The group of men remembered as the Early Church Fathers were the earliest theologians and scholars in the church. The two earliest groups were (1) the Apostolic Fathers, and (2) the Ante-Nicene Fathers. The Apostolic Fathers were contemporaries of the apostles and most were taught directly by them. The group includes men such as Clement and Polycarp, who was the student of the apostle John. The Ante-Nicene Fathers were active between the end of the first group and the Council of Nicea in 325. Among their number were men such as Irenaeus and Justin Martyr (the man whose name gave us our word martyr). The reason these men are so important in our study is that they were prolific writers, and many of their writings still exist. They quoted from a group of manuscripts known as the Byzantine manuscripts more than a second group, the Alexandrian manuscripts, by a difference of approximately 70% to 30%. That is doubly important since none of those early manuscripts still exist.
The Byzantine Empire is also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, founded when Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to modern-day Istanbul (Turkey), naming it Byzantium. The eastern empire didn’t break up with the western, continuing as a Christian empire until it was overrun by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The language that continued to be spoken in the Eastern Empire until around 400 was Greek, and the New Testament manuscripts that then existed were all written in Greek. Thus the Greek New Testament manuscripts that trace their heritage back to that time period are known as the Byzantine manuscripts. As I mentioned, none of the original manuscripts from then exist today, or at least as far as is known. Copies were made from copies, etc. While there are differences, they are relatively minor. Nevertheless, the manuscripts that trace back to the Byzantine Empire are readily identifiable because of language used, wording, word order, and a variety of other factors. The Byzantine group of manuscripts make up our first ‘stream’ of manuscripts.
A second major stream also exists. They are named the Alexandrian texts, or manuscripts, named for the city of Alexandria in ancient Egypt. Egypt had gradually become a center of learning where various Greek writers and philosophers were studied and taught. Certain influential Christian scholars were influenced by the thought patterns of the ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, etc., and Greek philosophy found a foothold in what they taught and was used to explain biblical concepts.
The most influential teacher to come out of Alexandria was Origen. Instructed in both the scriptures and Greek philosophy, he held some highly unorthodox views. For example, he believed there had been an earlier stage of the creation, a spiritual world, in which there existed rational spiritual beings to whom God had given free will. Some of them exercised their wills and rebelled against God. To punish them, God created the present world. Salvation was the work of the Son, the Logos (Greek for ‘word’) who united with a human soul which hadn’t sinned in its previous existence. Origen seemed to say that Christ is a creature, a created being, and that as the image of the Father he is subordinate to Him.
Origen’s influence was so great that Greek philosophy permanently found its way into Christian thinking, particularly in the East. Two main streams of thought developed which led to the most serious division in the Church up until that point. One stream developed came from Alexandria, the second was centered in Antioch in Byzantium. Out of those two streams developed two groups of New Testament manuscripts. It is argued that the Alexandrian manuscripts showed the influence of Greek thought, whereas the Byzantine manuscripts were truer to the original New Testament manuscripts.
I realize that is a lot of information to digest, but we need to have at least a cursory knowledge of what occurred to understand the origin of the two groups of manuscripts that have resulted in the various English translations. As already pointed out, the Early Church Fathers quoted, by a margin of more than 2 to 1, from the Byzantine texts rather than the Alexandrian. The Byzantine texts form the group that led to the Reformation English translations of the New Testament, including the Tyndale, the Geneva Bible, the King James Bible, Luther’s German Bible, and today is largely the basis for the New King James version. Most modern translations, listed in an earlier article, trace to the Alexandrian group of manuscripts, including Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, and together form the basis for the Critical, or Eclectic, Text.