The History of the Bible
--Lecture Notes for Topic 3.0-
Establishing a Christian Bible: 100 AD to the Protestant Reformation
Last revised: 10/01/06
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What do we need to learn this week?

After examining how both testaments of the Christian Bible came into being, we need now  to take a look at how they came together as a Bible comprised of the Old Testament and the New Testament. That history should give attention first to how copies of sacred documents were made. This will be foundational to these documents being distributed and thus sought to gain credibility in the eyes of various ancient Christian communities. The result of this copying process was to produce thousands of manuscripts that were distributed either as individual documents or mostly as a collection of documents. The hand copying process had numerous weaknesses built into it. The result was to produce manuscripts that contained large numbers of variations in wording in the texts.

The immediate question that comes is "Where does the content of our English Bible come from?" Since the beginning of the modern era of the printing press, those who print a Greek New Testament and a Hebrew Old Testament are forced by necessity to make decisions about the exact wording of a biblical language text. How are such decisions made? On what basis, since the copied manuscripts differ so much in their wording? The answer to these questions lies in a brief overview of a technical process of analyzing the now existing manuscripts of the biblical texts. The goal is to seek the most accurate wording possible. The standard for measuring accuracy is the exact wording of each document when it was first written. But why not just go back to the original documents themselves? Unfortunately, these documents no longer exist. And further complicating the process is that for the New Testament, existing manuscripts, that cover the full content of the New Testament, reach back no earlier than three hundred years after the original writing of each document. The situation is more challenging for the Hebrew test of the Old Testament. This process of analysis of available manuscripts is a highly technical discipline called Textual Criticism. We will take a quick look at it, both in its New Testament application, and also in its very different Old Testament application.

Finally, we will give consideration to the central role that the Latin Vulgate has played in Christian history. By the fifth century it had become the Bible for western Christianity. And it remained so for all Christians in the west until the Protestant Reformation. For Roman Catholics it still remains the Bible. Additionally, it has impacted the English Bible in many, many ways from the very beginning, and remains an influence on the English Bible used by most Protestants today. Modern English Roman Catholic translations must pay close attention to the Vulgate, if these are to gain the approval of the Vatican.

3.1 Copying the Bible: How were copies of the Bible made before the printing press?

In the ancient world, no typewriters or computers existed. So how did people put their ideas in written expression? The answer: very laboriously, using very primitive writing tools. This tended to push writing toward the experts who were especially trained for this. By the beginning of the Christian era, most writing outside of very short personal letters -- less than one page -- was done by professional scribes.

3.1.1 How did people write in the ancient world?

In the world at the beginning of the Christian era a variety of writing materials were used. Each tended to have specific purposes and situations. The graphics below illustrate the variety of materials and instruments used in writing.

Wax Tablet Ostraca Paper
Papyrus Parchment Writing Instruments

Of the five types of writing materials illustrated above, the wax tablet was the main writing material for school boys, although it was used for other things. A fine layer of wax was spread over a flat piece of wood. The wax could be heated to erase the writing that had been placed on it using a stylus while the wax was warm. Ostraca was pottery with inscriptions etc. on it. Most of what we have available today are broken pieces of pottery. "Paper" was not produced until after the 8th century AD, and does not figure in prominently with the copying of the Bible until the middle ages. Papyrus was the most common writing material in the ancient world, and was widely used. Parchment -- Vellum -- was tanned leather and was widely used in copying the Bible from the fourth through the fourteenth centuries. The writing instruments ranged from hollowed out reeds to bone or wooden styla.

3.1.2 Who did the copying of the documents of the New Testament and how?

A dramatic dividing line in the copying process exists. Up to the fourth century, those who copied the texts of the New Testament were not professional scribes who did this for a living. Most were what we would call "laymen." They spent enormous amounts of time making copies as a part of their Christian faith, and without pay for doing it. But with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, making it a religio licita. Although other religions were tolerated, Christianity increasingly became the dominant religion of the empire. One of the byproducts of that action was to make the enormous financial support of the Roman government available to Christian churches. This shifted the copying of manuscripts of the Bible from volunteer scribes to professionally trained scribes. The quality and way of copying noticeably changed as evidenced by the use of much more expensive materials and a much more decorative style of manuscript production.

