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The Earliest Versions of the New Testament

The Earliest Versions of the New Testament
James Scott Trimm

I have often said that the Ketuvim Netzarim (the "Writings of the Nazarenes" commonly known as the so-called "New Testament") was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic and then translated into other languages such as Greek and Latin.  When we study these books, it is with the descendants of the original Hebrew and Aramaic with which we must work, and this is expressed to us best by the earliest versions.  The purpose of this article is to elucidate the history of the transmission of these ancient texts.   First I will discuss the three major text types, then I will discuss the earliest language versions.  

The Development of Three Types of Texts

Before the invention of the printing press, all books had to be copied and recopied by hand.  This resulted in occasional human errors in copying known as scribal errors.  Manuscripts and versions of NT books are classed according to thse variant readings, they are the DNA of a given text.  Based upon the occurrences of these variants scholars have established the existence of three general classes of NT manuscripts and versions known as "Text Types":  The Western, the Alexandrian and the Byzantine.  Let use briefly examine each of these.

The Western Text Type

The "Western" text type is called "Western" because it was first believed to be used in the west, but later research has revealed that it was used throughout the known world.  It was once sometimes called the "Syro-Latin" text, because it was the type of Greek text which best agreed with the Old Latin and Old Syriac versions.  When we examine the quotations of the "New Testament" which appear in the so-called "Church Fathers" of the Second Century, we see that this is the type of text that was used universally used in the second century.  In the third century also, Greek, Latin and Syriac writers all used the Western type of Text.   But by the fourth century, while Latin and Syriac writers continued to use the Western text, it had fallen out of use by most Greek writers.  The oldest versions of the "New Testament" are the Greek Western Type Text, the Old Syriac and the Old Latin all three of which are of which are of the Western Text type.

The Western text is characterized, not only by its great antiquity, and near universal use in the early centuries, but most importantly for its many Semitisms.  Matthew Black states, that "Semitisms" are "a special feature of the text of [Codex] D". In fact in an extensive study of the occurrence of Semitisms in the Book of Acts, Max Wilcox found something very amazing, something which he viewed as a "textual problem". He found that Codex D (and the Greek Western text in general) was far more replete with Semitisms than any of the other Greek texts:

…there is the textual problem of Acts. In this connection we may recall that in no inconsiderable number of places, where the evidence indicated or suggested Semitism, that evidence was not found in all the manuscripts, but was confined to one manuscript or group of manuscripts, frequently D (and its allies).
(Semitisms of the Book of Acts; Max Wilcox; 1965; p. 185)

 Some of the primary Greek witnesses for this text type in the Gospels are D, W and 0171, in Acts P29, P38, P48, D, 383 and 614 and in the Epistles D(p), E(p), F(p), G(p), and the Greek "Church Fathers" up until the early third century.

The Alexandrian Text

By the end of the second century a competing Greek version of the New Testament had surfaced, which scholars call the "Alexandrian" text.  .  This second text type surfaced amongst the Helenist population of Alexandria which is why it is known today as the Alexandrian type of text.  It continued to be used in Alexandria and Egypt up to the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt.  

When we examine the writings of Clement of Alexandria, who died in 215 CE, we find that he used a Western type of text, but with a few revised Alexandrian readings.  The Alexandrian text was a much smoother Greek which smoothed the Aramaic grammar and sentence structure into much better Greek grammar.  The Alexandrian version was also somewhat abridged, especially in Acts which is almost 10% shorter in the Alexandrian Version than in the Western Version.  

Many scholars believe that the Alexandrian text, or an ancestor of this text which they call the "Neutral" text, was the oldest, most original Greek text.  For this reason it is the version favored in most critical editions and in most modern English translations.  Supporters of this text hold this belief despite all of the evidence to the contrary because many of the ancient papyri fragments are of this text type (though some important ones contain Western readings).  However this may well be due to the fact that such Papyri fragments tended to be preserved in Egypt, where hot, dry, arid conditions allowed such fragments to be preserved, and the Alexandrian text was popular in Egypt.

The Byzantine Text
As time progressed the early Greek church began to reconcile these two Greek versions.  This later text type is known as the Byzantine text type.  This version smoothed out the Greek even more and sought to reconcile the conflicting readings of the Western and Alexandrian Versions.    Since the vast majority of Greek manuscripts are later rather than earlier, the Byzantine text type is the text type of the majority of manuscripts and thus the "Majority Text" (it is also the text type of the Textus Receptus, which served as the basis for the King James Version).  The first "Church Father" to consistently quote from a Byzantine type of text was John Chrysostom who died in 407 CE.

OK, having covered the development of the three major text types in the Greek, we will now look at the early Latin and Syriac (Aramaic) versions.  

The Latin Versions

The most primitive version of the Latin text is the Old Latin version.  This text is an example of the Western type of text and like all texts of this type, it is filled with Semitisms which serve as evidence of its Hebrew or Aramaic origin.  To begin with in the Old Latin pronoun suffixes are often affixed to substantives.  In Latin this is very peculiar, could not have come from the Greek text and could only have been derived from the Aramaic text.  Secondly the Old Latin verbal forms are at odds with those of the Greek while in harmony with the Aramaic.  For example the Old Latin often has a perfect verb form where the Greek has the present tense. Also the Old Latin often has the present tense where the Greek has the aorist form. These inconsistencies can only be explained if the Greek and Old Latin were independently translated from an unpointed Aramaic original.

There are other internal evidences of the Aramaic origin of the Old Latin as well.  Several of these are given in my book The Hebrew and Aramaic Origin of the New Testament.

This Old Latin version continued to be the common Latin version until 382 CE when Pope Damasas commissioned Jerome to create a new Latin version, the Latin Vulgate.  In fact the Old Latin was still being copied into the 12th century CE.  

