Category Archives: Biblical MSS


On May 1st, 1851 a German man named Christian Gottlieb Nestle and his wife Sophie Beate Kleinmann gave birth to a bouncing baby boy whom they named Eberhard. Young Eberhard grew up in Württemberg and attended the Gymnasium of Stuttgart. From there he went on to study at the Theological Seminary of Blaubeuren – one of four secluded, monastic institutions at which very thorough philological training was provided for the up and coming clergy of the land. After this, Nestle studied divinity and eastern linguistics, first at the University of Tübingen, and then at the University of Leipzig. He was then delighted to be given the opportunity to spend two whole years in England, working at the British Museum and preaching to various church communities in London. From there he accepted a position as Tutor at the Theological Seminary of Tübingen, and then moved on to the Gynmanisum of Ulm to teach Greek, German, Hebrew, and Religion. After that he went back to the University of Tübingen as Professor of Semitic Languages. Then, after a tenure during which he was not promoted to Chair, he moved back to Ulm, where he had more opportunities to indulge in more direct philological and theological study.

Dr. Nestle made some key contributions to several theological and literary journals, wrote an entire Syriac grammar, produced a tetraglot of the Psalms in Greek, Syriac, Chaldean, and Latin, edited two successive editions of Tischendorf’s critical Septuagint, with collations of Codices Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and Alexandrinus, and even did some work with the Apocryphal Gospels. He also edited the Greek New Testament for the Stuttgart Bible Society.

One striking feature of Dr. Nestle’s work is his relentless pursuit of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He refused to omit details or smudge over difficulties for the sake of making work easier for the New Testament textual critic. He had the type of faith that drove him to behave as if getting to the bare truth of the matter, linguistically, historically, textually, and archeologically – without squelching any questions or turning a blind eye to even a single jot or tittle – would ultimately bear the best, the most pure and historically accurate, textual fruit.

He believed that in every case the facts would ultimately testify to the truth of Christianity in the long run, even if they posed difficulties and raised questions in the short term.

One way his work went against the grain of his time was that it led him to disbelieve in the concept of a “Textus Receptus”, or “Received Text” – an edition of the New Testament that was final and after which there would be no use in continuing to study manuscripts to try to gain more and more accurate understandings of what the original documents said. Nestle firmly believed that there was much work to be done in the field of New Testament textual criticism (which, if you don’t already know or haven’t figured out by now is the attempt to identify and correct transcription errors in the texts of the New Testament manuscripts).

To put the issue in perspective, however, it should be noted that we have a recent count of 24,970 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament (not counting quotations in the writings of the early church fathers), compared to 643 of Homer’s Iliad (which has the next highest MSS count). Some of these manuscripts date very closely to the originals that were penned. FF Bruce, Bruce Metzger, Kurt Aland, Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, even Eberhard Nestle, and virtually all other experts in the field believe(d) that we can reconstruct about 99.5% of the text of the autographs with virtually 100% certainty. And the uncertainties are in minor areas – usually grammatical or punctuational.

In other posts, here or on my other blog, I might tell you about some of the more interesting cases, try to explain what hangs in the balance in each, and possibly even take a crack at trying to take a position of my own in one or two instances. But the point is that while there isn’t any basis for doubting the accuracy of the transmission of the New Testament text, there isn’t any basis for believing that we have received a perfect transmission straight from God either (even if we believe the originals were inspired by Him).

One very telling characteristic of the work of New Testament textual critics like Nestle is that the whole goal is to go backwards, not forwards. They try to reconstruct, as accurately as possible, what the original manuscripts said. They keep a running publication now (thanks to Kurt Aland) documenting every extant manuscript, where it is held, what it contains, what it dates to, and other details. They produce almost yearly “critical” editions of the New Testament in which the text is presented and almost every extant variant reading of the uncertain passages is documented in detail (they even assign probabilities to each variant, placing the most probable original reading in the main body of the edition).

They are correcting copyist errors, not revising teachings.

