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Biblical Manuscript Evidence - What About The Uncials?

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Part of the reason why there is such confusion on the issue of Bibles, versions, translations, etc. is because people choose to remain in ignorance concerning the data that is available concerning this subject.


I realize that the subject of manuscript evidence is vast and the terminology complicated, but if you are going to speak on the issue, you need to have a basic (and preferably more than a basic) understanding of the field of manuscript evidence. Don't forget, we have a vocabulary page for NT and OT.


Today, we are going to introduce the Uncials. It is reported that the Uncial Script began to develop early in the second century (maybe even late first century).


"Uncial script was a form of majuscule (majuscule means large lettering or capital lettering) script used for books in Greek and Latin [mostly] from about the 4th to the 8th cents. a.d.


At the beginning of the 4th century vellum (Calf-Skin) and parchment began to be used as writing material. It gradually replaced papyri. Parchment (made from the skin of calves, sheep, and goats) provides greater durability and larger size for writing material.


"Its name (Uncial) is derived from a passage in *Jerome’s preface to Job, but its present meaning is that assigned to it by the *Maurist authors of the Nouveau Traité de diplomatique (1765)."


F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1668.


Here is an interesting tidbit of information about this "Jerome theory" I found in one of my books.

 

"In the fourth century Jerome, writing in Latin in his preface to the book of Job, criticized the growing practice of writing biblical books in gold and silver on parchment on the grounds that it distracted from the message. His sentence contained the Latin word, ‘uncialibus’, literally translated ‘uncials’ or ‘uncial letters’, the earliest extant example of the word in any Latin text. But is that what he wrote? Nearly all Greek and Latin *mss at that time were written in uncials. So was Jerome really starting a revolution or has he been misread? One suggestion is that since in the fourth century ‘i’ was not dotted and ‘t’ and ‘c’ were interchangeable, could it be that what Jerome was really objecting to was ‘initialibus’ (large decorative initial letters)? We shall probably never know."

*mss manuscript(s)

Alec Gilmore, “Uncials,” A Concise Dictionary of Bible Origins and Interpretation (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 200.

 

Please be reminded, as we proceed, that over 90% of the extant manuscripts are of the Byzantine textform.


There are around 268 known Uncials (from the second to the 11th century). Four of five of these are considered, by text critics, to be the most important to the debate over the reconstruction of the text, however, the breakdown of these Uncial (Majuscule) manuscripts is as follows.

  • Category III: Eclectic  108 (Earliest - 4th century)

  • Unassigned  67 (Earliest - 4th century)

  • Category V: Byzantine  56 (Earliest - 5th century)

  • Category II: Egyptian  49 (Earliest - 4th century)

  • Category I: Alexandrian  9 (Earliest - 2nd century)

  • Category IV: Western  2 (Earliest - 4th century)


Let me define the above terms:


  • Eclectic = mixed. For example, the Washingtonianus Codex (fourth or fifth century) is listed as an eclectic text. It is thus described, "A major feature of codex W is the mixed nature of its text. Matt and Luke 8:13–24:53 reflect the Byzantine text-type. Luke 1:1–8:12 and John 5:12–21:25 are Alexandrian. Mark 1:1–5:30 (or slightly earlier) is “Western,” resembling especially the Old Latin.

L. W. Hurtado, “Codex: Codex Washingtonianus,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1075.

  • Byzantine

"The Byzantine Empire

The ancient Roman Empire was divided into two parts, an Eastern and a Western. The Eastern remained subject to the successors of Constantine, whose capital was at Byzantium or Constantinople. The term Byzantine is therefore employed to designate this Eastern survival of the ancient Roman Empire.


"Byzantine Text

One of the main text-types of New Testament manuscripts in the text-critical system... The Byzantine text...became the standard text-type in the Byzantine Empire, and the vast majority of New Testament manuscripts belong to it. A variant of the Byzantine text formed the basis for the Textus Receptus, from which most early Protestant translations of the New Testament were made, including Martin Luther’s German translation and the King James Version."

John D. Barry et al., eds., “Byzantine Text,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).


"...the Byzantine Textform is the form of text which is known to have predominated among the Greek-speaking world from at least the fourth century until the invention of printing in the sixteenth century"


  • Egyptian (Coptic)

"Coptic is relevant to biblical studies primarily in the field of textual criticism. The Bible was translated into Coptic very early (third or fourth century AD), and many biblical manuscripts (about 102) in many of the Coptic dialects have been recovered. Versions of the Old Testament in Coptic appear to have been based on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Metzger, The Bible in Translation, 36). For this reason, Coptic manuscripts help shed light on textual criticism of the Septuagint. Since these manuscripts and the Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament were far older than any Hebrew manuscripts prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Coptic manuscripts have provided valuable evidence on the transmission and original wording of the Old Testament. The Coptic New Testament manuscripts reveal a reliance on a pure Alexandrian text and are thus valuable for New Testament textual criticism.

Daniel J. Wilson and Douglas Mangum, “Coptic Language,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).


  • Alexandrian

"Alexandrian Text

One of the main text-types of New Testament manuscripts in the text-critical system, along with the Western Text and the Byzantine Text. Thought to have originated in Egypt. The Alexandrian text is generally considered [by some] to be the closest main text-type to the original New Testament manuscripts, and it forms the basis for most modern translations of the New Testament."

