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How Are Manuscripts Discovered

PLEASE NOTE: I am incommunicado for a few days on a gulet in the Aegean Sea on the west coast of Turkey. I have asked Steven, our blog support, to add some posts for me in my absence; I prepared these in advance knowing I would be out of reach. Here is one of them. I’m afraid I will not be able to respond to comments on the next few posts until I return to some form of civilization that supports Internet and all things electronic. So sorry!

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In this thread I have been discussing documents from early Christianity that I would very much like to have discovered. In my last post I mentioned the fact that documents that *do* tend to be discovered are either texts that we already have copies of (the Gospel of John, the book of Revelation, etc.) or of books that we did not previously know existed (the Letter of Diognetus, or most of the writings in the Nag Hammadi library). Here is a related question from a reader of the blog.

QUESTION: Are there researchers who systematically attempt to find these ancient documents or when documents come to light is it pretty much by chance?

ANSWER: Well, not so much, not these days. For a simple reason: how does one go about trying to discover a manuscript? Do you fly to Egypt, hire a taxi to take you out to the desert, and start digging?

There were basically two ways that past researchers tried to discover manuscripts. Sometimes they were spectacularly successful. But one of these ways is no longer very productive (by comparison with earlier days) and the other is not, for reasons I don’t know, is not often pursued (at least to my knowledge).

When scholars began to value ancient manuscripts and started wanting to find the oldest ones they could get their paws on, especially back in the nineteenth century, they took a very sensible approach to the business. They realized where such manuscripts would be. They would be in ancient libraries and monasteries. Many libraries back then, and most monasteries, did not have catalogues of their holdings. Often they knew that they had some old stuff, but they didn’t know always what it was or why it might be valuable. That seems absolutely incredible to us today, but in the 19th century – and all the centuries leading up to that point – it was the rule, not the exception.

In some places that state of things continued until past the middle of the 20th century. For all I know, it continues some places today. Scholars traveled to these places in search of manuscripts, and found them. One of the most inveterate searchers for biblical manuscripts, arguably the leading figure of all time, was the mid-nineteenth century German scholar Constantin von Tischendorf. I’ll devote a separate post to him soon. Here I’ll simply say that he traveled around libraries and monasteries largely in the Middle East searching for biblical and other Christian manuscripts. He found them. Lots of them. He copied them and published his transcriptions. He bought them. In at least one famous instance, his best known “discovery,” he may well have absconded with one (the famous Codex Sinaiticus from St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai).

Tischendorf was not the only one doing such things. Valuable manuscripts turned up in all sorts of places, including the Vatican library. But I don’t think there’s much water left in that well. There may be some. I know my friend and occasional debate opponent Dan Wallace is going around photographing manuscripts in all sorts of obscure places, and he claims with some regularity to be finding ones that are otherwise unknown and uncatalogued. So they still do turn up in these ways.

The other way scholars tried to find manuscripts was also spectacularly successful in at least one of the attempts, but has not been rigorously pursued in other instances, for reasons I am not altogether certain about. In the late nineteenth century, two British archaeologists, B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt decided they wanted to find manuscripts. Well, how does one do that? They had a bright idea. Why not go to an uncovered cite where a city was known once to have been, and try to find the garbage dump?

Why the city dump? Because where else would ancient people throw away all their manuscripts that they no longer wanted or needed, ones that had been worn out or replaced? So they tried it. They went to the site of the ancient Egyptian city called Oxyrhynchus, and they found the garbage dump, and they started digging. Right away – immediately – they found a papyrus fragment. It had writing on it. It contained sayings of Jesus. Sayings that had never been known before. Really. Talk about good luck.

It was only years later, with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, that it was realized that these sayings were part of the Gospel of Thomas. Not bad for a first discovery.

They kept digging, and they found thousands – many thousands – of manuscript fragments, of all sorts of things. Fragmentary copies of the New Testament books, the Old Testament books (in Greek), classical authors (Euripides, Menander, and so on), documents of all kinds (land deeds, divorce certificates, sale contracts, and on and on). They found so many thousands of these things that their discoveries are still being published to this day. It’s the most enormous collection of writings ever found.

So why don’t archaeologists try to replicate this feat. I really don’t know. Is it too expensive to try? Too unlikely to succeed? I need to ask my archaeologist friends!

The reality is that most manuscript discoveries are made by pure serendipity. Chance. Not by skilled archaeologists but by rummaging Bedouin. That’s how the Nag Hammadi library was discovered in 1945 near the village of Nag Hammadi Egypt, and the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered a year and a half later in what is now Israel, near the western shore of the Dead Sea (hence their name). I’ll say something about each of these in subsequent posts.


Tischendorf and the Discovery of Codex Sinaiticus
The Discovery of Lost Documents

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Comments

  1. bnongbri
    bnongbri  June 11, 2015

    Hi Bart,
    A couple quick thoughts on why digs like the Oxyrhynchus project of Grenfell and Hunt don’t take place anymore. I think you’re right about cost being a big factor. A second consideration is advances in stratigraphic archaeology. Grenfell and Hunt used untrained locals to plow though those rubbish mounds without keeping the kind of detailed written records that archaeologists make now. Only in a relatively few cases did they note the context in which papyri were found. So, a great many papyri were found, but a huge amount of contextual information was lost in the process. A well-run modern project would move much more slowly than Grenfell and Hunt did and keep a lot more records. Finally, already in the early 1900s, Grenfell and Hunt were working against the clock, as their rubbish mounds were used by locals for fertilizer. Here is what the papyrologist Eric Turner wrote in 1952: “The inhabitants, who had begun their destructive work as early as 1904, dug out the site for the sake of its sebakh (fertile earth). In 1922 [Flinders] Petrie reported that a railway had been constructed and 100-150 tons of earth per day were being removed as fertilizer.” So, if that was the case in 1922, it’s unclear how many of these rubbish mounds would be left today.

  2. Avatar
    Jason  June 12, 2015

    If they still haven’t completed the publishing of Grenfell and Hunt’s finds, maybe the reason archaeologists don’t use that approach anymore is that it makes too much work for them!

  3. gmatthews
    gmatthews  June 12, 2015

    For anyone interested, there is a scholar, Brice Jones, who maintains a blog dedicated to ancient papyri. He occasionally posts on finds from Oxyrhynchus (which, even after 100 years, are still being cataloged as Prof Ehrman mentions). The posts don’t always have to do with biblical discoveries, but they are fascinating nonetheless. http://www.bricecjones.com/blog.

    • Avatar
      Chrystal  June 29, 2015

      Thank you so much for sharing this gmathews!

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