Lessons learned about deciphering manuscripts from a New Testament Greek Scholar

Picture derives from the website: codexsinaiticus.org

Introduction: Today’s post aims to begin summarizing a series of introductory lessons learned from an accomplished New Testament Greek scholar – Dr. William Varner.

Recently Dr. Varner opened up a series of interractive sessions on how to read and decipher ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts. This blogger found the sessions enjoyable, eye-opening and accessible. With his permission I aim to take what was learned from his guided instruction and increase interest in the text of the Greek New Testament for the glory of God. Today’s first lesson deals with how one begins to decipher such manuscripts.

Step One: Take a look at your manuscript

Dr. Varner had readers study the first five verses of Jude’s general epistle. His opening remark was: “Read a Biblical manuscript with me. What strikes you about Jude 1 in Sinaiticus?”  Now before we go on, it bears a slight digression in pointing out briefly what is meant by Dr. Varner’s reference to “Sinaiticus”. This particular manuscript is the oldest complete manuscript of the entire Greek New Testament – thus making it the oldest complete Bible in the world. Whenever we talk about “manuscripts”, we are referring to documents that were hand-written copies of prior copies. The manuscript Dr. Varner used in his opening lesson was called “Codex Sinaiticus”. The first term “Codex” refers to what would had been a precursor to modern books. In a codex, leaves of parchment (specially prepared sheep or goat skins that could be written on both sides) were folded in half and attached together into sets of four two-page sections  (called “quartos” or “quires”). Each “quire” or “quarto” would have eight pages or “folios”, again representing four long sheets of parchment folded in half. Eventually the “quartos” or “quires” of parchment sheets would be bound together into a volume or codex. Below is a picture of a fascimile (physical reproduction) of Codex Siniaticus that ought to give the reader a good idea of how such a codex might had appeared (photo is from the website: bibelausstellung.eduxx-irs.de )

The reason why this Codex is called “Sinaiticus” is due to the location of it’s discovery at the St. Catherine Monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai in Egypt. Whenever researchers want to cite this particular manuscript, various letters or numbers are used as a sort of “shorthand” in cataloguing every manuscript. Due to the prominence of Codex Siniaticus as a witness of the New Testament text, as well as it’s antiquity (dated before 350 A.D), scholars chose to give it the symbol aleph (א), which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

With that brief background about Codex Sinaiticus (א) , let’s return back to Dr. Varner’s instructions, which were: “Read a Biblical manuscript with me. What strikes you about Jude 1 in Sinaiticus?” Here is the page which Dr. Varner had readers study (image from Dr. Varner’s Faithlife academic page, which in turn is courtesy of Bible Works and Vatican. Transcription courtesy of Logos/Faithlife):

Step Two: “Transcription” or breaking down the verse into separate words and upper and lower case lettering

Dr. Varner’s depiction above is from an image of Jude 1:1-2 as it appears in Codex Sinaiticus (א). Readers may notice how there are no breaks between words. All the letters are written in capital Greek lettering, with no lower-case letters (what is called “uncial” or “majuscule” script). To aid new readers of such manuscripts (like myself) in working with the text, Dr. Varner took each letter on the page an “transcribed” it into the upper and lower case lettering one typically finds in any modern edition of the Greek New Testament. Below is Dr. Varner’s transcription:

Ἰούδας Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δοῦλος, ἀδελφὸς δὲ Ἰακώβου, τοῖς ἐν θεῷ πατρὶ ἠγαπημένοις καὶ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ τετηρημένοις κλητοῖς·

The above text translates: “Jude, a slave of Jesus Christ and brother of James. To those who are called, loved by God the Father and preserved in Jesus Christ.”

Step Three: Noting peculiar features of lettering and “nomina sacra

As I compared the transcription to the text of Sinaiticus, a few details were noticable:

a. Sigmas in the manuscript looked like the English capital-letter “C”. In modern Greek New Testaments, capital sigmas normally look like this (Σ).

b. In ancient uncial manuscripts like Sinaiticus (א), other Greek letters such a “lambda” (Λ) can almost appear similar to the Greek letter “delta” (Δ) and to maintain the same length of lines, the scribe would scrunch the letters of words on the end.

c. Perhaps the most notable feature of ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament is the curious way scribes abbreviated certain words like “Jesus” (“Ιησους”) , “Christ” (“Χριστος”) and “God” (θεος).  The words above are typically abbreviated as follows:

“Jesus” (“Ιησους”) = ΙC , “Christ” (“Χριστος”) = XC or XPC and “God” (θεος) = ΘC. These abbreviations, called “nomina sacra” (i.e “sacred names”) serve to highlight due reverence, as well as to make for a better appearing manuscript. Dr. Varner notes:  “Not surprisingly there are also nomina sacra. The original scribe did not have as many scrunched line endings because he tried to end words at the end of the line. This was not always possible. Note the end of line 3 where the ptcp ἠγαπημένοις is broken at the alpha so as not to begin the next line with a vowel.”

If one looks at the photοgraph below (per Dr. Varner’s site), on the third-line down, there will be seen a two letter nomina sacra “ΘW” which corresponds to the Greek name for God, “θεω”.

Thus concludes this first set of lessons learned in deciphering ancient Greek manuscripts at the proverbial “feet” of Dr. William Varner. More will follow in future posts.


1. Dr. Varner’s academic and profession credentials can be found at the following link: http://evangelicalexegeticalcommentary.com/williamvarner/

2. https://faithlife.com/william-varner/activity

About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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One Response to Lessons learned about deciphering manuscripts from a New Testament Greek Scholar

  1. Pingback: Observing the relationship between textual criticism, biblical inerrancy and the study of New Testament manuscripts | biblicalexegete

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