The methods of copying usually followed one of two patterns. First, a scribe would have a copy of the biblical text (= exemplar) in front of him. Using the appropriate writing materials (papyrus until the fourth century AD, and mostly parchment after that), he would visually copy by hand each word onto the new manuscript. The result of such a long, laborious effort over several months would be one more copy of the New Testament. Second, a group of scribes would gather each with appropriate writing materials. The number would vary according to the circumstance. Another scribe would orally read aloud the exemplar text to the group of copyists, who would carefully write down what they heard being read. The result of such a long, grueling period of copying would be several new Biblesm depending on the number of the group of scribes. Both methods took months and months of hard work to produce each new copy. But the second method was much more efficient in that multiple copies resulted from the process. The advantage of the first method was that fewer mistakes would be made in the copying process. From every indication, the second, group method was the most common way of copying the New Testament.

Such a process is naturally going to produce numerous variations of wording in the copied manuscripts. Rich Elliott has a very helpful summary of the core challenges to the scholar analyzing these manuscripts in order to determine the text of the Greek New Testament:

Chances are that you've played the game "Telephone" some time in your life. "Telephone" is the game in which a group of people gather around in a circle. One person thinks up a message, and whispers it to the next person, who whispers it to the next person, and so on around the circle, until you reach the end and the final person repeats the message aloud. The first person then states the original message.

The two sentences often cannot be recognized as related.

Even if you haven't played "Telephone," you must have read a book or a magazine which was filled with typographical errors. And that's in a case where the typesetter has the author's original manuscript before him, and professional proofreaders were engaged to correct errors.

Now imagine what happens when a document is copied, by hand, tens of thousands of times, long after the original manuscript has been destroyed. Imagine it being copied by barely literate scribes standing (not sitting, standing) at cold desks in bad light for hours on end, trying to read some other scribe's barely legible handwriting.

Imagine trying to do that when the words are written in all upper-case letters, with no spaces between words, and you're writing on poor quality paper with a scratchy reed pen using ink you made yourself.

Because that's what happened with all ancient books, and with the New Testament in particular. Not all scribes were as bad as the secretary Chaucer poked such fun at in the quote above, but none were perfect -- and few had the New Testament authors looking over their shoulders to make corrections.

After a few centuries of that, it's easy to imagine that the text of the New Testament would no longer bear any relationship to the original. Human beings just aren't equipped to be exact copyists. And the more human beings involved in the process, the worse the situation becomes.

Fortunately, the situation is not as grim as the above picture would suggest. Despite all those incompetent scribes making all those incompetent copies, the text of the New Testament is in relatively good shape. The fact that copies were being made constantly, by intent scribes under the supervision of careful proofreaders, meant that the text stayed fairly fixed. It is estimated that seven-eighths of the New Testament text is certain -- all the major manuscripts agree, and scholars are satisfied that their agreement is correct. Most of the rest is tolerably certain -- we probably know the original reading, and even if we aren't sure, the variation does not significantly affect the sense of the passage. For a work so old, and existing in so many copies, this fact is at once amazing and comforting.

Still, there are variations in the manuscripts of the New Testament, and some of them are important. It is rare for such variants to affect a fundamental Christian doctrine, but they certainly can affect the course of our theological arguments. And in any case, we would like the most accurate text of the New Testament possible.

That is the purpose of textual criticism: Working with the materials available, to reconstruct the original text of an ancient document with as much accuracy as possible. It's not always an easy job, and scholars do sometimes disagree. But we will try to outline some of the methods of New Testament textual criticism in this article, so that you too can understand the differences between Bibles, and all those odd little footnotes that read something like "Other ancient authorities read...."

For a very helpful and not overly technical discussion of the types of variations that show up as a result of this copying process see Tony Sied's, "Manuscript Transmission," in Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts web site. Numerous illustrations are presented as well.

3.1.3 Who did the copying of the documents of the Old Testament and how?

When one comes to the copying of the Old Testament documents, the situation and the dynamics are very different from that with the New Testament.

In Judaism the biblical texts in Hebrew were being copied at the beginning of the Christian era to some extent. The preference for oral transmission was still dominant. But more importantly, they were gradually being incorporated into larger writings that by the fourth century AD would become known as the Talmud. This is defined as:

The Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. The Talmud has two components: the Mishnah, which is the first written compendium of Judaism's Oral Law; and the Gemara, a discussion of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Tanakh. The terms Talmud and Gemara are often used interchangeably. The Gemara is the basis for all codes of rabbinic law and is much quoted in other rabbinic literature. The whole Talmud is traditionally also referred to as Shas (a Hebrew abbreviation of shishah sedarim, the "six orders" of the Mishnah).
The written Hebrew texts of the Old Testaments will come together in an organized and semi-official manner through the work of Jewish rabbis known as the Masoretes who worked between the seventh and eleventh centuries AD. The standardized Hebrew text they produced is called the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament. This Hebrew text has become the foundation for all printed Hebrew texts used by Jewish and Protestant scholars in the modern era. Increasingly, Roman Catholic scholars are adopting it as well, especially after Vatican Council Two in the early 1960s.

