Why We Cannot Trust the New Testament Versions?

… the early versions, which in themselves supply most important aid for the determination of the true New Testament text. — George Milligan, The New Testament documents: their origin and early history, p.198

With a heated and proud tone, Wallace wrote, when enumerating the witnesses for an attainable original text, “It is not just the Greek MSS that count, either. Early on, the NT was translated into a variety of languages – Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Gothic, Ethiopic, Armenian. There are more than 10.000 Latin MSS alone. No one really knows the total number of all these ancient versions, but the best estimates are close to 5.000—plus the 10.000 in Latin.”[1] It is strange to read such a statement from a scholar who is the most stubborn enemy of the Majority text theory, and who is accused of being an opponent of a very tiny minority of manuscripts (Greek and translations). The number of manuscripts containing New Testament translations is not that high if compared with the estimated number of the manuscripts of the Qur’ān (the Holy book of Muslims), written almost six centuries after the composition of the New Testament books. The number of Qur’ānic manuscripts is estimated at one quarter of a million,[2] but still Wallace doubts the integrity of the Qur’ānic text.[3] So again, Wallace does not think numbers can be a guaranty for the originality of a text.

Let us go back to our starting point and directly pose the question we wish to investigate: Can we recover the “original text” through the New Testament translations? We can give a brief answer to this question, and a detailed one.

The brief answer is “certainly not,” because there is a scholarly consensus that the New Testament versions are less helpful in recovering the original text; they suffer from the same weakness as the Greek manuscripts, in addition to their own inherent deficiencies.

The detailed answer is that we are unable to restore the “original text” due to the multiple reasons detailed below.

First: We have no version that claims that it is copied from the autograph.

Second: We have no version that is identical to any modern critical text of the New Testament. All of them are less valuable than our created texts.

Third: The versions of the New Testament are witnesses for the four divergent text-types, so how can we use them to rebuild ONE original text?!

Fourth: The versions of the New Testament are not identical; they suffer from the conflicting readings found in the manuscripts.

Fifth: There are different readings, even in the versions of the same language (e.g. the old Syriac and the Peshitta, the old Latin and the Vulgate, the various Arabic versions).

Sixth: “None of the original manuscripts of the versions is extant, and therefore existing manuscripts must be subjected to textual criticism to determine the original text as nearly as possible.”[4] So we are back to face the troublesome problem of the “original text,” but this time we need to reach an original text of a version to help us to reach the “original text” of the author.

Seventh: The famous Italian adage says: “traduttore, traditore” (“translator, traitor”). This is not a condemnation of the translators, but rather, a recognition of the limitation of the “other” languages to give an exact rendition of the original.

There is no language that has the exact features of the Koine Greek (the Greek dialect used between 300 BC–300 AD) used by the New Testament authors. We can cite as an example the Syriac language. Sebastian P. Brock, one of the foremost authorities on Syriac today, after enumerating the differences between the two languages and using quotations from the New Testament as examples, concluded by giving a significant statement about the evaluation of the New Testament version in the reconstruction of the original text, “It will have been seen from the above examples that, while there are certain variations in Greek which cannot be represented in Syriac, the most problematical cases, from the text critical point of view, are those where the Syriac at first sight appears formally to support a Greek variant; here a closer examination, taking into account over-all usage in a particular version and book, will often indicate that formal identity can by no means be used as evidence that the Syriac supports the Greek variant in question.”[5]

Eighth: The Diatessaron of Tatian is considered as the earliest translation of the New Testament (second half of the second century)[6], but this version is not helpful in pursuing the original text of the New Testament; for several reasons:

  • No copy of the Diatessaron has survived. Scholars are trying to restore its text through its different translations and mainly by collecting the old authors’ citations.
  • Its original language is unknown; it has been argued that the Diatessaron was first made in Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, and Arabic.[7]
  • The Diatessaron is a Gospel Harmony; it is a combination of the Gospels into a single narrative, which was accomplished by resolving the apparent contradictions of the four Gospels by creating its own narrative that does not follow any canonical gospel.
  • We know nothing definite about the methodology of the harmonization and the translation, save what the text reveals.
  • The Diatessaron does not mention the sources of its sequences, which failure is preventing us from realizing the exact words (esp. in the synoptic Gospels) behind it.
  • The Diatessaron does not reflect the image of the Greek “text” of the second century; “the vorlage [the underlying text] from which Tatian worked had a textual complexion closer to that of the Vetus Syra [Old Syriac] and Vetus Latina [Old Latin], rather than Greek.”[8]
  • What are the sources of the Diatessaron? William L. Petersen answers by saying, “As for Tatian’s sources. It is difficult to determine whether he used a bona fide extracanonical gospel or only a deviating canonical gospel that, because of the early date, had not yet evolved into the canonical form we know today in the great uncials of the fourth century. What is undeniable, however, is that the Diatessaron contains readings that are now ‘nonstandard’ (e.g., the ‘light’ at Jesus’ baptism) and that are attributed to an extracanonical, Judaic-Christian gospel by ancient ecclesiastical writers (e.g., Epiphanius).”[9]
  • The eastern Diatessaronic witnesses differ notably from Western Diatessaronic witnesses.[10]
  • There are differences between the Diatessaronic witnesses of the same languages; i.e., we have two different forms of Arabic Diatessaron, so many that Kahl declared that “We cannot derive one of these forms from the other and cannot reconstruct an ‘Urtext’ of the Arabic Diatessaron from them. They must be dealt with separately.”[11]
  • Tatian was considered by Irenaeus as a heretic early on, and this disagreeable reputation was perpetuated without dispute by many later Western writers, such as Tertullian, Hippolytus, Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Jerome.[12]

