Study Bible (NIV). The thing I appreciated about the NIV was it was very readable for a young person. One thing I started noticing was that in certain places, for example, John 7:53-8:11, there was a disclaimer of sorts inserted between the text: “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.”

Most modern versions of the Bible have some kind of disclaimer like this in John’s Gospel as well as the end of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16.9-20). My English Standard Version (ESV) Reference Bible says “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20” right before the end of Mark (I actually prefer the ESV’s language over the NIV’s because the ESV simply refers to earlier manuscripts rather than making a value judgment regarding their reliability). It’s also set apart in the ESV as different by use of double brackets, like this: “[[Now when he rose early on the first day of the week…worked with them and confirmed the messages by accompanying signs.]]”

So the question is, what does this mean?

You may already know that the New Testament was originally written in the Koine Greek language. We do not have the original manuscripts, which is a good thing, because with our proclivity to worship things instead of God, the original manuscripts would be definitely be an irresistible temptation to idolatry. What we do have are thousands of manuscripts in Greek. These manuscripts fall into two “families” of manuscripts: the Byzantine (centered in Eastern Europe) and the Alexandrian (centered in Northern Africa). For the vast majority of church history, the best and most numerous manuscripts were in the Byzantine family. But in 1844 ancient manuscripts were discovered at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mt. Sinai by archaeologist Constantin von Tischendorf.

Examined by scholars, these manuscripts were discerned by some to be the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. On the positive side, although they represent an entirely different chain of history and, therefore, line of copyists, their contents were remarkably similar to the manuscripts in the Byzantine family. On the negative side, however, there were some differences. Some scholars estimate the difference to be as much as 5%. In most cases, single verses were missing in the Alexandrian texts (when compared to the Byzantine texts). This explains why in modern versions you might be reading along and notice that your Bible has a verse 4 and a verse 6, but no verse 5 in between (see John 5 in the NIV or ESV). As previously mentioned, a couple of entire passages were absent (from John 8 and Mark 16).

For some Bible readers, these differences can be disconcerting. If the end of Mark is not inspired Scripture, then what happened to the ending? Did it somehow get lost? Or does Mark his Gospel end abruptly, with the disciples in fear (see Mark 16.8)?

But Bible readers need not stress over such matters. No major, or even minor, doctrine is impacted by any differences between the Byzantine family and the Alexandrian family.

Consider the notes on Mark 16:9-20 in the ESV Study Bible:

“Longer Ending of Mark.” Some ancient manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel contain these verses and others do not, which presents a puzzle for scholars who specialize in the history of such manuscripts. This longer ending is missing from various old and reliable Greek manuscripts (esp. Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), as well as numerous early Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian manuscripts. Early church fathers (e.g., Origen and Clement of Alexandria) did not appear to know of these verses. Eusebius and Jerome state that this section is missing in most manuscripts available at their time. And some manuscripts that contain vv. 9–20 indicate that older manuscripts lack the section. On the other hand, some early and many later manuscripts (such as the manuscripts known as A, C, and D) contain vv. 9–20, and many church fathers (such as Irenaeus) evidently knew of these verses. As for the verses themselves, they contain various Greek words and expressions uncommon to Mark, and there are stylistic differences as well. Many think this shows vv. 9–20 to be a later addition. In summary, vv. 9–20 should be read with caution. As in many translations, the editors of the ESV have placed the section within brackets, showing their doubts as to whether it was originally part of what Mark wrote, but also recognizing its long history of acceptance by many in the church. The content of vv. 9–20 is best explained by reference to other passages in the Gospels and the rest of the NT. (Most of its content is found elsewhere, and no point of doctrine is affected by the absence or presence of vv. 9–20.) With particular reference to v. 18, there is no command to pick up serpents or to drink deadly poison; there is merely a promise of protection as found in other parts of the NT (see Acts 28:3–4; James 5:13–16). 

What the reader should also know is that in addition to the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, the New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible also uses the Byzantine family of Greek manuscripts for its textual base. This means that verses like John 5:4 are still in the text, and that there is no disclaimer before the texts of John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20.  All other popular modern translations use the Alexandrian family of manuscripts as the textual base, including the English Standard Version (ESV), Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), New Living Translation (NLT), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and New International Version (NIV).

