I was talking to internet radio show host Joe Wyro, a pastor from Chicago, about the integrity and reliability of the New Testament. We were talking about the three most famous disputed passages in the New Testament: 1 John 5:7-8 (the so-called Johannine Comma, which I’ve written on); John 7:53-8:11; and Mark 16:9-20.
Basically, the argument comes down to whether or not one thinks the earliest extant Greek manuscripts of the Bible are more reliable than the church fathers and the later Latin manuscripts of the Bible. Up until the 1800s, biblical scholarship relied mainly on the Textus Receptus, a manuscript of textual consensus that was compiled from the several Byzantine Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the Latin Vulgate, the Hebrew Masoretic text and the Greek Septuagint. But then dozens of older Greek manuscript fragments were discovered in the 1800s and 1900s. Because there are textual variations in these manuscripts, a debate over the correct text of the New Testament ensued with many textual critics arriving at the conclusion that many of these passages ought to be changed in modern translations.
I am not claiming to know conclusively the answer to this question, but I have some objections to the modern liberal approach of redacting the received text.
1. Some of the church fathers quoted or alluded to these passages (1 John 5:7-8; John 7:53-8:11; Mark 16:9-20) as though they were scripture. So if they were added, they were added prior to the early second century. And since we have no manuscript evidence from the first century, there is no way to prove that these passages were added.
2. The church fathers who translated the New Testament from Greek to Old Latin and Vulgar Latin were living a lot closer to the source and certainly had more early manuscript copies than we do today. Therefore, I don’t see any reason why modern critics would know better than early textual critics.
3. We assume that just because a manuscript is older it is better. Yet the Dead Sea Scrolls proved to us that the surviving copies of the Masoretic text, which were copied hundreds of years after than the oldest surviving Greek Septuagint manuscripts, were generally more reliable than their Greek translation counterparts. There is no reason why copies in Latin — which is more closely related to Greek than Greek is to Hebrew — would be so much less reliable than Greek copies of the New Testament especially in identifying interpolated and deleted passages.
I explained to my pastor friend that the passages in question (1 John 5:7-8; John 7:53-8:11; Mark 16:9-20) are found in the oldest surviving Latin manuscripts and in quotations in the Church Fathers. Then I was then asked something I did not know the answer to at first. So I promised to look into it.
How old is the oldest Latin manuscript of the Bible?
The answer depends on whether we mean the whole Bible or significant fragments. Are we talking about both the Old Testament or the New Testament? It also depends on whether we mean the Latin Vulgate or the “Old Latin” manuscripts.
This following is compiled from various Internet sources.
What are the oldest extant Latin manuscripts of the Bible?
The official Latin version of the Catholic Church was prepared between A.D. 383–405 by St. Jerome (c.342–420). This became the Latin Vulgate. Prior to that there were many Old Latin manuscripts of the Bible. The term “Old Latin” or “Vetus Latina” refers to classical Latin as opposed to the Latin of common vernacular or “Vulgar Latin” from which the Vulgate gets its name. There is no single version of the Old Latin Bible, and many have significant corruptions and variants. Jerome was commissioned by the Bishop of Rome to produce a reliable text based on the best Latin translations, which were also referenced with the best available manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament.
Old Latin Texts
The language of the Old Latin translations is uneven in quality, as Augustine of Hippo lamented in De Doctrina Christiana (2,16). Grammatical mistakes abound. Some reproduce literal Greek or Hebrew idioms as they appear in the Septuagint. Likewise, the various Old Latin translations reflect the various versions of the Septuagint circulating, with the African manuscripts (such as the Codex Bobiensis) preserving readings of the Western text-type, while readings in the European manuscripts are closer to the Byzantine text-type. Many idiosyncrasies come from the use of Vulgar Latin grammatical forms in the text.
The Latin Vulgate
With the publication of Jerome’s Vulgate, which offered a single, stylistically consistent Latin text translated from the original tongues, the Vetus Latina gradually fell out of use. Jerome, in a letter, complains that his new version was initially disliked by Christians who were familiar with the phrasing of the old translations. However, as copies of the complete Bible were infrequently found, Old Latin translations of various books of the Bible were copied into manuscripts along side Vulgate translations, inevitably exchanging readings; Old Latin translations of single books can be found in manuscripts as late as the 13th century.