In Christianity, however, the Old Testament pretty much meant the Septuagint until Jerome's Vulgate at the end of the fourth century. So most of the copying of the Old Testament during this period related to copying the Greek translation of the Old Testament, as well as the use of it for translation into Latin and other languages in the Eastern Mediterranean world. Although not a lot is known about the copying process at this early period, one would assume that the methods etc. of copying were similar to those used with the New Testament documents also in Greek.

When one comes to the rise of the influence of the Latin Vulgate in western Christianity from the fifth century onward, the process of copying either the Greek Old Testament or the Greek and/or Hebrew Old Testament diminishes dramatically because the concern now focuses on transmission of the Vulgate. It has become the Bible of Latin speaking Christianity universally. Even the study of these original biblical language texts drops significantly with the passing of time. So much so that only the monastics tucked away in isolated monasteries become the individuals who can read and study these texts.

3.2 Analyzing all these copies: How do we get back to the words originally written in these documents?

3.2.1 Some history of the process called Textual Criticism

The beginnings of Textual Criticism as a formal discipline lie outside the study of the Bible. On the European continent the study of folk literature, in England the study of Shakespeare's writings -- these and others areas became the foundation for textual criticism in the modern era. Analysis of different manuscripts of the writings of individuals, to be sure, had been practiced for a long time, many centuries before the modern era. But never with the carefully developed procedures etc. for analysis as is true in the modern period. The history of the transmission of the Vulgate clearly illustrates this.

The dramatic expansion of this discipline is connected to two dynamics. First, the invention of the printing press created impetus for producing a printed Greek text of the New Testament in the early 1500s. This meant that some hand copied manuscript or collection of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament had to be examined in order to determine the wording of the Greek text for printing purposes. In the early 1500s, many European scholars were feverishly working to be the first one to publish a Greek New Testament. The one who succeeded was the Dutch scholar Erasmus, who published the first Greek New Testament in 1516. This volume and subsequent editions came to be called the Textus Receptus.

While in England Erasmus began the systematic examination of manuscripts of the New Testament to prepare for a new edition and Latin translation. This edition was published by Froben of Basel in 1516 and was the basis of most of the scientific study of the Bible during the Reformation period (see Bible Text, II., 2, § 1). He published a critical edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516 - Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum et Emendatum. This edition included a Latin translation and annotations. It used recently rediscovered additional manuscripts. In the second edition the more familiar term Testamentum was used instead of Instrumentum. But it was the third edition that was used by the translators of the King James Version of the Bible. The text later became known as the Textus Receptus. The first and second editions' text did not include the passage (1 John 5:7–8) that has come to be known as the Comma Johanneum. This appears to be a basis of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, but it is, most likely, a forgery. The Roman Catholic Church decreed that the Comma Johanneum was open to dispute (June 2, 1927), and it is rarely, if ever, included in modern translations. Erasmus published three other editions - in 1522, 1527 and 1535. Erasmus dedicated his work to Pope Leo X as a patron of learning, and he regarded this work as his chief service to the cause of Christianity. Immediately afterwards he began the publication of his Paraphrases of the New Testament, a popular presentation of the contents of the several books. These, like all of his writings, were published in Latin, but were quickly translated into other languages, with his encouragement. [Wikipedia, "Erasmus"]
Copy of Erasmus' text with the Vulgate in the left column and his Greek text in the right
column. Erasmus represents the beginning of the so-called "Textus Receptus," the received text.

This printed Greek text and subsequent editions became the basis for translating the New Testament in the various European languages for the next two hundred years. This to the slim extent that those translations consulted an original language text, rather than depending exclusively on the Vulgate as the foundational text for translation.

