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Greek New Testament Manuscripts Discovered in Albania

As of June 2007, thirteen (13) Greek New Testament manuscripts were known to exist in the National Archive in Tirana, Albania. Western scholars had tried for decades to gain access to them. There were few success stories. A large part of the reason was due to the fact that Albania is a former police state. Only two of the manuscripts had ever been photographed, both with microfilm decades ago. Things changed dramatically in July.

In December 2006, as the executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (www.csntm.org), I wrote a letter to Dr. Nevila Nika, the general director of the National Archive, seeking permission to send a team to Tirana to digitally photograph the thirteen manuscripts. The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) is a five-year-old non-profit institute dedicated to high-resolution digital preservation of ancient handwritten copies of the New Testament. CSNTM had photographed manuscripts in Constantinople (a.k.a. Istanbul) at the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church; at the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung or Institute for New Testament Textual Research (INTF) in Münster, Germany; at Tübingen University, Germany; at the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on the island of Patmos, Greece; and a few sites in the United States. I have also examined manuscripts first-hand at St. Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai in Egypt, The Vatican, Cambridge University, Oxford University, the British Library, Dresden, Cologne, Berlin, Florence, Harvard University, Duke University, the University of Michigan, The Smithsonian Institution, and several other sites.

When CSNTM sends out a team on an expedition, a lot of preparation is needed. Each four-person team uses special digital cameras, uploading the images onto bus-powered external hard drives connected to laptops. Optimally, a team can shoot between 1200 and 1800 pictures a day, varying on the size and condition of the manuscripts. Each page of a manuscript is shot separately; those with faint text or text that has been erased and reused for another document (known as a palimpsest) are also photographed with UV light. All of the equipment that is brought to a site must be battery operated because the conditions on-site are unknown ahead of time and electrical power is not always reliable. Plenty of camera and computer batteries, along with several chargers, are brought. In addition, tripods, reflectors, DVD burners, hundreds of DVDs, backup cameras and computers, and specially-designed cradles to hold the manuscripts are also lugged on these expeditions. Everything is burned onto DVDs in triplicate, and the library gets a copy of the images for its own use. An image can be as large as 48 megabytes, and is able to be ‘blown up’ to a poster size of 3 feet x 4 feet without any pixelation. The images that the Center retains are stored in multiple locations and backed up with a RAID system for double insurance.

In the spring of 2007, the reply came from Tirana: yes! Preparations were made, and schedules were coordinated. A team of four would be returning from the island of Patmos three days before the Albanian team would set out. Equipment needed to be checked, and some repaired. A brand new suitcase had already been damaged and needed to be exchanged. A team of Dallas Seminary students (who have spent a large portion of their academic preparation studying ancient Greek) and photographers/computer technicians arrived in Tirana on July 2, expecting to take two weeks to shoot six thousand images. The team—Greg Jenks (PhD student), Tim Ricchuiti (ThM student with a BS in film), Garrett Mathis (ThM student), and Nathan Wagnon (ThM graduate)—began looking over the in-house catalog that had been typed out on a manual typewriter. Although it was in Albanian, they got some help from library staff. By the end of the first day, the news came back across the Atlantic: there were more than thirteen Greek New Testament manuscripts in Tirana—far more.

It turned out that as many as seventeen more manuscripts that had been presumed lost for many years also were at the National Archive. Western biblical scholars had lost track of the manuscripts, though the presumption was that they had been relocated to the National Archive. But this information could not be verified. The most recent documentation, the second edition (1994) of the Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments (“Abridged List of the Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament”) by Kurt Aland, former head of the INTF in Münster, listed these manuscripts as “formerly” in Berat, Valona, and Argyrokastro. The INTF is the official cataloguer of Greek New Testament manuscripts, and the K-Liste (as it is sometimes nicknamed) is its official list of all extant MSS. When the INTF learns of a previously unknown manuscript, it assigns the manuscript a unique number. To date, 5752 manuscripts have been catalogued by INTF.

A note in the K-Liste on the manuscripts in Berat, Valona, and Argyrokastro reads, “the library or its manuscripts no longer exist today and/or nothing more is known about the fate of the manuscripts.”1 To rediscover these manuscripts would be of great significance, especially since only rarely will one or two lost manuscripts show up from time to time (usually on the auction block). Whether such manuscripts were in fact rediscovered is not yet known. The catalog description in the K-Liste functions as a ‘fingerprint’ for each known manuscript. Every manuscript is listed by its unique number, contents (e.g., whether gospels, epistles, etc.), date, material (papyrus, parchment, or paper), leaves, columns, lines per column, and dimensions. Although it is possible that all seventeen manuscripts were now housed at the National Archive, this is not possible to verify at the present time. Some of them had not been examined in any detail before, as indicated by the frequent question marks in the K-Liste on their data. Once or twice, all that was known for certain was the material on which the text was written and the number given to the manuscript in the K-Liste. And since these manuscripts had been moved from their original locations, with the shelf numbers also changing, we simply did not have enough to go on to determine whether we were looking at a formerly lost manuscript or a newly discovered one. To complicate matters further, the data in the K-Liste were not always accurate. Occasionally, the date or leaf count could be way off, especially with manuscripts that had been described long before INTF was founded in 1959.