Jerome was originally commissioned to produce a Latin text of the four Gospels based on the most reliable Greek manuscripts. But he was soon able to complete the entire Bible in Latin. Jerome also translated the Apocrypha, which he considered non-canonical. For this task he used the Hexapla, a polyglot version of the Old Testament in six columns that contained the Hebrew Masoretic text, a Greek transliteration, the Septuagint, and Greek translations by Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion.
From 390 to 405 A.D., Jerome eventually began translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew. By this time, he believed that the Masoretic text was the superior version. But the received text of the Vulgate comes from the Hexapla. Most modern English translations until the 1900s relied on the received text.
However, in my own study of translated Dead Sea Scrolls along side the Received Text, I found that the differences are minuscule.
The Oldest Latin manuscripts
The oldest known Latin manuscript of the Bible is a lengthy fragment of the New Testament known as Codex Vercellensis (the “Codex of Vercelli”). It part of a collection of biblical manuscript codices preserved in the cathedral library of Vercelli, in the Province of Vercelli, Italy.
Codex Vercellensis is from the 4th century. It is a purple-stained vellum codex, the earliest manuscript of the “Old Latin” Gospels (called simply “Codex a”). The Gospels are in the usual order of the Western Church — Matthew, John, Luke and Mark. It does not contain the last twelve verses of the Gospel of Mark. It is generally believed to have been written under the direction of bishop Eusebius of Vercelli.
It’s interesting that some Greek and Latin codices had Mark as the last Gospel. Some think that this be the sole reason why the last 16 verses are missing from the oldest extant Greek and Latin manuscripts. The last page of an ancient manuscript was the part most often damaged or lost, books not having hard cover bindings in those days. But this just is one theory among many.
There is a diglot manuscript, with Greek on one page and Latin on the other facing side, called Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis. It contains most of the four Gospels and Acts and a small part of III John. This codex is from the 5th century.
Another diglot manuscript, Codex Claromontanus is a 6th century manuscript containing only the Epistles of Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews in Greek and Latin on facing pages.
The Oldest Latin Vulgate manuscripts
The Codex Fuldensis dates from around 545 A.D. It contains most of the New Testament in the Vulgate version, but the four Vulgate Gospels are harmonized into a continuous narrative derived from the Diatessaron.
The Codex Amiatinus is the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Bible in the Latin Vulgate version. Originally three copies of the Bible were commissioned by Ceolfrid, an Anglo Saxon monk, in 692 A.D. The only surviving copy is dated to 716 A.D.
The Codex Amiatinus is considered to be the most accurate copy of St. Jerome’s text. A very aged Ceolfrid undertook to carry one copy to the Pope in Rome personally. After a long sea voyage, he landed in Germany, but war detained him in the monastery of Langres in Burgundy, where he died. This is thought to be the manuscript that survived.
What do the Latin manuscripts tell us about disputed passages in the New Testament?
Note on the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7-8): Neither of the two oldest Latin Vulgate manuscripts contain the Johannine Comma. However, this clause is found mainly in the Old Latin texts from the fourth century onward and in later versions of the Vulgate. It is mentioned by many of the Latin church fathers. I wrote a longer article earlier this year on the Johannine Comma that goes more into detail. I won’t reproduce that again here.
Note on the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11): This is otherwise known as Pericope Adulterae because it does not appear in Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus or in other Greek manuscripts fragment from the third century known as P66 and P75.
It is mentioned by Jerome as being found in many copies. It is also mentioned by Ambrose, Augustine, and other writers from the fourth century onward.
St. Augustine of Hippo was aware that the passage as missing from some of the copies then extant. He wrote the following explanation of why he thought it was omitted in some manuscripts:
Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if he who had said, Sin no more, had granted permission to sin (De Adult. Conj., ii. 6).
The passage was not controversial until the time of the Reformation. During the 16th Century, Western European scholars sought to recover the original Greek text of the New Testament, rather than relying on the Vulgate Latin translation. At this time, it was noticed that a number of early manuscripts containing John’s Gospel lacked John 7:53-8:11.