Second, the emergence of biblical archaeology in the eighteen hundreds gradually began uncovering more and more manuscript fragments and occasionally virtually complete texts of the New Testament. These copies went further back in time than the few manuscripts that Erasmus had used to produce his printed Greek text. As more and more texts of the Bible were discovered, biblical scholars began noticing increasing variations of wording from the text of the Textus Receptus. The discovery of Codex Alexandrinus in the early 1800s became a catalyst for much of this, since it was a fifth century copy of virtually the entire text of the New Testament. The manuscripts used in the Textus Receptus only went back to the middle ages. So here was a Greek text reaching back centuries farther than anything connected to the Textus Receptus. And, most importantly, it contained numerous differences in wording from that of the Textus Receptus. Increasingly, biblical scholars became alarmed about the trust worthiness of the Greek text that lay underneath the translations in the Textus Receptus.

Over the past 150 years, we have moved from having access to barely a dozen very late and very inferior Greek manuscripts of the New Testament to over 5,300 manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts move to within four centuries of the original writings of the documents of the New Testaments, and, in a few instances, manuscript fragments move to with a century of the compositional date. Many of these manuscripts are very high quality, as well as being dated very early. Add to this, the discovery of ancient translations in Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian and other languages. This pushes the available texts of the New Testament in translation form back to within a few centuries of the original writing dates. Complementing this still growing mountain of evidence are the lectionaries written in Greek that quote large portions of the New Testament. Additionally are the Church Fathers, especially those who wrote in Greek, who also quote from the Greek text of the New Testament being used in their writing.

Unlike the challenge with the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old Testament where very few manuscripts go back to within a few centuries of the original date of writing, scholars in New Testament Textual Criticism face the huge challenge of sifting through literally thousands and thousands of ancient manuscripts as they attempt to get at the most likely reading of the original writing of the New Testament documents. A systematic method of evaluating all this evidence becomes essential.

3.2.2 A glance at how the experts do it

The essence of this procedure is first to compare external evidence, that is, available manuscripts for the scripture text. Then internal evidence, i.e., patterns of scribal writing showing up inside the Greek text, is analyzed. When a variety of alternative "readings" of a word, phrase etc. shows up in a scripture passage, then both the external and internal evidence are compared in order to draw a conclusion regarding "the most likely original reading" of the Greek text.

The possible readings are evaluated externally by (1) how early the manuscript support is for each reading, by (2) widely geographical regions the readings existed in, and by (3) which text family or tradition they belong to. The earlier a certain reading is, the more widely distributed it is geographically, and the more text types it can be found in, the stronger is the evidence supporting a certain reading of the text. Internally, two areas of evaluation are use: (1) what the scribes probably did when copying the New Testament (Transcriptional Probabilities), and (2) what the author most likely wrote himself (Intrinsic Probabilities).

For a more detailed explanation see my my "EVALUATION OF VARIOUS READINGS ACCORDING TO THE THEORY OF RATIONAL ECLECTICISM" in Supplementary Helps in Greek 202 at in the Academic Section (in pdf file format). It is summarized by the following chart:

1.   Date.
2.   Geographical Distribution.
3.   Textual Relationships.
Summary of the External Evidence
1.   Transcriptional Probabilities, i.e. what scribes likely did when copying the N.T.
      (1)     Shorter/Longer Reading.
      (2)     Reading Different from Parallel.
      (3)     More Difficult Reading.
      (4)     Reading Which Best Explains Origin of Other(s).
2.   Intrinsic Probabilities, i.e. what the author himself likely wrote.
Summary of Internal Evidence

In the UBS 4th revised edition the critical apparatus applies this procedure and then rates the reading used for the text with a grading system. An "A"  represents the highest level of confidence and a "D" the lowest level of confidence. The descending scale of certainty reflects a balancing of weight among the possible readings so that one cannot be as certain about which one of the readings was the original. The alternative readings, called variant readings, have less evidence supporting them.

Some representative types of ancient copies of the Greek New Testament are:


This manuscript is Papyrus 66 that dates from about 200 AD. The all caps Greek writing was done on papyrus, the most common writing material of that time. P66 contains most of the Gospel of John.  This manuscript is Uncial Sinaiticus (01) that dates during the fourth century AD. It was written on parchment, the material that became common after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It contains virtually all of the New Testament
This is a minusucle manuscript and illustrates a later "script" style of writing that developed toward the end of the ancient period. It became the dominant way of writing Greek and thus most all the later manuscripts of the Greek New Testament are written in this style of writing. Previously Greek had been "printed" using only capital letters, as can be seen from the two above manuscripts written on papyrus and parchment.