Ninth: All the other versions are secondary except the Syriac, Latin, and Coptic.[13]

The Syriac Version

The pre-sixth century Syriac versions (if we leave out the Diatessaron because of its unknown origin) are 1, the Old Syriac, and 2, the Peshitta.

  1. The Old Syriac. The Diatessaron was used as the standard Gospel text for some Syriac-speaking churches up to the fifth century; in the meantime, the Syriac Church produced Syriac translations for the separated Gospels. These translations were unknown to scholars until the nineteenth century, when two different manuscripts were found: Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Curetonianus. Both of these date from the late fourth or early fifth century. The difficulties of these two translations that prevent both of them from assisting us in our search for the lost autograph are as follows:
  • We know nothing about the history of these two mysterious translations.
  • They are not identical.
  • The two codices contain only parts of the Gospels.
  • The Codex Sinaiticus has some illegible texts because it is a palimpsest (a manuscript on which an earlier text has been effaced and used again.)[14]
  1. The Peshitta: The first known Syriac translation of the New Testament (not just the Gospels) is the one called “Peshitta” “ܦܫܝܛܬܐ” (simple).

The questions of when, how, and why do not have definite answers here either. Metzger viewed them so pessimistically that he dared to say, “The question who it was that produced the Peshitta version of the New Testament will perhaps never be answered.”[15]

The Latin Version

There are two Latin versions, known as the Old Latin, and the Vulgate.

1. The Old Latin

The Old Latin versions of the New Testament are the Latin translations made before Jerome’s Vulgate. The main deficiencies of the Old Latin version that make us unable to restore the original text of the New Testament through it are as follows:

  • We have different groups of Old Latin translations, and we do not know if they go back to one original version or not. [16]
  • The Old Latin texts represent, on the whole, the Western text-type, not the Alexandrian.[17]
  • The Old Latin version reflects the earliest dynamic corruption of the New Testament. Metzger declared firmly that “The diversity among the Old Latin witnesses is probably to be accounted for on the assumption that scribes, instead of transmitting the manuscripts mechanically, allowed themselves considerable freedom in incorporating their own and others’ traditions. In other words, the Old Latin was a living creation, constantly growing.[18]
  • There is an appalling diversity in the Old Latin manuscripts. Saint Jerome exemplified this view with a furious exclamation when Pope Damasus I asked him to revise the Old Latin gospels, declaring, “There are almost as many forms of text as there are manuscripts.”[19] Saint Augustine expresses his annoyance by referring to the “endless variety and multitude of Latin translators.” [20] The reason for this désagréable phenomenon is, as Saint Jerome said, the “inaccurate translators, and the blundering alterations of confident but ignorant critics, and, further, all that has been inserted or changed by copyists more asleep than awake.”[21]
  • The only known Latin translation that can be dated to the second century is what we can find in Tertullian’s writings, but it is of little value in tracing the history of the Latin version because Tertullian made it, as many scholars believe, by himself from Greek,[22] and it does not fit into the rest of the Latin tradition. [23]
  • The Latin version, as mentioned by Fisher, does not have any direct bearing on the “original” text (autograph) of the New Testament. It is much too late for that. Its only value is as a direct witness for the history of the Greek text.[24]
  • Most probably, no pure old Latin manuscript has survived, and (almost) all that we possess today have been contaminated to some extent by Vulgate readings. [25]

2. The Vulgate

Saint Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I in 382 A.D. to make a revision of the old Latin translations. He translated into Latin the Old Testament (except the books of Wisdom, Sirach, and Maccabees) and the four Gospels; the rest of the New Testament was translated by an unknown person(s). It became the definitive and officially promulgated Latin version of the Bible in the Catholic Church. The problems with the Vulgate are as follows:

