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Five Old Fragments of the Greek New Testament

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August 16, 2008: Four weary men drove off to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport in the early afternoon. Seventeen large pieces of luggage filled up two vehicles. Their flight was at 5.15 pm. They were headed to London by way of Atlanta.

The team of scholar-photographers was made up of Dr. Jeff Hargis (patristics scholar), Mr. Jeff Miller (textual critic and local pastor), Mr. Andrew Wallace (videographer and technical specialist), and Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament manuscripts.

The seventeen pieces of luggage were not filled with clothes for a long vacation. No, they were filled with photographic and computer equipment for two months of work in the UK. We came to take high-resolution digital photographs of ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts. This is CSNTM’s sixth trip of the summer: We have been to Albania, Greece (Patmos, Lesbos, mainland), Germany, Michigan, and Florida (yes, Florida—they do have manuscripts there!). Now, we’re in England, gearing up to shoot manuscripts at Cambridge.

I could tell you how the flight was delayed, with the plane sitting on the tarmac for two hours because of a computer chip malfunction, how one of the guys threw up during flight (on his seat mate!), how the bus driver in London initially didn’t allow us to bring all our luggage. I could talk about various colleges of Cambridge that we visited but which considered us to be just that—visitors. Or I could delve into brief descriptions of culinary delights (brief, because there are few, though growing over the years), or what it’s like to wander through the halls of these medieval icons of great learning. I could mention the outrageous prices for food and drink, for petrol and transportation, or the remarkably polite and friendly locals who have instantly made us feel welcome. I’ll have to leave most of that to your imagination because I want to tell you about what has fascinated us the most and has drawn us to this land: the manuscripts.

We’ve been in Cambridge for a week now. We settled in at Tyndale House, the famous residence-library for evangelical scholars. There are people here from all over the world—Holland, Serbia, Greece, Nairobi, America, Australia, etc. Even a few Brits! For some reason we were given the ‘penthouse’ flats: two apartments adjoining one another on the third (top) floor. I guess they really like us! And just in case it was a simple mistake, we’re keeping hush about it. We have two bathrooms, four bedrooms, two kitchens. And between the two kitchens we can get one oven and one stove to work. It’s all ideal for our work.

The folks at TH were very excited about our visit. One of them, Sir Kirby Laing research scholar Dr. Peter Head, has been working behind the scenes for months, paving the way at the various colleges so that we could come and shoot the manuscripts.

There are 31 colleges here, each with its own library of rare books. Trinity College (where Isaac Newton taught) is the most prestigious college with a library of 100,000 rare books and manuscripts. The library was designed by Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The prize of the collection is a 9th century manuscript of the epistles that belongs to the ‘Western’ text-form. Known as Codex Augiensis, it has a sister manuscript in Dresden. These two manuscripts are among the most important for the text of the epistles, even though they are not particularly early and somewhat erratic. But often they line up with much earlier manuscripts and confirm that certain readings were geographically widespread. (For those of you who have done the Snoopy project with me, these manuscripts belong to the ‘Lucy text-type.’ [You can read about the Snoopy project in chapter two of Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus, where he interviews me.) I had the privilege of examining both Augiensis and its sister in Dresden (Codex Boernerianus) in 1995 and 2002. Since Dresden was part of East Germany until 1990, few scholars had had the opportunity to see it for several decades. There was a sign-in sheet that recorded all those who had examined the manuscript in the last 100 years. The last American to look at it was a scholar from Yale University in 1920, B. W. Bacon. Codex Augiensis had been examined more frequently, but it still was rarely seen. When I saw it in 1995, both a librarian and a guard watched over me like a hawk during the entire time I examined it!

We are hoping to get into Trinity College to photograph this manuscript along with several others. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We began the week by photographing five old fragments that were discovered just a few years ago. The oldest may be from the third or fourth century. They are in the possession of the Corpus Christi College librarian, a wonderfully lively and intelligent man named Christopher de Hamel. He bought them ten years ago from a London arts dealer. They had apparently been used in more recent but still very old books as binding leaves—strips that were cut up and glued to the inside cover and first page so that the books would not fall apart. Unfortunately, the backside of each leaf was in bad condition and often there was no text left to photograph. But for some of the leaves, there was. And with UV photography, even more of the text was readable. As we shined the black lights on each of these precious documents, the text came alive! Dr. de Hamel has graciously allowed us to post the photographs of these manuscripts at my website, Look for them there.

Even though these fragments are but small scraps of parchment, their diminutive size ought not to deceive: some of these are among the oldest manuscripts we have of the Greek New Testament (they range in date from as early as the third century to as late as the ninth). A fascinating and detailed journal article on the five fragments, written by Dr. Peter Head, will soon be appearing (“Five New Testament Manuscripts: Recently Discovered Fragments in a Private Collection in Cambridge,” Journal of Theological Studies, NS, 2008 [forthcoming]). Both their date and their contents are significant for New Testament studies. Mark, Luke, John, and Romans are attested among them.

These fragments each belonged to different manuscripts, probably all cut up long ago by someone who could not read Greek but needed some sturdy strips to glue his books together. Collectively, they comprise almost two percent of all known Greek NT majuscule manuscripts! Even though they are only tiny fragments, this number alone, along with their early date and interesting readings, gives them a great value. One has to wonder how many more medieval books are out there that have strips of more ancient manuscripts glued to the binding. (We found two such manuscripts earlier this summer in Greece!) If you’ve got an old book, you might just want to take a close look at it sometime. Check inside both covers and look to see if there are any handwritten scraps there, written on parchment rather than paper. And if they’re in Greek, write to me, please! I want to know about them.

Below is a stunning picture of one side of the Romans fragments (eight fragments in all). The text on both sides together comprises much of Rom 8:1-13. You can see by the arrangement of the scraps that that the manuscript was systematically, yet, paradoxically, somewhat haphazardly, cut up to be used to hold another book together. This reality almost suggests a parabolic note: the Word of God was sacrificed to give life to another. And yet, sadly, the new creation hardly noticed the sacrifice made to bring it to life. At the same time, those later books acted as unwitting havens for some very old portions of scripture. And for that we are grateful. Surely many more such bits of manuscripts, scraps of parchment, throw-away leaves used as dust jackets (as I once saw in another library in another part of the world), and reinforcements for book covers are lying around, waiting to be discovered. So many books, so little time. But the adventure goes on.

Verso Side of 7th-8th century Leaf of Romans 8:1–13

Daniel B. Wallace, PhD

Executive Director,

Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

Related Topics: Text & Translation

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