3.2.3 The results of their work: printed Greek and Hebrew texts

For students of the Greek New Testament, the two most commonly used printed Greek texts of the New Testament are The United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament fourth revised edition and the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 27th edition. Both provide a "critical apparatus" at the bottom of each page that lists the major manuscripts supporting the possible alternative readings. The Logos Bible Software site has a helpful explanation of these features for both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament. For the instructions and examples that I use with the Greek 202 students when they begin practicing the procedure see my "EVALUATION OF VARIOUS READINGS ACCORDING TO THE THEORY OF RATIONAL ECLECTICISM" in Supplementary Helps in Greek 202 at in the Academic Section (in pdf file format). For another very helpful summation of the history of Text Criticism, see Ronald J. Gordan's Comparing Translations.

From these two illustrations below of the UBS text and then the Nestle-Aland Greek texts you can see something of what they look like. I have indicated by label and highlighting the Greek text, then the Critical Apparatus and also the cross references to other verses in each one.

For the really "eager beavers" in the group Prof. Sied has created an "exercise in textual criticism" using the English language set up to simulate what one would find in the Greek New Testament. It's fun to go through, and also provides a "hands on" feel for what this procedure is all about. Click on the  icon in Sied's Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts web site. Also, professor Elliott has a very helpful list of examples that one can work through in order to gain a feel for doing this kind of work.

3.2.4 How does this work impact your study of the Bible?

At least two areas of consequence will be seen for the reader of the English Bible. First, Bible translation means that the translators have to have a Greek New Testament in hand as the starting point for translation. You can't "translate" without a source text to translate.  In today's world of Bible translation, this means the use of the most reliable Greek text possible, since the goal is to translate into English the most likely wording of the original text of the New Testament documents. Textual criticism is the procedure for establishing that Greek text as far as is humanly possible.

The consequence of this will also mean that sometimes when different English translations have significantly different wording in passages, they are working from different Greek texts of the New Testament. This will particularly be true when comparing the King James Version to an English translation produced in the second half of the twentieth century onward. Also the New King James Version and the 1979 Revised King James Version will use a sometimes radically different Greek text than the other English translations.

Another impact will be seen in the more recent English translations in their footnote system. For example, the New Revised Standard Version has a footnote in the middle of 1:18. The printed translation reads: "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,e/F5 who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known." Footnote e/F5 then reads: "Other ancient authorities read It is an only Son, God, or It is the only Son." What this difference in translation means is that the manuscripts of this verse in John differ on their wording of the text. The weight of evidence is not decisive one direction or the other. The translators of the NRSV concluded on one reading of the Greek text and then gave their English translation based on that understanding. But they are being honest with us readers by inserting a footnote to suggest how the English translation would differ if the one of the two other possible readings of the Greek text were adopted.

3.3 The importance of the Latin Vulgate: What Bible have Christians mostly used over the centuries?

One of the first languages that the New Testament documents were translated into was Latin. This language was spoken first on the Italian peninsula and then with the establishment of the Roman Empire just before the beginning of the Christian era it became the official language of the Roman government all over the Mediterranean world.

3.3.1 Establishing the Vulgate

---There were many efforts to translate the Greek original documents into “old Latin” but from the available Latin translations it is clear that the majority of these were of very poor quality. The situation deteriorated to the point that “in 382 that Pope Damascus (366-384) called upon Jerome (Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus) to remedy the situation. Jerome was the greatest scholar of his generation, and the Pope asked him to make an official Latin version -- both to remedy the poor quality of the existing translations and to give one standard reference for future copies. Damasus also called upon Jerome to use the best possible Greek texts -- even while giving him the contradictory command to stay as close to the existing versions as possible” (“Vulgate,” Encyclopedia of Textual Criticism).

It would take him until well into the 400s to complete this project since he did a substantial amount of comparing available Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament and Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. The mandate was to use the best manuscripts but to stay close to the existing Latin translations. This necessitated careful translation work in trying to strike a balance. Jerome faced what modern Bible translators have often faced. In the beginning, his work was soundly criticized because it departed in places from accepted wording found in both some popular old Latin versions and, even more, from the very popular Greek Septuagint. But Jerome based his deviations on solid analysis of available manuscripts in both Latin and Greek. Gradually, those criticisms faded.

