In the past scholars had been unable to accurately date ancient manuscripts and so relied upon the authority of their traditionally transmitted texts, most of which were in fact relatively recent in origins. From the mid seventeenth century onwards increasingly accurate work was done on the dating of ancient manuscripts (hand-written documents). As this scholarship progressed increasingly ancient texts became available for study.
Complete New Testament Manuscripts
Codex Sinaiticus - Dates from the mid fourth century and originally included both Old and New Testaments plus the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, all in Greek. Brought out of St. Catherine's Convent on Mount Sinai in 1859 this codex is currently in the British Museum in London.
Codex Vaticanus - Fourth century Greek codex of the Old and the New Testaments. The history of this codex is not known before it appears in a Vatican catalogue of 1475 although it is of the "Alexandrian" type of text. The book was jealously guarded by Vatican officials and was not available to open scholarship until 1889. The original is still in the Vatican.
Washington Codex - Fifth or perhaps late fourth century. Includes Deuteronomy, Joshua, the Gospels, and the letters of Paul. Currently in the Freer Gallery of art in Washington DC.
Codex Alexandrinus - Dates from the first half of the fifth century and originally contained both Old and New Testaments in Greek. The codex was moved from Alexandria to Constantinople and in 1627 to Britain. Now in the British Museum.
Codex Ephraemi - Early fifth century. A partial Greek copy of the Old and New Testaments which is currently held in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
Codex Bezae - late fifth or early sixth century. A bilingual edition in Greek and Latin of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. In the possession of the University of Cambridge since 1581.
When these manuscripts became accessible to scholars new translations of the Bible were produced.
Partial New Testament Papyri.
John Ryland's papyrus; private collection; from the first half of the second century; parts of the gospel of John 18:31-33, 37-38.
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri - mid second century; sayings of Jesus which have parallels in all four gospels. More than two thousand papyri from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt have been published, most of which are not Biblical. The Biblical passages are thought to have been copied from an even earlier manuscript, perhaps 110-130CE.
(Some papyri, although important, have no given names and so are commonly referred to by numbers - P67 etc.
P67 - in Barcelona; c. 200CE; contains (Mtt 3:9, 3:15, 15:20-22, 15:25-28).
P75 - in the Bodmer Library in Geneva, Switzerland; c. 200CE; contains most of the gospel of Luke and some of John.
P1 - at the university of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; third century; contains (Matthew 1:1-9, 1:12-20, 1;23).
P4 - in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; third century; extensive sections of the gospel of Luke.
P45 - in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland; third century; contains parts of all four canonical gospels and Acts.
P37 - in the University of Michigan Library at Ann Arbor; third or fourth century; 33 verses from Matthew chapter 26.
P25 - in the state museum in Berlin; late fourth century; parts of Matthew's gospel.
P3 - in the Austrian National Library in Vienna; sixth or seventh century; Luke 7:36-45, 10:38-42.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
In 1947 the discovery of a collection of ancient manuscripts hidden in caves near Qumran by the Dead Sea in Israel (The Dead Sea Scrolls) proved a great addition to scholarship on Biblical Texts. These manuscripts, all in Hebrew, contained the whole of the Old Testament with the exception of the Book of Esther and date from about 200BCE to 100CE. Previously the oldest Hebrew texts were from the ninth and tenth centuries and so were unable to correct the Greek versions reliably. The Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that in fact the Hebrew text had been transmitted with remarkable accuracy from pre-Christian times. They do not contain any Christian texts, although there are some interesting parallels to Christian practices such as baptism and the communal meal. Once again, new, improved translations were made possible.