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Recent Discovery of Early Manuscript of Romans

Submitted by on January 21, 2012 – 1:24 pm6 Comments

A new manuscript of Romans has recently been “discovered” — identified is the more accurate word. In the early 20th century archeologists dug up ancient garbage dumps left behind in Egypt. Places like Oxyrhynchus, El Hibeh, and Tebtunis. Boxfuls of papyrus documents were packaged and shipped back to Germany, England, and the U.S. Some of these documents were substantially intact, with most of the pages easily readable. These were identified early on; many were published beginning already in the early 20th century. What we now call the Chester Beatty Papyri were published in the 1930s, manuscripts now famous as “P45”, containing the gospels and Acts from the third century, and “P46”, the earliest copy of most of Paul’s letters, dated to around 200. But many of the documents dug up and shipped out of Egypt were small, containing only a handful of words, and no text or markings that made them readily identifiable. Thousands upon thousands of these fragments remain unidentified, and every so often another box is opened and another piece is identified as containing a portion of the New Testament.

A few recent examples stand out. In 2009, a volume of the Oxyrhynchus Payri published the remains of a 5th century manuscript containing portions Acts 10-12 and 15-17. The images are available online. This particular find is significant because its text of Acts is not like the standard text used as the basis of our modern translations (similar to that of Codex Vaticanus), but neither is it like the text of Codex Bezae, which has a text of Acts that is about 10% longer. The place of this manuscript’s text within the history of the transmission of Acts is a puzzle yet to be solved. This manuscript has been labelled “P127” — if you check in your edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, it will include (depending on when yours was printed) only up to P116 (new finds are simply labelled by order of discovery). So eleven — and now, as noted below, at least twelve — additional papyrus witnesses are available for reconstruction of the text and its history, and scholars continue the work of assessing these finds and adjusting the text and our understanding of its transmission.

This past week, the Green Collection announced another newly identified fragment, this from Romans chapters 9 and 10. The video below contains the first images, and unfortunately they are too small to allow identification of any letters or words. It looks like the fragment contains about five lines of text; the reverse side would contain an additional five lines.

Soon, I would expect, this text will be edited, a transcription produced, and an editio princeps published. A word of caution — the obviously excited (and justly so) owner suggests that the manuscript fragment dates to the middle of the second century, which would indeed make it the earliest fragment of Paul’s letters (perhaps 50 years older the P46). I’d encourage a some tempered optimism here, though. The dating of papyrus manuscripts is very difficult, particularly with such small portions of text and the lack of sufficient remaining material to give information about the binding, layout, page format, and complete contents. I wouldn’t be surprised if further analysis by a wider range of scholars dated the text to around 200, or the third century. In any case, it is exciting to hear that more and more pieces of the puzzle needed to reconstruct the early history of the NT text are being identified.

The Green Collection is a private collection of ancient and medieval manuscripts collected by Steve Green, president of the Hobby Lobby group of retail stores. Here is some video describing the collection.

Video not available

Private collectors who amass holdings of impressive biblical manuscripts is not new; the Rylands Papri, the Beatty Papyri and the Bodmer Papyri were all named for the wealthy 19th and 20th century collectors who found such documents fascinating. The Green collection has been purchasing large holdings of papyrus documents. I certainly wish Mr. Green and his team continued “good luck” in identifying more NT manuscripts!

If you are near Atlanta, an exhibition of the Green Collection is on display until April 30. If you get to the show and they have this piece out for display, bring your Nestle text and a pencil and paper, make a transcription, and send it over to me — I can’t wait to see if this gives us something new on the text of Romans.




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