Eberhard Nestle’s edition of the Greek New Testament quickly became universally accepted the best yet, and has become the basis for just about every critical edition of the Greek New Testament text since. His son Erwin picked up where his father left off, and in the 50’s began collaborating with Kurt Aland. The Nestle-Aland 27th edition of the “Novum Testamentum Graece”, published in 1993, is now the foundational text from which many modern English Bibles are translated.

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Filed under Biblical MSS, Biographical Sketches

To the Year

Just over three years after my grandpa George marched through France with the Allies, the United States’ CIA representative to Damascus, Miles Copeland, had a secret rendezvous with an Egyptian man carrying some very important documents. The meeting took place on the rooftop of the American legation building in Egypt, and when the fragile papyrus was produced for examination, an unexpected gale kicked up and stripped large swaths of paper from the scroll, which were never recovered.

The CIA representative took 30 photographs of the manuscript, which did not document its entirety. It was written partly in ancient Hebrew, and partly in Aramaic. Fragments from this same scroll were found at Qumran five years after the incident. The linguistic characteristics of the Hebrew on the scroll have since been dated to earlier than the second century before Christ, and the Aramaic is written in a way that strongly suggests it was originally penned closer to the fifth century before Christ (and in fact the man the document claims to be written by was known to have been exiled to Babylon about 605 BC). Evidence from a very old Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, and from some of the manuscripts found at Qumran, indicate that this writing was definitely in circulation in its full form long before the second century before Christ.

This poses quite the conundrum.

The writing claims that exactly 483 years after someone issued a decree to rebuild Jerusalem, the Jewish messiah (“Christ”, in Greek) foretold by their scriptures would begin his public ministry. But instead of restoring their political kingdom, he would be “cut off” – killed, in fact. This prophecy specified that these events would take place prior to a second destruction of Jerusalem.

The conundrum is this: it is a well documented fact that in the year 458 BC, then-king of Persia, Artaxerxes, curiously issued a decree to a Hebrew priest named Ezra to rebuild Jerusalem. That wouldn’t have been too terribly remarkable except that Jesus was baptized at the age of 30.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “AD 30 is not 483 years after 458 BC.”. And you’re right. But Jesus wasn’t 30 in AD 30.

He was gone.

The Gregorian calendar is off by 4 years; Jesus turned 30 in AD 26. And since there was only one year between 1 BC and 1 AD, Jesus was baptized exactly 483 years after Artaxerxes’ decree. So how did the writer of this ancient document know – and predict down to the very year – that the one who would come to be called “King of the Jews”, and be subsequently worshipped as their promised messiah, would be baptized in AD 26?

And it gets worse.

In AD 75, the Roman emperor Vesasian constructed something he called the “Templum Pacis”, or “Temple of Peace”. It was a distinct construction from the Forum of Augustus, the Forum of Caesar, and the Via dell’Argileto, and had a nice view of the Colosseum. He erected it to celebrate the conquest of Jerusalem by Titus in AD 70, 44 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.

The long-dead prophet Daniel had nailed it again.

Post Script

Obviously we had copies of Daniel before the Qumran fragments were discovered, and obviously Daniel contains more than just the prophecies about the date of the beginning of the messiah’s public ministry and subsequent fall of Jerusalem. But what you might not know is that Daniel may not have simply predicted the year of the beginning of the messiah’s public ministry, but he may have actually specified it down to the very day. You can read about this and other stories about predictions and dates in the life of the messiah in Harold Hoehner’s “Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ” (Zondervan, 1978).

A modern English translation of Daniel’s writing can be found here.


Filed under Biblical MSS, Historical Anecdotes


In a hot, dusty land lies one of eleven important caves. It occupies a region between 82 and 3,280 feet away from a settlement called “Qumran”, which is itself about 3,280 feet away from the Dead Sea. The caves were discovered by a Bedouin named Muhammed edh-Dhib and his cousin in the Winter of 1946 when Muhammed fell into one by accident.

