BMCR 2020.05.02

God’s library: the archaeology of the earliest Christian manuscripts

, God's library: the archaeology of the earliest Christian manuscripts. . New Haven: Yale University Press, . xi, 403 p.. ISBN 9780300215410. $35.00.


Researchers working with manuscripts of any vintage will be familiar with the frequent need to re-evaluate existing studies when undertaking major projects of analytical description and cataloguing, namely everything related to the so-called archaeology of manuscripts. In this volume, Brent Nongbri has embraced the challenge of revisiting collections of manuscripts which have been studied so frequently that certain information is often taken for granted. This is because researchers generally—and perhaps inevitably—use manuscripts for specific reasons related to all or even a part of the texts that they transmit, drawing on studies by other specialists, if they exist, for questions regarding these objects in their entirety as artefacts. The intriguing title, God’s Library, is supplemented by an explanatory subtitle outlining Nongbri’s intention to approach these resources as archaeological artefacts.

The first chapter—”The Early Christian Book”—focuses on the terminology used to define the ancient Christian book, which becomes significant when contextualized in historical periods when texts were grouped together ex post facto, such as when the New Testament canon had already been established. The contextualisation of terminology is a crucial aspect, inasmuch as historians often run the risk of underestimating the potential influence of centuries of conceptual and terminological superstructures separating them from the object of their studies.

What ultimately defines a book as Christian? Perhaps its content, but material that could be defined as pagan and Christian is sometimes found together. Or maybe the author of the text, but discussing the personal religious beliefs of ancient scholars is an extremely problematic undertaking. Furthermore, it should be remembered that the output of book producers included both manuscripts transmitting texts by Christian authors and manuscripts with texts pertaining to classical literature. While Nongbri does not provide definitive answers, the overriding impression is simply that there are none.

Although Nongbri attempts to make the manuscripts speak, unfortunately they are often no longer able to offer much in the way of communication. Indeed, since being rediscovered they have become victims of gradual amnesia as a result of their experiences with antique dealers, collectors and various other (mis)adventures.

The author takes nothing for granted, making it an ideal read for students and experts alike. The former will benefit from descriptions and information on the preparation and assembly of the writing materials (papyrus and parchment) in the sections Materials and Stacking the Sheets, often accompanied by useful explanatory figures; or an explanation of quaternione and Gregory’s Rule on facing pages. The latter will find this book useful because, especially in relation to the transmission of ancient texts, too much reliance is placed on information which is simply presumed to be true without being examined or discussed sufficiently. It also generally offers scarce codicological insights.

Nongbri also illustrates the methodology of historical research, providing the reader with detailed information on his data acquisition procedure. In cases where there are no certainties—when dealing with ancient manuscripts, it is often impossible to have any—it is vital to be able to ask the right questions and answer them using accessible language.

The second chapter—”The Dating Game”—discusses dating methods (palaeography, radiocarbon analysis, ink analysis), highlighting their differences as well as their relative pros and cons. It is definitely useful to cross-reference several dating methods whenever possible for purposes of precision. The author might have been a little more indulgent towards the inevitable imprecisions of palaeography, which does not even claim to be an exact science. After all, palaeographical data is the only available option if there are no colophons, precise information on archaeological contexts or complex radiocarbon analysis. The brief excursus on the practical workings of the palaeographical dating procedure serves as a valuable resource for the reader approaching this discipline for the first time.

The following chapters transfer the reader into a world of private correspondence between intellectuals involved in historical research and archaeology (such as some missionary doctors), antiques markets, clandestine findings and Indiana Jones-style archaeological digs, typical features of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century. It is an extremely fruitful, as well as interesting read because it reveals the extent of the extreme chaos—and sometimes the romanticism—surrounding the details of certain discoveries, which were also often filtered through the unscrupulous hands of media sensationalism. This clearly invalidates not only any possible true reconstruction of the archaeological data on the findings, but also estimates of the number of books originally found together.

In the third chapter—”Finding Early Christian Books in Egypt”Nongbri reconstructs the circumstances surrounding the finding of Coptic codices from Hamuli and then lists examples of possible contexts in which Christian texts were said to have been discovered: in cemeteries, buried with corpses (such as the accounts of the finding of the Nag Hammadi codices); in caves; in houses or miscellaneous buildings and obviously in monastic dwellings.

The fourth chapter—”A Discovery ‘Which Threw All Others in the Shade'”—is entirely dedicated to the Beatty Biblical Papyri. Nongbri recreates the events related to the finding and the acquisition, analysing the features that identify them as a collection as well as the individual books.

The Bodmer Papyri are the subject of the fifth chapter. They are rightly defined in the chapter title as “An Elusive Collection” because a huge number of early Christian books are designated “P.Bodmer,” actually including parchments as well as papyri, in Greek, Coptic or Latin and often from different collections. Here too, Nongbri carefully reconstructs the accounts of the findings and acquisitions. The description is accompanied by handy tables that indicate the language of the individual books, along with their content and dimensions.

The same type of analysis and reconstruction is implemented in the sixth chapter with regard to the findings of Oxyrhynchus. Once again, besides the description of the manuscripts, Nongbri provides documentation regarding the leading players in the expeditions (Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt) and the relevant articles published by newspapers at the time.

Finally, in the seventh and last chapter—”Fabricating a Second-Century Codex of the Four Gospels”—Nongbri revisits the documentation regarding the fragments of the Gospel of Matthew (P64 and P67) and the Gospel of Luke (P4). He provides a variety of evidence that questions the dating, putting forward the hypothesis that if they can be dated to the second century, they could just as easily be from the third or fourth century.

Although Nongbri sometimes leaves the reader feeling that the only certainty is that there are no certainties, regarding both dating and information about the provenance of manuscripts, this apparent sense of defeat can be countered by adopting his approach: analysing and reconstructing all the available data about the manuscripts, the history of the collections, the cataloguing, the analytical description and—hopefully—the open access digitisation.