These four criteria reveal that absolutely no original New Testament manuscripts have been discovered. So, let’s do a little speculating. What if some manuscripts were found that did fit all of these criteria? Should we regard them as authentic, as the long-lost originals of the books of the New Testament? Not necessarily. If such a manuscript were discovered—a single book, written on a scroll, paleographically dated to the first century, with a change in handwriting toward the end of the book—it could possibly be a very early copy of a New Testament book. The strongest argument for authenticity would be the change in handwriting, yet even here some scribe could emulate the apostle’s style out of respect or to show how carefully the original was copied. I would probably want to see two or perhaps even three or four other evidences of authenticity.

First, the manuscript would almost surely have to be written on papyrus rather than on parchment. Although parchment manuscripts existed prior to the New Testament, they didn’t become the standard until the third or fourth century AD. All second-century New Testament manuscripts are on papyrus, for example, as are most third- and fourth-century manuscripts.

Second, I might expect to see scribal mistakes in the manuscript, but also see corrections. This would especially be more likely in the longer letters. We know of no New Testament manuscripts of any real length that have no mistakes in them. If the original of Romans were discovered, for example, I would expect to see some letter crossed out in Rom 5.1 and another put in its place. I am hoping that the crossed out letter would be an omega and the one written in its place an omicron, but that story’s for another day. I might expect to see a correction in 1 Thess 2.7 and 1 Cor 14.34-35, too. Again, the details of these points are for another time. But one thing I should mention here: if the original documents were inerrant, this does not mean that they weren’t messy! Paul could have easily corrected his secretary’s work here and there before the letter was dispatched. In the places mentioned above, I expect that it exactly what happened.

Third, what I might expect is the lack of nomina sacra. That is, special contractions of various ‘sacred’ names that are found universally in the New Testament manuscripts. Names such as God, Jesus, Christ, Father, mother, David, son, man, Spirit, etc. are usually contracted with a horizontal bar over the top in NT manuscripts. The earliest manuscripts that have these words contract them. Several theories have been presented as to why the early Christians used nomina sacra, but no theory has won a consensus among scholars. However, one thing seems certain: from a very early period, Christian scribes throughout the Roman empire used them. Since this is the case, it presupposes that the early manuscripts produced by these scribes had a common ancestor—or, at least, a common understanding among the scribes. We don’t have a word about the nomina sacra in the ancient Christian literature that would tell us when or why they were used. But since the manuscripts from geographically widespread regions and from early dates have them, some sort of agreement among scribes must have been reached, probably as early as the beginning of the second century. This raises a question: Who invented the nomina sacra and when did he do so? One distinct possibility seems to be that one of the original authors of the New Testament began using them, and the scribes picked up on this and spread the habit across the board. For this reason, we would not necessarily say that an original manuscript would be without the nomina sacra; on the other hand, if a manuscript lacked them this would not necessarily argue for it being an original , although it would argue for it being very, very early.

Fourth, what I might expect to see is cursive script. Cursive handwriting is a running hand, with the letters connected, rather than a block hand. In other words, cursive is different from printing by hand. In the ancient Greek world, the difference is also maintained. However, for New Testament manuscripts, the earliest cursive or minuscule manuscript known to exist is from the ninth century. All of the manuscripts from the first eight centuries are in uncials or majuscules or capital letters. So, why would I almost expect to see the original as a cursive manuscript? Because the cursive script was not invented in the ninth century, but had existed long before the original New Testament was written. Let me explain.

