Bible Manuscripts

Bible Manuscripts

Manuscripts from which our Bibles are Based

In general terms a manuscript is a handwritten document (script something written, manus is Latin for hand).  A little history quiz: when was the printing press invented?  It was invented sometime between 1440 and 1450.   It was out of necessary that the Scriptures were hand copied.  These hand copied manuscripts were often copied into the language of the copyist.


When applied to the Bible, only what was copied from the biblical languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek) into that same language (Hebrew to Hebrew, Aramaic to Aramaic, or Greek to Greek) is called a manuscript.  If a portion of Scripture was translated from the biblical languages into another language (Greek, Ethiopic, Latin, German, or English) it is called a version.



“Papyrus” is the word from which we get our English word “paper.”  It was made from the soft center of a reed that grew along the Nile river.  Strips of this soft center were laid side by side and layered and woven cross ways.  The resulting sheet was dried, smoothed and trimmed into sizes ranging from 6 by 9 inches to about 12 by 15 inches.  Several sheets could be glued together end to end to form a continues roll.  These “rolls” often became rather long.  It is estimated that the book of Acts would have measured at least thirty feet in length.  It must have been difficult finding a specific paragraph.


“Parchment” was leather.  It was often made into scrolls by being sown together.  Since it was more expensive to feed animals than to grow a reed, parchment was only used for documents of great importance.  Paul may have been referring to such an expensive scroll when he asked Timothy to bring the “parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13).


Clay, was used but due to its lack of durability, it was not used for important documents.



“Scroll” refers to one continuous document that when unrolled could extend for several feet.   This one continuous roll was made by gluing or stitching either the leaves of the papyrus or the leather of the parchment together.


“Codex” refers to how the scrolls were put together.  In the second century after Christ,  the scribes began to bind the papyrus and parchment sheets together by either gluing or stitching the sheets together in the middle or the edge.   The final appearance was roughly like a book.  Some of our oldest and most complete manuscripts of the Bible are parchment codices.



The Septuagint Version

After Alexander the Great died his empire was divided into six parts.  Ptolemy, the new ruler who received the part that included the region of Egypt, was convinced that having a Greek translation of the Hebrew Law would be of great importance in the royal library in Alexandria, Egypt.  Six Jewish men from each of the 12 tribes were freed from slavery and given the task of translation.  The translators were given an accurate copy of “The Law” written in gold letters on the finest parchment.   The translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek was completed in 72 days, about 285 B.C.  The “Letter of Aristeas” written in Greek about 100 B.C. gives the following account of the Septuagint.

“They set to completing  their several tasks, reaching  agreement among themselves on each by comparing versions.  The result of their agreement this was made into a fair copy by Demetrius [agent of the king].” The king being Ptolemy.


With the spread of Christianity beyond Palestine there came the desire, and the need, for a Bible made in the languages of the people evangelized.

Peshitta or Syriac

The whole Bible, date uncertain (AD 100-200?).  Apparently a translation from Greek and Hebrew into the common language of certain portions of Syria. This was obtained from a monastery in the Nitrian Desert in Egypt about 1842.  Today it is located in London’s British Library.

The Standardized Masoretic Text

After AD 68 there was a continual decline of the average person to speak Hebrew.  This was due to several factors such as the fall of Jerusalem, the renewed scattering of the Jews, and the rise of Christianity.  The Jewish scholars became concerned about the state of the Old Testament Text.  They were concerned with  the numerous text types or families (families refer to the region that the texts came from such as the Babylon text [from Babylon], the Palestine text, the Egyptian text, and other geographical locations) circulating in the Middle East.  These religious leaders created a standardized copy of the entire Old Testament for the Jewish religion.  This standardized copy was probably completed in Palestine by the end of the first century AD.   From this standardized copy an authoritative edition of the Hebrew Scriptures (OT) was developed by Jewish scholars between AD. 500-950, in which vowel pointings were first introduced into the consonantal (consonants only) Hebrew text.

The Codex Sinaiticus

Originally a codex (in book form) of the Greek Bible belonging to the fourth century (AD 300). Considered one of the earliest known.  It was discovered just less than 160 years ago (1844).  It was found in a monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai.  (codex = book form;   found at Mt. Sinai gives it the name Codex Sinaiticus)  Constantin Tischendorf who devoted his life to searching for and studying ancient Bible manuscripts found these parchments in a hall basket.  These parchments were being used as tinder to start fires.  Alexander II, the Czar of Russian, obtained these documents in return for some gifts to the monastery.  Purchased from the Soviet Republic of Russia in December, 1933 by Great Britain and is now in the British Library in London.

The Codex Vaticanus

A Greek Bible belonging to the fourth century (AD 300). Its first appearance in history is in the Vatican Library catalogue for the year 1481.  The Catholic church jealously guarded it and would not let anyone study it.  Erasmus  and other Bible scholars were denied access.  Full access was not granted until 1889-1890 by Pope Leo XIII.  Located in the Vatican library at Rome, originally contained the whole Bible but parts are lost.

The Vulgate

The entire Bible translated from Hebrew and Greek into the Latin language, by Jerome at Bethle­hem. Jerome completed this translation about AD. 400. For a thousand years this was the standard Bible in the Western Europe and North Africa.

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