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     At one time it was theorized that the Greek of the New Testament was a special kind of language, a “language of the Holy Ghost” if you will, but it is now generally understood that the New Testament was written in the common language of the then known, civilized world.1  Most of the books of the New Testament were probably first written in a form of the first century Greek language called koine (“common”).  The one exception to this might be the Book of Matthew.  According to the testimony of the early second century writer Papias, it was originally written in Hebrew and later produced in Greek.  He wrote, "Matthew composed his history in the Hebrew dialect, and every one translated it as he was able."2  Ireneaus agreed, saying,"Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect..."3,4 However, Ireneaus may have merely been relying upon the testimony of Papias.

     Because the Bible was originally written in three different, ancient languages, Hebrew, Aramaic5, and Greek, the issues arising from translation are not inconsequential.  The text of the Old Testament, written mostly in Hebrew, has been well preserved.6  The Massoretic text forms the foundation of most English versions of the Old Testament.  There is little question concerning its reliability.  Indeed, the Hebrew text of the Old Testament was so completely established by the first century, that Josephus could say “during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, to take any thing from them, or to make any change in them.”7  The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has further confirmed, to a large degree, the accuracy of our Old Testament text.

    Biblical scholars, however, recognize different streams of the Greek text of the New Testament.  A great battle continues to be waged between conservative and liberal scholars of the New Testament as to which of these streams of text constitute a reliable transmission of the original first century documents.  Liberals scholars tend to view the earliest, most complete texts, the Sinaiticus, the Vaticanus, and the Alexandrinus, as the most reliable.  However, these texts often disagree with each other and it seems unlikely that such a range of disagreement could possibly represent an early, single, true, unadulterated text.8   Nevertheless, most of the modern translations of the New Testament are based upon this liberal approach to textual analysis and use either a critical textual foundation, such as the Wescott and Hort critical text, or an eclectic approach, choosing to use whatever textual variant seems appropriate to the translators.  

     Conservative scholars, on the other hand, tend to view the most accurate text as being reflected among the majority of manuscripts.  While none of the autographs of the New Testament now exist, there are nearly 6000 manuscripts of the New Testament in existence.  Portions of papyri from the second century copies have been found.  The John Ryland’s fragment, for instance, is a portion of the Gospel account of John and is believed to be dated to the early second century, the generally accepted date being around 125 A.D.  Some fragments found in the Chester Beatty collection also date to the second century.  There are some who believe they have found fragments of the Gospel account of Mark which date to the first century, but this is still in dispute.9  

     The majority text, as it has been called (closely related to the Byzantine text type, which is the basis for the King James version), represents the majority of readings found in the majority of all Greek texts.  Conservative biblical scholars like John W. Burgon (August 21, 1813 - August 4, 1888), Dean of Chichester, former fellow of Oriel College at Oxford, Vicor of St. Mary’s (the University Church) and a Gresham Professor of Divinity, vehemently opposed Wescott and Hort’s approach.  In his classic work The Revision Revised, Burgon took them to task for their  “reckless and unverified assertions.”10   Burgon argued that the antiquity of these manuscripts does not guarantee their accuracy.  Burgon believed

that these two manuscripts are indebted for their preservation, solely to their ascertained evil character; which has occasioned that the one eventually found its way, four centuries ago, to a forgotten shelf in the Vatican Library: while the other, after exercising the ingenuity of several generations of critical Correctors, eventually (viz. in A.D1844) got deposited in the waste paper basket of the convent at the foot of Mount Sinai.  Had B and x been copies of average purity, they must long since have shared the inevitable fate of books which are freely used and highly prized; namely, they would have fallen into decadence and disappeared from sight.  But in the meantime, behold, they’re very antiquity has come to be reckoned to their advantage.11

    Over time, Latin surpassed Greek as the language of the people.   By 1000 A. D., Greek came to be considered the language of the educated class and, as “the careless and crude form of the earliest Latin versions show quite clearly,” Latin was considered to be the language of the uneducated.12  Some of the earliest versions of the New Testament were, indeed, written in Latin.   Latin versions of the Gospel accounts were known in Carthaginia as early as 150 A. D.13