The kind of script used then is somewhat analogous to today. When you fill out that nasty little form for the government every April, you are asked to “PLEASE PRINT.” The reason is that the IRS wants your handwriting to be crystal clear. You comply because, well, they’re the IRS. But if you write a note to your spouse, do you print? Probably not. Your spouse can understand your handwriting. Or when a doctor fills out a prescription, can anyone read the handwriting? Yet that same physician will print legibly for the IRS. What I’m saying is that in different contexts, the very same person may use different styles of handwriting, cursive or printing. Often it has to do with a matter of ‘rank.’ The doctor is acting authoritatively in his capacity as a physician when he writes the prescription. If you are writing to an employee, you might be less careful than if you were writing to an employer. Of course, nowadays the sloppiness factor is more related to spelling in an email than to handwriting of any sort! But the principle is the same. And it works for ancient papyri, too. Many letters from a citizen to the government used uncial script. But those written by superiors or relatives frequently used cursive. I do not know how frequent either hand is, but I have at least seen this sort of pattern on numerous occasions.

That brings us back to the New Testament. What sort of books would have been originally written in capital letters and what sort would have been written in cursive? I’ll let you exercise your own imagination on that front. A second question is, Why are all the New Testament manuscripts from the first eight centuries written in uncial script rather than cursive?

    8 replies to "What if we found the original New Testament but did not know it? (Part 2)"

    • ChadS


      I think of the ancient accounts we have left the ones most likely to have been written in capitals would have been official accounts of events such as wars, laws, histories written for emperors. These would have been items that would have been expected to have an audience far wider and for longer than the immediate subjects. The cursive style of writing, as you have mentioned, would have been used in the personal letters and notes written by soldiers on the frontier home.

      I wouldn’t expect to find many examples of the cursive style of writing in the manuscripts we have of the New Testament. Since we don’t have any originals left, we know with near absolute certainty that we are dealing with copies of the originals and copies of copies. By the early 2nd century some of the letters included in the NT were already considered scripture. The early Christian communities would’ve realized the importance of these documents and to safeguard as much as possible their integrity the copies would’ve been copied out in capitals. This would limit the chances of spelling mistakes or a mis-reading of words would creep into the texts. Also, that woud insure that future generations still using the handwritten printed texts would be able to read them since cursive styles of writing change over a person’s lifetime and most assuredly change from generation to generation. Who hasn’t had difficulty reading a grandmother’s letter written in the 1930s and then tried to decipher a Civil War era letter? Pretty difficult.


    • Josh

      Sorta off topic, but what do you guys think of J.P. Moreland’s articulation of how Jesus viewed scripture?

      Here’s his recent blog entry discussing it:

    • Rob Mitchell

      What would constitute the “original”? For instance, when Tertius took dictation from Paul to pen Romans, his pre-publication draft would probably be cursive, messy, full of abbreviations and such, and would likely be a palimpsest (written on a used piece of papyrus cleaned up for re-use). The edited copy (copies?) couriered to be read at Rome would be cleaned up, probably on a fresh scroll, and this authoritative, edited “original” would be the one from which subsequent copies would have been made. If we found this manuscript, we may indeed not recognize it as an autograph, but we would be able to say it was an earlier ancestor of a particular family of mss.

      Paul’s postscript in his own hand would be on the clean copy, I suppose.

      I would ask if the cursive, shorthand, abbreviated rough draft with the mistakes and notes of the amanuensis, as fascinating and valuable a find as that would be, would we value this “autograph” above the edited final copy that got sent to Rome? We can’t be certain that this was the method the writing took, but I think it’s not too far from the mark. When we write documents now, we have drafts and we have final edited works – the latter are authoritative, not the former, though to be sure there is historical value in the former.

    • Dan Wallace

      Good insights, folks. My own sense about the capital letters is that if Paul were angry at the church, he may well use cursive handwriting to enforce his authority. I can easily imagine him doing this in Galatians and 2 Corinthians. Of course, since he almost surely used an amanuensis for all of his letters (except perhaps Philemon), as was the custom of the day, the secretary may have written all out in capital letters from the beginning. But one wonders if by ‘big letters’ in Galatians 6.11 Paul means that he wrote in capital letters while the secretary would have written in cursive. The evidence from the papyri reveals that the amanuenses often had petite handwriting, even when writing uncials. So, it’s hard to tell what Paul meant by the big letters in Galatians. Could be uncials, could be simply larger letters because he wasn’t trained as a scribe, or could be larger letters due to bad eyesight. All of these are speculative.