John D. Barry et al., eds., “Alexandrian Text,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).


  • Western

"Western Text

One of the main text-types of New Testament manuscripts in the text-critical system. Thought to have originated in the West (Italy, Gaul, North Africa). Also called the 'delta' (D) text-type after the symbol of its primary manuscript, Codex Bezae (D).


"In the text-critical system, which delineates three or four main text-types of the New Testament manuscripts, the title 'Western Text' designates a manuscript tradition that is related through a diversity of variant readings to Codex Bezae (D) and, secondarily, to Codex Claromontanus (containing only Paul’s letters).


"The Western text-type characteristically paraphrases passages, resulting in textual 'addition, omission, substitution, and improvement of one kind or another' (Metzger, Text of the New Testament, 308; see also Westcott and Hort, Introduction to the New Testament, 122). The D text of Acts, for example, is 10 percent longer than the Byzantine text. Of the New Testament books, only the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, and Hebrews are represented in the Western text-type (Metzger, Text of the New Testament, 70–80)."

Andrew R. Talbert, “Western Text,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).



Greek examples of the Uncial Codices


  • Aleph (01) - Sinaiticus - About 350. - It was found in a Mount Sinai monastery (St. Catherine) trash can by a man named Constantin Von Tischendorf in 1844. (The only surviving complete NT in Greek and about 1/2 of the OT in the Greek [Septuagint]. It also has the Apocrypha, and the epistle of Barnabas, as well as portions of the Shepherd of Hermas) - It is of the Alexandrian Text Type (Non-Byzantine). This text agrees with Codex Vaticanus, and Ephraemi Rescriptus.

Codex Sinaiticus (Gregory-Aland 01 or א; von Soden δ 2; Scrivener א):

Bible in two volumes


  • A - Alexandrinus (02) - 5th Century - Two Columns - Contains the majority of the Greek Old Testament and most of the NT. The term Alexandrinus stands representative of the Alexandrian family of texts. There are Byzantine Readings in this text, especially in Matthew. It has been used longer than any other uncial, by the text scholars. It has been in England since 1627.

Codex Alexandrinus (Gregory-Aland 02), Bible in four volumes:

Volume 4 (New Testament)


  • B (03) - Vaticanus" - 4th Century - “Probably the best (in quality) singular manuscript of the NT” - Three Columns. Been in the Vatican Library since 1481. Erasmus refused to use this unreliable manuscript. It is also an Alexandrian Text Type.


  • C (04) - Ephraemi Rescriptus - (5th Century) - Paris National Library - Most of the NT. - (The manuscript is a Palimpsest - “rubbed again” - erased - Ephraim of Syria wrote 38 theological treatises over it.). Mark 16:9-20 is in there. 3 correctors. This manuscript is representative of the Egyptian Text type.


  • D (05) - Bezae - England -Western Text Type - Gospels and Acts = 5th-6th century - Given to Cambridge University in 1581. Origin is disputed. 5th Century. Greek on the Left face and Latin on the right face. 11 correctors from the 6th century to the 12th century. copying errors. Western type example. - The manuscript presents the gospels in the Western order Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark, of which only Luke is complete; after some missing pages, the manuscript picks up with the Third Epistle of John (in Latin) and contains part of Acts.


Again, in the Uncial style, there were no verse divisions and no punctuation.


Here are the two samples of the oldest Uncials of the Byzantine Text Type


Gregory-Aland Identifier: 061



Luke 17:34-37; Luke 18:1-8

Gregory-Aland Identifier: 026



A few observations:

  • The Age of the manuscript must not be confused with the age of the text it exhibits. Any copy, by definition, contains text that is older than it is. (Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text, p. 133)

  • Early Papyri and Uncials (text-critical-based manuscripts) are not very reliable. Text Critical manuscripts disagree with themselves more than they disagree with the true text. you do not have a united witness against the Byzantine text.

  • Most of the Uncials are Byzantine or contain Byzantine readings.



"The approximately 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament have as many as 400,000 textual variants in the manuscripts. The number of variants is high because there are thousands of manuscripts. The great majority of these variants are spelling differences, transpositions of words or letters, or synonyms.


Less than one percent of all textual variants are both meaningful and viable—that is, have any chance of reflecting the wording of the autographs. Except for several high-visibility problem passages [e.g. The story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11); The longer ending of Mark (Mark 16:9–20); The Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7–8)], the New Testament text has been remarkably stable through the centuries.


One way to measure this is by the differences between the KJV’s Greek textual basis (known as the Textus Receptus or TR) and modern translations’ textual basis. The TR is nearly 500 years old, and it is based on only half a dozen manuscripts, none earlier than the 10th century [which, by the way, closely align with the majority of manuscripts available]. Modern translations are based on manuscripts [and more heavily on a few] that date back to the second century. The KJV is based on a text that grew over the centuries—yet there are only about 5,000 differences between the TR and the standard critical Greek New Testament used today: the Nestle-Aland 27th edition (a.k.a. NA27) of Novum Testamentum Graece. In other words, these two Greek New Testaments agree for more than 96 percent of the text; most of these differences are so small that they cannot be translated"

Daniel B. Wallace, “Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).


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