How Did Errors Enter Into the Manuscripts?

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from 40 Questions About the Text and Canon of the New Testament
by Charles L. Quarles and L. Scott Kellum

The old adage, “Nobody’s perfect,” applies to the ancient scribes who copied the New Testament for future generations. The scribes were imperfect people who made mistakes. Samuel Tregelles wrote: “It is impossible (unless human infirmity were overruled by a miracle) for a writing to be copied again and again without the introduction of some errors of transcription.”[1] He added:

“God did not see fit to multiply the copies of his Scripture for the use of mankind by miracle; and just as He left it to the hands of men to copy His Word in the same manner as other books, so was it left exposed to the same changes, from want of skill in copyists, from carelessness or misapprehension, as affect all other ancient writings.”[2]

Imperfect copyists produced imperfect copies.  

What Were the Conditions Under Which Scribes Did Their Work?  

Although the mere humanity of the scribes is enough to explain why they made mistakes in their work as copyists, other factors exacerbated their tendencies toward error. Helpful information about the ancient procedure for hand copying a book comes from diverse sources such as artwork depicting scribes at work, descriptions of scribal activity in ancient literature, and the evidence of the manuscripts themselves. Modern readers likely envision ancient scribes sitting at a desk with their exemplar (the manuscript that served as the basis for his copy) and their blank parchment or papyrus side-by-side on the desktop at a comfortable height. They would be surprised to discover that scribes probably did not normally use writing desks or tables until the Middle Ages.[3] Before then, ancient scribes usually sat on a stool, bench, or even cross-legged on the floor and held their blank writing material in their lap.[4]

Modern writers have suffered writer’s cramps after sitting too long at a desk at a comfortable height. We can imagine the discomfort of hand-copying a book for hours in the more awkward ancient position. Metzger and Ehrman mention a traditional formula that appears at the end of many ancient manuscripts and complains of the fatigue and pain produced by the scribe’s labors: “Writing bows one’s back, thrusts the ribs into one’s stomach, and fosters a general debility of the body.”[5] This pain and fatigue could prevent a scribe from producing his best work.  

The environment in which the scribe did his work often made it even more difficult. They did not work in climate-controlled offices with fluorescent lighting! Scribes in Egypt tried to write while swatting insects in sweltering heat. On the other hand, scribes laboring much farther north might labor in chilling cold. The scribe who produced an Armenian manuscript of the four Gospels wrote an interesting colophon (a note placed at the end of a book). His note complained that he performed his work while a blizzard blasted the region with such cold that his ink had frozen, and his fingers had grown so numb that he could no longer feel his pen and repeatedly dropped it.[6] These conditions made concentration more difficult and impacted the accuracy of a scribe’s work.  

A.C. Myshrall has helpfully gathered, transcribed, and translated the marginal notes written by Neilos, the scribe who copied lectionary 299.[7] The scribe’s comments provide helpful insights into the challenges of the ancient scribe who desired to copy the New Testament faithfully. Neilos wrote prayers for God to aid him in his work as a copyist such as “Christ, guide my works,” “Unclean hands: spare, Lord, spare this most holy writing,” and “Spare, Lord, spare the one who is completely slow.” The scribe admits his (and others’) tendency to make mistakes as they copy: “The one who writes tends toward errors.” He warns of the dangers of making such errors: “Woe also to those writing errors.” Another note complains of a scribe who miscopied the text (or dictates it incorrectly) due to his failing eyesight: “The error of Theodore the squinter.” The scribe speaks of forcing himself to write quickly in order to stay focused on his work: “In haste, for laziness leads to a lack of attention.” The notes describe the weariness that comes from lengthy sessions of copying: “I am very tired with a heavy head, and what I write I do not know.” Elsewhere the scribe admits that he is “very drowsy and foolish.” Myshrall noted that many of the references to the scribe’s weariness are on pages with errors, poor handwriting, and lengthy erasures in which the scribe had to recopy text due to significant mistakes.[8] Neilos’s humble confessions are a window into the struggles of the scribe.

What Kinds of Errors Did Scribes Most Frequently Make?  


