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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Book Review: Encountering The Manuscripts

I never gave much thought as to how the New Testament came to be written. I had assumed that someone carefully compiled the various writings sometime in the late 1st century, and that an intact New Testament existed from that time. That being said, I was frequently confused by footnotes in my study Bible such as “Not found in most reliable manuscripts” or “scribal addition”. What did these footnotes mean in relation to the Bible? These questions and more were answered by the book “Encountering The Manuscripts” by Philip Comfort.

This book is a combination of biblical history and interpretation, and the study of the evaluation of the text of the various manuscripts in an attempt to discern the original wording of the Greek New Testament. It is a fact-based book, packed with information. I personally read this on a Kindle, which I found to be somewhat difficult due to the many pictures of portions of Greek manuscripts which are included as education for students studying these manuscripts. While the presentation is somewhat clearer on the computer-based Kindle app, I would expect the best presentation to be found in a physical book.

Encountering The Manuscripts begins with a background on manuscript production in the early Church. This chapter provides a critical basis for the remainder of the book. For example, it explains that a primary route of information transmission in the first century (and before) was oral. (This fact alone explains the text in Deuteronomy 6:4-7 instructing parents to repeat “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” to their children continually.) Thus, believers were first presented with the oral proclamation, which was followed by written documents. Rereading the Gospels and Epistles with this in mind clarifies some of the wordings found in these writings, for example Luke 1:1-4. The first chapter also contains information as to how the writings were produced (the Apostles did not necessarily actually physically record their teachings), how they were approved by the  creator, and the presence or absence of Nomina Sacra (for example IHC for Jesus).

In subsequent chapters, there is a listing and explanation of which manuscripts (from the Greek) and printed editions (interpretations of the manuscripts) the author considers to be significant. It is here where one finds that, with few exceptions, no extant manuscripts exist. The various books of the New Testament were assembled and interpreted from fragments of manuscripts (some containing only a few words) which were found scattered across the region from Italy to Egypt. This was eye-opening to me, and revealed some of the difficulties that have been encountered in the mere act of assembling the New Testament.

A further chapter describes the history and use of the Nomina Sacra, and how various scribes and writers incorporated them into their manuscripts. The author details that some of the Nomina Sacra were quite universal, while others may have been used by only one or a few scribes. As well as scribal variants, variants also existed across time. In addition to the Nomina Sacra changing with with time, the actual Greek writing varied depending on the particular time period of the writing. These variations presented both an opportunity and a curse. The various styles of writing assisted in assigning the dates that the particular manuscript was actually produced. However, the variations in the text increased the difficulties unraveling the original wordings of the original manuscripts.

The author ends the book describing the various approaches that are taken to get at the original wording. As with most fields of inquiry, there are many approaches and, while individual investigators may favor one or another, frequently multiple approaches are needed to extract the desired information. Philip Comfort strove to present the various approaches faithfully, though he did express his opinion as to the best way to approach dating of the manuscripts and reconstructing the original documents. Being no means an expert in the field, I could only rely on the author’s insights and experience to guide me here.

In addition to his writings, the author has included pictures of the manuscripts in an effort to highlight his points, and to accentuate the difficulties faced by those studying the manuscripts. If one studied these examples, one can see pretty clearly the detail that the students of ancient text must comprehend and know in order to be effective in their task. One also has the opportunity to see what types of information is available for the study, from small fragments up to several page manuscripts. The incorporation of these images was not only invaluable to students, but they also presented the layman with challenges faced by those studying the manuscripts.

I found the book overall to be fascinating and quite informative, though somewhat dry in places. As a student, this book would seem to be a valuable resource in the study of the manuscripts. As a lay person, as I said, some parts were dry. But the book did give me an new appreciation for the mere fact that we have a Bible. It also provided much insight as to the history of information transmission and writing as it took place some 2000 years ago. One can only have respect for those who can piece together these partial jigsaw puzzles into a coherent message.