What early manuscripts of the Bible exist today?


"In spite of all the yearnings of men, no one can produce a single fact or reason to support the belief in God and in personal immortality."

- Clarence Darrow

"I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man. 1"

- Alexander Hamilton

8.1 The Old Testament: the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are perhaps the greatest archaeological find of our time. Produced by Jewish monastic Essenes, the scrolls number about 800; 200 of which are of biblical material. In 1947, shepherds discovered them quite by accident in caves above the Wadi Qumran Valley, northwest of the Dead Sea. A few of the scholars and archaeologists who contributed to their discovery and verification include E. L. Sukenik, G. Lankester Harding, Roland G. de Vaux, Yigael Yadin and William F. Albright.

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain at least fragments of every book in the Old Testament except the book of Esther. More than ten scrolls were beautifully preserved intact including two copies of Isaiah. 2 Professor Millar Burrows of Yale University assigns these copies to the first century BC. Johns Hopkins University Professor William F. Albright places them more conservatively in the second century BC.3

These copies of Isaiah, written 1,000 years earlier than the previously oldest known copies have proven to be "word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The five percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling. [emphasis mine] " 4 Great respect must therefore be given to the interim copyists. Diligently slaving for accuracy, they apparently achieved it:

Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only 17 letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The remaining three letters comprise the word 'light' which is added in verse 11, and does not affect the meaning greatly. Furthermore, this word is supported by the LXX [Septuagint] and IQ Is [first cave of Qumran, Isaiah scroll]. Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission - and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage. 5

Today, much of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection remains with the many individual scholars to whom the various scrolls and fragments were assigned and named after. Some of the documents are owned by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and are on display in the Shrine of the Book Museum in West Jerusalem. These include one Isaiah scroll which was written between 150-100 BC, another around 50 BC, a commentary on Habakkuk penned between 100-50 BC, and two other documents. 6

8.2 The Old Testament: the Septuagint.

The Septuagint, or LXX, is the oldest Greek translation of the Old Testament. It was begun around 247 BC by seventy scholars in Alexandria, Egypt for an expanding community of Greek speaking Jews, and was completed no later than 117 BC. 7

R. K. Harrison confirms its early use: "While there are certain differences in New Testament usage, there is no doubt that of all Greek versions the LXX was employed predominantly and that it enjoyed independent existence in the period just prior to the time of Christ." 8 The Septuagint was also most likely the standard Old Testament text used by the early Christian church. Early LXX material is included in the Rylands Papyrus 458, which dates back to 150 BC. 9

8.3 The Old Testament: the Masoretic Text and others.

The Masoretic Text includes many copies of Old Testament books and works dated between AD 500-1000.10 One is the Codex Leningradensis: a complete copy of the Hebrew Old Testament dated at AD 1010 11 (a codex is a bound volume of cut sheets). It is the source on which the Hebrew texts of today are based. It resides in the Public Library of Leningrad, although the State of Israel has reportedly sought to acquire it. Another collection is the Allepo Codex which contains the entire Old Testament from the early tenth century AD.

Other early copies of scripture from the first centuries AD include the Freer Greek Manuscript V from the third century, Origen's Hexapla from AD 240, the Lucian Recension and the Hesychian Recension.12 The Samaritan Pentateuch is also an early copy of the Old Testament, but its value for comparison is disputed. This is for fear that unlike the Hebrews, Egyptians, or many other Eastern cultures, the "Samaritans did not possess a body of professional scribes as such at any given period in antiquity." 13

8.4 The New Testament: various...

There are over 6,000 early manuscript copies or portions of the Greek New Testament in existence today. When we include the Latin Vulgate and other early versions, we have over 24,000 early copies or portions of the New Testament (twice that many when including quotes by early church fathers). Some of these date only twenty to thirty years from the original autographs. By comparison, of works by Plato and Aristotle very few copies exist at all, and those were written 1,200 to 1,400 years after the autographs. 14 According to a former director of the British Museum,

The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established. 15

The Chester Beatty Papyrus II is the earliest piece of the New Testament known to exist. This contains most of Paul's letters copied circa AD 100.

The John Rylands Manuscript contains part of the Gospel of John copied in AD 130. It can be found in the John Rylands Library of Manchester, England.

The Codex Vaticanus is a Greek copy of the entire Old Testament and most of the New Testament. Copied between the years 325 and 350 16, the Codex Vaticanus has resided in the Vatican's library since 1481 as one of the most trustworthy witnesses to the New Testament text. 17

The Codex Sinaiticus was discovered in the Mt. Sinai Monastery in 1859 by Dr. Constantin Von Tischendorf. It was penned circa AD 375-400 and contains all of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament. It was presented to the Russian Czar and in 1933 was bought by England. Today, it is in the British Museum in London.

The Codex Washingtonianus may be found in the Smithsonian Institution, having been written about AD 450. It contains the complete four Gospels.

The Bodmer Papyri and Bodmer Papyri II are manuscripts dating from AD 150 to 200. These various parts of the New Testament, discovered in Egypt, now exist in the Bodmer Library of World Literature. Other significant collections include the Codex Alexandrinus which is an Egyptian text circa AD 450, the Codex Ephraemi, and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

Notable Latin versions of scripture include the Itala Version completed around AD 200 in the North Africa region, the Wurzburg Palimpsest Codex circa AD 450, and the Lyons Codex from about AD 650. The most famous Latin version is Jerome's Vulgate from AD 390-404. 18

This overwhelming quantity of New Testament documents is appreciated even more when we realize that the Diocletian persecution of AD 303 sought to eradicate Christianity, including all of its churches and historical writings. The persecution's failure to do so is underscored by the United Bible Society's estimates that, since 1815, an unbelievable four billion Bibles have been published worldwide. 19



(top of page)

NEXT: Have critics discredited the early manuscripts?

See also:

The history of the English-reading Bible

Printing Tips, Contact, Search,
Links & Bibles,
The Gospel







This provides a partial listing of early documents which are in existence for the various biblical books.

The evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls alone basically certifies the perfect transmission of O.T. texts from ancient times to today.

1. OT: Dead Sea Scrolls
2. OT: Septuagint (LXX)
3. OT: Masoretic texts
4. NT: various