The copying of Jerome's Vulgate took place from the 400s to the 1500s and resulted in lines or families of texts in the many generations of copies. Unfortunately, the quality of the copying process tended to become increasingly inferior and thus the quality of the Vulgate text deteriorated substantially over time. Numerous variations of readings of the Vulgate surfaced, so that the situation by the 1500s became pretty much the same as that which had prompted the creation of the Vulgate in the late 300s with the Old Latin texts of the Bible.

The Encyclopedia of Textual Criticism offers a summary of the various "families" of Vulgate texts that developed:

        With that firmly in mind, let us turn to the various types of Vulgate text which evolved over the centuries. As with the Greek manuscripts, the various parts of Christendom developed their own "local" text.
        The best "local" text is considered to be the Italian type, as represented e.g. by am and ful. This text also endured for a long time in England (indeed, Wordsworth and White call this group "Northumbrian"). It has formed the basis for most recent Vulgate revisions.
        Believed to be as old as the Italian, but less reputable, is the Spanish text-type, represented by cav and tol. Jerome himself is said to have supervised the work of the first Spanish scribes to copy the Vulgate (398), but by the time of our earliest manuscripts the type had developed many peculiarities (some of them perhaps under the influence of the Priscillians, who for instance produced the "three heavenly witnesses" text of 1 John 5:7-8).
        The Irish text is marked by beautiful manuscripts (the Book of Kells and the Lichfield Gospels, both beautiful illuminated manuscripts, are of this type, and even unilliminated manuscripts such as the Rushworth Gospels and the Book of Armagh are beautiful examples of calligraphy). Sadly, these manuscripts are often marred by conflations and inversions of word order. Some of the manuscripts are thought to have been corrected from the Greek -- though the number of Greek scholars in the Celtic church must have been few indeed. Lemuel J. Hopkins-James, editor of The Celtic Gospels (essentially a critical edition of codex Lichfeldensis) offers another theory: that this sort of text (which he calls "Celtic" rather than Irish) is descended not from a pure Vulgate manuscript but from an Old Latin source corrected against a Vulgate. (It should be noted, however, that Hopkins-James uses statistical comparisons to support this result, and the best word I can think of for his method is "ludicrous.")
        The "French" text has been described as a mixture of Spanish and Irish readings. The text of Gaul (France) has been called "unquestionably" the worst of the local texts.
        The wide variety of Vulgate readings in Charlemagne's time caused that monarch to order Alcuin to attempt to create a uniform version (the exact date is unknown, but he was working on it in 800). Unfortunately, Alcuin had no critical sense, and the result was not a particularly good text. Still, his revision was issued in the form of many beautiful codices.
        Another scholar who tried to improve the Vulgate was Theodulf, who also undertook his task near the beginning of the ninth century. Some have accused Theodulf of contaminating the French Vulgate with Spanish readings, but it appears that Theodulf really was a better scholar than Alcuin, and produced a better edition than Alcuin's which also included information about the sources of variant readings. Unfortunately, such a revision is hard to copy, and it seems to have degraded and disappeared quickly (though manuscripts such as theo, which are effectively contemporary with the edition, preserve it fairly well).
        Other revisions were undertaken in the following centuries, but they really accomplished little; even if someone took notice of the revisors' efforts, the results were not particularly good. When it finally came time to produce an official Vulgate (which the Council of Trent declared an urgent need), the number of texts in circulation was high, but few were of any quality. The result was that the "official" Vulgate editions (the Sixtine of 1590, and its replacement the Clementine of 1592) were very bad. Although good manuscripts such as Amiatinus were consulted, they made little impression on the editors. The Clementine edition shows an amazing ability to combine all the faults of the earlier texts. Unfortunately, it was to be nearly three centuries before John Wordsworth undertook a truly critical edition of the Vulgate, and another century after that before the Catholic Church finally accepted the need for revised texts.
        Despite all that has been said, the Vulgate remains an important version for criticism, and both its "true" text and the variants can help us understand the history of the text. We need merely keep in mind the personalities of our witnesses. The table below is intended to help with that task as much as possible.
At the Council of Trent in 1545, the Roman Catholic Church declared the Vulgate to be the official Bible of the church. This was in reaction to Protestants placing increasing stress on the original language texts of the Bible. In 1590 the Catholic Church published the Sixtine Vulgate, but upon realizing the sorry manuscript basis it quickly released a revision in 1592 known as Clementine Vulgate. Unfortunately, the quality of the manuscript basis for this revision wasn't very much better than for the Sixtine Vulgate. John Wadsworth, Bishop of Salisbury (1885-1911), and H.J. White, at the end of the 1800s produced a revision in 1889. This edition had better manuscript evaluation underneath it. The Nova Vulgata released initially in 1979 for the entire Bible  is the current official version of the Vulgate for the Roman Catholic Church. This current edition is the product of a commission appointed in 1965 by Pope John Paul VI at the end of the Second Vatican Council. This edition is based on careful analysis of the many manuscripts housed in Rome at the Vatican library. Below is a copy of the Nova Vulgata translation of John 1:1-18. I've included in the right hand column the New Revised Standard Version translation of the same scripture passage  in contemporary English.
The Latin Vulgate NRSV
        1 in principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum 2 hoc erat in principio apud Deum 3 omnia per ipsum facta sunt et sine ipso factum est nihil quod factum est 4 in ipso vita erat et vita erat lux hominum 5 et lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non conprehenderunt 
        6 fuit homo missus a Deo cui nomen erat Iohannes 7 hic venit in testimonium ut testimonium perhiberet de lumine ut omnes crederent per illum 8 non erat ille lux sed ut testimonium perhiberet de lumine 9 erat lux vera quae inluminat omnem hominem venientem in mundum 10 in mundo erat et mundus per ipsum factus est et mundus eum non cognovit 11 in propria venit et sui eum non receperunt 12 quotquot autem receperunt eum dedit eis potestatem filios Dei fieri his qui credunt in nomine eius 13 qui non ex sanguinibus neque ex voluntate carnis neque ex voluntate viri sed ex Deo nati sunt 
        14 et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis et vidimus gloriam eius gloriam quasi unigeniti a Patre plenum gratiae et veritatis 15 Iohannes testimonium perhibet de ipso et clamat dicens hic erat quem dixi vobis qui post me venturus est ante me factus est quia prior me erat 16 et de plenitudine eius nos omnes accepimus et gratiam pro gratia 17 quia lex per Mosen data est gratia et veritas per Iesum Christum facta est 18 Deum nemo vidit umquam unigenitus Filius qui est in sinu Patris ipse enarravit 
        1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 
        6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 
        14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, "He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' ") 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known. 