The uniformity of spelling of Greek words in modern editions may give readers the false impression that the ancient manuscripts agree in spelling. Most modern editions simply adopt the standardizing Greek spellings of the Middle Ages and later.[9] In fact, the manuscripts of the Greek New Testament sometimes exhibit a wide range of different spellings for the same word. The proper spelling of Greek words changed over time and likely was different in various regions of the world even in the same period.[10] Codex Vaticanus provides an example of different spellings in different periods. When the ink of the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus began to fade, a corrector (probably in the tenth or eleventh century) traced over every letter. He disliked the frequent use of the moveable nu (the Greek letter ν) and chose not to darken the ν in many of these cases.  

Another example of different spellings in the same period is seen through a comparison of Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. Despite their other remarkable similarities and the fact that they were copied within only a few decades of each other, they frequently use different spellings. Westcott and Hort noted that Codex Sinaiticus “shows a remarkable inclination to change ει to ι, and [Codex Vaticanus] to change ι to ει, alike in places where either form is possible and in places where the form actually employed in the MS is completely discredited by the want of any other sufficient evidence or analogy.”[11] Based on careful tabulations of various spellings in ancient manuscripts, Westcott and Hort came to the conclusion that various authors of the New Testament documents originally spelled words differently from one another and that sometimes even the same author spelled words differently in a single New Testament book.[12] Even scribes who were attempting to copy the text exactly could accidentally let the spelling with which they were most familiar slip from their pen. Ehrman acknowledges that these different spellings make up the majority of differences between the manuscripts of the New Testament.[13]  

These differences in spelling should not completely surprise us since our own English spelling was not standardized until the publication of the influential dictionaries by Samuel Johnson (1755) and Noah Webster (1806) and the first edition of the American Spelling Book (1783).[14] Even today spelling differences not only exist between American English and British English, but dictionaries of American English sometimes allow for alternative spellings (e.g., adapter/adaptor; doughnut/donut; glamour/glamor).[15]  

Errors Related to Sight  

Reading and accurately copying texts was difficult when the scribe labored in the dark indoors with only the flickering flame of an oil lamp to illuminate the pages. Scribes who were far-sighted or whose cataracts thickened as they aged had no corrective lenses (until the 14th century) or surgeries (18th century) to assist them. Poor eyesight and a dimly lit workspace were a bad combination for producing accurate copies. Not surprisingly, scribes often confused one Greek letter for another letter that was similar in appearance. Examples of easily confused letters are: (1) The letters s, e, q, o; 2) g, t, p; and 3) d, l. One of the best-known instances of suspected letter confusion is 1 Timothy 3:16. The earliest manuscripts identify Jesus as “the one who” (os), but many later manuscripts refer to him as “God” (using the abbreviation q8s8).[16] The earliest manuscripts and church fathers support the reading “the one who.” But the clear reference to the incarnation in the verse prompted a Christian scribe to read the o mistakenly as a q. Similarly, the scribe who produced Δ (037) confused a o for a q in Matthew 5:4 so that he accidentally wrote penoountes (which is not a word) instead of penqountes (“those who are mourning”).  

Sometimes scribes accidentally skipped a few letters of a word as they copied. An example is the scribe behind Θ (038) who should have written ἀδελφῷ (to a brother) in Matthew 5:22 but instead wrote ἀλφῷ (to a leper).[17] The scribe of K (017) accidentally left the first letter off of σκότος in Matthew 8:12 so that unbelieving Israelites were cast into the outer wrath instead of the outer darkness. The scribe behind L (019) accidentally skipped the ην in γαλήνη in Matthew 8:26 so that the sea became a great weasel instead of a great calm![18]  

Errors Related to Sound  

In the early centuries during which the New Testament was copied, certain vowels and diphthongs (combinations of vowels) began to be pronounced alike. Since the scribe dictated the remembered text to himself as he wrote, he sometimes accidentally substituted another vowel or diphthong for one with a similar sound. This is similar to some errors that modern writers make. I sometimes accidentally substitute homophones for one another as I write or type so that “their” becomes “there” or “hear” becomes “here.”  

