Join our Lenten Campaign 2024.
Copies of the New Testament can be found in more manuscripts than any other work of ancient literature. There are an estimated 5,800 ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament as well as thousands of others in languages such as Latin, Coptic, Syrian and Armenian. And, impressively, these manuscripts, written thousands of years ago on parchment, remain intact to this day, and have now been digitized for anyone to see.
Because of the way manuscripts were stored in ancient times, researchers often find only some parts of manuscripts or incomplete versions. That’s because complete manuscripts were put to use, resulting in wear and tear, while “incomplete” manuscripts that contained writing mistakes, made by monks who painstakingly copied verses from one manuscript to another, were stored into “manuscript caches.” Paradoxically, it was those “rejected” manuscripts that often could make it intact to the present day. For example, the “Sinai Bible,” also known as the Codex Sinaiticus, a collection of handwritten copies of the Bible in Greek found at the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai desert, Egypt, was compiled using “rejected” manuscripts that had been stored away at the monastery for centuries.
Thanks to sophisticated dating techniques, ancient book experts were able to identify the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament, safely stored in university libraries in England and Egypt. Here are the four oldest New Testament manuscripts:
1. Gospel of John, 2nd century
Stored at the Sackler Library Papyrology Room of Oxford University in England, “Papyrus 90,” as researchers have named it, contains words from the Gospel of John in ancient Greek on both sides. It was discovered along with other ancient manuscripts named “Oxyrhynchus papyri” in an ancient “manuscript dump” near Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, a site that was discovered in the late 18th century and revealed to contain the largest number of ancient Christian manuscripts in the world.