3.3.2 The challenges to the Vulgate in the Protestant Reformation

---When Martin Luther began his "protests" against the abuses of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1500s, one of his driving motives was the life changing experience he had undergone through intensive study of the Bible, and in particular, the letters of Romans and Galatians.

From 1510 to 1520, Luther lectured on the Psalms, the books of Hebrews, Romans and Galatians. As he studied these portions of the Bible, he came to understand terms such as penance and righteousness in new ways. He began to teach that salvation is a gift of God's grace through Christ received by faith alone.[23] The first and chief article is this, Luther wrote, "Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification ... herefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us...Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls."[24] ("Martin Luther," Wikipedia Encyclopedia)
As a university lecturer on biblical materials, he found himself immersed in the study of the Bible. Also, haunted by his personal uncertainty about his own salvation, this study -- at the advice of his superior, Johann von Staupitz -- focused on the theme of Christ. This study and the teaching especially of Romans and Galatians brought him to a conversion experience. Increasingly, Luther realized the church's teachings and practices were contradicted by scripture. He began lecturing about this and came increasingly into trouble with the Vatican. When Luther finally broke completely with the Catholic Church in the 1520s after being excommunicated, one of the ways Luther determined to use to spread his teachings was through translating the Bible into the everyday German language of that day. The complete Luther Bibel was released in 1534.

But his translation, although helping to greatly diminish the use of the Vulgate in the emerging Lutheran churches in central and northern Europe, was none the less dependent on the Vulgate. For example, Luther had depended on the Greek Textus Receptus that had come from Erasmus, but he also was careful to not depart too far from the Vulgate as well. He consulted the Vulgate heavily in doing his German translation. This "love/hate" relationship with the Vulgate by Protestants would continue well into the 1800s. Long after the Vulgate -- in public eyes -- had become the Bible of Roman Catholics and Protestants had their own Bible in their particular native language, the influence of the Vulgate would continue to be felt in these translations.