  • It was composed at a very late date.
  • The consensus of scholars today favors the view that the Greek text underlying the Vulgate was Byzantine.[26]
  • The Vulgate suffered the same corruption as that of the Greek manuscripts.
  • There was a huge influence of the Old Latin on the manuscripts of the Vulgate.[27]
  • Certain readings in the Vulgate are not known to us in any extant Greek manuscript. For instance, Saint Jerome gives “docebit vos omnem veritatem” in John 16: 13, whereas our present Greek editions read “ὁδηγήσει ὑμᾶς ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ πάσῃ,” so that he would seem to have read “διηγήσεται ὑμῖν ἐν τὴν ἀλήθειαν πᾶσαν.”[28]

The Coptic Version

The Coptic version suffers from the same defects as the Latin versions. According to Fredrik Wisse, none of the New Testament papyrus fragments found in Egypt, dated before the fourth century, were in Coptic. He tells us that Coptic manuscript attestation only became substantial and representative of most of the New Testament writings in the late fourth and fifth centuries and that even then, “the witnesses represent a wide array of Coptic dialects and independent traditions […]. This suggests that the early history of transmission of the Coptic text of the NT long remained fluid and haphazard.”[29]

Bruce Metzger refers to the failure of the manuscripts to provide an identical text: “The earlier manuscripts present a wide spectrum of variant readings, a few of which are preserved in the later standardized texts. The textual affinities of the Sahidic and Bohairic versions have been the subject of not a few analyses, some more refined than others. On the basis of collations prepared by Johannes Leipoldt, von Soden found that both the major Coptic versions belong predominantly to the Hesychian recension, though during their transmission they suffered contamination in different degrees from the Koine recension.”[30] Despite the fact that the Sahidic and Bohairic versions show an underlying Alexandrian text, the Greek original of the Sahidic version was quite different from that of the Bohairic version;[31] moreover, they include a considerable number of Western readings.[32]


If we should believe Eberhard Nestle’s statement about the worth of the versions, “The value of their testimony depends on their age and fidelity,”[33] we have to declare with certitude that these versions are unable to take us to the original text due to their late dates of composition and the lack of serious signs for their fidelity to a perished autograph.


  1. Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, p.28
  2. M. M. al-Azami, The History of the Qur’ānic Text, from revelation to compilation, a comparative study with the Old and New Testaments, second edition, Riyadh: Azami Publishing House, 2008, p.347
  3. Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, p.34
  4. D. A. Black, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide, p.23
  5. Sebastian P. Brock, “Limitations of Syriac in Representing Greek,” in Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament, Their Origin, Transmission and Limitations, Oxford: University Press, 2001, p.98
  6. See William L. Petersen, “The Diatessaron of Tatian,” in Bart Ehrman and Michael Holmes, eds. The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research, Essays on the Status Quaestionis, p.77
  7. Ibid., p.77
  8. William. L. Petersen, “The Genesis of the Gospels,” p.41
  9. Ibid., p.91
  10. See ibid., pp.78-79, F. C. Burkitt, “Tatian’s Diatessaron and the Dutch Harmonies,” in Journal of Theological Studies 25 (1924) pp.113-30
  11. Paul E. Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, London: 1947, pp.211-28; second ed. Oxford: 1959, p.313 (Quoted by Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament, Their Origin, Transmission and Limitations, p.16)
  12. See Antti Marjanen and Petri Luomanen, eds., A Companion to Second-century Christian Heretics, Leiden: Brill, 2005, p.153
  13. See Kirsopp Lake, The Text of the New Testament, revised by Silva New, sixth edition, London: Rivingtons, 1928, p. 24; Frederik Wisse, “The Coptic Versions of the New Testament,” in Bart Ehrman and Michael Holmes, eds. The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research, p.131
  14. See W. D. McHardy, “Disputed Readings in the Sinaitic Syriac Palimpsest,” in Journal of Theological Studies xlv (1944), pp.170-74
  15. Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament, Their Origin, Transmission and Limitations, p.124 [italics mine].
  16. See Kirsopp Lake, The text of the New Testament, p. 28
  17. See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 15*
  18. Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament, Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations, p.325 [italics mine].
  19. Jerome, Ep. Praef. Evang., to Damasus
  20. Augustine, Retractationes, i, 21, 3
  21. Jerome, Ep. Praef. Evang., to Damasus
  22. See Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, p.186
  23. J. H. Petzer, “The Latin Version of the New Testament,” in Bart Ehrman and Michael Holmes, eds. The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research, Essays on the Status Quaestionis, p.126
  24. J. H. Petzer, “The Latin Version of the New Testament,” p.124
  25. See ibid., p.119
  26. See Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, p.192
  27. See Kirsopp Lake, The Text of the New Testament, p. 31
  28. Eberhard Nestle, Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament, p.124
  29. Frederik Wisse, “The Coptic Versions of the New Testament,” in Bart Ehrman and Michael Holmes, eds. The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research, Essays on the Status Quaestionis, p.133 [italics mine].
  30. Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament, Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations, p.133
  31. Eberhard Nestle, Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament, p.135
  32. Frederik Wisse, The Coptic Versions of the New Testament, p.137
  33. Eberhard Nestle, Introduction, p.93

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