Muhammed found some curious artifacts in this cave – some pottery and a number of old scrolls. When Muhammed returned to camp he hung the scrolls on a tent poll. After some time he got around to taking them to a dealer named Ibrahim ’lijha in Bethlehem, who appraised them as worthless. After that, the story of the journey of the scrolls gets long and complicated, but you can read about it (including the part where three of them are sold for the equivalent of $29) in the writings of a man from the American School of Oriental Research, who personally interviewed the Bedouins and subsequent handlers of the scrolls, in John Trever’s “The Dead Sea Scrolls” (Gorgias Press LLC, 2003). Fortunately during his exploits, John was able to photograph the scrolls with an extremely high degree of precision, such that his photographs are now clearer than the scrolls themselves, as their inking has faded since their removal from the linen in which they were wrapped.

After changing owners a couple of times (the Syrian Orthodox Church being among them), the scrolls were eventually sold though an ad in the Wall Street Journal for $250,000 to Professor Mazar and Yigael Yadin, and brought to the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. They remained there until the Six-Day War, at which time they were relocated to the Shrine of the Book, where I believe they reside presently.

When the scrolls were finally analyzed with Western technology at UC Davis, their black inking was identified as “iron-gall” ink, and their red inking was identified as “cinnabar” (mercury sulfide). They have been carbon-14 dated at least four times, once by the University of Arizona in 1995, and another time by ETH-zurich in 1990. The scrolls dated between 335 BC and 107 BC. Paleographic and scribal dating places them around 150-100 BC.

The most complete scroll is 24 feet long and 11 feet high, taking up 17 sheets of parchment which contain 54 columns of text. It is a hand-copy, or copy of a copy (etc.) of a record of the teachings and prophecies of a Hebrew man who lived around 740-700 BC (during the decline of Israel in the shadow of Assyria).

Among the prophecies are the prediction that a conqueror named Cyrus would destroy what was at the time a world super-power: Bablyon (a 196 square mile city enclosed by a moat and a double wall 330-feet high and 180-feet thick in total). The prophet also said that Cyrus, who would be Persian, would subdue Egypt as well as the majority of the rest of the inhabited world. He said that between his prophecy and its fulfillment, Israel would be taken into exile, but that this Cyrus would miraculously decide to set them free from that exile without taking any ransom money. An astronomer named Hugh Ross calculated the probability of the fulfillment of this prophecy at 1 in 10^15.

But wait – there’s more. Babylon would be so overwhelmingly defeated by Cyrus, according to the prophet whose words are recorded in the scroll found by Muhammed, that it would never again be inhabited and its stones would not even be salvaged for building material. Dr. Ross calculated the probability of these additional details being fulfilled at 1 in 10^9.

Around 150 years after these prophecies were originally proclaimed, a man named “کوروش بزرگ”, also known as “Cyrus” (and lated dubbed “Cyrus the Great”), ascended to power in the Achaemenid dynasty. During his rule the empire expanded militantly throughout most of Southwest and Central Asia, and parts of Europe and the Caucasus – from the Mediterranean to the Indus River. The largest empire the world had seen.

When Cyrus conquered Babylon, around 538 BC, he issued something called the “Decree of Cyrus”, which permitted the Jews who were being held in exile there to return to Jerusalem and build their temple for the second time. He didn’t even require any payment from them, and to this day, according to Wikipedia, all “that remains of the original ancient famed city of Babylon… is a mound, or tell, of broken mud-brick buildings and debris”.

In addition to these prophecies, which were fulfilled in short order, the ancient bard also made promises to the Hebrews on behalf of God Himself. And he said that as a sign of the impending fulfillment of them, a virgin would miraculously give birth to a boy whose very name would be “with us, God”, and who would choose Good over Evil. And the government would be upon his shoulder, and he would also be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. The bard promised that of the increase of his government and of peace there would be no end, that He would sit on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness forever.


Post Script

There is more than just this one copy of the book of Isaiah, but this is one of the oldest and most complete. You can see a neat electronic reproduction of the Great Isaiah Scroll that was found in Qumran 1 here, and you can read a modern English translation of Isaiah here.


Filed under Biblical MSS, Historical Anecdotes