Not one of the seventeen formerly lost manuscripts has yet been positively identified with an INTF number, although nine of them are considered possible. That, in itself, is very good news. CSNTM will be working with INTF and with the Albanian government to try to determine whether the lost manuscripts have been found.

This was not the only good news of the day, nor even the most momentous. The catalog revealed several other Greek New Testament manuscripts that had never been catalogued by western scholars. Simple arithmetic told us this: There were forty-seven Greek New Testament manuscripts listed in the National Archive catalog, while the K-Liste noted only thirty in Albania (thirteen plus the seventeen that had been presumed lost). Thus, Tirana was housing at least seventeen manuscripts unknown to western scholarship and as many as thirty-four! Since the dawn of the 21st century, an average of two or three Greek New Testament manuscripts is brought to light each year. A cache of 17 to 34 manuscripts is a remarkable find, regardless of the age and pedigree of the manuscripts.

After this stunning revelation, the first thing the CSNTM team did was to calculate how much time it would take to photograph all these documents. They quickly realized that two weeks would not be enough. Instead of 6000 images to shoot, there were now 18,000! The library at the National Archive extended its hospitality and allowed CSNTM to add three more weeks to the work. Traveling schedules were quickly adjusted so that the team could stay in Albania as long as possible. But three men had duties back home and could only stay for an extra four days. Greg Jenks would remain behind, as a second team was assembled. Since CSNTM is a non-profit organization with almost no overhead, using virtually all donations for photography expeditions, it rarely has much in reserves. The summer of 2007 was the first time that the Center sent out two teams (the previous summers only saw one expedition), making our budget even tighter than normal. But when we got the news that there were three times as many images to shoot as we had planned for, we knew that we needed to raise the funds—and fast! We had to raise several thousand dollars in just four days, so as to avoid increased rates on airfare. As it was, the flight to Albania was still $2000 per person. Wait a few more hours, and it would have shot up to $3000. A second team of just two men was assembled—Brian Wright, ThM student; and Noah Wallace, BS graduate and professional computer technician; they arrived shortly after the first team left, and got a crash-course in the particulars of this expedition.

First, there was good news: almost 10,000 pictures had been photographed by the first team. But then there were the difficult conditions to contend with: the national government would shut off electricity every day, at random times, and not turn it back on for two or three hours. This was a cost-saving measure, but something that was not fully anticipated. The outside temperature would soar to 100 degrees, and when the AC was just getting its sea legs, the electricity would cut out. But because of the compressed schedule and the importance of these manuscripts, the team could not stop working. It was at times like this that we realized the wisdom of bringing backup batteries for computers and cameras. Even a short day at the NA could prove exhausting. But the staff continued to be helpful, pulling the manuscripts from the archives so that the team could continue working. At times, the library staff were anxious because so many manuscripts were being photographed. This revealed the care with which they had kept the documents. The CSNTM team did not disappoint; white cotton gloves are the order of the day when handling ancient treasures of this sort. And after five years and 60,000 photographs, not a single page has ever been damaged.

In the evenings, more work needed to be done. The manuscript images needed to be converted from RAW to TIFF, then from TIFF to JPEG. Everything needed to be double-checked. There could be no blurry images, no cropped pages, no missing or doubled pages. But with the multi-tasking that was needed each day, having a short-handed team, and needing to shoot over 8000 pictures, a few mistakes were inevitable. But, on average, only 1 out of a 1000 pictures were even mildly blurry.

The team finished the task and photographed virtually all 47 manuscripts that they set out to do. As well, one or two other manuscripts were photographed—manuscripts that had been initially thought to be of the New Testament. Nearly a terabyte of pictures were taken in just under five weeks.

In the fall, I taught a course on New Testament textual criticism at Dallas Seminary, and had a record enrolment: twelve master’s students and five doctoral students. Much of the time was spent examining the images of manuscripts from Albania. Although it’s one thing to have discovered a manuscript, it’s another to have discovered exactly and precisely what’s in the manuscript. Through a refined and efficient process, the students were able to determine several things about these ancient treasures. But more is yet to be discovered. Still, the preliminary results are quite encouraging: several of these manuscripts are fairly important for establishing the wording of the text of the New Testament.

The oldest manuscript in the collection is Codex Beratinus, a codex that had been dyed in purple, with silver and gold letters written on it. Containing only Matthew and Mark today, this codex, written in the sixth century, is very rare because it is a royal codex. Only a handful of purple biblical codices still exist. The NA staff told of some of the great lengths that they had to go to to protect this document. For example, during World War II, Hitler learned of it and sought it out. Several monks and priests risked their lives to hide the manuscript. Codex Beratinus is now registered with UNESCO as a world treasure.

Codex 1143 is another purple codex in the collection, from the ninth century. It contains the gospels. Beratinus and 1143 are the only manuscripts known to have been photographed before the National Archive opened its doors to CSNTM.

