What Does it Mean to “Discover” a Manuscript?

3/31/2009

In the last few years, the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts has discovered more manuscripts of the New Testament than the rest of the world combined. In the past nine months alone, CSNTM has discovered about twenty, and we are in the process of presenting our finds to the academic community.

Sometimes, however, there is confusion about what it means to “discover” a manuscript. For many, the image that comes to mind is that of an archaeologist digging an artifact out of the earth after it has been covered by the sands for centuries. Although some manuscripts have indeed been “unearthed” in such a way in the past, this kind of discovery is the exception, not the rule.

The actual process of discovery is best illustrated by describing what happens on a typical CSNTM expedition. Before we pack up the camera equipment and head to a library or monastery in Europe, for example, we carefully examine a book titled Kurzgefasste Liste der griechishen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments, which is a catalog (last published in 1994) of all manuscripts of the New Testament known to scholars. The K-Liste, as we abbreviate the title, contains detailed information on each of the more than 5,700 manuscripts including its Gregory-Aland number (the number assigned to each manuscript to identify it to the scholarly world), its dimensions and number of leaves, its date and contents, its last known location and local shelf number, and other useful information. Before we go on an expedition, we check over this data in order to get an idea of what we plan to photograph at our destination.

Once we arrive, we compare the information from the K-Liste to the manuscripts that are actually on the shelves. We also examine all information from in-house catalogs that the library might have. Are there manuscripts on the shelf that are not described in the K-Liste? Has the local catalog been updated recently? Have any manuscripts been misplaced or lost? As a result of these comparisons, it is not unusual to find that the various sources of information do not match up exactly. Sometimes we note that the information in a local catalog is not identical with data in the K-Liste, such as shelf numbers that have been changed over the decades, or different conclusions in determining the date of a manuscript. Most of the time, these differences are minor.

Occasionally, however, we find that the library or monastery possesses manuscripts that are not included in the K-Liste at all. This is normally what we mean by “discovering” a manuscript. It is not that no one has ever known of its existence, since it had to get onto the library shelf in some way in the past. What it means, however, is that the community of scholars that examine these manuscripts is not aware of its existence; it is likely that the newly discovered manuscript has never been fully studied. Therefore, its significance for reconstructing the text of the New Testament is unknown.

There is a new kind of discovery that is happening more and more often: the discovery of a manuscript within a previously known manuscript. While examining and photographing a manuscript, we sometimes find that it contains writing on pieces of paper or parchment that are older (or sometimes newer) than what is in the rest of the book. This different material might be part of the book binding, or it might consist of a page that is bound into the manuscript itself. One discovery happened last year, when a newly discovered manuscript was found to contain yet another newly discovered manuscript inside.

A similar kind of discovery is when a parchment leaf has been scraped over by a scribe who wanted to cannibalize that leaf for his own manuscript. Known as a palimpsest, this reuse of the parchment covers up the original writing. But with sophisticated cameras, UV light, and a bit of luck, we can see the underlying text; sometimes it turns out to be biblical.

When we discover a manuscript, our priority is to make its existence known to the academic community of which we are a part. The primary way we do this is to report the finding to the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany, the organization that publishes the K-Liste. The Institute then assigns a new Gregory-Aland number and updates its database with the information we provide from the field. When possible, we also post the images on the CSNTM website so that researchers around the world can study the manuscript and assess its significance.

While our discoveries do not consist of digging manuscripts out of the ground, we do contribute to the unveiling of new knowledge that helps biblical scholars understand the history of the New Testament text more completely.