Marcion had put a critical question about the integrity of transmission of texts which in and soon after his time were in process of being formed into the New Testament. A major objection to his view that these documents had been interpolated in a pro-Judaistic sense consisted in the total lack of manuscript authority for his drastically expurgated form of text. No autograph existed then (as now, of course); but autographs of ancient documents other than letters and documents of daily life preserved on papyrus are extremely rare. About the middle decades of the second century a scribe of Gospels and Acts produced a copy which came to enjoy a famous descendant in the late fourth-century Codex Bezae from Lyon, a bilingual manuscript presented by the Calvinist Beza to Cambridge University to encourage Reformed sympathies. Here there is mild enhancement of words or phrases critical of Judaism. But the principal families of ancient manuscripts, numbering several thousand, offer forms of text where differences are numerous but not often deeply significant theologically. Scribes wanted to harmonize Gospels or to clarify a sentence by paraphrase. Naturally the majority of variants were created by scribes' mistakes. It has never been easy to transcribe a substantial text by hand without a single slip.
The numerous manuscripts can be subjected to ordered classification in families, i.e. groups which share the same variants or other idiosyncrasies. These originally arose from differing local usages—Egyptian churches followed Alexandria, Jerusalem and Palestinian churches followed Caesarea the metropolis, where Origen and later Eusebius and his master Pamphilus were much interested in variant texts. A very early manuscript of the Caesarean family is preserved on papyrus in the Chester Beatty collection, containing the Pauline epistles with Hebrews but without the letters to Timothy and Titus. The handwriting is not later than ad 200. One scrap of St John's Gospel at Manchester (Rylands papyrus 457) is in a hand unlikely to be later than 135. Experts in ancient handwriting can offer decisive judgements about the approximate dating of a text on papyrus or parchment. Naturally a form of text does not enjoy superior authority because it happens to have been preserved on papyrus. It is a rule of good textual criticism of all ancient writings that an early manuscript is not necessarily superior to one written later