Until recently, it was not thought that any Greek Church Father had taken note of the passage before the 12th Century; but in 1941 a large collection of the writings of Didymus the Blind (c. 313-398) was discovered in Egypt, including a reference to the Pericope Adulterae; and it is now established that this passage was present in its canonical place in a minority of Greek manuscripts known in Alexandria from the 4th Century onwards. In support of this, it is noted that the 4th century Codex Vaticanus, which was written in Egypt, marks the end of John chapter 7 with an “umlaut” (two dots) indicating that an alternative reading was known at this point.
See a defense of this passage here: http://www.bible-researcher.com/adult-hills.html
Note on the end of Mark 16:9-20: The earliest existing copies of Mark end abruptly after 16:8. Scholars are almost united on the idea that the final leaf of an early manuscript was lost causing numerous manuscripts to be copied without the ending. Then one of several things happened:
1. There were two or more manuscript traditions, one with and one without the ending, but the only early copies that have survived are those without the ending;
2. Earlier copies with the correct ending were recovered and the ending was re-inserted;
3. The ending was interpolated from some other source.
Given these three possibilities, the Christian who believes in scriptural inerrancy (at least in the original autographs) has a choice to make. Either we have the correct ending or we don’t. Those who think the passage is an outright interpolation must admit that the ending was not written by Mark. They still have the option of saying that the passage is a “Gospel tradition” received by the church fathers and therefore inspired scripture.
Furthermore, there are two versions of the ending that deserve consideration as the correct ending. The so-called “shorter ending” reads:
And they reported all the things that had been commanded them briefly (or immediately) to the companions of Peter. And after this Jesus himself also sent forth by them from the East even unto the West the holy and incorruptible preaching of eternal salvation.
The “longer ending” is the one that appears in today’s English versions (v. 9-20).
The longer ending is absent from the oldest Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian manuscripts. The main reason it is included in modern translations (usually with qualifying brackets or footnotes) is that it was known to Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (both in Greek and Latin), Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Tatian, who incorporated it into his Diatesseron.
Justin alludes to Mark 16:20 — “And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following” — in the following passage from his First Apology chapter 45, “His apostles, going forth from Jerusalem, preached everywhere.”
This might be thought to be only a slight allusion for the fact that Justin uses the Greek word pantachou — a word for “everywhere” that appears only seven times in the New Testament.
Irenaeus wrote in Against Heresies (c. 185 A.D. ), Book III, 10:5-6: “Also, towards the conclusion of his Gospel, Mark says: ‘So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God.” This is direct quotation of Mark 16:19.
At the seventh Council of Carthage in 256, a bishop named Vincentius of Thibaris said, “We have assuredly the rule of truth which the Lord by His divine precept commanded to His apostles, saying, ‘Go ye, lay on hands in My name, expel demons.’ And in another place: “Go ye and teach the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’”
There seems to be good reason, therefore, to conclude that the passage was known as part of the canonical text of Mark in the second century even though we have no extant manuscripts from this early period to confirm this. The earliest known copy of Mark — Papyrus 45, from about A.D. 225 — is damaged and for this reason is missing all of Mark 16.
My view is that since none of the earliest manuscript fragments contain any of Mark 16, to say that the passage is an outright interpolation is at best a reasoned guess. The passage ought to stand as it is recorded in modern translations, with brackets stating to the interested reader that the “earliest manuscripts do not have Mark 16:9-20.”
However, it also should be noted that none of these manuscripts are earlier than the writings of Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Tatian, who each knew of this text. The number of manuscripts that have the deletion are simply too small to confirm any doubt that would suggest that the original autograph did not have these verses. That the passage was known to several second century church fathers proves that the text was contained in manuscripts that existed in the second century.
Above is part of the Codex Vercellensis, scribed by Eusebius, the Bishop of Vercelli in northern Italy, in the year 370 A.D.
This section contains the Gospel of John 16:23-30.
Source: Plate XXXII. The S.S. Teacher’s Edition: The Holy Bible. New York: Henry Frowde, Publisher to the University of Oxford, 1896.