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Explore the ancient languages of the New Testament: Greek, Latin, and Syriac. Gain insights into the diverse manuscripts that have shaped our understanding of Christianity’s seminal texts, and learn how these linguistic traditions have informed Biblical scholarship and textual criticism.
The New Testament was originally composed in Koine Greek, a version of the Greek language that emerged after Alexander the Great’s conquests unified the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East in the 4th century B.C.E. This was the ‘common’ or ‘street’ Greek, distinct from Classical Greek. It was the lingua franca of the Eastern Mediterranean region until the 4th century C.E. This was the language spoken by Jesus and His Apostles, and it provided the medium for the New Testament’s initial composition and dissemination.
Again, the New Testament authors wrote in this language as it was the most effective way to communicate their message to both Jews and Gentiles. This choice reflects the universality of the Christian message, as Greek was accessible to many people across different regions. More than 5,800 Greek New Testament manuscripts, either in part or whole, have survived to this day. These Greek manuscripts are categorized into papyri, uncials, minuscules, and lectionaries, each differing in material, style, and date of composition.
The Greek language allowed for precise and nuanced expression, which facilitated the New Testament authors in conveying their theological messages effectively. For example, Greek verbs carry a wealth of information regarding the action’s timing and nature, and Greek has multiple words for love, allowing writers to specify the type of love they were describing. This language’s richness and flexibility were instrumental in articulating the teachings of Christ and the Apostles.
Today, we have more than 5,898 Greek New Testament manuscripts, the earliest of which, Papyrus P52, dates back to around 125 C.E. and contains a fragment of the Gospel of John (Comfort, P. W., & Barrett, D. P. “The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts”). The wealth of these manuscripts significantly aid our understanding of the New Testament’s original text.
The papyri are the oldest, primarily discovered in Egypt due to the conducive dry climate. The Chester Beatty Papyri and the Bodmer Papyri are among the most notable collections. These contain most of the New Testament and date from the 2nd to the 4th centuries C.E.
Uncials are manuscripts written in Greek capital letters. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, dating from the 4th century C.E., are the most renowned. They are two of the earliest complete (or nearly complete) copies of the New Testament.
From the 9th century onward, a new style of writing, known as minuscule (lower case letters), was developed. This style is found in the majority of the Greek New Testament manuscripts.
Lastly, lectionaries are manuscripts arranged according to the ecclesiastical calendar. They were for liturgical use and contain selected passages instead of entire books of the New Testament.
As Christianity spread into the western parts of the Roman Empire, where Latin was spoken, there emerged a need for the Scriptures in Latin. These translations, often called the Old Latin or Vetus Latina, were not standardized and varied widely in quality and faithfulness to the Greek originals.
In the late 4th century C.E., Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome, a renowned Christian scholar, to produce a standard Latin version. This resulted in the Latin Vulgate, which corrected inconsistencies in earlier Latin translations by using the original Greek (and Hebrew for the Old Testament). The Latin Vulgate gained widespread acceptance and became the de facto Bible of Western Christianity for over a thousand years.
The Latin versions of the New Testament, also known as the Old Latin or Vetus Latina, are among the earliest New Testament translations. Initially, the spread of Christianity among Latin-speaking populations necessitated these translations. Unlike the unified translation effort in the Septuagint, these Latin translations were largely independent efforts, resulting in a range of translation quality and fidelity to the Greek originals. The inconsistencies in these Old Latin translations eventually led to the creation of the Latin Vulgate by Jerome in the late 4th century C.E. The Vulgate became the standard Bible for Western Christianity for over a thousand years and remains influential in Christian liturgy and theology (Metzger, Bruce M. “The Early Versions of the New Testament”).
Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, was spoken in parts of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Christianity reached these areas early, necessitating translations of the New Testament into Syriac.
The earliest Syriac versions of the New Testament are known as the Old Syriac, of which only two manuscripts survive: the Sinaitic Palimpsest and the Curetonian Gospels, both dating from the 5th century C.E. The Old Syriac versions do not include the second and third Epistles of John, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation.
By the 5th century C.E., a revision of earlier Old Syriac versions, known as the Peshitta, became the standard Syriac Bible. The term ‘Peshitta’ means ‘simple’ or ‘clear’. Interestingly, like the Old Syriac, the standard Peshitta does not include 2nd and 3rd John, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation.
In the 5th century C.E., the Peshitta, a revision of earlier Old Syriac versions, emerged and became the standard Syriac Bible. The New Testament of the Peshitta, excluding a few books (2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation), is thought to be a reliable witness to the early Greek text of the New Testament, which aids in textual criticism (Dirksen, P. B. “La Peshitta dell’Antico Testamento”).
Each of these languages and their manuscripts have significantly contributed to our understanding of the New Testament’s original text and teachings. The Greek, Latin, and Syriac manuscripts, through their unique textual traditions, reflect the historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts of the early Christian communities. These manuscripts have been essential for modern scholars in their task of textual criticism, which seeks to reconstruct the original text of the New Testament by comparing and contrasting the numerous copies and translations. In this way, the Word of God, as revealed in the New Testament, continues to be studied, preserved, and communicated to the world.
About the Author
- Andrews, Edward D. (2020). FROM SPOKEN WORDS TO SACRED TEXTS: Introduction-Intermediate New Testament Textual Studies. Christian Publishing House.
- Comfort, P. W., & Barrett, D. P. (2001). The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. Tyndale House Publishers.
- Metzger, Bruce M. (1977). The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations. Clarendon Press.
- Dirksen, P. B. (1989). La Peshitta dell’Antico Testamento. Pontificio Istituto Biblico.