      As for the first draft of the letters that Paul would have sent out, the problem we are facing is that we don’t have many lengthy letters in the ancient world. Paul’s are among the longest. So, there’s little to compare his to. But of the letters we do have, often they are messy with cross-outs and blobs and spelling mistakes. Even official documents. Further, it is doubtful that Tertius first used a palimpsest since he almost surely wrote on papyrus. Papyrus does not yield itself to being scraped again and reused, unlike parchment. As well, an author would typically use an amanuensis even if the amanuensis was not particularly trained and the author was not in particular need of an amanuensis. This was simply the standard way of doing things, much like a secretary today types up a boss’s letter even if the boss is fully capable of doing it himself. This means that the secretary might not have had any shorthand capabilities (although it’s intriguing to think that it was precisely this that was the reason for nomina sacra in the first place, which would mean that they went back to the original manuscripts). And there is evidence that the manuscripts would hardly have gone out in pristine shape. A modern analogy would be St. John’s Bible at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Collegeville, MN. This is a modern, beautifully handwritten vellum Bible, a copy of the NRSV. I’ve seen it in the flesh. It was discussed in a recent issue of Christianity Today, I believe. On one page, the scribe accidentally left out a line of text and had to add it in the margin. They did not toss the page because it would be too expensive to do so. Remarkably, even in today’s economy, it seems that a perfectly produced Bible by hand is a myth. How much more so in Paul’s day. All this is to say that I have my doubts about whether these letters were normally written out in shorthand first, then copied cleanly later. Even the later copy would have corrections in it.

    • James McGrath

      Thanks for this thought-provoking series of posts! One of the reasons why I find discussions of Biblical inerrancy so problematic is their reference to the original autographs. But on what basis can one claim to know something so certainly about manuscripts we do not have? And since we do not have them, why should we feel compelled to make a leap of faith of this sort about their character?

    • Dan Wallace

      James, as for inerrancy and the originals, I’ve discussed this before (probably before you started reading this blog). But I’ll address it again briefly now. Regardless of whether one holds to inerrancy or not, the argument against it based on the fact that we don’t have the originals is logically fallacious. The reason is threefold: (1) we do have the WORDING of the original text–either in the printed Greek text or in the apparatus; therefore, inerrancy can be tested against what could possibly be original; (2) evangelical textual critics belong to all the major camps of textual criticism, and yet not one of these camps has caused them to deny inerrancy based on the reconstructed original that they follow; (3) although there are certainly challenging textual problems for inerrancy, they pale in comparison to the much larger challenges from passages that are certain. Further, most evangelical scholars embrace the harder reading in these places–and in this case, that means the reading that is harder for inerrancy! Thus, inerrancy is not really pelted by textual variants; it does receive some bruises from other arguments, but textual criticism is not really one of them.

      I have suggested elsewhere that the argument against inerrancy based on the lack of originals be retired since it cannot stand up to logical or empirical evidence. Now, if we were to discuss the Quirinius census in Luke 2, Stephen’s historical remarks in Acts, or Mark 2.26, inerrancy could be meaningfully challenged. But it really can’t on the basis of textual variants, since even the most egregious problems don’t register a blip on the radar of bibliological difficulties.

      For a more complete discussion, see my essay, “Inerrancy and the Text of the New Testament: Assessing the Logic of the Agnostic View” here.

    • James McGrath

      Thanks for clarifying your viewpoint. I’ve certainly encountered people (although not usually scholars) who have used inerrancy to ‘fix’ problems where there is no text-critical basis for doing so – the problem, they assert, must not have been there in the original. But I’m glad to hear you are not taking that approach!

      As for the census under Quirinius, I’ve got a treatment of that subject at

      My biggest objection to inerrancy is that it dies the death of a thousand qualifications. Matthew’s counting in chapter 1 is not a problem, since it can be inerrant and still not be numerically precise. So he said there are three groups of fourteen, and one has only thirteen – big deal! But while the precise theological definition is qualified to take account of such data, the average person hearing talk of ‘inerrancy’ is none the wiser, and for them such numerical differences might seem like a big deal.

