The Early Versions of the New Testament

The Early Versions of the New Testament
Daniel L. McConaughy
Ph. D.

Editor’s Comment: I am posting this excellent article by Dr Daniel L. McConaughy, originally published Sept/Oct 1985. Dr. McConaughy came to almost exactly the same conclusions that I have, completely independently. I was unaware of this article when I formed my own theories on textual criticism. The primary difference I have, is that I believe there was an underlying original Hebrew for at least some books of the “New Testament”, behind the Western Aramaic which is the source of all later versions.

In an earlier GMIR article on the Aramaic origin of the New Testament, I wrote that the writers of the New Testament ‘‘recorded that revelation in their native Aramaic and later oversaw its translation into Greek, Latin, and Syriac; and it is with the descendants of these first translation endeavors that today’s Biblical researcher must work.’’[1] It is the purpose of this article to elucidate the history of the transmission of these three versions. First, the three major families of manuscripts—the broadest streams of the transmission of the text—will be discussed; then the versions themselves will be handled.

Development of the Three Major Families of Texts

Scholars have observed that there are three major families of manuscripts according to the type of distinctive variants they have. It must be remembered that before Gutenberg’s first printing press (1450 A.D.), all books were copied by hand, and thus no two manuscripts were ever exactly the same, as is the case with printed books.  Most changes were accidental and are easily detected, but there were also intentional changes.

If a scribe did not understand the text, he might have tried to ‘‘correct’’ it in order to clarify it.”[2] At other places, scribes would copy marginal notes into the text, thinking that the material was supposed to be a part of the text. Most of these doctrinal changes occurred by 200 A.D., the close of a period of rapid uncontrolled textual corruption.

Sometimes a scribe would be working from two or more manuscripts, and if they disagreed, he would put both readings into the text to be sure that he had not left out the original. Other changes were stylistic—merely a surface polishing.

Sometimes changes crept into the text in one geographical location and not in another. Then these changes would be recopied and perpetuated in that area. Many scholars feel that this phenomenon gave rise to the three major families of texts: the ‘‘Western,” the Alexandrian, and the Byzantine.

The ‘‘Western’’ Text

The so-called Western text is so named because it was first found among manuscripts and writers in the West. However, later research revealed that this text was used not only in the West, but also far to the East. The extent of its use ranged from Ireland and North Africa to the shores of the Tigris. All of the second-century writers used this text, as can be seen from their quotations of the New Testament as found in their various writings. The third- and fourth-century Latin writers also used it, as did many of the third-century Greek writers. By the fourth century, the ‘‘Western’’ text had pretty well fallen out of use among the Greek writers, although the Latin and Syrian writers continued to quote from it for many more centuries. In the Latin, this text is called the Old Latin text, and in the Syriac it is called the Old Syriac text.

The ‘‘Western’’ text is characterized by its freedom of expression. Extra material was added during the late first and second centuries, a period one could call the ‘‘Dark Ages of text corruption.’’ Since the ‘‘Western’’ text existed through this period, it is conceivable that it would have picked up some of these elements, many of which were expunged from the other types of the text, as will be discussed later in this article. It may be that the original forms of the ‘‘Western’’ text were the first translations made from the Aramaic originals. This is evidenced not only by its antiquity and universal use, but also by the higher number of Semitisms in the text. The manuscript representatives of this text in Greek are D, W, 0171 for the Gospels; P29, P38, P48, D, 383, and 614 for Acts; and DP, EP, FP, GP and the Greek fathers to the end of the third century.[3] As mentioned before, the Old Latin and the Old Syriac are also representatives of this text, and they will be discussed more fully later on.

Editor’s comment: see my blog The Western Text as a Clue

The Alexandrian Text

The Alexandrian text was predominantly used in Alexandria and other parts of Egypt, up to the time of the Arab conquests in the early seventh century. The writings of Clement of Alexandria, who died circa 215 A.D., indicate that Clement used a ‘‘Western’’ type of text with some revised Alexandrian readings. Thus the process of the formation of the Alexandrian text must have begun even before the advent of the third century. This process was probably complete by the middle of the third century. The evidence of the very early papyrus manuscripts indicates this as well. Among them we see some ‘‘Western’’ witnesses with a mixture of Alexandrian readings, although the majority of the texts are Alexandrian in profile. Many scholars feel an earlier form of the Alexandrian text, the so-called Neutral text, most closely reflects the original text.

