Where are Biblical Manuscripts Found?


Archaeological sites

Surprisingly, archaeologists don’t often find manuscripts, but there are some notable exceptions.

A famous manuscript find was the Codex Sinaiticus (א, Gregory-Aland 01) found by Constantin von Tischendorf, at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, at the foot of Mount Sinai1 in Egypt, between 1844-1859. This book was written about A.D. 325-350. It originally contained the entire Bible, along with the Apocrypha and some non-Biblical books.

The Oxyrhynchus papyri were found in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Scholars believe these papyrus were written from 300 B.C. to A.D. 640, and they were found in a garbage dump. The team that found the Oxyrhynchus papyrus uncovered more than 500,000 fragments of papyrus. Most of the New Testament books are represented in the fragments, along with bits of the Old Testament and Apocrypha. The Biblical fragments account for only about 10% of the fragments found at Oxyrhynchus. The other 90% of the fragments are business documents, contracts, letters, shopping lists, etc.

The Nag Hamadi Library was found near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. This group of manuscripts largely consists of Gnostic literature, which teaches that God can only be known through secret or hidden knowledge. Some passages in the New Testament warned the early church about false teachings2. Probably the best-known find from Nag Hammadi is the apocryphal book Gospel of Thomas.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are, of course, the most famous of all the ancient manuscript finds3. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to have been written between 300 B.C. to A.D. 100, near the settlement of Qumran, on the North West shore of the Dead Sea. The discovery of 981 manuscripts between 1947-1956 fascinated the world. About 40% of the manuscripts are passages of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Egyptology

Possibly the most unusual place to find a Biblical manuscript (that I’ve read about) is in a mummy’s mask. The strips that were used to wrap Egyptian mummies were made out of papyrus or linen. Because papyrus and linen were both time-consuming to make, they were expensive and sometimes reused. Egyptologists have found several mummies in which papyrus fragments of the New Testament were used as wrappings4. Researchers have been able to peal away the layers of some of the wrappings to preserve the papyrus and linen fragments.

This first-century gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy. Although the mummies of Egyptian pharaohs wore masks made of gold, ordinary people had to settle for masks made out of papyrus (or linen), paint and glue. Given how expensive papyrus was, people often had to reuse sheets that already had writing on them.5

Libraries and Museums

The scholars who study Biblical manuscripts keep lists indicating where each known manuscript is located. Unfortunately, as libraries and museums get reorganized or remodeled, the lists become outdated. When a researcher can’t find a document in its proper place, a search for it is stated. When hunting for a misplaced manuscript, a researcher may find a bonus: previously unknown manuscripts in the library’s holdings. Some of these manuscripts are ones which were known, but had been lost for years.

Occasionally, however, we find that the library or monastery possesses manuscripts that are not included in the K-Liste6 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.7

Another type of discovery are palimpsests. Palimpsests are media, usually parchment, which had one text eased (or scrapped off) and was another text was written on itt. Unfortunately, it’s most common for the original text, the one that had been removed, to be part of the Bible, and a non-Biblical text written over it. In many cases, the original text isn’t completely removed, so a faint image remains. Scholars can use modern techniques, such has high-resolution cameras, infrared light, ultraviolet light and even x-rays, CAT scans and MRIs to attempt to read the original image.

Private Collections

There are many private collections, particularly in Europe, where little-used libraries may exist on ancient estates. Private collections are less likely than a  public library or educational institution to have a comprehensive list of the contents, so its easy for an unknown manuscript to remain hidden for centuries.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Modern Mount Sinai is one of several possible locations of the Biblical Mount Sinai.
  2. O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you. (1 Timothy 6:20-21 ESV)
  3. The Dead Sea Scrolls are arguably the most important of all archaeological finds.
  4. Other documents were also used, such as classical Greek literature, private letters and business records.
  5. Jarus, Owen. Mummy Mask May Reveal Oldest Known Gospel (LiveScience.com: January 18, 2015)
  6. Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments.
  7. What Does it Mean to “Discover” a Manuscript? (Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts: 3/31/2009)

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