The Latin Vulgate was an attempt to bring the Old Latin text into greater agreement with the standard Greek texts of the late fourth century, by which time the Western Text had fallen out of use in the Greek church.   The Greek language dominated philosophical and theological studies of the educated populace of the Roman Empire, and so there was a need to bring the standard Latin text into greater conformity with the Greek text of the time.  Thus the Latin Vulgate is Western at its core yet contains many Alexandrian and Byzantine readings as well.

The Syriac (Aramaic) Versions

The Old Syriac is an ancient Aramaic version of the four Gospels, which was widely used until it was eclipsed by the Peshitta version of the Gospels in the late fifth or early sixth century. So complete was this eclipse that the version was totally lost until its recovery in the nineteenth century. Even now this version is only represented by two manuscripts, one from the fourth century, and one from the fifth century.

The first manuscript obtained from the monastery of St. Mary Deipara in the valley of the Natron Lakes in Egypt in 1842. It was not until 1858 that Dr. William Cureton identified and published the text. This manuscript is called the Curetonian or Codex Syrus Curetonianus and is catalogued as British Museum Add. No. 14451. It is generally dated to the fifth century.

The second manuscript was discovered by Agnes Smith Lewis at the St. Cathrine's Monastery on traditional Mt. Sinai in 1892. This manuscript is called the Syriac Siniatic or Codex Syrus Sinaiticus and is catalogued as Mt. Sinai Syriac Ms. No. 30. It is generally dated to the fourth century.

The two manuscripts contain many variances from each other. Each occasionally agrees with the Peshitta against the other, however this is far more common with the Curetonian manuscript. Neither manuscript is complete but between the two of them we do have 95% of the text of the four Gospels in this version.

When we examine the writings of the Syriac "Church Fathers" who used the Old Syriac version of the Gospels, we find that there also existed Old Syriac texts for Acts and the Epistles, but this text today has survived only in the form of quotations in the Syriac "Church Fathers".  The recovery of this text could take many years, and is today only in the opening stages.

The Old Syriac version agrees with many of the Semitisms generally reflected in the Western version.  Moreoveer the Old Syriac contains many readings which are characteristic, not of the Syriac Aramaic dialect in which the Old Syriac is written, but are instead characteristics of Judaic dialects of Aramaic.  Several examples are given in detail in my book The Hebrew and Aramaic Origin of the New Testament.   This points to the Jewish Aramaic origin of this text.

Just as in the Latin church, there was a move to conform the Old Latin text with the Greek text of the time, in the middle of the third century there began a process of revision of the Old Syriac text toward greater agreement with the Greek text of the time period.  This version became known as the Peshitta.  The Peshitta is a mixed text.  The revision of the Gospels was more complete than the revision of Acts, so that the Peshitta text of the Gospels tends to follow the Byzantine text type, while the Peshitta text of Acts tends to be much more Western.  Many examples of the revision of the Old Syriac towards the Peshitta text are given in my book The Hebrew and Aramaic Origin of the New Testament.

In 508 Philoxenus, bishop of Mabbog, commissioned a translation of the Greek New Testament into Syriac, the Philoxenian version.  Little of this version has survived, only the books of 2Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude and Revelation.  These books survived only because they do not appear in the Peshitta canon, and became used to supplement the Peshitta version.  

Thomas of Harkel created yet another, more literal Syriac translation .  His version contained marginal notes that appear to reference alternate Western readings which appear to be from the Old Syriac version.

Yet another Aramaic version, often termed "Syriac" but not truly in the Syriac Dialect is the so-called "Syro-Palestenian" version, also known as CPA or "Christian Palestinian Aramaic" which is written in a western dialect of Aramaic rather than an Eastern Syriac dialect.  This version survives only in fragments, and is clearly a translation from the Greek, but in some readings follows the Old Syriac and Western type readings.  An example of this is given in book The Hebrew and Aramaic Origin of the New Testament.

The Hebrew Versions

Two important old Hebrew versions of Matthew have come down to us, the DuTillet-Munster version and the Shem Tob version.  Both of these versions have come down to us from the middle ages, but internal evidence testifies that they are rooted in ancient times.  These Hebrew versions have many unique agreements with the Western text in general and with the Old Syriac Version in particular.  Several examples of this are given in my book The Hebrew and Aramaic Origin of the New Testament.

The Western Greek as a Translation from the Old Syriac

Charles Cutler Torrey refers to "…the Aramaic which (as I believe) underlies the Bezan Grk…." (Our Translated Gospels p. 4 n. 19) and later refers to "…the Aramaic retro-version which lies back of the Bezae Greek…" (ibid p. 134) while Fredric Henry Chase stated:

The Syriac text of the Acts, on which large portions of the Bezan text are based, is not that of the Syriac Vulgate [the Peshitta]. It is that of an old Syriac version,… The conclusion that it is an Old Syriac text which lies behind that of Codex D is founded on the consideration of two lines of evidence-external and internal.
(The Old Syriac Element in the Text of Codex Bezae; by Fredric Henry Chase B.D.; 1893 p. 1)

However, rather than come to the obvious conclusion that the Greek Western text of D represents a translation from the Aramaic Old Syriac text, Chase instead theorizes:

The Bezan text of the Acts is the result of an assimilation of a Greek text to a Syriac text.

It is the conclusion of this author that Torrey and Chase were each close to the truth. Torrey was correct that the Greek Western text was a translation from an Aramaic original but was blind to the fact that the Aramaic original which lies behind the Western Greek text was the Old Syriac. On the other hand Chase recognized that the Old Syriac underlies the Greek Western text, but failed to acknowledge that the Greek Western text was a translation from an Aramaic original.


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