This text-type seems to have been produced by scribal editors highly trained in the philological and literary sciences of the day. Alexandria was one of the greatest academic centers in the ancient world. Already there were ancient traditions of textual preservation that had been used for many of the earlier classical Greek writings. These scribes had been highly trained in producing stylistically correct literature, and when they received the earliest copies of the New Testament, it was not long before they began to rework the text in minor ways. Its characteristic features are brevity and austerity, when compared to the other text-types.[4] Many papyrus and early uncial manuscripts, some minuscule manuscripts, and the Alexandrian writers, witness to this text.[5] It also appears that Jerome (secretary to Pope Damasus, 382-384 A.D.) used some Alexandrian Greek manuscripts when he produced his Latin Vulgate translation.[6]

The Byzantine Text

As time went on, the early Greek church demanded even more modifications to its text than those that the Alexandrians produced. These endeavors produced what is known as the Byzantine text-type. This text is characterized chiefly by a so-called lucidity and completeness,[7] which is not always for the better. Harshness of language was smoothed; divergent readings were combined into one expanded reading (called conflation); and parallel passages (mostly in the Gospels) were harmonized.[8] In addition, the text was theologically touched up here and there in order to support predominant theological views, such as that of the trinity.

The vast bulk of the Greek manuscripts are of this type. None of the papyrus texts are predominantly this text, though some seem to have a few characteristically Byzantine readings. A few of the uncial and an overwhelming majority of the cursive manuscripts are of this type, as well as most of the later Greek writers. It appears that this text reached its basic form by the fourth century. This text also influenced many of the later non-Greek versions such as the Vulgate, the Peshitta, and the Harklean versions, which will be discussed shortly.

The above discussion briefly describes the three major families of texts and the general development of the text of the New Testament, especially of the Greek. We will now take a look at the Latin and then the Syriac versions.

Latin Versions

As mentioned above, the Old Latin version is the most primitive form of the Latin text, and it has all the characteristic features of the Western text, including tell-tale Aramaisms,[9] pointing to an Aramaic base. Of all the exponents of the ‘‘Western text,’’ the Old Latin has by far the most witnesses. This is so because Jerome did not begin his revision of the Old Latin to the Vulgate until 382 A.D., when he was commissioned to do so by Pope Damasus. Thus the Old Latin had more than three hundred years of use before any rival appeared on the scene, and even then it took at least two hundred years before the Vulgate gained a dominant, widespread use. Even so, the Old Latin text was still being copied as late as the twelfth century.

The Vulgate Latin text was simply an attempt to bring the deviant “Western’’ Old Latin texts more in line with the accepted Greek text in use by the church. Since the Greek-speaking church dominated in theological matters and Greek was the universal language of the educated classes in the Roman world, the Greek text was considered to be the standard authoritative text. Jerome did not completely translate the Greek text, but he revised an Old Latin type of text so that it conformed more closely to the Greek. Thus the Vulgate has elements from not only the Old Latin text, but it also has Alexandrian and Byzantine elements.

Syriac Versions

The Old Syriac version exists in only two mutilated Gospel manuscripts.[10]  However, from an analysis of the Biblical quotations of the Syrian ecclesiastical writers who used the Old Syriac Gospels, it has been determined that they also used an Old Syriac type of text for the Pauline Epistles and Acts. The work on the recovery of this Old Syriac New Testament material as quoted by the early Syrian writers is only in the most elementary stages.

The Old Syriac has many of the distinctive ‘‘Western’’ variants. In addition, it has a peculiar western (Palestinian) Aramaic flavor unknown in the eastern Aramaic dialect of Syriac.[11] This feature, too, points to a Palestinian Aramaic base for the Old Syriac text.

Editor’s comment: See my blogs The Old Syriac as Key to Most Original Hebrew Matthew: DuTillet vs. Shem Tob and The Key to Restoring the Original Hebrew of Matthew: The Old Syriac

Around the middle of the third century, the revisionist tendencies in the Greek church began to make themselves felt in Syria and Mesopotamia; and the Syriac-speaking Christians felt a need to conform their divergent Old Syriac type of texts towards the more standard revised Greek texts. This was a very gradual process and, at first, an incomplete one as well. No single person is associated with its production. The revised text that resulted is called the Peshitta. The Peshitta took its final form by the beginning of the fifth century. However, the Old Syriac was still used by the Syrian writers for several hundred more years, though in an ever-decreasing role.

The Peshitta is a mixed text like the Vulgate. In places it was unrevised; so in these places it represents an Old Syriac, ‘‘Western’’ type. In other places it has many Byzantine textual variants. Thus it appears that Byzantine Greek texts were used during the revision process. Some parts of the New Testament are more revised than others—the Gospels are more Byzantine in flavor than Acts, which has a distinctly Western flavor.[12]

“Peshitta’’ in Syriac means ‘‘simple.’’ The term Peshitta was used by Moshe bar Kepha in the late eighth century[13] to describe this text when compared with the very literal Syriac translations of the Greek New Testament produced in the sixth and seventh centuries—the Philoxenian and Harklean versions, respectively.

