Manuscripts 101: Manuscript Contents

Mention the New Testament in conversation, and most people likely think of the final third of a printed Bible, available in almost any bookstore or library in a variety of translations and languages. New Testament scholars, however, think of the New Testament in broader terms. For these individuals, the New Testament is a body of literary work, written by the followers of Jesus and then preserved through the centuries via a manuscript tradition.

Today, we have evidence of this preservation tradition in the form of ancient manuscripts, each bearing witness to the words of its source. And thousands of these “witnesses” exist around the world. To help keep track of these manuscripts, the Institute for New Testament Textual Research at the University of Munster maintains a catalog called the “Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments,” or the “Short List of Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament.” (For convenience, many scholars simply call it, the “K-Liste” or “Liste.”)

The great majority of manuscripts on the K-Liste contain only a portion of the New Testament. In fact, only 61 manuscripts hold the entire New Testament. That means 99.9 percent of Greek New Testament manuscripts contain a collection of some of the books, a single book, a few leaves, or even just a fragment of New Testament text. 

In this post we will explore the kinds of content found among Greek New Testament manuscripts, consider why they exist as such, and examine what the variety of content can teach us about New Testament manuscripts and how they were passed from one generation to the next.

The content of the New Testament can be grouped into four broad categories:

  • The Gospels
  • Acts and Catholic (or General) Epistles
  • Paul’s Letters (aka “Pauline Epistles”)
  • Revelation

The K-Liste identifies the contents of each manuscript with a category marker, whether it contains the entire text of the given category or just a portion. So, a manuscript bearing the marker, “e,” may contain all four Gospel books, or a few chapters of one Gospel, or just a few words. The Gospels category is by far the largest, boasting over 2,000 manuscripts, not including Gospels lectionaries. The four Gospels were often copied together into a book referred to as a “Tetra-Euangelion” (literally “four gospels”). Other manuscripts containing a single Gospel or portions of one or multiple are also found in the category. 

The mark, “a,” identifies any manuscript that contains all or some of Acts, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude. The mark, “p,” refers to manuscripts that contain any or all of Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Phlipppians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and/or Hebrews. Finally, manuscripts that contain all or part of Revelation are counted in the Revelation category designated by the letter “r”. 

Greek New Testament manuscripts may contain text from multiple books or a single one. As mentioned above, the four Gospels is a common collection found among extant manuscripts. Paul’s letters also make up a regularly grouped set of works. Papyrus 46 (P46) is the earliest dated manuscript containing Paul’s letters, but not the complete list of all books counted in the Pauline category. Scholars speculate what other books may have been written on the apparent missing leaves of papyrus

P46, University of Michigan Library

Some manuscripts contain texts from different categories or other non-New Testament writings, such as hymns, Psalms, and Christian writings. P72, a third- to fourth-century papyrus codex (a manuscript in book form), contains 1–2 Peter and Jude with a hymn, a homily, and portions from some Apocryphal books. One of the few complete bible manuscripts, Codex Sinaiticus (GA 01), contains the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas—two apocryphal books and two popular early Christian writings. 

A few different reasons may account for the different content arrangements found among Greek New Testament manuscripts. In early centuries, the books likely circulated individually or in smaller collections. The papyrus codex, the earliest book material used for New Testament scriptures, was physically limited to a smaller amount of content than the later parchment codex. Also, we find that certain books, namely John, appear to have been copied more than others, such as Mark, especially among earlier copies. New Testament books copied in later centuries are more likely to contain a collection of books or even an entire New Testament. While the compilations probably grew more common with time, we also must consider that older manuscripts have probably experienced more wear and could lack portions simply because time and the elements took them. Finally, we know that manuscripts were sometimes dismantled. While scholars have discovered some broken and scattered pages to belong to the same manuscript others remain yet to be reunited.

The contents of a New Testament manuscript provide a glimpse into the lives of each individual document and the larger context of their history. Content and arrangement of material can indicate habits of a manuscript’s scribe or the exemplar(s) he copied from. P46, the earliest manuscript of Paul’s letters, orders the books differently than any other manuscript, placing Hebrews just after Romans and Ephesians before Galatians. Scholars have considered how the unusual order of the contents may reveal the developing use of the codex and compiling collections of scripture (see Edgar Ebojo’s “A Scribe and His Manuscript”). The collection of works contained in P72 (mentioned above) has inspired investigations for decades. Tommy Wasserman observes that the contents appear to proceed from liturgical material. 

More broadly, looking at a survey of the contents of manuscripts over time, we can observe interesting trends. For instance, the presence of more Gospel books indicates a priority in copying, and therefore using them. 

The differences between the common concept of the New Testament today and the reality of how they existed in history may seem slightly confusing, and may even cause a bit of pause in the consideration of what we previously thought the copies of the New Testament in the first millennium. Each New Testament manuscript may be helpfully understood as a “witness.” Each manuscript witnesses to the text that passed on from generation to generation. It may witness to all twenty-seven books or just a few verses. Nonetheless, it reveals that the text held within a document was read, copied, and kept during the witness’s day. 

P52, John Rylands University Library

Even though a tiny fragment displaying just a few verses on the front and back, Papyrus 52 witnesses to the Gospel of John’s existence in the second century, copied from an exemplar that existed prior. The verses copied and passed on with the rest of the text of John, as did the other Gospels, letters, and writings that make up the New Testament textual tradition. The text of the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament continued on through the diligent preservation work of scribes and benefactors. Today, with the help of textual critics and translators we can hold a copy of the compiled New Testament attested to by thousands of witnesses over centuries.