Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Textual Criticism on the Cover of National Geographic

It’s not every day that the subject of our humble blog makes the cover of international magazines. But the December cover story of National Geographic is a well-written and apparently well-researched article on just that though. Okay, it’s not mostly about the textual criticism per se, but it is about attempts to discover and acquire new manuscripts of the Bible. And our own Peter Head gets quoted! Some of the pictures are fantastic as you would expect from NatGeo.

Apparently, outside the U.S. the story is titled “Bible Hunters.” The online version is “Inside the cloak-and-dagger search for sacred texts.” I don’t have time (or interest really) to engage this article in detail, but see Hurtado and Nongbri for their reactions.

One thing that struck me in this article was the accurate description of Teststellen by INTF. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this done well, but here it is. The Teststellen are discussed in response to the fact that most NT manuscripts haven’t been studied in detail.
The Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany, has sought to reduce the labor challenges by classifying biblical documents according to key passages, but such a system amounts to triage that wholly ignores numerous texts.
If we take “numerous texts” to mean numerous places in the text then this is a simple and accurate description. Calling it “triage” isn’t quite fair in my opinion, since it does seem to work pretty well in telling us which manuscripts are similar enough to leave out of an apparatus. But it does make the point that it’s not the ideal way to evaluate a manuscript’s text as a whole. Dan Wallace says he hopes OCR will make this approach unnecessary in the future. That would be great.

Other things that come up in the story are the fake DSS in the Museum of the Bible collection, CSNTM’s work, P52, and, of course, formerly-first-century Mark. The whole story is well told even if it pulls punches at a few points. Ehrman gets his say but so does Wallace in response. I’ll give the last word to Pete Head:
Many of Ehrman’s assertions are debatable (literally so: he and Wallace have squared off in three public debates), but some scholars agree that Christian scribes deliberately corrupted certain passages over time. The question is one of degree.

“Broadly, I support what Ehrman is saying about this,” says Peter Head, an Oxford scholar who studies Greek New Testament manuscripts. “But the manuscripts suggest a controlled fluidity. Variants emerge, but you can sort of figure out when and why. Now, it’s in the earlier period that we don’t have enough data. That’s the problem.”

The “earlier period” that Head refers to begins with the birth of Christianity in the first century A.D. and concludes in the early fourth century. And while it’s true that more than 5,500 Greek New Testament manuscripts have been found, close to 95 percent of those copies come from the ninth to the 16th centuries. Only about 125 date back to the second or third centuries, and none to the first.
Update: I should add that I haven’t seen the print magazine which apparently has additional material alongside the main article.


  1. It is always interesting to see a one hour conversation summarised in one sentence.

    1. Wonder who Peter had to to know in order to get quoted in a prestigious maqazine -- Oprah?

      Also, the ETS's own Randall Price also is featured, reflecting his Denver ETS slide show on the new Dead Sea discoveries he was involved with.

  2. One more thought: it seems a bit crazy when we're unhappy with only (!) having 125 manuscripts from the first three centuries and none from the first. That's kind of a lot, isn't it? In any case, it perpetuates the myth that earliest is necessarily best.