“In time, Greek became less of an international language, and, as Christianity penetrated into the hinterlands of Egypt, Ethiopia, Arabia, Syria, Gaul, Armenia, and north Africa, the necessity arose for versions in the languages of those places.  Some of these versions were written before our best extant manuscripts; consequently, while they have the obvious defects in translation, their antiquity gives them great value in our attempt to approximate the original text.”14

“Antioch in Syria was the earliest Gentile-Christian Center and the point from which Paul and his assistants worked their missions.  When Christianity penetrated the outlying districts of Syria (or Assyria), the need arose for Syriac translations of the New Testament.  The Syriac is closely related to the Aramaic that Jesus spoke.  Added interest is therefore attached to the Gospels in Syriac because the reader of these versions is dealing with practically the same vocabulary used by Jesus.”15

    Tatian’s Diatesseron combined the four, separate Gospel accounts--which he obviously had at his disposal--into a single, harmonious narrative.  It is dated to around 170 A. D.  It is preserved in Greek in only a single fragment of “about four inches square and containing on one side the greater part of fourteen lines of Greek writing.”16  Other Syrian versions included the old Syriac, also known as the Evangelion Dampharshe (“Gospel of the Separated Ones” or Separate Gospels, to distinguish it from the Diatesseron), of which we have two manuscripts, the Curetonian and the Sinaitic.  This version appeared about 200 A.D.  Another important version found in Syrian churches was the Peshitta Syriac version, which “apparently reflects the Canon according to the usage of the church at Antioch in the fourth and fifth centuries.”17

     Christianity expanded not only northward but southward into Egypt.  In the book of Acts, Luke informs us that there were Jews who had come from Egypt into Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:10).  Eusebius reports that it was the evangelist Mark who was sent into Egypt to preach “the gospel there which he had written, and first established churches at the city of Alexandria.”18   Bruce Metzger suggests that it is possible that Christianity reached Alexandria, “not later than A.D. 50.”19  Evidence that Christianity reached Egypt early is attested to by the many fragments of New Testament books which were copied in the second century for Christians living in Egypt.


1.   F.F. Bruce, “Archaeological Confirmation of the New Testament,” Carl F.H. Henry, ed., Revelation and the Bible. Contemporary Evangelical Thought. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958 / London: The Tyndale Press, 1959. pp.319-331.

2.   Eusebius Pamphilus, The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 126.

3.   Schaff, Philip, Editor, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library: nd, p. 1059.

4.   Theissen, Henry Clarence.  Introduction to the New Testament.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1943.  William B. Erdmann’s publishing company.  Page 131.

5.   Dan. 2:4b-7:28; Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26; Jer. 10:11

6.   See The Bible: The Old Testament, Eric L. Padgett, Christian Apologist, Vol. 1, No. 2, May-August, p. 12,13.

7.   Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Hartford, CN: S. S. Scranton, 1905), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 885.

8.    The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Revision Revised by John William Burgon, July 13, 2011 [Ebook 36722], p. 400.

9.   See The New Testament, Eric L. Padgett, Christian Apologist, Vol. 2, No. 1, Jan-June, p. 4.

10. Burgon, John William, The Revision Revised, Fort Worth, Texas: A. G.  Hobbs publications, no date page 319.

11. Burgon, page 319.

12. Bratton, Fred Gladstone.  A history of the Bible, an introduction to the historical method.  Beacon press, Beacon Hill: Boston 1959.  Page 228.

13. Ibid. page 229

14. Ibid. Page 228.

15. Ibid.

16. Metzger, Bruce M. V., Early versions of the New Testament, Clarendon Press, Oxford:1977, p.11

17. Metzger, page 48.

18. Eusebius Pamphilus, The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: "Chapter XVI".

19. Metzger, page 99.

The New Testament: Versions (1)  (part 3) Christian Apologist
Copyright Eric L. Padgett  07-18-2013