Codex 1709 is a twelfth century manuscript that belongs to a very important group of manuscripts known as family 13. It is one of the earliest members. In fact, this particular codex is the reason that CSNTM came to Albania in the first place. Jac Perrin, a pastor in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, is completing his doctorate at the University of Birmingham, England, under Professor David Parker, an internationally respected textual critic. Perrin is writing his doctoral thesis on the relationship of the family 13 manuscripts. There was one that he still needed to gain access to—codex 1709. It was because of this lead that CSNTM found out that the manuscripts in Albania had not been photographed. As it turns out, 1709 might not be the only family 13 manuscript in Albania. More research needs to be done, but one or two others may also belong to this family. If so, they would be the oldest members of the family.

In addition to these manuscripts, some of the newly discovered manuscripts show a good deal of promise. This can be seen in a single passage, the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11). Most scholars today would argue that this story is inauthentic, added fairly early on in the transmission history of the text, largely because it is so moving and speaks of the compassion of Jesus. It’s my favorite passage that’s not in the Bible. There is much emotional baggage associated with these twelve verses, but the truth must win out over emotion. And for this reason many scholars and preachers are both adamant that this text is not authentic and simultaneously silent on the matter in the pulpit. The pericope adulterae, as it is called, has enjoyed this scholarly tradition of timidity for a long, long time, well after biblical scholars recognized its poor pedigree.

The vast majority of the nearly 1700 manuscripts that have John’s gospel in them have this story wedged between John 7:52 and 8:12. Although they represent the majority, almost all of these manuscripts are late. Relatively speaking, there are very few manuscripts that do not have the passage at all, and an even smaller number that have it but place it at the end of the four gospels. The manuscripts that lack it number about 250; of this number, only 111 are manuscripts without commentaries. To this number can now be added one more manuscript, Albanian National Archive (ANA) 15, an 11th–12th century minuscule manuscript that contains the four gospels. At John 7:52, the scribe simply continued on to write John 8:12. A later scribe, incensed at what he thought was an oversight, took a piece of paper and carelessly stitched it into the front of the next parchment leaf (using only five stitches!) and scribbled the passage on it!

ANA 92, a thirteenth-fourteenth century minuscule manuscript, can also be added to this total. Neither ANA 15 nor ANA 92 has a commentary as part of the manuscript; together they bring the total of non-commentary manuscripts that lack the pericope adulterae to 113.

At least two other manuscripts, although containing the pericope adulterae, place it at the end of the four gospels. ANA 85, a fourteenth-century minuscule manuscript, places the text at the end of the four gospels. The same scribe who wrote out the gospel of John also wrote the pericope adulterae at the end. There are only twenty-six manuscripts known to place this passage at the end of the four gospels, ten of which being text plus commentary manuscripts. ANA 85 is strictly text, making it the seventeenth manuscript known to place the pericope adulterae at the end of the gospels. It is in rare company with less than two percent of all known manuscripts placing the pericope adulterae at the end of the gospels, and of those that lack commentary but have the PA at the end of the gospels, ANA 85 is in rarefied air: only 1% of all MSS of John are in this category.

Finally, ANA 4 also has the passage at the end of the four gospels, but it is clearly written by a different scribe, one who lived much later. There is an indication in the margin at John 7:52, also written by this later scribe, that the story would be found at the end of the gospel. ANA 4 therefore, technically, did not have the pericope adulterae, since what the original hand wrote constitutes the testimony at the time that the manuscript was produced.

As well, ANA 4 has quite a few family 13 readings, although it does not appear to be strictly family 13 in its nature. One or two other Albanian MSS also have a high percentage of family 13 readings.

These four manuscripts only represent the tip of the iceberg. To piece together the history of the transmission of the New Testament manuscripts is a tentative enterprise. It is like working on a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing. But with the discovery of new manuscripts, more of the pieces make sense. And the net result is that we are getting closer to reconstructing the original wording of the New Testament in the few places where there still is doubt.

Special thanks go to Dr. Nevila Nika, the general director of the National Archive, and Ms. Esmeralda Novaku, the librarian in charge of working with CSNTM. Their hospitality toward us and care for the manuscripts was as encouraging as it was welcomed. And their care for these ancient treasures of the church is to be commended.

CSNTM is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) institute that depends on donations to fulfill its mission of the digital preservation of ancient Christian manuscripts.

ANA 92, initial leaf of the Gospel of Matthew

The Eusebian Canons at the front of ANA 4 (these canons or lists were an ingenious way for readers to find their place in the Gospels long before verse numbers and chapter divisions were invented)

Icon of St. Mark in ANA 10



This article is related to two blog posts by the author. One post dealt with the initial disclosure of the manuscript discovery and the other of the site itself.

Dan Wallace's Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts discovered a treasure trove of Greek NT manuscripts this past summer in Albania. Among them were MSS that did not have the story of the woman caught in adultery. Read the interview with Dr. Wallace in Christianity Today, and the sidebar about this famous passage.

Related Topics: Textual Criticism, History