Die Luther Bibel 
Over time he developed the idea of the central role of scripture as the sole foundation for determining what Christians should believe and how they should live. Called in the Latin sola scriptura, this principle gradually became adopted by all the Protestant reformers, and has served as a central stance among Protestants until this day. Thus Luther's renewed emphasis upon the Bible both through translation and about its importance presented a growing challenge to the Latin Vulgate. The translation of the scriptures into the "vernacular" language of that time and region shifted the emphasis to the people having a Bible in their own language so that they could read and understand it for themselves. Increasingly, the Vulgate was associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants in general did what ever they could to distance themselves from the Roman Church. Bible translation helped accomplish that.

The other early reformers such as John Calvin---  and Huldrych Zwingli--- followed Luther's example with a strong emphasis upon the scriptures and interpreting them to the masses of the people. Consequently, the Protestant Reformation began the path to the identification of the Vulgate solely with the Roman Catholic Church. For Protestantism the study of the scriptures increasingly in the original biblical languages and then translating them into the vernacular language has become one of the distinguishing marks of this movement.

3.3.3 How Gutenberg changed the Bible

---Another factor helping to place greater emphasis upon the Bible and its importance for Christians generally was the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1447.  He produced the first printed copy of the Vulgate in 1455, and subsequently it is known as the Gutenberg Bible.

---------Of the appx. 180 copies first printed, several still exist in libraries scattered around the world. The mass production of the Bible for a fraction of the cost of the hand copied scriptures forever changed not only western culture but the use of the Christian Bible as well. Books could now be produced in large quantities and at very reasonable prices for that era. Consequently, the distribution of the Bible expanded dramatically all across Europe. When Luther released his translation of the Bible in German half a century later, he took advantage of the printing press and mass produced it for rapid distribution all across the German speaking sections of Europe. Thus, before the Vatican could have time to stamp out Luther's movement, it spread dramatically through the use of the printing press. Subsequently when other translations of the Bible would be produced as time passed, the printing press made it possible to print large quantities for wide distribution. Increasingly, this made it possible for individuals to own their own copy of the Bible. Previously, a single copy of the Bible could be found at most of the churches. But only rarely would individuals own their own copy. The printing press forever changed that. The Protestant emphasis on the central role of scripture for Christian belief and practice was enhanced by the availability of the scriptures for personal study.


How do I learn more about this?


Ancient Methods of Writing and Copying

The Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism, "Ancient Writing Materials":

"Ancient Writing":

The University of Michigan Papyrus Collection, "Learning About Papyrology : Ancient Writing Materials":

The Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism, "Books and Book Making" :

Google search of books in print treating ancient writing:

Textual Criticism:

James R. Adair, Jr. "Old and New in Textual Criticism: Similarities, Differences, and Prospects for Cooperation":

Lengthy article written for the SBL seminar presentation by a former student of mine comparing similarities and differences between OT and NT Textual Criticism.
Wikipedia, "Textual Criticism":
General article on the practice of copying ancient manuscripts of all kinds of literature, including the OT, the NT, and classical writings.
Tony Seid, Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts:
Very helpful web site on Textual Criticism with numerous graphics illustrating manuscripts and procedures.

New Testament Textual Criticism:

New Testament Gateway, "Textual Criticism":

The Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism:

Wikipedia, "Uncial":

Lorin Cranford, "Learning Textual Criticism,"

Section of fourth semester Greek studies, Greek 202, designed to introduce the practice of textual criticism to students of biblical koine Greek.

Old Testament Textual Criticism:

Old Testament Textual Criticism:

Hebrew Old Testament,  "Textual Criticism":

August Meek, "The Old Testament," Catholic Encyclopedia:

Article traces the manuscript transmission of the text of the Old Testament.
Bruce K. Waltke, "Aims of OT Textual Criticism," Westminster Theological Journal 51.1 (Spring 1989): 93-108:
Article discusses what OT Textual Criticism hopes to accomplish by comparing various objectives over the modern era.

The Latin Vulgate

The Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism, "The Vulgate":

The Catholic Encyclopedia, "Revision of the Vulgate":

Wikipedia, "Vulgate":

“Latin,” Wikipedia Encyclopedia:

“Bible Versions, Ancient,” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge:

Martin Luther

"Martin Luther: The Reluctant Revolutionary," Public Broadcasting Service:

"Martin Luther," Wikipedia:

Johannes Gutenberg

Wikipedia, "Johannes Gutenberg":

Wikipedia, "Gutenberg Bible":

"Gutenberg: Man of the Millennium":

Catholic Encylopedia, "Johann Gutenberg" :

Check the appropriate Bibliography section in