Manuscript Transmission

Manuscript Replication

The task of writing, while a part of Hellenistic education, was primarily the occupation of professional writers generally known as "scribes." In order to preserve an aging and deteriorating document or to make an additional copy, a scribe was employed to copy the contents of the original onto a new surface. The scribe was paid according to the quality of the work and by the number of lines. A single scribe most likely read aloud to himself as he copied from the exemplar (the original) to the new document. In a scriptorium, the ancient "copy center," there could be a group of scribes who make multiple copies as a lector (reader) reads the exemplar for them to duplicate.

The ancient manuscript was a dynamic text in that it could be corrected and added to. Only under extreme scrutiny can the textual layers be distinguished as attributable to the original scribe or a later corrector.

Transmission Errors

While the study of transmission errors can be fascinating in itself, it is more than an object of curiosity. The identification of transmission errors may help determine the relationship of one manuscript to another or, even more importantly, determine the textual variant which most likely represents the reading of the original manuscript.

It may be said that a discussion of the transmission errors is not a criticism against the trustworthiness of the documents.

... in spite of the very real possibilities for corruption of the text in the course of its transmission, and the actual existence of many differences among the various manuscripts of the NT, the work of the copyists of the NT was, on the whole, done with great care and fidelity. It has, in fact, been seriously estimated that there are substantial variations in hardly more than a thousandth part of the entire text (an estimate by Fenton J. A. Hort, quoted with approval by Caspar Rene Gregory, Canon and Text of the New Testament [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907], p. 528).

Finegan, Encountering the New Testament Manuscripts, p. 55.


Unintentional Variants

Scribal errors create variants in the textual tradition. One type is referred to as unintentional variants and have several causes.

  • Errors Caused by Sight

    Some errors seem to have been caused by a visual difficulty during the copy process.

  • Permutation
  • Parablepsis

    Parablepsis ("looking by the side") refers to errors that occur when looking at the left or right margins of text.

  • Haplography
  • Dittography
  • Errors Caused by Faulty Hearing
  • Errors Caused by Memory Lapse

    During the process of reading from the exemplar and beginning to write it on the copy, a scribe could make mistakes as he repeats the line.

  • Substitution of Synonyms
  • Variations in Sequence
  • Transposition of Letters
  • Assimilation of Wording
  • Errors Caused by Poor Judgment

  • Intentional Variants

    "They write down not what they find but what they think is the meaning; and while they attempt to rectify the errors of others, they merely expose their own." (Jerome, Epist. lxxi.5, Ad Lucinum concerning scribes copying his own works.).

    These are some of the main causes of variants that can be described as intentional.

  • Spelling and Grammar Changes
  • Harmonistic Alterations
  • Corrections
  • Conflations
  • Doctrinal Alterations

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