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The New Testament was originally written, or so the current scholarly consensus goes, in Greek. This was the common language of scholars of that day and age, much as English is quite often used by scholars now. The authors of the various testaments and epistles, however, likely spoke in Aramaic; bearing witness to this are the quotations attributed to Jesus Christ (such as “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani”, which is “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, in Matthew 27:46). There is little question among scholars today that the New Testament was written in Greek, although a few dissenters assert that some portions were written in Aramaic. I would simply point out that since no one has any of the original documents, these arguments appear somewhat academic at this time.

It is interesting, and somewhat sad, to note that we have not one original document which is contained in the New Testament; the entire compilation is based upon copies, and copies of copies.


Considering that Papyrus (paper, either in rolls or sheets made from the Papyrus plant) was the most common writing material during the first century after Christ’s birth, it seems likely that this was the medium for the original works. The longevity of papyrus is unfortunately not of great extent without fortuitous environmental conditions, certainly not when compared with writing surfaces made from leathers (parchment and vellum.) So, perhaps unfortunate timing with regard to the development of mediums for recording the written word accounts for the lack of original documents. Please note that this is a guess of mine, and has no more basis in fact than the assumption that the original books and letters were written in Greek.


Recent discoveries (in particular, the Dead Sea Scrolls) date from the first century after Christ, and these contain portions of the Old Testament and other intriguing documents. Not all the available scrolls have been researched or at least have had the results of any research published, and so other information may come to light, but as I write this no similarly dated copies (or originals!) containing portions of the New Testament have turned up.

There are over five thousand different historical (old enough to be used as source references) manuscript copies of the New Testament. Some are in Greek, some in Latin, and some in Hebrew. These generally date somewhere between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. Of that number, most are incomplete copies; sometimes this is due to loss of some of the manuscript, but it is often simply a consequence of the actual bulk of the various ancient transcription mediums (papyrus, vellum and parchment). Often, the New Testament was issued as a series of separate documents, for instance broken into The Four Gospels, the Acts and General Epistles, the Pauline Epistles, and the Book of Revelation.

With all these manuscripts, and parts of manuscripts, one might think that the resulting pool of information would be so vast as to render any effort at translation useless. This is not the case, however. Careful research into the origins of these documents reveals only a few primary sources for the text; and today, new translations often use the following three manuscripts as the basis for the majority of the text:

  • The Vatican Manuscript (4th century; missing pages from Hebrews 9:14 to the end of Hebrews, also missing Timothy, Titus, and the Book of Revelation): Still accepted as the best reference by most authorities.
  • The Sinaitic Manuscript (4th century; complete, plus contains two books known as “The Epistle of Barnabas” and the “Shepherd of Hermas”)
  • The Alexandrin Manuscript (5th century; 25 pages missing from Matthew, 2 from John, and 3 from 2nd Corinthians). This is generally known as the poorest of the three manuscripts.

Prior to 1526, the bible (both Old and New Testaments) circulated even among the clergy only in Greek and Latin. These texts were kept closely held by the religious authorities of the day, and even were this not so, the simple fact that the texts were in Latin or Greek with a smattering of Aramaic (or all three in one manuscript) was enough to keep the common man or woman from perusing the books and pondering the stories told within. This situation persisted against a backdrop of increasing agitation for a translation understandable by “all”; eventually the pressure rose to such a level that serious efforts to produce a “bible for the masses” were undertaken by various resourceful and scholarly individuals.

After several false starts and well intentioned but incomplete efforts, the complete New Testament was initially printed in English through the efforts of William Tyndale at Cologne, Germany and at Worms. In 1526 copies were smuggled into England; the church condemned the translation and moreover went so far as to burn copies they managed to obtain in public – they even attempted to buy up all the extant copies. They did not succeed, however. For his trouble, William Tyndale was strangled and subsequently burned at the stake by the church.

Many translations followed close on the heels of Tyndales work; King Henry VIII stated that each church should have a copy of one of these editions (The Great Bible), and caused this to come to pass. Finally, the Geneva Bible, produced in easily readable type and containing both marginal notes and illustrations, became the most widely used bible in England. It seemed the populace preferred it, but the church officials did not, as its commentary (the marginal notes and so on) put forth the views of the Calvinist Reformation. The church officials produced a bible called the Bishop’s Bible with which they intended to replace the Geneva Bible, however the Bishop’s Bible was never very popular and now has the reputation of not being particularly well produced in terms of scholarship. Finally, the King James version was produced as described next, and it has held the foremost position of all translations to this day.

Work on this version of the New Testament was begun in June of 1604 A.D. by those under the rule of King James I in England. King James’ reign began on April 5th, 1603 – it seems quite clear that he wasn’t inclined to waste time getting this started! The completed translation was first printed in 1611. Between 1611 and 1616, various changes were made to the text, some single words, the occasional phrase. By and large, however, the text remained as it was when first printed in 1611.

The King James Bible then replaced the bible then in use, the Geneva Bible, over the course of about fifty years. This was not without some resistance at the time, however, as this snippet of a critique penned by Hugh Broughton illustrates:

Tell his majesty (King James I) that I had rather be rent in pieces with wild horses, than any such translation by my consent be urged on poor churches.

The King James version is well accepted at this time to be a reasonably accurate translation, even to the extent of bringing home the actual style and feel of the various authors of the testaments and epistles. The archaic form of English used in this translation is in some cases somewhat obfuscatory; however, it does lend a feel that assists the reader in the perception that this document is indeed old, and for that reason alone I prefer this translation.

More recent translations have attempted to make some points in the text clearer; however this has (in my opinion) often been at the expense of the sheer literary beauty of the 1611 King James edition.

The New Testament is a most interesting work; I hope that this very brief presentation of its genesis serves you well. If you find this interesting, I would encourage you to do some research on the various aspects of the book yourself. One particular area that will yield immediate results of an interesting nature is that of Textual Criticism, which is simply the area of research that attempts to resolve the bibles we have today with the documents (manuscripts) that they appear to be derived from. Many learned people, both religious and not, have put enormous amounts of effort into this field; It cannot help but hold surprises for the new reader exploring it. Enjoy!