      So the two questions we are left with are (1) Why use the term ‘inerrancy’ in a meaning that is so qualified? and (2) Why use a term that gives the average Christian a very different impression than those who have read a statement like the Chicago Declaration in its entirety? Perhaps the latter IS the reason, since in my experience, much of this terminology seems driven by the felt need of the well-informed to pander to the people in the pews who have never studied theology but pay the pastor, support the seminary, and so on.

    • Dan Wallace

      James, you raise some excellent points about inerrancy. I do think that the way it is affirmed often dies the death of a thousand qualifications, as you mentioned. But inerrancy should not be defined by the ‘average person’ (as you almost seem to imply) any more than Christology should be defined by the average person. If I may press this point further: the average person has several misunderstandings about almost all of the Christian faith. Does their misunderstanding mean that those in leadership roles are fully to blame? Hardly. Although I will agree with you that inerrancy seems to be a shibboleth that many pastors are unwilling to parse differently.

      Inerrancy takes several definitions in the hands of scholars, and I can’t comment on them in this short response. But I can tell you what I believe about inerrancy and why. Essentially, I believe that the Bible is true in what it touches. That’s my definition of inerrancy. Obviously, it means that genre considerations, the nature of ancient historiography, etc. must be taken into account when one thinks about the affirmations of scripture. But this is no more a death of a thousand qualifications than normal hermeneutics is when it comes to the outworking of principles of how to understand a text. I regret that too many evangelicals have ‘form-ulized’ their faith so that everything—from inerrancy to soteriology—has how-to concoctions and twelve-step theories that have nothing to do with the biblical worldview. But that age is passing, thank God!

      Back to inerrancy: I would also say that the Bible is true in what it teaches (my definition of infallibility).

      What is my basis for this (both inerrancy and infallibility)? I think that this view of scripture is fundamentally what Jesus of Nazareth held to. One can show this, I think, by using the criterion of dissimilarity to argue that the Gospels are giving us a true picture of Jesus’ view of the Old Testament. I won’t get into this too much in such a short comment, but at least I’ll point to my essay, “My Take on Inerrancy,” posted on At bottom, I hold to some form of inerrancy because I believe that is in line what Jesus held.

      As for Quirinius’ census, I enjoyed your discussion immensely. Very well done indeed! Thanks for pointing me to the website. I would take one issue with what you presented, however. I don’t think that Matthew is suggesting that Jesus was born in 6 BCE. That Herod instructed his henchmen to kill all babies two years old and under was wholly within his character. He wanted to hedge his bets. And I rather doubt that these soldiers politely knocked on doors to find out where the baby was. No, this was a massacre and it required stealth and speed. Any toddler who could barely walk got the ax. From my perspective, I would say that Matthew is telling the truth about Herod’s orders, but we cannot infer from this at all that Jesus was about two (or that Matthew thought he was about two) from the statement. Read Harold Hoehner’s Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ for some helpful input on the date that Matthew sees Jesus as having been born.

      I have always had problems with the Quirinius census, but have appreciated how I. Howard Marshall has handled it in his Luke as Theologian and Historian. He basically gives Luke the benefit of the doubt–even though Marshall has no specific solution—since Luke is a decent historian. But you actually provided a plausible answer to the problem by noting that Quirinius could have ordered such a census in 4 BCE—a date that you rejected because it did not seem to fit the chronology of Matthew. But if, as I argued above, it does fit Matthew’s chronology, then perhaps you’ve uncovered the missing piece of information that solves the problem! I don’t know if the answer you stumbled upon is right, but it is interesting. I’m not one to gravitate toward a solution just because it relieves a tension. Like you, I don’t think that that’s honest scholarship, nor in the best interest of the church. But your piece certainly poses some interesting possibilities.

      Thanks for the stimulating interaction!

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