What the reader can also be confident of is this: whichever modern translation you use (any of the above listed), the basic doctrines of the Christian faith are present and clear.

6 thoughts on ““The Earliest and Most Reliable Manuscripts…” – What Does This Mean?”

  1. James, you make some excellent points in your critique. For some time now I have felt that the Byzantine family of texts has unjustly been tossed to the side in a lot of peoples’ minds as irrelevant. The fact that God, in His providence, allowed the Byzantine texts to dominate church history speaks volumes to me regarding their value.

  2. Brett:

    Being a former believer of 30 years, I too apologized for missing tesxts of newer versions of the bible. However it became refreshingly clear to finally accept truth that the wonderful stories in the bible were simply added centuries later.
    The endearing story of Jesus and the adulteress in John, or the Sweatdrops of Blood in Luke, or Mark Chapter 16, or John Chapter 21 are not in the oldest most complete Greek Bible the Codex Sinaiticus which is now available on line for anyone that wishes to stop denying history.
    Think about it, what was the Language of Jesus and his followers in Gallilee and Nazareth in the 1st Century? It was Aramaic, and as told in the book of acts, Diciples were Illiterate without the capacity for writing. Along comes scholared Greek Manuscripts in later centuries. How can you honestly say // What the reader can also be confident of is this: whichever modern translation you use (any of the above listed), the basic doctrines of the Christian faith are present and clear. // ???
    Feel free to compare your 20th Century Bible to the Codex. http://www.codexsinaiticus.org

    1. Dennis,

      I’m sorry to hear that you believe that “the wonderful stories of the Bible were simply added centuries later.” You and I could go back and forth for some time in arguing over the authenticity and reliability of the English Bible as we know it. Let’s not waste our energy and time in that endeavor.

      For you to challenge a comparison of my 20th Century Bible to the codex is simplistic. It’s not like Konstantin von Tischendorf wandered into a corner of the monastery and dusted off one, pristine volume that said “Codex Sinaiticus, published in the mid-4th Century.” No, it’s much more complex than that, as I am sure you are well aware.

      The discoverer of the codex, von Tischendorf, said this about Sinaiticus: “”…the New Testament…is extremely unreliable…on many occasions 10, 20, 30, 40, words are dropped…letters, words even whole sentences are frequently written twice over, or begun and immediately canceled. That gross blunder, whereby a clause is omitted because it happens to end in the same word as the clause preceding, occurs no less than 115 times in the New Testament.” So what do we make of Codex Sinaiticus? An extremely valuable find? Definitely. A nail in the coffin of Christianity as we know it? Far from it.

      But let’s just pretend we should jettison all our modern English Bibles and only use Sinaiticus: Does it promote the basic doctrines of the Christian faith? Yes. It still paints mankind in need of a Savior. It still presents Jesus the Divine Son of God (risen from the dead) as the answer to man’s sin problem. And it still calls all mankind to respond to the Gospel in repentance and faith. These are the same basic truths that we find embraced and promoted by the early church fathers and Christians throughout church history.

  3. Dennis,

    You’ve been misinformed. Codex Sinaiticus’ production-date is c. 350. Justin Martyr used the passage about Jesus’ blood-like sweat in the mid-100’s. So the idea that someone created that detail “centuries later” is, well, impossible. Also, regarding John 21: have you *looked* at Codex Sinaiticus? John 21 is Right There, Dennis! The special textual feature in John 21 that Codex Sinaiticus presents involves the final verse: the copyist of Codex Sinaiticus initially did not include 21:25. But after writing the closing-title and a little decoration after 21:24, he erased that, added the final verse, and then added the closing-title and decoration again. (Tischendorf detected this, but the copyist’s erasure was so thorough that details about what the copyist did were only confirmed when Milne & Skeat examined the manuscript using ultraviolet light.)

    (By the way, when using the Codex Sinaiticus website, be aware that the English translation that is provided there is NOT a translation of the manuscript.)

    Have you considered that perhaps your decision to jump overboard from the deck of H.M.S. Church was based on inadequate reasons? I hope that you will get back on board.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

    1. James,

      Why would they have a translation on the Codex Sinaiticus website if it is not the translation of the manuscript?


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