An error related to sound is the probable cause of the variant in Matthew 18:15. Some manuscripts say, “if your brother sins.” Others say, “if your brother sins against you.” Which is it? Is this a passage about church discipline or is it about resolving personal conflict? The variant probably arose because the last two syllables of the verb (ἁμαρτήσῃ) sound similar to the prepositional phrase (εἰς σέ). The prepositional phrase is probably original. The scribe dictated to himself the verb as he copied it and when he glanced back at the exemplar and saw the prepositional phrase, he imagined that he had already copied it due to the almost identical sound.  

Errors Related to Memory  

An early scribe would read a phrase or line from his exemplar, attempt to remember that phrase or line as he turned away from the exemplar, and then dictate the portion of text to himself as he wrote it on his blank sheet, scroll, or book. The process was interrupted by the need to dip his pen frequently into an ink well. Quintilian complained of how the constant need to supply the pen with ink “interrupts the stream of thought.”[19] Judging from the variation in the darkness of letters on a page from darker to lighter then suddenly darker again, scribes had to reink their pens anywhere from once or twice per line to every four to six characters.[20] Scholars have demonstrated that the reinking of the pen often broke the scribe’s concentration and led to unintentional errors.[21]  

Sometimes the scribe remembered the words in the line perfectly but confused the order of those words. An example is Mark 15:29 in which scoffers describe Jesus as the one who destroys the temple and rebuilds it in three days. Some manuscripts have the order οἰκοδομῶν ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις, but others have ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις οἰκοδομῶν.[22] The temporal phrase obviously modifies the participle in either order, so the different orders do not significantly affect the meaning.  

Word order matters much more in a language like English in which the order of words determines the function of a word in a sentence. Since the grammatical function of Greek nouns in a sentence is indicated by their case endings, these differences in word order often have little, if any, impact on the meaning of the text. In fact, scholars are not entirely certain what the significance of word order is in the Greek New Testament.[23]  

Not only did scribes confuse the order of words, sometimes they confused the order of letters in a single word (transposition). For example, although the scribe who produced 032 intended to write μάγων (in the phrase “by the magi”) in Matthew 2:16, he accidentally switched the positions of the μ and γ and wrote γαμων instead. Thus, rather than writing about how Herod was tricked by the magi, he wrote that Herod was tricked by the wedding celebrations! This is a clear example of a nonsense reading.  

Memory plays a much smaller role in transcribing written material today. For example, when modern “touch typists” type a quotation from a book, they are able to type as they read without looking away from the exemplar. Thus, they have no need to retain even the smallest portion of the text in their memory as they reproduce it. 

Ancient Christian scribes also could confuse the wording of texts they were copying with that of parallel texts that were more familiar to them. These changes are especially common in the Synoptic Gospels but occur in Paul’s letters as well. Modern English readers share this tendency also. Many of us have heard someone who was reading aloud a modern translation accidentally revert to the wording of an older translation, especially when reading particularly memorable passages. The memory of the translation studied in years past overrides what the eyes see on the printed page. Similarly, the long-term memory of the scribe sometimes overrode his short-term memory when copying line by line.  


We should not find it surprising that scribes made mistakes as they copied the New Testament. They were fallible human beings working with primitive tools and often in difficult conditions. They sometimes accidentally changed the spelling of a word in their exemplars to a spelling with which they were more familiar. They sometimes change spellings intentionally, thinking that they were correcting mistakes in the exemplar. They also made mistakes due to the similar appearance of letters or sounds of vowels and diphthongs. And their memories sometimes failed them as they turned from their exemplars to their blank manuscripts. Usually, these errors are easily spotted, and the original reading can be confidently determined. Often these kinds of errors do not significantly impact the meaning of the text. 

[1] Samuel P. Tregelles, An Account of the Printed Text of the Greek New Testament: with Remarks on Its Revision upon Critical Principles (London: Samuel Bagster, 1854; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 37 (italics original).

[2] Tregelles, An Account of the Printed Text of the Greek New Testament, 37.

[3] Bruce Metzger, “When Did Scribes Begin to Use Writing Desks?” in Historical and Literary Studies, Pagan, Jewish, and Christian (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 123–37.