The Syrians were not satisfied with the Peshitta and desired a text that was even more closely aligned to the Greek text used by the dominant Greek speaking church to the West. In 508 A.D., Philoxenus, the bishop of Mabbog (Hierapolis), had one of his clergymen translate the Greek New Testament into Syriac. This translation is called the Philoxenian version. The only surviving books in this version are II Peter, II John, III John, Jude, and Revelation. The Harklean version, completed by 616 A.D. by Thomas of Harkel, is even more literally translated from the Greek than the Philoxenian version. Its whole New Testament is extant. The Harklean version has marginal notes that are an excellent witness to the ‘‘Western’’ text, and at least some appear to come from Old Syriac text traditions still known to Thomas that he considered significant.[14]

Another Syriac version is the Palestinian Syriac text, which exists in fragmentary form for many sections of the New Testament. This version is not in the classical Syriac dialect, but in a Western dialect more akin to Palestinian Aramaic. This should not be confused with the Palestinian Aramaic originals, as it is the product of a later period. Its exact date is unknown perhaps between 300 and 600 A.D.[15] The text, in places, seems to have been translated quite literally from Greek, yet at other times it diverges radically and goes its own way, finding agreement many times with the Old Syriac or Old Latin versions.

Other Versions

Later, other versions were produced in other languages. Sometimes Greek was the base, sometimes Syriac. The earliest forms of the Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Arabic texts seem to have Old Syriac/Peshitta bases. Later these were revised with Greek texts. The Coptic versions seem to have come from a Greek base all along.

To the Biblical Researcher

From the above it can be seen that the transmission of the text of the New Testament was not a simple process. There was much mixture and variation. There is no purely ‘‘Western’’ or Alexandrian or Byzantine codex. They are all mixed to one degree or another. The terminology used to describe the manuscripts simply indicates that a given text has a leaning toward one text-type or another. Always remember that one can never exalt one text type over another—they must all be tested.

Once the New Testament had passed through the text corruption of the late first and early second centuries, there were two tendencies that pervaded the transmission history of the New Testament. The Greek text became more polished along stylistic and theological lines, and there was an ongoing process of Hellenization in the non-Greek versions. The non-Greek versions were always becoming more and more closely aligned to the current Greek text.

For the Biblical researcher, since no originals exist, no one type of text or versional language can be held above the others. Every possible source must be screened, especially when there appears to be a problem in a given version. With a general knowledge of the transmission of the early versions of the New Testament, the researcher has a better background with which to analyze the readings of the versions. This background, coupled with a sound Biblical foundation built upon the accuracy and integrity of God’s Word, provides the only way that one can arrive at the true Word of God. A mastery of the technical knowledge concerning texts and manuscripts alone will not allow one to consistently get back to the original God-breathed Word.

Il Peter 1:20 and 21:

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.

For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

[1] Daniel L. McConaughy, ‘‘The Aramaic Origin of the New Testament,” The Way Magazine (May/June 1985), p. 20.

[2] For two examples, see: Victor Paul Wierwille, Jesus Christ Is Not God, 2nd ed (New Knoxville, Ohio: American Christian Press, 1981), pp. 18-19, 32-33

[3] Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 214.

[4] Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1971), p. xvii.

[5] Metzger, Text of the New Testament, p. 216.

[6] Metzger, p. 76.

[7] Metzger, Textual Commentary, p. xx.

[8] Metzger, p. xx.

[9] Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 288; Arthur Võõdbus, Early Versions of the New Testament (Stockholm: Estonian Theological Society, 1954), pp. 46-47.

[10] The Curetonian manuscript at the British Museum and the Sinaitic palimpsest in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai.

[11] F.C. Burkitt, Evengelion da-Mepharreshe, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1904), 2:39-84; Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), pp. 262-70.

[12] Metzger, Text of the New Testament, p. 70.

[13] William Wright, A Short History of Syriac Literature (Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1966), p. 3.

[14] W.H.P. Hatch, “To What Syriac Version or Versions of the Gospels Did Thomas of Harqel Refer in His Margin?” Journal of Biblical Literature 65 (1946): 371-76.

[15] Metzger, Early Versions, p. 77


The reproduction of this single article that once appeared in The Way Magazine should in no way be taken as a endorsement of any of the doctrines of The Way International. 

Daniel McConaughy was the Coordinator of the Biblical Research Department at the Way College of Emporia.  He is no longer a member of The Way International.  He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Syriac, Greek, and early Church history. 

In 1985 (just a year after this article was first published), McConaughy discovered a previously lost page of the Old Syriac Curetonian ms. of the Gospels (“A Recently Discovered Folio of the Old Syriac (Sy(c)) Text of Luke 16,13-17,1”;  Biblica Vol. 68- Fasc. 1- 1987; pp. 85-90).  He has been published in at least two academic journals (The cite above and “An Old Syriac Reading of Acts 1:4 and More Light on Jesus’ Last Meal before His Ascension”; Oriens Christianus; Band 72 1988; pp. 63-67). (See my blog The Lost Old Syriac Aramaic Reading of Acts 1:4)

This article appeared originally in a copyrighted magazine.  It is presented here in accordance with the Fair Use policy in that it is presented here for a non-profit, educational purpose, the original work was non-fiction, educational article, the material here comprises only four pages of the original copyrighted work, and this use has essentially no effect on the potential market for, or value of the original work.

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