Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Textual Tradition of the Four Gospels

Textual Tradition of the Four Gospels

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

The apostles and evangelists used the normal writing material of their days. They wrote on “papyrus”, a rather primitive sort of paper. This paper was liable to decay soon, especially if constantly used. No wonder then that the original manuscripts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John no longer exist. But from the earliest days hundreds and thousands of copies were made. Each of these copies was written out by hand and checked for its accuracy.

After some years copies were made on parchment, that is: on the skins of animals, and these copies were practicably indestructible.

The accurate transmission of the text throughout the centuries has been proved by scientific research. Even now we possess many ancient copies of gospel texts:

  • 35 papyrus fragments of the most ancient times, containing parts of the gospel text;
  • 66 uncial manuscripts, i.e. 66 copies on parchment, mainly belonging to the 3rd to the 5th centuries when all letters were written in capitals;
  • 1000 minuscule manuscripts, i.e. copies on parchment from later centuries when the letters were written smaller;
  • 300 Church lectionaries, i.e. collections of readings meant for the Sunday service (some of them very old).

We have, moreover, abundant material for comparison of the early gospel texts in ancient translations (Latin, Gothic, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, etc.) and in the quotations of the Fathers.

Since so many copies had been made and preserved in so many different places, it was impossible for any individual to change the text. The differences would soon be noticed and corrected by others. Modern scientific research on the Bible has gathered all the information found in the manuscripts and compared it with the actual text used bChristians today. The result of this investigation has confirmed the Christian claim that the gospel text has been handed on in all its purity.

In fact, the gospels are the best preserved writings of antiquity. For no other profane or religious writing of the same age can such abundant proof of integrity be produced.

Regarding some smaller details the old manuscripts show differences. Such differences are called ‘variant readings’. Compare these two variant readings in two important manuscripts:

  1. Codex Vaticanus : “When the dead are raised to life they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Mt 22:30.)
  2. Codex Sinaiticus : “When the dead are raised to life they will be like the angels of God in heaven.” (Mt 22:30.)

Careful study of all the available information proves that the reading of the Codex Vaticanus (which it has in common with many other manuscripts) was the original one. This reading is, consequently, followed in our editions.

But notice that, in any case, the meaning of both variants is the same! The vast majority of variant readings are of this nature.

Return to Gospels overview?   Return to Gospel Formation overview?

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.