[4] In the Louvre in Paris, a limestone statuette depicts a stripped-down Egyptian scribe sitting on the floor writing on pages stacked in his lap.

[5] Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 29

[6] Bruce Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Palaeography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 20.

 [7] Lectionary 299 is the Gospel lectionary text of the twelfth century that was written over the erased New Testament text of Codex Zacynthius. All of the following quotations of Neilos’s notes are from A. C. Myshrall, “An Introduction to Lectionary 299,” in Codex Zacynthius: Catena, Palimpsest, Lectionary, Text and Studies (Third Series) 21, ed. H. A. G. Houghton and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2020), 197–99.

[8] Myshrall, “An Introduction to Lectionary 299,” 200.

[9] Modern editions that have attempted to restore the original spellings include Westcott and Hort’s Greek New Testament and the recent edition produced at Tyndale House. See B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek with Notes on Selected Readings (1882; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), 393–404; THGNT, 508–12.

[10] Hort observed, “A large proportion of the peculiar spellings of the New Testament are simply spellings of common life. In most cases either identical or analogous spellings occur frequently in inscriptions written in different countries, by no means always of the more illiterate sort” (Westcott and Hort, Introduction, 304).

[11] Westcott and Hort, Introduction, 306.

[12] Westcott and Hort, Introduction, 304, 308.

[13] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 260.

[14] An amusing example of diverse spellings by the same author appears in the journal of the explorer William Clark. Clark spelled the name of the Sioux tribe twenty-seven different ways! See Donald Jackson, “Some Books Carried by Lewis and Clark,” Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society 16 (1959): 11–13.

[15] On orthographical differences in the manuscripts, see Westcott and Hort, Introduction, 141–72.

[16] This form, known as a nomen sacrum, was very common in the early manuscripts. On this interesting feature, see Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

[17] See E. A. Sophocles, J. H. Thayer, and H. Drisler, Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods (from B.C. 146 to A.D. 1100) (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1900), 121.

[18] See John Lowndes, A Modern Greek and English Lexikon (London: Black, Young, and Young, 1837), 162.

[19] Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 10.3.31.

[20] The scribe of P.Oxy. 657 reinked once or twice per line. See P. M. Head and M. Warren, “Re-inking the Pen: Evidence from P.Oxy. 657 (P13) Concerning Unintentional Scribal Errors,” NTS 43 (1997): 466–73, esp. 469. The classical example of reinking every 4–6 letters is Codex Laudianus 35, a Latin manuscript.

[21] Head and Warren give four examples in P.Oxy. 657 in which reinking coincides with singular readings, i.e., readings that appear in only this particular manuscript (“Re-inking the Pen,” 469–73).

[22] Several manuscripts adopt one of these two basic word orders but drop the preposition (which does not affect the meaning since the dative phrase is obviously a dative of time).

[23] See Chrys Caragounis, The Development of Greek and the New Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 405–33; Heinrich von Siebenthal, Ancient Greek Grammar for the Study of the New Testament (New York: Peter Lang, 2019), 178–80, esp. 178n3.

This post is adapted from 40 Questions About the Text and Canon of the New Testament by Charles L. Quarles and L. Scott Kellum. This title was released on May 23rd, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

How did the New Testament come to be?

The writings that comprise the New Testament are critical for understanding the life, teachings, and impact of Jesus of Nazareth, all of which are central to Christianity. But how were these texts circulated, collected, and given their canonical status? Is the New Testament a trustworthy source for learning about Jesus and the early church?

New Testament scholars L. Scott Kellum and Charles L. Quarles address the most pressing questions regarding the study of New Testament texts, their transmission, and their collection into the canon, such as:

  • What happened to the original manuscripts of the New Testament?
  • With all the variants, can we still speak of inspiration and inerrancy?
  • What are the competing views on canon?
  • Did the apostles recognize contemporaneous books as Scripture?
  • Did the early councils decide the canon?

40 Questions About the Text and Canon of the New Testament uses a question-and-answer format so readers can pursue the issues that interest them most with additional resources at


About Author

Charles L. Quarles (PhD, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as research professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of Matthew in the Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary series.

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