On my way back to the United States from Amsterdam, I intentionally booked a several hour layover in Dublin. A 6 euro aircoach bus ticket brought me to Trinity College, the home of the famous Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Latin manuscript containing the four Gospels written around 800 C.E. This lavishly decorated manuscript is one of Ireland’s national treasures (digitized page images of the Book of Kells can be viewed at: http://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=MS58_003v). Purchasing my ticket on-line was a good idea; the cheaper 10 euro walk up price came with its own price–standing in a long line. While seeing this ancient manuscript was worth the time and money, I was more interested in another one of Dublin’s attractions (no, not Guinness) . . .
For a Bible geek, the best attraction in Dublin is the collection of New Testament papyri at the Chester Beatty Library. The library is only about a 10 minute walk from Trinity College. There are almost no crowds and admission is free (insert stunned silence here).The library contains some of the most ancient papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament. Currently on display are pages from a remarkable manuscript known as P46. This Greek manuscript is the earliest known collection of the Apostle Paul’s letters (around 200 C.E.). In addition, the library houses and displays equally ancient manuscript fragments from the Gospels, as well as one of the oldest copies of the book of Revelation.
I stood in front of P46 and imagined the ancient scribe who copied this manuscript. How many generations removed from the original was that scribe’s copy? His copy could be as few as 4 or 5 generations away from Paul’s own handwriting.
Because of their age, these manuscripts are considered among the most important in Textual Criticism (the discipline that establishes the original text of the Bible by comparing ancient manuscripts). In the last decade, skeptics have made a big deal about all the variations (called variants) between biblical manuscripts. Bart Ehrman feels that the thousands upon thousands of variations between the ancient manuscripts calls for disbelief in the reliability of the text. But these thousands of variants are a direct result of the thousands of ancient copies in existence. Would the text be more reliable if, like other ancient works, we only had few copies and therefore few variants? Of course not! The existence of so many copies allows scholars to compare all these manuscripts to arrive at a text very near the original. The papyri at the Chester Beatty and other museums are closer to the date of composition than any other piece of ancient literature.
These manuscripts testify to God’s word going through and to people. That is how God works. When God wanted to communicate to his people, he communicated through prophets, apostles, and ultimately in Jesus Christ. When that message took written form, it did not come down from the clouds; it was passed on through people and then to people down through the ages. God works in real history. The differences in the manuscripts are what one would expect during the course of a real historical process involving real human transcribers.
As I stood there before those ancient manuscripts, I was overwhelmed with a sense of God’s grace. He is not an aloof, silent God. He is a God who condescends to earth, to human history, and speaks through and to his people.
The Chester Beatty Library’s collection of New Testament papyri can be viewed in digital format at: http://www.cbl.ie/cbl_image_gallery/exhibition/overview.aspx?exhibitionId=18.
A good introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism is : Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (trans. by Erroll Rhodes; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).