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Photographing Five NT Fragments in Cambridge

The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) sent a team to Cambridge, England, to photograph New Testament manuscripts there. This work is needed because most of these manuscripts have only been microfilmed, and the microfilm quality is pretty bad. For one thing, black and white photographs don’t capture several of the meaningful markings on a manuscript. A later scribe would often use a different color of ink to make ‘corrections’ to a manuscript; liturgical markings would usually be in red ink; non-ink markings would be in a different color. Microfilm picks up none of this. High-resolution digital photography is the way to go. Digital photography is also needed because it can be duplicated without deterioration, accessed via the Internet, and the quality is now significantly better than 35 mm images. Many libraries are beginning to recognize their need to digitize their collections. Unfortunately, budgets are tight and such projects are often postponed until funding becomes available. CSNTM does its work for free, enabling these libraries to get excellent quality images without cost.

The team consisted of Dr. Jeff Hargis (field director of CSNTM), Mr. Jeff Miller (pastor and textual critic), Mr. Andrew Wallace (videographer and technical specialist), and Dr. Dan Wallace (executive director of CSNTM). We arrived in England in mid-August, and are just three weeks into our time here right now. We will be coming back to the States in mid-October.

After a long bus and short taxi ride (actually two taxi vans since we had so much gear!), we got to Tyndale House (a place where scholars live and study), in Cambridge. A couple of days after our arrival, we contacted Dr Christopher de Hamel, Librarian at Parker Library, Corpus Christi College. He personally owns several manuscript fragments (he’s been collecting them for years); about ten years ago, he bought in London some scraps of Greek parchment that had apparently been used to bind covers to pages of medieval books. It was a common practice centuries ago (and even more recently) to cannibalize older manuscripts, cut them into strips, and glue them into the binding of a book. In our expedition to Greece this past summer, we even saw a 10th century leaf from John’s Gospel used as a dust jacket (!) on a 16th century book. De Hamel chanced upon some very old Greek fragments that just happened to be from the New Testament. Later, Dr Peter Head and Dr Dirk Yongkind, both of Tyndale House, deciphered the fragments and discovered that they were from the New Testament. Imagine the thrill of making such a discovery! Head has also written a complete discussion of the contents of these fragments, soon to published in the Journal of Theological Studies.

Professor de Hamel was an engaging person with a lively personality. He was not at all what we expected from a librarian in Cambridge. He handed us the manuscript fragments in a plastic slip, and we took them with us to Tyndale House. It was a surreal experience carrying these fragments down the streets of this historical city, past the many colleges, to our home on the west end. It is almost unheard of for a library to allow an ancient manuscript to be lent out. Yet Dr de Hamel didn’t even ask for ID or stamp a return date on our library card! It was all the spoken word and a hand shake. I had thought that those days were gone. This is all the more surprising since he worked for decades as the manuscript researcher for the famous Sotheby’s Auction House. He was thus well aware of the worth of ancient biblical manuscripts. We deeply appreciated his trust in us and fully recognized the responsibility that came with it.

Although we never expected to photograph manuscripts in our flat, the accommodations at Tyndale House worked just fine for this. It took three days to complete the shoot, especially because the fragments were very difficult to read. Normally this would not slow down the imaging work, but in this case since some of the manuscripts included more than one fragment from the same leaf, we had to reconstruct the leaf as best we could. This included getting the fragments to line up properly, have the recto (right side) fragments with other recto fragments, and verso fragments with other verso fragments.

Fragments from Mark (fourth-fifth century)

Dr de Hamel graciously permitted us to post the images on-line; they are manuscripts 0311, 0312, 0313, 0314, 0315. To see them, click on the “Manuscripts” link at www.csntm.org. You may be surprised to see how small each of them is. They are really bits of manuscripts, though the Romans fragment is by far the largest (eight fragments from one leaf, covering much of Rom 8:1–13). Yet even though they are small, their significance is especially in their date.

To put things in perspective: of the 5700+ Greek NT manuscripts that have been catalogued, little more than two percent are ‘uncial’ or ‘majuscule’ manuscripts. These are parchment manuscripts written in capital letters rather than in a cursive hand. A rough guideline is that the manuscripts produced up until AD 1000 were majuscules, and the manuscripts produced after AD 1000 were minuscules. In other words, first millennium manuscripts are much rarer than second millennium manuscripts. Each kind of Greek manuscript gets its own unique identifying number. There are four kinds: papyri, majuscules, minuscules, and lectionaries. These groups also conveniently correspond to the decreasing value of Greek manuscripts: papyri are the most important, while lectionaries are the least important. (This is not to say that the lectionaries are not important! Just that they are not as important as the papyri or other manuscripts.) All papyri are given the nomenclature P + Arabic number. All majuscule manuscripts begin with a zero followed by sequential Arabic numbers (e.g., 01, 02, 032, 0285). Minuscules are simply Arabic numbers, given sequentially. And lectionaries begin with an italicized or capital L followed by the Arabic number. All these manuscripts are numbered in the order of their cataloging by the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung (INTF) in Münster, Germany, the official clearing-house for Greek NT manuscripts. There are currently 318 known majuscules; de Hamel’s fragments are 0311 through 0315. They are thus among the latest to be catalogued but also comprise about 1.5% of all known majuscules. And they are among the earliest of known majuscules.

As we continue to photograph more ancient manuscripts with high-resolution digital cameras, we would appreciate your prayers and support. The need is great right now to digitally preserve ancient, unique, handwritten copies of the Word of God for generations to come. Not only does this work preserve both the content and the look of these documents, it also makes such accessible to scholars. With every new photograph, CSNTM is helping scholars see the text better than they could previously, and therefore interpret the data more accurately. Ultimately, our objective is to get as close as possible to reconstructing the exact wording of the original text of the New Testament.

For another narrative on the photography of these manuscripts (written by Dr. Jeff Hargis), with more images included, please visit www.csntm.org and click on “Expeditions.”

Related Topics: Textual Criticism