The Complete Text of the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts

By Philip W. Comfort and David P. Barrett, eds.
Grand Rapids : Baker (1999). 652 Pages.

Reviewed by
10.2 (Fall 1999) : 286-288

Within the last few decades, Christian scholarship has witnessed a resurgence in the study of NT textual criticism, but lamentably evangelicals have had but a small part in this upswing. Central to this resurgence is the return to in-depth study of the manuscripts that underlie standard Greek Bibles. Accordingly, Comfort and Barrett have produced transcriptions of the earliest manuscripts, all of which date from A.D. 100-300.

Philip Comfort is Professor of Greek and New Testament at Trinity Episcopal Seminary and visiting professor at Wheaton College. He also serves as senior editor of Bible reference at Tyndale House Publishers. David Barrett is editor of Bibles at Tyndale House Publishers, where he is overseeing a new translation of the Old Testament Apocrypha. This large reference volume is the natural outworking of Comfort’s praxis of textual criticism, which he fully develops in his earlier volume The Quest for the Original Text of the New Testament. There, Comfort states that the earliest and best manuscripts are considered to be representative of the original until proven otherwise (see Quest 130). In the present volume, he relates his methodology to papyrus manuscripts as being “among the most important witnesses for reconstructing the original text of the New Testament,” and to the fact that their value derives from “the date when they were written” (14).

Because they conclude that the greatest contribution to the establishment of the original text is found in the oldest manuscripts, Comfort and Barrett invite their readers to examine the wording of these texts for themselves. “Since it is exceedingly difficult for most individuals to observe the actual manuscripts or even see photographs, let alone collect the editio princeps [definitive critical edition] of each manuscript, our goal has been to publish a fresh transcription of these manuscripts in one volume” (13).

The book essentially has two sections: a brief introduction and the transcriptions. The introduction contains informative sections on the dating of manuscripts and orthographic analysis, adding instructive palaeographic background. Each transcription is prefaced with a description of the manuscript’s contents, date, provenance, housing location, bibliography, physical features, and textual character. Some descriptions of the dating of manuscripts represent the latest research analyses, and the bibliographies provide up-to-date, useful information for studying the manuscripts personally.

The greatest asset of The Complete Text is that it successfully allows pastors and Bible students trained in Greek to interact directly with first-hand sources. For, as Dr. William Barrick noted in a recent article (TMSJ, Spring 1998, 25), the expositor has a vital role in preserving what the ancient manuscripts contribute to an accurate knowledge of the Old and New Testaments, and to do this, he must identify the text’s original statements.

The obvious question that arises is the accuracy of the transcriptions. Comfort and Barrett admit that though they tried to provide accurate collations, their work may need emendation (15). To address the question of errors, the reviewer randomly collated 7 leaves from a total of 6 manuscripts cited in The Complete Text. After collating, he found no errors in their text, though at times the editors were generous in where to begin brackets—meaning that occasionally at the edge of a lacuna [i.e., blank spaces], letters with only a partial stroke visible were not bracketed as illegible but considered discernible. However, since the publication of their volume, they have recognized nine errors in transcription in their book (see “TC-list” on the on-line journal TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism at, with more forthcoming.

The editors do not document their collation procedures, and herein may be the source of impending criticism. Large-scale collation efforts such as the International Greek New Testament Project (IGNTP) have incorporated stringent standards in their projects, such as collating each manuscript independently three times, the third one by an experienced collator. Comfort and Barrett have participated in the IGNTP, but they do not confirm how closely they followed such standards in their own production. Time will tell how extensive the errors are, but the few that have been found to date should not deter one from purchasing their book.

A final concern is that their transcriptions do not document disputed or questionable readings. On the whole, however, this monumental work is a welcome addition to the fields of textual criticism and exegesis, and it should serve as a valuable tool to those whose practice is to interpret biblical texts only after a careful examination of the primary sources that underlie them. This Bible student will gladly consult The Complete Text when studying his Greek New Testament.